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Tactical Surrender

Chapter Text

            This was a village, only ten minutes ago.

            It wasn’t a particularly noteworthy village. It had been mapped, like many villages on many different planets, and that was all. No need for anything more. Only a small fishing community home to a peaceful race of bipedal feline humanoids, ones who had long ago forgotten the uses their ancestors had for teeth and claws. They lived in harmony with the nearby ocean, in homes of clay with roofs of packed mud and thatched straw. Every morning they would set out in their boats; every evening they would return with the day’s catch, which they’d set aside or trade with other neighboring villages.

            No, this was a simple place, situated in the Outer Rim, overlooked in the most recent decades of galactic conflict. After all, there were no resources here that the Empire or the First Order couldn’t find elsewhere, in greater quantity and convenience. And so the people led easy lives, untouched by war, although the stories reached them here as they did everywhere: stories of white-clad soldiers, of battleships, of resistance, of Jedi knights. The tale of Luke Skywalker’s last stand against an army, and of his successor, a girl who could move the earth itself, had found even this quiet place.

            This was a village. Now, it burns.

            Most of the villagers had already fled their homes when the TIE fighters started screaming across the night sky. But in the shadow of one of the larger huts, its roof aflame, stand three figures clustered together. Shi'illa and her son Taylin, both lifelong inhabitants of this burning village, alternate between gawking at the TIEs and looking at their home as it crumples from the damage. This is all they have ever known.

            Rey, the woman they say can move the earth, waits for the TIEs to pass overhead. Six of them. Six is overkill for a defenseless place like this. But they’re not here for the villagers. “All right,” she says. “Let’s move. Come on now.”

            As the TIE fighters circle around for another approach, Rey darts across to the cover of the next large hut, drawing away from the beach and toward the ravine that cuts into the hills to the east. It’s slow going. Shi'illa, whose left leg was burned when the roof caved in, limps, and Taylin has to help her across to the hut with his shoulder under her arm. He’s in early adolescence, about twelve or thirteen if this race has the same lifespan as humans, with light gray fur and yellow eyes. His ears lay flat against his head. Rey imagines the noise must be overwhelming. She’s almost desensitized to it by now.

            They only barely make it to the next shadow when the TIEs dive back, indiscriminately peppering the village with laser cannon fire. One of the blasts hits a little too close and sprays the group with rocks and dirt. Rey pulls her cloak up over her face to shield herself from it.

            Once the TIEs speed off into the distance to swing around again, Rey urges them to the shadow of another hut. Closer, closer. She can see the lip of the ravine now, where the earth starts sloping downward between two rocky walls, but there’s a lot of open space to traverse between them and it, and very little in the way coverage. Shi'illa follows Rey’s gaze, clearly thinking the same thing.

            “You’ll never get there with me,” she says to Rey.

            Taylin, who still has a supportive arm around Shi'illa, looks up at her, horrified. “Mom!”

            “We aren’t leaving you,” Rey says firmly. Only half an hour ago, she’d sat with them in their home, drinking the warm, sweet nectar beverage they had offered her as she explained who she was, what had brought her there, and the potential she felt in Taylin, potential she could help him explore if he wanted to go with her and learn. She always gives them a choice. She thinks it important that they get to say no, even though few do.

            And now, because she came here, that home is destroyed.

            Shi'illa shakes her head. “There’s an alternate passage just over that hill,” she says. “I’ll make it to the rest of my people.”

            “It’s not safe for you here. Come with us to the Resistance, to—”

            “It won’t be safe for either of you if I’m slowing you down,” Shi'illa says fiercely. “What matters most to me is the safety of my son.” She smooths the fur on the crown of Taylin’s head, then looks up at Rey. “Rey. Promise me you’ll keep him safe.”

            “Mom,” Taylin says again, more urgently. His large, shiny eyes reflect the firelight. “Please.”

            Shi'illa bends down and presses her nose to his forehead. “My beautiful boy,” she says, so softly that Rey can barely hear. “I always knew you would do great things. It’s all right. Go with Rey.”

            The TIE fighters swing around for another pass, but none of their fire comes anywhere near them, this time. Next time they might not be so lucky. Time is running out. Taylin sniffs, and he nods. “Okay, Mom.” His voice wavers. “Okay. I love you.”

            “I love you so much, my son.” Shi'illa strokes her hand down the back of his head, then looks at Rey. “Promise me.”

            “I promise,” Rey says. Her chest aches, but she pushes it down. Too much loss, too much sacrifice, too much destruction. But now is not the time to dwell.  “He’ll be safe with us.”

            Shi'illa nods. “I see you, and I believe you.”

            Rey looks across to the ravine again. If she can’t take Shi'illa with, maybe she can give her some cover, so she can reach wherever the rest of her people chose as an evacuation point. “Taylin, Shi'illa,” she says. “On my mark, both of you run as fast as you can. Taylin, run to the ravine trail. Shi'illa, the hill. The passage you mentioned.”

            Taylin looks at her. “What are you going to do?”

            “I’ll be right behind you, but don’t look back until you’re safe.”

            He nods and turns around, crouching, ready to spring and sprint. The ravine begins as a relatively shallow crack. There’s space enough for one person across, and if he ducks down he’ll make too small a target for the TIEs to get a bead on. She just has to give him the time.

            “On my mark,” she says again. “Three, two, one— now!”

            Taylin takes off for the ravine, and Shi'illa begins moving as quickly as she can toward the hill, now on all fours. Rey runs after Taylin, out of the cover of the hut, then whirls around and faces the TIEs as they turn for another attack run. She draws her lightsaber and ignites it, a fierce bright line against the darkened landscape. And she stands her ground.

            “Come on!” she calls, knowing they can’t hear. “You want me? I’m here!”

            They take the bait. Two swoop in, focusing their fire on her, and a few of their bolts nearly hit her. Rey swings her lightsaber in an arc overhead and calls the Force to her aid. In an instant, she erects a protective shell around herself. It strains but holds as it absorbs the massive force of the blast, making the air blur as heat reflects off the domed surface, like a mirage. She holds out a hand and slows two other bolts, leaving them pulsing in midair, crackling with static as they continue their decelerated approach. This is a trick that she pulled straight from the mind of its master when he tried to wrench secrets out of her years ago.

            But Rey has improved it. She holds the bolts still for a second, gritting her teeth with the effort, then coaxes the Force to redirect their energy, sending them straight back up as the TIEs pass overhead. One bolt misses the mark entirely, but the other slices through a wing and sends the TIE spiraling out of control past the ravine. She watches the small dark shape of the pilot eject before the starfighter crashes in a fiery blaze on the horizon.

            She senses Taylin crouching behind her, already in the safety of the ravine, and risks a quick glance to her left to see Shi'illa vanish down the hillside. Good. They made it. They both made it.

            No one needs to die today. Not because of her.

            Rey powers down her lightsaber and releases her Force shield with a grunt, sprinting for the ravine as the other TIE fighters pull up on her, flanking her. She moves quickly, and with her dark gray cloak in the black of night she makes a very difficult target to strike. Just a few feet from the ravine’s edge, where Taylin waits for her, she slips, falling onto her side, but she reaches for the Force to balance herself. And she finds it again, just waiting for her. It propels her, keeps her moving, sliding across the dirt until she’s safely out of range, covered from more fire by a craggy shelf of earth.

            Taylin moves back, giving her space as she slides in. He looks at her with wide eyes. “Woah,” he says. “Am I going to learn how to do that? With the—” He makes a noise deep in his throat, a pseudo-growl, imitating the hum of the lightsaber.

            Rey gives him a little smile, her body coursing with adrenaline. “Maybe someday,” she says. “But I hope you’ll never have to make use of it. Now, come on. Your mother’s safe, and we still have a ways to go.”

            Taylin jerks his head in a nod, and they continue on, running along the floor of the ravine as it deepens, widens. He knows the land better than Rey does, and moves faster; she waves him ahead whenever he pauses and looks behind, waiting for her to catch up. The ravine is narrower at the top than it is at the bottom, and Rey can hear the TIE fighters racing above, and the horrendous sounds of laser cannons firing, attempting to get a shot in at them. None of the blasts strike anywhere near them on the ravine floor, but one breaks off a chunk of rock and sends it ricocheting down the walls.

            Taylin and Rey both recoil, and Taylin, still in front, holds up a hand in front of his face to protect himself. The rock stops, frozen in midair. Taylin stares at it, and then he whoops, overcome with excitement. He exclaims something in his native tongue, then says, “I’ve never done that to something this big before!”

            Rey makes a swatting motion, using the Force to push the rock aside and shatter it harmlessly against the ravine wall. “You felt that,” she says, continuing to jog forward behind him. “That energy flowing through you, through the rock, through the air between you and the rock? That was the Force.”

            “That was the Force? How does it work?”

            “I’m not going to talk your ear off now,” says Rey, finding space in the moment to be a little amused. “You’ll be sick of hearing me go on and on about the Force soon enough. The Falcon’s just around the bend, see that light?”

            They scramble over a few more rocks and pieces of debris. Up ahead, the familiar, welcoming shape of the Millennium Falcon, the closest thing Rey has ever had to a home, waits for them, parked but running. It only just fits between the ravine walls. The ramp is down, and Chewbacca stands alert in front of it. As soon as he sees them, he roars, waves his big, furry arms, and goes inside to prepare for a quick departure. Rey looks up at the narrow strip of sky she can see, clear but for the occasional TIE silhouettes passing above.

            She guides Taylin onboard and into the cockpit. “Chewie, Taylin,” she says, by way of introduction. “Taylin, Chewie. Taylin, strap into the copilot’s seat. Chewie’s going to have to do some fancy flying to get us out of here in one piece.”

            Taylin obeys, buckling himself in wordlessly. Chewie barks a question at Rey.

            “No, his mother’s— staying here. I’ll take the gunner position. There are five TIE fighters out there and they have visual confirmation that I’m on this planet, that means company can’t be far behind.”

            Chewie growls acknowledgment, and Rey sprints down the hall, passing R2-D2 on the way. She briefly touches Artoo’s domed top for luck, tells it, too, to get secure, then climbs down into the gunner’s seat of the ventral quad laser cannons. Once she has her headset on, she says, “Right, Chewie. Let’s go.”

            The Falcon’s engines thrum and it rises up ten feet off the ground, hovering in place for a few moments, kicking up dust. Then, abruptly, the ship turns fully sideways and begins speeding through the ravine. She hears Taylin gasp over her headset and wonders if he’s ever even been in a spaceship before. If not, he’s in for a hell of a ride.

            The blue glow of the Falcon’s thrust vector plates catches the attention of the TIE fighters still dancing above, and Rey can see more and more rock crashing down the sides of the ravine as they try to get a shot in edgewise at the ship. She’s been flying with Chewie for years now, and she knows that he’s going to keep them under cover until the last possible moment. She keeps her thumbs on the triggers, takes a deep breath, and waits.

            The Falcon scrapes up against the walls of the narrowing ravine once, twice, and then it bursts through the surface in a shower of sandstone, the TIEs falling into line behind it. A mistake: Rey is able to pick the first one off easily with a cannon blast. It explodes in the air, and Taylin whoops. “Yeah, Rey! Yeah!”

            “We’ve still got four,” she says, but she smiles. “Chewie, can we draw them away from the village?”

            Another vocalization of acknowledgement from Chewbacca, and he continues speeding up away from the beach, swerving to avoid blasts from the TIE fighters. Rey returns fire at every opportunity, but the TIEs keep moving back and forth, breaking formation then coming together, and she gets the uneasy sense that they’ve studied the Falcon and they know how it moves, how she shoots. She and Chewie have picked off more TIEs than this before with ease.

            She’s shaken from that thought when a laser blast strikes the Falcon‘s deflector shields, rocking the ship. Chewie yowls. “Well, there were six earlier!” Rey calls back. “I know we’ve been a pain in their backsides, but is this really such a—” She pauses to let off a few more rounds of cannon fire, scattering the TIEs as they dart away to avoid being hit. “—a good use of their time and energy?”

            Chewie grumbles agreement, then abruptly reverses course into the path Rey cleared between the fighters, which are forced to jolt out of the way of the oncoming ship. In their haste, one of them clips the other, and the second TIE careens straight into a third. The two TIEs explode in a shower of glass and metal, and this time it’s Rey who whoops happily as Taylin cheers.

            “That was incredible, Chewie!” She keeps an eyes on the two regrouping TIEs as the Falcon speeds toward the planet’s upper atmosphere, but looks up for just a moment, on instinct. Then stares. “Oh no,” she says. “Tell me you’re not seeing that.”

            Chewie replies. He does indeed see the two—two!—Resurgent-class Star Destroyers hovering in orbit, and he’s not happy.

            “I know,” says Rey, who isn’t happy either. She fires off a couple more blasts at the TIEs, keeps them on their toes. “We might have to forget about these starfighters. They can’t make the jump to lightspeed anyway. Do you think you can stay clear of the—”

            She stops, her breath catching in her throat. Her back tingles. She lets out a short, sharp exhale, and someone else does the same, someone not so far away, someone standing on the bridge of one of those Star Destroyers, looking out at the Falcon.

            Rey turns her head. He does too. And she knows, somehow, that although there are miles between them, they are looking straight at each other for the first time since the day she closed the Falcon’s door in his face.

            This is the closest they’ve been in three years.

            “Chewie,” Rey says, her voice low. “Punch it.”

            Chewie accelerates away from the Star Destroyers, but not far enough. Not fast enough. Rey feels every hair on her body standing on end. He’s watching her, she knows. He’s watching her leave, again.

            A rumble from Chewie. In the distance, she can see more TIE fighters zipping out of the hangar bays of both Star Destroyers, joining the chase for the Falcon. They’re far off yet, but if they have the chance to catch up they’ll—no, they won’t shoot to kill. She knows that, although she doesn’t want to think about how. They might damage the Falcon, batter its shields, but they’ll leave it in flying condition. They have to. Their orders are to herd it within range of a Star Destroyer’s tractor beam.

            “Do whatever you have to!” There’s a note of alarm in her voice that she hadn’t expected. She swallows it down. “Just get us into hyperspace. We have to get the kid out of here. I made a promise.”

            Rey presses down on the triggers, firing blast after blast at the trailing TIEs, and she nails one in a direct hit but her other shots are wild, wide. It doesn’t matter. The Falcon is quickly outstripping them regardless. She closes her eyes, but she can still feel his gaze on her. He’s grown stronger since they last faced each other. She has, too.

            “Get out of my head,” she growls. “Get out of my head.”

            She can feel him formulating a reply, but she never hears it. Chewbacca finally makes the jump to hyperspace, severing their connection abruptly. The starry expanse around the Falcon blurs to white, and Rey slumps back in the gunner’s seat, gasping as though she just breached the surface of a vast, dark ocean.

            A few minutes later, Rey climbs back up to the Falcon’s main deck, then walks to the cockpit where Chewie and Taylin sit. She nods at Chewie, then puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder and squeezes. “Thank you, Taylin,” she says softly. “You did so well, and you were so brave.”

            Taylin nods, mutely. The thrill of the chase is wearing off of him now. He looks out at the whirl of colors, blue and white and purple, streaming past the ship. There will be two hyperspace jumps, the first to an empty quadrant, to make sure they haven’t been tracked—new protocol, although it’s very difficult to track a craft of the Falcon’s small size through hyperspace—and the second to their final destination. This boy’s new home, for however long.

            “My mom,” he says at last, voice croaky.

            Rey exhales. She can see it in her mind, as clearly as if she were there. The shuttle settling on the beach, its ramp lowering with a sickening hiss. Then the sea mist dampening his black cloak, the waves lapping at the heels of his boots as they leave distinct prints in the wet sand. His hair whips across his face, blown by the western winds, obscuring his eyes and part of the scar she gave him as he crouches down to examine the tracks the villagers left behind as they fled. A stampede. Footprints marking a trail as obvious as the moons in the sky above.

            Down the beach and slightly to the east, the caves. They're deep, with winding tunnels, many of which are dead ends, some of which lead out into the ravine. One of these tunnels leads down, down, under the earth to a yawning cavern toothy with stalactites. And it’s here, by a clear pool that glows green from bioluminescent algae, that the villagers huddle together waiting for the threat to pass, as they have many times before. But the only threats in recent memory have been the hurricanes that blow in with the winter. The Supreme Leader of the First Order is a force of nature unto himself, a storm that these people have no frame of reference for and no ability to weather.

            She can see it, though she doesn’t know if it will play out this way. Just one of many possible futures. Just one, where he leads twenty Stormtroopers down the right tunnel, sensing life at the end of it. One where the villagers cluster behind a dozen or so men and women armed with rusted old blasters, no match for the Stormtroopers’ high-tech FD-11 blaster rifles and specialized armor. Shi'illa is in the back, hidden by her neighbors, but not for long. Her face is taut with worry, for her son, and with fear, fear of what is to come, for herself and for the rest of them.

            Kylo Ren stalks to the front of the line of Stormtroopers, who have their blaster rifles trained on their targets and await the command to fire. He raises one outstretched hand, reaching as if to extract from the villagers all he desires to know.

            And he says, simply, “Tell me where they went.”

            They won’t, of course. They don’t know. And when it becomes clear they don’t know, he’ll have no use for them. That beautiful cavern will become a mass grave. And Rey can’t stop it. She can’t save them.

            Just one, one of many possible futures. But not an unlikely one.

            “I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t know.”

            Rey turns away and walks out of the cockpit, past Artoo, who beeps at her inquisitively. She doesn’t respond, too deep in thought. This can’t continue on the way it has. Something has to change, and he won’t.

            He won’t.

            That leaves only one other option.

Chapter Text

            “I have a plan,” says Rey. And she explains.

            She had asked to meet with General Leia Organa and Poe Dameron alone. They’re the ones who should hear the details for now, although of course she’ll tell Finn too, later. As she lays out her thinking for them, frown lines deepen on the General’s forehead.

            Leia remains seated, two hands resting on her walking staff; her health has been in decline lately, one long illness after another, and at this point she looks gaunt, pale. But she keeps her head held high, a strong spirit in a body that’s betraying her. With a self-deprecating chuckle, she always blames her worsening condition on too much time spent outside an airlock three years prior, as if they don’t all know they’ll soon lose her. Maybe not this month, or even this year, but very likely the next. She’s kept quiet on how long she has left.

            Poe stands at her side, hand fisted and knuckle pressed against his mouth as Rey speaks. He has earned his promotion back to Commander three times over in the years following the Battle of Crait, and now the Resistance hits their targets with minimal casualties almost every skirmish. Still, when Rey finishes speaking, he says, “Rey, I gotta tell you — this sounds like a very ‘me’ plan.”

            Leia turns her head to look at him. “I was about to ask if you had a hand in this, Commander.”

            “No, ma’am.” Poe looks at Rey. “I mean, it’s insane to even contemplate. You know that.” Rey nods. She does. “But you said, what, two Star Destroyers?”

            “Yes, two.”

            “And half a dozen TIE fighters swooping in on a village with no defenses or tactical value whatsoever just because someone thought they spotted the Falcon headed there?”

            “That’s what we believe transpired based on communications intercepted after the fact, yes.”

            Poe turns to look at Leia. “General,” he says. “It could work. I mean, how long have we known that they’re disorganized and—”

            Leia holds up a hand to cut him off, her eyes fixed on Rey. “Absolutely not.”

            Rey rolls her shoulders back and straightens. “General, we’ve come so far since Crait, but I know you can feel it too. The encroaching darkness. As much as we’ve rebuilt, as much grief as we’ve managed to give them, we still can’t take a direct assault yet. This could throw them off and give us some much-needed breathing room. And...” She pauses. “And I won’t permit him to destroy any more innocent lives.”

            “Rey,” says the General, “I will not see you hand-delivered to my son.”

            Put like that, it sounds patently absurd.

            “Not indefinitely,” Rey protests, color rising in her cheeks. “Just for a week, maybe two. I know we’re expecting the shipment of new weaponry soon, and then there’s the base under construction in the Dagobah system, where they’ll never find us. To set up there without being detected we could use a major diversion.”

            “I fail to see how this plan will affect the First Order’s day-to-day operations. They still have forces stationed throughout the galaxy.”

            Rey exhales. “It would throw their high command into complete disarray. The one who really wants to wipe out the Resistance and assert supremacy in the galaxy is that General Hux, but he answers to Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren just wants to raze everything to the ground and start anew, but I think even that would fall by the wayside for a few days if he just had me.”

            Silence.

            “He might just, you know, kill you,” Poe points out.

            “He won’t.”

            “You can’t know that,” says Leia.

            “I can,” Rey says, with complete self-assurance. She felt it in him when they locked eyes from two different starships. But there’s no reason for Poe or Leia to know about that.

            “Think of it this way,” she continues. “When was the last time someone gave him exactly what he wanted?”

            She lets that question hang in the air between them for a long moment. Then Leia shakes her head. “No. There’s too much risk.”

            “General, please.” Rey crosses the room and kneels down in front of Leia so that she can look up at her. “If not for us, then for the children. You know what Kylo Ren would do if he got his hands on any of them. That can’t be allowed to happen. They’re our future. They're our hope.”

            “You are too, Rey. You and the children,” Leia counters. “They still need you. And beyond that, you’re one of our best assets. I will not send you on a suicide mission.”

            “I’ve already said it’s not a suicide mission.”

            “You’re right,” says Leia. “It’s worse.”

            Rey falls quiet.

            With some effort, Leia begins pushing herself up from her seat, walking stick wobbling slightly as she leans heavily on it. Poe reaches out with a hand at her back to help her, but she shakes her head, and he lets her stand on her own. Once she’s on her feet, she says, “I don’t want to hear another word about this.”

            “Yes, ma’am,” Rey says, barely louder than a whisper.

            Leia starts moving out of the room, slowly. It makes Rey’s heart hurt to see her this way, so fragile-looking. She can only imagine how much it must frustrate Leia. But even as she’s thinking this, Leia turns back to look at Rey. “In fact,” she says, with all of her old sharpness, “I think you should stay with us for a while. Stop exposing yourself. Train your pupils. Be safe.”

            “What?” Rey scrambles to her feet. “General—Leia—I can’t do that. These children are out there, I can sense them. I have to find them before anyone else does. They need support, they need protection—”

            Leia shakes her head. “We don’t know that he’s looking for them,” she says. “But, as you rightfully pointed out, we do know that he’s looking for you. And we can’t lose you, Rey.”

            “You once thought the same thing about Luke,” Rey says with a hard, defiant edge to her voice. “And look how far we’ve come without him.”

            Leia’s brow furrows and her eyes flash with grief. Rey immediately knows that that was exactly the wrong thing to say. “You’ll stay put for now. That’s an order.”

            Rey looks down. “Yes, ma’am.”

            With a sigh, Leia leaves the chamber, walking stick clicking in time with her steps. Poe gives Rey space for a second, then comes up beside her. “Crazy plan, would probably work. Kind of my brand,” he says. “I was for it, for the record.”

            “That’s because you know I can handle myself,” she fires back, stung.

            Poe puts a friendly hand on her shoulder. “Leia knows that, too, and you know she does. She’s just being cautious, and I think she’s also trying to spare you pain. But hey.” He grins. “What’s a little light torture good for if not personal growth, right? We’ve both had that guy inside our heads, and we turned out okay.”

            “Right.” Rey feels so distant from him, from the room. She'd almost forgotten that Poe had suffered at Kylo Ren’s hand. But she wouldn't call what she went through with Ren suffering. It was something stranger, something stronger, something infinitely more complicated. Only Finn really knew the full extent of how they'd touched each other's minds, and it had taken her months to tell him.

            “I'm going to go now, if you don't mind,” she says to Poe.

            “'Course,” he says. “But if you need to talk or anything, I'm here. This is a feeling I know pretty well.”

            “Thank you, Poe,” she says, with a little smile that she doesn't quite feel. “But I'll be fine.”


             The current makeshift Resistance base is in a place no one would expect: a rusted but refurbished Imperial-class Star Destroyer that had crash-landed on the planet Akiva almost thirty years ago. It had been a lucky find for the band of stragglers post-Crait, largely untouched by scrappers and hidden in a remote part of the planet that was difficult to access except by starship. And besides, a remnant of the Empire’s former glory is the last place the First Order would think to look for rebels.

            Between Rey’s familiarity with these old craft, Rose’s giftedness with machinery, and Finn’s perpetual willingness to chip in, they had been able to restore power to some crucial sections of the ship with about a week’s work and a lot of elbow grease. Meanwhile, Poe and Leia embarked on a tour of the Outer Rim, appealing to their erstwhile allies for aid. None of these people had responded to the distress signal from Crait, sensing a death trap, but news of Luke Skywalker’s heroic sacrifice had traveled fast. Suddenly, potential recruits were much more eager to join their cause. Even a few dozen additional hands were able to help make the ship baseline habitable in very little time.

            The Star Destroyer Vigilance would never fly again—she had sustained too much damage to her ion engines—but that wasn’t the priority. Power had been restored to the deflector shields, the surface turbolaser turrets had been repaired, and the ion cannons had needed very little work. There was an adequate medical bay and room to dock the few light fighter craft Poe had scrounged up where he could. The Resistance had electricity, running filtered water, room to store food and munitions, and functioning communications systems. They could weather a siege here for a short time if anyone came looking. So far, despite the galaxy-wide search they all knew the First Order was conducting, no one had.

            The Vigilance is also more than large enough to accommodate the Resistance’s current numbers. In her former life, this one ship had been crewed by tens of thousands of enlisted personnel and thousands more ranking officers, not to mention the Stormtrooper contingent she housed. By contrast, the Resistance’s ranks had swelled from the survivors of Crait to about ten thousand active duty personnel, combatants and non-combatants, in the last three years. This doesn’t include their greatest, off-world asset: an intelligence network that Leia herself had spent enormous time and effort cultivating. Most of these spies are stationed strategically across the galaxy; some even serve on First Order ships themselves.

            The rebels on the Vigilance rattle around like a handful of coins in a burlap sack, a constant, slightly daunting reminder of the superior numbers of their foes. After all, the First Order’s Resurgent-class Star Destroyers accommodate even more crew, even more troops. Still, there are upsides. Almost all of the officers are able to keep their own private quarters, and the infantry members who have to share space are only two to a room.

            Rey has her own room on the officers’ deck, for which she’s very grateful. It’s a real room, with a door that locks, a desk, and a bed that folds down from the wall, and it allows her the privacy to meditate, to focus, to think. This is what she’s doing now, sitting cross-legged, eyes closed, on her aged, dented mattress pad, letting the Force flow through her. Her room glows, alive with a massive map of the galaxy projected up from the floor that fills the entire space with stars.

            And Rey breathes slowly as she moves her hands, tilting the map left and right, zooming in, pulling back out, without looking. She knows what she’s searching for. She can feel it, like there’s a hook embedded in her chest, tugging her towards it. So many star systems, so many planets. Hundreds, maybe thousands. And yet, right there—

            There’s a knock at her door, and Finn calls, “Rey?”

            Rey opens her eyes with a start and a small, fluttering gasp. She doesn’t answer immediately. She peers at the star system hovering just inches from her nose.

            “Rey?” Finn asks again. “Are you in there?”

            “Yes, sorry.” She blinks. “Sorry, come in.”

            Finn opens her door and steps inside, walking through several star systems. He raises an arm, watching the light reflect off his jacket with a sense of wonder that fills Rey with warmth. When he turns to look at her, a nebula splashes across his cheek. He doesn’t ask what she’s doing just yet. “I didn’t see you in the mess hall,” he says. “You okay?”

            Her shoulders slump. “Oh, no. Did I miss dinner?”

            “Yeah, again.” He comes to sit on the bed next to her. “That kid was looking for you. The new one. With the—”

            He holds his index fingers up to the sides of his head, and Rey chuckles. “Taylin. How’s he doing? Is he all right?”

            “He seems okay. Y’know, considering. The other kids are talking to him, making sure he’s not alone.” Finn presses his hands into Rey’s mattress to sit up straighter. “You didn’t answer. Don’t think I didn’t notice. We’ve known each other too long.”

            Rey looks down. “I’m fine, Finn. I just— I’m frustrated.”

            “Yeah, Poe may have mentioned that you had a meeting that didn’t go well.”

            “Oh, did he?” She picks her head back up. “Did he tell you that I’m grounded?”

            “Grounded?”

            “Grounded as in Leia’s not letting me leave the Vigilance,” Rey says, by way of clarification. “But there are more children out there, Finn. There’s another, I can feel it, here—” She points at the system in front of her face. “Here on Corellia.”

            “Corellia, that’s— the kid could be anywhere on that planet.”

            “A Force-sensitive kid. We’re probably looking for a young pilot, unusually gifted, capable of pulling off unlikely if not impossible feats.”

            Finn folds his arms. “It’s Corellia. That doesn’t narrow it down.”

            “Well, I could enlarge the hologram and pinpoint the exact location, but...” Rey sighs. “But there’s no point, Finn. I couldn’t go looking even if I wanted to, and it might not be a good idea besides. That child and all their loved ones would be safer if I just stayed away.”

            “And leave them unprotected and untrained? When you know Kylo Ren’s out there?”

            Rey shrugs and says nothing.

            “Hey, hey.” Finn lays a hand on her shoulder, gently. “This isn’t like you, Rey. What’s going on? What happened in that meeting?”

            She draws another breath and tries not to recall the image of the villagers, Taylin’s people, grouped so tightly together, saving the Stormtroopers the trouble of rounding them up for execution. “I had a plan,” she says. “It was risky and I knew it was risky, but I thought for some time it might buy a reprieve, for us, or for…”

            “Okay.” Finn nods, adjusting the hand on her shoulder. “What was the plan?”

            Rey rubs her forehead. She knows Finn won’t approve. That’s why she was going to wait to tell him until she had the General’s go-ahead. Leia’s word is unimpeachable. Of course, she doesn’t have it now. She turns on the bed, sitting so she can face him, meet his eyes. “I could hand myself over.”

            “Rey.”

            “Not forever. Not— for even more than a week, maybe. Buy us some time, buy the children some security. If it meant stopping this chase, this… I’d do it, Finn.”

            “Kylo Ren,” Finn says, flatly. “You’d hand yourself over to Kylo Ren. Rey, you can’t do that.”

            “You’re the second person to tell me that today,” Rey snaps. “I’ve gotten the message.”

            Finn holds up his other hand, the one that isn’t touching her. “Hey, hey.”

            Rey sighs, immediately awash with regret. He’s her best friend. She can’t, and shouldn’t, take her frustrations out on him. He doesn’t deserve it. “I’m sorry, Finn. It’s not you. It’s just— here.”

            She holds out a hand and calls upon the Force to send the small holographic projector flying to her. Upon snatching it out of the air, she presses a few buttons and angles it back out toward the center of the room. It shows the known galaxy once more, now with eleven glowing points of blue light.

            “This here,” she says. “This is where we’ve found all the children so far. Twelve children, eleven systems.”

            “The siblings,” Finn says, recalling. “You took them in together.”

            “Yes, that’s right. And after this near miss with Taylin, I sat down and did some digging. I overlaid these locations with Kylo Ren’s known movements throughout the galaxy.” She presses another button on the projector, and the points of light turn red. Labels pop up, dates and times, by each one. “He’s visited every place I’ve been, Finn. The first time, Tamar, there was a gap of two days. Before Taylin, with the siblings, he arrived just three hours after I left. And Taylin…”

            “While you were there,” Finn says quietly.

            Rey nods. “Yes. And wherever he appears, death and destruction follow.” She clicks the hologram off, and faces Finn in the near-darkness. “Some of the children’s families, the ones who have families, have returned with us, joined the Resistance. But the others, who can’t leave? And their friends? And all the innocents who just got caught up in the crossfire? Finn, if I could put a stop to it even for a few days—”

            “That’s not a trade you should have to make,” Finn says firmly.

            Rey scoffs.

            “Rey.” His voice is softer now, gentle. “I know you want to save everyone—”

            “I’m not trying to save him, Finn. That ship left the spaceport long ago.”

            “I wasn’t talking about him. I mean...” He gestures at the emptiness of her room where the map used to hang in the air. “Everyone. And I want that too. But we both know that sometimes we can’t. Sometimes what matters is protecting the Light where we find it. That’s what I’ve learned from the Resistance, and from you.”

            Rey shakes her head. “My students— they trust me. I thought I was saving them. And now maybe everything they’ve known, their homes, maybe their families… gone, because I led him straight to them.”

            “Hey.” Finn shifts to look at her. “They are safer now with you than they would have ever been out in the open. You have to believe that.”

            “I do.” Rey thinks of her dozen students, most between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and how each day they grow stronger, more comfortable with their abilities. “I do, Finn. I’m just…” She grumbles, knowing that they’re now at the heart of the issue and aware of how immature she sounds. “I feel like I’m being treated like a child.”

            “Leia knows better than that. She’s just making… different calculations.” He reaches up and touches her cheek. “For the record, I’m with her, here. You’re too important for us to risk you, what, dying? Worse?”

            “Please. I’m not afraid of Kylo Ren.”

            “Yeah, but I mean, you should be, a little bit.” Finn chuckles, though, not at her, but with her, with her tenacity. “He’s only got, what, fleets, armies at his disposal, Dark Force powers—”

            “Highly unstable lightsaber,” Rey adds, a small smile forming on her lips.

            “Ouch.” Finn briefly touches his shoulder, where Kylo Ren’s lightsaber had scarred him during the duel on Starkiller Base. “Yeah, that thing. What else? Helmet that gives him a mushroom head…”

            “No, he doesn’t wear the mushroom helmet anymore.”

            “Good point.”

            “Terrible temper,” Rey prompts.

            “Yes, and on top of that he’s about this tall—” Finn takes the hand on Rey’s cheek back to hold it up high above his head. “—and he kind of has that whole, you know, all black everything, swishy walk, kill-you-with-a-look thing down. And—and!—he nearly sliced me in half that one time. But hey, what’s there to be afraid of?”

            Rey snickers. “I mean, I didn’t hear anything worth fearing in all that.”

            “No, absolutely not.” He puts his hand on her knee, just briefly. Soft, casual touches. It’s something she’s come to appreciate with him. They’re far from the days where she objected to holding his hand. “Look, Leia’s probably spooked by the near miss you just had. Guarantee that she’ll let you back out there within two weeks, and then you can go to Corellia. Until then, are you hungry? Mess might still be open.”

            “Oh, no, that’s fine, I’m…” Rey trails off as her stomach growls.

            “Sure you are.” Finn stands up, adjusting his jacket. “I thought part of being a Jedi was knowing your own feelings.”

            “‘Hunger’ isn’t usually a feeling I have to search very hard for,” she retorts, but she’s smiling again. This is what he does, Finn. He makes it all easier to bear.

            “Okay, sure.” He grins at her. “Come on, Jedi Master. Let’s get some food in you.”


             Rose finds Rey in that very same mess hall the next day at lunch, after Rey has finished her morning lessons. “So I heard about the plan,” she says, setting her tray down across from Rey’s with a clatter.

            Rey, who had been pushing her food around her plate, lost in thought, looks up. “I’m sorry?”

            Rose leans forward and says in a conspiratorial whisper, “The plan.” Then a flicker of self-doubt crosses her face. “You know, the— the plan. Do I have the wrong plan? Is there no plan? I can go.”

            “No, there was… a plan.” Rey frowns. “How did you hear about it?”

            “Finn told me.”

            Of course he did, thinks Rey. She knows he and Rose are thick as thieves. Something had passed between them, on or around Crait, something that Rey had not been privy to. Finn had told her of their adventure on Canto Bight as if he was describing events that had happened to someone else, but Rey knows better than anyone the role that brief, intense entanglements play in attachment. She had thought they might make a go of being a couple, but Finn didn’t seem to know what to do with Rose’s obvious interest, and over time they settled into a comfortable friendship.

            Rey likes Rose. There had been a shameful flare of initial jealousy at learning that Finn had made such a close connection while she was on Ahch-To, but she quickly came to understand why they worked. Rose has a strength that matches Finn’s, and a way of speaking exactly what comes to her mind that Rey finds generally unmatched in the Resistance anywhere. She’s also incredibly tech-savvy, and that common language that she and Rey share helped them bond while they reconstructed parts of the Vigilance. During the Resistance’s reorganization, Rose had been promoted to head of Mechanics and Engineering.

            Noticing the way Rey is looking at her, Rose shakes her head, not wanting to sell Finn out completely. “I mean, he didn’t volunteer it. He just clearly had something on his mind, and then I asked, and I kind of kept asking, and then he told me. Apparently Poe was already a fan of the plan, but Finn wasn’t, so I think he needed talk to someone who didn’t have any preconceived notions about it.”

            “I’m sure he did.” Rey looks around, trying to spot Finn in the line for food, or coming in through the doors, but she doesn’t see him. “Is he around? I should probably have a word with him about what the General calls ‘operations security.’”

            “He’s briefing the new troops on the vulnerabilities in Stormtrooper armor.” Rose scoops up a forkful of food. “But don’t worry, he only told me.”

            “That’s good.” Rey does trust Rose, but now that the plan isn’t happening, she isn’t too keen on people hearing about it. She knows they’ll only react like Finn did. Tell her she never should have even considered it.

            Rose looks around to make sure no one else is nearby, then lowers her voice again. “I just wanted to say, I know that it was shot down, but that plan—was crazy! I mean, it might have worked, but it’s crazy. I told Finn you’d probably been reading too many old stories from, you know, from way back.”

            Rey blinks. “Oh, no. I don’t know.”

            Rose puts her fork down and looks at her. “What, you don’t— really?”

            “What?”

            “You really don’t know?”

            “Rose,” says Rey, “I grew up in the middle of nowhere with no family to speak of. I’m not pulling your chain. Whatever you’re talking about, I probably genuinely do not of know it.”

            “Right, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting.” Rose opens her mouth, closes it, and opens it again. “It’s just that you seem so worldly.”

            “Fending for yourself does make you grow up pretty quickly,” Rey points out.

            “Yeah.” Rose nods. “Yeah, I hear that. Okay. Well. Huh, where to start? Hm.” She lapses into silence for a few seconds before speaking again. “So, during the days of the Empire, there were these… subversive texts that were passed around. They looked like they were just romance stories, except they advocated for the rebellion. Some of them were subtle, some of them were way far away from subtle.” She pauses to take a bite of her food.

            “I didn’t know about that. So they were propaganda?”

            “Yeah, rebel propaganda, I guess. But they were good. I mean, if you like romances and spy stories, which I know not everyone does.”

            “I’ve never read one,” Rey confesses.

            “You haven’t!” Rose exclaims. “Wow, I have so many recommendations for you? As soon as we were old enough, Paige and I started stealing our mom’s. Draw an X-Wing Through My Heart, TIEd Down: A Tale of Love and Bondage, Coruscant Stop Loving You… we kind of grew up on them. Sometimes, when there’s nothing to fix—which is not often, these days—you’ll find me hiding behind the pipes scrolling through one. Oh, but I probably shouldn’t… admit that.”

            “Nothing wrong with being a true romantic,” Rey teases. She enjoys when Rose gets talking. She knows Rose grew up in rough conditions, like her, but she had a loving family, parents, a sister, and Rey can’t help but be intrigued by these glimpses into her past.

            “Well, I was actually named for one of the stories.” Rose straightens her shoulders a bit. “The most famous one. Rose of the Empire. My mom was a really big fan. The main woman’s name wasn’t actually Rose, though. A rose is a flower.”

            “It is?”

            “Yeah, it’s supposed to be a beautiful flower. I’m not sure where they grow. I’ve never seen one.”

            “Me either.” Rey thinks about all the flowers she collected on Jakku, and wonders if roses can survive the desert. She picks up her glass and forces some water down her throat. She’s not all that hungry, but at the very least she should stay hydrated. “So what was it about, this Rose of the Empire?”

            “Well, that’s the thing,” says Rose, with a little bit of rising excitement. “It’s about a humble but beautiful moisture farm girl who joins the Rebellion, and then is sent to embed herself in the Empire. She meets and seduces a high-ranking Imperial officer.”

            “Oh.”

            “Of course they fall in love, and—and!” Rose jabs the air with her fork. “There were versions of the story circulated by the Empire where she decides to turn her back on the Rebellion and be with him. But that’s not what happened in the real ending.”

            “What happened in the real ending?”

            “She shows him the error of his ways and turns him for the Rebellion,” says Rose. “And together they become the best-placed spies the rebels have. The best assets. Then there was a sequel put out when the Empire was closer to falling, called Rose of the Rebellion. It’s all spycraft and intrigue. And, well… and other things. They’re pretty racy texts, if you follow.”

            “I think I do,” Rey says, her cheeks tingling slightly.

            Rose gives Rey a meaningful look. “I mean, you can see why I thought you might have at least heard of them, right? Because of the plan you had.”

            “Um,” says Rey. “That wasn’t the plan, exactly. I wasn’t going to be converting anyone to our cause, and I certainly wasn’t going to seduce anyone.”

            Rose blinks. “Huh. Then what were you going to be doing?”

            Rey shrugs. “Not those things. And not dying.”

            “That’s… good,” says Rose, sounding a little skeptical. “I think that’s what Finn was worried about.”

            “Me dying?”

            “You dying,” Rose agrees, and then she pauses. “I was maybe a little worried that you wanted to seduce someone.”

            Rey closes her eyes and sighs.

            “I mean—” Rose drops her voice back down to a whisper. “Kylo Ren! Kylo Ren is the worst! You can’t even think about seducing him. I kinda worried for your sanity, hearing about the plan, okay? Like, I’m not sure you thought that through. Just, augh. He probably smells. He seems like he would smell.”

            “He doesn’t smell.”

            “What?”

            “I’ve met him. He doesn’t smell.”

            “He should,” Rose huffs. “Because he’s the worst.” She stabs at a purple, lightly spiced root vegetable that occupies the corner of her plate. “And he’s not even handsome.”

            “Well.” This is something that Rey truthfully hasn’t given much thought before this moment. After all, the first time she saw his face she was in an interrogation chair, and whether or not he was a handsome monster was the furthest thing from her mind. She knows that he doesn’t have conventional good looks—not like, say, Poe or Finn, whom everyone seems to find attractive—but there was a time when she thought there was something about his eyes, his thick, dark hair, the fullness of his mouth, that when taken together, or maybe when viewed in firelight, kind of...

            Rose waves her fork in front of Rey’s face, impaled tuber and all. “Rey?”

            Rey blinks. “Right. Sorry. Would it be better if he were handsome? That wouldn’t make him any less a vile murderer.”

            Rose shrugs. “It’s a thing that works better in stories than real life, y’know?” she says. “Like, if you’re a rebel girl protagonist, it’s more fun to have a dalliance with a good-looking officer and then assassinate them, as opposed to someone who’s just… bleh.”

            “I feel like this does go over better in fiction, yes,” Rey says. “Seductions and assassinations sound like a lot of work.”

            “Oh, they are.” Rose gets a dreamy, faraway look. “When I was young, though, I dreamed of growing up, joining— well, there wasn’t a Resistance at that point. A rebellion against the First Order, at least. I’d become a beautiful seductress who knew just what to say to make men want me, then I’d nail all the vile First Order officers in the back with my tiny blaster rifle.” She holds her thumb and index finger out like a gun and jerks it as if to fire.

            “My dreams were simpler,” Rey says. “I only dreamt of being a pilot. But you know, there might still be time for you to achieve yours. Lots of First Order officers out there…”

            Rose chuckles. “No. I was like fourteen when I thought that. I grew up, and now I know the truth.”

            “What’s that?”

            “Machines are way easier to deal with than people.”

            Rey smiles back. “I hear that,” she says, thinking on her meeting with the General, the awkwardness of having to tell Finn what she was willing to give up for everyone else’s safety. “I absolutely do.”


             That very afternoon, the Resistance’s leadership gathers together in one of the Vigilance’s large conference rooms for a debrief. General Organa, having never cared for those round black tables the old Imperial officers met around, had the one in this room rolled out, and the assembled Resistance leaders sit in an uneven circle on crates and chairs and whatever other seating they could throw together. Not the most official-looking assembly, but Rey thinks it suits them. None of the officers particularly want to be such underdogs in this fight, to have fewer resources and lower odds of survival, but part of their appeal versus that of the First Order comes from their status as a ragtag band of rebels, and they certainly look the part when they meet in here.

            Kaydel Connix spearheads this meeting, and thus is one of the only people standing, with Leia seated at her back. Since the Battle of Crait, almost all of the survivors who constituted the foundations of the reborn Resistance received promotions, although Finn had turned a formal title down. Most of the other young officers hadn’t yet climbed to the very highest ranks, and Leia was always telling them not to rush it.

            Connix bears the title of Commander now, and she wears it well, even though her current uniform doesn’t much differ from the one she wore as a junior controller. Due to the cool role she played in Poe’s brief mutiny—which Rey had missed entirely—Leia had catered to her strengths and given her an active part in coordinating the Resistance’s new network of spies.

            Poe also stands, but off by one of the conference room’s windows with his arms folded, radiating an agitated energy that’s impossible to ignore. Rey, seated to Finn’s right, notices Finn keep glancing over at Poe, and Poe giving him little eyebrow raises and shrugs, maybe “I don’t know, something’s up” shrugs or “wait and see” shrugs. He must know what this is all about, but he hasn’t said a word to them.

            Connix steps into the center of the room and keys up a hologram. It takes the assembled officers a minute to comprehend what, exactly, they’re looking at. It’s a far-off, atmospheric view of two warships on a sandy planet, with various pieces of scaffolding and excess construction materials scattered around them. Even with the distance between the picture-taker and the subjects, it’s impossible not to have a sense of how absolutely massive these ships are. To Finn’s left, Rose draws a shaky breath.

            “Dreadnoughts,” she whispers.

            “We’ve received intelligence from one of our people embedded in a First Order outpost deep in the Unknown Regions,” Connix says. “The First Order has almost completed construction of two new Mandator V-class Siege Dreadnoughts. They’re due to be fully operational in about a month.”

            A murmur passes through the room like the buzzing of angry sandflies. Finn shifts on his crate. “Two,” he repeats. “With our current numbers, they wouldn’t need more than one to wipe us off the map. It’s overkill.”

            “Kylo Ren is obsessed with eradicating his enemies,” says Poe, stepping away from the window to stand next to Connix. “Although he’s not really one for strategy. Between him and Hux, we’re not dealing with master tacticians, here. If one Dreadnought gets the job done, great, but obviously two is better. It’s a demonstration of military might, which is where they really have us beat.”

            Rey glances at Leia, as she often does when Kylo Ren’s name comes up in meetings. When they speak of him, it’s always “Kylo Ren,” never “Supreme Leader Kylo Ren,” not like they had spoken of Snoke. It feels like the smallest act of personal rebellion. Still, it is always Kylo Ren, never Ben Solo. Rey and Leia both know that Ben Solo is gone. Leia meets Rey’s eyes briefly from across the room, then turns her attention back to Poe and Connix.

            “We have to take them out,” Rose says suddenly, fiercely. Everyone looks at her, and she nods and says again, “The Dreadnoughts. We have to take them out.”

            Poe points at her and nods back. “Yes. We do. But—” He, too, glances at Leia. “We have to be smart about it.”

            “Luckily, we’ll be receiving our new X-wings and bombers from the manufacturer soon, before the Dreadnoughts’ launch,” Connix continues.

            “Just in time for those Dreadnoughts to wipe ‘em out, huh,” Finn jokes darkly.

            “Not if we engage in a preemptive strike,” Poe says. “Take them out before they ever get a chance to launch.”

            Finn nods. “Yeah, yeah, that would work. But even if we have the coordinates of that shipyard, they’re probably so deep in a First Order stronghold that it’d be a suicide mission if we could pull it off at all. Unless…” He looks up at Poe, his face changing. “What month is it, again?”

            Poe grins at him. “Yep. Ten days from now.”

            “Oh.” Finn sits forward on the crate. “Oh, that’s perfect.”

            “Finn, Commander Dameron,” Leia says, leaning over to interrupt their conversation. “Would you mind sharing whatever insight you two have with the rest of us?”

            “Sorry, General,” says Finn. He glances at Poe, who nods. “Every year around this time, the First Order holds a massive military gala to celebrate their strength. I never attended, obviously, but from what I heard, they always pull out all the stops. Full TIE fighter wings flying in formation, the most decorated starships in the Navy passing by the windows of the Supremacy just so people could gawk at them. Snoke himself would even make a brief appearance by hologram. Of course all the top brass would be there, and not…”

            “... and not at their posts,” Poe finishes, grinning. “Which would be left vulnerable since so many craft would be involved in the demonstration. They’d be too busy showing off for themselves to know what hit them.”

            “But.” Finn turns to Connix. “They still do that, under Kylo Ren?”

            “They do,” Connix confirms.

            “I can’t imagine that makes him happy,” Leia remarks. “He never had patience for formal events.”

            “We believe it’s General Hux who insists on upholding this tradition, ma’am,” says Connix. “Of the two of them, he seems fonder of pomp and circumstance.”

            “Hm.”

            Rey receives a flash — so quickly — of a memory that definitely isn't hers: a small black-haired child pitching an ugly fit, red-faced and tearful, as a much younger Han Solo tries to tie shiny dark formal shoes on his feet. It vanishes almost as soon as it appears, and she looks at Leia, who gives her a sad little smile. Like all her memories of Ben, it’s tinged with heartache.

            “He’ll be looking for any excuse to cancel,” Rey murmurs, loud enough for only Finn to hear. He turns his head toward her, frowning.

            Connix continues, “We believe they intended to have the Dreadnoughts completed by the day of the ball, so they could be debuted there. But construction is running behind schedule, so they won’t be part of the procession. They’ll be left with relatively little protection in this quadrant, here.”

            The projection changes to a star map, then rushes from the location of the Resistance's base at the Vigilance to a sector almost literally across the galaxy. Rey exhales.

            “He’ll be looking for any excuse to cancel that gala,” she says, louder this time so that everyone can hear. Now, all eyes find her. “Kylo Ren,” she clarifies. “If he hates them as much as you say.”

            “We were already concerned that the First Order might notice the delivery of our new ships,” someone says. “They have the advantage in numbers, and with their constant patrols they’ve done a good job of keeping us pinned here. We’re talking about a lot of movement in the span of a week. Even with hyperspace jumps, it’s risky.”

            “And if I’m hearing you correctly, Rey,” says Poe, inclining his head at her, “you think if he catches wind of any unusual activity he’ll call off the gala?”

            Rey nods back. “Yes. Not because he thinks it’s a risk—as you said, he’s not a strategic thinker—but because he’ll be looking for any excuse to do so. What he hates, he hates passionately.”

            No one questions how she knows this. Everyone just accepts that, second to Leia, Rey is the expert on Kylo Ren’s tumultuous personality. She imagines that they think it’s a Jedi thing. The reality is slightly more complicated.

            “The plan won’t work if the gala’s called off and everyone’s at their stations,” Poe says, keeping eye contact with her. “So, you’re saying…”

            “We’ll need a distraction. We’ll need to distract him.”

            They both look at Leia. To Rey’s left, Finn and Rose look at each other.

            “We can keep going as we have been,” suggests one of Poe’s pilot cohort. “Take our older craft, keep antagonizing them far away from anywhere we’ll actually be moving. Sectors on the opposite side of the galaxy. It’s not worth canceling a whole gala over a few light fighters poking at a Star Destroyer.”

            “It’s risky,” says Connix. “But it might be our best shot. Those Dreadnoughts take years to complete. It’d be a considerable setback for them, and buy us more time before we have to face them one head-on again.”

            “And we’re going to do it right, this time,” says Poe, quietly. He looks at Rose, and then back and forth between Leia and Rey. “Minimal casualties. We’ll need all the help we can get.”

            Rey keeps her eyes fixed on Leia, although she knows Finn is watching her, face etched with grave concern.

            Leia sighs, heavily. “You’ll have it,” she says. “Commander, designate a few pilots to keep on those Star Destroyers. We can’t let them think we’ve gone quiet. And Rey…” She shakes her head. “Force be with me. You’ll have to leave tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

            Rey finds Poe down in the crew recreation area on the lower deck, a few hours later. He sits on a stool at the bar with a drink in his hand, a knot of orange-jumpsuited pilots around him, chatting and laughing amongst themselves. The rest of the recreation area is largely empty tables — it’s late, and most of the crew still awake is working the night shift, not socializing in the blue-lit rec lounge while jumpy instrumental music plays over tinny speakers.

            That works just fine for Rey. She heads straight for Poe, resting her elbows next to him on the bar. “Commander,” she says, by way of greeting. “Do you mind if I borrow you for a second?”

            “Oh hey, Rey. Not at all. We were just finishing up here.” He holds up a finger, then turns back to the pilots. “All right, guys. You know the deal. Meet at 0700 and we’ll run through those simulation drills. Until then, get some sleep.”

            He clasps hands with the nearest pilot and pulls him into a brief, comradely shoulder-clap hug, then grins and nods at the rest of them. Once they’ve walked off, Poe leans back against the bar. “It’s going to be so good to have a real fleet again,” he says to her. “Not that we’re doing too badly with what we’ve cobbled together. I just miss my X-wing like a limb, y’know?”

            “It was part of you,” Rey says, hopping up onto the stool next to his. “I understand that. It’s not mine, but if anything were to happen to the Falcon...”

            “Oh, if anything happens to the Falcon, it’s the beginning of the end and we’re all screwed. That ship was around before us, and it’ll probably outlast us.” He grins at her. “So what can I do for you?”

            Rey shifts. “I have some awkward questions. I think you’re the best person to answer them.”

            He shrugs and takes a swig from his metal cup. “Nothing’s awkward. Shoot.”

            “Okay. I need to know about sex.”

            Poe chokes on his drink.

            “I warned you,” says Rey with a little smirk.

            “Yeah,” he says, wiping at his mouth with the back of his wrist. “Yeah, you’re right. Awkward.” He cocks his head at her. “Why me, out of curiosity? What’ve you heard?”

            “Heard? Nothing. I can’t ask Finn, because I figure we’re in the same boat. Rose is apparently a fan of romance stories, so I’m afraid that colors her perception a bit. And Leia is the General, so that’s… That leaves you.” She blinks at him. “What, should I have heard something?”

            “No, no.” Poe shakes his head. “I can’t fault that logic. But I have a, hmm, a rep, let’s say, on account of being so dashing and devastatingly handsome—” Rey snorts. “Hey! Anyway, it’s pretty much unfounded. I mean, who has time for a lover in every spaceport when there’s a rebellion to run? I’m way too busy.”

            “That makes sense. I’m sure you’ve had more experience than me, though.”

            “Well, what, you’ve…” Rey shakes her head. Poe looks her over, obviously surprised. “Wait, you’ve never— not once? I’m sure even on Jakku there was some interest.”

            “I mean, the interest that counts is mine, right? Whether I’m interested back.”

            Poe inclines his metal cup at her. “That’s true.”

            “And since I left Jakku, like you…” She shrugs. “Too busy.”

            “Huh. But— you can? It's not forbidden?”

            “I’m asking for my pupils,” Rey says, sidestepping the question for now and launching into her pre-determined cover story. “A handful of them are teenagers, and when they come to me with questions about what’s happening to their minds and bodies I want to be able to give them answers.”

            “That’s fair.” Poe sets his cup aside for a second. “So, we’re talking, what, humanoids? Non-humanoids? Just go over the whole spectrum to start out? How much ground do you need to cover?”

            “Poe!” Rey laughs. “They’re mostly all humanoid. Let’s start there.”

            “Well, that makes it easier on me,” Poe says. “I mean, just know that even among humanoid species, sex is…” He holds his hands up, spreads out his fingers. “It’s varied, and even if I cover everything I personally know of you’ll hear about somebody who’s into something else I wasn’t expecting, like, I don’t know, elbows.”

            “Elbows? In what... capacity, exactly?”

            “Don’t worry about it. Anyway, that said, starting with humanoids you’re definitely giving me a finite list of things that people generally consider ‘sex acts.’ But even in there, you’ve got all different sexes, genders. Where do you want to start? Bodies more like yours, like mine, like—”

            “Like yours, I think,” Rey says. “I’ve lived in my own body for about twenty-two years at this point.”

            “Yeah, but if you’ve never had sex, there are reactions that might…” He trails off and looks at her. “Huh.”

            Part of Rey, the part that kept turning over his words in that first meeting with Leia—“light torture”—had been concerned about this very thing happening. “Reactions,” she prompts, trying to get him to stay on topic.

            Poe’s brows knit together, and his eyes narrow. Rey can tell he’s doing some form of mental math, edging ever closer to her true intent. Finally he says, slowly, “This... is actually about Finn, right? You want to finally make something happen with him before you ship off on a dangerous mission? I get that. You don’t have to make up some excuse.”

            “What?” Rey blinks, taken aback. Not what she was expecting. “No, Finn and I haven’t spoken since the debrief. And besides, we’re not—”

            “Rey,” says Poe, with a desperate edge to his voice. “For my own sanity, will you please let me pretend this is about Finn?”

            A beat.

            “How would that help? You like Finn.”

            He chuckles weakly and picks up his drink again, looking into it as if he could will it fuller. “Wow, that Jedi mind stuff, huh. Mind… touching? ‘Search your feelings, you know it to be true?’”

            “I don’t need to search your feelings to know that, Poe.” Rey smiles at him, even though her stomach churns a little at the prospect of continuing this conversation. “You’re always fiddling with your mother’s ring when you’re looking at him and you think his attention is elsewhere.”

            “That’s fair.” Poe won’t let her steer the subject away for long, she knows, but right now he nods at the Resistance soldier on barkeep duty. “Hey, one for her too? Same stuff?” He glances at her. “Unless Jedi can’t drink.”

            “No written rules against it, although I think it was frowned upon back in the day,” says Rey. “I usually don’t, but we can make an exception tonight.”

            They watch the barkeep in silence as she pours a brown liqueur in with a thick red syrup and some ice, and don’t say another word to each other until after Rey tastes her drink. It’s fruity, but strong; despite the cloying sweetness, alcohol burns her throat as she swallows. Rey always thought Poe would be the sort of person who drank his fire-water straight, but she doesn’t judge. After all, he also likes to have fun. This drink is definitely fun. Rey gulps down a little more to take the edge off of what’s inevitably to follow.

            “Rey,” Poe sighs, rubbing his face with both his hands and raking his fingers up through his perpetually tousled curls. “Oh, Rey.”

            “I thought you knew,” Rey says, defensive. “Leia knew. That’s why she put her foot down.”

            “There are several reasons Leia’s the General and I am not,” Poe points out. “A big one is that she’s much, much smarter than I am. Rey!”

            She turns on her stool to face him directly. “Tell me what you thought was going to happen.”

            “I don’t know! I thought he’d put you back in the chair and you’d engage in a week-long contest of wills where he wouldn’t sleep at all trying to extract information from you and you’d absolutely kick his ass mentally, keeping it from him. I really liked that thought and I’d really like to have it back.”

            “There’s no saying that’s not what will happen,” Rey points out. “Although he knows that trick doesn’t work on me. We’re evenly matched. If he tries to reach inside my mind, I can see inside of his. He probably won’t risk it.”

            “Damn it.” Poe drains his drink, sets the empty cup down hard on the table, and signals the bartender for another. Rey can relate. She swallows down more of the fruity fire-water and waits for Poe to sort through his feelings.

            “He wants you like that?” he asks at last. “That way?”

            Rey’s reply is automatic. “He wants me every way.”

            “Hhnn.” It’s a pained little sound originating straight from Poe’s throat. He then asks, as if he’s gagging on the question, “So, is this— is this a seduction mission? Are you going there to—” He waves his hands, vaguely. “Because that’s way more than I can cover in a single conversation.”

            “No,” says Rey, her voice firm. “No. I just— if it happens, which is a big if, I won’t resist, and he can keep himself entertained. Distracted.”

            Poe inhales, sharply.

            “I just want to know what to expect, Poe.”

            “You don’t even know how sex works between people like you two,” Poe argues back. “Who’s to say that you’re not going to establish some life-long mental link with him where he’s, I don’t know, always in your head, and can always talk to you?”

            “You don’t have to worry about that,” Rey says quickly. “I can handle him.”

            “I know, I know.” Poe spins his stool around so he can lean heavily on the bar. He accepts his drink refill with a gracious nod. “I know you can. I just wish you didn’t have to.” He pinches the bridge of his nose in disgust. “Especially not like that.”

            Rey straightens on her barstool. “Poe, I’m not asking for your permission. I already have the General’s. All I’m asking now is for your help.”

            Poe takes a second to breathe, then nods. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, yeah. I can walk you through the mechanics of everything, that’s no big deal. But I think there’s a mental component to all of this that you’re kinda dismissing out of hand.”

            “I’m sure I’ve lived through worse. What are you doubting? My resolve? My will?”

            “No, you’re one of the most stubborn people I know, and that’s saying something because I’m me. But what you’re signing up for, it’s different.” He exhales. “This is different.”

            “Tell me how it’s different.”

            Poe says nothing. He runs a hand through his hair again, and then he looks at her sideways. “I can do better than walking you through the mechanics.”

            “Pardon?”

            He shifts on his stool and puts his elbow down on the bar, then looks up at her, leaning his cheek on his hand. “Well, I wouldn’t normally ask, and I don’t mean anything by it, but if you want to have a first time that’s not awful and traumatizing…”

            “Oh!” Rey exclaims, a bit flustered. “Oh. No, thank you. That’s very generous, but you don’t have to do that.”

            Poe gives her a sheepish little grin. “See, what’d I tell you? Different.” He runs a finger around the rim of his cup. “But that would be weird, you’re right. Didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

            “I’m not. It’s fine.” Rey watches him for a second, then reaches over and flicks his shoulder, not too hard. He recoils and grasps it, mock-stung. “Poe Dameron,” she says, lightly teasing. “You can’t just offer to be someone’s first time and say ‘I don’t mean anything by it.’ Who raised you?”

            Poe’s grin widens, and he reaches over to ruffle her hair fondly. “Laserbrain,” he says as Rey swats him away. “So what if you’re my friend and I want you to be happy, huh? Is that so wrong?”

            “You certainly sound very confident in your ability to perform,” Rey replies, unable to keep from chuckling a little bit.

            “Like I said, I’ve got a rep.” And he winks.

            Rey laughs, and as she looks at him, with his wide white grin and his thick dark curls and those flattering crinkles at the corner of his brown eyes, she wonders why she isn’t attracted to him that way, or to Finn, or to anyone really. Poe and Finn, both her friends, both undeniably strong, handsome, but more than that: brave, kind, good. Finn, especially, who has been with her through so much, who is so sweet and sincere and funny, she knows would be with her that way if she asked. But she doesn’t ask, because it wouldn’t be honest. Even if there’s something conceptually appealing about the thought of them fumbling through their respective first times together, with no rush and no pressure, she doesn’t ask. It’d be selfish, not reciprocating his want in the way he hopes for.

            She wonders if there’s something wrong with her.

            In the years since she left Jakku, Rey’s had a few chaste, sexless kisses—one actually with Finn, after a near escape from First Order forces. She’s always been the recipient, never the instigator. They’ve all fallen flat, those kisses, and although she appreciates having had the experiences she also discounts them a bit. She knows there must be more to what everyone talks about than just lips pressed to lips with no feeling behind them but curiosity.

            There’s something else, not a fear, not exactly, but a persistent, nagging thought: that she’ll finally go to bed with someone—anyone—and it still won’t be as intimate as a simple touch of fingertips that spanned the galaxy.

            Rey downs the rest of her drink, sets it on the bar, and doesn’t ask for another. She’s beginning to feel a little heady, but that’s good. It gives her the courage to look right at Poe and say, “All right. Lay out the facts of life for me.”

            Poe holds up a finger. “Just give me a sec to get drunk enough to forget exactly why we’re talking about this.”

            “That’s fair.” Rey pushes her empty cup across the bar and clinks it against his. “Cheers.”


            She walks down a long, dark corridor, not unlike the ones she’d crept through on Starkiller Base: dimly-lit, industrial, cold. Ahead of her, this hallway is empty but for a cleaning droid rolling back and forth, polishing the floor until it shines. Footsteps echo between the walls: only one set, and not hers. She wears flat, flexible gorvath-wool boots, which lend her soft footfalls, not the steady thuds that heeled shoes make against this hard, reflective flooring.

            She looks to the left to see Kylo Ren walking beside her, and although she inhales sharply upon seeing him, she doesn’t feel any sort of alarm, nor gut-wrenching revulsion or anger. Instead, she is curiously empty.

            For his part, he doesn’t look at her. He walks, and she walks too, keeping pace with him easily although his strides are longer. Even at this early hour, he’s fully dressed, and his cloak flares out behind him as he presses forward, eyes fixed ahead of him with unknown purpose. They continue on for a few minutes this way, passing countless rooms and branching hallways, before coming to a stop before two large, heavy double doors, sealed shut. She gets the sense that these doors partition off a sizeable chamber, but has little time to interrogate that feeling because all at once he turns his head and looks right at her.

            “You can’t come in here,” he says.

            Rey opens her eyes with a start, and he’s gone. She stands alone in the middle of an empty hallway on the Vigilance.

            Sleepwalking, she thinks, trying to calm her now-rapid heartbeat. Sleepwalking, that’s all it was. Just a dream. A vision, at worst. But she looks to her left and sees two heavy double doors, sealed shut, and her breath catches in her throat. She crosses to them in three quick steps, presses the button to open them, and—

            Storage. Crates on crates in an unlit chamber. Rey reaches out a hand to brace herself on the doorframe, and sighs.

            “Rey,” comes a voice from the end of the hall. “You’re up early.”

            Rey picks up her head, although she doesn’t really need to. Leia Organa’s voice is distinctive, and the click-click of her walking stick precedes her. Rey straightens. “General,” she says. “I was just—”

            “Checking on the munitions,” Leia says, coming up beside her. Rey marvels at how Leia can be half a head shorter than her and still so formidable. It lives in her composure, rather than her stature. The General leans over her walking stick to peer into the room. “Well, they’re still there.”

            “Yes,” says Rey, stepping back and hitting the button for the doors. “They are.”

            “Good thing.” Leia gives her a quick once-over, taking in the state of her. Rey is grateful that she fell asleep in her clothes last night. “Walk with me, child.”

            If anyone else were to call her child—if Leia had called her child twelve hours ago, before she had approved Rey’s mission—she’d have had some choice words in response. But now, it’s different. It’s an honor. Still, as Rey walks beside Leia, slowing her pace so as not to draw ahead, she says, “Surely I’m not a child anymore, General.”

            “You young heroes of the Resistance, you’re all children in my eyes. I’m getting too old.” She sighs, a rattling sigh, and leans against her walking staff. “And you know that when we’re alone, it’s just Leia.”

            “Leia,” Rey repeats, although it always feels strange to say it to her directly. “What is it?”

            Leia doesn’t say anything right away. She draws up to one of the Vigilance’s windows. Rey realizes they’re far from her quarters deeper within the ship. She glances at Leia, then looks out at Akiva. Above the horizon, out over the massive jungles that carpet the planet, storm clouds hang low and heavy in the pre-dawn sky, their underbellies illuminated by brief flashes of lighting. Rey can’t help but stare.

            “When I was a girl,” Leia says, “I loved thunderstorms. I still do.”

            “They’re beautiful,” Rey murmurs, with sincerity. On Jakku there were storms, too, but they were windstorms that might last three days, kicking up sand, changing the landscape. The thunderstorms on Akiva have just as much power, but Rey never tires of watching them.

            “Beautiful,” Leia agrees. “But dangerous, if you get caught in one.” She turns slightly toward Rey. “I felt him. Was he here?”

            Rey looks at Leia, startled, but there’s no point in denying it. She shakes her head. “I— no. Somehow, I was there.”

            “Does that happen often?”

            “No, not at all,” Rey says. “I—I’d had a drink before bed. I don’t usually do that.”

            “I can’t blame you, given the circumstances.” Leia folds one of her hands over the other on her cane. “But it has happened before, what happened just now.”

            “Almost,” Rey confesses. “Rarely. A handful of times.”

            Leia just looks back at Rey, and suddenly Rey is telling her everything—about their Force bond, facilitated by Snoke, that she had unilaterally closed off years ago; about the few near-connections they’d had when she was on the verge of sleep and she knew he was thinking of her; about sensing him again, head-on, when she was escaping with Taylin. The things she should have told Leia before, long before, she says now. They all come tumbling out of her like a landslide.

            “I know, back then, that there was a—that he felt something. A sort of connection, a kinship to me, a…” Rey shakes her head. “That’s gone. I couldn’t feel it in him at all when I was on the Falcon. I just knew he wouldn’t kill me because he wants me to suffer. He wants it more powerfully than anything else.”

            For a moment, Leia is quiet, frowning, absorbing it all. Rey can tell that she somehow had an idea about their connection, but not the extent of it. “That’s what you felt?”

            Rey nods.

            Leia’s deep brown eyes fix on Rey’s face. “Child,” she says softly. “Rey. I want to know that you understand what it is you’re offering yourself up to do.”

            Silence, then the rumble of distant thunder.

            “He won’t turn me,” Rey says, her voice hard, determined. “He can’t, no matter how he tries. And I can fight his torture. He’ll never manage to kill me. There isn’t much risk, as I see it.”

            Leia just looks at her. Rey sighs. “I understand. Poe gave me a walkthrough.”

            “Oh,” says Leia, eyes twinkling now as she seizes the opportunity for a moment of levity. “That must have been fun.”

            Rey sputters, not knowing what else to do.

            “I do still have eyes,” Leia continues, chuckling. “He’s a very handsome young man.”

            “No, no, a— a verbal walkthrough.” Rey’s cheeks burn. “Um, it was not fun for him in the least. He was very drunk.” She blinks. “Wow, he must have been right about the reputation he has if you thought—”

            “Mm.” Leia smiles warmly, lips pressed together, and looks out at the storm. “I was only teasing, Rey. A hotshot pilot’s reputation for debauchery is often exaggerated, usually by the pilot himself. I would know.”

            “Wait, you? And Commander Dameron?”

            Leia laughs! She shakes her head. “No. Not Poe. Although I do have a soft spot for scoundrels.”

            Rey blushes and looks down. Of course. Leia doesn’t need to say which pilot she was referencing. She shifts slightly, then pivots the conversation back to the topic at hand. “It’s only my body,” she mutters. “And my body’s endured worse, I’m sure, whether we’re talking about torture or… whatever. I can handle it.” She peers out at the storm clouds again. “I’ll just— be cooperative. He won’t know what to make of it.”

            “But you know what that means. I want to be sure of that. He’s torn apart the galaxy looking for you. He won’t be kind.”

            Rey nods, sharply. “I understand.” She exhales. “I’ll... I’ll go elsewhere, in my mind. I’ve done it before, when I was a child. When I had cruel masters.”

            She can feel Leia looking at her still, but she closes her eyes. “I could go back to Ahch-To,” she says, softly. “To the island. It was even more beautiful than it was in my dreams. The long green grass, the clouds. The crashing of the waves against the cliffs.” She pauses. “I’ll never forget the sounds of the sea. And the rain— the first rain. How cold it was, how it stung, but how magical, too, to see water falling from the sky, to feel it on my face.” She opens her eyes and turns to Leia. “I wouldn’t mind seeing the island again.”

            Leia reaches over and lays one hand on top of Rey’s, squeezing it gently. “Rey. I know my son, and your plan is a good plan. It will distract him. But there are other plans. Ones that don’t involve you making compromises you’ll regret.”

            “It’s war,” Rey whispers, with such adamancy that she surprises herself. “We all make compromises we regret.”

            “That’s true enough.” Leia pats Rey’s hand, then takes hers away. She draws a long, slow breath. “Forgive an old woman her doubts. I do believe in you, Rey. It’s just that we’ve all lost so much. Maybe I feel fortunate that the Force gave me a daughter even as it took my son, and I’m not willing to give her up just yet.”

            Rey swallows down a lump in her throat. She doesn’t know what to say. “Oh, I…”

            “I’d shield you from the hurt, if I could. Or mitigate it.” Leia gazes out into the distance, nostalgia flashing in her eyes. “I wish you’d had the tutelage I did as a young princess. I had to be taught what you seem to know innately—pathfinding, combat—but there are softer skills. Elocution, diplomacy, persuasion. There’s some value to knowing the theory behind flattering people, talking your way out of any situation. Maybe it could help you here.”

            “Ha.” Rey smiles, but it’s weak. “That’s certainly not my strong suit.”

            Leia shrugs. “It doesn’t need to be. I never really made use of it. Too stubborn, too outspoken, like you. On balance, that innate strength of yours will take you much farther.”

            They watch the thunderstorm brewing together for a moment, standing side by side. Then, Leia says, “I’m going to ask a personal favor of you. Of course, the choice is yours, but I think it’s the most sensible thing, given the circumstances. And it might lend us both some peace of mind.”

            “Anything,” says Rey, who can’t even begins to express how wholeheartedly she means it. “Whatever you ask, I’ll do it.”


            A short time later, Rey finds herself sitting in the med bay with one arm wrap rolled down, waiting to receive an injection. She eyes the syringe of clear liquid with some skepticism, some trepidation. Fending for herself as a child meant she wasn’t given any commonplace innoculations until she joined the Resistance, and she still isn’t sure that they can do all they say, or if they’re worth the sting. She watches the needle pierce her skin, feeling its prick—not so bad—and then a further surge of pain as the droid holding the syringe compresses it, forcing the liquid into her bloodstream.

            Once the syringe is fully drained, the droid’s arm retracts, and it wheels away to dispose of the needle in the proper receptacle. The supervising medical tech applies a spray-bandage to the tiny puncture mark and says, “That’s it. You’re all set.”

            Rey rubs her arm, then begins winding the fabric of her wrap back up her arm. “How long’s it last?”

            “Five years,” says the tech. “There’s a counterinjection if you change your mind and decide you want to conceive before then.”

            Conceive. It’s a ludicrous prospect. Growing up, Rey had imagined herself as many things—an ace pilot, the secret heir to a long-lost treasure, loved—but never as a mother. She shakes her head. “That won’t be a problem. The General mentioned that there might be a slight chance of failure?”

            “With all due respect to the General, the formula has improved since her youth. The chance is so small as to be statistically insignificant.”

            “Great,” says Rey, easing herself out of the uncomfortable chair. “Thank you for your help.” Then she blinks at the tech. “Sorry, what time is it?”

            After another five minutes of sprinting what feels like halfway across the ship, Rey breathlessly presses the door panel for one of the Vigilance’s medium-sized conference rooms. When the door slides aside with a whoosh, she sees that all twelve of her pupils are already assembled, sitting cross-legged in three rows of four. This room has two large triangular windows, and the sky outside has lightened to the now-familiar gray of a rainy dawn. Dawn, which marks the start of every morning’s lesson.

            “Good morning, everyone,” says Rey, entering the room and closing the door behind her.

            “Good morning, Rey,” they respond, in unison. Rey doesn’t insist on any of the old titular designations of the Jedi, not Master or Padawan or whatever else; there’s no reason her students shouldn’t address her as an equal. After all, some them might come to surpass her someday, and they all know well enough that Rey is their teacher without such formalities.

            Rey crosses the room to come sit at the front of it, folding her own legs beneath her as she sits. With all of the thoughts whirling in her mind, she doesn’t feel particularly inclined toward grounding herself this morning, and that means she needs grounding more than usual. And besides, every class begins this way, so she couldn’t skip this portion without causing a stir. She puts her hands on her knees, knowing she probably looks slightly disheveled. In the back row, Tamar and Kaela, two of her oldest students, share a questioning glance.

            “I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Rey says. “I won’t bother with too long an introduction this morning. Of course, you all took time last night to practice with your staves…” She raises her eyebrows and looks at the assembled group. “If you didn’t, I will know, obviously.” And she taps her temple and nods slyly.

            A couple of titters from the students immediately put Rey at ease. Obviously, she’s their teacher, not a peer, but she also can’t pretend that any more than six years separate her and Tamar, or Kaela. She doesn’t have the robed gravitas that Luke Skywalker did in his later years. All she knows how to be is who she is.

            Rey rolls her shoulders and takes an exaggerated breath, encouraging them to copy her. “I know we start this way every day, but there’s a reason for that. The stronger your practice, the easier it will be for you to call upon the Force when you need it. Now, close your eyes, and reach out…”

            One by one, the students close their eyes, and once she’s satisfied that they’re all following her instructions she closes hers, too. She lets her own breathing even out. These days, she finds the Force easily. Within moments, she’s immersed in the constant push-pull between the storm and the jungle: in every raindrop soaking the muddy earth, slaking the flora’s constant thirst; in every strike of lighting that crisps a centuries-old tree to a shadow of its former glory. Dawn always brings new life and new death to Akiva. Beyond the horizon lies the capital city of Myrra, and even though it’s hundreds of miles away Rey can feel the pulse of its population and the distant call of the catacombs beneath.

            Once she’s reestablished her place in everything, she turns her attention to her students. For most of them, this is routine, and she can feel them, too, seamlessly finding the Force, letting it flow through them as it does all things without being tugged in one direction or another. But Taylin is new, and she turns her attention on him. He is strong, as they all are, but unpracticed, and the wound of leaving his village is still fresh on his soul. It’s no surprise, then, that she feels him being drawn out to the catacombs, to a dark place deep under the earth.

            Rey opens her eyes and uncrosses her legs. Very quietly, so as not to disturb the others, she gets to her feet, padding softly across the floor. She crouches down in front of Taylin, whose ears flick, whose nose twitches, and she softly lays her hands on top of his.

            With a little gasp, he opens his eyes, looking around wildly before settling on her face. “It’s all right,” Rey whispers, openly wearing her compassion. “That place called to you.”

            “I heard my mom,” he whispers back, clearly upset. “I heard her voice.”

            Rey shakes her head. “You heard the call of the Dark Side,” she says. “It wasn’t her. It knows that’s what you want to hear and it gave that to you.” Taylin looks down and sniffs, and Rey ducks her head, too, so she can keep looking at him. “Taylin, that’s normal. I’ve felt it. We’ve all felt it.”

            He looks back up. “You’ve felt that?”

            She nods, keeping her hands on his hands, anchoring him in the room with her. “I have. And when you’ve had a bit more practice, we’ll go out there together and you can see what it says it has for you. The Dark Side is something to be challenged, not feared. I know you’re strong enough to see through its deceptions.”

            “What did it have for you?”

            “In the end,” Rey says, “nothing.” She’s aware now that some of the other students are awakening from their trances, and watching this exchange. “And those of us who’ve been out to the catacombs have also seen the nothing that awaits them. The Dark Side will promise you answers you seek, tempt you with power, strength, but—” She shakes her head. “Never without great cost, if it’s able to deliver at all. It’s not worth it.”

            Taylin nods, slowly, and then he nods again. “Okay.”

            “Okay,” Rey repeats. The wish that she had more time with him before leaving tugs at her heart. “When you hear it calling to you, remember that those promises are a fiction, one that you’ll confront soon enough. Acknowledge the call, acknowledge that you hear it and that it’s a normal thing, but don’t heed it. Do you think you can try that for me, next time?”

            “Yes, Rey,” says Taylin, who seems comforted to know that he’s not alone in having been pulled toward the Dark. It’s Rey’s opinion that had the Jedi acknowledged temptation as something natural, something to be recognized and then sent on its way, they would have been spared a lot of grief. Had Luke Skywalker witnessed her own temptation—or Ben Solo’s—and not reacted with such abject fear, then perhaps...

            She takes her hands away and stands up, inhaling, exhaling. Resetting. She hadn’t wanted to open with this, because she didn’t want to distract the students from their meditation, but she knows she needs to tell them, and it’s better to get it over with. “Now that you’re all back with me,” she begins, looking around the room, “I have an announcement to make. I’ll be leaving today on a mission for the Resistance.”

            A murmur among the students, who look at each other, then at her. One of the younger students says, “Rey, you can’t!”

            “It’ll only be for a short while,” Rey says, the pang in her chest only growing stronger. “Two weeks, at most. It’s an important mission that’ll ensure our continued safety, and—” She sets her jaw. “I wouldn’t leave you if I didn’t believe you weren’t capable of carrying on in my absence. You’ve all grown so much, and it’s been such an—an honor, to watch you learn and to learn with you.” She nods at the back row, the oldest students. “I know that you’ll take care of each other in my absence. And please, practice with your staves. You’ll never hold a lightsaber if you don’t learn the basics.”

            Kaela, a freckled, redheaded human girl, chuckles, and a few of the students nod. Rey nods, too, satisfied. “Good. Now, we still have time for a brief lesson before I go. I’m going to pair you off and we’re going to practice mind probing and resistance. Since none of you use the Dark Side, you won’t be able to probe too deeply. Concentrate on reaching out and touching your partner’s mind. When you’re the one being probed, focus mainly on protecting your surface-level thoughts from your partner. Force be willing, you’ll never have to guard more than that.”

            Rey groups the students into pairs, but assigns two other less-experienced students to Taylin and instructs them to take turns working on probing for now, no guarding. Starting out can be difficult. Thankfully, none of these children received the immersion she did when Kylo Ren tried to read her, which was like being thrown into deep water and forced to keep herself afloat. After growing up on a desert planet. No, beginner probing has a very light touch if students manage anything at all, so there won’t be much to fight.

            Since there’s now an odd number, she takes Tamar aside, even though Tamar had thought she would work with Kaela, as she usually does. Tamar, an adolescent Togruta girl and one of the first Force-sensitive children Rey found, seems oddly relieved to be pulled away.

            Of course, Rey has an ulterior motivation for this lesson. She is beyond confident in her ability to conceal information from anyone who goes looking. But Kylo Ren is different; not because of his strength, which she can resist, but because they shared a connection once, and if the connection re-establishes itself, her true reason for going to him might inadvertently be revealed. This is more than a matter of just holding back information he’s trying to extract from her. She’ll have to begin keeping up her guard now.

            Rey takes a quick second to think about all of it — Kylo Ren, her mission, her conversation with Leia, the injection — and wall it away, blocking it off from the rest of her thoughts. Tamar has one of the most advanced sets of Force abilities of all her pupils, so she’ll be a good test for this.

            “I have a secret,” she says, sitting again, facing Tamar. That’s an understatement. She has so many secrets. “Can you see it, if you look in my mind?”

            A moment of calm, then Rey feels Tamar reach out, searching, sifting through inconsequential surface memories and thoughts. There’s a prickle of discomfort at the violation, although not much since Rey knows to expect it. Any mind probe pales in comparison to Snoke’s methods of information extraction, which felt as though someone had rammed a Star Destroyer straight through her brain at lightspeed.

            Eventually, Tamar shakes her head. “Unless the secret is what you had for dinner yesterday, I can’t find it. Is it that you had a drink with Poe Dameron?”

            Rey swears internally and tucks that, too, behind her wall. “No, it isn’t, but that’s a very good catch. Thank you. Now, it’s your turn.”

            Tamar shifts in her seated pose, and Rey realizes that she’s ever-so-slightly off-balance, with a nervous, anticipatory energy. Rey hadn’t noticed earlier because she had been so focused on Taylin, on other things, but she needs to resolve this before she goes. Reaching into Tamar’s mind, Rey finds uncharacteristically feeble resistance and an extremely loud question drowning out almost everything else.

            Rey opens her eyes and blinks at Tamar, whose energy has changed: more nervousness, a hint of embarrassment, a touch of defiance. Well, she’s that age.

            “Let’s go out into the hall for a moment,” Rey says.

            She stands, and Tamar stands too, following her out into the corridor and coming to stand in front of her when she seals off the door, arms folded. Rey is struck by how young they both are, teacher and student, and yet how old, how ancient she especially feels today.

            “So,” says Rey. “The rules about attachment.”

            Tamar folds her arms, a defensive stance. “I was reviewing the Jedi Code,” she says, “I know we’re not adhering strictly to the rules of the old religion, but they’re pretty clear about how Jedi must abstain from marriage and romantic love, and…” She looks a little sheepish as she says, “Carnal pleasures and all of that.”

            “Ah.” Carnal pleasures. What a day this is shaping up to be. Well, she had originally said to Poe that she was asking for her students. “I’m not certain ‘carnal pleasures’—” She wrinkles her nose. “—were ever explicitly forbidden, but the rules against marriage and attachment seemed to cause nothing but trouble for the Jedi in the end. We’re building our own Order now, Tamar. We get to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

            Tamar nods and looks down, as if this was the answer she was hoping to hear and yet hearing it makes her even more nervous than before. “I see.”

            Rey regards her quietly for a few moments, then says, “For what it’s worth, she’d say yes, if you asked.”

            Tamar looks up, startled. “What?”

            “Kaela.” Rey smiles a little. Kaela and Tamar had been thick as thieves since Kaela opted to join Rey’s band of Jedi rebels. “She likes you. You should ask. Then we can all find out whether romantic attachments are a good idea for Jedi or not. But still abstain from carnal pleasures; you’re much too young for them.”

            “Rey!” Tamar protests, embarrassed, but she can’t keep the smile off her face. “You can’t know— how do you know that? That she feels that way. Did you search her feelings?”

            “Everyone seems to think I just go around searching people’s feelings all day!” Rey chuckles. “It’s much simpler than that, Tamar. Her eyes light up when she looks at you.”

            “Oh. I… assumed that was just because we were friends.”

            “Of course you did,” Rey says kindly. “I’m learning that everyone’s obtuse about their own feelings, and other people’s feelings toward them. Apparently it’s a crippling condition that every single being in the galaxy shares.”

            Tamar sighs, but she can’t keep the grin off her face. “You’re sounding more and more like one of the old Jedi everyday, Rey. Just cryptic comment after cryptic comment with no end in sight.”

            Rey smiles back, but there’s a tinge of sadness to it. She knows her students will be fine without her for a short time, but she doesn’t want to leave them. They still have so much more to learn together. She touches Tamar on the shoulder. “Ask her,” she says softly. “Life is far too short not to take those risks, and you’ve earned the right to be happy.”

            Tamar looks at her, then sets her jaw, resolute. Atta girl. They’re so good, her pupils, her students, the future of the Force. They have so much to carry, but they can carry it. Together. Rey hopes Tamar does ask. She and Kaela and the others should get the chance to be children, to take chances, to love and to play and to grow like Rey never did on Jakku. They’ve all earned the right to be happy. Rey wishes she could guarantee their happiness, but she isn’t naive.

            She thinks of Taylin’s village, burning. She can only do what’s within her power.

            Rey sends Tamar back into the classroom, but takes a moment in the hallway for herself. Only hours until she leaves. Can she be confident that she’s ready? She breathes, reaching out to the Force again as a handhold. Yes, she can be confident. She knows her mind, and she knows herself. She will not waver or break.

            She steels herself for the oncoming storm, and then she disappears into the classroom to finish her lesson.

Chapter Text

            Even though Finn had been avoiding Rey since the debrief, pained by her choice yet knowing there’s no use in trying to talk her out of it, he’s there to see her off in the hangar bay when it’s time for her to depart. Rey knew he would be. There’s no way either of them would leave without saying goodbye.

            Rey has already bid farewell to everyone else who matters—to her students, to the General, Poe and BB-8, Rose, Chewbacca, and R2-D2, none of whom can accompany her on this mission. But it’s the sight of Finn standing by the Xi-class light shuttle the Resistance had commandeered a few months back, now hers to pilot alone, that truly makes Rey’s stomach sink.

            For his part, Finn manages to keep his face straight, but his eyes are heavy with concern. Still, like it’s any other day, he just says, “Hey.”

            “Hi.” Rey comes to stand in front of him, looking him over, memorizing the old leather jacket, the cut of his hair, the set of his jaw. She may not see him for a while, and she wants to remember him as he is, not just now, but when they’re sitting together, laughing, or eating, stealing food off each other’s trays, or on the occasions when he comes to watch her teach. Of all the strange and wondrous things she’d found since leaving Jakku, the most miraculous by far is this friendship.

            Finn shifts. “I packed you a bag,” he says, gesturing at his feet, and Rey notices for the first time the very full pack leaning against his shin. “I wasn’t sure what you might need, so I put everything in there. Just in case.”

            Rey smiles at him. “That’s very thoughtful, but I probably shouldn’t take anything. It’ll just be confiscated. Even this…” She draws back her cloak to show him the lightsaber hilt holstered at her hip. “It’s for the first phase, and then I’m sure they’ll take it away.”

            “Right. No, you’re right.” Finn nods and nudges the bag aside. It falls to the ground with a thud. “Don’t burden yourself. Good thinking.”

            “It’s not that I shouldn’t bring supplies, just—”

            “No, I… know.” He scratches the back of his neck, embarrassed. “So what’s the extraction plan? How are you getting back? Chewie and I can come pick you up after they hit the Dreadnoughts.”

            “I’d like that,” she says, “but I won’t have any way to get in touch with you. No beacon. But you and I have both been on and off those First Order craft a few times. I’ll just— steal one of their escape vessels. I’ve done it before. I figure everyone will be distracted by the bombing and the fancy dinner party, so I’ll have a window of opportunity.”

            “Right,” Finn says again. “Right.”

            “And I can contact the General in an emergency. There’s a way.”

            “A Force way?”

            “A Force way,” Rey confirms.

            “Okay. That’s good.” Finn hesitates for a second, then puts his hands on her shoulders and asks, “Rey, are you sure you know what you’re doing? Are you really, really sure?”

            It feels like he’s asking this question for the hundredth time, if not the thousandth, even though it’s the first. He must have thought it so many times in the past twelve hours. They both have. He avoids her gaze, shifting his weight from foot to foot, anxious, nervous, aching. And Rey aches too, to see him like this, to know that she’s the cause of it.

            “I’m sure, Finn,” she says quietly. “You know me.”

            “Yeah, I do.” Finn nods to himself, as if that will help him internalize her certainty. But he doesn’t let her go. Rey knows that no matter what she says to reassure him, it’ll barely make a difference. Oh, he trusts her, of course, but he’s not sure. He’s a full star system away from sure, and because of it he can’t even look her in the face right now.

            “I have a request for you,” she whispers. She reaches, her index finger curled, and tilts his chin back up so he’s looking at her. “A mission. If they can spare you while I’m gone.”

            He meets her eyes. “A mission?”

            She nods, and she takes a small silver datacard out of her pocket. “I found another child, in addition to the one on Corellia. Their coordinates and the maps to them are in here. If Kylo Ren’s occupied for a while, I was thinking you and Chewie could take the Falcon and…”

            “Yes,” Finn says automatically. “Yes, I’ll do it.”

            Rey hands him the datacard, and he pockets it, patting it secure. “Thank you. Bring one or two of the older students with you. Tamar, definitely. She should be able to sense the exact child you’re looking for. The coordinates aren’t that precise.”

            “Tamar. I got it.” He rubs his hands down her arms. “I won’t let you down.”

            “I know you won’t,” she says.

            She can see the spark of a new argument in his eyes, a last-ditch effort. He says, with a note of pleading in his voice, “But— Rey. Tamar and your pupils, they need you. They’re not done learning.”

            Rey had anticipated this contention, mainly because she’d also needed to convince herself she was in the right. “They have solid enough foundations to carry on without me for a short while. The older students can instruct the younger ones. In becoming teachers, they learn. That’s how I learned. And besides,” she adds, with a little smile, “they’ll have you watching them, when you’re not gallivanting off on the Falcon.”

            Finn tries hard to keep the reflective smile off his face, but Rey can see it sneaking in at the corners. That’s the thing about Finn — he’s a soldier by training and not choice, and the First Order couldn’t cleave the sensitivity and compassion from his spirit. “I’m no Jedi,” he says, shaking his head. “They won’t listen to me like they listen to you.”

            “They’ll listen enough. But more importantly, they’ll watch.” She shifts her hand and cups his cheek. “They’ll see you model bravery, every day. That’s how they’ll learn.”

            He chuckles, a little disbelieving, then inclines his head against hers. Rey leans up, pressing their foreheads together, as Finn reaches down and takes her other hand in both of his. “What if I need you?” he asks quietly.

            Her smile wavers. “You have other friends.”

            “Not best friends.”

            Rey exhales. “I know. But I’ll see you again soon enough.”

            And then, because it feels like now or never, Rey takes her hands back so she can wrap her arms around him. She wants to be honest. She wants to make sure he knows the depth of her feelings, even if she can’t exactly return the ones he has for her. So she pulls him closer, pressing up onto the balls of her feet so they’re of a similar height, and feels him tuck his head into her neck, hands braced against her back.

            “My dearest friend,” she whispers. “I love you. Please take care of yourself.”

            Finn’s breath catches. “Rey.”

            “I know.”

            He tightens the hug, enveloping her. “If he hurts you…” Finn shakes his head into her shoulder. “I mean, I’d say I’d kill him, but I think you have that covered.”

            “Not this time,” she says, with a little chuckle. “If I strike him down at the seat of his power while I’m under heavy guard, I’ll never leave that ship alive. The General would rather see me home safe.”

            “I would too.” Finn squeezes her gently. “So, next time?”

            “We’ll see.”

            Finn releases her, but doesn’t go far. He brings his hands back to her upper arms, and nods once, decisively. “Okay,” he says. “Well, may the Force… you know.”

            She forces her smile back into place. “Yeah, I do. May the Force be with you, too.”

            And although it feels like she’s wrenching a part of her soul from his grasp, Rey manages to step back from him and walk up to the shuttle. She keeps glancing at him over her shoulder as she ascends the ramp, as he stands there, hands in his pockets, watching her go. Far off, at the entrance to the hangar, she spots Poe leaning against the doorframe, waiting for them to finish their goodbyes. She acknowledges him with a slight nod, comforted by the fact that Finn will be left in good hands. He gives her a little salute back, paired with a grin that she’d almost call sheepish.

            Rey hits the button to raise the ramp, and she doesn’t take her eyes off of Finn as it shuts, decisively closing them off from each other. For now.

            “I’ll see him soon,” she reminds herself once she’s alone in the cockpit. “Soon. We’ve been apart for longer.”

            Rey doesn’t want to think about why this feels different. She sits down in the pilot’s seat and launches into her very last pre-flight checks, knowing that Finn will watch the shuttle until it makes the jump to hyperspace.


            The Otomok system, where Rose Tico grew up, remains under tight First Order control. Rey charts a course there in her shuttle. Hays Minor is still a testing ground for the First Order’s weaponry, and munitions need to be stored before they are tested. Rose gave Rey the coordinates for a cluster of these storage depots, and Finn armed her with clearance codes that, while a few years out of date, seem to still be in use. Presumably, no one thought the Resistance would bother trekking out to a poor mining system. That’s her first stroke of luck, although getting captured this early on wouldn’t make much of a difference overall. This isn’t the real mission, not yet. This is just the first phase.

            Rey touches down on a circular chrome-plated platform, as instructed. Before she leaves her shuttle, she takes a second to marvel at the scope of the infrastructure here, at what must be only a minor storage depot. She’s up so high she can’t see where construction ends and the planet begins, and these massive, towering buildings are all warehouses and distribution centers. It’s one thing to know the rebels are out-scaled by the First Order’s operation, but it’s another to see just how out-scaled they are up close.

            Rey shakes off the feeling and pulls the hood of her cloak up over her head. True, the First Order might have them outgunned, but she knows the ground-dwellers here, the miners, are barely better off than slaves, compelled into grueling labor, and she thinks of them chafing under the regime. When the time comes, when the chance for freedom comes, she knows the First Order won’t be the side they choose. She can’t bring them that freedom today, but maybe she can stir up a little trouble and remind them there’s still hope.

            Three figures approach Rey’s craft from the far end of the platform, and she lowers the ramp and steps out to meet them. Two Stormtroopers flank a man in a black officer’s uniform. The officer is unarmed. The Troopers have blasters. No threat. Not to her. She takes a second, closes her eyes, and breathes. The Force screams around her, out of balance, but even on a planet like this one she can find it: weeds growing in the cracks between buildings, families celebrating new births, mourning new deaths. Balance. And even a world as unbalanced as this one is balanced out by the larger universe and the passage of time. There is a place for it. She opens her eyes and proceeds forward.

            The officer peels off from the Stormtroopers and closes the distance alone. That’s his first mistake. “An inspection,” he says, plucking at his datapad. “We just had one last week, and we’re not due for another for at least three more.”

            “You’re absolutely right,” says Rey, who opts to keep things simple to start and punches him square in the jaw.

            He drops. The Troopers, who were expecting that possibility least of anything she could have done, are slow on the draw. Rey stretches out a hand, twisting the Force around one Trooper’s blaster, then yanking it out of his grasp to bash his companion with it before he has a chance to fire. She feels him go out cold, not dead. She hasn’t yet taken a life today. That will likely change.

            She looks at the remaining Stormtrooper, who begins to back away from her. She makes eye contact, reaches out to him with the Force, and touches his mind easily. “Stop,” she says.

            He stops.

            “You’ll open those doors for me,” she commands, nodding at the sealed, armored doors at the end of the platform.

            He straightens, then proceeds to the panel next to the door and punches in the access code without hesitation. Rey walks up beside him and pulls back her hood. “Good,” she says. “Now tell your leader I’m here.”

            The Trooper keys into the communications panel. “Depot Director, ma’am. A girl is here to see you.”

            “What?” Rey stares at him, then blinks hard. “No! Your leader. Your Supreme Leader.”

            The Trooper closes the panel and looks at her, disbelieving. “I— I don’t know how to contact him,” he says.

            Rey sighs. “Then find someone who does, and tell them to contact him. He’ll come.”

            She steps through the doorway, dark gray cloak swishing behind her.

            Rose was able to give her a clear picture of what she’d find in this tower. It’s a circular warehouse, forty stories, all storage. The floors are a series of parallel rings, with a railed-off open space in the center, so peering down it gives a clear view down to the lobby below. There are only one or two Troopers per level, patrolling, making sure everything is in place and everyone on task. Then there are bureaucratic supervisors. Transport staff. It’s not heavily fortified. Who would be insane enough to come to the heart of First Order territory and attack a munitions depot?

            “Hey!” exclaims one of the patrolling Troopers. “You there! I’m going to need to see some identification.”

            “You don’t need to see my identification,” Rey says. “You should already know who I am.” She doesn’t levy this with a Force suggestion. It’s a statement, pure and simple.

            She grounds her stance, then throws her cloak aside. She ignites the lightsaber that she crafted from the remains of Luke’s kyber crystal. It glows now with new life, reborn double-bladed with a longer hilt. A saberstaff that feels as though it has always belonged in her hands.

            Rey only ignites one of the two blades to start. That’ll be enough for what she has planned today, and she wants the option of keeping one hand free during combat. Even the single blade has the desired effect: upon seeing the blue glow, hearing the telltale hum, the Trooper steps back. Rey doesn’t need to look behind her visor to know that her eyes are widening. But even so, this one is a faithful, well-conditioned footsoldier, and she fires two blaster bolts at Rey. A rookie mistake. Rey parries the first one and directs the second one back so it strikes the Trooper square in the chest.

            Someone hits a panic button.

            The facility goes completely dark for a moment, then every floor is bathed in flashing red light. From the ceiling, an alarm blares loudly. Rey doesn’t let it scramble her senses. She doesn’t need to hear to know that others are coming. A dozen of them, up the stairs. Good. May as well make a statement.

            The first two Troopers to burst through the door just get thrown back against the wall, and they crumple out of the way. The next two fire at her, as if they’ve learned nothing from the mistakes of their peers. This time, Rey reaches out and freezes one of the bolts while she swings her lightsaber with her other hand, deflecting the rest of them harmlessly. She sends the frozen bolt whizzing into one of the crates, making it crackle and spark.

            “Oh,” she says innocently. “I hope that’s not explosive.”

            There’s a Trooper approaching from her left. She turns her lightsaber around and runs it through him, but that gives another the opportunity to attack from the right and get a baton around her neck, pulling her back, tight, trying to choke her. One of the unexamined benefits of having to fend for yourself on a desert planet is that you learn not to fight by anyone’s rules. She stomps down, hard, on the most vulnerable part of the Trooper’s armored foot—Thank you, Finn—and when he howls and loosens his grip on her she drives her lightsaber back through his shoulder.

            She holds out a hand to push the rest of the Troopers away from her and smells smoke. The crate has ignited. Rey looks at the frozen Troopers, sensing their fear, and knows she needs to get clear. She calls her cloak back to her hand, sheathes her lightsaber blade, and runs to the railing. With a short hop, she mounts it cleanly and then springs off, dropping through the circular space at the building’s core.

            As Rey falls, she closes her eyes again. She feels the Force around her, and knows it will show her the way to a safe landing. She tucks her knees in, somersaults, and lands, cushioned by the air itself, on the main platform about five stories down. Just then, a massive explosion booms out above her, rocking the building to its foundations and knocking her back on her heels with a wave of heat. Dust rains down on her from the ceiling above, but the depot holds, maintaining its structural integrity for the time being.

            This must be an administrative floor. Around her, people in officer uniforms and civilian dress are scrambling to evacuate. Rey doesn’t pay them any heed as she stands, brushes herself off, and re-fastens her cloak. She won’t keep them from running. She’s not here for them, and she’d much rather mitigate collateral damage.

            Someone yells into the comms system in a language she doesn’t recognize. Holograms mounted by the walls flicker to life with her image, an urgent warning that she’s a dangerous criminal, wanted, and then— Another delayed detonation, and the holos flicker again. How did they get her likeness? There’s no record of her anywhere, as far as she knows. Perhaps he conjured it from memory.

            Wouldn’t that be like him?

            Rey looks to the stairs, mobbed with people. She looks down the seemingly infinite series of floors until she sees the first; it’s too far even for her to fall. But then she spots a few hovering crafts used to move crates between floors, still floating back and forth, piloted by droids that haven’t been programmed to respond to the obvious danger. Perfect. Rey vaults the railing again and falls a few more stories, landing square on top of one of the crafts. She plucks the droid off of its perch and replaces it at the controls, circling the open area and surveying the untouched floors.

            There are a couple of fleeing Troopers on the nearest floor, and she calls one of their blasters to her hand again, firing at the crates behind them and generally making a nuisance of herself, then dropping two stories or so before they can retaliate. Firing again. Punching holes in those boxes and igniting the contents. She knows they’re munitions, weaponry that’ll be used to bombard the populace here, to destroy the Resistance, to subjugate another system. Rey spares a quick glance up at the admin floor, where the civilians likely work, and finds it empty, completely evacuated.

            It shouldn’t matter, she reminds herself. They’re all complicit. But even so, it’s difficult to tell who has enthusiastically embraced the First Order and who’s been threatened into a job. She closes her eyes, listens for life, and can tell that most people have already made it to the lower floors, clear of the fires. This building shouldn’t come crashing down anytime soon, not until the fire grows hot enough to melt the metal supports, which it hasn’t yet. There’s time.

            Blaster fire from her left pulls her from her thoughts. One of the bolts singes her cloak, and her eyes snap open. She swings the hovercraft around to see three Troopers firing at her from a floor down. Fine. She takes the craft lower, as fast as it can go, skimming the railing as she approaches them, and reignites her lightsaber at the last possible moment. By the time they realize how she’s coming for them, it’s too late.

            Rey leaps to another hovercraft to escape the burnt flesh smell that accompanies lightsaber kills. The saberstaff is an elegant weapon, a deadly weapon, effective and brutal, and by now it feels like an extension of her, an extra limb. It’s a killing tool, but it’s her killing tool. Sometimes killing is necessary. Sometimes you kill, or you’re killed. She knew this long before she knew the fables of the Jedi and lightsabers were actually real.

            She rides her borrowed craft all the way down to the first floor, peppering the munitions crates with blaster fire as she goes. Some ignite, some don’t, but Rey knows she has done enough damage for today. She’s certainly attracted the attention she wanted. She steps off the craft into the lobby and looks up at all the smoke, all the fire, all of the explosions waiting to happen. The fire suppression systems have kicked in, spraying foam, but it’s too late. The fire has taken root in the smoldering hearts of half a dozen crates, and they will blow, regardless. This was worthwhile. A minor setback for the First Order, and the only damage she took was a singed cloak.

            Rey makes no effort to hide herself. She prepares to leave through the front doors. She can feel the welcoming party that awaits her. Two large AT-ATs, some smaller combat walkers that she’s not familiar with, at least four dozen Stormtroopers, and then a craft that she knows well, just touching down. She inhales, exhales.

            And she hears him in her mind, so clearly that he may as well be whispering with his mouth to her ear.

            Rey.

            She sheathes her saber blade again, and walks forward to face him. The heavy doors part with a wave of her hand.

            Kylo Ren, now Supreme Leader of the First Order, steps out of his shuttle at the very same moment she leaves the shelter of the depot. He’s flanked at first by six of his elite guard, although he quickly pulls ahead of them as he approaches her with long, determined strides. It’s only been three years, but he already looks a little older: there are a few silver strands in his black hair, slightly longer now, and deep, dark circles mark the skin beneath his eyes. Otherwise, he’s the same. Just the same. Wild-eyed, incensed, scorched within by the anger he channels so desperately.

            He comes to stand in front of the small army he amassed on short notice, saber drawn and crackling. Another boom echoes from the building behind Rey. “It was foolish of you to come here,” he says. “You won’t escape this time.”

            She looks at him, at the Stormtroopers, at the combat walkers, and gives the illusion of thinking it over. “You’re right,” she says.

            He’s so astonished that he nearly takes a step back. Clearly, he was hoping to duel her into submission. “They won’t fire until I give the order,” he says. “This is between us.”

            “No, I’m weighing the odds, and you’re right.” Rey drops the blaster to the ground and presents her wrists to him, holding out her saber hilt in cupped hands. “I surrender myself to the authority of the First Order.”

            Somehow that only angers him further. His face contorts with rage. “This is a trick!” he snaps. “Tell me. You couldn’t have been so foolish as to bring your traitorous friends into this death trap.”

            “Only me,” Rey says. “But I think I did well on my own.” Another explosion behind her. This one blows out a few windows on one of the higher floors. Glass shards rain down to the ground below, close enough that some of the Troopers shift where they stand. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

            He opens his mouth to say something when an officer calls down to him from his command shuttle. “Supreme Leader! We’ve just received a report that Resistance fighters have engaged a Star Destroyer posted in the Bright Jewel oversector.”

            Yes, good. There’s Poe, giving her a plausible reason to be here. Kylo Ren turns his head very slowly to look at her; Rey can see the cords in his neck pulled taut. But she just shrugs, cool, collected, which she knows will continue to infuriate him. “There may have been some trickery involved after all.”

            “Dameron,” Ren snarls, as if Poe’s name alone is a curse—Poe would be so flattered, she thinks. Ren sheathes his own saber and tucks it away under his cloak, then jerks his head at the two nearest members of his guard. “Cuff her, bring her with us.”

            The guards obey, stepping forward, past him, to snap standard-issue binders around her outstretched wrists. One of them reaches to confiscate her saber hilt, but instead it flies to Ren, who snatches it out of the air and turns it over in his gloved hand. It glints in the light of the setting sun, in the glow of the fires from the depot, as he examines it. “Crude,” he says. He’s one to talk. “You found a way to make use of the fractured crystal.”

            Rey shrugs again. She is not willing to engage him in a dialogue on lightsaber mechanics right now.

            “Fine.” Ren jerks his head, and the guards flank her, each seizing one of her arms. They pull her forward, roughly, in his direction. As Rey draws up next to him, she closes her eyes for a moment. There’s a quiet but clearly audible exclamation from one of the nearby Stormtroopers. Ren holds up a hand to stop their progress.

            Rey just looks up and returns his stare with an icy glare untouched by his white hot fury. Without breaking their eye contact, Kylo Ren reaches up and plucks the stolen blaster from where it hovers in the air next to his head.

            He frowns at it, tosses it aside, and sets his jaw. She looks down at it, raises her eyebrows, and lifts it from the dirt again, repeating the silent threat.

            “Just so we’re clear on where we stand,” she says quietly.

            He scoffs and waves the blaster away, wresting it from her Force-grip and sending it flying harmlessly out of sight. “I’d suggest that you humor me,” he says. “You surrendered. Your life is in my hands. Don’t waste it being petty.”

            “I understand,” she says, nodding. “Of course. The optics.”

            “Hmph.” Ren beckons them on their way, and the guards continue half-dragging her up the ramp to board his shuttle. He stirs the wind to sweep his cloak behind him as he turns to follow. Rey just closes her eyes again, reminds herself of why she’s here, and resolves to settle in for what will no doubt be an extremely uncomfortable ride.

            The second phase begins.

Chapter Text

            The First Order’s new Mega-class Star Dreadnought, the Conquest II, is grander than even Snoke’s destroyed Supremacy. It looms large in the sky over Hays Minor. Rey spends the mercifully short flight up to it standing stiffly between two of Kylo Ren’s personal guards, wondering why you would bother launching a bigger version of something that had already been decimated by the Resistance. But she supposes the Conquest II fulfills both core tenants of the First Order’s strategy: repeat the mistakes of the past, and bigger is always better.

            Ren watches the stars with his hands at his sides, standing between his seated, uniformed pilots. The other members of his guard lurk in pairs by the sides of the shuttle. Unlike Snoke’s Praetorian guard, they are robed in a rich, regal purple. These are not the Knights of Ren, she knows, although she does not know where the Knights of Ren are or what real distinction there is between the two groups. It doesn’t matter. None of them look at her, not even Ren himself. Anything he wants to say or do to her, she assumes, will wait until they have privacy.

            Rey takes this time that she has to steady her breath and remind herself of everything she possesses, even in these circumstances. Her brief lessons with Luke Skywalker laid the groundwork for an enduring meditation practice, and she’s worked on honing the techniques through self-instruction. She is not afraid, she tells herself. She is bolstered by the knowledge that she’s defeated Kylo Ren before, and that there is so much still under her control: her feet, grounding her; her hands, constrained but only for now; her heart, her intent; her mastery of the Force. Calm. She is calm. Outside her borders, she can feel the flickering rage of his aura licking at hers, so fiery that she questions when, not if, he’ll burn himself out.

            The shuttle docks in the Conquest II’s massive hangar, and the hydraulic systems vent sizzling steam as the door folds down into a ramp. Rey looks out and sees what must be a full division of white-clad Stormtroopers standing at attention, anticipating the return of their Supreme Leader. She wonders if he makes them do this every time — stand there in formation, wait for him, even when he’s only been away on brief and inconsequential trips. The ego on him could fill the entire hangar bay.

            Ren leaves the shuttle first, and his guard follows; the two flanking Rey pull her forward. They pause at the foot of the ramp as Kylo Ren takes in the army that awaits his command. Then he turns around to look at her, as if impressing upon her the magnitude of the force that she’s committed to defying and just how fruitless any resistance to it—and him—is.

            She just looks at him. She doesn’t say anything at all. One of his hands tightens into a fist, and she can feel his flash of irritation. Why, this time? What did she do?

            Oh.

            He must be trying to impress her.

            “Supreme Leader,” says the guard to Rey’s right, “What shall we do with the girl? Take her to interrogation?”

            “No,” Ren says, but it takes him a moment to respond, and Rey can tell that her blankness has unnerved and infuriated him. “No, the chair won’t hold her. Bring her to my chambers. I’ll deal with her there.”

            Rey feels like any reasonable person would be slightly taken aback at the request, but the guard only says, “Very well, Supreme Leader.”

            Ren turns, his cloak swishing behind him, and walks through the ranks of his army. He hands her saberstaff to a tall, chrome-plated Stormtrooper captain and utters an order Rey can’t quite hear, presumably to lock it up tight. The captain turns and leaves, and the two guards escorting Rey push her along before she can see where to. There’s no opportunity here for her to escape—as strong with the Force as she is, she still can’t take on an entire division alone—but he’s leaving her a number of openings. She could slip an access card out of that officer’s pocket, there, or the knife out of the arm holster of the guard to her left. Items she could use to attack, to escape.

            She doesn’t do any of that. She’s not here to get in and get out. She’s electing to stay, and to stay for some time. Whatever that entails.

            The path to Kylo Ren’s chambers is winding, and she tries to make note of all of the turns in the hallways, of how many floors they climb on two separate elevator rides, but she only manages to memorize part of the route. At last, they draw up to two black doors, sealed shut. One of the guards reaches around Rey and punches in the access code, angling her away so she can’t see it. There’s a beep, then the doors hiss open and the guards shove her inside.

            Kylo Ren’s personal chambers are spacious—perhaps he received an upgrade when he assumed the role of Supreme Leader—but unwelcoming. The doors open into what appears to be some sort of sitting room, but it’s sparsely furnished with the most uncomfortable-looking black furniture that Rey has ever seen, all shiny sharp edges and very little cushioning. There’s a closed door that she assumes leads to a refresher, and then on the other side of the sitting area, half-concealed by panes of semi-translucent glass, is where he sleeps. It looks almost as uncomfortable as the sitting room. In fact, it looks as though no one has slept there at all for some time. The black sheets on the bed are pulled taut and unwrinkled. The sole sources of color in the room are lights embedded in the floor, soft red illumination shining up sloping walls.

            Ren steps around her and comes to stand in front. He holds up one hand. “Leave us,” he says to the guards. “And no disruptions.”

            The guards do leave, wordlessly, obediently, closing the doors behind them.

            And then they’re alone.

            Kylo jerks his hand, and Rey’s feet lift off the ground. She doesn’t resist. That’s part of the deal that she made with herself, part of what she’s resolved. Don’t resist it. He walks forward, leading her deeper into the sitting room, and then through to the bedchamber. He pulls her around so that she stands parallel to him before setting her down. There’s still a wide gap between them that he hasn’t bridged yet.

            “I suppose I can be rid of these,” she says, tapping into the Force to open the binders around her wrists easily. She lowers her arms and lets them drop to the floor with a thunk.

            Kylo doesn’t stop her. Once she’s free and massaging the circulation back into her hands, he turns around to face her. “Tell me the plan.”

            He doesn’t try to compel her to do it. He knows that won’t work. So Rey just shrugs. “You already know the plan. I was a diversion. Right now, your forces are taking heavy fire on the other side of the galaxy, and you aren’t there, so I’d say it worked.”

            He sniffs. “I don’t like your tone. You’ve been spending too much time with Dameron.”

            “I have. It’s because I know you hate him.”

            “He’ll be dead soon enough.” Kylo pauses, for effect. “They all will.”

            “How long have you been telling yourself that? Three years?”

            Kylo takes one step toward her. “Those three years,” he says, “have given me the time I needed to devise the most humiliating and painful deaths for all of your friends.” He doesn’t advance any further, but he does draw himself to his full height, trying to loom over her. Rey is not outwardly cowed, and she knows that bothers him. “Tell me which one is your favorite. Is it Dameron? Or the traitor? I’ll make sure they suffer the most. I will make them beg for the end.”

            Rey waits patiently for him to finish. Once he does, she jerks her chin up at him and says, “I don’t think we have much to say to each other.”

            He looks her over from head to toe, a lingering look. The fury in his eyes gives way to something else. Hunger. It’s been three years since she denied him her power, her partnership. He’s wanted her all that time.

            And now she’s here.

            “I agree,” he says simply.

            He reaches out, still standing across the chamber from her, and directs the Force to pin her against the wall so vigorously that it knocks the wind right out of her. Her arms splay out from her sides, immobilized, her fingers spread. And she doesn’t fight back. She could, if she wanted. Could match him, be more than a match for him, counter his will and make him stop bending the Force to it. But she doesn’t. She just looks at him.

            That seems to only cause him more frustration. He flicks his wrist downward and Rey feels her belt snap. Her trousers drop down around her boots, although for whatever reason he leaves her underthings in place. He performs the same flick of the wrist, up this time, to unlatch her cloak and push her tunic up to her collarbone, but neglects to unwind the band binding her breasts. Through it all she only watches him, trying to read him, face stoic. She can feel his energy wavering, faltering. He’s wondering what she’s thinking. Does she want him to touch her? That’s what he’s asking himself. Is that why she’s not pushing back, defending herself? But then why is she not instead embracing him?

            He takes one step toward her, then another, his face twisted, furious. He’s trying to draw on his anger, she senses. Not to keep her pinned — he’s doing that fine. For some other purpose. He tugs at the fingers of one of his gloves to peel it off his hand, then tosses it onto his bed and follows suit with the other. By now he’s only two feet in front of her, surveying her, looking her over again, taking in her bare skin. She thought he might smile, having her at his mercy. He doesn’t.

            Rey can move her eyes, and she keeps looking up, keeps them locked on his as well as she can. Her heart is hammering against her ribcage; she doesn’t want him to know that, but he can probably sense what she feels with minimal effort at this close range. She can sense what he feels — she barely needs the Force for that — but she also senses that her unwavering eye contact unnerves him. He pulls one of her shoulders toward him, still keeping her immobilized, then pushes her around so she’s facing away from him with her cheek pressed to the wall. He holds her there with the Force. Then he takes his hand back, and Rey can hear fabric shifting and the clink of something metallic hitting the floor. The belt around his tunic.

            She closes her eyes now. What’s about to happen is not something she wants to witness.

            Not seeing him barely makes a difference, though. He presses against her from behind and places a warm, bare hand on her side, sliding it around to the front of her belly. She gasps at the touch, and, behind the tingling she also felt when they made contact through the bond years ago, something squirms in her gut. Revulsion, maybe. But she doesn’t protest, doesn’t push back against his binds, and doesn’t say anything more. She can feel his breath, hot, rasping next to her ear.

            Kylo starts to move his hand down her abdomen, below her navel, toward the band of her shorts, and Rey steels herself. He presses his hips against hers, for— friction? Stimulation? She isn’t sure. But just as it strikes her that he’s not actually hard, he mutters, “No,” and pulls back from her, his hand retreating to her side again.

            “No, no,” Kylo says, to himself. Rey remains silent. She assumes he’s chastising his own inability to perform. He moves his hand up, as if he’s thinking about groping one of her breasts, then quickly decides against it and stops touching her entirely. “This is wrong. Why are you doing this?”

            “Doing what—” Rey inhales involuntarily as he releases his hold on her and she can take a full, deep breath again. In, out. The spell passes quickly enough. She opens her eyes and looks at him over her shoulder as she pulls her tunic back down. “Doing what?”

            “Nothing,” he snarls, as if the very act of doing nothing is reprehensible to him. “Why aren’t you fighting me? I know you can.”

            “You want me to fight you?” Rey asks, incredulous, as she turns around to face him.

            He shakes his head. “You’re playing some Jedi mind trick on me. It’s not honest.”

            “Honest,” she repeats. “Since when have you ever cared about honesty?”

            “Either fight me or embrace me,” he says, staring at her as he always does, as if there’s so much to this universe that she just fails to understand. “Don’t just bear it.”

            “Fighting you is so much better?” she asks. “Is that what really gets you off?”

            “If I defeat you, I’ve earned you,” he replies, flatly. “And if you reciprocate, I’ve earned you differently. I can’t abide you merely rolling over for me.”

            “You can’t earn a person.” She looks up at him defiantly, the squirming in her gut now turning over into anger, into heat. When he backed off, it wasn’t far. He’s still towering over her, only a few inches away.

            “But by now I have earned some right to you,” he says, and she doesn’t need a connection to him to know that he sincerely believes that. “Almost enough to take you. But it has to be real.”

            “There is so little chance of you besting me or somehow compelling me to reciprocate your advances that you might as well just—”

            He cuts her off, taking a step forward and looping an arm around her back, crushing her to him, crushing his mouth to her mouth so quickly that it catches her by surprise. The force of it seems to startle him, too, and they stumble against the wall, barely keeping their balance. The part she loathes most is that whenever he touches his skin to her skin in any way there is such a sense of rightness, as if they were meant to always be touching, and she knows now that she’s older and wiser that it’s the Force trying to bring them together, trying to balance his darkness with her light.

            Since he stopped her mid-word, her lips are parted, and he tries to swipe his tongue between them, a sensation so alien to Rey that she recoils instinctively. She brings her hands up to his chest and pushes him back, without the use of the Force, just desperate to get air and distance between them. He’s breathing heavily. So is she.

            “Yes,” he growls. “You feel it too.”

            “Shut up.”

            Kylo leans forward to kiss her once more, but he’s only able to hold it for a moment before she pushes him away again. Now that she’s resisting him he seems to feel more comfortable grabbing at her. One of his hands slides to her hip, grips it, and the other flattens at the small of her back, pressing her to his chest. Both her hands are between them, keeping him at a very short distance.

            “Rey,” he says.

            “You have no power over me.”

            “Then prove it.”

            “Tch.” Her eyes, avoiding his, trace the jagged scar that mars his right cheek. One of the many ways in which they’ve marked each other. “I don’t think I could convince you of anything unless I cut you down where you stood. And then you’d be too dead to be convinced.”

            Kylo Ren inclines his head toward her. “Kiss me.”

            Her immediate reaction is to wrinkle her nose in distaste. “No.”

            “Kiss me, and if you don’t want to kiss me again when we’re done, I’ll believe you.” His brown eyes glow with a demented fervor. “Then we’ll fight and you’ll submit to me by force.”

            “You and I have very different ideas about what the outcome of that fight would be,” says Rey. On one hand, she’d come here accepting that she’d likely end up in his bed. She just hadn’t expected him to be so averse to her passivity, which was the armor she’d chosen to wear for this encounter. Vulnerability, desire, she doesn’t manage those well. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to start a fight now and give him any opportunity to probe the full extent of her ability with the Force. He’s grown in strength, but so has she.

            “Kiss me,” he challenges her for a third time. “Open your mind to me and let me feel your disgust.” His gaze flickers very briefly down to her mouth, then back to her eyes. “If there is any.”

            “Take a walk out an airlock,” she spits.

            “Ah,” he says. “Fear.”

            “I am not afraid of you.”

            “I didn’t say it was me you feared.” He leans in, his face mere inches from her own, but doesn’t close the gap between them.

            “Shut up,” Rey says again, before she kisses him to make certain that he does. She doesn’t want to hear anything about her true fears or her true self or her true desires from him ever again. She knows her own mind.

            But the moment she makes contact she’s struck by how different kissing him is to enduring him kissing her. She doesn’t just smash their mouths together senselessly; she leans up against him with moderate pressure, lips slightly parted. Somehow, it works. She doesn’t feel smothered or stifled, and there’s an unwanted warmth in her chest that, given room to expand, now flows through the rest of her body.

            Kylo Ren takes a moment to read her, to learn her, before responding, with similar technique, not bearing down too hard on her. His lips are full and soft in a way that’s almost ironic given his roughness and indelicacy. That feeling of rightness, that if the universe had its way their bodies would never be uncoupled, is almost too strong to ignore. To drown it out, she tests something, tasting his lips with her tongue to figure out if that, too, is better when she leads. He seems to be anticipating it, opening himself to her and meeting her tongue with his own. The overall effect is strange, messy, clumsy, but not — not completely repulsive.

            She doesn’t realize her fingers are curling into the front of his tunic until she forces herself to break away from him, to take a moment remember who she is, who he is. The only comfort she can find is that whatever embers of desire smolder in her from years ago also burn in him. She takes a breath, collects herself as best she can, then looks up at him. His face is mostly neutral, jaw clenched, but it’s almost impossible for him to prevent what he’s feeling from reaching his eyes. They reflect her own emotions. Both of them have been caught unawares, having not imagined that they might mesh well outside of twisted fantasy; they’re shocked, finding that they actually do.

            Rey is struck by the realization that he’s likely only thought of the act as transactional, as forcing himself on her in anger, to punish her. She’s mostly thought about it as acquiescence, resignation, something she’d endure to survive him. Neither of them assigns much passion to their motivations. Yet there it is, there’s that little spark of want between them that they can neither ignore nor deny.

            “So,” she says softly. “There. As you see.”

            Kylo says nothing. He kisses her again, this time with a little more urgency. Every kiss is less awful than the one before, and she finds herself kissing him back. Kissing him back. Now that he doesn’t have to hold her against him, he shifts his hands to her upper arms and pulls her back toward the bed.

            Once they’re moving, everything happens quickly. While stepping out of her trousers and boots, Rey realizes how overdressed he is compared to her, and that can’t stand. She waves her hand and detaches his cloak, sending it flying across the room; it hits the wall with a thud and crumples to the floor. Kylo’s hands move to her elbows, awkwardly, and finally to her waist, which he seems to decide is the best place to touch her. Rey, who is preoccupied with getting his already unfastened trousers out of the way, isn’t thinking about touching his body as much as she is exposing it. When she succeeds in pushing the trousers down past his thighs, he trips over them, onto her. They both stumble, falling to the floor and reaching an unspoken agreement to remain there.

            Before Kylo can do anything else, Rey grabs his tunic and pushes it off his shoulders, then pulls the shirt underneath over his head. Now they’re on more than equal footing. She may be on her back, but she still has her tunic and breast bindings, which he never managed to actually remove. He hovers above her on hands and knees in his undergarments, his trousers down around his shins, far more naked than she is. In retaliation, he grabs one of the scraps of wool keeping her hair out of her face and tugs it out. Her hair, longer now than it was when they last met, unfurls around her head as she looks at him, as he leans down to kiss her again. When she imagined what he would do when he got her alone, she never thought they would end up on the floor with their mouths pressed together.

            And she certainly did not expect this all-consuming need. The more layers they shed, the more insistent the urge to just pull him down on top of her, cover herself with him, and she doesn’t want to give him that satisfaction. But he shares that urge, because all at once he’s on her, his hand snaking up her tunic to feel her breasts, his mouth against hers, sharing her breath. Sharing more than that.

            The more skin he presses to her skin, the more she can feel the swirling maelstrom of his mind along with all of the sensations alight in his body. She knows it’s reciprocal; that’s how he knows to cover her breast with his hand and squeeze, although he does so a bit too hard. And that’s how she knows to press a palm between his legs, feel his cock. No performance issues now. Being touched by her, even through fabric, affects him so much that he gasps and lurches forward. She feels the flash of heat in her own belly, like his body is hers.

            Kylo’s face is flushed, his hair mussed, and once he recovers from her palming he moves his own hands to her shorts. She lifts her hips so he can pull them down, but knees him in the side while trying to disentangle her legs. “I don’t usually undress at this angle,” she says, an excuse since he doesn’t speak the language of apologies.

            He just nods sharply and continues what he was doing, pressing a hand between her legs and ungracefully slipping a finger inside of her to test whether she’s ready. She’s not sure what constitutes ready in his mind, but she’s warm and a little slick — she doesn’t know when that happened; it must have been building all along — and he seems to take that as a good sign. He pushes what’s left of his own clothing down to his knees and positions himself back between her legs.

            Kylo looks down at Rey. Rey looks up at Kylo. And then he aligns himself with her and presses in.

            She groans, and he’s only partially inside when she feels that the angle is wrong, which is a shame because she can also feel how good he feels to be inside her. At least when he realizes she’s hurting he retreats, although she can’t be sure that’s because he cares at all or because her discomfort is now his to bear as well. Rey, guessing at how to fix the problem on her own, plants both her feet on the floor so that her legs are bent and she can cant her hips upward. Kylo realigns, tries again, and this time when he enters her — and it’s not easy, her body isn’t used to this — she breathes, breathes, until he’s all the way inside. They let out a simultaneous sigh as everything clicks, as they feel universe shift into focus around them, well and truly balanced. Rey closes her eyes, savoring that moment, thinking he’ll wait, that he, too, needs time to adjust.

            He doesn’t. He starts pulling back almost immediately, and Rey lets out a breathy “oh” of surprise that becomes a gasp as he slams his hips back into her, a little too hard. Self-control was never his strong suit. “Kylo, slow down,” she says, intrigued to hear that she mostly just sounds annoyed.

            Kylo doesn’t nod or otherwise acknowledge her, but his next thrust is a little less clumsy, and the next, and Rey thinks this is going to resemble whatever sex is supposed to feel like until he abruptly picks up the pace again and grabs her hips to pull her forward. Fighting to sort his feelings from her own is like trying to pluck individual grains of sand from a sandstorm, but she can tell he’s already close to finishing. “Ah, slow down—” she repeats, cut off when he bucks into her again, wildly. “Kylo—”

            He grunts and, on the next thrust, spills over. She can feel his orgasm secondhand as it floods his body, which is at least some small comfort. He shudders through his climax still buried to the hilt inside of her.

            Once it passes, he collapses bonelessly, half on top of her, his face pressed to her shoulder. Rey doesn’t move, not at first. She lets her heartbeat slow, gets back in touch with herself, grounds herself again. She thought there would be, she doesn’t know, more to it, and she can tell by reaching out for his thoughts that she’s not the only one who’s disappointed. He’s thinking, with twinges of mortification and shame she can sense under the fading glow of his orgasm, that he should have lasted longer. She doesn’t understand that. She’d felt his release cascading down through him like a waterfall, and wasn’t that all that he wanted?

            “It’s not like I had a benchmark,” she says, continuing the conversation aloud. She isn’t trying to comfort him, just… informing, perhaps. Making small talk. That’s called pillowtalk when it’s after sex, isn’t it? Even when there are no actual pillows involved.

            Kylo picks up his head to look at her. There’s a crease between his brows. “You hadn't— you—” He stumbles over the right words to use, then settles for, “No one else had claimed you.”

            “‘Claimed’ me? It’s not like you have either, just because of— this.” She also sits up, just a little, so she can squint at him. “But I thought you knew my mind.”

            He shrugs. “I do. But it was always possible that one of your Resistance flunkies had deflowered you already, and you were concealing it from me to spare that person a prolonged, gruesome demise when the time comes.”

            Rey puts her head back down and looks at the ceiling. This was such a mistake.

            His mind is still open to her, though, and she can see that he really is being candid. The accusation surfaces brief images of her embracing Poe, their lips locked together—of her lying in bed naked facing Finn, smiling, their thighs overlapped—before he pushes them down and out of her sight. Frankly, it shocks her a bit. She spends so little time thinking of herself as a sexual being; there are much more pressing things to think about. It’s almost ludicrous, then, that he does.

            He smooths a hand down her side, down the light fabric of her tunic, and she’s suddenly relieved that she was able to keep it on. “I do own you now,” he murmurs. “You must know that. I was first.”

            She turns her head back, staring at him. “By that logic, I own you.”

            The hand freezes. “What.”

            “Wasn’t I first? You’d never done this before either.”

            He scoffs, but doesn’t deny it. She knows she’s right. “It’s immaterial.”

            “It can’t be immaterial when it pertains to you but not when it pertains to me.”

            “I’m still looking to set a date for your public execution,” he snaps. “Maybe I’ll choose tomorrow.”

            Rey sighs and drops the subject. “Fine.”

            He sets his cheek back down on her shoulder. Neither of them makes any effort to get off of the floor for some time.

Chapter Text

            They still haven’t moved when a tinny voice comes over the comms toward the front of Kylo’s chambers, the part that she thought might have been a sitting room if it didn’t look so uncomfortable. “Supreme Leader,” says the voice, “General Hux is here to see you.”

            Kylo pushes up onto his hands and knees, and Rey thinks she sees him wince. The connection that grew through whatever it was they just did hasn’t yet faded, and Rey feels a sudden sear of irritation as strongly as if it were her own. “I didn’t send for him,” he growls.

            “He is adamant.”

            “Fine. A- moment.” Kylo pulls his shorts back up and retrieves his shirt from the floor, pulling it over his head. Then he quickly fixes his trousers and glances at Rey, who has pushed herself up to sit back on her elbows, and clearly wonders what exactly to do with her.

            “Is this awkward? Because I can go,” she says flatly.

            “No.” He looks her over, from her completely bare lower half to her wrinkled tunic to her mussed, undone hair, and Rey feels her stomach tighten in a way she isn’t sure she likes or dislikes. Kylo smooths his own hair back from his face.

            “You look uncomfortable,” he says. He calls his tunic to his hand, but doesn’t put it on just yet. “Get in the bed.”

            Oh, that’s funny. Rey actually snorts.

            “Fine.” Kylo flicks his hand, idly, and she rises up as easily as she if were a leaf borne by a breeze. Rey kicks out at him with one of her legs, but doesn’t otherwise fight it; there will be a time and a place for the things worth actually fighting over, and something at the core of her is so achingly, existentially exhausted that she’d rather save her strength for now. Picking battles. That’s something a lifetime of experience on a hostile planet teaches you.

            He lowers her to the bed as the covers draw themselves back, and once she’s settled down they cover her to the waist. Then there’s a snap, and the set of cuffs she had left discarded on the other side of the room breaks in half and comes flying over to him, hovering above his open palm. He looks at them, looks at her.

            “Raise your arms,” he says.

            “I will not.”

            He frowns, visibly frustrated. “I keep asking. Isn’t that what you want?”

            “It’s not really an ask if it’s an order. It’s especially not an ask if I say no and then you make me bend to your will afterwards.”

            Kylo just looks at her, and something invisible tugs Rey’s arms up above her head, against the headboard. He sends the cuffs flying toward her. She doesn’t even flinch as they clamp themselves around her wrists. He presses on them harder with the Force, and they burrow into the smooth, dark, almost unidentifiable material of his headboard — a volcanic glass, maybe — without otherwise breaking it.

            Rey glowers at him. It’s in her best interest to play along, obviously, and make Hux believe she’s a helpless prisoner. She doesn’t have to like it.

            “I want you to know that I truly cannot abide you,” she says.

            “You certainly believe that’s true,” he replies. Then he turns to the door, still holding his tunic. “Send the General in.”

            The double doors whirr open. Rey has never personally met this General Hux, but she knows him well enough from surveillance footage and holovids, an almost comedic, perpetually infuriated, pale, redhead approximation of a man. He enters in impeccable military dress with his hands clasped behind his back as Kylo pulls his tunic back on. “Supreme Leader, I—”

            He stops, takes in the scene. Kylo Ren, almost fully dressed, calling his cloak back to his hand. Rey, clearly visible in Kylo Ren’s bed, cuffed, disheveled, spitting mad but not defeated. Optics. In this moment, Hux’s mind is not difficult to probe, and as he looks at Rey she sees within him the conflicting emotions of disgust and admiration. It’s the disgust that intrigues her the most, because she can’t fathom that a man who’s had billions murdered at his behest would draw the line at what he presumes to be rape. When she probes deeper she finds it’s more the mental imagery that disturbs him, which is fair, along with a distaste for that “behavior.” Oh, he’d like to think himself above Kylo Ren’s level. He isn’t, of course.

            “That’s the girl?”

            “Mm.”

            “Looks like a feral thing,” Hux sneers. “Hard to believe she’s caused all this trouble.”

            “Is it?” Kylo narrows his eyes, and Hux nearly flinches. Rey can tell that he makes Hux nervous, and that Hux loathes him for it. “Don’t underestimate her, General. Too many have already made that mistake.”

            “Of course.” Hux looks from Kylo to Rey again, then chooses wisely to smooth over any displeasure by channeling the admiration he felt a moment ago, “With all due respect, sir, I’m impressed. I didn’t know you had it in you.”

            “Hmph,” says Kylo, fastening his cloak, but he is pleased. He’s not concerned with impressing Hux, who, Rey can sense, he views as a pain in the backside, but rather with being perceived as generally impressive by everyone who crosses his path.

            And perhaps he’s a little too preoccupied by that, and Rey a little too preoccupied by reading into the exchange, because before either of them say or do anything else Hux crosses to the bed and backhands her, hard.

            There’s a second of dead quiet. Then it’s Rey who, in her shock, sends him flying backwards across the room. His back meets the wall with a loud thud. When he starts choking and sputtering, though, that’s not her doing. She looks at Kylo and sees him standing with his hand outstretched, his face twisted with unbridled rage.

            “You— do not— touch her.” Kylo practically bellows it. “She is mine.”

            Rey releases her hold on Hux, not that it does him much good. He stays plastered to the wall, his feet no longer touching the ground, pulling at his jacket collar as if that will do any good. “She killed— the Supreme— Supreme Leader Snoke—” he chokes out. “I— I thought to—”

            Rey’s eyebrows shoot up, but Hux takes no notice. He’s too busy having his windpipe constricted by Kylo, who snarls, “You thought wrong.” He closes his hand a little tighter, and Hux makes a gurgling sound. “I dictate her punishment, not you.”

            She nearly calls his first name, but is cautious of coming off as overly familiar. “Oi!” she shouts instead, loudly enough for him to hear over the blood throbbing in his ears.

            He looks at her and lets Hux drop to the floor. Rey can tell that this isn’t the first time this has happened between them, nor will it be the last. That’s something to file away, confirming what the Resistance had long suspected: the two heads of the First Order are often at each other’s throats, quite literally. For now, she just looks at Kylo, as his lips uncurl and the angry creases in his forehead fade. Killed the Supreme Leader, did she? That’s something to pursue with him later. For now, he gets the message: it’s distasteful to asphyxiate people in front of guests, even if Rey wouldn’t mind seeing the end of Hux. Her cheek stings.

            Hux takes a minute to gasp, to regain his composure. When he stands, the first thing he does is pull the hem of his uniform jacket down, back into place. A very particular, peculiar kind of man, this Hux. “As I came here to say,” he says, calling both her and Kylo’s attention back to him, “the Resistance fighters have fled. Our casualties were minimal. A few TIE fighters, and surface damage to the Star Destroyer.”

            “And the Resistance losses?”

            Hux hesitates.

            Kylo breathes heavily through his nose. “I see.”

            “I thought you might have extracted usable intel from the girl.”

            “It’s a process.” Kylo glances at Rey, then turns his back to her. She marvels at how easily they’re discussing her as though she’s just a thing, as though she isn’t even there. “She is strong with the Force. She won’t break easily.”

            “You seem well on your way to breaking her, Supreme Leader,” says Hux, a bit sardonically. “When you finish and extract what she knows, we’ll crush the Resistance once and for all.” He looks at Rey, rubs his throat. “She can watch.”

            “Yes,” Kylo breathes, as if the very thought of Rey watching everyone in her life die is enough to arouse him again. “Yes, that would be something.”

            From the bed, Rey glares at both of them. Kylo is walled off to her now, except for his occasional outbursts of rage, but she can feel that Hux’s surprise at how unintimidated she is. Foolish, he’s thinking. Foolish girl. “Are you two done?” she asks.

            Hux straightens, but otherwise pretends that he hasn’t heard her speak. “I have a debriefing to attend,” he says, and suddenly it strikes Rey that there’s a reason Hux has survived this long. He doesn’t seem to navigate Kylo Ren’s capriciousness with anything approaching grace, but he has his uses. Kylo must have absolutely no patience for debriefings. “If I may take my leave, Supreme Leader. Leave you to… it.”

            “Yes,” Kylo says stiffly. “Go.”

            Hux turns on his heel and exits, the double doors automatically opening before him and shutting after him. The moment he’s gone, Rey reaches through the Force and yanks the cuffs out of the headboard, freeing herself. Kylo is watching the doors, frowning. She’s certainly not going to be the one to tell him he shouldn’t receive his intel in front of prisoners, but she has a chit, now. Something to bargain with.

            “So,” she says. “I killed Snoke, did I?”

            He glances at her, but says nothing.

            “That’s surprising,” she continues. “I mean, I certainly didn’t know as much three years ago as I do now, and he was at the height of his powers. I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of such a thing.”

            “And why wouldn’t you be?” he retorts. “You’re a rebellious little snake.”

            “Of course.”

            Kylo begins pacing the sitting room, walking behind his obsidian furniture set. Rey watches him. His hands fidget by his sides. “No one would believe you,” he says, “if you said otherwise. If you proclaimed your innocence. You must know that. Killed the Supreme Leader, slaughtered his guard, that was you.”

            Us, she thinks. It was us. That intoxicating few minutes where they’d moved as one unit, as a whirlwind, a maelstrom, cutting down the members of the Elite Praetorian Guard until they and they alone remained in Snoke’s throne room. She knows he hasn’t forgotten. She certainly hasn’t, and she’s tried.

            Rey looks at the doors. Hux has only just left, after all. “I’m not sure,” she says. “Perhaps if I could find an audience with the right person—”

            Kylo Ren crosses to her from the sitting room, arm outstretched, not stopping until he reaches her side. He looms over her, and his hand — his actual, ungloved hand — closes around her throat. It’s more intimate than the treatment he’d afforded Hux, because this is personal. With her, it always is.

            “I don’t need an excuse to snuff out your life,” he snarls quietly, “but you’re presenting me with one right now. Such a gift.” He leans over, speaking right into her ear. “It’s a simple truth that no one hears a dead woman’s words.”

            Rey gasps, and her head tilts back, but otherwise she fights to remain poised and doesn’t so much as cough. Control, keep control. She closes her eyes and visualizes his hand on her neck. It’s enough restrict her airflow, however briefly, but it’s really a loose hold, more symbolic than anything else. He doesn’t want her dead just yet. After three years of hunting, he wants to take his time. It’s possible, although he would never admit it, that he doesn’t want her dead at all, that part of him still believes the notion Snoke planted in his mind, of her at his side, might yet be realized.

            She reaches out to the Force, directing tendrils of it to each finger as if prying her own fingers under his. And, taking advantage of the fact that he’s not expecting her to do anything at all, she jerks her head down and yanks his hand off of her throat without touching him.

            Kylo staggers back, just a step or two, as if he’s the one who has just been slapped. Rey falls back too, against the headboard, inhaling deeply as air rushes back into her lungs, oxygen to her blood, blood to her brain and her heart and everything else her body needs to keep fighting. Once she’s recovered herself, she looks up at him, meets his large brown eyes defiantly with her own.

            “You don’t get to do that,” she tells him calmly. “Not to me.”

            A flicker of surprise crosses his face that quickly boils over into rage. “Your tricks won’t save you,” he barks. “And in case you didn’t hear, your little plan failed. Our forces suffered no major casualties. You revealed yourself and surrendered to me for nothing.”

            Rey looks at her knees. She knows it’s not for nothing, but keeps that thought carefully walled off from him. Lets him think, for a moment, that he’s right. That he’s won.

            Kylo keeps his eyes on her. It’s hard to ignore the heat of his gaze. “I should attend the debriefing,” he says, which surprises her. Part of her had believed, perhaps naively, that he wouldn’t want to leave his chambers as long as she was in them. Maybe she overplayed her hand with the truth about Snoke, pushed him a little too far.

            “You’ll be sealed inside,” he continues. “And unless you’ve also developed a knack for slicing since we met last, you won’t be slipping out anytime soon.”

            Rey says nothing. He waits for her to speak, but she says nothing.

            “Fine.” Kylo Ren turns away from her and picks up his gloves, pulling on one and then the other as he strides to the door. Before he leaves, he pauses, looks over his shoulder, and barks, “Wash. You smell like detonite.”

            And then the doors hiss, and he’s gone.

            Once alone, once it’s safe, Rey lets out a frustrated little cry and covers her face with her hands. Just for a moment. She allows herself that. She just needs to get it out of her body, and then she’ll be fine. She’ll be fine. The old Jedi texts are full of archaic rules and outdated thinking, but there’s a line in one of the books that she likes and she reminds herself of it now, a moment when she’s full of frustration and foreboding and doubt.

            “All things will pass,” she murmurs. “All things will pass.”

            She stretches out her legs under his covers, then swings them around to plant her feet on the floor. There’s a creeping soreness in her body that she can’t ignore and a stickiness between her thighs that she tries desperately hard to. Poe had said she might bleed, although it wasn’t a given; she’s not sure if this is that, or if it’s semen, or something else she’s just not thinking of. She doesn’t really feel inclined to check. Any possibility she can imagine nauseates her slightly.

            As much as she doesn’t want to give Kylo Ren the satisfaction, washing sounds ideal right about now. She sighs, strips out of her remaining clothes, then pushes herself off the mattress to investigate the refresher.

            When she pulls back the door, she inhales. Obviously, with the scale of this ship and the rest of Kylo Ren’s chambers, she was expecting a sizable room, but she thinks the refresher alone, really a proper washroom, may as big as her entire living space in the AT-AT on Jakku. The flooring is, of course, cold black tile, and to the side of the door is the sink and a very long countertop with an almost equally long mirror. To the right of counter there’s a bathtub, and then directly across from Rey is a shower; she does stare a little, having never seen a washroom with a separate tub and a shower before. It seems like the very height of luxury.

            To the left of the door there’s another door which presumably separates the toilet from the rest of the room — pointless, Rey thinks, although he has so much space that he must not be concerned with wasting it. There are also a few shelves and cabinets beyond that, along the wall, and some additional shelving next to the mirror over the sink. On one shelf she recognizes shaving tools, on another what she assumes to be hair products, and on yet another sit two folded, full-size black towels, although she knows a shower this modern and sophisticated must have an automatic drying system. Just another one of his incongruities, she supposes.

            Rey presses the washroom door shut behind her. She doesn’t stop to contemplate herself in the mirror and instead steps straight into the shower. As soon as she closes the door, she triggers an automatic process. Water rains down from a showerhead in the ceiling that she hadn’t noticed, which makes her jump; she’s used to the sonic showers on spaceships, where vibrations bounce off the walls of a tight, uncomfortable chamber in order to provide the most efficient possible cleaning. But Kylo’s shower has steam jets instead, and just as she’s getting accustomed to the rain from above, they spray her from the sides. The temperature is scorching, which is must be how he likes it. That is so unsurprising.

            “Oh, hot,” she exclaims aloud, looking for some sort of control panel on one of the walls. She finds it, and dials the temperature back a few clicks until it’s more tolerable. Then she just stands there and lets the shower work, standing underneath the veritable waterfall that pours out of his ceiling, watching the water swirl down the drain at her feet. Even though she’s now visited many planets where water is anything but scarce, she can’t help but find this wasteful.

            Still, it does feel good, to have her body soothed by the steam, massaged by constant rain from above. A panel slides back, revealing a pump mounted on the wall; she holds her hand under it and presses, thinking it might give her body wash, but the consistency is more that of shampoo. She massages it into her scalp without really thinking, and it’s only when she pulls her hands away and rinses off that she realizes she’ll smell like him now. Her hair is going to smell like his hair.

            Something inside of Rey cracks, something that she’d tried very hard to hold together, and tears well up in her eyes, spilling down her cheeks and disappearing down the drain. She’s not proud of it, but she also can’t seem to stop them from flowing. The crack isn’t so deep that it touches her soul or puts her in any danger of losing herself, but it leaves her off-kilter. Usually it’s a beautiful thing, feeling the Force around her, feeling its tug, knowing that she is a part of something much bigger than herself, but she can’t help but feel that this—this is ugly irony, that she should be so drawn to him. She had thought, prior to arriving here, that if he were to sleep with her she’d merely endure it, divorce herself from her body and retreat to some happy memory. But she had participated. She was active. That had to be the work of the Force, right? She could feel it connecting them, commingling his feelings with hers, pressing them together, pressing her lips to his lips and teeth and tongue. That has to be the Force.

            The other possibility is that she truly wants him, which is almost too much to bear.

            At least the water mixes with her tears and quickly washes them off her skin, out of sight, out of mind. She puts out a hand to brace herself against the shower wall and lets herself cry. All things will pass, all things will pass. She’s been so busy lately taking care of everybody else that she can’t remember the last time she cried. Perhaps she was merely overdue.

            The tears ebb soon enough, and Rey wipes at her eyes. Those romance novels Rose had recounted sounded so simple: infiltrate the Empire, seduce the officer. Rey wondered if the protagonist-who-was-not-actually-named-Rose had ever had regrets, or if it was all fantastic sex and unlikely connections turning bad guys good. Maybe she should have read them.

            At the very least, she might have learned about seduction. She envisions half-lidded eyes, whispered, witty conversation, and whatever the appropriate amount of bare skin is that’s considered exciting but not distasteful. Rey is anything but a seductress. It’s simply not a part of her skillset. She doesn’t even think this mission involves seduction, not really, even though they’d had sex. Whatever is going on with Kylo, it has more to do with him being convinced of a part she’s to play in his life than something she actively did, aside from maybe listening to him once, three years ago.

            Maybe seduction is just active listening. Rey laughs at the absurdity of the thought. Still, she’d have to be better at it if she was going to accomplish what she’d set out to do, which was, she reminds herself, to distract Kylo Ren for a full nine days. Her presence clearly has him thrown, but she couldn’t even keep him away from his duties for a full day because she just can’t stop provoking him. Rey doesn’t regret provoking him, though, and that’s the problem. She doesn’t want to make any attempt at placating him, at bending to his whims. The thought churns her stomach a bit. No. She won’t compromise.

            She thinks it likely that true seduction involves pretending to be someone else, and she doesn’t know how to be anyone but herself.

            While she reflects, the shower takes care of washing for her. The steam jets run through a cycle where they sting her skin a bit — probably disinfecting — and a small metal claw unfolds from the side of the wall to comb through her wet hair. Rey lets it be. Once the cycle ends, the water shuts off on its own. The shower gives it time to drain away, and then a few mobile dryers slide out from the wall on metal arms, circling her as they blow hot air, one by her hair, one at about chest height, and one jerking up and down the lengths of her legs. Rey closes her eyes and thinks about the scorching, stinging desert wind. Jakku was never her home, merely the planet she’d spent the longest amount of time living on, but she sometimes remembers what it was like to be simply Rey from Nowhere all the same.

            After a few minutes, the dryers wind down, blowing her with less and less air, until they finish and, with a whirr, retract into the wall. Rey misses them immediately; it’s too cold without the bombardment of heat. She crosses her arms over her chest and tucks her hands under her armpits to keep them warm. The shower door unseals itself without her having to touch it, and she steps out onto the mat. It’s soft, and she takes a moment to curl her toes in it. Three years after leaving Jakku, she still relishes new sensations, even ones she finds in places as bleak as this.

            Rey looks around for something to cover herself with. There are the two black towels, folded, on one of the shelves, and… that’s all. Not a robe in sight. She frowns. She has no particular desire to be naked when Kylo Ren returns—

            The washroom door opens, and he steps across the threshold. Too late.

            It’s funny — Rey had thought that being the Supreme Leader of the First Order would have caused him to modify his posture, or at least put a little bit of a spring in his step. But he still has something of a tendency to walk with his head bent forward. He has to pick it up to look at her, and when he does it’s as if he wasn’t expecting to see her there at all, that he’s almost gratified to find her still in his chambers even though there is nowhere else for her to go.

            Rey calls upon the Force to float one of his towels over to her hand, and she unfurls it and clutches it to her chest. She doesn’t particularly relish being undressed while he’s fully clothed, but she stands her ground, unwilling to let anything like discomfort slip through to him.

            Kylo examines her, and it occurs to her that he’s never seen her like this, not the split second after a proper wash with her hair blown straight. He takes in the sight for a moment as she squares her shoulders and stands there, then he begins peeling off the layers of his clothing. He hangs the cloak on a hook on the back of the door and sets his gloves aside, but when he removes his shirt he pushes it through a flap she hadn’t noticed. Must be a laundry chute. All Rey can think is that it’s definitely too small for her to fit down if she ever needs to make a quick escape.

            He continues to undress methodically, unceremoniously, as if she weren’t even there, unlacing his boots, stepping out of his trousers. Everything cloth goes down the laundry chute to become someone else’s problem. Rey doesn’t move. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s blocking her path to the door. She can’t help but be aware of it. Her skin crawls with awareness. And when he finishes undressing and looks back at her, she realizes how little she wants to be touched, and how overwhelmingly she longs to be alone again.

            Kylo takes a step forward, in her direction. Rey’s belly clenches, and for a moment the animal instinct that kept her alive for years overwhelms her. She takes one very small step away from him, and her back connects with the shower door.

            And he stops. There isn’t much distance between them, and Rey can feel her heartbeat pick up again, not from thrill, or from anticipation, but from dread. She doesn’t want them to start something, not right now. She doesn’t know where it will go. He seems to sense that. His brow creases. He reaches out with a hand, above her, and—

            He presses open the shower door and steps around her to go inside, sealing it shut behind him.

            Rey exhales and scurries out of the washroom, shutting the door tightly. What she wants to do more than anything in this moment is to put her clothes on and leave, not just his chambers, but the Conquest II entirely. She wants to somehow summon the Falcon and jump on it, make the leap to hyperspace, and cross the galaxy. She wants to find herself in the easy presence of her friends again, not have another interaction fraught with tension and double entendre.

            She won’t do that, though, no matter how much some part of her longs for it. She won’t run. This was the deal she struck, with the General, for the Resistance and her students and her friends, with herself. She’ll stay. The feeling just needs its moment, and then, like all things, it will pass.

            Besides, there’s another flaw in her plan. Her clothes are not on the floor where she left them. They’re gone.

            Rey wraps the towel around herself, securing it in place over her chest, and commences a thorough search of the room. Have they been moved? Folded? Did someone set them out on the bed? No, no, and no. They have disappeared entirely. Either Kylo Ren moved them or another entity came into the room while she was in the shower. There is no trace of them anywhere.

            With a small grunt of frustration, Rey walks into the sitting room and flings herself down sideways in one of the uncomfortable chairs, draping her legs over one of its arms. She hears steam hiss from the washroom, and she crosses her arms over her chest again. That’s just fantastic. She’s locked in these chambers with a sworn enemy bent on breaking her and doesn’t have a stitch of clothing to speak of.

            Rey feels him tug at the corner of her consciousness, as he always does just before he appears before her through the Force. She picks up her head and there he is, standing just there, leaning one arm against the wall furthest from the washroom door, shoulders hunched, head bent. He’s completely naked, and she can see rivulets of water from the shower running down his back. His hair is soaked through. She’s not sure he connected to her on purpose. Over the years this almost happened, very rarely, when one of them was giving the other a little too much thought. Rey had always managed to shut it down.

            “You’re in the next room,” she says. “Why not just come out and talk to me if you have something to say?”

            He looks up, visibly startled at seeing her there. She wonders where she’s sitting, from his perspective. Possibly on the counter next to the sink. It wouldn’t feel much different than sitting on this hard chair, just like the cold floor of the shower likely feels no different from the cold floor of his sitting room. She watches a little water begin pooling at his feet, and feels the unmistakable spray of unseen, phantom steam on her face.

            Kylo just regards her for a long moment. And Rey regards him back. Obviously she had a chance to survey him naked a very short time ago, but that was different. With everything happening, she didn’t really have a chance to get a good look at him. She’s seen parts of him bare before — his chest, his shoulders — but the entirety of him just standing there unclothed impresses upon her how powerful his body is. Of course the way the water navigates the planes of his body emphasizes the musculature of his arms, his core, his legs. Rey briefly recalls how those parts of him felt against her bare skin, and makes herself think instead about how he must never have stopped training, waiting for the day that they would face each other again. She feels a twinge of satisfaction that she denied him that showdown at the munitions depot. All of it for naught.

            “Was it really so horrible,” he says, almost tonelessly. It’s not even a proper question, the way he asks it.

            “What?”

            Kylo’s voice crescendos to a shout. “Was it so horrible that you can’t even bear to touch me now!” He pounds the wall with his fist, but the resulting thud is muffled behind the washroom door. “That you couldn’t stand to be in the same room as me!” He strikes the wall again. Another thud.

            Rey just looks at him, and she sighs. She’s not going to get into it with him. It wouldn’t be worth it. Besides, she’d die before soothing his wounded ego. “Where are my clothes?”

            He’d been running a hand through his hair, distracted, but when she speaks he stops and actually makes eye contact with her. “What?”

            “Where. Are. My clothes,” Rey says, enunciating each word very clearly. “They were here and now they aren’t and I want them back.”

            “Oh,” says Kylo. He straightens and turns to face her. Rey keeps her eyes fixed on his face, despite the temptation to look elsewhere, so slight that it’s almost not worth mentioning. “A droid may have taken them for laundering. They were filthy. Covered in soot. Wear mine.”

            “I don’t want to wear yours,” she says, and she can’t succeed at keeping the rising irritation out of her voice. “I want my clothes.”

            “You’ll have to wait for them.”

            “And do what, in the meantime? Wear nothing?”

            “That won’t be so objectionable now that you’re clean,” Kylo snaps.

            He seems to realize that it’s a mistake as soon as he says it, but that doesn’t matter. Rey severs their connection immediately. She hears a howl of rage from behind the washroom door, but all she does is press her cheek to her knee and sigh again.

            After a minute, the water stops hissing. She hears the dryers turn on, then abruptly shut off, the cycle preempted. The door bangs open, and Kylo stalks out of the washroom, bypassing her chair to walk toward the bedchamber. Then she hears a panel slide open, possibly a closet door. She has a pretty decent guess at the contents of his closet: a dozen black outfits, all identical, and two spare cloaks. Fabric rustles, then he strides back to the sitting room and stands in front of her, now wearing a fresh pair of trousers.

            “Rey.”

            She ignores him.

            “What I said. I didn’t mean it.”

            Rey lets her gaze flicker over to him. She raises one eyebrow.

            He sighs. “You aren’t— objectionable. And you weren’t when you had grime in your hair. I don’t care about such things.”

            “And?”

            “And…” He grasps for something to say while she waits. “I said that because you were vexing me.”

            “And?”

            He says nothing.

            “And?”

            “And.” Kylo clenches his teeth. “I am. Sorry.”

            Rey sits back against the arm of the uncomfortable chair. “Fine.”

            “Fine.” He takes two steps closer, then leans over her, grasping the back of her seat with one hand. “So.”

            She looks up at him, thoroughly unimpressed. “So?”

            “Let me bed you again.”

            Rey barks out a short, harsh laugh. “Ha. No.”

            He frowns. “Why not.”

            “Because I don’t want to.”

            “I apologized,” he points out, as if a begrudging apology makes all the difference in the galaxy.

            “I still don’t want to.”

            Kylo pulls his hand back, straightens. His arms hang awkwardly at his side. There’s something pitiful, but not pitiable, about him. “I could make you.”

            “You could try.”

            “So you would resist me, this time?”

            The prospect sounds a little exciting to him, though not as exciting as it was before when he practically begged her to fight. She looks him over, and all she feels is apathy, weariness. Her plan, what she came here to do, may be working — he’s distracted by her, agitated by her, focusing only on her, and he hasn't killed her yet — but she’s struggling, once again, to think back and understand that alien need to have him inside her. She almost can’t believe he was inside her, even though there’s physical proof; parts of her ache from that encounter that have never ached before.

            It’s easy enough to think the phrase “he was inside her” like it means nothing, but it doesn’t. Not to Rey, who for most of her life was alone by default, who values her connections. She allowed him a place within her body, something she’s never allowed anyone else. For a brief time, he was part of her. They connected in more ways than one. And she had wanted it to happen.

            She’s hard pressed to remember why, now.

            Rey shifts onto her side, away from him, and curls up tighter. “I don’t care, Kylo,” she says, not defeated, just tired to her bones. “Do what you want.”

            For a second he stands there, looking at her, the tempest of disappointment-fury-frustration-humiliation brewing inside him impossible for her not to feel as though it were her own. Then he storms away from her abruptly, like a petulant child, and disappears back into the bedchamber. She hears the unmistakable crash of glass breaking against the wall and he lets out another frustrated, growling yell. Then she senses him sit down heavily on the floor on the far side of the bed, putting as much space between them as he possibly can.

            The Force bond makes their shared regret hang that much heavier over the room.

Chapter Text

            Rey’s head jerks, suddenly. She is startled by the sound of Kylo Ren strangling someone yet again.

            As she blinks and moves to sit upright, she realizes that she must have drifted off to sleep, or at least into some sort of reverie. There’s a stiffness to her joints that only comes from sitting in an uncomfortable position for longer than one should. Rey has always known she could sleep anywhere, but she also assumed she had her limits, that “in the personal chambers of her nemesis, wearing only a towel” was one. Apparently not. Maybe everything she’d endured earlier was more physically and mentally taxing than she’d thought.

            She couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour or two, surely. It must be very early morning now by Galactic Standard Time. And there is Kylo Ren, already fully clothed, choking the life out of someone. The Supreme Leader’s day starts early, then. Or ends late. Somehow, Rey knows he simply didn’t sleep.

            Before Rey can make any move toward helping the person who is kicking their feet out inches above the floor, Kylo glances briefly over his shoulder at her and, upon seeing that she's awake, releases them. They fall, gasping for breath, and Rey sees that they're a young, male, black-clad First Order officer.

            Kylo stands in the doorway, looking down at this officer, his face turned away from Rey. The one hand she can see closes into a fist at his side. “How did this happen?” he growls, and it’s less a question than it is a demand.

            The officer skitters backwards a foot or two before tugging at his collar, remembering to whom he is speaking, and standing. “S-Sir,” he stammers, clearly unsure whether this answer will be satisfactory. “The clothes were missorted by the droid that collected them. They were deemed too filthy to salvage.”

            Rey holds the towel to her chest and leans further forward. That can’t mean what she thinks it means.

            “So the clothes have been…”

            “I-Incinerated, Supreme Leader.” The officer flinches, as if expecting to have his windpipe crushed again.

            Instead, Kylo Ren exhales through his nose, works his jaw. “I see,” he says slowly. “Fetch the prisoner something else to wear. A spare uniform. In the interim.”

            The officer ducks his head. “Right away, sir,” he says. And he makes himself scarce.

            Kylo turns around in the doorway to look at Rey, but she doesn’t meet his eyes this time. Instead, she looks down at her hands, a weight settling in the pit of her stomach. So her clothes are well and truly gone, then. Burnt to a crisp. Among all of the things that might happen on this mission, she hadn’t considered this a possibility and is surprised by how strongly it affects her. Saberstaff aside, her clothes were the only familiar objects she’d brought into enemy territory and the only armor she bothered to wear. Most of her things she had made or altered herself, by hand, with time, thought, and care. And now they’re gone.

            She can feel Kylo’s gaze on her, but can’t quite read his mood. It’s not lecherous or self-satisfied, which it might have been. Surely it would serve his wants to have her locked in his chambers, undressed. Instead, he seems to be studying her, reading the slump of her shoulders or the furrow of her brow. And then he makes a sound that’s something like a soft “hmph,” somehow at once curious and decisive. He comes to sit on the piece of furniture adjacent to hers, one that might have been called a sofa if it was anything more than a hard bench with a back.

            Once seated, Kylo leans forward over his knees and presses a few buttons set into the surface of the table that Rey hadn’t realized were there. He slides aside a panel in the center, revealing a small holoprojector and a second comm unit. He keys into it and says, “Get me Hux.”

            It’s a minute or so, then a small holo of Hux appears hovering above the table, roughly a foot tall. Rey instinctively moves to the side of her chair furthest from the holo, but given Hux’s lack of reaction to her presence, she thinks it likely that he can only see Kylo. She looks at Kylo too, wondering what he’s playing at.

            “Supreme Leader,” Hux says. “We only just spoke.”

            Kylo doesn’t waste any time. “General,” he says. “Where do you buy the clothes that you wear when out of uniform?”

            “I— what?” Hux sputters. “My what?”

            “Your clothes.”

            Hux’s projection frowns deeply. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen me out of uniform.”

            “You’re a man who takes pride in his appearance. Answer the question.”

            Hux opens his mouth, closes it, and then very clearly decides it’ll be easier for everyone involved if he just complies. “I have a tailor,” he says. “Semi-retired. Recently relocated to Canto Bight, of all places. Why?”

            “You’re aboard the Finalizer?”

            “Yes, Leader Ren.”

            “Chart a course for Cantonica and we will rendezvous there.”

            “Wait, what? Why—”

            Kylo terminates the call. Then he makes another, more brief, to the navigator of the Conquest II. And then he turns to look at Rey, who is now staring at him. He seems like he is expecting something.

            “What?” she asks, still processing both conversations that she just witnessed. He can’t possibly be serious. And yet.

            “Clothes,” he says. “You wanted your clothes.”

            “This isn’t—” Her mind is being pulled in a million different directions, and her mouth seizes upon none of them. She closes it, swallows, and tries again. “Are we— are you sending me to go shopping?”

            He blinks at her. “Yes.”

            Rey takes a deep breath. “Those won’t be my clothes,” she says, somewhat impressed with how even her voice sounds. Her other option is “bursting with incredulity,” so even is good given the circumstances. “They’ll just be clothes you’ve bought for me.”

            “I’ll give them to you,” he says. “Gifts. Then they’ll be yours.”

            “What— I— I don’t follow.”

            Kylo apparently doesn’t feel any need to clarify. He stands, stepping around the table, and simply— leaves. He just exits the room, closing the doors behind him, presumably to check on the progress of the navigation to Cantonica. Rey gapes at him as he goes and continues gaping long after he’s gone.

            She had thought, after seeing him interact with Hux before, that the miracle of the First Order was that those two hadn’t killed each other yet. But now, after witnessing him divert a considerable number of ships — the Conquest II always travels with an escort — to a distant corner of the galaxy on a whim, she’s beginning to think that she was wrong.

            The real miracle is that there’s still a First Order at all.


            If the shuttle ride up to the Conquest II had been uncomfortable, the ride down to Cantonica is nigh unbearable, mostly because Rey spends it handcuffed in a small luxury craft sitting nearly knee to knee with Hux.

            To be fair, Hux hadn’t been a fan of this plan either, to the degree that he had actually protested it to Kylo Ren. “Supreme Leader, if you're going to just kill the girl—”

            And how Kylo had glowered at him. Rey was mildly impressed by how he could rearrange his face into a “my orders are not to be questioned” look that, ironically enough, resembled one Leia might wear when she’s in the same mood. From Rey’s experience with Kylo Ren, she wouldn't have thought him capable of shaping his face into any deliberate expression. Either he pushes what he’s feeling down, or he wears it openly. The mask that used to conceal his features was likely a boon to him, not a hindrance. Still, he’s had about three years of experience being Supreme Leader, and that must necessitate looking commanding. Rey had imagined him practicing in front of the mirror in his washroom, and she pressed her lips together to stifle an inappropriate giggle.

            “They say you catch more glitterflies with Dantooine cane syrup.”

            “A philosophy to which, in my experience, you have never subscribed,” Hux said, looking as though a rotten smell had just passed under his nose, “but… understood, Leader Ren. Although, respectfully, I’m not sure this was worth diverting half the fleet.”

            To which Kylo had replied, “If she manages to escape, General, you’ll want the fleet.”

            It’s something of a surprise, therefore, that Hux doesn’t bring a Stormtrooper contingent with them to Cantonica. Then again, Stormtroopers might be somewhat out of place there. Rey has never been to the planet, but both Finn and Rose had told her of Canto Bight, the resort town by an artificial ocean in the middle of a vast desert, and its terrible opulence, its wealthy patrons. Very likely those patrons would be bothered by a Stormtrooper squad showing up to crash their never-ending party.

            She almost wishes he had brought others along, though. Then she’d have more thoughts to listen in on other than just Hux’s and the shuttle pilot’s. She doesn’t particularly want to touch Hux’s mind and sift through the ugly musings on the surface, but feels like she should, for the sake of thoroughness. What else would she do, talk to him?

            Rey could, of course, talk to him, unpalatable though the thought may be. Now alone with him, she could tell him what she threatened to tell him earlier: that Kylo Ren was the one who killed Snoke. But that doesn’t align with her own goals. And besides, Hux might like to hear the truth, but he wouldn’t want to hear it from her. To him she’s rebel scum, worse than nothing, even if she turned out not to be the murderess he thinks. She would also make a terrible witness, given her very clear loyalties elsewhere. In fact, Hux would likely assume that she was lying in order to poison him against his Supreme Leader, which might, ironically, drive him closer to Kylo in standing against her. After all, isn’t the common enemy they share in the Resistance what unites them now? Unless it’s merely fear that keeps Hux in his place...

            She reaches out to his mind to derail her own racing thoughts and, predictably, finds that Hux is fuming. This errand is clearly beneath him; even Rey, who is patently unsympathetic to his ambitions, agrees with that assessment. He’s a General, surely he must have other, more important, duties. Hux personally believes that Kylo Ren is punishing him further for daring to touch her, or maybe testing him to make sure he’s learned his lesson.

            However, it’s evident from even the gentlest probe of his thoughts that Hux isn’t interested in her in any way that Kylo Ren would fear. She is, quite simply, not his type, not because of any of her physical attributes but because — Rey has to suppress another improper giggle at this — she doesn’t wax her body hair and he’s not entirely sure she’s ever used a hairbrush. He wonders loudly how desperate Skywalker must have been to drag Rey out from under whatever desert rock he found her hiding beneath. By the Force. She has to turn her head away and look out the window as they approach planetfall. She really might laugh.

            She should know to quit while she’s ahead, but she doesn’t, because now she’s curious about what someone like Hux does like. What she finds isn’t all that surprising upon reflection, but since Rey hasn’t given much thought to sex beyond its mechanics and how it relates to her personally, she’s shocked. In his leisure time, Hux likes pain. He likes to inflict it. It helps him bleed off some of the humiliation he suffers daily at Kylo Ren’s hands. And he has little respect for his Supreme Leader’s carelessness when administering punishment. Hux would like to think himself more careful, methodical. Pain and sex are both messy by nature but he likes things as neat as possible, regardless of his partner. He likes to be in control. He looks Rey over, and she can sense that he thinks she’d be a very untidy lay. Then again, Ren is defined by his messiness. Perhaps they suit each other.

            Rey pulls back. That’s more than she needs to know about Hux and what he thinks of her. She keeps watching out the window as the glistening city grows larger and larger, until the shuttle bypasses Canto Bight’s primary spaceport entirely and touches down in right front of the massive casino.

            Upon landing, their escort awaits. Rey understands now why Hux didn’t bring an entourage. He doesn’t need one. Not when half a dozen uniformed, armed Canto Bight police officers are waiting to greet them. They flank a female alien with a large, fleshy head and a comparatively small face, clad in a flowing formal gown.

            “Ah,” Hux says, leaning over to peer out Rey’s window. “The Countess. She runs the city, nominally.”

            Rey wants to follow up on that “nominally” remark, but not with Hux. She assumes that Canto Bight may be the same as many other outlying systems, where the actual power rests in the hands of crime lords and cartels. She eyes the officers, standing there with their Relby K-25 blasters in sidearm configuration, their electro-shock prods. She herself is unarmed. Unfavorable odds.

            “Curse Ren for sending us to the single planet where we can’t just threaten the lot of them. Instead, we have to deal with political complications.” Rey silently notes the lack of honorific now that no one he deems important is around to overhear. He opens the binders on her wrists, then inspects her. She could pass for a real officer in her borrowed blue major’s uniform, with her hair tied in a single knot at the nape of her neck. “Let me do the talking. And would it kill you to show some contrition? Is that an expression your face is capable of making, or has he not yet choked it out of you?”

            Rey just meets his eyes with a level stare. He scoffs, but is saved the trouble of having to reply when a chauffeur opens Rey’s door and offers her his hand. She takes it, stepping out into the sunlight. Hux follows, squinting, and out of the corner her eye she sees him slip something into the chauffeur’s glove. He arranges his face into a smile. “Ah, Countess,” he says. “A pleasure to finally meet. You received my missive, then?”

            “General Hux.” The Countess does not seem happy, but she is equally courteous. “It is, of course, an honor. May I ask what brings the First Order to Cantonica? As you know, we are generally left to our own devices here.”

            “A very brief errand, Your Grace, I assure you,” Hux says, and he nearly purrs it, which Rey finds disturbing. Still, this is another reason to keep Hux around, and likely why he’s planetside with her instead of Kylo. She can’t imagine Kylo managing even this strained politeness. She’s a little astonished that Hux can, but, then again, his normal way of doing things is closed off to him. Given how many patrons of the Canto Casino are arms dealers, he's right that he can’t exactly threaten to blast the city off the face of the planet. “We won’t be in your hair— or, well—” He does stumble, briefly, at this, since the Countess has none, just layers of wavy purplish skin. “For more than a couple of hours.”

            The Countess relaxes. “Naturally, you’re both welcome in Canto Bight for as long as you decide to visit.” She inclines her head at Rey, who blinks back. “As per your request, the street in question has been cleared and closed to the public.”

            “Excellent. This… young woman is a very important— guest,” Hux grits out through clenched teeth. “It would be imprudent to allow her to mingle with the common crowds.”

            Imprudent to let her slip away into a crowd, thinks Rey. He isn’t taking any chances with her. It would be on Hux’s head, after all, if she escaped.

            “You must understand that this is a costly disruption, General,” says the Countess.

            “Oh, I do,” replies Hux, who, of course, would rather be anywhere else in the galaxy and allows some of his own displeasure to seep into his voice. “But everyone involved, including the members of your esteemed security force, will be well-compensated for the trouble. And for their discretion.”

            For a moment Rey can’t believe her ears, until she realizes that bribery in broad daylight is probably one of the least objectionable things Armitage Hux has ever done. The Countess is unperturbed. This must be the way of things in Canto Bight.

            “To that end,” Hux continues, “I’ll need at least two officers with her at all times, to make certain she doesn’t wander off. And if they could lower the shock setting on those prods a touch — I won’t hear the end of it if she’s burned.”

            “That shouldn’t be a problem,” says the Countess, who, to her credit, does frown slightly. “But, General, is there anything that can be done about that?” She looks up at the sky, as does Rey. The very conspicuous bat-like silhouette of the Conquest II hangs above them all. “It disturbs the fathiers. And the racetrack’s guests.”

            “Really? I shouldn’t think so. One must imagine they take some pride in what they built.” Hux chuckles to himself, and then he turns to Rey. She watches him struggle for a moment while he figures out how to address her in front of others. “You,” he snarls at last. “Come with me.”


            “No more dresses,” Rey says firmly, for about the third time.

            She stands in the center of a small circular dias in the middle of the tailor’s shop, having a frankly dizzying array of clothing holos projected upon her body. Hux’s tailor, an elderly, bespectacled Devaronian in a very stylish overcoat, had explained that this would help her see what might suit her. Rey understands the theory, although in practice flipping through all of the different styles makes her head spin. She’s never had so many wardrobe options to choose from, especially not so many that were totally impractical. For the last few minutes, all of the offerings have somehow been dresses or skirts.

            Hux, who sits in a chair overseeing this process while sipping Tartine tea from a thermos he brought along, scoffs. “What do you think you’re going to be doing up there that you couldn’t do in a dress?”

            “I’ve never worn a dress in my life,” Rey retorts. “What benefit could a dress possibly have over trousers?”

            Easy access, Hux very clearly thinks but does not say aloud. Rey’s eyes widen, and when he smirks into his thermos she realizes that he thought it deliberately. But of course he did. He must be aware that if Kylo Ren reads minds, she can do the same. Rey breathes out through flared nostrils and modifies her opinion of Hux very slightly.

            Hux does say, “I’m not here to see you dressed to your specifications.”

            “The Supreme Leader said that these were to be my clothes,” says Rey, gambling that Hux’s fear of displeasing Kylo Ren will outweigh his distaste for them both. “Not his, not yours, but mine.”

            “Well, Ren can take that ridiculous notion and shove it—” Hux catches himself and exhales. “Fine. No more dresses.”

            That restriction established, Rey has no trouble settling on a pair of high-waisted black trousers that the tailor says they will produce for her in duplicate. They’re form-fitting, and appear to be made of a stiffer material than trousers she would normally wear, but they’re better by far than the skirts. As soon as she makes her choice, two spindly-armed tailor droids at the back of the shop begin whirring about, taking bolts of fabric from the wall and slicing them up with sheer-like appendages.

            She begins skimming through the selection of tops, next. Structure is in style, the tailor assures her. Rey couldn’t give a happabore’s ass about what’s stylish, but it very much seems to dictate her options. She tries to work quickly, well aware that Hux is not a creature of infinite patience and not desiring to spend too much time on Cantonica herself, but none of the clothing choices really suit her. Too many dark colors, too many dense, synthetic fabrics unlike the woven, breathable materials she would usually choose for herself.

            Then she stumbles upon something different, something she outright gawks at. It’s a long white top, a breath of fresh air, but that’s not what strikes her. Across the front, starting from each shoulder — of course the shoulders must still have the strange padding that the other tops bear — and attaching at the opposite hips are crosspieces made of a sort of gauze, not unlike the ones Rey would wear, has worn historically. Of course, hers are functional and these are decorative, but it doesn’t matter. She brings her hands up to the holo as if she could touch it.

            “Ah,” says the tailor, squinting at the top through his spectacles. “Yes, this style has become increasingly popular in the last year or so. Personally, I believe gauze lends an elegance—”

            “Absolutely not,” Hux interjects.

            Of course she should have expected resistance. She jerks her chin up and puffs air out of her cheeks. “Why?”

            “I’m not going to send you back up there wearing white. It’s absurd. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.” And besides, he thinks, you don’t get to pretend you’re some sort of innocent.

            Rey gives him a look that could wither grass. “I already told you. I’m not concerned about any of that.”

            “No, of course you’re not,” he snaps. “You think Ren wants you to get your way. But he has tastes too, as inexplicable as they may be.” He says this while giving her a pointed once-over. “I’m not coming back down here if he decides something in your wardrobe is lacking or needs to be replaced. I’m sorry to say, white is definitely not in the cards for you.”

            “You’d have me in black, then?”

            “I would.” He thinks for a moment. “I suppose dark blue is also permissible. Red is a stretch, but it might flatter your coloring. And that’s all.”

            Rey scowls, feeling these suggestions like a physical itch just under the surface of her skin. She glances at the tailor and knows he will defer to Hux, an established customer. And the most unfortunate thing is that on its face, the advice isn’t bad. Adapting to inhospitable environments is the key to survival; Rey knows that very well from lived experience. She just doesn’t want to acquiesce to Hux.

            She flips through the next few holos until she finds something else she likes, tunic that’s structured around the torso but has soft, flexible sleeves. It’s dark gray. She turns to Hux and stares at him. “Is dark gray acceptable to you?”

            “One,” Hux grits out. “You get one dark gray thing.”

            “Fine.”

            “Fine.” Hux mutters something very unkind under his breath, which Rey magnanimously ignores.

            She doesn’t spend the rest of the virtual fitting thinking about what other people would want her to wear, but contextualizing herself among the rest of the First Order leads her to make choices she wouldn’t normally make. It doesn’t help that high necklines and rigid silhouettes seem to be in fashion in the galaxy these days, either. She chooses a couple of tunics with diagonal closures instead of ones with straight hems, and gravitates toward styles that flare slightly at the waist or at least afford her a little flexibility for movement. One of the tunics she selects has a short cape attached, which she finds both an amusing and distressing reminder of how much influence Kylo exerts in this galaxy, even on something as incongruous with his priorities as fashion.

            Rey also chooses one high-necked leather coat — it’s cold on the Conquest II — that Hux very nearly approves with a nod. The tailor agrees to cut her a few sleeveless shirts to layer under her purchases, and then she’s free to step down from the dias. She shakes her limbs out with a frown, feeling as though for forty-five minutes she’d been a statue, not a person.

            “It’ll be a rush job,” says the tailor. “Obviously, the droids will do the bulk of the work and they’ll be under my supervision, but these garments will lack my… personal touch.”

            “That’s perfectly acceptable, in this case,” Hux says, standing. “The quicker the better. Finesse is not the aim here.”

            Rey glances toward the back of the shop, at where the droids, setting about their designated tasks, are merely a blur of spindly limbs, loops of thread, and flying fabric scraps. She finds the sight incredibly disconcerting for reasons she doesn't quite understand.

            “Return in an hour and a half for the final fittings,” the tailor says.

            “Excellent.” Hux turns to frown at Rey. “Then I suppose you need... shoes.”

            Rey imagines doing this all over again and stifles a groan.


            Thankfully, Hux opts not to wait with her in the cobbler’s boutique. He instead steps out sans explanation, leaving her guarded by the requisite two Canto Bight police officers who dutifully wait for her outside the shop. Rey suspects that Hux needs something stronger than tea in order to get through this day.

            The cobbler and her assistant are polite to Rey, although she senses an irritation from them that probably stems from the blockade of the street outside chasing off all other potential customers. Rey also suspects it’s because she doesn’t show an interest in purchasing more than one pair of shoes, and she keeps insisting that she wants flat boots without heels, which limits her options considerably in this particular store.

            Reluctantly, she’s persuaded into buying two different pairs of boots: one short pair that comes up to her ankles, another longer pair that ends just below her knees and features a one-and-a-half-inch heel that’s wide enough for Rey to feel like she won’t fall over. Even though she’s not paying for these, she can’t quite wrap her head around buying more shoes, spending more of the First Order’s money out of spite. Excess is antithetical to who she is.

            Rey drinks from a vaguely fruit-flavored glass of water that the assistant offered her as the cobbler measures her feet with a strange apparatus. This is necessary to custom fit sole inserts that will cushion her every step, the cobbler claims — something Rey assures her is unnecessary, since her feet are extremely unaccustomed to luxury. It occurs to Rey that although the police are standing outside, she’s been left very unguarded for the time being.

            She’ll have to stage an escape attempt, she realizes. It would seem strange if she didn’t. Hux knows she’s not that beaten down just yet, and he’s given her an opening. It might be a test.

            The way for her to slip by the officers unnoticed is all too clear. As she pulls her own shoes back on, she briefly closes her eyes and reaches out to their minds. They don’t know who she is, and they aren’t expecting any tricks. She plants a small, intrusive seed of a thought in each of their heads: the sound of a scuffle, from the far side of the block, behind a corner. A female voice, her voice, shouting, “Oi!”

            She feels them looking at each other. One asks the other, “Did you hear that?”

            “Get your hands off me,” she whispers. They both hear it as if coming from a distance.

            “How did she get down there?” asks one officer, hand seeking his blaster.

            “Call it in, we need to check it out.”

            They take off running, and Rey stands up and exits the boutique unnoticed through the front door.

            This presents its own problems. The street outside is empty. Hux saw to that. There’s very little in the way of cover, and additional officers posted at each end. Of course, this would only be an issue if Rey were intent on staying covert, on actually escaping. And she isn’t. So she spies an alleyway diagonally across the street and makes a break for it, unobscured, in the late day sun.

            Naturally, she attracts attention. And now comes the part that isn’t fun.

            “Hey!” shouts an officer from the near end of the street — one minding the blockade, not one assigned to guard her. “You! Stop!”

            Rey does not stop, but she does drop to the ground and tuck herself into a somersault to avoid the inevitable volley of blaster fire that follows. This uniform does not allow much freedom of movement, so it’s not a comfortable maneuver, and in the process she loses her cap, but she manages to make it into the alley without being stunned. Barely.

            She presses herself up against the alley wall and listens to the sound of three approaching sets of footsteps. She knows that she is at a distinct disadvantage here, not just because she’s unarmed, but because she’s smaller and lighter than any of the officers coming for her. This is why she doesn’t usually fight hand to hand. Her staff did a good job at keeping combatants at a distance; the saberstaff works even better. Still, she must work with what she has, which is herself and the element of surprise. It’s not like she has to keep them busy for long.

            When the first officer rounds the corner, Rey takes the initiative and strikes him, bringing up an elbow to smash his nose. Strange that these police helmets leave the face so unprotected. He staggers back, clutching at it, and Rey ducks low to try to catch the second officer with a blow to the kidney.

            He jumps out of the way, so it’s a miss, but he doesn’t manage to get his hands on her, either. The third officer does, wrenching her arm behind her back and jamming his electro-shock prod into her side.

            Every muscle in Rey’s body tenses, screams, then goes absolutely limp. The shock doesn't render her unconscious, but it’s more than strong enough to stun her. She falls to the cobblestones with a groan. Sensation begins returning to her fingertips, her toes, but that’s not sufficient to get her up and her fighting. This was probably not worth it, even if it did feel sinfully good to elbow someone in the face after all that she personally has been through.

            The unharmed officers each take one of her arms and pull her up off the street, while the third staggers behind, holding his nose and scowling. Rey spies a figure in a black coat up the street, just waiting. Not Kylo Ren, which is what she initially thinks in her delirium. That wouldn’t make any sense. When the officers had called in her feigned scuffle, someone must have alerted Hux. They drag Rey over, although she “tries” to jerk out of their grasp, and push her down to her knees in front of him.

            Hux, for the first time today, looks absolutely delighted. “Huh,” he sneers. “You know, I really expected more of a fight out of you.”

            And then he backhands her, just like he did in Kylo Ren’s bedchamber. It cuts through the heavy numbness that tingles through her body and wakes her up. She raises her head to glare at him, one of the most withering glares she’s ever leveled at anyone. That’s all the excuse he needs to do it again, this time taking an open palm to her other cheek. Hard.

            “You’ll pay for this,” she hisses, once she recovers.

            “Will I? I haven’t left a mark on you.” Hux says it with the confidence of someone who’s either doled out this punishment or been on the receiving end of it innumerable times. He bends over at the waist to look into her eyes. “Oh, you’re thinking of telling Ren. You can’t be serious.”

            Rey spits in his face. He recoils.

            “Augh—” He straightens up to wipe her saliva off with a leather-gloved hand. “You little mongrel. And here I was, prepared to cut a deal.”

            “A deal,” Rey says flatly. “There’s no way I would ever agree to anything that comes out of your mouth.”

            “That’s too bad,” says Hux. “I was going to make you such a generous offer. Because you see—” And he leans back down again, to condescend. “If I inform him of your little escape attempt, you’ll wish you had only been slapped. But if you say nothing about my raising a hand to you…”

            “I didn’t say he’d make you pay,” Rey says, jerking her chin up at him. “I will.”

            “Ha!” It’s a sharp bark of laughter. “We’ll just see about that.” He nods at the officers, who pull her to her feet, and then he takes her bicep in his hand, not gently, and begins pulling her away. “Come along. We have one more store to patronize.”

            “We have everything we came for.”

            “You are not the person who makes those decisions,” Hux says. He walks quickly, and Rey’s legs aren’t entirely recovered from her stunning just yet. She stumbles on the cobblestone street, just once, trying to keep up with him. She knows that this isn’t really about her. For whatever reason, she’s important to Kylo Ren, whom Hux deplores. He just can’t take it out on Kylo as easily as he thinks he can on her, in her current position.

            He has no idea how much she could make him suffer.

            They draw up to a boutique toward the opposite end of the street. The sign above it, written in a curly, formal variant of Aurebesh that Rey has to squint at to decipher, reads Ordula’s, which is not very helpful. Then again, this store doesn’t really need any further description. The mannequins in the windows — a variety of bodies, humanoid and otherwise, in all shapes and sizes, clad in only the most elaborate and ornate underthings that Rey has ever seen — do most of the talking.

            “This is where I should have brought you first,” Hux remarks. “I’m not so sure you have need of those other clothes at all.”

            Rey whips her head around and stares at him.

            “Oh, what?” he asks. “Surely you’re past the point of being precious about it now. We both know why he’s keeping you alive, and it isn’t so he can make you talk. It’s so he can make you sing.”

            “You know far less than you think,” Rey snarls.

            Hux is unfazed. “As I said, I don’t want to have to make more than one trip if he decides something’s missing from your wardrobe.” He releases her arm with a shove toward the door. “Go on.”

            Rey staggers forward a couple of steps, wanting desperately to scream, or cry hot, angry tears, or punch something. He’s a good target, Hux, standing there so very self-satisfied in his impeccable First Order uniform. Never once in the past day has she felt as close to snapping as she does right now.

            She doesn’t, though. She doesn’t lash out. Not because doing so would open that door to the Dark, although it would, or blow her cover of powerlessness, which it also would. She doesn’t retaliate only because she knows he’d like it if she did. It would give him another excuse to try and inflict the sense of powerlessness and impotence he feels in the presence of Kylo Ren upon her. She won’t grant him that. That would be the very worst thing she could do to herself.

            Drawing a deep breath, Rey puts her hand on the doorknob and turns it.


            She opens the door to the shop and it feels like she’s entered another universe entirely, one that exists through a lens of pink and gold and cream. When she crosses the threshold, she steps through a sensor beam that sounds a chime. Two female Twi’lek look up from the front counter. Rey has met a few Twi’lek before, although she hasn’t spent much time with any singular one, but she knows their reputation for beauty and grace and thinks it fitting that they should be the faces of a shop like this one. That probably gets a lot of customers aspiring to such beauty and grace through the door.

            One of the women is young, the Twi’lek equivalent of Rey’s age, with green skin and long headtails — lekku, they’re called. She blinks at Rey, her mouth open, as if Rey had caught her mid-sentence. The other... well, at second glance, she may not be fully Twi’lek at all. Her skin is a light blue, but her ears aren’t as pointed as Twi’lek women’s ears typically are, and her lekku are slightly shorter. She is also not as tall and lean as a typical Twi’lek, or at least not the ones Rey had glimpsed dancing in the occasional holovid sold and resold from greedy eye to greedy eye on Jakku, which she realizes is probably not representative of the entire species. This part-Twi’lek woman has wide hips and a full bosom; she appears middle-aged, and, like her younger counterpart, is utterly entrancing.

            Rey is immediately at a loss, because she doesn’t believe she possesses much natural magnetism. She feels much too awkward to be in this shop which sells fancy underthings, and her pride still stings from the conversation with Hux just moments before. But she straightens, recovers what dignity she can, and says, “Hello. I’m looking to purchase—”

            The older Twi’lek, the one who might be part-human, says something rapidly in Twi’leki, a language that Rey isn’t quite fluent enough in to follow, to her younger counterpart. Rey watches her lekku move with the sounds that come out of her mouth. Then they both look at Rey again.

            Rey clears her throat. “Sorry, I’m looking for—”

            “I know exactly what you need,” says the older Twi'lek woman, this time in Galactic Basic. “Follow me to the back. Dessa, mind the front.”

            Dessa nods, staring at Rey a moment longer before busying herself with straightening a nearby display. Rey passes her and goes with the other woman, who leads her past rectangular racks of garments ranging from glittery and shiny to semi-translucent and barely-there to a series of fitting rooms separated from the wider shop by velvety curtains. She pulls a curtain back for Rey, then steps inside after her.

            “I can change on my own,” Rey says stiffly. “Thank you.”

            The woman shakes her head. “My name is Nara Ordula,” she says. “This is my shop. And I will be taking care of you today.”

            She raises her hands in front of her chest, and Rey notices that she wears at least one ring on each of her fingers. She reaches over and adjusts the one on the index finger of her right hand, one that appears to be a bright blue gemstone, and the gemstone flickers and fades — a hologram — revealing the Resistance emblem behind it.

            “I know who you are, young Jedi,” says Nara Ordula.

            “Oh,” says Rey, immediately relieved but a little suspicious. She reaches out through the Force to read Ordula’s intent, and when she finds her to be telling the truth, she lets out an audible exhale. Some of the tension ebbs from her shoulders. “That’s— that’s not at all what I was expecting.”

            “You must have heard that the General’s gone to great lengths to cultivate her spy network,” Ordula prompts.

            “Of course. I just haven’t met many spies personally.” And for some reason, she expected something… different. Something other than a woman running a store that sells fancy undergarments. “And I- didn’t think I’d find one in Canto Bight, of all places. It seems like everyone here would be content so long as the First Order stays out of their business.”

            “Ah, well. Eyes and ears everywhere,” says Ordula offhandedly. “Besides, the First Order has increased taxes on my imports threefold. I know no love for them.”

            For some reason, this sits uneasily with Rey. Surely the Resistance should be about more than just personal gain, or personal grudges? But Ordula notices, and she smiles. “Oh, young Jedi,” she says, chuckling. “We can’t all be idealists. That is something you should make peace with. But yes, there is more to my reasoning than that, although all you need to know is that I’ve no desire to see anything like the Empire reinstated in this galaxy.”

            Rey nods, satisfied. “That’s fair enough. Do you… know why I’m here?”

            “Not exactly, but I have a guess.” Ordula nods in the direction of the front of the shop, where, Rey realizes, Hux must still be standing outside the door, waiting impatiently for her to be fitted.

            “Ah, no.” Rey can’t help but laugh, finally. It’s so ridiculous, to think she’d somehow instated herself as Hux’s lover! Through what, a mind trick? Ludicrous. She can barely stomach a five-minute conversation with the man.

            She laughs, and laughs, so hard that she feels her eyes sting. Maybe it’s the sheer comfort of finding an ally in this unexpected place after being surrounded entirely by foes that threatens to overwhelm her. She composes herself quickly and shakes her head. “No, not him, no. He believes I’m a prisoner. But I do— have some need for what you’re selling.”

            “A prisoner. Hm.” Ordula looks her over, lips pressed together in a smile. “But you’re not.”

            “I know what I’m doing,” says Rey. Saying that aloud, she finds that she still truly believes it. She came here with a clear purpose, and she hasn’t yet lost it. She hasn't yet lost herself, either. All she needed was a little room to breathe to remember that. She repeats herself with more certainty. “I know what I’m doing.”

            Ordula’s smile broadens. “Good. I’ll need to take your measurements, and I prefer to do so the old-fashioned way. If you wouldn’t mind removing that jacket, you can leave your underclothes on. Don’t be shy — I’ve seen everything.”

            “I’m sure,” says Rey, who is more than happy to remove the major’s jacket she’d been given earlier, even if in doing so she reveals the standard-issue First Order undergarments underneath. “Running a shop like this…” She trails off, unsure of where she’s going with that. She can’t actually imagine what running a shop like this is like.

            “I’ve seen more bodies, and more types of bodies, than you can count,” says Nara Ordula, completing the thought for her. “And I have fitted them all. Hold your arms out from your sides, please.”

            When Rey complies, extending her arms, Ordula wraps a thin strip of cloth over her bust, then just under her breasts, making a note of how the tick marks align with each other. As she repeats this process around Rey’s waist, she clicks her tongue. “Such a small waist,” she says, “So slight. But strong. Well-muscled. Have you ever heard the story of Princess Leia and the Golden Chain? I think of a body like yours. Slight, strong.”

            Rey forces a smile, awkwardly. She’s not sure how she feels about that comparison. “I always thought that was a very disrespectful legend, even when I first heard it as a girl.”

            Ordula scoffs as she measures Rey’s hips. “And why so? It’s a tale of how she was underestimated by her captor, of how she turned a great disadvantage into an opportunity. It reflects very well on her, and very poorly on Jabba the Hutt, who made the grave mistake of seeing her only for her beauty.”

            Rey frowns. “I never thought about it that way. But isn’t it sort of meant to be a… a titillating story?”

            “Depends on who is doing the telling.” Ordula wraps the cloth around the widest part of Rey’s hips. “My people — the women in particular — have been subject to many humiliations throughout our history, during the time of the Empire but also the age of the old Republic. To tell the story of Leia the Huttslayer is to renew hope that someday all our slavers and oppressors may meet their ends choked by the chains they bound us with.”

            Rey is quiet for a moment.

            “I’ve never met her personally,” Ordula continues. “I’m curious, have you ever asked her what she thinks of the whole thing?”

            “Well,” says Rey, actually flushing a bit, “in the version I heard, she wasn’t allowed any clothing at all save the chain. So, no. I haven't brought it up.”

            “Ha!” Ordula actually throws her head back and laughs. Rey watches her in the fitting room’s floor-to-ceiling mirror, wondering what’s so funny. “Oh, young Jedi. No, no. What she actually wore, we sell out of every year, despite our dear Supreme Leader trying to have them all melted down. Perhaps even because of it.” She winks, then looks Rey over again. “In fact…”

            “I think we should probably stay well away from that,” Rey says quickly.

            “Of course,” Ordula says. “I know exactly what you need. Wait here.”

            She exits through the curtain, leaving Rey alone with her thoughts for a good few minutes. Rey replays the story of Leia — the Huttslayer — in her head. It doesn’t make her think of Kylo Ren, who she knows isn’t drawn to her for her looks. No, she thinks instead of Hux, who had spent the day dragging her around and batting her about like some sort of plaything, who has no idea how lucky he is that she’s concealing her true strength. Maybe she could make that serve her needs for some future reckoning. That wasn’t an option she had considered until Ordula brought it up.

            Rey is somewhat stunned by how it feels to have a true conversation with someone, even a stranger, wearing no masks or pretenses, making no mental calculations. How intensely she wishes she could speak to Finn, if only for just a few minutes. Finn would certainly appreciate hearing how much Kylo and Hux loathe each other, although Rey would have to omit the details of how she came to know what she knows. He’d smile, and put his hand on her shoulder and squeeze it, saying he can’t believe how she put up with all that, that if it were him he’d have been scrambling for the exit the second he stepped foot on the Conquest II.

            That’s not true, of course. Finn is still braver and more committed than he’ll ever admit to himself. If he had a mission, one of utmost importance to Resistance, he’d see it through to the end. Just like she will. She puts her hand on her own shoulder and squeezes, closing her eyes, and she imagines returning to the Vigilance and telling Finn that she’d been to Canto Bight, and that it was, in fact, a wretched place. Finn’s probably due here himself in a few days — somewhere in this city, there’s a Force-sensitive child. They might turn this trip into something to laugh about later, the peculiarity of how, even with the galaxy being as vast as it is, they just barely missed each other.

            When Ordula returns, she has a number of garments laid over her arms. She holds one out to Rey; it’s much less ostentatious than anything on the displays Rey had gawked at. Just straps that cross in the back and slightly padded cups to cover her breasts. “For shape and support,” Ordula says. “Out of curiosity, what is it you normally wear?”

            “Nothing like this,” Rey says, pressing the pad of her thumb into the cup and frowning. “I usually just bind them. It’s efficient and keeps everything out of the way.”

            “Oh, young Jedi,” Ordula sighs. “Then today you’ll discover a new galaxy.”

            Trying on undergarments while knowing she has to go back up to the Conquest II in a very short while and face Kylo Ren should feel anything but fun, and yet somehow it is. This is the one shop where Rey truly feels like she has some say in what she will and won’t get to take with her, which helps. But Nara Ordula herself makes all of the difference. She’s a breezy conversationalist and a more than adept salesperson, possessing an incredible depth of knowledge of the physics of underthings, a field Rey had no idea even existed. She affords Rey moments of privacy to change, although if asked she enters to help with the magnetic clasps that fasten so many of the pieces together. She assures Rey that she will get the hang of them eventually.

            Some of the garments she brings forth are plain, and some have extra ties and ribbons that wrap around Rey’s ribcage or criss-cross over her back, but none of the choices are too uncomfortable or too restrictive, and none have glitzy stones or other ornamentation. Rey marvels at how well Ordula has read her tastes.

            “I think I understand,” Rey says, pulling a translucent, trailing green robe over her shoulders, “why you must be a very good spy.”

            “Oh?” Ordula plucks at the robe, straightening it, making small adjustments that help it settle on Rey’s body. “You flatter me. Why is that?”

            “The intimacy of all this,” Rey says, looking down at her robed form as she works at the ties in the front. “I mean, the nature of your profession. You must hear so much.”

            In the mirror, she can see Ordula grinning at her. “It’s true,” she says. “I’m in most of the bedchambers on Canto Bight, and a good few of the ones on that monstrosity the First Order calls a flagship.” A sigh. “Boys and their toys.”

            “Really? You’ve heard about— goings on on the First Order flagship?”

            “Gossip knows no bounds. I can even tell you what happens in Kylo Ren’s bed.”

            Rey freezes. “What happens,” she says, voice flat, as an icy chill runs down her spine. It would be too soon for anyone to have heard about what had transpired between them, wouldn’t it? But that would mean— no, that’s not possible. She had been his first, too. Hadn’t she?

            Ordula misinterprets her look, throws her head back, and laughs. “Oh, I know,” she says. “I don’t like to think about it either. We’re both lucky that there’s actually nothing to contemplate.”

            “There’s… nothing.” Rey blinks. “You mean nothing goes on?”

            “That’s right,” Ordula says, nodding. “And I would know. I’ve seen several young women in this very fitting room, aspiring courtesans and consorts with wealthy sponsors who want to curry his favor.”

            Rey stares into the mirror, incredulous. “These sponsors think sending him women will do that?”

            “Or men and otherwise, I’d assume, although I’ve personally outfitted only women. Don’t underestimate the value of companionship, especially to people in positions of power. It’s lonely at the top.” Ordula gestures for Rey to remove the robe and holds out another for her to try, this one in red with a few more frills. “But Kylo Ren is notoriously unpredictable in all things. People keep trying to guess at his desires, hoping one day they’ll hit the mark and win him over. So far, no one’s found the formula.”

            “There’s a formula?” Rey asks. She feels like this is the closest she’s come to really talking about what’s happening to her with anyone, despite Ordula’s ignorance of the nature of her mission. Even Poe and Leia had danced around these particular facets of her mission. Companionship seems like a delicate way to put it. Then again, hadn’t she had that thought about active listening?

            “There always is,” says Ordula, as Rey hangs the green robe back up and takes the red one, frowning at it. It’s much shorter, but she starts tugging it on anyway. “It’s never just about sex, either. Of course, it does vary — everyone has preferences. But no one knows his. Beauty? Any one of the women I’ve seen hoping to attract his attention would have turned heads on the street. Intelligence? In that profession, it’s a necessity. They’ve all been quick-witted, save Prinna. That girl. Very sweet. Utterly hopeless.” She sighs, then says, “I must be boring you.”

            “Oh, no,” Rey says, perhaps a little too quickly. “You aren’t.”

            Ordula straightens out one of Rey’s sleeve-ruffles. “Temperament matters, but a man with his reputation is in no position to make demands. Proximity to power is a possibility, but I know at least one of those women has connections to planetary nobility. She may have been a duchess, or nearly a duchess. And then strength.” She smooths a wrinkle out of Rey’s other sleeve. “The most difficult to measure. Still, you must think that anyone who volunteers to put up with his infamous tantrums has a backbone, or at least enough ambition to compensate.”

            “Yes,” Rey says quietly. “You must.”

            “And yet, so far, he hasn’t taken the bait. He must be choosy. Unless, of course, it’s a tenet of his beliefs.” Ordula tries to catch Rey’s eye in the mirror, as if she and she alone could confirm or deny this. “But they call him the Jedi Killer. I thought he would eschew the old ways.”

            Rey avoids Ordula’s eyes by looking down at the robe. “You said nothing happens. So he just doesn’t accept them? These… people who are sent to him?”

            “Turns them away without a second glance.”

            “Huh.”

            “And then they come back here to return their purchases, unworn, every time. That’s how I know.” The red robe has some sort of waist cinch at the back that needs adjusting. Ordula pulls at it idly. “One of these days, mark my words, someone will catch his eye. He’s a young man in possession of an army, and his blood runs hot. It’s a universal truth that he must want for a partner.”

            “He might drop dead before he can find one,” Rey mutters.

            “We can only hope.” Ordula slips Rey another smile. This one might be knowing, or simply sly. “I think the green one suits you better,” she says, eyeing the red robe with some distaste. “Don’t you agree?”

            And so it continues, with Ordula sorting her selections into “purchase” and “discard” stacks. Rey finds her favorite set, by far, near the end. The top is black, and mostly comprised of some sheer netting material save for a band of opaque fabric right over the center of her breasts that keeps her covered. Under the band are those molded cups again, but they aren’t too obtrusive this time. The top clasps just behind her neck as well as under her shoulder blades, leaving much of her back exposed. Still, it feels secure, possibly because it ends at her lower ribs and is slightly longer than the other ones she’s tried. The matching, solid black shorts sit well below her navel, but they cover her completely to her mid-upper thighs.

            Rey examines herself in the mirror, but not for too long. Clothing has never been about appearance for her, but about functionality. She likes how she feels that she can move in this, breathe in this, how it would be easy, once she got the hang of those magnetic clasps, to put it on and take it off. She also likes how, despite the slight amount of decorative shaping, the top seems more determined to keep her breasts firmly in place than to show them off.

            Still, these clinging dark underthings are a reasonably fresh concept to her; she’d always worn soft, light fabric on Jakku, and despite changing up her outer garments over the years she never really thought about adjusting what she wore underneath. Some of the other underthings she’s already picked are sandy beige, in defiance of Hux’s decree in the tailor’s shop. She doesn’t mind this piece being black, but she thinks she might as well try her luck.

            “Do you have it in any other colors?” she asks.

            Ordula chuckles. “Where you’ll be, young Jedi,” she says, peering over Rey’s shoulder at her reflection, “we both know you’ll want to wear black.”

            The way she says this could not be any more different from the suggestion Hux had made before. It's as if she and Rey are sisters-in-arms, as if they share a terrible but exciting secret. Rey turns her head, and she realizes then that Ordula does know, must know, had come to know over the course of their conversation what Rey’s purpose is here. She had either been too polite or too discreet to pry, but she knows. Replaying their interaction, it’s obvious: the interest Rey had taken in Kylo Ren’s preferences, or how, before that, she’d said “No, not him” to the implication she was sleeping with Hux, or the simple act of arriving with an elite First Order escort to an store that sells undergarments. Ordula makes a good spy, and Rey realizes belatedly that she herself would make a very, very bad one.

            She swallows, and her mouth opens to offer some excuse or justification, but Ordula shakes her head and puts a finger to her lips. Some things, after all, are better left unspoken.

            Then she leans forward, and she whispers, “Make him choke.”

Chapter Text

            There is no welcoming party, no grand assembly this time when Rey and Hux return to the Conquest II. Rey wonders about this at first, thinking surely if Kylo Ren makes everyone line up to receive him, Hux would too. Then again, Hux probably doesn’t want anyone knowing that his Supreme Leader sent him on such a frivolous errand in the first place.

            Instead, Kylo Ren awaits them personally, flanked by two robed attendants and no other guards. He watches Rey step out of the shuttle, inscrutable. Not only can she not read his expression, but she can’t sense his feelings at all. She frowns. She’s been able to feel him in some capacity since Hays Minor. He has to be actively closing her out of their bond. Usually, that’s her role. Why is he blocking her now? What doesn’t he want her to know?

            Rey shakes it off. She stands there, back in her handcuffs, waiting for Hux to emerge from his side of the shuttle. Kylo looks her over, just briefly, but unsubtly. In the tailor’s shop on Cantonica, she’d changed into one of her new pairs of trousers, a light black undershirt, a sleeveless jacket that made of heavy, rigid black fabric that flares at the waist and tapers out to points at the sides, and the shorter of the two pairs of boots. Her hair is still tied in its low bun at the nape of her neck, although it had loosened over the course of many fittings. She feels as though someone had glimpsed her from a distance and then rendered her as a silhouette of her normal self: the shape of her is right, but all her lines have been shaded in black.

            Hux circles around the shuttle and comes to stand next to Rey, looking at Kylo, then at her, then back at Kylo. “As you see, Supreme Leader, this little endeavor was a success.”

            “I trust she didn’t give you any trouble, General,” says Kylo to Hux. “You both seem to have made it back in one piece.”

            “Oh, no.” Hux folds his hands behind his back and turns his head to give her a meaningful look. “No trouble at all.”

            It would be the perfect opening for Rey to contradict him, and he knows it. He has such an arrogant certainty that she won’t. And he’s right. She won’t, but not for the reasons he thinks. There’s Ordula’s voice in her head telling her to use his false perception of her as armor. Let Hux think she fears Kylo Ren’s wrath enough that she’ll keep his secrets. He’ll come to regret the day he underestimated her. So Rey only nods, and says nothing.

            Hux’s mouth turns up at the corners, and he straightens to face Kylo again. “May I return her to your custody and resume my post on the Finalizer, then?”

            “Yes. Go.”

            With a last glance at Rey, at his “handiwork,” Hux leaves, starting across the hangar bay to presumably find another shuttle to take him back to his own Star Destroyer. By his pace, he can’t get off the Conquest II quickly enough.

            Kylo directs the attendants to bring Rey’s new things to his chambers, then he regards her. He seems to forget his words for a second or two before he just says, “Rey. With me.”

            Rey bristles at being called to his side like a pet, but she truly has nowhere else to go and this is not the place to make a stand. Besides, no one’s dragging her around this time, so all things considered it’s a slight improvement. She walks over to him, and he turns on his heel and heads toward the elevators with her trotting to keep up.

            He calls the elevator, and they both step inside. She still can’t hear his thoughts, but she knows he’s also thinking about the last time they were in an elevator together, alone. The words that were exchanged, the possible futures they’d shared with each other. How his eyes had fixed on her face when she stepped close to him and offered her help in turning back to the Light. How the floor momentarily dropped out from under her feet when he said he knew who her parents were. How both their visions came to pass, but not in the way they’d anticipated.

            A minute of silence follows, and then he is the first one to speak. “Your new clothes,” he says. “They suit you?”

            At first she doesn’t recognize that as a question and thinks he’s trying to give her a compliment, but then she turns her head to see him looking at her, expecting an answer. She glances down at herself. It’ll take some getting used to, but that’s more revealing than anything she wants to admit to him. “Yes,” she replies.

            He responds with a nod so slight that it’s almost imperceptible, then looks back at the elevator doors. And so does Rey.

            It’s a long elevator ride, and they’re alone. She wonders why he doesn’t touch her. That was very nearly the first thing he did when he got her alone yesterday, take off her clothes and touch her. Today he hasn’t so much as made another request for her to go to bed with him. He stands a step or two behind her and keeps his hands to himself.

            Beneath her clothes, Rey wears one of the plainer sets of underthings from Ordula’s, one that had shifted to match her skin tone when she put it on. She revisits all of the things Ordula had said about Kylo Ren. Rey knew he hadn’t ever taken a lover, obviously, but she hadn’t known he had opportunity. Many opportunities. It makes sense that power and prestige would draw people to him, people who want a share of that power, or want a favor granted, or want to advance socially. Maybe people who just— find him attractive. Those must exist. The point is, if he wanted sex, he could have had it. He likely could have had it when he was Kylo Ren and not Supreme Leader yet, or even when he was Ben Solo, with someone drawn to the promise of his bloodline. Or to him.

            So Kylo doesn’t just want release, but Rey thinks she knew that already. Sexual desire is not the root of their relationship. It’s just a symptom. She doesn’t know how well she can apply the moral of Leia’s Huttslayer story to him. Maybe he doesn’t know everything she’s learned since they last fought side by side, but he doesn’t underestimate her strength. He is drawn to her because they are both equals and opposites.

            The first elevator slows and stops. When its doors open, Kylo takes her arm and escorts her to the next one, not roughly but not particularly kindly, either. Two Stormtroopers pivot to stand at attention as they pass. Kylo has to punch in a code to call the second elevator, so they remain in this hall for a good minute or so. Rey wonders what they must look like: him, the Supreme Leader of the First Order, holding her, a smartly-dressed yet still-restrained prisoner by the arm, as they both wait for the elevator. She’s not sure if the officer who’d come to inform Kylo of the fate of her clothes that morning had caught a glimpse of her, but if he had, half the ship has probably heard about them by now. In her three years with the Resistance, Rey has learned how quickly rumors spread in close quarters.

            The second elevator arrives, and they step inside, turning almost in unison to face the doors again. And then all is quiet but for the workings of machinery. Rey isn’t going to be the one to break the silence.

            “Join me for dinner,” Kylo rumbles at last.

            That is not what Rey was expecting. Wary, she twists at the waist to look back at him, but he’s keeping his expression as neutral as he can and keeps himself closed off to her. Nothing helps her read his intent.

            “That, obviously, is your prerogative,” she replies, somewhat testily, “seeing as I am your prisoner.”

            “So you will.”

            “That’s what I just said.”

            “Hm.” He looks her over again, briefly. “Good.”

            And she gets to ponder what that means until they reach his floor.


            Rey expects him to lead her to a new destination, but they go to the main entrance of his chambers. She waits there while Kylo enters the code. He conceals it from her, of course. There’s something inherently comical about the de facto ruler of the galaxy standing in the hallway entering his own door code. It seems like the sort of thing he would have someone do for him, a person posted here specifically to open his doors. Maybe he likes doing things himself. He’s certainly a more mobile and aggressive Supreme Leader than Snoke had been.

            When the doors open and she steps inside, Rey is startled to notice that there’s a new opening in the wall of the sitting room, across from the washroom. A section of the smooth, dark paneling has slid back to reveal an aperture the size of a standard doorway. She cranes her head to look at it.

            “How many other secret doors do you have?” she asks him.

            Kylo flicks his fingers to unlock her cuffs, since she hasn’t yet. “What?”

            “I feel like everytime you come in here you open more doors. Closet doors, doors to entirely separate rooms—”

            He frowns. “They aren’t secret doors.”

            “Not to you. You know where they are.”

            “I can tell Skywalker trained you,” he says in a low voice.

            “What does that have to do with anything?”

            “He, too, was blind to what was in front of him.”

            With different delivery, it might have been a joke. Rey just says, “You said something about dinner?”

            He nods and starts toward the new doorway in the wall, and she follows. When she reaches the threshold, though, she has to stop and take it in. This room is a narrow private dining chamber taken up almost entirely by a very long black table. The ceiling isn’t particularly high, but dangling down from it, over the center of the table, is a small chandelier made of translucent black crystal which soft white light shines through. There are only two chairs and two place settings at this table: one at the far end, at the head, and the other immediately to its right. The rest of it is completely bare.

            While Rey takes this all in, Kylo walks over to the chair to the right of the head and pulls it back a bit. He turns his head to look at her, purses his lips, and, when she only looks back, makes a noise that’s a bit like clearing his throat.

            “Oh, should I- come over?” asks Rey, deeply confused.

            “Yes.”

            “All right.”

            Rey doesn’t have much occasion to eat in real chairs. The tables in the Resistance mess hall have benches. She’s certainly never had anyone pull a chair out for her before and wait for her to sit in it. She walks over, looks down at the seat, looks up at him — she might be able to intuit what to do from him if he weren’t closing her off from his thoughts! — then makes a guess and stands between the chair and the table. This, apparently, is the right guess. He pushes the chair in behind her so that when she sits, it’s a reasonable distance from the table, then goes to sit at his own place, a scant foot away from her if that.

            Now that Rey’s seated and contemplating an empty plate, she realizes how utterly ravenous she feels. She hasn’t eaten a real meal since before she left for Hays Minor, and in the intervening day or so she’d blown up a munitions depot, been dragged around Cantonica by Hux, had… she glances at Kylo, who is watching her closely, then down at her place setting. She has a good excuse to study it. There’s more cutlery laid out here than she’s ever seen. Some of it seems completely pointless. Why would you need more than one fork, much less three? What’s the use of such a small dull knife? It can’t be to keep her from having a potential weapon; there are other, real knives laid out on the table too.

            An attendant enters and fills their glasses with water. There are glasses with long stems, which Rey recognizes as wine glasses, that go unfilled. Kylo looks across at her. “Wine?”

            “Um, no.”

            He nods and looks to the attendant, who collects both their wine glasses and leaves, then re-enters shortly with a small basket of rolls, so new from the oven that steam rises from them. The smell goes straight to Rey’s empty stomach. The attendant barely has a chance to set the rolls and the accompanying butter dish — filled with real white-yellow butter — on the table before Rey is leaning across to take one. She doesn’t care that the roll’s still a little too hot; she tears it right down the middle, plucks two pats of butter out of the dish, and sandwiches them between the two halves. She bites into it with relish, such a large bite that she brings her hand up in front of her mouth as she chews, a contented noise welling up in the back of her throat.

            For a moment she forgets Kylo Ren is even there. How often does she have the occasion to eat real food, fresh food? Much of the Resistance diet is derived from non-perishables by necessity, and on Jakku? Forget it. Butter was a mere abstract concept for the first twenty or so years of Rey’s life. And this butter! It’s so rich, so silky, melting perfectly into the roll’s airy crevices. Better than any she’s had. She devours the roll and reaches for another.

            “So you like it.”

            She pauses. Kylo is watching her. He’s taken his own roll, but most of it remains on that small plate in the corner of the place setting; he has a piece of it in one hand, and is using that impractical dull knife to spread butter onto it. That’s probably the proper way. Of course he would know the proper way. She can’t tell whether he’s mocking her for not knowing, or for bypassing manners in her pursuit of food, or whether he’s stating a sincere observation.

            “It’s good,” she says. She’s not about to lie, not about food, and not when her enjoyment is so obvious. She wonders if he appreciates how good it is. She takes a second roll and rips it only half-open this time, then drops another pat of butter inside the resulting crevasse.

            “Good,” says Kylo. “I’m glad.”

            Rey pauses again, this time with the roll halfway to her mouth. “You’re... glad.”

            “I am.”

            “Well—” She doesn’t know how to respond to that. He doesn’t look any more glad than usual. Maybe there’s a softness to his eyes, but she could be reading too much into it, searching for something recognizable in him. And she won’t make that mistake a second time. “Okay.”

            “You shouldn’t starve.”

            “Right.” Rey takes a bite of her roll, and says, still chewing, “That would be unseemly.”

            “An unseemly way to kill a prisoner? Yes.” He considers this for a moment. “Although sometimes it’s an effective way to extract information. To barter. But a true death, whether in combat or execution, should be quick, painless, and personal. There’s honor in that.”

            Rey swallows her mouthful of buttery roll and says, “I didn’t think the Dark Side cared much for honor.”

            “You and I are not so unalike.”

            That is not what she was getting at. She shifts in her seat. Something about what he said nags at her. “Quick, painless, and personal.”

            “The type of death that comes at the end of a lightsaber’s blade.”

            “The death that you gave your father,” she says quietly. “Wasn’t it?”

            He says nothing.

            “The death you would have given Luke Skywalker. That you would give me.”

            “That I will give you.” His brows knit together slightly, as if he can’t believe she would think otherwise. “Because I’ll look in your eyes, before the end, and you’ll be seen. Truly seen. That’s the most you can ask from an executioner. It’s something you would give me, too, were our positions switched. I know that about you.”

            “You don’t— know that.”

            “But I do.”

            “You don’t.” Rey takes another, slower, bite of her roll. She imagines that he hasn’t had much casual company over the last few years if he thinks this is an appropriate topic for conversation over the best bread to have ever been made. She just shakes her head, and keeps eating.

            Before she can take a third roll, the attendant reappears with a wide, shallow bowl and sets it down atop the large plate nestled between all the cutlery. The bowl is filled to the brim with a thick red soup; Rey’s mouth waters at the sight of it. The attendant brings another out for Kylo, then vanishes.

            Rey does pick up her spoon for this. She’s not completely uncivilized. She folds her legs under herself so she can better lean over the table, and once the first spoonful of soup touches her lips she completely forgets about Kylo Ren once more. The soup is somehow tangy, creamy, and savory all at once. It’s smooth and it soothes her throat in a way she didn’t even know she needed. She’s not made of infinite patience. She eats about half of it with her spoon before just taking the bowl in her hands and drinking the rest.

            It’s only when Rey is licking the bowl clean, determined not to let a single drop of soup go to waste, that she notices Kylo staring at her again.

            At first she doesn’t register why. She initially assumes he finds something appealing in her undisguised delight at the deliciousness of the soup, and it curdles her mood a little bit to think he might read something filthy into her enjoyment of something so pure. Then she has the realization that, oh, where he comes from people probably don’t lick bowls clean, just like they don’t stuff whole rolls in their mouths. Rey has certainly never seen Leia do either thing. Her friends don’t either, really, but they also never criticize her habits. Finn’s taken to sometimes emulating her and mopping up extra sauce with his fingers, wearing a wide grin.

            And it occurs to her that if Kylo knew her at all he wouldn’t be surprised by her manners. If he knew her at all he’d know she’s a messy eater. That’s something anyone who’s spent any time around her knows. That’s something anyone who’s ever sat down for a meal with her knows.

            But they’ve never shared a meal before. All of the conversations they’ve ever had sum to a number of hours she could count on only one hand, don’t they? In that sense, they may as well be strangers.

            It feels wrong, though, to think of Kylo Ren as a stranger. They’ve touched each other in ways that no one else has. They’ve crawled around each other’s minds, left marks skin-deep and deeper. And he was inside her, of course. But she doesn’t know the things about him that she knows about Poe and Rose and Finn. What food does he love, or hate? Are there objects that are important to him beyond that lightsaber? Would he rise early or late if given the choice? What shape do his days take? He doesn’t know the shape of her days, and he has never seen her smile, but he has known her greatest fears. He knows everything and nothing about her.

            What are they to each other, then? Enemies, certainly. They’re entrenched on opposing sides of an ideological conflict and neither one of them is budging right now. You don’t need to know someone to kill them, as he has sworn to destroy her, as she someday must destroy him since he is determined to continue down this chosen path. Equals and opposites. But what had they been, friends? No. Not ever friends. Once confidants, but never friends. Strange, because usually confiding is predicated on friendship. Usually you’re friends first, before you start spilling your secrets.

            So are they lovers, now? Not quite, she thinks, although their bodies have done what lovers’ bodies do. He’d like that, though. He’d like them to be lovers. But what does that even mean? How can he be her lover when he knows nothing about her? When he doesn’t know her habit of eating with her hands or her sense of humor or what her smile looks like? Why is he not considering what would happen if he learns of those things and doesn’t like them?

            And why should she care?

            Rey reaches across the table, takes another warm, flaky roll from the basket, and tears it with her hands so she can stuff a piece in her mouth. It’s good. Stop thinking.

            That’s difficult, though, when he’s sitting just there, close enough that they might bump legs under the table if they’re not careful. It grows ever more impossible to ignore him when the silent attendant reappears to remove their empty bowls and dirty spoons and leaves them alone with each other. And he’s right here, saying nothing, shoulders rigid, dark eyes fixed on her fingers as they tear the roll apart, still blocking his half of the bond so she can’t tell what he’s thinking.

            Maybe he’s wondering how he could ever want a wild desert creature — a feral thing, as Hux had called her — whose fingers are now sticky with crumbs. The thought makes her cheeks prickle with irritation. It’s not embarrassment at being judged by him, but the notion of being judged in the first place. What right does he have, to look at her with disbelief that she would lick every drop of soup from that bowl? How can he scrutinize the way she eats when she’s certain he’s never gone hungry in his life? More people in the galaxy live like her than they do like him. It rankles. Easier to be rankled by him than be anything else. She clings to that sense of annoyance like a lifeline.

            The attendant returns moments later to set down small plates piled high with greens that are dressed with some sort of purple syrup. Rey reaches for the fork closest to the plate so she can begin attacking them.

            “It’s this one,” Kylo says, reaching across his plate to point out the correct fork on her place setting, his gloved hand nearly brushing her wrist.

            As admonishments from him go, it’s gentle, but Rey has already been mentally arguing with him on this topic for two minutes and she couldn’t care less which fork is right. “By the Force,” she snaps aloud. “If you ever want to take me to bed again you’ll leave my table manners be!”

            Kylo withdraws his hand as if she’s stung it, and something like hurt flickers in his eyes. For a moment he is still, and Rey is still. Then he averts his gaze from her and, with something like a grunt, slams his far hand down hard, rattling the tabletop. His glass overturns and cold water races down the length of the table, which breaks his focus on blocking her out just enough for her to feel how much more the spill upsets him.

            Then silence.

            Rey breathes, and she has to force herself to relax, little by little, even though she was expecting a reaction the moment she saw him freeze. She keeps her eyes on her own plate, both out of learned instinct and because he doesn’t deserve to get a rise out of her. If her too-harsh reaction had warranted an apology, he’s definitely un-earned it now.

            The legs of his chair scrape across the floor, and in her peripheral vision she sees him stand. He breathes too, harsh, hard, and leans forward to plant his hands on the table. He swallows audibly and says, in a low voice, “I am sorry.”

            She looks up, but he’s already halfway out of the room. The attendant reenters to sop up the spill without comment.

            Rey opens her mouth, although to what end she’s not sure. Not to call him back, surely. She does have half a mind to go after him, and she blinks at the door to the sitting room for a minute or so. He’s hidden by a corner, so she can’t see what he’s doing. She can sense him, though, simmering at the edges of her consciousness, can feel enough of what he feels to know that he’s upset, but not with her. She didn’t know he was capable of shame.

            The anger is present, though, even if self-directed. And Rey does know anger. She knows her own, and she’s known the wrath of others, some of the particularly cruel scavengers she worked under as a child. Kylo Ren is not like them, not exactly, because they would only show their anger to things they deemed lesser, taking it out on her, on luggabeasts, on objects nearby, but turning slick and sycophantic whenever they needed to make a trade or cut a deal. Rey doesn’t think Kylo capable of that deception. Whatever’s happening within him always seems determined to force its way out, through his eyes or his mouth or his hands. But it’s anger all the same, and she knows how anger works. It demands either an outlet or time to cool.

            She gives him that time by finishing her greens, which are fresh and crisp in a way she rarely experiences and doesn’t have the self-control to savor like she should. Her enjoyment is only slightly dampened by the dressing, which is a little too sickly sweet for her palate, and by her constant wondering about Kylo Ren. She picks her plate clean before long, and when the attendant comes to collect it she gets up and heads back into the sitting room.

            He’s not there. She peers through the glass panes that separate the sitting room from the bedchamber and sees him sitting at the foot of his bed, head bowed. He’s no longer blocking her out. She can feel everything, all that shame, that anger, and that disappointment. In himself.

            Rey moves closer, but keeps her distance, standing between two of the panes. Her time with Nara Ordula had imbued her silhouette self with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose, but it had not been enough to put her entirely at ease. She can tell by the way she assumed the worst and snapped at him.

            She decides to lead with a different tactic. Changing the topic, disengaging, had worked when he was wallowing before. “Thank you,” she says.

            He looks up at her.

            “For the meal,” she clarifies.

            “You’re finished?”

            “I had soup and greens and three rolls. I’d say that’s finished.”

            He frowns. “There’s more.”

            “Finished enough, then.” She leans against one of the glass partitions. “I assume you’ll have me removed to my cell now.”

            “To your cell.”

            “To spend the night.”

            Kylo blinks at her.

            “I do have a cell,” she prompts. “Don’t I?”

            “Why should you?”

            “Why should—” Rey closes her mouth, clamping down on her disbelief. “That’s where prisoners go.”

            “Not you.”

            Rey can’t help the incredulous laugh that escapes her. “There’s only one bed. Your bed.”

            “Right.”

            “Kylo, I’m not— spending the night next to you.”

            He exhales through his nose and she glimpses that same flicker of hurt again. This time, she also feels it. “Then I’ll arrange for extra blankets and sleep in the next room.”

            “What?” Rey stares at him. “It’s your bed. If anything you should make me sleep in the next room.”

            “I won’t do that.”

            “Why not? I’ve had worse.”

            He deflects. “What’s so despicable about prospect of sharing a bed with me?”

            Rey doesn’t know how to answer that, so she doesn’t reply. Shouldn’t it be self-evident?

            He looks up at her, still seated on the edge of the bed, slouched forward with his elbows resting on his thighs. “What are you afraid of?”

            “Kylo.”

            “It isn’t me.” His eyes search her face. “No, it isn’t me.”

            Rey exhales. She can feel him reaching out through the Force to probe her mind, but now that he’s no longer closing off their bond it barely matters whether he’s looking for answers or not. He can already feel what he’s seeking.

            “Wanting me,” he continues, quietly. “Embracing that want. That would be the very worst thing for you.”

            “Stop.”

            “Come here.”

            She stands her ground.

            “Come here,” he repeats. One of his hands tenses, as if to curl around a rope that will pull her toward him, but then he thinks better of that and relaxes it. “I won’t— make you.”

            That, coupled with his unprompted apology from before, intrigues Rey enough. She moves away from the glass, taking a few steps toward him, and comes to a stop a couple of feet in front of where he sits, arms folded defensively. She’s within arm’s length, if he chooses to reach for her. He cranes his neck up to look at her, eyes bright with anxiety, and she thinks, as she has before, how remarkable that such a powerfully-built man can look so pitiful, and how wide a gulf there is, still is, between pitiful and pitiable.

            Kylo sits up, picking up his shoulders and straightening his spine, and then he does reach for her, with open, gloved hands. Rey flinches like she had in the washroom and isn’t proud of it. She turns her face away, expecting another eruption. But this time he just pauses briefly, then says, his voice straining for some far-distant cousin of compassion, “Don’t fight it.”

            “I won’t stop fighting you.” There’s strain evident in her voice, too. Her breath isn’t coming quite right.

            “But don’t fight this.”

            He lays his hands, hesitantly, on her waist. Rey inhales sharply, expecting the ground to lurch under her again, expecting the Force or the universe or whatever power it is that drives her into his arms to kick in. And it doesn’t, not the way it did when they touched hands, when they kissed, when he was between her thighs. She thinks, for that, they need bare skin-on-skin contact. Still, her heart flutters behind her ribs like a trapped insect, and there’s that knot of fire in her belly that won’t untie itself. She wants so badly for him not to be right.

            And yet.

            Kylo Ren pulls her forward, into him, and with a couple of stumbling steps she’s standing between his legs, startled into uncrossing her arms. Before she can say or do anything else, he presses his face to her abdomen, beneath her breasts, and all of the air is forced out of her lungs.

            “You lie to yourself,” he mumbles into the fabric of her new jacket. “It’s what you do. You lied about your parents, and you’re lying about wanting me.”

            “I want no part of this,” she hisses, her cheeks stinging with the falsehood, with humiliation, with chagrin at the knowledge that he isn’t wrong about her this time.

            He falls quiet for a moment, just breathing against her, his face hidden from her sight. She can only see his dark hair, which dried in soft waves after the shower he took earlier, and his shoulders, taut with anticipation. They’re going to boil over again, she knows. The two of them, together. They’re going to end up intertwined, a tangle of limbs on the floor or in the bed. Coming here was dangerous, but not for the reasons she’d thought.

            Then he says, “I want to put my mouth on you.”

            Rey, her thoughts interrupted, can only manage to say, “What?”

            “Taste you.” He nuzzles into her.

            “No, I… I know.” What she doesn’t understand is why. She knows this is something people do; Poe mentioned it in his list of all the sex acts she could reasonably anticipate between human bodies. However, he’d also told her that the odds Kylo Ren would do something like that were astronomical. It’s selfless, Poe had said. You do it for your partner’s pleasure, not yours. And a lot of people drag their feet even when asked to do it, complain about the taste, how long it takes, how nothing’s in it for them. It’s not in Kylo Ren to be the person who’d set those things aside. It just isn’t.

            Curious, she looks in his mind, past his surface feelings which already swirl within her through their bond: apprehension, arousal, an undercurrent of nervousness that he would deny. He, too, is thinking about the way it feels when they have direct contact, the rightness of it, how everything goes quiet in his unsettled mind, how his lips on her skin would give him that back. But he’s also thinking about how it felt to be inside her, moving with her, to be enveloped by her, to get lost with her hands on his skin. It was better, he would never admit aloud, than any of the times he’d contemplated taking her by force, his lightsaber blade crackling inches from her neck. No, what they’d actually done was better, his own performance aside, and she doesn’t want to give it to him again. But this, maybe this—

            Kylo jerks his head once, roughly, to the side. “Out.”

            Rey is annoyed by how, in this intimate moment, an apology comes so quickly to her lips that she has to bite it back. “All right,” she says softly.

            He looks up at her, chin resting against her abdomen.

            “We can do that.” She brings her hands down to his shoulders, even though what she really wants is to run her fingers through his hair. Too close, though. Fingernails dragging across his scalp might reactivate that compulsion to meld with him. “But just that. Nothing else.”

            “Hmm.” He studies her for a moment, and then he sits back and grasps at the hem of her jacket, pulling her closer to the bed. He tries to yank it up, and she covers his gloved hands with her bare ones.

            “No,” she says. “There’s no reason for me to undress all the way for this.”

            “Rey,” he says, clearly annoyed.

            “Unless you want to undress too.” She reaches out and unfastens his cloak. That’s only practical. It’d just get in the way. “Then we’d be even.”

            He exhales loudly through his nose and shifts his grip on her waist to pick her up and toss her, near-effortlessly, onto the bed. That would be a no, then.

            Rey does sit up briefly to get rid of her stiff jacket, just for her own comfort, but doesn’t remove the shirt underneath. Then she pushes her way up the mattress so she can recline on the pillows and leaves the rest to him. He crawls onto the bed after her and begins unlacing her boots. She’s a little surprised, impressed, at how quickly his thick gloved fingers are able to navigate those knots, but he’s probably had so much practice undoing his own buckles that this is easy for him.

            Before long, he yanks off one boot, then its twin, and then his hands are back on her hips, pulling down her breeches and her underwear together, casting them aside with her socks. Rey is privately relieved that he’s keeping his gloves on for now. She wants as much time as possible to prepare herself for the moment when they finally touch.

            The air on the ship is cold, constantly filtered and blown about, and her bare skin is chilled by the exposure, the fine hairs on her legs standing on end. When Kylo Ren reaches up and smooths his hands down her thighs, over her knees, down her shins, she outright shivers. They didn’t take much time to undress before and he doesn’t seem all that inclined to tarry, but now that they’re going into this with intent there’s a little room for admiration. For her part, she marvels at how, when he looks down at her legs and hips with such naked want, there’s a delicacy to his features she never noticed before, in his downcast eyes, his eyelashes, his long hair, and his lips. It must come from his mother’s side, whatever that quality is. Rey is too stubborn still to acknowledge it as anything close to beauty.

            He shifts up a little further so that he can lay down with his face above her belly, and then he just stays there, hovering a few inches out from contact, as he wonders so loudly how to begin that Rey can sense it without probing. She doesn’t know either, but she too is frozen, just staring at him, suddenly struck senseless with anticipation.

            Kylo lowers his mouth to her skin at last, kissing her just below her navel. And it's as if the ship jerks, the galaxy itself jerks, suddenly set to rights. Rey fists both her hands in his sheets, the embers of want within her reigniting once again, and she gasps.

            That was the difficult part, getting started. As soon as he’s touched her they both know they need more of that, more touching. He wraps his hands around her thighs and starts kissing a trail down to her pubic hair as she tries desperately to keep still. When he reaches it, when he’s finally down between her legs, he just buries her face there, not quite using his mouth just yet, but breathing her in, dragging his nose through the coarse brown curls. Scenting her.

            There are so many conflicting urges inside Rey—to close her eyes, to open her mouth, to clamp it shut, to move with him, to stay immobile, to run a hand through his hair, to keep her hands to herself—but nowhere in her heart of hearts does she want him to stop. She keeps her eyes open, and she’s glad she does, because just for a brief moment he opens his too and looks up at her from between her legs, igniting the very air between them.

            Then he lowers his gaze once more and presses his lips to her, closed-mouthed. It doesn’t contribute to any new stirring sensation, but it’s also not bad, not nearly objectionable, far from it. He does this a few times, changing the placement of his mouth, before having the idea to kiss her down there like he kisses elsewhere, parting his lips and pressing his tongue to her. And that—that!—that bit of inspiration makes all the difference. Again, there’s no immediate spark, but the added warmth and texture that the contact provides makes her hips wriggle of their own accord.

            So more of that. He gets the message. He hears it from her loud and clear. He tries a few things, tries swiping his tongue inside her, which is strange and exciting and heady for a minute before it doesn’t really go anywhere. When he realizes that no longer works, he moves his mouth up on instinct and sucks and oh, yes, this. Her clit, she knows, she has recently learned, but she’d completely forgotten about it until just now when he somehow found it again. No, not somehow. There’s no mystery. The connection between them has strengthened enough that her body might well be his again.

            And his body, too, is hers. Rey feels him, hard, how very nearly painful it is to be that hard, as he pushes his hips into the mattress for some slight release. She knows this is the time to touch him back, and she acts on that earlier impulse to slide her hand into his hair and grab. Pull. Yes. The wonderful pain from his scalp, her scalp, the subsequent rush of adrenaline. Yes. He moans into her and the vibration coupled with the sonorous depth of his voice makes her writhe.

            He picks his head up, then, and she does too, to look at him, unable to suppress the small utterance of “no” that falls from her mouth. If he were anyone else, he would smile at that. But he just keeps looking at her, at her flushed face glowing with a fresh sheen of sweat, and she can feel, for once, for the first time in so long for him, how deeply pleased he is. He doesn’t wrench his gaze from hers as he unwraps one hand from her thigh and bites the index finger of his glove so he can peel himself out of it.

            Rey inhales through her teeth, not knowing why that gesture shakes the very core of her, just knowing that somehow it does.

            Kylo keeps watching her, for her reaction, as he slowly slides a finger inside of her. It’s only now, now that he’s been working at her with his mouth for—How long? A few minutes? Forever?—a while, that she realizes how tight the fit had been the first time he did this and how much more accommodating her body has grown. He moves his finger back and forth, experimentally, just trying to learn what it feels like to be in her, and then he curls it and brushes something and Rey’s body jerks up off the bed and his jerks too, but the opposite direction, pressing into it. More of that, he knows without her having to say. More.

            He lowers his mouth to her clit again but keeps moving his finger, and as Rey’s head arches back into his pillows she wonders how he can possibly stay coordinated with everything swirling inside her, inside him, with his own desperate need sated only by the friction of the bed against the fabric of his trousers. She feels as though she’s falling through the very center of the galaxy itself as he keeps licking, sucking outside, stroking her inside with his finger, somehow finding room to add another as they both draw closer, closer, ever closer to the end.

            Rey had thought before coming here that she wouldn’t mind returning to Ahch-To, to see the waves breaking against the cliffs, wearing down the sandy beaches. She thinks now that this must be how it feels to be one of those waves, rushing to the end of a thousand-mile journey to landfall, cresting, exhilarated, the culmination of an endless aching crescendo. She presses her pelvis up, hard, against his mouth, and can feel him grind his own hips reciprocally into his mattress as they both crash and shudder for an endless moment, and then wash, exhausted, back into the sea, together.

            A moment to breathe, that’s all, and then he’s scaling her body to kiss her on the mouth this time, still needy despite their shared climax. She knows. She needs it too. When she twists her tongue around his she tastes something new, salty, musky, otherwise deeply indescribable, and she realizes that’s how she tastes in his mouth, and that she could more than stand to taste it again.

            She fumbles at his clothing. That single remaining glove has to go first, and then his jacket, his shirt. He can’t kick his boots off since they’re still fastened, so she can’t remove his trousers all the way, but she pushes them and his underwear down to his knees as they kiss. She finally allows him to yank her shirt off over her head, and then he fumbles with the clasp on the new brassiere she’s wearing, taking absolutely no notice of it whatsoever except that when it’s gone they can press chest to chest, like their hearts could somehow merge if they just got close enough.

            Gradually the need to kiss ebbs, although the need to stay connected does not. The kisses grow slower, less forceful, less desperate, as they fall back into themselves, as they really, truly, come down. She sighs into him, and he responds with one more lingering kiss before nuzzling the side of his nose against hers, uncharacteristically tender but characteristically animalistic.

            “You’re vocal,” he says at last, against her mouth.

            “Hm?”

            “You vocalize. You moan when I touch you, when I put my mouth on you.” He grazes a hand down her side. “Even when we just kiss, you hum, like you know some secret song that’s barred to me.”

            Rey blinks. She hadn’t realized she was saying or doing anything, and she certainly hadn’t meant to. “Oh. All right.”

            “It’s good.” He nods to himself and kisses her neck, then says again, “It’s good.”

            “Thank you,” Rey says awkwardly, unsure of how else she’s supposed to respond. She turns to rest her cheek against the crown of his head. “So that execution you promised me, is it tomorrow?”

            “I haven’t decided yet.”

            “Okay.”

            “It’s very possible.”

            “I understand that.”

            “Good.” He picks up his head to look at her, mouth pressed in a firm line. “I wouldn’t want you get the wrong idea about what this is or isn’t.”

            Rey barely has time to think that she’s not the only one who lies to herself before they’re kissing again.

Chapter Text

            Rey is roused from sleep by the feeling of an arm snaking under and around her and a large, warm hand covering her left breast. She hums, quietly; her still-slumbering brain assumes that this must be a very pleasant dream. After all, the hand is exploring, not grabbing hard, and she’s relaxed, with no sense of panicky, urgent need. There’s soft, even breath on the back of her neck, tickling her ear, but even that is not unwelcome. She doesn’t open her eyes.

            Then another hand presses, full palm and all fingers outstretched, against the skin below her navel. The breath at her neck hitches. Rey shifts a little more against the silken sheets as the hand slowly slides down, down, over the coarse hair there, middle and index fingers curling in between her thighs. Now that he’s discovered where to touch her, he has no trouble finding it again. He circles the pads of his fingers around her clit, not in any particular hurry just yet. She hums again, presses her cheek against the pillow.

            Wait. Now that he— now that he’s discovered where to touch her.

            Rey opens her eyes. She’s laying on her left side in Kylo Ren’s bed.

            She can’t see Kylo, obviously, but she can feel him. Not just through the Force, sharing and feeding into her growing arousal, but against her, on her. His nose in her hair, lips slightly parted, breath a little louder and faster now against her skin, his chest against her back, his cock pressing into her hip, half-hard. And his hands, of course, working at her. Rey’s own breath catches, and she squirms. “Kylo.”

            “Mm.”

            He doesn’t stop. She doesn’t quite feel that he should, nor does she try to compel him to through their bond, or via the Force. But he could stand to at least learn something. As his touch hits home and sends what feels like a single spark zinging through her belly, she fists her hand in his top sheet and says, “You need to ask first.”

            “Why?”

            She chuckles weakly, incredulous but also not, not at all, and presses her thighs together as if trying to close him out. That doesn’t help. In fact, it only does the opposite, intensifying the friction between his fingers and her bare skin, and Rey lets out a sort of choked whine that’s all too revealing. “Because— ah, because you don’t know that I want it otherwise.”

            “But you’re already warm.” He slides his hand a little lower, slips a finger inside of her, curling and uncurling it, moving it back and forth, making her hips twitch and press into his hand. He’s a very quick study, which is a compliment, sure, but also an undeniable fact. Rey doesn’t feel too bad for thinking it.

            “Doesn’t count,” she mumbles into the pillow.

            “And we’ve already done it.”

            Another long, deft finger. It’s already so much. He’s in her veins like a fever. “Well, that doesn’t give you license to—to—”

            “Take what I want,” he prompts, with what might be a hint of something like cheekiness. He moves his left hand to her other breast, brushing his thumb over her nipple.

            “Yes, exactly.”

            Kylo kisses the back of her neck. “But I know what you want,” he murmurs. “I know your mind.”

            He pushes his cock up against her harder, with more urgency, and Rey, desiring at least some small form of turnabout, leans back into him, grinding her hips against his pelvis. He groans, and she that groan reverberates through the pit of her stomach in a way she didn't even know was possible. “Well,” she says breathily, “that is cheating.”

            “That doesn’t make it any less true.” He presses his lips against her skin again, at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, but this time he sucks, hard. Rey tenses against him. She can see in his mind that his intent is to mark her, the sort of thing he knows she’ll mind later. In the moment, she doesn’t. She feels like a plasma cannon that’s been primed and is ready to fire, and he knows it, because he feels it too.

            He stops sucking at her, leaving a cold, wet spot where his mouth was. Rey misses him instantly in a way that she can’t stand.

            “But fine,” he rumbles. “Let me take you.”

            He curls his fingers again, inside her, and slides his hand down just a little, tilting his wrist to give her more of his palm to grind against. It’s tempting, so tempting, to just acquiesce, but she manages to say, between gritted teeth, “Missing a word.”

            Kylo huffs. “What is the point? You’re going to let me whether or not I’m polite.”

            He pulls back, sliding his fingers out of her and releasing her breast. Rey squeezes her eyes shut and moans, wanting, in a way that she isn’t expecting and therefore doesn’t think to control. He places a hand between her shoulder blades and pushes her over onto her front.

            “I really hate you,” she says.

            “I know.”

            She hears the fabric of the sheets rustle as he moves, his knee denting the mattress to her side, and his weight shifts as he reaches for something on his bedside table. Then he positions himself behind her and places his hands on her hips to pull them back, directing her onto her knees. He releases her to fiddle with whatever it is that he took from the table, which sounds like a jar or something else with a lid. A few moments’ pause, silent but for a quiet, sort of sticky sound. Rey doesn’t have time to look behind at what he’s doing or to reach out and read his intent before he rubs his hand against her, presses a finger back inside and something on his skin is—

            “Oh, cold,” she gasps, because that’s not what she expected.

            “Give it a moment.” And a moment’s all it needs; whatever it is quickly warms up as he works his finger in and out of her. Seemingly satisfied, he pulls his hand back and wipes it off on the sheets, then takes hold of her hips again. Rey stretches her arms out before her, then glances back at him over her shoulder, through her eyelashes. He doesn’t notice, at first. He’s too busy looking at her hips, her back, his dark hair falling into half-lidded eyes that glow with want. She takes a second to—not admire, but something like it—his broad shoulders, the way every muscle in his body tightens with anticipation like a tripwire pulled back.

            Then his eyes snap up to hers.

            “Please,” he says. It’s not really an ask, not in the flat and meaningless way he says it, but she shudders all the same. And before she has the chance to reply, he enters her.

            It’s so much easier this time. There’s so much less resistance in her body, so much less tension, because of how he’d warmed her beforehand, maybe also because of the slippery substance he’d used both on her and himself. He goes slower, too, now that he knows he can take his time with her, but she thinks he doesn’t need to. She pushes her hips up and back against him to speed things along except it is a little too fast and she gasps again and he moans, a drawn-out, resonant oh that he’s clearly not expecting to leave his lips. But he’s in her as far as she can take him for now, and they breathe together.

            He lets them both adjust this time as he slides one hand from the small of her back to her shoulders. Then he brings his hand up to her hair, gets a firm grip, like she did yesterday when his head was between her legs. Rey closes her eyes as he shifts his hips back.

            Then he yanks her hair as he thrusts inside of her and it’s so much all at once that Rey’s fingers curl into claws that rake at his bedsheets. She likes to think she was a little gentler pulling on his hair when he had his mouth on her, even though she knows she wasn’t. Still the sweetest, most wanted pain she’s ever experienced coupled with the feeling of him pressing into her makes her cry out, overwhelmed. He cries out too, although he tries to stifle it, and with a grunt he shifts his hips again, out, back in. Whatever the spot was that he managed to locate with his fingers the previous evening, he keeps brushing against with his cock and it’s so good, so devastatingly good—

            This should be more complicated, the two of them, but it’s the least complicated, most natural thing. No delicate euphemism for what they’re doing: it’s fucking, and this time it’s working the way it should. He’s more under control now, even though he isn’t, even though he hasn’t slowed down because he doesn’t know how. His movements are steady and even and there’s a rhythm to them, a pattern, as he fucks her. Somehow it’s a rhythm she already knows, that she doesn’t have to learn, and she rocks her hips back in time with it when she can. He’s not in any danger of spilling over early, not this time. He has her where he wants her, like he wants her. Like they both want. Like she wants also.

            Giving herself over to the rocking, the heat their bodies share, that’s remarkably easy. They work like this. They should have always known it, should have known when they clashed on Starkiller Base, should have known when they fought as allies in Snoke’s throne room. Maybe he did. Maybe he knew all along. The thing Rey can’t stand is giving him the satisfaction of knowing he was right. She glances over her shoulder at him again, expecting to see him looking down at her like a predator with his prey, lips curled into— something, not a smile because he doesn’t do smiles, but something primal, teeth bared like he’s about to sink them into her neck and drink her.

            What she actually sees isn’t that at all. Despite the tightness of his grip in her hair and his fingers digging into her hip, pulling them together, pushing them apart, he’s clutching at her more out of desperation than dominance. His head is lowered, yes, chin tucked down, but his eyes are closed, his lips parted, much like hers are, out of pleasure but also something close to disbelief, that they’re here, that he’s inside of her. When he opens his eyes briefly to look down at her they glitter with greed but also exhilaration, with captivation, like nothing exists at all outside of her and them. She understands now why he kept trying to shut her out, in the elevator, at dinner. Control is the opposite of this very new experience of being so lost in another person that you stop thinking at all.

            Rey stops thinking, too.

            Instead, she feels. The pressure of his hand on her hip, the way his fingers loosen on her hair and drag across her scalp as they try to regain their hold on her, his pelvis connecting with and pulling away from her hips as he moves in and out of her. He’d said that she was vocal, and she is now, thoughtlessly, wordlessly moaning her pleasure into his bedsheets, but sometimes she catches these helpless little sounds out of him when he thrusts deep into her and hits someplace new inside of her that she doesn’t know the name of and they both feel it ricocheting through their bodies like a blaster bolt. He gives up on her hair and presses his hand between her shoulder blades, pressing her face and her chest into the mattress even as he pulls her hips into him, trying to chase that down.

            And she feels, too, what he feels: how slick she is around him and how tight. Rey has little basis for comparison but assumes he must be on the larger side of average, because his cock feels like just the limit of what she can take. Whatever he had applied to them both that helped him ease in before has helped them get to where they are now, a place where he can move in and out of her seamlessly but with such delicious friction. It feels like her body was made for him, like she was always meant to fit around him. He wants to be closer, closer than close, and he pushes her flat to the bed so he can lean forward to breathe into her hair, to better cover her body with his own, shifting the angle of his hips, trying to get even deeper as he keeps bucking into her, hard.

            Rey cries out again, euphoric this time, and as she does she hears him more clearly. He still has words, somehow, but those words are just “yes,” over and over from some low place in his throat. He’s close, close, she’s deliriously close but he’s closer even by a hair’s breadth, and as the rhythm of his hips stutters she hears her name fall from his lips, just once. “Rey.”

            The rush of his own orgasm coursing through her body is what puts her over the edge, and for a long yet fleeting moment, she’s made only of starlight.

            But all stars fade, and this fades too, gradually. Kylo stops holding himself above her, or maybe he’s lost the strength, because he collapses on top of her, boneless, panting, his mouth pressed against the side of her head, to her hair, damp with sweat. He’s not dead weight, but he’s also heavy. Rey shifts slightly and barely has time to form a thought about being crushed, much less words or a phrase, before he senses it. He very reluctantly pulls out of her and moves to the side, but not far, keeping an arm casually draped over her waist.

            Rey folds her arms out in front of her and presses her forehead to them. She doesn’t open her eyes. It’s been a very long time since she’s felt this utterly at peace, spent, with no drive to fight or flee. She still feels that way even when Kylo starts moving his hand, skimming her skin with the backs of his fingers, then the pads of them, idly stroking her. Placid, not possessive. She doesn’t mind.

            “Rey?”

            “Hm?”

            He drags a finger down her back, tracing her spine through her skin. “Where is the Resistance headquartered?”

            “Mm.” She shifts her head on her arms, getting comfortable. “They’re in the No system.”

            “The No system?” he repeats, not bothering to hide his rising excitement.

            “Yes, the No system. Best-known for its largest habitable planet of ‘Not a chance,’ which is orbited by the twin moons of ‘I can’t believe you thought that would work’ and ‘Go stick it in a sarlacc.’” She opens her eyes and looks at him. “The No system.”

            He huffs and takes his hand away, turning over to lay on his back and look up at the ceiling. She immediately misses his touch, but doesn’t admit that or ask to feel it again. “I had to try.”

            “Well,” Rey says, feeling the beginning of a smile form on her lips, “now you can tell Hux honestly that you’ve interrogated me.”

            A short, sharp exhale through his nose might be the beginning of a chuckle if he just gave it some room to grow. He doesn’t look at her, but she can’t stop watching him, trying to puzzle out what makes his face work the way it does, how what should be mismatched features come together to create an impression that, upon further reflection, is not wholly unhandsome after all. Or maybe she just thinks that now, in this moment, because of how well their bodies fit together.

            “How did you know to do that?” she asks.

            He does look at her, now. “What?”

            “With the lotion. Or— was that lotion?”

            “Oh.” He frowns. “Lubricant.”

            “Right, that makes sense.” She remembers performing maintenance on her speeder on Jakku, keeping joints and hinges lubed up so that it would function properly. How often she’d needed to do that in the dry desert heat with sand everywhere.

            “Same concept,” he says, picking up her train of thought where she left it as if that’s the most natural way to have a conversation. “Different substance. It makes it easier when I’m alone, so I thought—”

            He cuts himself off when he seems to realize what he’s very nearly admitting to. She shifts onto her side, propping herself up on one hand. “You often think of me like that when you’re alone?”

            “I didn’t say that.”

            “But you do.” Through their bond she can easily feel his embarrassment, although when she tries to gently probe further he mentally swats her away. But of course he thinks of her in that context. Why shouldn’t he? It only makes sense. He wanted her so desperately for so long. “You think about me while you—” She balks at any of the crude anatomical terms she knows. They don’t feel right here. “You know.”

            Kylo brings up one hand to cover his eyes, and he sighs.

            “Is it better?” Rey asks, genuinely curious. “In person.”

            “Yes,” he says simply. “It is. By far.”

            She catches an errant thought of his, a reflection on how warm and wanting she’d been under his hands as he’d roused her, and she blushes despite having been there. It’s different when he thinks of it. He sees her in a way she doesn’t see herself at all. “Oh.”

            He rubs his eyes, his forehead, agitated. “So you don’t think of me?”

            “What?”

            “You never thought of me.”

            “Well, no. But—” He turns his head to face away from her, already sulking. She chews on her lower lip, but she makes herself finish, marveling at how she actually wants to have this conversation with him of all people, and how easy it feels. Just because they’ve been intimate, she tells herself. It’s only easy to talk about sex because they’ve had it. “I don’t really think of anyone. I don’t really do that.”

            He looks back over. “You don’t touch yourself?”

            Rey shakes her head, shrugs. “Not since I was a teenager. Sometimes I’d do it so I could get to sleep. The rush and then relief, it helped. But it was always this abstract thing. I’d think about stars, about other worlds. About flying. Some sense of— cosmic belonging, I suppose.” That’s more personal than she’d meant to go. She pulls back. “I don’t need help sleeping these days. I’m busy enough and it tires me out.”

            She can tell he doesn’t understand. Regardless of how much sleep he does or doesn’t get, he’s all emotion that needs venting, not unlike the cracked kyber crystal in his lightsaber. The fire that fuels him will keep burning even though she can feel that parts of him are achingly, desperately weary. She’s been in his body. She knows.

            “You will now,” he says, interrupting her thoughts.

            “What?”

            “You’ll think of me now,” he says, “and you’ll touch yourself.”

            She doesn’t know what bothers her the most: the arrogance, the presumption, or the fact that he’s probably not wrong. “If you let me live,” she points out.

            “Right,” he agrees with no trace of irony. “And I won’t. So in your remaining days.”

            “Well, if you ever let me alone.”

            “And I won’t,” he says again, rolling to her, kissing her neck and starting it all over.


            At some point, there’s a buzz from the comm unit by the doors to Kylo Ren’s chambers. Kylo disentangles himself from Rey and sits up, and it’s like the air between them cools; suddenly he’s very far away from her. Rey, laying on her belly, watches him, watches him work his jaw, swallow, as if this time it’s him remembering how things are supposed to be between them and how dangerous it would be for anyone to witness how they actually are. She pulls one of his pillows toward her, tucks her chin into it, and sighs.

            Kylo swings his legs over the side of the bed, facing away from her, and for a moment he just sits there, squaring his shoulders, hands still planted on the mattress. The muscles in his back tense. Now that they’re no longer touching she’s aware again of how sore she is, not just where she’d expect in her hips and thighs, but everywhere. She wonders if he feels the same way, but he has his guard back up and she can no longer access his body. There might be two components to the transfer of feelings and sensations that occur when they have sex, not just physical contact, but emotional exposure. Literal and metaphorical nakedness.

            He pushes himself up to stand, then crouches down to locate his black clothing on the black floor. For the first time, Rey finds herself wondering when he fully disrobed. She remembers them kissing the previous evening, and then she fell asleep — she had been so tired, and at that point it had been almost a full day since she arrived. Had he removed his trousers and his boots all the way and slept next to her naked, or had he only undressed in the morning, to wake her with the length of his body pressed to hers?

            Now he pulls his shirt on and steps into a pair of trousers that look clean. After he does them up all the way he hesitates, seeming to wonder if he should dress further. He glances at her, still in his bed with the covers pushed down around her waist, and decides against it for now. He walks around the bed in his lurching way, as if he shifts his entire weight from foot to foot every time he takes a step, past the dividing panes of glass and the uncomfortable sitting room furniture. Then he places his hand on the panel to turn on the lights and open the door for whoever it was that buzzed.

            A silent, robed attendant pushes in a hovering cart laden with covered trays. If the attendant takes note of Kylo’s state of relative undress, or Rey completely naked in his bed, they make absolutely no indication. They push the cart over to the low sitting room table and begin unburdening it, arranging the trays so that the largest is in the center orbited by the smaller ones. Kylo supervises this process in silence, hands at his sides, making no indication of approval or disapproval as the attendant begins removing the lids from the trays. Rey cranes her neck around and sees a large bowl of what appears to be some sort of blue porridge, thin slices of meat that she can smell from the bed, which make her stomach growl, and a couple of varieties of fruit, along with various jars and containers whose contents she can’t identify. Then three jugs of liquid, one of which, by its scent, is definitely caf.

            The attendant sets down one place setting, then another without comment, before pushing the cart, now bearing only tray lids, through the open door and shutting it behind them.

            Kylo looks over at Rey, expectantly, and she shifts under the full weight of his gaze. She turns over and sits up, pulling the sheet to her chest, then says, “I’ll dress first.”

            “Right,” he replies, as if it genuinely had not occurred to him that she would want to. He crosses back into the bedchamber and pushes open the closet panel. She notices immediately that she was not far off in her assumptions of what would be in his wardrobe, although there do also seem to be some lighter garments for training. What does surprise her is that the rest of the clothing she picked out yesterday, everything that hadn’t been hastily removed and pushed onto the floor, is already hanging up next to his.

            “Your things are here,” he nods at them. “And here.” He indicates a black bureau tucked half-behind the paneling that Rey had not noticed. The closet is far deeper than she'd thought.

            “Great.”

            He just stands there and looks at her.

            “Privacy,” she says. It’s not a request, because she knows if she phrases it as one he’ll push back against granting it. After all, they’ve already seen each other unclothed. Still, there’s something more intimate about the act of dressing that she’d observed in him. When he dressed he took his focus off her for a moment, and that’s a different kind of vulnerability.

            Since it’s not a request and there’s no room for argument, he just nods, quickly picks up his remaining articles of clothing, and strides off to the sitting room. She tracks him with her eyes until she sees him sit at one of the place settings, back turned to her as he pulls his tunic on and bends to pull his boots up. That’s when she eases her way out of the bed. Oh— her thighs definitely ache more than they did yesterday, and she groans, but softly, not wanting to broadcast her discomfort to him. She’s had much worse. This is just new, and she’ll get used to it.

            Rey walks gingerly over to the closet and considers her options, such as they are. Obviously, she could just go with her uniform of trousers, shirt, tunic or jacket. But she remembers Nara Ordula and the idea of making your enemy underestimate you, or at the very least drawing their focus elsewhere. She glances over at Kylo Ren, who, now that there seems to be no chance of getting her back to bed for the time being, is fully clothed again. She can’t quite put herself at ease with the idea of being underdressed around him, but she considers the way he thinks of her body and decides it’s worth a try. Maybe a lack of clothing will prove to be its own kind of armor, like in the Golden Chain story, which Rey now itches to ask Leia about.

            She opens the drawers of the bureau until she finds the one that’s full of her purchases from Ordula’s, neatly folded, and she picks out the more elaborate bra and the matching black shorts. It takes her a couple of tries to fasten the clasps, and she wonders how Ordula did it so easily. Practice, perhaps. She chews on her lower lip and reaches for that semi-translucent dark green robe, pulling it around her shoulders. Even though the robe is long enough to trail on the floor behind her, it fastens so loosely in the front that Rey feels like she could throw it off and have freedom of movement if she needed it. That’s something.

            Her hair should stay down for now, she decides, so this is all that needs doing. She walks over to where Kylo is sitting and unceremoniously takes her place at the other table setting, in one of the very uncomfortable chairs. Kylo, who had been reaching for the serving spoon for the porridge, freezes when he sees her, his mouth ajar.

            She nods acknowledgement at him, like a much more poised and elegant version of herself, and he clears his throat. “Caf or—” His voice seems to fail him, and he clears his throat again. “Caf or no?”

            “No,” she says, and then she adds, “thank you.”

            He nods, eyeing her. It seems like he’s wondering but not suspicious. Possibly too distracted to be suspicious of her motivations for wearing this costume around him, but that remains to be seen. Ordula was right about this being its own kind of power. “Water or fruit juice?”

            “Oh, juice.”

            He pours some into the clear glass at her place setting, then pours himself caf into a more substantial ceramic cup, steam rising from it as he does. Rey watches, sipping her juice, as he begins serving himself, ladling the porridge into a shallow bowl, placing more than half the sliced meat onto the large plate beneath it. But instead of arranging the fruit next to the meat on the plate, he spoons it out on top of the porridge. Rey takes note of this and quietly copies him, ladling porridge into the bowl, placing the rest of the meat on the plate, fruit on the porridge, and when she’s done she notices him watching her again.

            “Here.” He reaches for one of the jars, one that has a shaker top with large holes. He shakes a bit of the contents onto his porridge; it looks like some kind of reddish baked grain. He holds it out to her. “For texture,” he says.

            She takes it and does the same, shaking the grain out on top of the porridge. Texture isn’t something she gives much thought to when it comes to food. Once she places that back on the table, she looks up to find him holding a lidless jar with a small serving spoon. There’s a clear substance inside, dotted with air bubbles. “This you might like. It’s sweet.”

            “All... right.” Rey accepts the jar and moves the spoon around in the substance, experimentally. It’s thick, like some sort of nectar.

            “Put it on the fruit.”

            “Right.” Rey picks up a small amount with the spoon and drizzles it on top of the fruit on her porridge before setting it aside. “Is that everything?”

            “Yes.”

            “Good. I’m starving.”

            She thinks she sees his mouth twitch, but still no smile. His lips just tighten into a straight line. Well, what does does she care if he smiles or not?

            He hunches over himself to spoon up some porridge and a piece of fruit. That seems uncomfortable, given the low height of the table. Rey just pulls the entire bowl into her lap and begins eating. He’d been right about the nectar, and the grain thing; the creaminess to the porridge is complemented by the tartness of the fruit, then offset by the sweetness of the nectar, and the crunch of the grain just enhances the entire experience, adding a new sensory dimension. Delighted, she makes a pleased, utterly unselfconscious little sound at the richness of the meal. She chews, swallows, scoops up another big spoonful from the bowl on her knees, and keeps eating.

            When about half the bowl is gone, she becomes aware that he’s looking at her. His own food is largely untouched. “Your clothes are different,” he says at last.

            Rey just blinks at him for a second and swallows down porridge, unsure of what she can say to such an obvious observation. “Yes.”

            “That isn’t like you.”

            “Oh.” Rey looks down at herself, and hates how she suddenly feels so foolish for thinking this would work. “That’s true.”

            He leans across the armrest of his chair and reaches over her bowl to touch her abdomen through the sheer fabric of her robe. His hands are gloved again. She inhales, and those muscles tense. “I don’t mind looking at your body,” he says.

            “Well, I don’t— dress for you,” she says, her voice a little sharp. That’s not really what she’s doing now, is it? She’s adopting different armor, adapting to her circumstances. It’s not the same. Still, there’s that little niggling voice in her head that says, Isn’t it?

            “Hm.” He pulls his hand back and looks her over again, and then he inclines his head at the bowl on her knees. “The incongruity,” he says. “That’s you. Alluring and… uncouth.”

            Rey puts her spoon down in the bowl and looks at him. She lets uncouth sit for now. There’s a much more interesting angle to examine. “You think I’m alluring,” she says.

            “Well,” he begins, obviously flustered. “No, I—”

            The tinny voice over the intercom at the doors interrupts him. “Supreme Leader, General Hux.”

            Kylo seems to welcome the distraction. “Send him in.”

            Rey hurriedly puts her bowl on the table. “Wait—”

            The doors open, and Hux stalks in, hands clenched into fists. He looks displeased about something, but then, when doesn’t he? Rey leans back and instinctively fists one of her hands in her lap, throwing an arm diagonally across her torso, before she makes herself unfold and stiffly set her arms at her side. She doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

            “Leader Ren,” Hux says. “We’re awaiting you in the—”

            He stops, seeing Rey. And then he looks between them, at Kylo. Back at Rey, taking in her apparel, the mark Kylo had sucked into her neck. Even though Rey makes herself remain exposed, she leans even further away from him as if she could sink through the back of the chair. “Well,” he says. “What have we here?”

            His gaze abruptly jerks away from her as though yanked by an invisible hand, which isn’t too far off from what must have happened. One of Kylo’s hands is also curled into a fist. “No.”

            Hux coughs, then composes himself. “Forgive me, Supreme Leader,” he says, although he forms those words like they’re the most distasteful thing to have ever been in his mouth. “Simply admiring your handiwork. It seems as though the taming is coming along well.”

            Rey snorts the most uncouth snort she can muster and turns her head away.

            Kylo glances at her, then looks at Hux. “We’ll have what we need from her soon enough. In the meantime, I assume you yourself are able to tell me what the other generals have to say?”

            Hux forces his hands into a more respectful position behind his back. “I… understand why you wouldn’t want to leave your chambers,” he says, “but at the very least before we have this discussion you should have her sent away.”

            “Where would you have her sent?” says Kylo, as though the idea had genuinely not occurred to him. Which, in all probability, it had not. “The security systems are strongest here. Nowhere else can hold her.”

            “Nowhere else—” Hux breathes sharply through his nose. “Fine. Then would you give me the great pleasure of accompanying me to the meeting? The girl can and will wait. As you said, she’s confined to these chambers.”

            Kylo gives Rey one last look over. Rey does not turn her head to look back at him. “Fine,” he says. “We’ll resume when I return.”

            “I hope you choke,” she says, and it’s not playacting. She can’t believe he’d let Hux enter when she’s exposed like this. Well, she can, but that doesn’t make her skin crawl any less.

            Kylo doesn’t reply, but she senses balance shift again. There’s an air of disappointment. In her? She’d rather he be disappointed at himself. Her reaction is not unreasonable. Either way, he just stands and stalks out of the room with Hux on his heels.

            The doors close, and Rey looks down at her half-eaten bowl of porridge. For once in her life, she opts to do something else instead of finishing her meal, and goes to put her clothes back on.


            By the time Kylo returns to his chambers what must be hours later, Rey is showered, fully dressed, and bored out of her skull. There’s more to his security systems than meets the eye, more than just that keypad — biometric coding, perhaps? — because she combed the room and found no loopholes to exploit in the event that she needs to escape. She also comes to realize that he must have at least had the forethought to secure all of his things before putting her in his room, because there’s not so much as a single gadget for her to play with. Objectively, this is wise if he’s at all familiar with her background as a scavenger and more specifically her particular affinity for machinery; she wonders if he ever went back to Jakku to see where she grew up. Probably did. She’s no slicer, but she could stir up a little trouble, and they both seem to know that.

            Rey does not particularly feel like being objective, seeing as all she has to do is sit and stew. She still cannot fathom why he would let Hux into the room. After all, it wasn’t as if he wanted to show her off to him—he’d torn Hux’s attention away from her, literally. Unless he wanted Hux to get the quickest glimpse, to know what he was missing out on, to inspire jealousy…

            Except he likely didn’t put that much thought into it at all and he just wanted to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with her. Frankly, knowing him, it’s the most probable option. What a bucketbrain.

            And this impression is only reinforced when Kylo Ren returns, because he bypasses the sitting room entirely and heads straight to the bed to try to kiss her and start something. Rey, seated with her knees folded into her chest, turns her face away and brings her shoulder up to her ear to cut off his access to her. Even though she can’t see his face, she can feel the weight of his frown.

            But he doesn’t press the issue. He’s capable of learning, at least, and he’s learned that trying to compel or question her won’t give him the outcome he wants. So he straightens and stalks back into the sitting room with only a grumble of dissatisfaction.

            She expects to hear more slamming, more things being thrown, but she doesn’t. Instead, she hears him rummaging around in the drawers and shelves she’d tried to open when he was away. She couldn’t access them in the end; the Force has its limits, and lockpicking is one. Too much finesse. He must find what he’s looking for after a minute, because the rummaging stops, and she hears him walk back across the room and set something down hard on the table.

            Rey’s ears very nearly perk up, because she knows that telltale rattling. That’s a toolkit. He’s brought out a toolkit.

            A slight amount of suspicion tugs at the edges of her thoughts, for what better way to lure her out of the bedchamber than by appealing to one of her skill sets? But it’s not enough to outweigh the overwhelming curiosity of what he’s possibly doing with a toolkit. Rey unfolds herself and walks to the glass panes.

            Kylo sits on the couch again, in the same spot he’d sat in for their late breakfast. He has the toolkit open on the low table and is turning his lightsaber hilt over and over in his hands, eventually pausing to run his thumb over the veiny red wire that snakes up along the outside. He sets it down on the table and hunches forward, taking two delicate, slender metal tools and prying them into the gap in the casing, moving them around. Trying to diagnose a problem.

            Eventually he surfaces one end of the red wire, and she can see that it’s burnt out. Could be a short, could be corrosion. Could just be that it was too loosely connected. Either way, it needs replacing. Very carefully, he begins undoing the connection near the pommel cap and pulling the wire free.

            Rey takes a few steps forward to get a closer look. She knows more about the anatomy of lightsabers now that she’s build her saberstaff, but she’s not entirely sure what this external red wire does. Every lightsaber is custom-built, after all. If she had to take a guess, she’d presume it to be some sort of power cable. It might direct additional power to the kyber crystal mount, or the quillion emitters — that seems like something he would want to do, under the assumption that more is better. Or it might connect a circuit that diverts power away, keeping the saber from growing too unstable, which would lead to a very nasty explosion.

            But the crystal couldn’t be positioned right between the crossguard blades, could it? On Luke’s lightsaber, or Anakin’s, the one she’d disassembled to make her own, there were several components that Kylo wouldn’t have any room for. No cycling field energizers, no modulators that would allow for adjustment of the blade’s power or length, although of course he probably wouldn’t have use for any setting other than “lethal.” Still, that’s a raw, untempered blade. The thing must want to jump out of his hand every time he activates it.

            She peers over his shoulder at the gap, trying to scrutinize. Without thinking, she asks, “Can I see it?”

            He very nearly jumps out of his seat, startled, and Rey realizes that he’d been so absorbed in his work that he hadn’t sensed her coming up behind him at all. And then it hits her that he isn’t doing this to bait her, but that there is a part of him that in times of turmoil reaches for something he can fix or break with his hands. Like she does.

            But he says, “No.”

            Of course it’s a refusal. Rey would say the same thing in his position. She tries to clarify. “I just, I meant—”

            “You must think me foolish.”

            Rey’s brow furrows. He’s so stubborn. “I was only offering to help.”

            “I don’t need your help,” he retorts.

            “Fine.” Rey crosses around the sofa and sits down in the chair she’s gravitated toward so often that it might as well be hers. She folds her arms and tries not to pay attention to whatever he’s doing, with limited success.

            And he tries not to pay attention to her, either. He measures out a length of red wiring and uses the cutters to clip it, keeping his eyes forward. Then he strips it at each end and sets about reattaching it in the old one’s place, using the same slender tools as before. Rey’s old equipment on Jakku had been much more crude than half the things in his toolkit; she didn’t have the luxury of precise instruments. She’s a bit mystified to see him doing any work that would require delicacy with his temperament, his large hands. Then again, a voice in her head reminds her, he had managed to play her like a vioflute earlier that morning.

            Kylo Ren finishes his work and puts the tools aside, and that’s when he notices her watching. Rey turns her head away, but it’s too late. He closes the toolkit with his eyes still on her.

            “Your saberstaff,” he says. “How did you construct it?”

            She shifts in her seat. “So we can only have a conversation on your terms, I suppose.”

            “We only have sex on yours.”

            “That’s how sex works,” says Rey. “It has to be on both our terms and your terms seem to be ‘all of the time,’ regardless of what I feel.”

            He blinks at her, pushes the toolkit a foot or so down the table, and sits back. “I don’t know why you’d feel otherwise. You enjoy it.”

            Rey hisses through her teeth. “Because you invited Hux who is a loathsome creature into the room while I wasn’t wearing any clothing, and then you left me stranded in here alone for what must have been the entire afternoon.”

            “You’re my prisoner.”

            “Well.” Rey folds her arms once more and looks away from him, cheeks burning. She feels foolish again and she hates it, but of course he’s right. She doesn’t know why she thought they were past this point. “Fine. That’s true.”

            “It is true.” He shifts on the couch and moves closer to the chair she’s seated in, but remains silent for an uncomfortable few minutes. When he speaks again, he says, “He is loathsome. Hux.”

            She huffs.

            “And I didn’t let him look at you.”

            “After a good five seconds of staring.”

            Another stretch of quiet, then: “Is it so horrible that I want others to know what I have?”

            Rey looks back at him. His dark eyes are fixed on her, intense. Her heartbeat picks up. She’s pretty sure he’s trying to rationalize a decision he made in the heat of a moment, but this was a possibility she had considered. She’s irritated with herself for feeling anything close to flattered hearing him articulate it. She is not some object, some prize to be flaunted.

            “We’ve been over this,” she tells him. “You don’t have me.”

            “But I have had you,” he reminds her, as if she might have forgotten. “And I will have you again. When— you consent.” He says it haltingly, like the words are new to him. “So I don’t see why using the present tense should make such a difference.”

            “Because you’re using ‘had’ and 'will have’ sexually but when you say you ‘have’ me you mean…” She blinks. “Oh, are you being deliberately obtuse?”

            He shrugs.

            “That isn’t like you,” she says. It is, disconcertingly, almost like he might possess a sense of humor.

            “That’s true.”

            “Usually when you’re obtuse it’s not deliberate.”

            That crease appears between his brows again. “Hm.”

            “You did call me ‘uncouth’ earlier,” she points out. “You can let me have ‘obtuse.’”

            A strange look crosses his face. “That’s not— the only thing I called you earlier,” he says awkwardly.

            She cocks her head at him and leans toward him a little. “So you did mean it. You think I’m alluring.”

            “That isn’t what I said. I only said I called you something else.” He leans forward too, now. They’re almost close enough to kiss, but they don’t. “The least you could do is compliment me in return.”

            Rey scoffs. “That isn’t how this works.”

            “How does it work?” His eyes search hers. “Rey. How does it work? Who makes the rules?”

            She doesn’t say anything.

            “I do,” he says. “You surrendered to me.”

            “You like to think you do,” she snaps, before she can make herself swallow it down. It’s too uncomfortably close to the truth for her to just spit out like that.

            Luckily, Kylo doesn’t notice. He looks past her, over her shoulder, where the door to the dining room must have opened. “We’ll go to dinner together now, and then later I’ll have you again.”

            “You can’t just say those things as if you know they’ll come to pass.”

            “But I do,” he says, eyes sliding back to her face. “Because those are things you want also.”

            He stands and brushes past Rey, leaves her opening and closing her mouth, trying to work out a good rebuttal. She can’t come up with one, and growls, frustrated, instead. She’s not entirely sure she’ll be able to bear desiring him and having him know about it. It makes him so much more insufferable.

            Rey has half a mind to skip dinner out of spite, but when she catches the scents wafting out of the dining room she can’t bring herself to do it. She so rarely turns down food, and she hadn’t finished their late breakfast, so she stands up and begrudgingly goes to eat. And later, after sitting next to him in silence for the duration of the meal, their eyes meet over dessert, and his little finger brushes hers. It's the slightest, briefest touch, and the only excuse she needs.

            She doesn’t turn him down, either.

Chapter Text

            The next morning, Rey wakes unprompted. Without opening her eyes, she stretches her arm out across the mattress, expecting to brush bare skin. Her hand meets only empty air.

            She blinks and picks up her head. The lights are still low, but even in the dark she can tell that Kylo Ren is nowhere to be found. She can’t sense him either, which must mean he’s in some other corner of the massive ship. Rey sits up and turns her head to examine the impression his body made in the mattress beside her. He did sleep there, then. At least for a while.

            It’s unsettling in a strange, indescribable way to be naked in his bed without a part of him anchoring her. He’d fallen asleep first the previous evening, with an arm around her waist and his chest pressed to her back again. She felt his breathing even out against her hair, felt his muscles relax, and she marveled at how much he’d dropped his guard, how much trust he must have that she wouldn’t try to flee or smother him with one of his pillows. And she hadn’t wanted to. She turned over in his arms and watched his face for a while, fascinated by the way his hair fell into his eyes, by how the scar she gave him cut across his cheek, by how his jaw rested when all the tension was gone. She’d drifted off like that, in his arms, not uncomfortable.

            So to awaken and find him gone is disorienting. Rey gathers the blankets to her chest and allows her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the bedchamber. Perhaps she can figure out where he went.

            She eases out of bed and crouches down to feel for her clothes on the floor. She locates what she thinks is her tunic, but when she pulls it on over her head and gets her arms through the armholes she realizes it’s actually his. For a moment she considers resuming the search for one of her garments, but then she shrugs and fastens it. With Kylo gone there’s no real point in dressing herself anyway, except for her own comfort. Due to the size difference between them his tunic more than covers her up.

            Squinting around in the dark, she can see that the door to the private dining room is closed, and there’s no light on in the washroom, but the door to the closet is open, so he must have dressed in fresh clothing. She can’t tell exactly what from his wardrobe is missing without the lights on, so she moves out into the sitting room, which appears undisturbed. How she wishes she had a chrono on her so she could have some sense of time. After spending so long on Akiva, which has actual days and nights, a full day in Kylo Ren’s windowless chambers on the Conquest II leaves her feeling strangely unmoored.

            Rey has just pressed her hand to the control panel, feeling around for the slider that regulates the lights, when the doors suddenly woosh open. She nearly jumps, startled, thinking she’s found some exploit in the security system that will allow her to come and go freely, but then Kylo walks through the door and she realizes they were merely strangely synced once again.

            He blinks at her, not expecting to see her up and about. “Rey.”

            “Hello.” Now she can see what he took from his closet. He’s wearing one of the lighter, nearly semi-translucent shirts she’d noticed yesterday tucked into his trousers, and his hair clings slightly to his damp brow. He’s also carrying his lightsaber hilt. “Were you training?”

            He opens his mouth to respond, then closes it as he takes in her apparel, from her bare legs to the quilted tunic that almost reaches her knees. He isn’t subtle about it. “That’s mine,” he says.

            “I borrowed it,” she replies. “You weren’t wearing it.”

            He must like the look, because he reaches around to press the palm of his free hand to her lower back and sweep her in toward him, pushing her up onto her toes, so they’re standing chest to chest. “Back to bed,” he murmurs, and he tilts his head to kiss her.

            Rey doesn’t need much more convincing. But not much later, when she’s stretched out on her back on the mattress, still wearing his tunic, and he slides his hand down between her legs to press his index finger inside of her, something is off. She’s not as wet as she should be, not as warm, and she feels a little raw where he touches her. The sound she makes against his mouth is not unlike a pained chirp, and he winces, sharing her discomfort.

            “I’m sorry,” he says. The apology is automatic, and it’s genuine.

            She shakes her head. “No, no. We can make it work.” She reaches down for his wrist and pulls his hand up a little, so he can stroke her clit or let her rub against the palm of his hand.

            A few minutes of trying and it becomes clear that they can’t make it work. Despite how badly her mind wants him inside of her again — very badly — her body just won’t cooperate. In all fairness, neither of them had gone easy on it the previous night. After dinner he’d taken her standing against the wall of the dining room with far less preparation than usual, although at the time they hadn’t cared. When they finally made it back into the bedchamber, they didn’t sleep for another couple of hours. So perhaps it’s to be expected that no matter how much he stimulates her from the outside, or how much lube he applies to his fingers, or how much she runs her hands over his skin and reminds herself that she desires him more than anything right now, she can’t get comfortable. She doesn’t know. This is where they could do with the benefit of experience.

            Oddly enough, Rey is more disquieted by this turn of events than Kylo Ren. She half-expects him to storm off into the sitting room, frustrated by his inability to warm her up, but once it’s apparent that penetration is off the table he just shrugs, crawls down between her legs, and gets to work. After what must be at least fifteen minutes of licking and sucking at her with one hand around his cock and the other reaching up to cover her breast, he coaxes a colorless, shuddering orgasm out of her, as if her body simply gives up with a heavy sigh and lets them have it. There’s relief, sure, but no satisfaction. Not much satisfaction for him either, when he finishes a moment later with his head against her thigh, gasping for breath. They’d both wanted this to go a different way. What they managed feels like a mere consolation prize.

            As he shifts back up the bed to cover her she feels a tug on the environment around them. It’s a subtle pull in the innards of a ship this massive, but she knows it to be a marker of sudden rapid acceleration. “Did we jump to hyperspace?” she asks him.

            “Hm?” Kylo slides an arm beneath her and tucks his shoulder under her armpit so he can rest on his side with his head on her shoulder. “Oh. Yes. We’re taking a trip.”

            “We?”

            “You and I.”

            Rey rests her chin against the top of his head. “Where to?”

            “It’s— a surprise.”

            She frowns. “I’m not so sure I like surprises.”

            He leans up to kiss her neck. “Mm. Better than being bored. And you were bored yesterday.”

            “I never said I was bored.”

            “You didn’t have to say it. You were bored. Unless you were so cross when I left you alone for hours because you missed me.”

            Rey huffs into his hair.

            Kylo Ren slides his hand up under the fabric of his quilted tunic and rests his hand on her belly, brushing his thumb back and forth over her skin. “You won’t be bored,” he says. “That much I swear.”


            They touch down on a snow-covered planet, the likes of which Rey has never seen. In the last three years she’s visited countless new worlds, but her travels have mainly taken her to those habitable by sentient creatures. Even Starkiller Base, similarly snow-dusted, also had its forests; there was a sense that if one waited around long enough, spring would come and melt the ice away, and perhaps the planet would flourish. This place is different. It’s a valley of smooth, unbroken snow as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by white-tipped mountains and giant shelves of ice. No settlements, no visible life forms.

            Their shuttle lands near one of the glaciers, and Kylo Ren pulls up the hood of his cowl. He’d added more layers to his uniform, and wears a thick, woven surcoat not unlike the one he’d worn when they first met on Takodana. He’d told Rey to dress warmly, so she’s wearing the heaviest items in her possession: the leather coat, gloves, her high boots. Still, when the shuttle ramp lowers, a wall of stinging cold hits her face, and she recoils. “We’re venturing out into that?”

            He looks at her. “You don’t have a cloak?”

            “No, I didn’t have one made.” She frowns. “I didn’t really expect to be traveling, much less traveling anywhere cold.”

            “Right.” He crosses over to her and pulls off the cowl, shaking his head, mussing his hair. He moves to put it on over her shoulders, and she takes a step back.

            “What are you doing?”

            “You don’t have anything else to cover you,” he says, holding out the cowl. “You’ll freeze.”

            “What about you?”

            “I didn’t grow up in the desert.” He shakes the cowl in her direction. “Take it.”

            Rey takes it. She figures it’s not worth fighting him over. She pulls it over her head, then spends a minute or two fiddling with it, trying to get it to wrap around her shoulders like it does around his. It’s really more of a blanket or a scarf than an actual sewn garment, and Rey finds it a little ridiculous that he’d walk around wearing it with one end hung down his back like it’s meant to be a cape.

            She’s about to just give up and tie it around her head like she used to do with her jumper when working out in the sun but then Kylo, his mouth twitching, says, “Here, let me.” He reaches over and adjusts it for her, and suddenly the hood sits where it should and the fabric covers her neck, drapes over her shoulders. The pilot glances back at them for a moment, but says nothing.

            Rey exhales. “You could stand to wear something more intuitive.”

            “Clearly I just like to make my life as difficult as possible,” he counters.

            “Yes,” says Rey, as they’re hit by another gust of icy wind. “I’m getting that.”

            “Follow me,” he says, walking off down the ramp.

            Rey pulls the cowl a little tighter to her head, and on her next inhale she catches a whiff of his scent from the fabric, of his sweat and his soap and shampoo and whatever he applies to his face after shaving. She exhales forcefully and starts after him.

            Snow is usually easier to traverse than sand. When it’s freshly-fallen, it’s much less weighty. But the snow here is so deep that she sinks into it up to the middle of her shins, and her first few steps off the ramp are awkward and wide-legged. Kylo Ren, of course, walks ahead of her as though he’s perfectly at home here, even as his long garments trail behind him, catching loose snow clumps on their hems.

            Rey takes a moment to crouch down and pick up some snow in her hand. She closes her fingers around it, and it compresses into a tightly-packed, ridged shape, almost a cylinder. She remembers Rose telling her about the snowball fights she’d had with Paige growing up, how they’d gather snow into their hands and pack it together until they had crude spheres and then fling the snow-spheres at each other. Were she here — wherever here is — with her friends, they would probably be throwing snow around. She can imagine Finn and Poe trying to stuff it down each others’ jackets.

            But she isn’t here with them. She’s here with Kylo Ren, and she doesn’t think he’d be game for a snowball fight. She lets the snow fall from her hand.

            Kylo rounds one of the glacier’s jutting ridges, and when she follows she finds herself unexpectedly face to face with the metal frame of a massive door. Someone had carved a door into the side of the ice. It hangs open, rusted; by the giant snow drifts piled against it, it’s been open for some time. Years, maybe. The gap between the snow-covered ground and the top of the frame is twenty feet or so. She hears a crackling as Kylo ignites his saber, although she can’t sense any danger; upon turning around she sees him cutting into a massive pile of snow, melting a hole in the side of it.

            Rey comes up behind him. “What are you doing?”

            He sheaths his saber and looks through the hole. The tips of his ears are turning red from exposure. Stubborn man. He steps aside and lets her peer through, but all she sees is white.

            “More snow,” she says. “I don’t know what you were expecting.”

            “This has to move,” he says.

            “What?”

            Without bothering to explain himself, he stretches out his hand in front of him. She feels him calling upon the Force for just a moment and then there’s a spray of snow and ice and she crouches behind him and throws her arms up around her face to cover herself, so astonished that she doesn’t think to erect any kind of protective barrier. The wind catches the snow and blows it about and for a minute or two it’s as if the entire planet has gone white. Then it subsides, and Rey peeks out over her elbow.

            “A little warning would have been nice!” she exclaims.

            Kylo turns his head. His hair is now soaked. Serves him right. “Look,” he says.

            Rey looks. He’s parted the snow in front of them; now there’s an uneven ramp sloping down, a path that cuts through the drifts, terminating in— “Is that a floor?”

            “See for yourself.”

            He starts down the makeshift ramp. Rey walks quickly behind him, trying to keep up and keep from slipping at the same time. Kylo himself ends up sliding the last couple of feet down to the floor, and Rey skids after him down layers of packed ice. Then they’re standing together in the middle of what clearly used to be a sizable hangar bay, now empty and deserted, illuminated only by the daylight filtering in through the gap between the doorframe and the massive pile of snow.

            Kylo fumbles with his clothing for a second, then he produces two small glowrods from a hidden pocket. Wordlessly, he hands one to Rey, who switches it on. The resulting beam illuminates the small cloud of mist she produces whenever she breathes.

            “What is this place?” she asks, curious, entranced, as she takes a few steps forward and shines the light all around the hangar bay. The cold isn’t as unbearable now that they’re out from the wind, and the excitement of a fresh find, a potential new cache, is something she can never quite unlearn. There are clear signs that a battle took place here, by the scorch marks on the floor, the walls. The roof has caved in in a few places, but the cavernous room seems structurally sound otherwise; it doesn’t seem like there has been any activity here for years.

            “There hasn’t,” says Kylo, picking up where her thought left off. “No reason for anyone to come all the way out here, not after the scavengers finished breaking down the AT-ATs for scrap and stripped this place bare.”

            All the way out here. “Are we in the Outer Rim?”

            He nods. “We’re on Hoth.”

            Rey’s breath catches, and she peers around, taking a second look at their surroundings. She’s no longer naive about the realities of war, or of legends, but she still feels a certain amount of wonder at finding herself somewhere she’d only heard of in stories. “This is Hoth?”

            “It is.” Kylo also looks out at the abandoned hangar bay. “I’d feared the base would be buried under the snow by now. Fortunate that it wasn’t.”

            There are several tunnels leading out from the hangar bay. Rey shines her light down them but can’t see where they end. “Well, I’m not so sure about the stability of those tunnels,” she says. “And anything could be down here. Indigenous life forms, even sentient beings. You’d be surprised what people can survive if they’re determined enough to hide.”

            “So you don’t want to explore any further?”

            “Oh, no,” Rey says automatically, “I definitely do.”

            “Once a scavenger, always a scavenger,” says Kylo Ren, with a note of something suspiciously like fondness.


            They can’t journey too far from the hangar bay. They don’t have the right equipment for a true, thorough exploration, and it would be all too easy to lose one’s way in those tunnels and end up wandering, lost, for days. But even with those limitations, Kylo is right: Rey isn’t bored. It’s been so long since she’s crawled through the remains of someone else’s war instead of fighting her own. Knowing that this place has history, that it was a Rebel stronghold, a famous one, only heightens the thrill of discovery, even if the base was already ransacked a generation ago.

            Crawling through ruins is definitely one area where she has Kylo beat. There are a few tunnels he deems impassible that she navigates easily, crawling up fallen boulders on all fours to peer over and see what’s on the other side. The most exciting thing she finds is an old A280 blaster rifle, long overlooked, hiding under a few broken pipes; one must leave no stone unturned. She suspects it’s nonfunctional, and verifies that suspicion by attempting to fire a couple of bolts at the floor, to absolutely no effect; not once does she think of testing it by pointing it at Kylo. She tells him she might be able to fix it up, given time and the right tools.

            To her surprise, he lets her keep her find. He’s mostly quiet, watching as she evaluates whether or not a tunnel is likely to collapse, as she explains the differences between the scraps of Imperial and Rebel body armor they come across, as she peeks into every little crevice looking for hidden treasure. Sometimes he’ll ask a question, but he mostly seems content to see her so lively, so in her element, so thoroughly preoccupied. This is clearly the high point of Rey’s time in his company. She wonders briefly if he’s rewarding her for going to bed with him and then decides she absolutely does not care.

            After about an hour of wandering, they stumble on what must have been the base’s command center, going by remains of the displays and the outmoded communications equipment. This room took a beating when the shield generators were destroyed, and half of it is inaccessible, blocked by fallen tubing, by places where the icy roof buckled and crumpled. There will be no continuing down the tunnels from this room. But instead of backtracking, Rey lingers here for a moment. She thinks of the stories she knows. A young Leia Organa, about Rey’s own age, would have sat in one of these forgotten chairs and commanded an army.

            “How much do you know of the Galactic Civil War?” Kylo asks her, out of the blue.

            Rey wipes a gloved hand across one of the neglected, decrepit consoles, scraping over a layer of frost. “I know enough.”

            “Then you know of the Battle of Hoth.”

            All Rey knows of the Battle of Hoth from growing up on Jakku is that Luke Skywalker felled an AT-AT with nothing but a lightsaber and his wits, that rebel pilots managed to take down others by circling them in airspeeders, tying cables around their legs to make them trip and fall. Tales for children. But she says, “I do.”

            “The Rebellion’s most catastrophic defeat.”

            Rey picks up her head and turns to look at him. “What?”

            “It’s not unlike the Siege of Crait, what happened here.” Kylo stands with his hands at his sides and cranes his head to look around the room. He takes in the roof, half caved in. He takes in all of the broken, abandoned equipment. And he takes in her, last of all. “Wait long enough and history repeats itself. Sometimes you don’t even need to wait that long.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “So you don’t know.”

            “Kylo.”

            He walks to one of the walls, runs a finger along one of the marks there. A scorch mark left by a blaster bolt. “This was the Rebellion’s main base,” he says. “Echo Base. They spent two years constructing it. They only inhabited it for a month before the Empire found them.”

            Rey hefts the strap of the blaster rifle up on her shoulder and sits down on the chair in front of her console. It creaks in protest, long unaccustomed to bearing any weight. “But they were able to evacuate.”

            “Barely,” says Kylo Ren. “They suffered heavy casualties. And seventeen of their thirty transports were destroyed.”

            “Oh.”

            “You didn’t know.”

            He looks away from the scorch mark and back at her. Rey shifts on her seat. “Well,” she says, “when people talk about the battles from the Civil War, they don’t focus on those things. They focus on the heroism and the ingenuity and the daring escapes.”

            “That’s the power of the victor’s narrative. Triumph even in defeat.” The t in defeat is over-enunciated, as if he’s trying to drive the point home. He crosses over to her and sets his glowrod upright on the console so its beam reflects off the ceiling and provides the room with some semblance of lighting. All his sharp angles look harsher in that light. “The reality is much messier. But you know that now, Rey. After three years at war, you know that it isn’t like the stories. It’s this.” He turns at the waist as if to allow her to look past him, to give her a better view of the defunct command center. “It’s ruins. Necessary ruins, but still ruins.”

            Rey watches his face, uneasy.

            “Someday they’ll tell stories about us, too,” he continues. “And they’ll get us wrong.”

            “Where are you going with this?”

            He gives her his full attention again. “The Rebel army cornered in this base as they faced the advancing Imperial army, outnumbered, outmaneuvered. The destruction of the transports. You know those details because they’re the same. Your people, your Resistance, they lived them too. Because it’s cyclical. The wars of our parents just become our wars.” He pauses. “But we can break the cycle. You and I.”

            “Oh, no,” Rey says softly.

            “No, listen.” One of his hands clenches and unclenches. “Listen to me, Rey. We could become something the galaxy’s never seen before. We could— end all of this. If you just…” He struggles for a moment to find the right phrasing. “If you make the right choice this time.”

            “Kylo.”

            “If you choose to stand at my side, and we unite everyone under our rule,” he says with quiet conviction, “none of this has to happen again.”

            When he finishes, the room is dead silent but for their breathing. Rey finds herself wishing, despite knowing dozens of things he does not know, that she was just slightly more educated. She wishes she knew more about history, so she could rebut him in the language he’s speaking. She wishes she knew more about politics, so she could tell him why uniting the galaxy under one rule would never work. But she knows her heart, still. And she knows herself. And she knows exactly what she needs to say.

            “I’m not the only one who could make a choice.”

            He exhales through his teeth and turns his face away.

            “You’re Kylo Ren,” she says. “You’re the Supreme Leader of the First Order. It is well within your power to broker peace—”

            “Peace?” he echoes, with incredulity. “The galaxy will only know peace when the Resistance is destroyed.”

            “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

            “There’s no other way. We are children of war.”

            “You’re being dramatic.”

            “I’m not,” he retorts, and he certainly sounds childish.

            “How can you say that? How can you say that you’re a child of war? You come from a place of such immense privilege—”

            “You don’t know where I come from.”

            “I do!” Rey asserts, practically shouting it. “I know your family. The type of people they are, the life you must have had.”

            “You know nothing!” he snaps back, his voice rising. He checks himself and tempers it. “You don’t know as much as you think. How the war changed all our lives. You don’t know— my mother, how the reconstruction of the Republic took precedence above all else. Above her own son.” He frowns at her. “No, you do know that much. You know what it’s like to call out for your parents at night, only to have no one answer.”

            “Stop it.”

            “You, Rey,” he says. “You grew up in the graveyard of the Battle of Jakku, the final conflict. Without realizing it, you have always understood the cost of war. But you don’t— you don’t know how easily the galaxy is catapulted into it. How the galaxy despairs for something new. The balance we could bring.”

            Rey is quiet for a moment. She knows she and he have vastly different ideas of what balance would entail. She would angle for a ceasefire if that were within her power, but she can’t picture him sitting down to negotiate with Leia, or really anyone. It’s his way or no way at all.

            So she pushes back. “Say I did join you. Then what?”

            “Then we would bend every star system to our will.”

            “It’s not as if all your problems would magically vanish. The Resistance will not yield. Your mother will not yield. As long as you try to impose your will on others, people will stand in opposition to you.” Rey’s voice is certain, defiant. She knows what she’s saying is right. “There would still be war in the galaxy. It won’t end. You can’t force it to end that way.”

            “Together, we could. The Light, the Dark. There would be no division. We couldn’t be stopped.” Kylo crouches down in front of where she sits and puts his hands on her thighs, then slides them down to her knees. And he looks up at her. “That’s the new path forward. It’s what we make of it.”

            Rey inhales. Her stomach twists. “Don’t.”

            “You know we could do it. That’s what frightens you.”

            “No, this is— it’s a delusion.”

            “You know how well we work together,” he says, lower now. “Fit together. You’ve felt it.”

            “No, I— no.” She can’t believe what she’s hearing. “Just because we— just because in the bedroom— that doesn’t mean anything!”

            “When we touch.” He runs his hands back up her legs, to the hem of her jacket. “From the first moment we touched, you’ve known. We’ve both known. We’re meant to stand together.”

            She looks at his hands, how they fold over her thighs, and how, in size, he dwarfs her, but in power they’re matched. She wonders what he’d say his intent was, if she asked. Not to consume her, not entirely, although it was that not long ago. In his anger at her rejection, anger that festered inside him like rot for three years, he thought he would devour her. Now it’s back to the old dream, the dream of him and her taking on everything else side by side. Of equals.

            “Rey,” Kylo says, his voice laden with a quiet intensity, “I won’t ask again.”

            That’s the complication. They both know what it would mean for her to refuse. The ensuing silence stretches out between them for far too long.

            “Let me— let me think about it,” Rey says. It’s not convincing. The words are too tight, too clipped.

            Kylo casts his eyes away from her. “Why should I? I know your mind.”

            Rey says nothing. There’s nothing left to say.

            He takes his hands off of her and pushes back up from the balls of his feet to stand. He turns to face away from her, face the entrance of the chamber instead. “We’ll return to the ship. I need to make—” He has to stop and set his jaw, to wrap his mind around the word. “Preparations.”

            “Preparations,” Rey repeats, as if questioning, although she already knows what for.

            “You won’t be persuaded,” he says. He looks over his shoulder, not right at her but at a point on the floor about two feet in front of her. “I feel that now. So I’ll…” He pauses again. Rey marvels at how much harder it is for him to say these things aloud now that there’s certainty to them.

            Finally, Kylo Ren raises his eyes to her face. And he says, “I’ll give you the death you deserve.”


            Upon returning to the Conquest II, Kylo escorts her to his chambers, takes her salvaged blaster rifle, and then disappears for a while, leaving Rey locked in with her thoughts of escape.

            She has faith that she can get away. Not because of any superstition, and not because she thinks the Force will provide, but because she knows what she’s capable of. The best window is probably just prior to the execution. Kylo can’t stay by her side forever. When he leaves her under guard, as he will likely have to, she can break out of her bindings on her own. She’s done that several times now. If she can wrest a weapon from one of the guards posted to her she’ll be well on her way to freedom.

            She would rather have her saberstaff, of course. She’ll have to figure out where it’s being kept. It’s highly unlikely that she could talk Kylo into letting her have it back if he won’t even let her keep a broken blaster.

            The other problem is whether there’s a way to preserve her life and the integrity of her mission at the same time. If there is one, she can’t see it. The gala she’s meant to keep Kylo Ren from cancelling is only five days away. Surely a galactic manhunt for an escaped Jedi prisoner is enough of a reason to call it off. He’ll legitimately be too busy trying to track her down to host a party. But maybe if he sends the fleet after her and she manages to hide for a few days, forcing them to comb through every star system, the Resistance would still have the opening to attack those Dreadnoughts... She’ll have to find some way to contact Poe and Leia.

            Rey wonders if she should have tried to convince Kylo that she really was considering his proposal, just to stall for time. A better spy might have. Nara Ordula probably could have pulled that off. But whatever that trait is isn’t in her. And besides, they’re too close to each other for straightforward deception now. Concealment, sure — they can conceal all they like. But lying is a different beast altogether.

            She showers, hoping the warm water might help untangle her thoughts, and she can’t quite bring herself to dress after. She’s weary, and not just from physical exercise. So when Kylo returns, she’s sitting on his bed with a towel wrapped around her, feet resting on the comforter.

            He approaches her with some trepidation. Of course, from this point on, he can only be the bearer of bad news. But she doesn’t react to his presence, so he sits down on the edge of the bed, next to her, and begins removing his boots. He doesn’t look at her. “It’s to be tomorrow morning,” he says.

            Rey turns her head, but her gaze doesn’t find his face, either. She looks over her shoulder at his thighs, his knees. “So soon.”

            “Well, I—” He pauses, swallows. “There didn’t seem to be any point in prolonging it.”

            “No, you’re right.”

            But she can feel the conflict brewing inside of him like a storm, and it intrigues her. He’s committed to his path, certainly. He’s made that very clear to her time and time again. He’d like to believe he has no conflict left in him, as she would; that would make everything simpler for them both. But they know differently. They know he’s only scheduling her execution for tomorrow so that he doesn’t lose his nerve.

            Rey watches through lowered lashes as he unclasps his belt, as he unfastens and removes his surcoat. She asks, “And it will be public?”

            “Very public,” he says as he pulls off one glove at a time. “Performed in front of an assemblage of officers and Stormtroopers and broadcast on the HoloNet.”

            So he can’t choke, Rey thinks. He’ll have to follow through with it or risk looking weak. “All right,” she says. He’s only setting himself up for disappointment when the guest of honor doesn’t show.

            “It hasn’t been formally announced yet, but it’s only a matter of time.” He pauses again. “Your Resistance— friends.”

            Rey does look up at his face now, and finds him already watching her, studying her features like he’s trying to memorize them. “What about them?”

            “They’ll know your fate,” he says, “if that’s any comfort.”

            “It isn’t.”

            “I... figured.”

            Rey turns her head away again. She hears more rustling as he continues shedding his clothing, and then he wraps his arms around her waist from behind and lies down on the bed, taking her with him. He tucks his body around hers as though to shield her from everything outside of him, as if that’s the threat, as if the threat isn’t sharing the bed with her. He lifts one hand to stroke down her bare arm, up, down again, and she can feel him through the bond marveling at her wiry muscle, at her light downy hairs there, at her warmth.

            “I consulted with one of the doctors,” he says. “About the possibility of conception. Whether that was a valid concern.”

            Rey exhales, closes her eyes. “What did they say?”

            “That it was too early to tell. That even if something had taken, there was a two-thirds chance it would never become viable.” He swallows again, audibly. “Although that means the probability—”

            “I’ve had an injection,” Rey says sharply, as if it’s a blade with which to wound him. “Don’t lose any sleep over it.”

            “Oh.” His hand pauses. “As a... general precaution?”

            “It regulates my cycles.” This isn’t a lie on its face, since the injection does also do that, but of course it’s not the truth, either. Telling him why she got a birth control injection would reveal that she knew in advance she might end up in his bed, that there had been premeditation behind her capture. She elaborates, “Now I only bleed twice a year.”

            Kylo nods. If he senses the half-truth, he doesn’t press her on it. Perhaps he’s too busy wallowing in his own sorrow to care. There goes any excuse he had for prolonging her life. Rey wonders if she should have said nothing, let him struggle with the possibility a few more days, bought herself time. But she would have had to lie with him again as they tried for something impossible, and at this point that would just feel like the biggest falsehood of all.

            He says aloud, “Practical of you.”

            “You know me.”

            “I do,” he agrees softly. “I do know you.”

            He raises his hand to her hair and brushes it away from the nape of her neck so he can press his lips to her skin. Then he folds his arm back around her waist and crushes her close to him, his chest pressed up against her back, and he breathes with harsh, ragged breaths as if he’s exerting himself, or on the verge of some kind of attack, or suppressing sobs. His fingers curl in on themselves and slip under the hem of her towel, and he brushes his knuckles up and down the skin of her stomach so lightly that he doesn’t even seem to realize he’s doing it.

            She can sense him trying to wall her out from their bond, but he isn't completely successful. It’s not just their connection he’s stifling; she can feel him pressing everything down, compacting it so it can be managed and discarded. He’s trying to call on his Jedi training, the old ways, to lock the feelings away. She can’t imagine he was ever good at that, even when he was Ben Solo, because she feels all his desperation, and all his frustration, and such pure unadulterated anguish that it might drown her. This is it for him. If there is still some small chance he’ll return to the Light, if there was ever that chance, it would die the moment he snuffed out her life in service of his grand plans, his blurry vision of an ideal future. Her, his opposite and his equal, his lover and his enemy. One of few combatants to have ever bested him. The only person who listened to him as a confidant. And the only woman he—

            It’s as though a door slams shut, and Rey is left with her own thoughts once again, a slight ringing in her ears.

            “You don’t have to do this,” she whispers.

            “But I do,” he says. He, too, talks quietly, as if someone might overhear them. “I have no choice.”

            “No one is making you,” she insists. “You always have a choice.”

            “So do you.”

            Rey shakes her head, very slightly.

            Kylo sighs. “If you keep standing against me, eventually you’ll have to fall.” He inhales, taking in the scent of her hair as if for the last time. “Better not to prolong it. Better to root it out.”

            “You’re convincing yourself.”

            “I don’t need convincing,” he says, with an obvious waver in his voice. “My mind is clear.”

            “We’ll see,” she says.

            She doesn’t move away from him. She should. He doesn’t deserve to touch her anymore. But there’s a weight to her limbs and all she feels is nothing, nothing. Rey recognizes this as the nothing one feels in self-defense, when negative emotions would otherwise overwhelm and paralyze. She felt it when she was young, sometimes for days on end, when her loneliness crept toward her and threatened to send her crying. That’s when the nothing would kick in, and she would cover herself with it like a blanket, and carry on.

            Rey told herself before undertaking her mission that she didn’t hold out any lingering hope for him, yet somehow he still managed to disappoint her. Like she, too, is disappointing him. Maybe each other’s greatest disappointment was all they were ever meant to be, in the end.


            Prisoners sentenced to death get their choice of last meals, she learns. Anything they want, they can request. But Rey doesn’t know what to ask for aside from the rolls they had the first time they ate together, so she leaves the rest to Kylo, who is more accustomed to sophisticated food anyway. By dinner they find themselves, once again, sitting together at one far corner of the long dining table, avoiding each other’s eyes at all costs.

            The robed attendant brings forth the rolls, piping hot, and sets the basket down on the table. Rey takes one and passes it back and forth between her hands as it cools, then picks at the crust with a nail. She can’t imagine eating it, or anything else, right now.

            Kylo watches Rey play with her food, but the reappearance of the attendant saves him the trouble of making a comment. The attendant holds, in gloved hands, a bottle foggy with condensation. It contains some teal liquid, which they pour into a slim, gold-rimmed glass flute at Rey’s place setting.

            “Toniray,” Kylo says abruptly. “As far as I can tell, the last remaining bottle.”

            This attracts Rey’s attention enough to make her pick up her head. “Why the last bottle?”

            “It’s an Alderaanian wine.”

            Rey’s eyebrows shoot up.

            “It was gifted to me by a collector who wanted a favor,” Kylo says, as the attendant fills his flute. Bubbles swirl in the wine, then rise to the top as it settles.

            “Did they know the significance it might have to you personally?”

            “No, I don’t think so. My origin is the subject of much speculation. Few know the truth.” Kylo pinches the stem of the glass between his thumb and index fingers, but he doesn’t move to pick it up and drink it. “Regardless, Toniray is rarer than rare, and priceless.” He watches new bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass. “I was saving it.”

            “For a special occasion?”

            “A funeral. A wedding.” He shrugs. “This is close enough.”

            The room brims with emotion, both hidden and openly felt. She senses an undercurrent of nervousness that she assumes comes from Kylo. What does it matter whether or not she approves of his offering? He thinks she’ll be dead tomorrow regardless.

            Rey runs a finger around the rim of the glass. “I don’t really drink much,” she says. “It gives me visions.”

            “I don’t either. But one glass can’t do much harm. To mark the occasion.”

            “All right.” Rey picks up her flute and reaches over to tap her rim to his, and she says a bit sardonically, as if giving a toast, “To mark the occasion. Maybe save the rest of the bottle for that wedding.”

            That startles him for some reason, but Rey is past the point of paying him much mind. She holds the glass up to catch the light of the chandelier. The wine really is a wonderful color, like the ocean in a shallow sandy cove.

            “Some people can drink to forget.” Rey watches the bubbles rise in her own drink. “Never thought I’d envy them. On Jakku that always seemed like a miserable way to pass the time.”

            “Is there any way to pass time on Jakku that isn’t miserable?” Kylo asks.

            This startles her in return, the attempt at true humor at the very last possible moment. Black humor, some might call it. Too little and too late. She just looks at him, and doesn’t laugh, and doesn’t smile, and doesn’t do anything.

            He shifts, uncomfortable. “Try it,” he says, voice barely above a whisper. And there’s the nervousness again. How is it that sensation sneaks through when he’s locked her out of the rest of what he’s feeling? “Just— try it. It’s for you.”

            “Fine.”

            Rey raises the flute to her lips and tips it back. The wine is cool, sweet, and the bubbles burst on her tongue, tickling it. She’s no expert when it comes to wine, but it’s a pleasant enough drinking experience, and she can understand why this vintage might have been prized even before Alderaan was blown to bits by the Empire. She takes a good long drink of it as Kylo watches, and then puts her glass back down, swallows, and nods, as if to say she’s finished and now it’s his turn.

            The nervousness in the room abruptly reaches a fever pitch, becoming proper panic now. She looks at Kylo’s face, but it’s unreadable, although there’s an intensity to his eyes as always. But not— he’s not nervous. It wouldn’t make any sense for him to be nervous. He’s still trying to keep the lid on his misery, and that completely consumes his attention. Rey is the only one chasing down the source of that jarring panic, so she’s the only one who catches the errant thought, a thought that belongs to neither her nor Kylo Ren, but to the third person standing in the room, still holding the chilled bottle of Toniray.

            The girl wasn’t supposed to drink first.

            She sees Kylo raising his own flute to his lips as if in half-time, and without thinking she holds out a hand and cries, “Don’t!” The ensuing Force-push is so strong that the flute flies out of his fingers and shatters completely against the wall, rivulets of blue wine racing to the floor.

            He turns to look at her. She feels his confusion. It’s genuine. “Rey?”

            “Something’s wrong,” she says, and she looks past him to the attendant only to catch just a glimpse of fluttering purple robes as they flee into the passageway. “Something—”

            And then the poison — what must be poison — kicks in, acts fast. Rey feels it first in her calf muscles as numbness, weakness, which quickly travels up her body until it’s impossible for her to keep upright in her chair. She folds over herself, falls onto her side on the floor, and then there’s a tightness in her chest and she thinks no, no. She starts taking quick, noisy, panicked shallow breaths, her mouth open, not unlike a fish stranded on the shore, or more hopelessly in the middle of a desert, baking alive under the sun. Her arms are about as effective as fins on land. She can’t move herself and can’t speak for breathing, but breathing isn’t working either. She can’t, she can’t, she can’t breathe.

            She hears the scrape of chair legs and someone say her name, and then Kylo Ren is kneeling by her side, pulling her head up onto his knees, cupping her face with his gloved hands. She looks up at him, at his hair falling in his face, and the sheer horror in his eyes is like nothing she’s ever seen from him before. “No,” he says. “Rey, no. Rey—”

            Focus. Bodies are machines like any other. She’d learned that setting her own broken bones as a child. The problem’s mechanical, so diagnose the problem. Her chest isn’t moving and her lungs aren’t inflating and deflating like they should. It’s nearly impossible for her to center herself through breathing when her breath won’t come, but clumsily she manages to reach out for the Force, grasp it as though with shaking fingers, and route some of it to her diaphragm, to the muscles at her ribs. She manages a slightly deeper inhale as her rib cage expands. How much time did she buy herself? A few seconds only? Her head spins.

            Breathing’s something you never have to think about. It’s an automatic process. Your brain does it for you. The second you concentrate on it, it becomes harder. But Rey’s brain and her muscles aren’t speaking right now, so she has to do not only the thinking but the labor, all while trying to keep hold of the Force, which keeps slipping from her grip as though someone has coated it in oil. She can’t keep doing this forever. There are stories in the sacred Jedi texts of Darksiders who have kept themselves alive on the strength of their anger alone, but Rey’s not angry, just surprised, and alarmed, and disappointed in herself for succumbing to something so rudimentary, and maybe a little afraid.

            Rey looks up at Kylo as she manages another true inhale, although it’s feebler this time. When she thought about her death, this is not how she imagined it. True, during a war it’s futile to think about growing old, and in some versions of her premature passing he’s there with her. That aligns with her expectations. But when he’s there, he’s the death of her. It’s never something completely unrelated that takes her out. It’s him, or more often the pair of them, together, pressed against each other on the ground with identical smoldering wounds. Ushering each other to the final rest. Light for Dark. Balance.

            She thought she’d get to see her friends and her pupils again before the end. She wishes she could tell Kylo to tell Finn she’s sorry, because she is truly, deeply sorry that she won’t come back to him like she said she would. There’s no guarantee Kylo would pass that message along, and although she’d like to think that some desire to honor her might compel him the chance is likely slim. It doesn’t matter. Trying to get the words out would mean wasting another precious breath. Her vision is already darkening around the edges, and once she falls unconscious, that’s it. That’s all. It’s over.

            Maybe she’s glad Finn’s not here to witness this. It’s becoming an ungraceful and drawn out way to die as her breaths grow more staccato, as her lungs refuse to work every other time she tries compelling them, as she fights to stay awake even though she can no longer feel the Force. Yes, it’s a mercy that Finn’s not here. But at least she’s not alone—

            Her chest jerks off the ground and she thinks she hears something snap and there’s pain and she takes a delicious, gasping breath and air floods her lungs like it’s meant to. Her eyes focus on a hand, outstretched, trembling above her sternum, and she looks up and sees Kylo, his jaw clenched, eyes focused, and she arches off the ground again and she gasps again and his other hand is cradling her head and he’s saying please in that same soft way he did when he begged her to rule by his side as Snoke’s throne room burned. Only this time it’s worse, it’s a thousand times worse, because his voice is so quiet and watery as he begs whatever is happening inside her to stop. As he begs her to stay alive.

            He’s so pale, pale like moonlight, and he looks down at her with the face of a man whose entire galaxy is collapsing in around him. And she knows now for certain that he could never have stomached killing her. He can’t take the thought of her dead. They’ve circled each other for so long — does he even know who he is without her? But it’s not that. No, it is that, but it’s not just that. Something else has to account for that expression, for the fear and the desperation he draws upon to keep pushing air into her lungs.

            For a second, a lightning flash, she can feel his mind with striking clarity, and it’s obvious, it’s been obvious all along: he can’t lose her. He can’t watch her go again. Her first rejection twisted his insides up into something thorny and ugly that only in the past couple of days, or only just in this moment, has begun to unknot. And she sees him within it, laid bare. She sees that he had taken a devastating truth and he’d wrapped it in venom and obsession and vitriol because hurting is so much easier than being hurt.

            But she’s dying now, and the wrapping falls away. In the shaking of his hand and the quiver of his lower lip and the way his breath, too, comes short, she sees what he’s been hiding so desperately, from her and from himself.

            And—

            Oh.

            Of course.

            But Rey is unable to make sense of this thought, and it slips away from her like the Force had. She feels herself fading, even as her chest rises and falls for a third time. Over Kylo’s shoulder, edged in blue, she thinks she sees Luke Skywalker, robed, solemn. He doesn’t say anything, but Rey can clearly see the frown turning down the corners of his mouth, the crease in his brow. He looks so sad.

            Then Kylo turns her face back to his, his hand cupping her cheek, and he says, “Rey,” and the last things she sees are his wide dark eyes filled with terror, and the last thing she hears is her name, falling from his lips like a prayer.

Chapter Text

            Rey suddenly finds herself at a disorienting elevation, and she sways, coming dangerously close to pitching over the ledge and into the ocean below. It takes her a second to realize where she is. There’s stone beneath her feet, and, behind her, a large rock with a flat surface, perfect for meditation. In the distance, where sky meets sea, two suns hang low over the horizon. This a place she knows well. The first Jedi temple on Ahch-To.

            Only there’s something unsettling about the scene, so subtle that it takes another few moments for her to puzzle it out. There’s no wind. This high up, gusts from the sea should be blowing hard enough to whip her hair around her face. There’s an ominous stillness to the whole scene, and she looks at the ocean again and sees that the peaks and valleys of its waves are frozen, absolutely motionless. On the island, which stretches out behind and below her, little black and white dots that she knows must be porgs huddle together in clusters but don’t move or squawk. It’s silent. Silent and still.

            “The Force has a strange sense of humor about these things,” says a man’s voice, a little gravelly with age and disuse. Rey looks and finds Luke Skywalker next to her, leaning against the rock, looking out at the ocean. He looks like he did when she last saw him in life — robed, bearded — yet it’s as though his passing smoothed out some of his worry lines; he’s much less a man haunted by the past. “It wasn’t so long ago that you thought about coming back here. And here you are.”

            “Here I am,” she echoes, with a complex combination of relief she didn’t know she’d feel at seeing him again, since it’s not as if they parted under the best of circumstances, and stomach-churning disappointment, knowing what his presence must mean. “Are you here?”

            He smiles at her, wrinkles deepening around his eyes. “Of course I am, Rey.”

            Rey exhales and leans back against the rock behind her. “I really did botch it, then,” she says. “Because you’re here, and that’s a sunset.”

            “Huh, could be,” says Luke, shading his eyes with his hands as he looks back out at the twin suns. “Could very well be.”

            “What do you mean, ‘could be?’” Rey asks, with incredulity and no small amount of rising anxiety. “The suns are on this side of the island. That means they’re setting. That means I’m dying.”

            “Standard laws of planetary rotation don’t really apply here,” says Luke. “Maybe it’s a sunset, maybe it isn’t. If we wait long enough, we’ll find out.”

            Rey breathes out through her nostrils. Deciphering the old Jedi texts can be like this, too. They’re often written in riddles, winding their way around what they mean, making the reader puzzle it out for themselves. Rey understands the logic behind this, behind making people put in effort to get answers, but it doesn’t translate very well to conversation. She squints out at the ocean. “This clearly isn’t the real Ahch-To. So where’s here?”

            “It’s in between.” Luke looks up at the star-speckled sky above their heads, already dull and darkened, a stark contrast with the sunset that boils over the horizon. “You’re not in your body, but you’re not gone just yet, either. Ben’s working very hard to keep you breathing. If he manages to do so until help arrives, you’ll have a good shot at going back.”

            Rey glances at Luke. “Can you see him?”

            Luke nods.

            She hesitates, then asks, “Can I see him?”

            He turns to Rey and shakes his head. “You don’t want to.”

            “I do want to.” She can imagine Kylo Ren still kneeling over her, sweating as he strains to channel the Force into her lungs. She can’t forget the look in his eyes, the fear and agony she saw reflected in them, the tremor in his voice as he said her name. It stirs something in her that she can’t quite explain away, but she explains it away regardless by telling herself that she just wants to see how proficient he is at keeping her alive.

            “No,” says Luke. “It’s not about him. You don’t want to see yourself like that.”

            Rey flinches away from him as if stung. “Oh,” she says. She has a thousand questions, but the only ones she can manage are, “Is it— really bad? Am I that close to death?”

            “It’s unsettling to see yourself from the outside at the best of times,” he says. “When you’re dying, it’s worse. And when someone in pain is begging you to come back, and you’re standing close enough to touch them or offer words of comfort but you can’t interact with them in any way they’d feel or hear, that’s worst of all.”

            He speaks as if from experience, but Rey doesn’t ask him to elaborate or question him further. She casts her eyes down to the rock beneath her hand and gently flicks a pebble off its edge. “Well,” she says. “I’ll take your word for it, then.”

            “As you should. Maybe not in all things, but in this.” He pats the rock. “Sit. We might be waiting a while. Time doesn’t work like it should here either.”

            Rey pushes up onto her toes, and hops backwards, transferring her weight to her hands so she can push herself up onto the rock. She sits with her knees far apart, and her feet dangle a few inches above the ledge’s surface. Everything feels so lifelike but for the unnatural calm blanketing it all. The frozen ocean is what disconcerts her the most. There are so many thoughts swirling in her head, and she can’t choose which one to articulate, so she just sits, and looks.

            Luke speaks first. “What are you doing, Rey?”

            “What?” She scowls. “What do you mean, what am I doing? I’m sitting here with you, waiting to find out if I’m dead or not.”

            “You know that’s not what I meant,” Luke says, with the hint of a sigh. “What are you doing back there, with Ben?”

            “Oh.” Rey injects a false casualness into her voice. “Um, nothing much of consequence, really. Why?”

            “The first thing you did when you realized there was something wrong with the wine was to keep him from drinking it as well.” Luke leans back, watching her face. “You saved his life.”

            “I suppose,” Rey admits, with some reluctance.

            “You decided it would be better to let him live. Despite the role he’s assumed. The part he plays in the ongoing conflict.”

            “Well, not— no. No.” She shakes her head, and speaks with rising confidence. “It’s not like the First Order disappears if he dies. They’d just have Hux or somebody assume the mantle of Supreme Leader, and that would be worse.”

            “Of course.”

            “Besides,” she continues, grasping for another reason, “if he died there’d be nobody to save my life.”

            “So it was selfish,” says Luke.

            “Well, you know me, I’m… I’m a selfish person.” Rey’s cheeks tingle. She’s well aware of how ridiculous she sounds. Even knowing what she knows about Luke, knowing his flaws, talking with him can sometimes make her feel so immature. “I’m very selfish.”

            “Of course you are.” Luke softens his voice. “You still think he’s worth saving.”

            Rey shifts on her stone perch. “I wasn’t really thinking at all.”

            “Is that so?”

            “It was just instinct.”

            “A selfish instinct.”

            “Exactly,” Rey says, all her conviction deflated. “A very selfish instinct.”

            Luke lets her sit with her falsehood until she squirms from it. “So I’m asking you again, Rey,” he says at last. “What are you doing back there?”

            “I’m— not sure I understand the question,” says Rey, genuinely confused about what he’s trying to get at.

            “When you went to him the first time, you were compassionate. To a fault, I thought.” Luke studies the horizon for a moment as Rey watches him, brows knitting together. “That compassion still lives in you, but now you’re pushing it away so you don’t make the same mistake twice. He can’t let you down if you don’t want to help him.”

            She crosses her arms. “No, I’m not— I’m not pushing anything away. He just doesn’t deserve any compassion right now.”

            “I’d argue that he didn’t the first time, and yet you gave it anyway.” Luke folds his arms too, mimicking her posture, but he keeps looking out at the suns, which are half-hidden behind faraway clouds. “Compassion’s a funny thing. Often it’s unearned, yet still freely given. You’re full of it, Rey, even though with your history no one would blame you if you were selfish. If you looked out only for yourself. That’s what’s remarkable about you. Why you’ve so often succeeded where I failed.”

            He’s quiet for a moment, and then he adds, “I know how much it hurts you and Leia to act like you’ve given up on him.”

            “You gave up on him,” she protests, a little uncomfortable the turn this dialogue has taken.

            “I was never going to be his impetus to return to the Light, Rey.”

            “Well, I’m— not, either.”

            “Are you so certain of that?”

            “What? Yes, of course I am.” Rey speaks from a place of sheer incredulity. “I went to him. He killed his master, like Vader did. It wasn’t enough. He didn’t turn. He doesn’t want to. He wants to be what he is. That’s all there is to it.”

            Luke exhales, and his shoulders slump as if they all at once bear a great weight. “His parents, me… Upon reflection, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, we didn’t do a very good job at showing him the other ways to be. That’s how Snoke became his greatest influence. Through neglect, or absence, or betrayal, everyone else let him down.”

            “Master Skywalker.” Rey plants one hand on the rock and twists toward him. She remembers telling him before, when she didn’t have the complete picture, that he wasn’t the one who failed Kylo Ren. Now she knows he did, profoundly. Yet she still says, “He’s not a child anymore. He’s a grown man. He makes his own choices. What happened to him growing up only matters to a point. It doesn’t excuse what he does now.”

            “I know that,” says Luke. “And so do you. But maybe his salvation lies in seeing that there are still better ways.”

            Rey puffs out her cheeks and blows air out through pursed lips. “What are you suggesting, exactly? Are you saying I have to stay beyond my remit to try and fix him? Because I won’t do that, and I can’t. There are so many other people depending on me—”

            “No, Rey. I would never, ever say that to you. I hope you know that.” The lines in Luke’s forehead deepen. “All I’m saying is not to fight your best impulses. You know that compassion isn’t surrender. It’s not absolution. It’s an outstretched hand. He has to be the one to take it. If he doesn’t, then... you may have to withdraw it, as you have before.”

            Rey rubs her hand up and down her bicep, sheepishly. “I have withdrawn it,” she says. “It’s withdrawn. I’m not going to let him get close again. I refuse. By the Force, the things he wanted to do to me—”

            “Terrible things,” Luke agrees, with appropriate seriousness. “Yet his resolve to do them melted the moment he had the chance. If he were actually capable of doing half of what he dreams of doing, we’d be having a very different conversation, you and I.”

            “He does terrible things anyway,” Rey points out. “What does it matter if he does them to everyone except me? It’s not as if he’s been so great to me, on the whole.”

            “No, he hasn’t,” Luke concedes. “Still, when everyone else saw a monster, including himself, you saw something else. And I wonder if you still see what he could be. Maybe you saw it in him just before you found yourself here.”

            Rey shifts again. It all hits a little too close to home. “When I saw those things before, I was wrong,” she mutters. “I was foolish. You were right.”

            “Was I?” Luke looks not at the horizon, but at the darkened twilight sky above their heads. “He’s still trying to save your life.”

            “He’s saved my life before. As I said, it didn’t make much difference.”

            “When you went to him on the Supremacy.” Rey nods, and Luke shrugs. “I’d argue he spared your life that time. He didn’t save it.”

            “I don’t see the distinction.”

            “Sparing a life is much easier than saving one,” Luke explains. “When you spare someone, their life was already in your hands. But when you save them, you have to work to overcome circumstances that are, usually, completely out of your control.”

            “Well, he was preparing to kill me anyway. And that was well within his control.”

            “He would have found an excuse to spare you again.”

            “You can’t know that.” Luke gives her a very pointed sidelong look, and Rey sighs and says, “Yes, all right, fine. Maybe you can.”

            “You know it too. You saw it in him.”

            Rey shakes her head. “I don’t know what I saw.”

            “You know he doesn’t want to kill you,” Luke says. “You know he doesn’t want you dead, because if he did, he’d let the poison take you. And I think you know a little more than just that.” Rey doesn’t respond, so he continues, “It may not feel like enough, but it’s something. It’s more than I ever thought was left of Ben Solo.”

            “I don’t know what you want me to do about it,” Rey says, prickly. Her chest aches. “If you’re trying to give me guidance, just be straightforward. I’ve had a very long day.”

            “If you survive this, you’ll have five days left with him, according to your plan.” Luke’s voice is gentle. “All you have to do is be who you are, Rey. The Light that lives in you serves as a beacon to others. Allow yourself to show the same strength of character that inspired me to become Luke Skywalker again.”

            Rey shakes her head again. “I won’t do that just for him.”

            “Don’t do it for anyone. Just don’t deny your true nature. I know that several times you’ve shied away from pitying him, but pity won’t make you weak, or more willing to tolerate his bad behavior, or likelier to fall prey to him. I think you know that about yourself. I think when the time comes for you to leave, you’ll find yourself able, even if you embrace some of your softer instincts. The less selfish ones.” His eyes search her face. “You teach your students to eschew self-denial, yet you don’t follow your own advice.”

            “But Master Skywalker, I can’t—” She swallows. “Look, say what I saw in his mind is real. Say he’s just put up walls around it, like you think I’ve walled off some of my— whatever. I can’t possibly reciprocate. What would that say about me?”

            “Ah.” He smiles, a little sadly, she thinks. “You think we don’t all wrestle with unwanted feelings? That has nothing to do with the struggle between Light and Dark. Sadly, that’s just part of being alive.”

            “I don’t have those feelings,” Rey huffs, like a child.

            “Of course not,” he says, his eyes twinkling. “But between when you last saw him and now, there was that issue of intimacy, of being unable to be with anyone romantically. Didn’t you think that had something to do with him?”

            “No,” Rey protests. “I just—”

            “You’re telling me there wasn’t some small part of you that wanted to see him again? A part that wished he’d prove himself as vile as you want him to be, so you could move on?”

            Rey blinks at him. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

            “I know why you say you’re here.”

            “The mission’s not why I say I’m here, it’s why I’m here! Wait.” Her stomach drops, and she realizes that throughout this conversation he’s been referencing things that he wasn’t around for, that he couldn’t possibly be privy to. “How do you know all this? Have you been watching me the entire time?”

            “It’s not about watching you deliberately,” says Luke, a little off-handedly. “It’s more omniscience. All-knowing, all-seeing.”

            “Oh, no.”

            “You know the Force connects all things. There’s a way for Jedi to become one with it when we die. Accordingly, we’re part of it, and part of everything.”

            “Right, so this conversation just got—” Rey ducks her head down, both to conceal the redness in her cheeks and to avoid looking at him. “It just got a thousand times worse.”

            He doesn’t say anything for a moment, then, “Oh, you’re thinking about—”

            “Please, don’t.”

            “Rey, I may technically be all-seeing now,” Luke says, with an awkward chuckle, “but I know when to look away.”

            That doesn’t make Rey feel any less like sinking into the stone beneath her. “Right, so you’re constantly present. But this is the first time we’ve spoken.”

            “It is.” Luke looks out at the ocean. “I’ve spoken with Leia a few times, when she’s been in need of comfort. She, too, has an immeasurable amount of strength. Still, the loneliness—”

            “You’ve spoken with Leia?”

            He nods.

            Maybe Rey is already feeling raw from the rest of this conversation, but hearing that hurts more than she expects. “But she never said anything.”

            “At my behest.”

            “At your—” She turns fully now, putting one knee up on the rock so she can face him. “Master Skywalker, I’ve spent countless nights poring over those old Jedi texts, trying to figure out what to pass on and what to let die. I’ve struggled to set up lessons for my pupils when I’m still teaching myself. I do what I can, but I’ve no way to know if I’m doing it right. Why wouldn’t you—” Something hot trickles down her cheek. A tear. She angrily wipes it away and looks at her knees.  “Why wouldn’t you ever come to me?”

            He reaches out and puts a hand on her shoulder. She can feel his touch, but becomes cognizant of a strange weightlessness to them both, as though neither of them is entirely tangible even though they can interact with each other. “Rey,” he says. “You don’t need me anymore, if you ever did. You’ve already grown so much from my mistakes.”

            “Well, I’m almost dead now,” she snaps. “So maybe I could have used some counsel before we got here.”

            “That’s a fair point.” He’s quiet for a moment. “For what it’s worth, though, you’re doing better than I ever did. Your students are happy, they’re balanced. And you so gracefully bear all of the responsibility of your task without succumbing to the weight of a legacy. I didn’t want to disrupt that.”

            Rey lets his words sink in. She’s unaccustomed to praise. Wonder at her abilities, yes. But not praise, and not praise for something she’s put so much effort into doing well. She doesn’t know quite what to do with it. “A ‘hello’ once in awhile might be nice,” she mutters, at last. “If I get out of this.”

            “I think that much I can manage,” he says.

            “If I don’t—” She looks back up at him. “If I don’t, could you ask Leia to tell my friends I’m sorry? Could you ask her to tell my students I have all the faith in the galaxy that they’ll be able to carry on without me? I just—” Her voice breaks, and she stops. “There’s so much I wanted to say.”

            Luke says kindly, “Say it yourself.”

            “What?”

            He looks to the horizon, and Rey does, too, squinting at the suns. She sees them rising, inching ever so slightly upwards in the sky, and she breaks into a smile, overcome with a joy unlike any other she’s felt in her life, now not as short as it might otherwise have been.

            “He did it,” she whispers.

            She feels Luke’s eyes on her. “Yes,” he says. “He did.”

            Rey brings her hands up to her mouth and exhales into them. “Oh, Rii’a’s shorts!” she exclaims, falling back on an old expression from Jakku. She looks at Luke, and she’s briefly tempted to throw her arms around him, but that’s not the relationship they have. She just pulls her hands down and grins openly at him. “That means— that does mean something, doesn’t it?”

            “It does,” he agrees. “For both of you, I think.”

            “Well, I wouldn’t know about that,” says Rey. “But I’m certainly grateful.”

            “And you know it’s all right to feel that way.”

            She nods. “Besides, it’s not like I’m in his debt. I saved his life first.”

            “I think he’d agree.”

            “So. I can be grateful.”

            “Rey,” Luke says, “be whatever way you feel.”

            He pushes off the rock, and looks out at the suns as they retreat from the horizon. Rey does too. They watch that reverse sunset together in silence. When the sky is more blue than it is pink and gold, he says, “I should get going, but you can stay here as long as you like.” A pause. “Trust yourself. Whatever that means. You know what you’re doing.”

            When she turns her head to look at him, perhaps to thank him, he’s already gone.

            “So dramatic,” she says, under her breath, even though Luke’s no longer around to hear. But he’s always around, isn’t he? That’s what he told her. And as the wind picks up again it carries a full laugh that, although she’s never heard it in her waking life, she knows belongs to him.

            Rey does linger here a while, on this Ahch-To misplaced in time. She watches the sky lighten above her as the suns take their places overhead. She watches the waves pull away from the ocean shore, surge back, and pull away again. Three years have passed since she last sat here, but she remembers finding the Force for the first time, truly finding it with intent and clarity and purpose, like it was yesterday. That was when she became aware of the balance between all things and began to understand it. She recalls that moment and lives in it, savors it, as if taking a deep breath and filling her lungs unassisted, once again.

            And when the suns stop backtracking and the ocean waves begin lapping at the cliffs again as they should, and the island comes alive with the sounds of its native wildlife, and the wind swirls around her with the scents of salt and seaweed, she knows it’s time for her to go back. She closes her eyes.


            The first thing she notices about being alive is how heavy it is to be tethered to a body. She hadn’t realized how freeing it felt not to have a physical anchor weighing her down, subject to the ship’s artificial gravity pressing her against what feels like a mattress pad. The second thing she notices is the pain. There’s the dull ache of her muscles, and a sharper, less familiar pain in her chest that surges with every breath she takes.

            But she is breathing.

            She blinks her eyes open, slowly. She’s laying on her side with her arms in front of her, one hand upturned, and her knees slightly curled in as if she’d just been sleeping. She wears a paper-thin gown, and there’s a sensor attached to her wrist, presumably measuring her pulse. Screens crowd around the cot that she can’t make sense of right now. The room is white, sanitized, and mostly empty but for the displays, a nightstand with drawers, and two chairs, one of which has been pulled close to her side.

            That’s the chair he’s in, of course. At first she thinks he's asleep because of how he slumps over himself, but she sees the glint of his eyes through his lashes and realizes they’re just downcast as he watches her chest rise and fall. His hair falls over his face, thoroughly unkempt. She sees his gloves and his cape and his tunic resting forgotten on the other chair and becomes aware that he’s shed his outer layers while sitting up with her. One of his bare hands presses into the mattress near her upturned one, shying just away from touching it. She doubts he slept at all, and as she thinks that she does feel pity, and she feels gratitude, and a couple of other things that she can’t put a name to right now.

            When he sees her eyes open he says, “Rey,” in a low husky rumble, and this time it’s not a plea but a sigh of relief.

            “What—” she begins, and finds her throat sore, her voice hoarse and raspy.

            He shakes his head. “Talking might be difficult. They had to put a tube—” He stops, briefly overcome. “They put a tube down your throat.”

            She nods, and she presses up onto her hands to try to sit up. There’s that surge of pain again. She winces, and he reaches out with the hand not planted on the mattress to help her, but stops himself short, as if he’s not sure that’s what she wants. “You have two broken ribs,” he says. “A bacta treatment should heal them. Those— those are from me. I was careless when I—”

            Rey shakes her head. Gradually, moving with slow and directed intent, she’s able to arrange herself in something like a seated posture, leaning heavily on the two pillows she’s been given. His eyes track her face, but the rest of him stays still.

            “I’m sorry,” he says.

            She shakes her head again.

            “Sorry to have hurt you, and sorry that because of me you were put in a position where… in this position.” He swallows. “The poison had no antidote. It needed to pass through your system on its own. So a ventilator had to breathe for you.” His voice shakes as though he can hardly bear to articulate it. “For hours.”

            She looks at him, at his bowed head. “You breathed for me,” she whispers back.

            He exhales. Rey glances at his hand on the mattress, placed near her but not close enough to touch her skin, and she covers it with her own. And then she does something she promised she wouldn’t do again, or at least not for a very long time. Something of immeasurable significance. Something she told herself he needed to earn and that perhaps, in saving her life, he has.

            She says his name. His real name.

            “Ben.”

            He picks up his head to look at her, eyes wide, seemingly at a loss for words. She leans toward him, but she can’t move very far without aggravating the pain in her chest, so he closes the gap between them, and they kiss.

            One time, Rey watched a star go supernova. Poe had organized the viewing party; he has a not-so-secret love for astronomy and will talk your ear off if you get him started, as he had talked up this event for weeks before it happened. This nameless star was in their galaxy, only tens of thousands of lightyears away from Akiva, he’d said, and they would have a clear view of its final moments, written in history millennia ago but only visible on this planet now. So when the time came, Rey, Finn, Rose, Poe, Connix, and a half-dozen of Poe’s pilot cohort had climbed on top of the Vigilance’s communications tower, sat on blankets, passed ale around, and waited, taking turns squinting up at the night sky through special monoculars that would enlarge the dying star hundreds of times yet keep them from going blind as they looked directly at the event.

            The first whoop of discovery came from one of the pilots, who spotted activity on the star’s surface as it writhed and wrestled with itself, as it failed to hold its shape, and they all got their monoculars up in time to see the shock breakout, the brilliant flash of energy as the shockwave from the star’s collapsing core reached its surface. Magnified by the monocular lens, the flash monopolized Rey’s entire field of vision, and she’d gasped, leaned back, and then laughed at the wonder of it all, how rare a thing it was to witness, much less witness with her insides warmed by alcohol and her heart warmed by company. The others had gasped, too, similarly overcome, then grinned at each other and looked back out into space.

            They all stayed up there for hours, long after the shock breakout faded and the supernova darkened then grew brighter than before, and brighter even than that, until they didn’t need monoculars anymore to see the full spectacle. For weeks it remained the brightest object in the sky, visible even during the day; for weeks, Rey looked up and remembered how all her friends had smiled, transfixed by it, as time stood still.

            The way she felt that night, the unmatched lightness and simplicity, coupled with the way that dying star must have felt as it broke through its borders in a dazzling burst of white, resolved, then grew more radiant than ever before, transcending itself to become something more beautiful: that’s the only language Rey knows that describes how this kiss feels.

            At first it’s uncomplicated. Just closed eyes and closed mouths. Then he makes a small helpless sound and parts his lips and she parts hers and they kiss. She presses into him as best she can and he tilts his head to the side so their faces fit together more easily and they kiss. She brings the hand not on his hand up to his shoulder to stabilize herself, and he brings his up to cup her cheek, and they kiss. It’s their first kiss that’s neither a prologue nor epilogue for sex, but something else entirely, completely removed from it. It’s so strangely liberating, and it lasts for minutes, with only the briefest interruptions as they pull apart, breathe, and find each other again.

            The door hisses open across the room, and a woman’s voice says, “Supreme Leader— oh.”

            Rey and Kylo separate, hastily. When she turns her head to look toward the speaker, a doctor in medical uniform, he’s still holding her face in his large, warm hand, and his nose is a scant few inches away from hers.

            “What,” says Kylo, and while it would ordinarily be barked or snapped, it’s said softly, although not without some irritation.

            “The bacta tank has been prepared,” says the doctor, who keeps her eyes averted, “if the patient is ready for her immersion.”

            Patient, Rey notes, not prisoner. She wonders just who she is to these people. She assumed that word had gotten out of the woman staying in Kylo Ren’s chambers, but to what end their actual relationship had been publicized was unclear. She opens her mouth to speak but her throat is still hoarse, so she just nods. She pushes off of her hands to ease herself toward the edge of the cot when she feels Kylo wrap an arm around her waist.

            “I can stand,” she whispers, bristling a bit even now at having to depend on him.

            “I know you can,” he says simply. “But you don’t have to.”

            It’s the acknowledgement of her capability, even more than the fact that she genuinely is in pain, that sways her. She nods again and drapes one arm over his shoulders as he pushes the covers back and gets his other arm under her bare knees. He lifts her off of the cot as though she weighs nothing at all, and she looks up at him as he adjusts his hold on her a bit, surprised at how comfortable she feels in his arms. Out of the corner of her eye Rey sees the doctor turn and leave the doorway. When she’s gone, Kylo tilts his head and kisses Rey again, a brief kiss that stands in for all of the things she feels from him through their Force bond that he will not, or cannot, say aloud.

            He carries her out of the recovery room with a gentleness she did not know he had left within him.


            It’s standard protocol to give patients tranquilizers so they don’t panic while floating in bacta tanks. Rey has only ever been treated with the flexpoly bacta suits the Resistance uses, which take up less space and are less disorienting on the whole. For the first few moments after she lowers herself into the tank, before the drugs kick in, she feels like she’s being swallowed up whole by slime, but with chemical assistance her brain grows accustomed to the idea of submergence, and gradually she loses awareness of anything but warmth and comfort. She doesn’t remember being pulled from the tank, although she’s conscious for it; she does feel strong arms carry her back to a bed, and once they set her down she gives herself over to the sweet embrace of sleep.

            She emerges from her rest, hours later, to find herself back in the medcenter’s private recovery chamber, alone this time. Her eyelids are heavy with the last of her sedated haze, and although she’s free of pain she still moves slowly. It takes her what feels like a full few minutes to arrange the two pillows behind her so she can prop herself up and sit comfortably. The pain from her broken ribs is gone; even her throat feels less sore. Her hair is still slightly damp from the bacta and the pieces that have dried are weirdly stiff. She finds herself missing the shower in Kylo Ren’s chambers. Then she finds herself missing Kylo, too, in a way that exceeds mere physical need, and although she’s slightly uncomfortable to know that longing exists, she lets it be.

            He doesn’t keep her waiting for very long. Only a minute or so after she gets herself upright he strides in, carrying something in his far hand that he presses up against his side so she can’t see it. He immediately goes to her bedside and kisses her, now that he knows they can kiss whenever they want, but she’s already begun to greet him so she ends up saying, “Hi— mph, mm. Hi.”

            “Hello.” He doesn’t pull back very far, and brings up his empty hand, curling his fingers in on themselves and tucking them under her chin so he can turn her face up to his. He still looks like he hasn’t slept for a day, or showered, but there’s a brightness to him now, a new glow that de-ages him at least five years. “How do you feel?”

            “Better,” she says. “A little grimy. I’ve never floated in a real bacta tank before. It was… interesting.”

            “Disorienting.”

            “Yes.”

            “I’ve always been grateful for the sedatives.” Kylo uncurls his fingers, traces them along her jawline, then pushes some hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “I brought you something.”

            “I see that,” says Rey, trying to peer around him. He’s so broad-shouldered. “Are you going to let me have it or make me guess what it is?”

            “Oh, no, you can—” Flustered, he fumbles with it as he brings it around to his front. “You can have it, I just—”

            “I’m teasing, Ben,” she says. She wonders for the first time how much of what she’d interpreted as standoffishness or arrogance from him was actually just awkwardness. She takes the item in her hands. It’s some kind of metal dish, more like a bowl, with a lid, and it’s warm to the touch.

            Kylo returns to the chair nearest the bed again. “I thought you might be hungry,” he says.

            “I’m never not.”

            “Hungrier, then. Since you’re healing.” He sits forward, elbows on his knees. “Open it.”

            Rey removes the lid. Inside the bowl are a trio of fresh, fragrant, perfectly golden-brown butter rolls, nestled around a shallow dish containing pats of butter that are melting slightly at the edges from the rolls’ heat. “Last meal,” she says, and her mouth turns up at the corners. “You remembered.”

            “You didn’t get to eat them.”

            “No, I suppose I didn’t.” She laughs. “Thank you. Although I hope—” She notices him staring, transfixed, and she stops. “What is it?”

            He shakes his head, and she feels a wave of what she can only describe as sheepishness rolling off of him. “Nothing, it’s nothing.”

            “I feel what you feel,” she points out. “You can’t fool me.”

            He presses his lips together, and then he says quietly, “I’ve never heard you laugh before.”

            “Oh. Well.” Rey feels herself flush. “I really love these rolls.”

            “They are very good rolls,” he agrees. “I might not go so far as to say that I love them, but I can’t fault you for it.”

            She looks down at the dish in her lap, then picks up one of the rolls and holds it out to him, wordlessly. He sits up and back a little. “No, I couldn’t—”

            “If there’s anything I’ve learned about the First Order, it’s that you have plenty more where these came from.” Rey brandishes the roll in front of him. “And also that they are very good rolls.”

            He nods, and takes the roll. It looks much smaller in his hands. “That they are.”

            Rey picks up another and begins tearing it open with her hands. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees him doing the same, and a smile creeps back onto her lips. “I hope you’re not going to whisk me away for execution as soon as I finish them,” she says, dropping a pat of butter into the roll’s steaming core. “I may lose my appetite.”

            “No.” He, too, reaches for a pat of butter, taking it between his bare fingers and dropping it into his roll, copying her. He looks down at it as it melts. “The doctors want to keep you overnight for observation. And it may take a few days for you to recover your full strength. It wouldn’t do to kill you if you’re still ailing.”

            Rey nods. “Certainly not.”

            “So the execution has been postponed.”

            “Oh?”

            “Indefinitely.”

            “I see.” Rey bites into her roll, chews, and swallows. She’s never tasted anything more delicious.

            “As it turns out,” he says, “I’d made preparations for a grand assembly, but I’d neglected to announce what it was for.”

            “That was careless of you,” Rey says dryly.

            “Extremely,” he agrees. “It was a mistake I thought I’d rectify after dinner.”

            “Only after dinner?”

            “Well,” he says, “I had thought the rolls might persuade you to reconsider my offer.”

            Rey makes a show of internally debating this. “They are very good,” she says.

            “They are.”

            “Not that good, though.”

            “I’ll have a word with the bakers.”

            “You do that.”

            He finally bites into his roll, and they eat together in silence for a minute. Rey is surprised at how easy it is to eat next to him now, how it feels as though they’d been dining companions for years. Once they’ve both finished their rolls, she sees him subtly looking around for something he can use to wipe the crumbs off his fingers, and she reaches out and takes one of his hands between two of hers.

            “Rey, I swear, whoever did this—” he says, misinterpreting her intent.

            She brings his hand to her mouth and kisses the tip of his index finger. “Hm?”

            “I—” He clears his throat. “When I find them, they’ll pay dearly for…”

            “You haven’t found them yet?” She sucks a little butter off his ring finger.

            “We— what are you doing?”

            She looks up at him through her eyelashes and finds him almost as red as his lightsaber’s blade. “I’m helping you get the crumbs off your hands. Please continue.” She presses her mouth to his knuckle, which definitely doesn’t have any crumbs on it. “I’m deeply interested in your vows of revenge.”

            “This is not— fair.” He exhales and shifts in his chair. “You’re on bedrest. We can’t—”

            “It’s not like you don’t fight dirty,” she says, but she lets up on him and presses her cheek to the back of his hand. Whatever other possibilities acknowledging her feelings might open up, it’s definitely liberating to express her attraction to him. Her physical attraction. “Go on.”

            “The assassin took his own life before he could be interrogated,” Kylo says, after recovering himself. “The bottle of Toniray was found unopened in the vault. It turns out there’s another, less potent Alderaanian wine of near-identical coloration. Instead of tampering with the Toniray, the assassin had acquired that wine, poisoned it, transferred it to a very similar bottle, then sealed it.”

            “That’s not a plan that could have been arranged in an hour,” Rey says, sitting up a little straighter. “Who knew you had the Toniray in the first place?”

            “The collector has been questioned. He swore no one asked him about it.” He frowns. “Although the presentation of the gift was very public. It occurred at a banquet. We’re scrutinizing the guest list to see who among those present might have motive.”

            “No small number, I reckon,” Rey says.

            “There’s an attempt on my life every fortnight,” he replies. “I’m very difficult to kill.”

            Rey looks at the wall as she processes all this. It shouldn’t matter much, but there’s a detail there that she wants to press. She asks, “The collector who gave you the wine, is he still alive?”

            “For now.”

            She doesn’t miss the hard edge to his voice. “Well, I’m alive,” she says. “I’m going to be fine. Nobody needs to die because I had a rough night.”

            He blinks at her, uncomprehending. “It was more than a rough night,” he says. “You nearly died, Rey. I nearly watched you die.”

            “Even so,” she says. “Nobody else needs to die.”

            He’s quiet for a second. “Except the perpetrator.”

            “Sure. After a trial and sentencing, maybe.”

            Kylo exhales. “This is my mother talking.”

            “It might be. She’s not wrong.”

            “We can negotiate it.” He leans down to kiss her, and she closes her eyes and reciprocates, eagerly, easily. He murmurs against her mouth, “I assume some amount of torture is fine.”

            “You are really something,” she tells him, and she punctuates it with another kiss.

            “As are you,” he says, pressing the bridge of his nose to hers, “because I can feel that there’s a part of you that’s flattered I’d kill for you. When it’s ‘justified.’”

            “There are parts of me that feel lots of ways,” she counters. “I don’t heed them all.”

            “Mm.” Another kiss. “So which parts are you heeding right now?”

            He slips a hand under her gown, just at her shoulder, so he can run his thumb along her collarbone. But he knows what even that simple touch does to her. “This is not fair,” she says breathily. “I am on bedrest.”

            “So you can give it but not take it,” he says, turning his head to nose her hair. She hears a hint of amusement in his voice, and wishes she could see his face.

            “You know I can take it,” she replies slyly, and he coughs. But clearly the line works on him, because he moves the empty bowl to her bedside table and pulls her off the mattress and into his lap, sitting her sideways across his legs.

            “I’ll facilitate your bedrest,” he says, pressing his face to her neck, to her live, warm skin. “I’ll be very good.” He kisses her throat. “I’ll only kiss you until you fall asleep.”

            “That’s so?” She knows part of her is only talk. Her body’s exhausted by its ordeal, and between his warmth and the lingering influence of the sedatives she feels herself slipping back toward slumber. Still, she says, “Self-control’s never been your strong suit.”

            “Well,” he points out, “I never specified where.”

            She falls asleep, cradled against his chest with his mouth on hers, before he can make good on his implication. But she appreciates the honesty. It’s one of his better qualities. As it turns out, he may yet have some of those after all.

Chapter Text

            The next morning a droid brings Rey her food tray, and she eats breakfast alone. Sleep cured most of what ailed her; she feels less achy and much better rested than she has in ages. Much hungrier, too. She’s glad the breakfast is heavy on proteins: eggs and that sliced meat that had been served with the other day’s porridge, along with a fruit medley and tea. She really should start asking Kylo the names of the foods they’re eating. Were he here, she would. She can’t keep from wondering where he’s gone off to as she pops pieces of fruit into her mouth and licks every last drop of juice from her fingers.

            Kylo doesn’t appear until after the droid returns to clear her tray and deliver a parcel of clothes: a pair of trousers, her short boots, an undershirt and that set of underthings from Ordula’s she liked best. Rey dons it all and is just tying her hair back from her face when she feels him enter the recovery room. She doesn’t have time to look at him; the room is small, so he’s behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist with some care, before she even gets the chance to turn her head.

            “Rey,” he murmurs, kissing her hair, her ear. When she doesn’t flinch away from the hold and he’s assured the pain of her broken ribs is gone, he tightens his grip on her. She leans back against him and feels that his skin is warm and slightly tacky.

            “Good morning to you, too.” Rey turns her head to kiss him and notices that his hair has the lankness to it that perspiration brings. She follows through with the kiss before asking, “Training already?”

            “Always training.”

            He releases her so she can turn fully around to face him. He’s wearing one of those thin shirts again, sweat-darkened in places. He puts his large hands on her hips and makes to pull her in, but she brings her own hands up to his chest to keep distance between them. “You’re drenched.”

            “This? This is nothing.” Kylo ducks his head to kiss her neck. It feels so nice that Rey wriggles under his hands. “You don’t mind.”

            She wrinkles her nose. “Maybe not. But you smell.”

            From the juncture of her neck and shoulder, she hears one of those huffs that might be a short bark of laughter. And she knows he must know, too, that she likes the way he smells. Something inherent in his scent makes her want to drag him down to the bed with her. She might, if there wasn’t the danger of being interrupted by one of the medcenter’s attendants or a doctor.

            He takes a step back, keeping his hands on her, and looks her over. Just assessing her condition, no lust. Well, no more than usual. “You look well. How do you feel?”

            “Never better. I think the bacta might have healed some of my older breaks, too.” She looks down at her right leg. “Fell hard on this ankle once and it hasn’t felt like itself again until just now. Can bacta do that?”

            “I’m not certain. The exact science eludes me.”

            “No offense, but I didn’t take you for much of a scientist in the first place.”

            He gently knocks his forehead to hers. “I might surprise you.”

            “Might you?”

            “But I think I’ll give you the chance to surprise me first.”

            Rey’s lip quirks. “I’m listening.”

            His brown eyes glimmer with the beginning of a smile. “You’re technically supposed to avoid physical exertion. But I know you to be a rulebreaker.”

            “Is that so?”

            “Disobedient.”

            “I think you’re complimenting me, Ben Solo.”

            “All I’m saying,” says Kylo, voice tinged with dry humor, “is that if you wanted to investigate the ship’s training facilities, I’d be powerless to stop you.”

            Rey really smiles, now. “I understand. How unfortunate that would be.”

            “If I happened to walk past them with you in my company, and you used that opportunity to flee into the chamber, I would have to pursue you.” He presses his face down closer to hers. “And were you to pick up a staff and begin swinging it around, I’d have no choice but to defend myself.”

            “That does sound like something I’d do.”

            “Doesn’t it?”

            He smiles, then, the smallest smile, lips pressed together but turning up at the corners, eyes bright with affection. Rey feels her heart leap behind her newly-healed ribs. Is this what his laugh had done to her? It’s an unbearably pointed sort of happiness. She doesn’t call attention to that smile for fear that he might retreat back into himself, but she does lean up on the balls of her feet and kiss him right on it, unable to stop herself, unable to possibly think about doing anything else.

            “Best we not walk by there, then,” she says.

            “No,” Kylo agrees, smiling still. “Best not.”


            The training facilities on the Conquest II are massive, just like everything else the First Order ever builds. Rey walks through the doors to find herself standing in a chamber that must be at least three stories tall, with overlooking windows so passersby on an upper deck can observe the proceedings below. Much of the space within view of those windows is occupied by padded mats, for sparring, and half the walls surrounding the mats are mirrored. Beyond that area look to be heavy weights and other types of equipment for strength training. The wall nearest them bears racks upon racks of other gear, including protective padding and melee weapons. The chamber is constructed from the same gray steel as the rest of the ship, lending it a too-polished, impersonal feel; the only indicator that anyone had been in here earlier that morning is a droid wiping sweat up off the mats.

            Rey’s impressed by the size of the room and how well-stocked it is, although she’ll never admit that aloud. Kylo kneels to remove his boots at the door, and she follows his example. He is the first to finish undoing all of his buckles, and pads over to the wall of equipment in his socks. He takes a staff from the wall and tosses it to her as she gets back up to her feet. She catches it easily.

            “You really want to spar with staves?” she asks. The staff is plain, polished wood, not weighted exactly the same as the one she’s used since Jakku, or her saberstaff. It’s balanced, but slightly heavier than what she’s used to, probably because it was made for him.

            “Is that a problem?”

            “Not if you like losing.”

            He exhales derisively through his nose, and shakes his head, unintentionally tossing his shiny dark hair. Arrogance, maybe, or just confidence. “I’ve trained with staves since before you were born.”

            Rey squints at him and cocks her head to the side. “Sorry, but just how old are you?”

            He turns away from her and walks over to the mats. When he waves his hand, the droid skitters away.

            “Ben,” she says, getting a good two-handed grip on her staff and trotting behind him. “Oi.”

            Still no response.

            Playfully, she ducks down and swats his right calf with one end of the staff. “I’m talking to you.”

            He pivots without warning, sweeping his own staff out to try to hook her ankles and knock her over. Rey jumps back in the nick of time, able to read his intent once he’s moving in the minutest details, and lands in a crouch just out of range. “Don’t let your guard down,” he scolds, with a hint of mirth. “I’m thirty-two.”

            “Oh.” Rey plants one end of her staff into the mat to stand it upright, then straightens, leaning against it. “Huh.”

            “Older than you thought?”

            “I don’t know what I thought.” She looks at him appraisingly. He’s ageless to her, in a way: the threads of silver in his hair, mature; the quaver of his lip when something upsets him, youthful; the unexplored depths that his voice can reach, mature; his strong, muscular build, youthful. “Young to be in charge of the galaxy’s dominant military power, I suppose.”

            He shrugs, gets a solid grip on the staff, and plants his feet. “Does it bother you?”

            “Does what?”

            “That I’m so much older than you.”

            Rey frowns. “I never said how old I was.”

            “You didn’t have to.” He takes a step away from her, twirling the staff hand over hand as he does, just warming up. There’s an inelegant, brutal grace to how he moves even when he doesn’t put much power behind it. He ends up with the staff extended in front of him, and he looks over his shoulder at her. “I know.”

            She feels her cheeks heating under his gaze and picks up her staff again, holding it one hand over, one hand under. She doesn’t ask how he knows because she doesn’t need to. There are things she knows about him that she shouldn’t know either. She wonders idly how the Force decides which pieces of one to parcel out to the other. Why should he know her age and she not know his?

            “It doesn’t bother me,” she says, honestly. “Maybe if we weren’t equals, it would. But I don’t feel disadvantaged.”

            He nods, and takes a few more steps with the staff, trying out a couple of moves she recognizes: a couple of blocks, an attack swing or two. Rey finds herself regretting that even his training shirts are long-sleeved; she thinks she’d like to see his arms bare, see his biceps tense as he exerts himself. When he stops moving, the staff is tucked under one arm, behind his back. Rey smiles at him, and he says, “What?”

            “You’re showing off.”

            “Am I?”

            “You are,” she says, teasing him. The occasion seems to call for it. “I can feel it.”

            “So I am.” He brings the staff around to his front and relaxes. “And it’s your turn.”

            “My turn to what?”

            He jerks his chin at her. “Show off.”

            She gives him a little smirk and brings her own staff up. “I may be a bit rusty,” she warns him, keeping her eyes on the staff as she spins it one-handed, trying to get a feel for its weight. “I usually practice every day.”

            “With your pupils,” Kylo supplies.

            Rey swings the staff down to her side and turns her head to stare at him. She knew, of course, that he was aware of her mission, that he knew she was recruiting students for a new Jedi Order. After all, he’d been right on her heels, chasing her through the galaxy as she did so. But it’s another thing to hear him acknowledge her students directly, and despite the new ease to their relationship her chest tightens and her fingers clench hard around that staff. She thinks, for the first time in a few days, of the dread that sank in when she realized he’d trailed her across the galaxy, of the trail of devastation he left in his wake, of Taylin’s decimated village and of Shi’illa, his mother.

            Through their bond, Kylo senses her emotions spiraling out. He begins to say, “I didn’t—”

            Rey cuts him off by snapping, “Don’t talk about them.”

            Kylo watches her, frozen. Then he purses his lips, looks right in her eyes, which have hardened to him, and has the audacity to say, “You’re angry.”

            “I’ve every reason to be.”

            “If you’d stopped running, I wouldn’t have had to chase you.”

            “You do not get to shift the blame for the people you’ve hurt and the lives you’ve destroyed onto me!”

            The words echo off the walls of this cavernous room, and Rey checks herself. She hadn’t realized just how loudly she had raised her voice. But Kylo doesn’t recoil, instead standing his ground, continuing to watch her as the silence stretches out between them. Suddenly his face is difficult to look at. How could she have possibly gotten to this point? How could she have let herself even for a moment forget all that he’s done?

            “Hit me,” he says abruptly.

            Rey blinks, startled from her ruminations. Some of her anger slips from her grasp and surprise takes its place. “Sorry?”

            “You’re angry. Channel it. Strike at me.” He adopts a defensive stance, holding the staff out in front of him.

            She frowns hard, her brow creasing. “No, I’m not going to do that.”

            “You’ve done it before.”

            He means Starkiller Base, she knows. She can see herself reflected in his memories: shoulders squared, eyes blazing, gripping the lightsaber that had belonged to Luke and Anakin Skywalker. Determined, ferocious, fixated on him, with her lips curled back in something almost like a snarl, something savage. An avenging angel. How powerful she’d been that night, how terrifying, how enrapturing, and oh, how she’d awakened something in him

            “This is different,” she mutters, recalling how she’d felt back then, remembering her white-hot anger at what he’d done to Finn and to Han Solo and the first time she’d channeled the Force after calling for it in the heat of battle. But she also remembers the other things Kylo can’t know from outside of her, her fear and pain and confusion. He couldn’t know how she’d despaired after their fight, kneeling in the snow next to Finn’s unconscious body, thinking they both might die there as the planet fell apart. How young she’d been, how strong her emotions, and how visceral.

            “Not so different.” Kylo hasn’t moved. He just waits. “Strike at me. You’ll feel better.”

            She shifts her grip on the staff and lunges toward him, but only at half-speed. He raises his staff in an easy parry. There’s a satisfying thunk of wood on wood.

            Even so, Kylo’s dark eyes hold a disapproving look. “You're holding back.”

            Rey steps across her own feet to make a three-quarter turn, a move to strike his side that might work were she doing it in double-time. As it is, he blocks her easily. When their staves connect, she says over her shoulder, “I’m not going to lash out at you in anger.”

            “Why?”

            “Because—” Kylo steps back from her to give himself room to swing, forcing her on the defensive. He isn’t reining himself in as much as she is, and when she parries his attack the force of it reverberates up her arms. She grunts through her teeth. “There are other ways for us to solve our problems!”

            “None so efficient as this,” he says, and she can’t tell whether he’s serious or joking, but it doesn’t really matter because he regroups and comes at her again. Soon, they’re locked in an old, familiar exchange, not of words, but of blows.

            As their staves clash, as they circle and whirl around each other, Rey marvels at how well-matched they are, despite her recent injury and his already having exerted himself that morning, despite their differences in age (which may benefit her) and stature (certainly him). He’s aggressive even when play-fighting, as they are now, but she is too, and as they attack and defend equally it’s difficult for either of them to get a real hit in. He comes at her harder, trying to goad her into doing the same, but she refuses to take the bait. Well, take all of it, at least.

            Perhaps this is how Snoke trained him, by rousing him to anger so that he would give his all, every time. As she thinks of her young students sparring with each other, how often they clasp hands after their matches and grin, the thought appalls her. It seems too much to sustain, the sort of thing that would eat a person up from within.

            “Anger is a tool,” he says, picking up on her thoughts and continuing them as they come face to face over their staves again. “You don’t shun yours, but you need to embrace it.”

            “I don’t need a teacher, I am one,” she replies, pushing against him, shoving him away. When she speaks, she’s surprised to find herself breathless. “And your way seems— cruel.”

            He swings at her again, but after she blocks she pays him back in kind, forcing him to dance back a few steps. “Does it?”

            She presses on, not letting up, and even though she holds back from striking him at full strength, the volley of blows is enough to keep him moving away from her. “To channel your anger and fear, you—nnh—had to have been so often angry. And afraid.”

            “There’s strength in—”

            Before he can rebut her properly, she taps his side with her staff, finally landing a hit. He looks down at it, then shakes his hair out of his eyes as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

            “My point,” she says.

            “Your point,” he concedes.

            Rey plants her staff on the mat so she can lean on it again. “Clearly you can fight without anger. You're not angry now.”

            “Neither are you.”

            She looks down at herself as if to look within, and finds that he’s right. She isn’t, not any longer.

            “You took it out on me,” he says.

            “It’s not that,” Rey protests. But how can she begin to explain that what had deflated her anger was his continued insistence that she strike at him, and the realization that this is what he must have come to expect? It’s so easy to think of Kylo Ren in the abstract as a force of nature, a storm whipping through the galaxy and tossing it about, tearing it up, and so difficult to reconcile that with the person standing before her, a man with dark clouds hanging low over his head.

            “What is it, then?” Kylo asks, quietly.

            Rey shakes her head. She’s discomfited by how she feels, the push and the pull between who he is to her and all that he’s done, but she lets it be for now. She doesn’t have to do the work of reconciling those things right now. Four more days, this one included, to just let it be. All she says is, “You just make it hard to stay angry at you.”

            He frowns. “Do I?”

            “You do,” she says. She doesn’t elaborate because she knows he wouldn’t appreciate her pity. “So we’re going to spar like normal people, and then we’ll talk about our issues like normal people.”

            “Talking,” he scoffs.

            “What— yes, talking.”

            “I can think of two better ways to resolve our differences,” he says. “Sparring’s the second one.”

            “What’s the first?”

            He looks at her through the bangs hanging over his brow.

            “Oh.” Rey places one hand on her hip. She can feel a little blood rushing to her cheeks, but just rolls her eyes. “I don’t think you taking me to bed really solves anything.”

            “I’d disagree,” says Kylo. He lets his staff drop to the ground, then begins tugging that thin shirt out from the waistband of his trousers and pulling it over his head.

            She stares at him. At the removal of his clothing, not at his exposed skin. Well, not entirely. “What are you doing?”

            “Like you said, this is drenched.” He finishes removing the shirt, shakes his hair out of his eyes again, and looks down at the fabric now in his hand. “Soaked through.”

            “That is not—” A smile creeps back onto her lips. “That is not fair.”

            He shrugs and bends to pick up his staff. She glances over the scars she had given him long ago, now slightly less red than they were when they were fresh, and feels a twinge of shame thinking about how he’d expected her to take her anger out on him. Of course she’d given him reason to think that. There’s precedent. And part of her is somewhat proud, or something like flattered, to see that he doesn’t bear many scars besides hers. Surely he’d faced some challenges in the years they’d been apart? Then again, he’s tough to wound.

            Before he can straighten all the way up she’s pulling her own shirt off. When it’s over her head and she has a clear line of sight again, she sees him staring back at her. She tosses her shirt to the side. “Is there a problem?”

            “Not at all,” he says, doing the same with his. He extends his staff out to gently tap the lower hem of her black mesh undergarment, the only piece of clothing remaining above her waist. “This can’t go too?”

            Her mouth twitches. “Sadly, no. I need it to keep everything in place.” She turns away from him and takes a few springing steps toward the center of the mats, looking back for him over her shoulder. “Come on, then. Best of three.”

            Best of three turns into best of five, then best of seven, then of nine, then... Rey doesn’t know how long they spend on the mats, dancing around each other. She loses track of time, of space, of anything beyond their interplay. Whenever she gets a hit in, he becomes more determined to retaliate, as when he lands one on her she, too, must repay him in kind. She knows all the moves he makes like they’re her own, which makes sense; she supposes they were his first. But this prolongs their matches, because they read each other’s intent and elude each other’s blows with ease. One only manages to find an opening when the other grows tired and careless.

            And as their sparring session wears on, they make more and more mistakes. That’s how she’s able to back Kylo up to one edge of the mat. When his back connects with the mirrored wall, he brings his staff up to shield himself from her. She crosses hers against it, right over its middle, and grins up at him, her face only inches from his.

            “So this one’s mine?” she asks, cheekily. Any of the earlier conflict within her has evaporated like the sweat cooling on her skin, replaced by delight and exhilaration. She hadn’t realized what she was missing all these years: a true partner, in skill, in bed, in— whatever else.

            “Tch,” Kylo says. “You didn’t actually touch me.”

            “I suppose we’re at an impasse, then.”

            “It seems so.” His eyes flicker down to her mouth for the briefest of moments. She doesn’t have to know his mind to know what he wants.

            She’s pressing up onto her toes when she feels the back of her neck prickle with awareness. Her instincts are too acutely honed through years of surviving alone for her to ignore, and without moving otherwise she lets her eyes roam around the space until she locates what it is that’s making her uneasy. In one of the observation windows far above them, just visible in her periphery, she sees a small knot of people, all wearing similar uniforms. One of them has striking red hair.

            Kylo notices her pause, but he doesn’t take his eyes from her face. “Rey?”

            “We’re being watched,” she murmurs, moving her lips as little as possible. And they are properly being watched. She can see that Hux has turned to face the window and peer directly down at them. He’s too far away for her to make out his expression, but he can’t be thinking anything good.

            Without turning his head, Kylo lets his eyes stray toward where she’s looking. “So we are,” he says.

            Rey doesn’t move. If those other people are attired similarly to Hux, it’s safe to assume they’re also high-ranking First Order officials, generals or otherwise. She doesn’t know exactly what Kylo has told them, but Hux, at the least, assumes she’s a reluctant prisoner. Seeing her sparring freely with the Supreme Leader won’t help her maintain that illusion, and she feels it’s important to keep him underestimating her. And Kylo… it couldn’t be good for him, either, to be viewed as soft toward a dangerous Jedi prisoner. She knows he’s making the same calculations that she is, even though they’re only frozen for a moment.

            Then his gaze flickers back to her, and their eyes meet. And they both know what to do.

            Kylo puts all the force he can muster behind his staff and shoves Rey away from him. Rey makes a great show of tripping and stumbling over her own feet as she retreats. She “recovers,” rolling into a backwards somersault and landing in a crouch, bringing her staff up in front of her, defensive. Kylo is already moving to “attack” her again, and she loosens her hold just slightly, imperceptibly.

            With his full strength, Kylo swings his own staff up, catching hers from below and knocking it from her hands. Rey mock-recoils, falling onto her backside and looking up at him wide-eyed. She can’t see Hux or the other generals over Kylo’s shoulder. She hopes they’re buying it. But just in case—

            She thinks grab my hair as hard as she can.

            He throws his staff aside without hesitation, takes a step toward her, and reaches down, getting a loose but convincing grip a couple of inches from her scalp. Rey grabs her hair at the root, just below his hand, to mitigate the pain of being yanked about, and pushes up to her knees to make it look like he’s pulling her toward him. This, of course, brings her face right to his crotch.

            Rey pitches her shoulders as if trying to struggle away from him, but doesn’t put much effort into it. Still, the visual should give any nosy observers a pretty specific idea of what’s happening in the room. Rey waits a beat, then asks, “Are they still there?”

            “Left in disgust, I believe,” says Kylo. He turns his head to look up at the windows. “Gone.”

            “Good.” Rey exhales, and Kylo relaxes his grip on her hair. She doesn’t move away from him just yet. Something about the position piques her curiosity in a very primal way.

            “We’ve probably sparred long enough,” he continues, still looking up at the windows. “You’re supposed to rest, and—”

            Rey presses her face to the fabric of his trousers and he cuts himself off with a sharp exhale. She nuzzles her nose into him. “You’re just saying that because I’m beating you.”

            “I…” She hears him swallow above her. “We were tied. Four-four, or five-five, or...”

            “Sure.” She can feel him growing hard, see the imprint of his cock through his trousers. She brings her hands up to his thighs so she can better balance herself and parts her lips, brushing them against him in an open-mouthed kiss.

            “Rey,” he breathes, practically swearing it.

            “Mm.” Rey keeps pressing her mouth to the fabric, moving it along the outline of him, and slides her hands up his hips to his waist. She peers up at him through her eyelashes and finds him red to the tips of his ears.

            “You don’t—” He pauses, seemingly unable to collect himself. “You don’t have to.”

            “I know,” she replies. “But I want to.” And upon saying it aloud, she knows that it’s true.

            She starts unfastening his trousers and peeling them away from him, pushing them down to his thighs along with his shorts, and then she’s looking at his cock, almost fully hard with minimal help from her, at an angle from which she’s never before contemplated it. She finds herself a bit intimidated upon realizing that while she knows what she wants to do and what it entails, she doesn’t know exactly how to do it in the way he likes best.

            “Ben,” she says, looking back up at him. “How do you touch yourself?”

            Hearing his name from her lips only seems to fluster him further, or maybe it’s the visual of her kneeling before him that does it. “I…”

            “You don’t have to tell me,” she adds. “Just think of it.”

            He catches on, and nods once, a short, brief nod. Then he closes his eyes, and she closes hers, just for a moment. When she opens them she nods, too, and she spits into her palm before circling him with her hand.

            She knows it’s the right grip, the right amount of pressure. A soft moan blossoms at the back of his throat as she begins to pump her hand up and down his shaft, steadily, slowly. Not quickly, not at first, although she knows he sometimes rushes it, doesn’t like to dwell. She’s glad to have his mind as her guide. It gives her a confidence she might not have otherwise had.

            “Is this good?” she asks, shifting her grip on his thigh as she strokes him harder.

            “Yes,” he says, voice a little strangled. He brings his hand back down, not to grab her hair again, but to caress the nape of her neck, gently, marveling.

            She can feel the heat her touch generates for him between her own legs. He’s so sensitive. She herself can’t go from nothing to this state of arousal in this little time. She wonders if it’d be this way for him with anyone or—

            “You,” he gasps, finishing her thought again. “Just you.”

            Rey smiles up at him, and then, just on instinct, she shifts her hand to the base of his cock and presses her lips to the head of it.

            Kylo swears. Rey decides she could stand to hear that again, so she flicks out her tongue, to taste him. Skin is skin, really, albeit a little salty and sweaty, but the reaction from him, the way his voice sounds, the way the hand not on her trembles at his side, the way her abdomen tightens with his need — she just wants to take him all.

            And she tries, a little overly ambitious. She opens her mouth to envelop him, and when she hears him moan again she leans forward to try to take him as deep as she can, but she goes too far and has to pull back to keep from choking on him. A flash of concern cuts through his arousal but she doesn’t want him distracted, so she just shakes her head and tries again, putting her mouth back on him, encircling him with her lips, taking in just a couple of inches of his length and running her tongue against the underside of his cock.

            Kylo cants his hips forward, desperate for more, more heat, more tongue, more touch, and she gives it to him, settling into a rhythm, bobbing her head back and forth. As he pants and moans her name and urges her on and presses his hand to the back of her head, she finally understands how there’s power in an act like this, in having this merciless man at her mercy, but she doesn’t care to exert it right now. She files the knowledge away for when she has a point to prove, a real argument to win, and focuses instead on savoring those sounds, and every jerk of his hips, and the tightness in his thighs, as she inches closer and closer to getting him off.

            It doesn’t take much. He lasts longer than he did the first time they had sex, certainly. But they’ve had nearly two days with no sexual contact, the longest dry spell since he took her aboard his ship, and the newness of her mouth, the suction, it’s all a little much. It’s a little much for Rey, who experiences it secondhand, too, and as he edges closer to finishing she feels dizzy with excitement. She doesn’t know that she’ll be able to get off without stimulation, but she’s barely thinking about herself. Just him.

            Even knowing him, feeling him, being him, his climax takes her by surprise. His abdomen clenches and his breath catches, and his fingers tense in her hair. Then he exhales in a needy whine and his voice is low and rough and shaped vaguely like her name and he spills over into her mouth. It’s uncomplicated and wonderous to be him, to feel what being him feels like, but she’s also herself and oh, that’s— quite a taste. He gets another half-thrust in after but she’s already pulling back to cough again, and because she doesn’t know what else to do she just spits his semen onto the mat.

            Kylo sighs his last moan as he basks in the afterglow, not yet noticing that she’s pulled away, then he blinks, comes back to himself, and sees her wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. In a rare moment of dual vision she sees it too, his image of her overlaid with her own sight. She sees herself flushed and disheveled and half-naked and radiant, as he does.

            “I’m sorry,” he says, quickly catching onto what had transpired with her. “I didn’t think to warn you.”

            Rey shakes her head. “It’s just the taste,” she says. She turns her face up to look at him and grins, overcome with a sort of heady lightness at seeing how overwhelmed he is, knowing how much pleasure she’d given him. “My point, then?”

            “You wish,” he replies, and he grabs her by her shoulders to pull her up and—

            “Oh, no, wait,” she manages, before he crushes his mouth to hers in an eager, passionate kiss, copious tongue and all. Rey’s not opposed to the idea in principle, and she does kiss him back, but she’s also not remotely surprised when he pulls away.

            “That… is a taste,” he observes, with a slight grimace.

            “Isn’t it just?”

            Kylo chuckles, low, and kisses her cheek instead. “A droid will clean up.”

            “Honestly, that was the furthest thing from my mind.”

            He interlocks his fingers at the small of her back and kisses her temple, then rests his cheek against her hair. She knows what he’s thinking. In all the dreams he had of her, he never thought she’d put her mouth on him. “The things I’ll do to you when we get back to my bed,” he muses.

            She laughs, lightly. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

            “I’m not in the habit,” he says against her ear, and she shivers.


            They barely make it through the door to his chambers before they start stripping each other out of their clothes, and soon enough they’re back in his bed with her hands in his hair and his lips on her lips, holding each other like the final breath before drowning.

            She thought the gentleness with which he’d carried her to and from the bacta tank might extend to the bedroom now that they’d dropped their pretenses, but it doesn’t, or at least not this time. They’re so desperate to touch, and she’s so wet and wanting from experiencing his climax without her own release, that as soon as she’s naked their hips are pressed together and he’s inside of her and they’re fucking as if the galaxy might fall apart around them at any moment. It’s what she wants, it’s everything she wants, and she scratches her nails down his back as her mouth finds his mouth and his breath finds her breath and they lose themselves in each other.

            Something about this time is different, though. When he’s finished inside her before, he’s always taken a moment after to slump on her, or against her. This time he holds himself above her, arms extended, even after she’s come down from her own wracking blissful orgasm, after they’ve come apart. She blinks her eyes back open to see him looking at her face, not smiling, not exactly, but studying her with a warmth she isn’t accustomed to.

            “What is it?” she asks.

            He ducks her head down to kiss her ear, almost bashfully. “You’re beautiful.”

            Something tugs at Rey from the pit of her stomach. “Oh,” she says. One thing she hadn’t had to do much while growing up was take compliments. She’s still not sure she knows how. “Thank you.”

            Kylo falls off to her left, coming to rest on his side. He notes her unease. She’s not exactly trying to hide it. He pulls the covers up around their waists, then drapes his arm over her, and she brings one of hers up to rest on it, over it, her hand on his elbow. “Has no one told you that before?”

            “They have,” she says truthfully. “I’ve heard it said. But I always thought it was rather… beside the point, if that makes any sense.”

            This was something she had struggled to explain to other people, but Kylo seems to grasp it, maybe because they’d already come up against this misunderstanding a few times in small ways. “Beside the point of you,” he says, and she nods. “But that doesn’t make it less true.”

            “Even so.”

            “And it doesn’t diminish you,” he adds. “It doesn't take away from the other things you are.”

            She blinks at him, puzzling over how he’d reached the heart of the issue so swiftly, but says nothing.

            Kylo grazes his fingers up and down her bare side. “When I looked in your mind, the first time,” he says quietly, “I saw how you collected the flowers that grew in the desert, the spinebarrels and nightblossoms. You brought them into your makeshift home. You do find value in beauty.”

            “I do,” Rey agrees. “I just haven’t really figured out how it relates to me. You have to understand, this wasn’t something I thought about until a couple of years ago. Where I grew up, beauty was superfluous. It wouldn’t help you in the desert.” She traces an oval on Kylo’s skin with her forefinger, as if outlining a petal. “Those flowers you mentioned, it wasn’t just the way they looked that was beautiful. It was their strength and resilience, to survive such a harsh environment. The way they grew despite all the odds being stacked against them.”

            “But that’s you,” Kylo says, his voice rich with fondness. “Those qualities you named, you share them, too.”

            Rey huffs, more out of embarrassment than disagreement. “I suppose.”

            He casts his eyes up toward the ceiling, and then he says, “My father—” And he stops. Rey looks at him. She’s never heard him bring up Han Solo without prompting. He clears his throat. “I grew up— our upbringings were very dissimilar, yours and mine. My mother was raised a princess. Her cohort valued the kind of beauty that’s surface-deep. Gilded things, fine clothes. To politicians, appearance is tantamount. But, my father…”

            Rey waits while he gathers his thoughts. He plucks at the bedsheets, and finally says, “My father could have had any ship he wanted after the war. But he kept the Falcon.” He scoffs, or Rey thinks it’s a scoff. “You know she isn’t much to look at, that ship. Risky modifications, slipshod repair jobs over the years, they all added up. But he said she always came through for him. She never let him down.” Kylo’s mouth tightens, but he says, “To my father the two most beautiful things in the galaxy were that ship and my mother. Opposites, in a way. But he weighted them the same.”

            He looks back at Rey. “I’d think you were beautiful even if you were falling apart.”

            That renders Rey speechless for a moment, not just the sentiment, but the depth of feeling with which he says it. She wonders how she’ll ever disentangle herself from this, from him, or if she even wants to. Luke seemed to have faith that she would if she needed to, but no one could know how it feels to be on this end of that gaze and these compliments unless they were receiving them, too.

            “If you’re going to call me ‘beautiful,’” she says at last, “what do I get to call you?”

            He lowers his eyes and kisses her shoulder. With some hesitation, he says, “I thought you already had a name for what I am.”

            “Oh,” she says, with a pang of something almost like regret. “Of course.”

            “We agreed on that.”

            Rey recalls what she’d taken for conviction in his voice as she stood under the shelter of the Falcon, shielded from the rains of Ahch-To. Had he been trying to persuade her, or himself? “We did.”

            “I wasn’t certain you’d changed your stance.”

            She shifts. She isn’t certain, either. Only a few more days for which she can afford to set this question aside. Closer to three and a half, now. “I’m just not sure it’s appropriate for the bedroom.”

            “I think it has some use.”

            Rey picks up her head. He’s adopted that same dry tone he uses when making a clever remark, or a joke. “Do you? How so?”

            “You don’t know?” He shifts down and lowers his mouth to her side, just below her ribs. “I’ll devour you.”

            She sets her head back down on the pillow. “You can try,” she warns him, letting a little humor sneak into her own voice. “But you’ll break your teeth on me.”

            “I’m up for the challenge.” He moves a little lower, pushing the covers back and briefly resting his chin on her hip. “My hunger’s insatiable.”

            “I’ve definitely noticed that bit,” says Rey.

            She folds up her leg so she can pull it up and drape it over his shoulder, and he adjusts to more comfortably lay beneath it. He wraps a hand around the base of her thigh. “Does it frighten you?”

            “No.”

            “No?” He turns his head to suck a welt into her other thigh, making her gasp. When he releases her, he looks up and asks, “It doesn’t frighten you? Going to bed with a monster?”

            Rey looks back at him. His eyes, nearly black in this light, are too fixated on her for him to pretend that her answer means nothing. She sits up and reaches for him, letting her fingers trace over his facial scar for the first time. He stays perfectly still. As the pads of her fore and middle fingers brush down to his brow bone, then from his cheek to his jaw, she finds she knows just what to say.

            “Not when the monster is mine,” she replies.

            He turns his head to kiss her fingers, and he kisses the spot on her thigh that he’d sucked red, and then he ducks his head, to devour her.

Chapter Text

            There’s a part of Rey, the part that wants to forget her mission, forget their allegiances, forget the war, that could get used to being roused by Kylo Ren. This morning, like the first morning they’d managed to successfully navigate having sex, he crawls into bed and caresses her until she opens her eyes. Unlike that first morning, she notices the telltale signs of his daily training regimen: sweat-dampened hair, flushed skin. When she questions why he wouldn’t wake her for her company, he claims that she still needed rest after her near-fatal encounter with a glass of poisoned wine.

            Ironic, then, that today’s romp culminates in Rey on top of him, straddling his hips, with one hand planted on his chest and the other braced next to his head for support as she rides him. She doesn’t mind. Kylo with his eyes shut, his lips parted, black hair spread out on the black pillowcase, is an unbeatable view, and she wouldn’t trade anything for the way he writhes and moans beneath her.

            The boundaries of their bodies tend to shift and blur when he’s inside of her, but Rey manages to maintain just enough of herself, this time, to appreciate the newness of the experience. She savors rocking her hips up and back on him, how when she pauses he seamlessly picks up the slack, bucking up into her, how he seems to fit against her and into her in all the ways she’s come to like.

            She could get used to this, too.

            But the moment is broken by the sound of a commotion. Outside, beyond the glass panes separating the bedchamber from the sitting area and beyond the two black doors, someone is shouting. Instinctively, Rey looks over her shoulder toward the source of the ruckus, and in that moment Kylo shifts his grip on her hip and flips her onto her back.

            “Oi!” she exclaims, bracing her hands against his chest. “Not fair.”

            “Don’t worry.” Kylo rolls his hips into her, slowly, effectively stifling any of her complaints. He spares the doors a quick glance, then turns his attention back to her. “Just Hux. I’ve said I’m not to be disturbed.”

            “Mm.” Rey closes her eyes and lets her head fall back against the pillow. “Well, that’s fine.”

            “Except for an emergency.” Kylo doesn’t stop moving, and he plants one hand on the mattress for leverage. His eyes narrow slightly as he concentrates, listening for something beyond sound, seeking out Hux’s intent in the Force. “Ah— hmm, he seems to think this is one.”

            Rey’s eyes spring open. “Sorry, do you mean he’s coming in here?”

            Instead of answering her question, Kylo lowers himself to press his chest against hers and nibble her ear. Rey lets her hands slip around to his shoulders. Admittedly, this is very distracting, and under most circumstances it would successfully divert her attention. But not this one.

            “Ha— no!” She smacks his shoulder, a little too hard to be just a swat. “Answer my question!”

            “Every once in a while he gets fed up with me and argues his way in here, yes.” He grunts against her neck as he thrusts into her again and Rey presses her lips together to stifle the moan she knows he wants to draw out of her. “But as we established—nngh—yesterday, I’m to play the role of the tyrant with you.”

            “You are a tyrant.”

            “And I don’t think a tyrant would stop for the likes of Hux.”

            Kylo sucks gently at the side of her neck as he plucks one of her hands from his shoulder. He circles her wrist with his own hand and pins her arm up above her. Instead of resisting, as she knows she should, Rey just sighs, exasperated, a little amused, but not quite angry. “You just don’t want to stop,” she accuses.

            He picks up his head to look down at her, his eyes practically glowing. “Do you?”

            Rey frowns hard up at him, because he knows her mind, so he knows she doesn’t. They’re well started down this path, both a little too drunk on each other to want to stop for anything. But he also knows she’s not thrilled about being seen like this by anyone who isn’t him, and especially not by Hux. Still, the idea that they have to keep selling their relationship as one thing while it’s actually another is compelling for reasons she’s thus far managed to keep hidden from Kylo. It plays in her favor for Hux to view her as an unwilling captive. That way he won’t suspect her of being anything else.

            Even so.

            Kylo senses her reservations, although Rey keeps her exact thoughts obscured. He says quickly, “I’ll make it up to you.”

            “You’d better.”

            “I will.”

            With a sigh, Rey flicks her fingers, willing the Force to lift the covers and drape them over Kylo to his waist, shielding their lower halves from the view of any prying beady eyes. Kylo huffs, looking mildly put out, and she says, “You can save your measuring contests for when I’m not around.”

            “There’s no contest,” he assures her.

            Rey looks at the ceiling. “I really do hate you.”

            “No,” he says quietly. “You don’t.”

            He lowers his head again, this time to get in one last kiss before their unwanted guest arrives. Rey kisses him back, enjoying it while she can. When he moves to pull away, she murmurs, “How hard should I struggle?”

            The corners of his mouth turn up against her lips. “My offer from yesterday stands. Strike at me if you wish.”

            “I might. You deserve it.”

            “So I do,” he says, rocking his hips into hers once again.

            The doors hiss open, and Rey hears Hux stride in. He can’t immediately locate them, obscured as they are by the glass panes, but he makes the correct assumption that Kylo must be in his bedchamber and starts toward it. Kylo, looking down at Rey, can’t see the intruder, but Rey can, just a bit, over his shoulder.

            And she has to admit that the expression of utter shock and disgust on Hux’s face when he comes into view does make this a little bit worth it.

            “Oh, good god,” he blurts out.

            As if they’ve rehearsed it, Rey immediately flings her free arm across her chest and tries to squirm out from under Kylo, but he grabs that arm with his unoccupied hand and pins it, too, above her head. Rey hisses at him, even though through their bond they both know that his shoulder shields her breasts from Hux’s sight. Without turning to look, Kylo says, “General. I said I wasn’t to be disturbed.”

            Hux clears his throat and tries to smooth his features into a mask of disinterest, but he can’t quite rid himself of the wrinkle of distaste in his nose. “I understand that,” he says, and to Rey’s horror, instead of retreating, he paces around to one side of the bed, hands folded behind his back. “I am only here because there are certain events you have mandated that I report directly.”

            Kylo, perceiving Rey’s growing discomfort, lowers himself to her again so Hux can only really see her face. He shifts his hips, and Rey groans. She makes a show of attempting to yank her arm out of his grip without actually using too much force, her face contorted by feigned fury. Kylo says, “What events?”

            Hux lets his eyes slide over Rey on his way to casting them up to the ceiling, where Kylo would want them. When his gaze meets hers, Rey bares her teeth at him, but that just makes him smirk. “Rebel troop movements.”

            Both Rey and Kylo still.

            “Merely a blip on our radar,” Hux continues, his smirk spreading. His eyes flicker back to Rey’s face, noting the distress she now doesn’t need to fake. “In the Western Reaches. Could be nothing, but I presumed that you’d rather stay informed.”

            It’s not nothing, Rey knows, although she shields that thought from Kylo. Navigating the Unknown Regions’ maze of gravity wells and black holes requires a number of complicated hyperspace jumps; Rey knows this from journeying to Ahch-To in the Falcon. Wherever the Dreadnoughts the Resistance is targeting are located, it would take the fleet days to reach from Akiva even with faster-than-light travel. They must have already started moving.

            Kylo lifts his head. “You might have hailed me via hologram.”

            “I might have, Supreme Leader, but you weren’t responsive,” says Hux, and although he’s taking some pains to moderate his tone he still practically snarls it. “Aside from your... morning exertions, no one has seen you in days.”

            Kylo’s eyes narrow. “I don’t need to justify myself to you, General.”

            “You certainly don’t,” says Hux, carefully not looking at Rey.

            Rey is less concerned with what’s in Hux’s mind and more concerned with what’s in Kylo’s. He guards his thoughts too, which is never a good sign but especially not in this moment. She senses in the Force around him that even the newfound peace he’s gained with her in the past few days isn’t enough to completely divert him from his quest to destroy those who oppose him. That worries her. Isn’t she here, after all, to prevent him from calling off that gala and chasing down the Resistance fleet?

            “What is your command?” Hux prompts.

            When Kylo opens his mouth to respond, Rey seizes the opportunity, wrests one of her wrists from his grip, and slaps him across his cheek, her palm briefly connecting with the rough line of his scar tissue. It’s a light slap, more for show than anything else, but it pulls his attention away from the problem at hand and back to her. Moreover, she feels his arousal spike, and his cock twitches, which she isn’t anticipating and doesn’t intend to happen. But it works for her purposes, because he seizes her arm again and bucks into her, hungrily. For a moment their playacting fades away, and Hux fades away, too, as they reconnect in the heady, needy way they always do when they have sex.

            Rey almost forgets to fake her loathing when he makes her whine from the back of her throat until she feels Hux’s eyes on them again and knees Kylo’s thigh to remind him to focus. He slows, and manages to grit out, “What’s your— assessment?”

            This might be no better, Rey realizes. From what she knows of Hux’s tactics, such as they are, they’re engineered to show off the First Order’s military might. Surely pursuing and eliminating the rebel fleet would accomplish that goal. But Hux surprises her by saying, “If Organa’s rabble are coming, let them come.”

            Kylo raises his eyebrows.

            “We’re two days away from the gala,” Hux elaborates. “The greatest demonstration of our capabilities. It would be suicidal for them to stage an attack now.”

            Kylo studies Rey, pinned underneath him. “Indeed. But the Resistance is determined to self-destruct.” He jerks his chin down at her. “This one certainly seems to have a death wish.”

            “She just needs more taming,” Hux remarks.

            “That is not up to you,” Kylo barks. “Leave us.”

            Hux bows his head with deference that may or may not be mocking. As he does, he catches Rey’s eyes again. Rey doesn’t know how to interpret the look he gives her, although she knows she doesn’t like it. It’s not quite lustful, more assessing. Curious.

            “Yes, Leader Ren,” he says, the smirk returning to his lips. “Rey, always a... pleasure.”

            She growls at him and makes as if to sit up, but Kylo pushes her back to the mattress. Rey looks up at him, meeting his eyes, and they very nearly hold their breath until Hux leaves. The moment they hear the doors close, they both start moving again in a frenzy, him bearing down on her, her pressing up to him, tangling her hands in his hair, knotting her legs around his waist. Rey had expected the interruption to weaken their mutual arousal, but it had the opposite effect, perhaps because it delayed their gratification, or because of the slap, or both. It only takes a minute of frantic activity before orgasm pulses through both of them.

            “You said I could hit you,” Rey says, breathless, as Kylo sprawls out bonelessly on top of her.

            “You can hit me whenever you like,” he pants. “Kriff, Rey.”

            Rey’s never heard him swear before, and she presses her nose to his cheek, nuzzling into his scar. “You’re so strange,” she says. “But I’ll take it under advisement.”

            “For when I’m particularly egregious?”

            “As long as we both understand that egregious means ‘pinning me down in front of someone I can’t stand,’ and not anything worse,” Rey says firmly. Even so, she can’t help snorting. “But you should have seen his face.”

            “Would that I could have.” Kylo moves, shifting his weight off of her and propping himself up on his side, resting his palm against her stomach. “You were very convincing.”

            “As were you,” she tells him. “A very convincing monster.”

            He leans back down to kiss her, and they continue kissing for a few luxurious minutes. Rey idly wonders how she could ever explain the relationship they share to anyone else. It would be difficult. Sexual chemistry someone would understand, she thinks, even between enemies. But everything else? The jokes? The thoughts? The unspoken agreements? The insults that aren’t insults at all? Impossible.

            When Kylo begins pressing kisses to her jaw, Rey realizes that Hux said something that should raise questions, that she should feign ignorance she doesn’t have. So she asks, “What gala?”

            “Hm?”

            “He said something about a gala.”

            “Oh.” He pushes back up to his side. “It’s an annual tradition. Hux is wedded to it. Planetary government representatives attend and pay tribute to the First Order. Most of the Navy gathers to fly past this ship in formation. There’s an extravagant dinner, dancing. I’m expected to attend.”

            “Sounds awful,” says Rey.

            “It is,” Kylo agrees. And then, “Come with me.”

            She blinks. “What?”

            “Come with me,” he repeats. “It would be better than enduring it alone.”

            Rey’s mind swirls. Attending the gala with him will keep him preoccupied and leave the Resistance an opening to execute their maneuver, but somehow, that’s not the thought that surfaces first. “Are you asking me to be your date?”

            “I am.”

            She exhales. Something about that makes her chest tingle with elation. But, cautiously, she says, “If I accept, that doesn’t mean I’ll rule the galaxy with you.”

            “Of course.”

            “Just that I’ve consented to making your life less miserable for one evening.”

            “Rey, I know.”

            It’s tempting. But one of them has to be thinking about this with care, and it won’t be him. Rey notes, “I don’t think Hux will like this.”

            “He knows where he can shove his opinion,” Kylo says dismissively. Perhaps too dismissively. “Let him think I’ve tamed you. We’ll both know better.”

            “So long as you do.”

            “I do.”

            Rey is quiet for a minute, her lips pressed together, turning over the scenario for any other possible downsides and finding none. “Okay,” she says at last, a smile spreading across her face. “All right, Ben. It’s a date.”


            Their route to the training room is different this morning since they aren’t coming from the medcenter. Kylo takes them on a winding path, pointing out chambers on the Conquest II that he thinks might be of interest to Rey. He walks them across a bridge entirely walled in by glass, allowing them a view of one of the ship’s vast open spaces, where Stormtroopers practice their drills. He begins to explain what drill, exactly, they are executing, but watching the armored soldiers march in rows just makes Rey think of Finn. When Kylo feels her melancholy seeping into their bond he quickly ushers her off the bridge.

            When they’re far enough away, Rey asks him, “How can you stand it?”

            “Stand what?”

            “Using the Stormtroopers.”

            He blinks at her. “Why shouldn’t I stand it?”

            “Children are kidnapped at birth, stripped of their names, and indoctrinated into a program that brainwashes them to kill,” says Rey, her voice rising, taut with disbelief, “and you’re asking me why you shouldn’t stand it?”

            Kylo falls quiet, and he walks a few more steps down the hall, arms at his side, with obvious stiffness. Then, he says, “I inherited the Stormtrooper program. It was an invention of Hux’s father and continued by the son. I had no part in formulating it.”

            “I don’t think that matters one whit when you yourself have the power to bring it to an end.” Rey sets her jaw and makes herself look up at him. “You are complicit in continuing it through inaction.”

            He swallows and keeps his gaze fixed forward. Rey senses his discomfort brewing in the air between them. She imagines that no one had ever made him think about this before, or at least not in these terms. “This is about FN-2187,” he says, and she can almost taste his jealousy on her own tongue. “Your— friend.”

            “No,” she insists. “This about basic decency.”

            “You’d have me give them their freedom?” he asks. “Allow them to choose names for themselves?”

            She nods. “Yes, I would.”

            “They’re happy to serve.” But even as the words leave his mouth, Rey can tell he doesn’t really believe them. “And a government with no army is no government.”

            “That’s Hux talking.”

            Kylo scoffs.

            Rey presses on, picking up her pace to keep up with him as he walks. “You’re telling me that the First Order couldn’t attract conventional recruits? With your reach and all of your resources?”

            A pair of officers deviates from their path to give Rey and Kylo a wide berth. Kylo concedes, “There are some recruits in the Stormtrooper Corps.”

            “So what’s difficult, then?”

            “Say I do as you ask. Then what? Freeing the Stormtroopers now—” She can practically see the hydraulics working in his mind as he struggles to rationalize this. “—would be chaos. They don’t know how to survive outside the system.”

            “Finn’s doing just fine, thanks,” says Rey flatly. “And a life without freedom is no life at all, Ben. You know that.”

            “Don’t—” His voice edges louder, just a little, but it’s jarring because he hasn’t raised his voice to her in the past couple of days, and they’re both taken by surprise. He clenches his hand into a fist at his side, then unclenches it, stretching out his fingers. When he speaks again, it’s soft, but firm. “Don’t use that name if we’re not alone.”

            “Fine,” Rey mutters. “Have it your way.”

            Kylo turns his head to the side and seizes upon a door across the hall. “We’re here.”

            “I won’t be distracted that easily.”

            “No, this is where I meant to take you.” He strides to the door with purpose. “Come on.”

            Rey growls and starts after him. “I’m not finished—”

            But as soon as the door opens before them, Rey is hit by a blast of warm air, and she stops in her tracks. This room that stretches out in front of her is unlike any other she’s seen on a starship. It has high, domed ceilings, like the training center, and the same walls of cold metal, but the space is warmed by yellow lights and heat lamps. The walls and floors are lined by rows of soil-filled troughs from which sprout plants of many different colors and varieties, most green, some blue or red or purple. Toward the back stand a few fruit trees. A few white-clad gardeners tend to the plants, watering or pruning them with care.

            “I thought you might want to see this,” Kylo says quietly.

            Blinking, Rey shakes her head slightly. She can’t afford to lose the train of thought she’d had before entering this room. Still, she’s struck once again by how life can be found in even the most hostile environments. “What is this?” she asks. “An arboretum?”

            “A biodome,” Kylo says. He steps inside, and Rey goes with him, trying to take in all of the different plant species. The door closes automatically behind them. “This ship was built for self-sufficiency. The food you and I have been eating is grown in this room. There are others like it aboard the ship.”

            “It is beautiful,” Rey concedes, a bit begrudgingly. While the colors tickle her sight, she most relishes the heat of the room, and she closes her eyes momentarily, basking in it. The rest of the ship is so chilly, and Rey is not a creature of cold.

            “Come,” says Kylo softly. “There’s something here I think you’ll like.”

            He begins walking among the rows of plants. The gardners stop their work to kneel before him until he waves a hand indicating that they should carry on as they were. Rey follows on his heels until he comes to stop before one of the walls, nodding down at one of the lower shelves.

            “This is for you,” he says.

            Rey gives him a questioning look, then crouches down to study the plant he indicated. And she finds, baking under a couple of special heat lamps, a single nightbloomer, a plant native to Jakku, potted in sandy soil. The plant looks healthy, healthier than many of the ones she found while wandering the desserts. She spies a lone red nightblossom bud, which she knows will only open in darkness, on one of the plant’s arms.

            It’s such a simple thing — this plant, its flower — yet so familiar to her. Rey reaches out with her fingertips to touch the nightbloomer’s tough rind, gently.

            “You did collect these,” Kylo says, and she thinks she detects a hint of nervousness from him. She recalls how his early attempts to impress her, with military might, with fine clothes, with a fancy dinner, had failed.

            “I did,” she says quietly. “Just the blossoms.”

            “Well, I—” He clears his throat. “I had this one brought aboard.”

            But when? Rey doesn’t ask him that aloud, but she wonders privately. Surely the plant must have been here prior to their conversation the previous day about flower collecting. He wouldn’t have had the time to arrange for it. But then, when? A few days ago, when they started getting along?

            Or before that? He had access to her memories. He knew about her flowers. Rey wonders if he dispatched someone to Jakku, or if he went himself, to harvest something that reminded him of her. Perhaps even as he marinated in his hatred for her, the hatred that masked his true feelings, he crouched here, gazing at this nightbloomer. Perhaps he told himself that the day he killed her he’d smash it to pieces, knowing, secretly, that that day might never come.

            Rey rests her cheek on arms folded over the shelf as she studies the plant. It’s smaller than she remembers, but she hadn’t previously had much to compare it with. In the years since she’d last plucked the blossom from a nightboomer, she has seen more plants than she ever imagined she’d see. She has no desire to go back to Jakku anymore, nor even to visit, but seeing something so warm in a place so cold…

            “I’m not finished,” she says again, but softly, this time. “Not with the discussion we were having.”

            Behind her, Kylo says, “I’ll think about what can be done. If anything.”

            It’s not much of a promise, but it may be the most she gets out of him. For now. “Thank you,” she says.

            He crouches down next to her, and rests one hand gently at the small of her back. They spend a few minutes in contemplation of a desert flower that has no right to be here, but grows all the same.


            Rey loses track of time training with him again; all she knows is that they spar until they’re both too exhausted to continue. As they make their way back to his chambers, Rey feels that distinct prickle at the back of her neck that means the Force is trying to call her attention to something. She walks at Kylo’s side down a long, corridor: brightly-lit, industrial, cold, like most of the ones on the Conquest II. Ahead of them, this hallway is empty but for a cleaning droid rolling back and forth, polishing the floor until it shines. Their two sets of footsteps echo between the walls: the steady thuds that heeled boots make against this hard, reflective flooring.

            She looks to the left to see Kylo walking beside her, seemingly unaffected by whatever it is she perceives. Rey is surprised how familiar this all feels, and how strange that maybe once, upon seeing him at her side, she would feel alarm, or gut-wrenching revulsion, or anger, but now feels only calm.

            He walks, and she walks too, keeping pace with him easily although his strides are longer. They’re both sweat-drenched, in their light training clothes, and tired in the satisfying way that only sparring brings. She knows that he thinks only of returning to his chambers, of spending the day with her, but the ship is massive and the way back long. They continue on for a few minutes, passing countless rooms and branching hallways, before they begin to approach two large, heavy double doors, sealed shut. She gets the sense that these doors partition off a sizeable chamber, but has little time to interrogate that feeling because all at once she realizes that she saw this place in a dream, a dream she’d had before ever arriving on this ship.

            “What’s in there?” she asks.

            Kylo seems a little more taken aback by this question, and he turns his head to look at her. “Nothing you should concern yourself with,” he says, and if it’s not an outright lie it’s a half-truth at best, which unsettles Rey. He doesn’t lie to her. As far as she knows, he may never have.

            She doesn’t let it go. “Can we go in?”

            “Not now.”

            “But if there’s nothing of consequence inside—”

            “I’m famished,” says Kylo. “You must be, too.”

            Rey nods and lets the matter drop, but commits the doors’ location to memory as best she can. “Right.”


            Apropos of nothing, a full minute after they leave those doors behind, Kylo says, “I was thinking about what you said yesterday. About how you don’t need a teacher.”

            Rey looks at him over her shoulder. “I don’t.”

            “I know.” He pauses. “Would you also agree that a wise teacher never stops learning? That they admit there are yet concepts they have not mastered, secrets they do not yet know?”

            She frowns a little. “Well, sure. It’s a lifelong process. I’m learning as I go. I’m not about to claim I know everything.”

            “You don’t,” Kylo says. “And— neither do I.” He stops walking so he can pivot to face her, and then he purses his lips like he does when he’s nervous. “But I am trained in both the Dark and the Light, and you must be trained in something else entirely. No one is left to teach you the old ways.”

            Rey, obviously, does not volunteer the fact that she possesses the sacred Jedi texts, and just says, “Mm.”

            “Think of what we could create together.”

            It’s difficult for her to keep from rolling her eyes. She closes them instead, and sighs, “I don’t want to get into this with you again.”

            “No, that’s not what I’m asking.” His voice has a strange urgency to it, and she opens her eyes to look at his face. “The ability to channel the Force doesn’t stop with you and me. There are others. As… you know.”

            “Careful.”

            He doesn’t acknowledge her warning and reaches out to touch her shoulder. She looks at his hand. “If we combined our knowledge,” he says quietly. “If we made something new, better, for those who come after us, they would never need to learn like we did.”

            By the seat of their trousers, she thinks, like she’s learning. Or in fear, like he learned. But she’s wary. “I’m already doing that.”

            “But you only have half the picture.” It’s said nervously, not with obstinacy. Kylo swallows. “Rey. Forget the galaxy. Forget anything else. If you and I were to—”

            “Supreme Leader!” an unfamiliar voice calls.

            Kylo blinks, then sighs and turns toward its source. Rey does also, and sees a blue-skinned Chagrian in elegant but slightly wrinkled robes rushing toward them, the two Stormtroopers flanking him quickening their steps to keep up. Before the Stormtroopers can intervene, the Chagrian casts himself down at Kylo’s feet and takes his hands.

            “Supreme Leader,” he says. “I want to thank you for the mercy you’ve shown me, and beg your forgiveness for any inconvenience I have caused.”

            The Stormtroopers move to pull the Chagrian away, but Kylo works one hand free from his and holds up to halt their approach. Rey looks at him. When so often the Resistance likes to use his name as a curse or a punchline, and when she and he have spent so many days together in relative isolation, it’s easy to forget just how much influence he wields. A simple gesture or a word from him contains so much power, even outside of his ability to channel the Force.

            Kylo just says, “Thank the lady. She decided your fate.”

            The Chagrian releases Kylo’s hand, turns on his knees toward the deeply confused Rey, and clasps hers instead. “Dear lady—” he begins.

            “Please stand,” says Rey, uncomfortable.

            “Dear lady,” he continues, getting to his feet without letting go of Rey’s hands, “Thank you for the mercy you have shown. I am so deeply sorry for the pain that you experienced.”

            Rey just says, “Um.”

            Thankfully, Kylo cuts in. “This is Kars Akaanas,” he says. “A collector.”

            “An antiquarian,” Akaanas corrects, but very gently. “I collect, but I am also a student of time’s greatest teacher, history. More precisely, I specialize in Imperial-era and pre-Imperial-era artifacts.”

            The situation becomes clear to Rey all at once. “Oh. You gifted him the bottle of Toniray.”

            Akaanas bows his head. “And I cannot express how much I regret that my gift caused your suffering in any capacity.”

            “No, it— didn’t,” says Rey. “Really, it’s fine. You couldn’t have known someone would seize the opportunity and replace the bottle with a lookalike. There’s nothing to apologize for.”

            “But it is because of my gift that there was an opportunity in the first place,” says Akaanas, who Rey is quickly coming to understand to be a bit of a sycophant. “And for that, I do apologize.”

            “I can’t accept—”

            “I think that’s enough,” Kylo interjects, nodding at Akaanas. “She accepts your apology.”

            “There is nothing to apologize for!” Rey insists. She looks at Akaanas. “If anything, I am sorry that my having been poisoned led to your needless interrogation and detention.”

            “You are far too kind,” Akaanas says, squeezing Rey’s hands, then releasing them. “Far, far too kind. Should you ever need anything, know that I am at your service.”

            “That is very generous, but—”

            “It is my great honor.”

            Rey gives up. “Well, thank you,” she says, awkwardly.

            “Of course, of course.” Akaanas turns toward Kylo once more. “Supreme Leader,” he says, “How fortunate you are, to have found a partner who possesses such beauty and such grace.”

            Rey, wearing rumpled training clothes, with stray tendrils of hair sticking to her sweaty forehead, feels herself go red for many, many reasons.

            “That she does,” Kylo says, agreeably, before Rey can contradict anything that Akaanas said. And then, perhaps because he’s feeling particularly gratified to have her called his partner, he adds, “Safe travels.”

            Akaanas thanks them both profusely before the Stormtroopers escort him down to the hangar bay. Rey watches him until he’s out of sight. “You did spare him,” she says quietly.

            “I did.”

            “Do you expect thanks from me, too?”

            “I know better.”

            Rey shakes her head. “It was the right thing to do,” she huffs. “There was no need for him to die.”

            “Yes,” Kylo says. “You were right.”

            “I was. So.” She wipes her forehead with her wrist. “Good. It’s good that you listened. That’s as far as I’ll go.”

            “I’ll take it.”

            Rey adds, “You could stand to listen to me more often.”

            Kylo’s mouth twitches. “Isn’t that a grievance all wives share?”

            He begins to walk again, leaving her at a loss for words, but only for a moment. “Oi!” she yelps, but when she starts jogging to catch up with him he only walks faster until he, too, is jogging, staying an easy couple of meters out of reach. Curse his long legs.

            As Rey chases him, she calls, “I’m not your wife! Are you even listening?”

            Although he doesn’t laugh, she can feel him smiling.


            They shower together in Kylo’s chambers when they finally return, for once tired enough that nothing else happens after they strip out of their clothes. Facing each other under the showerhead, they occasionally exchange kisses through the spray but mostly just take each other in. When the panel for the shampoo dispenser slides aside, Kylo gives it a couple of good pumps and starts lathering Rey’s hair for her, and she closes her eyes as he works the shampoo into her roots, warm with the water and the touch. He cranes his head down so she can return the favor, and she does. As her fingers massage his scalp, Rey is amazed by this casual act of intimacy, one that she could not have possibly anticipated, one that feels even more meaningful, somehow, than sex.

            Once the shower finishes its cycle and they’re both rinsed and blown dry, Rey wraps herself in one of those big, fluffy towels he keeps on hand; Kylo takes the other and ties it around his waist. She sits on the long counter while he stands in front of the sink, chin jutted out as he begins to shave his face and neck with a razor.

            “Bit old-fashioned of you,” Rey remarks, to disguise just how enraptured she is by watching him scrape the blade over his throat with care.

            “When you start growing facial hair in a remote location with no access to any other depilatory, you learn there’s merit to old-fashioned.” He shaves another line down from his jaw, scraping away the shave gel he’d smoothed onto his skin. “I also sometimes write by hand.”

            “By hand!” she exclaims, sitting forward a bit. “With pens?”

            “I know calligraphy.”

            “You’re joking.”

            “I’m not.”

            Rey doesn’t know how to sort that information, but for some reason, it tickles her. She can only grin at him.

            “You’re amused,” Kylo says, reading both her expression and her emotions. “What’s funny?”

            “I don’t know. You are.”

            “Me?”

            “You know calligraphy.”

            “Most people take me very seriously.”

            “Well,” says Rey, leaning over to stretch her arms out past her knees, “most people don’t know you like I do.”

            Kylo stops shaving for a moment to look at her. Most of the shave gel is gone; just a few more patches to clean up. He says, quietly, “No one does.”

            She peers back at him over her shoulder, disarmed by his sincerity. But then, she realizes, it’s likely true. His mother, the last of his living relatives, hasn’t known him since adolescence. He won’t let his underlings get close enough; that isn’t how he operates. It’s just her, the only person to get under his skin, who has ever slept in his arms, woken up beside him, watched him shave his face.

            Then again, he has seen her in ways no one else has. He’s seen her flushed and wanting, and convulsing at death’s door. He’s seen her anger, felt her fury, but also experienced the gentlest touches of her hands. It’s been barely seven days. No one knows her like he knows her, either.

            They dress, but not entirely. He dons a shirt and trousers but nothing more. Rey decides to try slipping into that green robe again, this time wearing a sleeveless shirt over her underthings, which she finds more comfortable although Kylo grumbles his complaint. They eat a light lunch together — Rey jokes that she could eat the fleet — and then they return to the sitting room. Rey thinks that now he might depart to attend to his duties. After all, Hux of all people had admonished Kylo for disappearing to be with her. In the days before his proposal and her poisoning and her recovery, he’d always vanished for a few hours, leaving her bored, restless, and alone.

            Instead, he summons a droid, which arrives bearing the A280 blaster rifle she’d salvaged from Hoth. He sets it down on the low table in front of where she sits in her chair. She looks down at it, then up at him, standing before her.

            “I thought you might want this back,” he says. “You said you could fix it.”

            Rey can’t help breaking into a grin as she leans forward and runs her fingers over the old blaster, then looks up at him. “Some might accuse you of being suicidal.”

            “Would you?”

            “No, I wouldn’t.” She looks down at the blaster again, contemplates it. “But there’s another project I’d rather spend my time on.”

            “Anything,” he says.

            Rey holds out her hand, and his lightsaber flies out from where he’d stashed it under his discarded cloak and springs to her palm, as it had once before in Snoke’s throne room. Like that time, Kylo doesn’t move to stop her. He just watches as she turns the hilt over and over in her hands, as he had the other day before he replaced the external power cable.

            “I can help make this more stable,” she says.

            Kylo blinks at her, but then he nods and goes to retrieve his toolkit, pushing the blaster aside so she has room to work. He takes his place on the sofa, sitting as close to her as he can, and watches as Rey pops open the toolkit and sets about her task. She unthreads the red wire and pries off part of the lightsaber’s casing with care, in order to diagnose what ails it, as she would with any other tool. In this moment, it doesn’t strike her that this is the weapon that killed his father and so many others, a weapon that grievously injured her dearest friend. It’s also the weapon that’s come to her aid, the one he wielded as they fought beside each other as allies.

            A lightsaber is a killing tool, but the hand that holds it matters most.

            “Oh,” Rey breathes when she finally sees its exposed innards. “Ben.”

            “I had to improvise after the crystal—”

            “I know,” she says, “but it’s honestly a miracle this hasn’t blown up in your hands.”

            He shifts, a little discomfited, but he says, “I’m very good at improvisation.”

            She shakes her head. “Risky modifications and slipshod repair jobs,” she mutters under her breath.

            “What was that?”

            “Nothing.” Rey exhales and strokes the pads of her fingers over the internal wiring. “You wouldn’t happen to have an extremely high-output diatium power cell on you, would you?”

            Ben looks at her and says, deadpan, “I left it on my other flagship.”

            Rey presses her lips together in an ineffective attempt to hide her smile. “Don’t get cheeky with me. I was just thinking if you did you wouldn’t need the reserve cell.” She taps the bottom of the hilt, just above the pommel cap. “You could power both the blade emitter and the quillion emitters. It would take a little reconfiguring of the circuitry, but then you’d have room for...” She frowns, chewing on her lower lip for a second. “Hm. Well, right now you don’t really have a blade energy channel, but I’m not sure where you’d put one with the crystal mounted so close to the emitters. I suppose you could move the crystal lower… then you could add some cycling field energizers to improve efficiency...”

            Up to this point, he listens, nodding, but now he interrupts her. “These are ambitious plans,” he says. “What can you do today?”

            She scrunches her nose. “I suppose I could rewire it so it’s less likely to explode.”

            “I’d appreciate that.” He frowns a little, thinking, and rubs his chin. “I can look into locating a higher-output power cell. I know that Vader’s lightsaber had one.”

            Anakin Skywalker, she almost says, but doesn’t. “Well, you’re Supreme Leader of the First Order. You should be able to get your hands on anything you want.”

            “My concern,” he says, “was that a higher-output power cell might make the blade even less stable. Separating out the power sources to generate the same total output—”

            “All you’d have to do is play around with the resistance of each circuit a bit,” she says. “Honestly, Ben, you’re missing a few important bits. The Jedi have been using single power sources for millennia for a reason.”

            “That argument won’t persuade me.”

            She sighs. “Then this one: you want to keep both your hands, don’t you?”

            Ben considers this for a moment, and then he says quietly, “Vader lost an arm on Geonosis.”

            Rey swivels her head to look at him and finds him smiling. Whatever expression she’s wearing on her face makes him chuckle, then laugh outright. Rey presses her mouth together more tightly to keep from doing the same, but she can’t help herself. It’s infectious. “Pfft—”

            “Please, you don’t think I’d go that far.” He throws his head back and lets out a deep, full bark of laughter. “Ha!”

            “Well, I don’t know, do I!” she exclaims. “You wore that—” She has to pause to take a breath. “That mask, for ages!”

            “The mask was— menacing.” He ducks his head down, but his shoulders shake with the force of his laughter even as he fights to regain his composure. Rey giggles watching him. She wonders when the last time he laughed was. Probably not for years.

            “Mm.” She closes her eyes and slumps back in the chair as her mirth subsides. “Ha, oh.” She places her free hand on her abdomen and presses it against her aching muscles. “Ow.”

            Ben’s laughter recedes back into a chuckle, then just a smile, and he turns his head to look at her through hair that’s fallen into his face. “I’m through aspiring to someone else’s legacy,” he says. “Besides, I’ve surpassed his. With my hands intact.”

            Rey rolls her eyes. “Setting that whole legacy bit aside — don’t give me that look, you know what I think of it — I would certainly prefer that you keep both your hands. For selfish reasons.”

            He places one of his hands on her knee. “What reasons?”

            She pushes the hand off unceremoniously. “Not now. I’m working. Here, help me.” She leans forward to pick up the piece of casing she’d removed from his lightsaber and holds it out to him. “Polish this until it shines.”

            Without protest, he takes the casing from her. The next few hours pass in comfortable silence as, seated next to each other, she works and he observes, not speaking unless she has a question. There’s no need otherwise for either of them to say a word.


            When they retire for the evening, Rey finds that someone has placed the nightbloomer’s pot on the end table next to her side of the bed. She sets her head down on her pillow, facing it. As the lights dim, she watches the single nightblossom’s petals unfurl over the course of a minute or so as the flower strains to drink in moonbeams it can’t find.

            “It belongs planetside,” she murmurs to Ben as he draws back the covers and slips into bed beside her. “See how it looks for the stars?”

            He wraps his arms around her waist and picks up his head to study the flower. “This suits it,” he says. “It was meant for you.”

            Rey shakes her head. “It should be outside. Or at least outside of a pot, where it can grow and breathe.”

            He sets his head back down on his pillow. For a while he doesn’t respond, and she thinks he might have fallen asleep. But then, in a husky near-whisper, he says, “It might yet flourish in unexpected places.”

            She doesn’t have a reply. Behind her, Ben does drift off to sleep; she knows that he sleeps more soundly next to her than he has in years, perhaps ever. The room comes into focus for her as his breathing grows steady against her neck, and she realizes that this is her side of the bed, and the chair in the sitting room is her chair, and that she has her place at his long dining table. It’s barely been seven days.

            Rey could get used to this.

            Maybe she already has.

Chapter Text

            “Yeouch!” Rey exclaims.

            Ben, his face still half-covered in shave gel, looks out through the open washroom door at Rey, who perches in her towel on the very edge of her chair with one arm stuck straight up in the air. Beside her stands a grooming droid smoothing depil cream on her exposed armpit, over the hair there that has never known a razor’s touch. “What’s wrong?”

            “It stings,” she grouses as the droid rolls around behind her chair to begin work on her other side. Rey sighs and lifts her arm, folding it over behind her head so she can grab her opposite bicep for stability.

            “That means it’s working,” the droid, WR-38, says, in a voice coded vaguely female. Like all First Order droids, its programming prioritizes efficiency over warmth. Rey thought there might be some kind of exception for droids with personal attendant duties, but apparently not. “It is dissolving your hair down to the follicle.”

            “I’d never have agreed to this if I’d known it would sting this much,” says Rey, with no small amount of bitterness.

            She had argued with 38 for a solid five minutes about having the hair removed from her underarms while Ben unhelpfully stayed neutral and retreated to the washroom to shave. 38 had come to select Rey’s outfit for some pre-gala event later that evening and laid out a sleeveless shirt; when she realized that Rey did not, in fact, have hairless armpits, she insisted on immediately remedying that, as current fashion trends dictate. The droid would not back down, and it seemed that the only override could come from Ben, who was too busy keeping out of the way. Rey eventually acquiesced just to get 38 to stop talking.

            Were Rey someone who thinks like a spy, she probably would have given in without question. Bare underarms will help her blend in. And Rey realizes that if she’s going to rub shoulders with generals or royalty or whomever else later that evening, she should probably start thinking more like a spy. Still, Rey dislikes compromising herself for fashion, and she’s never removed her body hair, so it’s more the principle of the thing that burns. Well, and her skin. Her skin burns too.

            “With respect,” 38 says, with no hint of respect at all in her tinny voice, “if you can’t tolerate having your underarms depilated, you’ll very much dislike when it’s done to your legs.”

            “You are not doing my legs,” Rey snaps.

            38 simply rolls back around to Rey’s right side to begin scraping off the depil cream. Just as she’s finishing, Ben emerges from the washroom, wearing only his trousers. When he sees Rey with her arms held up over her head, he frowns. “Hm.”

            “What?”

            “I think I liked it better before.”

            She glares at him. “Then you might have said something before.”

            “It’s just—” Ben strides across the room to her and lowers himself to a couch at her right side. 38, who has just finished cleaning her off on that side, circles around out of his way. Ben is so tall that his head is nearly level with her shoulders, and he sniffs the air around her, looking perplexed, then annoyed. He leans over the arm of her chair and presses his nose to the hollow of her armpit.  “It doesn’t smell like you now.”

            “Ben!” Rey exclaims, with a little mortification and a little mirth. She tries to pull her arm away from him, but he lays a hand on her shoulder to hold her in place. “What are you doing?”

            He rubs his nose up and down her now-smooth, hairless skin. “I like your scent.”

            “It— ah, that tickles!” But Rey smiles, momentarily forgetting her grievances, forgetting even 38, who dutifully scrapes the depil cream and dissolved hair from her other armpit. “You’re so strange.”

            “And you’re bold.” He presses his mouth to her skin. “No one else would say that to me.”

            “Mm.” Suddenly she remembers something Poe said to her, what feels like ages ago. She looks at the crown of his head. “So, now that I know how you feel about armpits, what’s your opinion on elbows?”

            “Elbows?” Ben raises his eyes to hers. That now-familiar crease of confusion appears between his brows. “I don’t have any. Why?”

            “Nothing. Just something a friend said once.”

            Ben adjusts his grip, moving one hand to her forearm and stretching her arm out horizontally. He turns it over to peer at her elbow. “I could make an exception for yours.”

            “Oh, no.” Rey chuckles awkwardly. “Please, don’t.”

            “If this is something you care about…” He begins kissing down from her shoulder, pausing to suck a wet spot into the skin just above her elbow as she laughs and tries to squirm away.

            “Stop, stop!” she cries out. “I yield.”

            He presses his mouth against the red spot he created one last time before looking back up at her with those eyes of his. Rey finds herself wondering how a pair of eyes so dark could be quite so luminous. She loses herself to his gaze for a breathless moment, until he tugs on her arm, trying to pull her closer over the arm of the chair.

            “Supreme Leader,” 38 says, almost admonishing him. Only a droid would be so impertinent. Well, a droid or Rey.

            Ben picks up his head. “Hm?”

            “She still needs to select a dress.”

            Rey blinks. “Sorry, I need to what?”

            “A dress,” 38 repeats. “For the gala.”

            “Of course. A dress for the gala.” Rey lets out a long-suffering exhale and looks up at Ben. “I regret accepting your invitation more and more. Can’t I wear trousers?”

            “Sadly not,” says Ben, pressing the button to expose the little holoprojector at the center of his table. “When word got out that I would be bringing someone to the gala, designers started clamoring to dress you. All dresses, no trousers. But you do have options. Choose one you like.”

            “I won't 'like’ any of them.”

            “Then choose the one you hate least.”

            Ben sits down on the sofa and begins flipping through the holos, controlling them from his datapad. Rey crosses her arms and leans back in her chair to oversee the process, still smarting a bit from the hair removal treatment. She dismisses the first half-dozen or so dresses the second they flicker to life above the table. Finally, he turns his head and looks at her.

            “I know this isn’t ideal,” he says, “but could you cooperate. Please.”

            Rey arches an eyebrow at him. Blindly groping about, he does sometimes hit on the right thing to say. “Fine,” she says. “But half those ones were dripping with jewels, and the other half had shoulder pads that could take out someone’s eye. That’s not me, Ben.”

            Ben presses his lips into a line. “Fair point. So I’ll skip...” He skims over the next dozen or so designs, and the line of his mouth turns down at the edges. “Hm.”

            “Not so easy, is it?”

            “At least I’m trying,” he tells her.

            Rey scoots to the edge of her seat. “I’ll show you trying,” she says, snatching the datapad out of his hand and flipping through the dresses herself. She realizes about a second too late that this was probably what he wanted her to do, but she’s already set out on this course and can’t retreat now without looking foolish.

            It’s unbelievable, though, just how hideous some of these dresses are. One has a stiff collar so high it would come up nearly to her hairline, the next is so form-fitting and such an awful, shiny shade of bright green that she thinks she sees Ben look away just to keep from laughing at it. It will never cease to amaze Rey that fashion seems to have no practical limits. She can barely imagine how she would get in and out of some of these creations, much less wear one.

            Finally they come to a dress that gives Rey pause, that calls to her for reasons she can’t quite articulate. It’s not as though this one is any more sensible than the rest; it’s completely backless, and would leave her shoulders bare. But she likes the way the fabric waterfalls down from the silver collar and connects to sleeves above the elbow. It’s floor-length, and there’s something of a train, but maybe she can convince 38 to spare her legs the treatment her underarms got if she agrees to keep them covered. It’s the color that appeals to Rey most, a rich purple-red that starts slightly lighter at the top of the dress and darkens progressively going down. There’s a hint of silver embroidery at the lower hems, but given the size of the holo she can’t quite make it out.

            It doesn’t matter. Ben notices her fall quiet, and he watches her watch the holo for a moment. Then he asks, “This one?”

            Rey blinks back to herself. “This one’ll do,” she admits, feeling a little strange at having gotten so caught up in this particular holo.

            “You’ll wear it well,” he says.

            “A Nabooian design,” 38 trills, a bit too loudly, sounding as though Rey has actually made her happy for once. “Pre-Imperial influence. An excellent choice. Naboo is the place for formalwear, and those trends are just coming back in style. Fashion is cyclical.”

            “Yes,” says Ben. “You’re dismissed.”

            The doors open and close for 38 automatically as she trundles out, but Rey pays her no mind. She keeps watching as the holo rotates, contemplating the dress’ open back. An idea occurs to her, and she says to Ben, “I wonder what I’d wear under something like that.”

            “Nothing, I hope.”

            She laughs. “Ben! Seriously, there must be something that just keeps everything secure up there. Or— provides some support.” Rey leans forward, elbow on her knee, chin on her hand. “Do you think we could arrange a consult with the woman who sold me those undergarments on Cantonica? Even via holo. I bet she’d know.” She pauses, and adds, “I liked her.”

            Ben doesn’t seem to think much of her request, but the last bit is what puts him over the edge. “Shouldn’t be an issue.”

            “Thank you.” At the very least, even if they were to converse with Ben present, Ordula could let Leia know that Rey was still safe, that her mission was on track. If Ordula didn’t already know. From what Ben said about the designers, word of the Supreme Leader’s mysterious gala date has somehow already spread.

            “Of course.” Ben looks up to see that the door to the private dining room has slid aside. “Oh, lunch.”

            “By the Force,” Rey mutters. “That couldn't come soon enough.”

            He goes back to the bedchamber to quickly pull on a shirt, and she follows, although it takes her a little longer to dress. By the time she's pulled on her robe, he’s taken his datapad and disappeared into the dining room.

            Rey follows, still barefoot, but does a double-take when she enters the room. Usually their lunches are elegant, but comparatively small, three courses instead of the five they're served for dinner. Strange to think that a three-course lunch is considered “small” relative to anything when Rey eats more for lunch here than she once would have eaten in a week. At any rate, the place settings are generally simpler for lunch, but when Rey walks into the dining room she finds more plates, forks, knives, spoons, and glasses laid out before her chair than she's ever seen before.

            Ben had been scrolling through his datapad, but he looks up and pushes it aside when he senses her bewilderment. “There are a few things you need to learn before the gala,” he says. “And we're short on time.”

            “So we’re really doing this now?”

            “Yes, now.”

            Rey grimaces, but crosses the room anyway. Ben starts to rise so he can pull out her chair, but she waves him off and slides sideways into her seat. “Only you could turn lunch into a lesson. I am starving, Ben.”

            She isn't starving — she knows too well what real starvation feels like — but she doesn't particularly feel like learning about cutlery, either, and she wants Ben to know how short she is on patience. He just says, “The sooner you master this, the sooner we eat.”

            “Tch.” Rey nods at the datapad. “What’s that for?”

            Not to be distracted, Ben says, “I'll tell you when we’re finished.”

            “You are the most impossibly stubborn person in the whole galaxy.”

            “Am I?” His mouth curls up at its edges. “I’m surprised at how little you know your own mind.”

            Rey sighs.

            Ben leans toward her. “I’m not trying to change who you are.” He gestures out at the setting, allowing his hand to hover over it. “I don’t care about this. The first time I saw you eat, you surprised me, but I never cared. But there are those who do care, and they’ll watch you closely since you’re on my arm. I’m thinking more of your camouflage.”

            She rubs the side of her nose. “I understand that much, I suppose.”

            “There’s little for you to learn,” he continues, and his voice softens. “You have good posture. You’re well-spoken. No one would think you grew up hauling junk.”

            Rey snorts. “You were actually doing okay until the end, there.”

            Unbothered, Ben says, “You don’t need to worry about how to address people, or how to bow, because none of that will matter when you’re at my side. You won’t bend the knee to anyone.” He gives himself a self-satisfied little nod, as if verifying that that’s the way things should always be.

            “Ben.”

            “Mm?”

            “Must I remind you again that I’m not your wife?”

            To her surprise, he smiles. “If you keep reminding me, I’ll think you’re protesting too much.” He lays a hand on top of hers. “It doesn’t matter if we’re married or if you’re just my— companion. Everyone will show you the respect you deserve.”

            Rey feels color rising in her cheeks. She doesn’t know what she thinks of that. She’s not deserving of special treatment. She’s just herself. “Got it.”

            He squeezes her hand, then releases it. “It’s a shame,” he says quietly. “I would love to see you drink your soup in front of Hux.”

            Now Rey smiles back. “Somehow, I doubt he’d make a better face than the one he made when he walked in on us.”

            “You never know.”

            She sighs again, looking down at her place setting. So many shiny pieces of silver cutlery, three crystal goblets of varying size, well-polished, silver-edged black plates and bowls. Her eyes almost hurt, taking them all in. “The thing I don’t understand is why,” she complains. “Why shouldn’t you drink your soup? It’s the best way to get every drop.”

            Ben shrugs. “Custom. But it varies. On Gatalenta they have a cold soup you drink from the bowl.”

            “That sounds fun. Let’s skip the gala and go there instead.”

            “Believe me, I’m tempted.” Ben sits back and considers the place setting. “One of my mother’s childhood friends lived there. We visited a few times when I was young. Beautiful place. Peaceful.”

            It’s always a little disarming to hear Ben mention his parents in conversation. He never names them, although of course it would be strange of him to call them by name. Still, it’s as if his mother and the General who opposes him are different people in these strange, soft moments. Disarming, too, is the notion that Leia Organa had childhood friends. Rey can’t picture Leia as a young person, even though she has of course seen holos of her from the Galactic Civil War. Even at nineteen, she was impossibly poised. It seemed to Rey that Leia must have simply been born old and wise and battle-scarred, but of course that couldn’t be true.

            Rey wonders what’s become of that friend. She’s never seen the General spend time with anyone in the way that Rey and her friends do. Maybe they’re all gone now, all of Leia’s friends. Or maybe she just can’t talk to them now that she’s in hiding with the Resistance. Maybe they think she’s dead. Rey doesn’t know which thought depresses her more.

            Ben brings her back to the moment by setting his hand on hers again. “The glasses, to start,” he says, indicating them with his free hand. “This is for water, then wine—”

            “Wine?”

            He catches the wariness in her voice and is quick to say, “Anything we’re served will be tested.”

            “That worked out so well for us last time,” Rey remarks.

            “I’m taking extra precautions. I’ll be expected to drink a little no matter what. You should feel free to as well.”

            “But the investigation?”

            Ben hesitates.

            “Just be honest,” Rey says. “I’d feel a lot better knowing the person who tried to poison us was apprehended before the gala.”

            “That seems unlikely,” he admits. “The assassin was a dead-end. The poison itself is not uncommon. The lookalike wine is rarer, so it’s our best bet as a lead.” He strokes his thumb over the back of her hand. “Even so, you’ll be safe. I swear it.”

            Rey realizes that she’s not worried about an attempt on her life so much as an attempt on both of theirs, or on his. They both know that she wasn’t the intended target of that poisoned wine. But she says, “All right.”

            “Good. Now, pick up your fork. The one on the outside.”

            Rey is not entirely satisfied by this answer, but she picks up the small outermost fork. Ben picks up his, too, and takes his hand off hers since the lesson has truly begun. It looks comically tiny in his hand.

            “Right now you hold your cutlery with an overhand grip.” Ben holds the fork with its tines facing up and curls his four fingers over its stem to demonstrate. “Like this.”

            “And that’s wrong?”

            “It is.”

            “Well,” Rey grumbles, “we didn’t all receive… princely tutelage, or whatever.”

            Ben's eyebrows shoot up. “‘Princely tutelage?’” he echoes, wryly.

            “Isn’t your mother a princess?” Rey asks. “And doesn’t that make you a prince?”

            “It might if Alderaan still existed. It doesn’t.” That seems to shut the argument down for now. He turns the fork over in his hand and extends his forefinger down the stem. “Hold it like this. And— in your left hand. At all times.”

            “What? Why?”

            “That’s how it’s done.”

            “There’s really no better answer?”

            “There may be, but this is the only one I got from my mother when she taught me.” Ben twirls the fork between his fingers. “Granted, I was eight.”

            Rey furrows her brow. “Wait.”

            “Hm?”

            “We’re going about this wrong, I think. There may be a way to speed things along.”

            Ben leans toward her. “I’m listening. You’re a demanding pupil.”

            “Oi, rude.” She bumps her knee against his, then says, “The first time you looked in my mind, I came away knowing some of what you knew. Techniques, mainly. How to use a lightsaber, how to use the Force. It felt as if I’d always known those things.”

            Understanding dawns on him. “You want to use our bond to learn etiquette without having to actually go to any effort.”

            “Seems a bit wasteful not to. It’s right there.”

            “Fair point.” Ben’s eyes unfocus slightly as he considers the potential drawbacks of this. “I may be given something of yours in exchange.”

            “What’d you get last time?”

            “Memories,” he says quietly.

            “My memories?”

            “Yes.”

            Rey shifts in her chair. She thinks she already knew this, although she’s never heard him say it aloud. It’s different knowing it than it is hearing it confirmed, somehow. The admission conjures up an image of him sitting alone on an austere, angular throne, not unlike Snoke’s, poring over what he’s learned of her from her mind. She doesn’t know whether this is one of his own memories or just her own imagining, and it unnerves her, but also saddens her a bit.

            Although this may be a good way to test the capabilities of their bond. She thinks any knowledge that might lead him to the Resistance and any incriminating memories are firmly tucked away. If he hasn’t found those things over the course of the last few days, when she’s opened up her body and her mind to him, then he won’t. So she says, “All right. Give it a shot.”

            He straightens, and turns to face her. She turns to face him, too. “Should I?” he asks.

            Rey nods.

            Ben lifts his hand, extends his fingers as if to reach for something, and breaches her mind. The intrusion makes Rey suck in air through her teeth, even though she expects it. It goes against all her instincts not to force him out. But she keeps her eyes on his and pushes back against him, and suddenly she crosses a threshold, and his emotions swirl around her: that ever present undercurrent of anger, pain, sadness, blanketed now by a layer of easy serenity, like the frozen surface of a river, so easily broken.

            Focus, she reminds herself. Etiquette. And almost as soon as she thinks it, she finds what she needs. The last time she’d entered his mind she hadn’t seen anything, but this time she does: chubby young hands picking up a fork, then slender fingers gently adjusting their hold. Ben looks up, and Rey inhales, because there’s Leia, smiling, twenty-five years younger, her hair all brown and long and laying in a single braid across her shoulder, her face unlined but for a couple of crinkles starting to come in at the corners of her eyes. She seems so unburdened. Staring up at her, Rey feels how Ben feels: instinctively soothed in a way Rey never remembers feeling.

            Then, from somewhere out of sight, the voice of C-3PO, Leia’s protocol droid, saying, “Princess Leia, I am so terribly sorry, but—” and the memory begins to dissolve, but before it does, Rey feels the pang that comes with little Ben’s knowledge that his mother is going to be called away, again, on some sort of business. All at once, she’s out of Ben’s mind with a gasp, and Ben is likewise pulled from hers.

            Rey blinks rapidly, readjusting to being in her body. She looks down at her hands, her own adult hands, work-worn, not pink and soft. She looks up at Ben, who has two fingers pressed to his mouth. “Did you see something?” she asks, quietly.

            He nods, but doesn’t volunteer any information. There’s a flash of hurt in his dark eyes.

            “Ben.” She feels as though it would be sacrilege in this moment to speak above a whisper. “What was it?”

            Ben lowers his hand and moves his mouth a few times without managing to say anything. Then, finally, “A kiss.”

            Rey’s stomach drops, just a little. She says, guarded, “From the look on your face, not one you gave me.”

            He shakes his head, slightly. Averts his eyes to her hands.

            “You can’t—” Rey pauses, collects her thoughts. “You can’t be angry at me for having kissed other people before we were the way we are now.” She gestures between them.

            “I suppose,” he says, begrudgingly.

            “I wasn’t your first kiss, was I?”

            He scoffs dismissively — she wasn’t — but she sees a bit of Kylo reemerging in his sulkiness. “You wouldn’t understand.”

            “I understand more than you think,” Rey replies. She studies him, knowing that he had wanted to be her first everything, and also knowing that there’s no point in arguing with him when he gets like this. She can’t change the past, and she’s not sure she would want to if she could. After all, the few kisses she had before their first good kiss had made her realize that not all kisses bear equal weight.

            She turns to her place setting, and points at one fork. “Greens,” she says, and then she indicates a few more, going down the line. “Crustaceans. Main course. Dessert fork brought out with dessert. Yes?”

            Ben looks up, surprised. “Yes,” he says. “That’s right.”

            “So, let’s eat.” Rey turns back to her plate. “And you can tell me about your first kisses, since you know about one of mine.”

            He groans softly out of what she thinks might be embarrassment.

            “Or we could let the matter drop,” she says.

            “Might be best.”

            “Definitely best,” Rey agrees, as the serving droid emerges bearing their soups.


            The datapad he brought to the table with him turns out to contain the guest list for the pre-gala gathering, which Ben assures her will be much less formal than the gala itself. He scrolls through it as Rey peers keenly over his shoulder, pausing occasionally for a name or face he thinks she might want to know. It turns out being Supreme Leader involves knowing many different names and faces, something for which she gathers Ben has little patience and has to grit his teeth through. Although she supposes she’ll see him in action later that evening, she can’t quite envision him as a politician.

            They return to the sitting room after lunch, but when she goes to sit, Ben stops her with the slightest touch at her back. “Wait here,” he says, and he walks off into the bedchamber.

            Rey does, and she hears him open the closet and look for something in there. Before long, he comes back into view, holding a pair of very impractical, strappy, heeled shoes in one of his hands.

            “These should be about your size,” he says. “They’re just for practice. You won’t wear them tomorrow.”

            “Absolutely not,” Rey says immediately.

            “Rey.”

            She folds her arms over her chest. “Ben. Don’t push your luck. You already got me in a dress. Any more demands and I might get cross. You don’t like me cross.”

            “But I do,” he replies, mouth twitching. “It’s— cute.”

            “Cute?”

            “Very cute.”

            Rey scowls at him. “Don’t forget who gave you those scars.”

            She figures they’ve reached a place where they can speak casually about their first skirmish. Ben, at least, seems unfazed at the reference. “Ah,” he says. “You weren’t cute then.”

            “That’s right. I wasn’t.”

            He tosses the shoes aside and walks back over to her, placing both his hands on her waist and pulling her in to him. “You were much more,” he rumbles. “You were transcendent.”

            Rey looks up at him with a little disbelieving shake of her head. “I think you might like getting hurt.”

            “Mm. Do me a favor.” He leans down to kiss her, with obvious adoration. “Show me your wrath only after I teach you how to dance.”

            “Is that what’s next?” she murmurs, reaching up to run a hand through his hair. “Dancing?”

            “Yes.”

            “You can dance?”

            “It was part of my… what did you call it, ‘princely tutelage?’” He picks up one of her hands and clasps his palm to hers. “I was the son of a Senator. I needed to be prepared for formal events. Move your other hand to my shoulder. Roll your shoulders back.”

            Rey obliges. “Did you ever think you’d use that training?”

            “Not after I was sent away,” he admits, but he doesn’t dwell on that thought. Instead, he shifts his hand on her waist, moving it up a little. “When the time comes, we’ll enter from opposite sides of the dance floor and come to stand like this in the center. But I was already here, so that seemed pointless.”

            “Right.”

            “It’s simple,” he continues. “I step forward, you step back. And vice versa. I step to the side, you step with me.”

            Rey’s brow furrows with skepticism. “Is that it?”

            “To start. We have no music, so I’ll count for us. A three-count.”

            “Three-count,” Rey repeats, as if she knows what that means. “Sure.”

            “Begin after three,” Ben clarifies, sensing her confusion. “I’ll start slow. One, two, three— one—”

            He steps forward, and Rey’s toes are only spared crushing by her Force-granted knowledge of the way he’ll move. She steps back, a hard, startled step, and is too busy recovering her balance to continue anticipating him. When he brings his other foot forward on the count of two, he does step on her toes. And he’s not light.

            “Ow!”

            “Sorry,” he says, and he stops moving to allow her to shake out her foot.

            Rey tosses her head to get some loose hair out of her face. “I think I may need a little more instruction than that,” she huffs, examining her bare, slightly reddened toes.

            “I don’t think so.”

            She looks up at him. “Why not?”

            Ben shrugs. “You’re overthinking,” he says. “If we can fight, we can dance.”

            “Those are two completely different skill sets,” Rey protests.

            “Not so.” He leans back down close, this time to put his mouth against ear. “Close your eyes,” he says, in a tone that’s not unlike a purr. “Listen to my count. Feel the way I move, and move with me.”

            Warmth spreads through Rey’s cheeks, her chest. “If this is your idea of teaching…” she begins, but she trails off and closes her eyes.

            “Rey,” Ben says, “why would I need to teach you what you already know?” He straightens up and readjusts the clasp of their hands. “One, two, three—”

            This time, she knows he’s going to step on one, so she steps back. And on two, she steps back with her other foot, as he steps forward. They didn’t make it to three before, so she shouldn’t know what’s coming, but when he steps to close his feet back together, she does, too. She lets out a breathy puff of disbelieving laughter on the next beat, when she once again steps back in time with him, and stops overthinking it.

            After a few three-counts of successfully managing to avoid stumbling over each other, Ben tries turning her, a quarter-turn, and Rey moves easily along with him. Her eyes remain closed, but she trusts him to steer her away from any furniture or walls, and she keeps them that way for a short while. She barely realizes he’s stopped counting as they continue to dance, keeping perfect time.

            They master the basics quickly. Without warning, just to see if they can figure it out, Ben extends his arm and allows Rey to spin out from him, then back in, bringing her into a new position with her back against his chest. She repeats those same three unwavering steps, but now with the same feet he’s using, in front of him. With her head so close to his heart that she thinks she can feel their imaginary beat carried within him, she finally opens her eyes.

            “I can’t believe this is working,” she says, without making any move to slow or stop them.

            “Can’t you?” he counters.

            He twirls her back out and back in, so they’re facing each other again. And no, it’s not so unbelievable in all, but Rey won’t admit aloud that he’s right. “Why do you get to lead?” she asks instead.

            Ben nods down at her. “Because I’m taller.”

            “That’s it?”

            “That’s it.”

            Rey frowns as they glide together across the sitting room. “Bring those heels back out again. I’m reconsidering.”

            Ben chuckles. “You’d have to wear stilts.”

            “Might be worth it.”

            “Might be.”

            Then, just because he can, he puts his hands on her waist and picks her up to spin her around instead of rotating her that quarter-turn. He lifts her effortlessly, as if her bones are hollow, like the bones of those jungle birds native to Akiva. Her feet don’t touch the ground for two counts of that beat they both keep silently, then he sets her back down and continues dancing her around the room. He extends his arm to fan her out from him, then lets her find her way back to his chest, her head pressed against his shoulder, before the next turn comes and they’re nose to nose again.

            But after a few breathless minutes of this, their feet slow and stop. His hand on her waist shifts so he can loop his arm around her back, and without him having to instruct her she leans back into it, the hand on his shoulder sliding to his neck for support as he dips her low and holds her. He pulls her upright, and they stand near one of those panes that separate the sitting room from the bedchamber, their faces only centimeters apart.

            “You have it,” Ben says quietly. “That’s all I have to teach you.”

            Rey’s eyes linger on his mouth as he speaks, but she wills them upward, to meet his eyes. “So now I lead. No stilts.”

            He chuckles, low. “You lead. But just this once.”

            “We’ll see about that.” She places one hand on his waist and holds up the other. His palm presses to hers, and his large hand clasps her shoulder. Without a word, she steps forward, and he moves his foot back, knowing what she’ll do as she thinks to do it.

            With less elegance, more directed intent, she leads them back behind the glass panes until they come to a stop, their legs bumping against the foot of his bed. They both knew their dance would only end here. In his eyes, she sees her own, feels how they captivate him with their shifting colors: sometimes brown, sometimes near-green, like the soft moss that grows near river beds. Her eyes find his mouth again, linger on his lips, with their impossible soft fullness, and then her mouth finds his mouth, too.

            There’s something gentle about their ever-present desperation this time, some measure of tenderness and vulnerability that wasn’t ever there before. Rey untucks his shirt from his trousers, and Ben pushes her trailing robe off her shoulders, but with deliberation, letting his fingers skim her jutting collarbones. When she pushes his shirt up, her own fingers trail over the muscles of his abdomen, his chest, and as he seizes the fabric to finish removing it she allows two fingers to rest over the place where the ragged scar she gave him curls to an end. Then she removes her hands from his body and they stand nearly toe-to-toe, just taking each other in.

            Rey thinks, as he puts both hands back on her waist and she presses up onto her toes to lock her hands behind his neck, at where his hair curls over his shoulders, that it’s no mystery that they know how to dance. They’ve moved together in every other way. He was right: dancing wasn’t so new to them.

            But the way they’re moving now is new, although the movements are old. They’ve done this, but never this way. He lifts her by her waist as he had when they danced, but this time when he sets her down to sit at the foot of the bed, it’s different. When he kneels down before her, tugs her underwear down her thighs, and ducks his head to taste her, it’s different. And when she pulls on his hair to get his attention and he stands back up to allow her to undo his trousers and return the favor, responding more to her thoughts than her touch, that’s different, too. The acts themselves are no different in their thrilling familiarity. But there’s a softness around the edges that’s new to her.

            To him, too. She can tell by his breathlessness that he’s similarly wonderstruck. She doesn’t know how they manage to get onto the bed, how they manage to hold it together. To Rey, to Ben — because the line between them has never been more tenuous than in this moment — it feels as though with a single touch they might dissolve into thousands of glittering stars.

            But unlike stars, which might shine across at each other galaxies but never touch, they find one another again, all sensation and no sense. Somehow when they resolve from skin on skin, mouths on mouths, mouths on skin, hands in hair and on skin, the soft scrape of nails over backs, she and he are sitting upright, and she straddles his lap, all their remaining clothes discarded and forgotten. They face each other, the flats of his palms pressed against her back, her chest to his chest, tongues inseparably twisted together, the Force melding their minds and their emotions and their heartbeats.

            When she lowers her hips and settles onto him, they let out the same shuddering sigh, and it echoes through the cosmos around them.

            Them.

            They move in the tiniest, most precious ways. She shifts her body up, back down, pushing her chest into his, and he cants his hips up, pressing into her, deeper. When they rock against each other her breath hitches softly, his eyelashes flutter. Her short nails dig into his skin but only for purchase. Neither of them is thinking about climax, about completion. They’ve already found it.

            Time fades away. Everything that isn’t his body or hers fades, too. All she knows is that at some point he falls back and she’s on top of him again, rocking still, waves against a shore. Through the dark hair that’s fallen over his brow, she sees the galaxy in his eyes. She knows what it means, him yielding to her in this way. Yet he must also know what it means to see her face above his, her lips parted in a soundless cry, so open, aching, naked, vulnerable. He lets her on top. She lets him inside.

            One of his hands grasps her hip, but the other rests palm upright by his shoulder over the bedcovers. She threads her fingers through his and clasps their hands together as though they’re dancing again. In silent understanding, they surrender to each other.

            When they finish, it’s an afterthought, just a tremor — not a violent, overpowering ordeal, but something soft and sweet and slow, something that lingers in toes and fingertips well after it’s faded from the rest of their bodies. Rey, reluctant to part from him, lowers herself to rest her cheek against his chest and wrap an arm around his waist. Usually, after sex, he’s the one holding her, with his face pressed to her skin. But lovemaking is unexplored territory, and their old rules don’t apply.

            Ben waves his hand to lower the dimmer that controls the room’s lights, which at first strikes her as odd until she picks up her head and realizes that even in low light she can see two tear tracks, one marking each of his cheeks. She blinks, trying to make sense of this, and moisture spills over her lower lids, too, an unnoticed accumulation of saltwater that must have been building up this whole time. But there’s no sadness in either of them, just marvel, and gratitude, and a lifetime’s worth of ache, soothed, and the voices in their head, quieted. Rey cranes her neck so she can press her mouth to one of the tracks his tears left behind.

            She knows without him saying that they have a couple of hours to rest before droids return to bother them about getting ready for the pre-gala event, so she relaxes again and closes her eyes. Ben idly combs a hand through her hair, and they don’t speak for several minutes. There’s no reason they should.

            But then he says, “Rey.”

            She knows what he’ll say. She’s a little afraid to hear him say it. But he, too, seems afraid, afraid to even breathe the words. He closes his mouth, presses his lips together, swallows, and opts to abandon them.

            “I’m glad you're here,” he says instead.

            “I know,” Rey murmurs, reaching out to cup his cheek in her hand. “I know, Ben.”

            His chest rises and falls. He asks in a whisper, “Are you?”

            She nods. “I am.”

            It’s the truth, simple, clear, and pure. In this moment, there is nowhere else she’d rather be.

            But a moment can’t last a lifetime, much as she wishes it could. After Ben’s breathing evens out and he slips into a shallow slumber, she allows herself to wonder what in the worlds she’s going to do after the gala, when her mission has reached its end. Perhaps when the time comes, she could ask him to come away with her. They could hunker down somewhere for a bit while the resulting political storms blow over and the headless First Order cannibalizes itself. She couldn’t take him to Akiva right away. This same man asleep beneath her was Poe’s tormentor, Finn’s near-butcher. The question of how she could explain all of this to them, or to anyone, once again breaks the placid surface of her mind.

            No. They’d need to go somewhere far from the rest of the Resistance. Ahch-To, perhaps. Or maybe Gatalenta. Rey’s never been there, but she knows it to be a world where many of the old Jedi legends survived the Empire’s Purge, and likely also the First Order’s reign. It would be the perfect place for them to go if he remains sincere about his offer to help her with the new Jedi she’s building. A beautiful place. Peaceful. What he needs.

            And there, holed up somewhere, she could carefully reintroduce her friends to the man they thought they knew. They may not understand at first, but Rey thinks Leia might, if Luke is right about her still holding out hope for her son. And if Leia does, and Rey does, maybe Finn and Poe and Rose could follow. Not in the first day, or the first month, but someday. Someday.

            The matter of penance would come later. There needs to be some, she knows that. But he could begin to pay for the destruction he’s caused by helping build anew. She could have her students brought over, away from the raging galactic conflict, and teach them as she has been. She and Ben could find the balance the galaxy so sorely lacks. They could—

            It’s such a far distant possibility that to hope for it seems naive. But hope is not naive, and Rey remembers that now, although for a time she’d forgotten it where he was concerned. To hope in the face of adversity is no easy task.

            And in eight short days, Rey and Ben Solo have gone from adversaries to lovers, two people who have brought each other peace in the midst of war. Who’s to say what will happen in eight more?

            She closes her eyes and joins Ben in sleep, sliding sideways into a dream, one where she finds herself next to him again, but standing. He holds in his arms a little bundle, something swaddled in his cloak, and when Rey peers down at the bundle, she sees that it’s a dozing, dark-haired child. And although Rey thinks later that this is a normal dream that reflects her desires, and not a vision granted to her by the Force, there’s that little tug at the corner of her senses that leaves just a bit unsure.

Chapter Text

            WR-38 returns shortly after Rey and Ben awaken and dress in the outfits that had been selected for them earlier. Rey has few clothing options, all of which had been purchased on Canto Bight, so nothing in her ensemble is unexpected: the high-collared, molded leather vest, sleeveless black shirt layered underneath, black trousers, and knee-high boots are all known quantities.

            Ben, by contrast, dresses in garments with colorful accents for the first time in Rey’s memory. His tunic, trousers, and gloves are still black, but while the trousers and gloves are leather, the tunic is cut from a fine, silken fabric, and his belt is slashed through in the middle with red and paired with a matching red sash that drapes diagonally from shoulder to hip. Upon closer inspection, dark red threads are also subtly woven into the fabric of the tunic. He dons a red cape, clips his lightsaber to his belt, then comes to watch as WR-38 wrangles Rey’s hair into a complicated tangle of loops and swirls at the back of her head.

            “You’re arming yourself?” she asks. “Is there any danger?”

            “None,” he says. “The lightsaber reminds people of my authority.”

            “Oh,” Rey says, and she’s unable to keep a smile from creeping to her lips, although it’s broken when 38 jabs a pin into her hair arrangement and scrapes her scalp. 38 doesn’t seem to approve of Ben’s choice in mates.

            “What is it?” Ben asks.

            She shrugs. “You’re two meters tall, have ridiculously broad shoulders, and you can send almost anything flying through a wall with the wave of your hand. But sure, the lightsaber intimidates people.”

            “Mm.” While they’re alone, Ben allows his mouth to curve into a smile, too. “The lightsaber stands in for my abilities. If all goes well, there shouldn’t be any ‘hand waving’ — as you called it — tonight.”

            “Have you ever waved your hand at parties before?”

            “Who can say?”

            “Who indeed.” Rey imagines him flicking his wrist and upsetting the entire long dining room table out of anger. It’s not a far reach. She looks up at him. “You said this is a less formal event. Will I get to show off my new table manners?”

            “No. Only finger food tonight.”

            “Ben, all food is finger food.”

            “To you.” His voice is fond. He paces to her and crouches down beside her chair. “This event is for mingling. Seats aren’t assigned, and the dishes are small.”

            Rey tries to turn her head and look at him, but 38 won’t let her. “And this is so First Order bigwigs and donors can have a word with you?”

            “Exactly. It’s a big fleet. Bigger galaxy. And the gala is impersonal. Scripted. There’s little time for conversation.”

            “Huh.” Rey allows this to sink in for a moment. “Did you imagine that becoming Supreme Leader would involve so much politicking?”

            Ben exhales out through his nose. His amusement reverberates through their bond, but she can feel beneath it an undercurrent of something else. Tension, maybe. “I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” he admits.

            That opens up so many other avenues for questions, but Rey doesn’t get the chance to ask them because a second grooming droid rolls into the room to begin work on Ben. Ben straightens wordlessly and walks back into the bedchamber, the droid trailing after him, to give WR-38 the space to finish with Rey.

            Although it turns out Rey is not yet near finished. After Rey’s hair is done to 38’s satisfaction, 38 secures a black hairband with unwelcoming metallic accents behind Rey’s ears and around the back of her head before moving around front to tackle Rey’s face. She sprays Rey's face with some sticky aerosolized substance, then covers it in several layers of near-translucent powder that makes Rey’s nose itch. While she fights off a sneeze, 38 pencils in her brows and rouges her cheeks, then begins applying dark clingy goop to her lashes. Rey knows of mascara, at least. She had watched Rose put it on once while she prepared for a date, and Rey sat on her bed, cross-legged, chatting her out of her nerves. while.

            The strangest thing is that when 38 finishes her work with a touch of lip stain and Rey goes to reacquaint herself with her own face in the washroom mirror, she finds that she doesn’t look so different, even after all that effort. The changes are small, subtle; it’s as if someone has rubbed away at her features to slightly soften or highlight them. The powder mutes her freckles, the rouge lends her a blushing, lively look, and the penciled brows and mascara make her eyes appear even larger than they normally do. Rey isn’t sure how she feels about it all. Part of her is a bit captivated, fascinated by the changes in her reflection. The other part chafes slightly at the alterations. On the whole, Rey decides she doesn’t hate it.

            But when she walks into the bedchamber to check on Ben’s progress, the scowl at having to sit still while his hair is styled fades away, and his whole face softens. He melts. She melts him. He says her name with warmth. “Rey.”

            Whatever he feels, she feels too, and his gaze ignites a small flame within her chest. “You like all this?”

            “I do,” he says, beckoning her closer. “You glow. You’re you, but more.”

            “If you had any idea how much work it took to make me look this way…” Rey steps closer, standing in front of him so she’s out of his grooming droid’s path.

            Ben frowns. “It seems like it shouldn’t take much at all.”

            “Shows how much you know.”

            Rey looks him over. What does he have to scowl about? He’s getting away with just a little hair styling. But maybe more work went into his hair, as with her face, than is readily apparent. It looks shiny and even softer than normal, and a section of it is tied at the back of his head. Strategically placed locks carefully frame his face. He looks very distinguished, which will likely seem an incongruity to those who know him solely by his famed temper.

            Rey finds incongruity in other things. So strange to consider that this man, ruler of the galaxy, sat here in his finery, with his leonine visage, had unraveled beneath her mere hours ago. Unreal, unfathomable, to think she could undo him with a glance, with a touch. From the look of him alone, Rey might believe it if someone told her he would be her undoing. But that she should be his, armed with nothing but her eyes and hands and mouth? She’s a scavenger, his own voice whispers in her ear across years, while he's the last in a line of heroes, and carries the blood of royalty in his veins.

            Yet every night, when titles and legacies and bloodlines fall away, they bring each other equal comfort, and equal ruin.

            “We need some sort of code,” Rey says to Ben while his droid finishes primping his hair. She has the sudden urge to run his fingers through those black tresses and mess them up, but knows that they’re for looking at, not touching. Unable to totally resist, she brushes a carefully arranged wave back from Ben’s forehead; it’s silkier than she even imagined. The droid swivels its head to look at her, unable to properly glare but making a good effort nonetheless. Ben also looks up at her, and he isn’t glaring at all.

            “A code?” he asks. “For what?”

            “You don’t like these people,” Rey says. Ben doesn’t protest, but she adds anyway, “You don’t. It’s obvious in how you speak of them. And if you don’t, I really won’t, but I imagine we can’t just say that in front of them without upsetting some delicate political balance, so let’s find some other way to say it.”

            “Hm.” He leans forward to place his hands on her waist. The droid takes advantage of his distraction to fix that one lock of hair. Ben lapses into silence, as he often does, but eventually he says, “You’ll be my companion, so maybe some… affectionate name can stand in.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Terms of fondness can have dual meanings. My father used to call my mother ‘sweetheart.’ It was either genuine or it meant they were on the verge of an argument.”

            Rey wrinkles her nose. “‘Sweetheart,’ really? I think— no.”

            “No,” Ben agrees. “Not that one.”

            She places her hand on his shoulders, and the pad of her thumb absentmindedly strokes up and down the side of his neck. “What about ‘darling?’ If I call you ‘darling,’ it actually means, ‘Someone’s said something particularly awful and I’m tempted to kill everyone in this room.’”

            Ben leans into her abdomen. “That’s not very Jedi-like.”

            “Hux will be there.”

            “Good point.” He nudges the hem of her shirt up with his own thumbs so he can press his nose to her bare skin. When he speaks, his voice is slightly muffled. “Should I do the same, then? Darling?”

            Something about the way he says it makes her smile, not out of flattery but because it’s such an awkward fit for his mouth. “I think you should choose one that feels natural to you.”

            “Everything feels reductive,” Ben says. “Nothing feels like you.”

            Rey feels color rising in her cheeks, and says, “Well, these are just code words. They don’t have to fit perfectly.”

            Ben lapses into silence for another moment, then says, “Dear?”

            “That’ll do.”

            “It means ‘I share your murderous intent.’”

            Rey chuckles. “Somehow I never doubted you’d share it.”

            “You know me.”

            “I do.”

            Ben looks up at her, eyes dark and desirous. Rey bends down to kiss him like it’s the most natural thing in all the galaxy. And so it is.

            When 38’s mechanical voice cries from behind them, “You’ve ruined your lips! I must fix them before you go,” it is entirely ignored.


            Rey hopes the path to the gathering will take them past the mysterious doors that had called to her the previous day, but it doesn’t. She feels slightly disappointed when they head the opposite direction and she loses a chance to get a better sense of what might be inside. But before long they step into an elevator that rockets them horizontally across the length of the Conquest II. The further removed they are from Ben’s chambers, the more Rey notices the rigidity returning to his shoulders, the stiffness in his arms.

            It’s apprehension, she realizes when she feels it taking root within her own chest. A churning mixture of apprehension and dread, mixed with annoyance at having to perform political rituals. Without a doubt, Ben would rather spend the evening holed up with her in his room than surrounded by other people, even First Order sycophants. Rey can’t blame him for it.

            Or perhaps she has it wrong. Perhaps she those are her feelings, and she’s the nervous one. The longer they stand shoulder to shoulder in the elevator the more doubt she has. She says, “I’m not so sure this is a good idea.”

            Ben turns his head and looks at her. Or— no, not Ben, not completely. His facial features are smoothed into an impassive mask that takes too much effort to maintain, his hands folded in front of him. The hard shell that had cracked over the course of their days spent together is re-forming for his own protection. He says, “Why not?”

            “What if I’m recognized? You must have wanted holos of me up in every spaceport.”

            “It doesn’t matter,” he assures her. “The guests won’t know you. You’re no one.”

            Rey huffs a disbelieving laugh. How closely those words echo ones he told her three years ago.

            “I meant—” He purses his lips. “Context. No one will expect the last Jedi to be on my arm. Even if they’ve seen your face, they won’t be able to place you. You’ll be an object of curiosity.”

            Rey shakes her head and looks at the elevator doors. “That doesn’t make me feel better.”

            He faces forward too, but reaches for her, pinching some of the leather at her waist between his forefinger and thumb. They stand beside one another without speaking, but this time the silence between them is uneasy, tense.

            “I’m not what anyone will expect,” she says at last. “I’m not a society person. I’m not especially refined. I’m not sure I’ll even be able to pretend I don’t hate everyone there.”

            “But you don’t need to be those things. No one will question my taste in partners.”

            Rey exhales. She doesn’t think she’s doing a very good job of explaining herself. It’s not that she particularly wants to fit in among the First Order, but she has difficulty envisioning a clear path for the evening, and she knows success so often hinges upon being able to see where you want to go. What does success even look like, in that environment? What about survival? What if she gives herself away?

            “If you’re worried,” he continues, “just mimic the most graceful person you know. It’s difficult to tell feigned confidence from the real thing.”

            The most graceful person Rey knows is Leia, by far. Even with her recent bout of illnesses, Rey’s never known Leia to carry herself with anything other than poise and pride. She has a temper, sure, but she rarely raises her voice, even when angry. And she had been a Senator in the New Republic. The battlefield suits Leia, action suits her, but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine her in the halls of a government building, setting her personal feelings aside to get work done. Rey pictures Leia, and she picks up her head and straightens her shoulders.

            As the elevator decelerates, she realizes with a start that the most graceful person her companion knows is likely also Leia. And while she thinks he’s most like his father, she can sometimes see hints of his mother in his bearing, in the way he turns his head, in the authoritativeness and imperiousness he exhibits when he gives commands. And because she knows him, she can tell that he, too, is gathering all of that to himself, to smother any lingering apprehension within him.

            The elevator doors open. Across the hall, two doors stand ajar; through them, Rey can hear conversation and music, glimpse bodies and furniture. She takes one more preparatory breath.

            Then Kylo Ren takes Rey’s arm, and they enter this room together.

            As soon as they cross the threshold, the conversation ceases, the music stops. Guests who were seated stand. Guests who were standing turn toward the door to look at them. Those in military dress snap their feet together and salute.

            Kylo pauses with Rey in the doorway, and anyone who didn’t know him would think he was drinking in the gazes of his subjects. He returns them with a focused intensity, glancing around the room as if looking to find fault in it. Rey finds that her first instinct isn’t to run or hide, or lash out, but to stare back at all these people who, once they’re no longer concerned with appearing impressive in front of the Supreme Leader, will no doubt be wondering who she is.

            Once they’ve stood still for long enough, Kylo nudges her arm, and they begin crossing the room together. It’s a decent-sized chamber; Rey thinks there must be one or two hundred people assembled here, most draped in well-made garments that very nearly drip with accumulated prosperity. Most, if not all, are human, a very curious First Order characteristic that Rey couldn’t help but notice during her time aboard the Conquest II. Littered amidst the guests are circular tables, slightly higher than waist height and perfect for leaving plates and drinks on, and furniture, sofas and chairs, in First Order crimson. These look slightly more comfortable than the pieces in Kylo’s chambers, but only slightly. The lighting in the room is a little warmer than elsewhere on the ship, and the air has been lightly perfumed to camouflage the smell of recycled atmosphere, but despite the more obvious signs of affluence there’s no escaping the sharp-edged severity.

            The wall across from the doors is all windows. Coruscant, former capital of the old Empire, glitters miles and miles away below where the Conquest II hovers in space. The massive Mega-class Star Destroyer serves as the First Order’s rootless seat of power, but Rey supposes the former Imperials in attendance appreciate the gesture.

            The room is tiered; the floor by the walls is higher than that near the center. As Rey and Kylo proceed to the far corner, guests part before them, now steadfastly avoiding eye contact. They mount two steps in unison, turn to face the room, and take their seats on a low red sofa, as if they’ve rehearsed the movements. Kylo holds up his hand and traces an arc in the air with his fingers, instructing everyone to continue as they were. And after a moment, the guests resume their conversations, glasses begin clinking again. The band, diagonally across the room from where Rey and Kylo sit, resumes playing.

            Rey exhales quietly, and Kylo lays a hand on her knee. She knows he’s pleased with how they had commanded everyone’s attention, together. As it should be, she can almost hear him say, although he says nothing.

            A trio of generals, two men and a woman, thankfully none of them Hux, breaks away from the crowd and approaches Kylo first. They salute him, and he only nods in return. They thank him for another year of leadership and if they’re insincere, it’s well-disguised. A toast is proposed, and Rey declines to participate.

            Then one of the generals says, “Supreme Leader, there is the small matter of…” and launches into requests: more ships, more troops, more training academies to build, all dressed up in flattery and pleas.

            This becomes a pattern. One by one, small groups approach Kylo; one by one, they flatter him, or offer gifts; one by one they lay out their problems. Rey feels Kylo grow increasingly restless through their bond, and she can’t fault him for it. It’s tedious work, and the art of calculating which promises can be made and which cannot seems slightly beyond both of them. She is not naturally suited for it. She’s not certain he is, either.

            Her attention wanders out to the rest of the room. When Rose speaks of Canto Bight, it’s clear that she abhors the wealth of the casino patrons, knowing first hand how it was obtained. Rey understands that now instinctively, watching the First Order’s donors laugh amongst themselves while planets across the galaxy are stripped of their resources and children are pressed into military service at their behest. She shakes her head, slightly. As much as she’d love to give these people a piece of her mind, she can’t right now. Better to set it aside.

            Rey notes that while the bar is being tended by a droid, all of the servers are young, attractive humanoids — mostly humans, some Twi’leks, with a couple of other races in the mix. She puzzles over this for a moment, recalling that until the assassination attempt Kylo had also been attended by robed sentient creatures of some sort, likely human. It’s usually a marker of poverty to be served by living beings and not by droids; only establishments on the most remote, downtrodden planets employ actual waiters and waitresses. Rey supposes it may all come full-circle: given their attire, their smiles, and their universally well-groomed appearances, these servers must be well-paid. Likely more expensive than assigning a few droids to make the rounds. The other possibility, a disquieting one, is that they’re all slaves, but by their bearings Rey doesn’t think so.

            And these beautiful people have a purpose other than to dole out food and drink, Rey realizes as she watches them flit through the crowd bearing trays and friendly conversation. They not only play the roles of hosts and hostesses but, by the way their smiles are returned by the guests, also serve as a feast for the eyes.

            Rey wonders whether anyone believes she’s been hired, too, to sit at the Supreme Leader’s side for the evening, to be his date for the gala. After all, it’s apparently common knowledge that he’s never taken a companion before, and she’s not only a complete nobody to most of these society types but also ten years his junior. It must appear a certain way. Seemingly apropos of nothing, she snickers.

            The errant thought must drift through the bond to Kylo, because his mouth twitches, but he doesn’t smile. When there’s a break in his conversations, he leans over and murmurs, “About half.”

            “Hm?”

            “Half think you’re a courtesan.”

            “Oh.” Rey presses her lips together. “Just half?”

            Kylo’s eyes scan the room. “A handful know who you truly are, but fear me enough not to say. The rest think you look familiar but can’t place you. They believe you might be an actress.”

            “Would that I were,” she mutters back. Kylo has clearly been reading the thoughts of the guests, and she feels slightly remiss in not doing the same. The glut of secrets in this very room might win the war for the Resistance. But any mind Rey thinks to touch makes her nearly recoil in disgust, and a whole chamber full of those...

            He squeezes her knee. “You’re doing well,” he says, “hiding your contempt. I feel it, but I wouldn’t know otherwise.”

            She nods. “I can see yours a bit,” she confesses. “In the eyes.”

            “Hm.” Kylo looks out at the room. “It’s the situation, not the people.”

            “No, it’s also the people.”

            Amusement tugs at the corner of Kylo’s mouth. “I hate the game,” he says. “But sometimes I have to play it.”

            Rey arches an eyebrow. “Is that Hux talking again?”

            “You know who it is.”

            Of course she does. How long had his mother served as a Senator? At least two decades? How many games does one play, how many promises and compromises are had over toasts over the course of two decades? Probably good that Kylo had had a model for all of this growing up. Rey had never given much thought to what the funding of a massive operation like the First Order’s must require, the deals that need to be cut to maintain it.

            Now that Rey’s thought of Hux, though, she realizes that she hasn’t seen him all evening. Surely he must be in attendance. She looks the room over and finds him easily by his hair. He stands by one of the tables nearest the bar, and although he’s ostensibly conversing with the female general who had spoken with Kylo before, his eyes keep flickering over to where she and Kylo sit.

            No. He’s not looking at Kylo at all.

            What does he want from her?

            Rey spots another group talking amongst themselves, preparing to approach Kylo. She says, quickly, “I think I’ll have some wine after all.”

            He turns his head to look at her, sensing the change in her mood. “I can have a bottle brought over.”

            “That's fine. I could stand to stretch my legs.” That much is true, at least. Rey stands up and feels that her knees have gone stiff from sitting so long. She looks at Kylo. “I’ll only be a minute. You've got this.”

            Kylo does not seem to appreciate her encouragement, and Rey realizes how silly it must seem for her to say “you’ve got this” to someone who's run the galaxy for three years without her assistance. “Right,” he says, and he turns to receive his next tributaries.


            No one attempts to speak with Rey as she descends from the dias and makes her way to the bar. Most of them step out of her way, and she catches the murmurs and thoughts that spring up in her wake — Surely the Supreme Leader would prefer someone more polished? That scar on her upper arm, the one that looks like two hands reaching, perhaps a custom on her homeworld? She’s very pretty. She’s a bit plain. I’m certain I’ve seen her elsewhere…

            One of the Twi’lek servers passes by and offers up what Kylo had called “finger foods.” The ones on her platter are small pieces of toasted bread layered with some sort of spread and thin slices of uncooked fish, barely more than two bites. Rey, whose hunger has mostly been supplanted by nerves, takes one anyway, more out of curiosity than anything else. It’s very good.

            As soon as Hux spies her walking in his general direction, he disengages from his conversation and takes a step or two toward the bar. “Rey,” he says, eyeing her from head to toe as she steps around him. There are a number of other guests queued up for drinks, but they move aside for her. “You certainly clean up well once they scrub all the dirt off.”

            His tone is courteous, his words are not. So that’s how this is going to be. Rey examines the array of wines and other beverages and gives him only her shoulder to converse with, emulating his manner of speech as best she can. “General Hux. I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

            Hux leans against the side of the bar, sipping at his wine as he continues to study her. Rey doesn’t need to read his mind to know he thinks Kylo’s an idiot for bringing her here. “The compliment’s freely given. This is a party. I figured we could put the blasters down and speak like civilized people.” He smirks. “But then I realized I’d have to lead by example, since I don’t think you’d know civilized if it spit in your eye.”

            Apparently civilized just means delivering your barbs with a smile. Rey fixes one on her face, too. “That’s an interesting turn of phrase. If we’re being civilized, then I’m expecting that apology at any time now.”

            “Apology?”

            “For laying a hand on me in Canto Bight. Unless someone else spit in your eye recently.”

            One of Hux’s nostrils twitches. “I have nothing to apologize for. You shouldn’t act out if you can’t take the punishment.” He glances over at Kylo with only his eyes. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you kept our little secret.”

            Rey also glances at Kylo. She’d felt his eyes on her as she crossed the room, but he seems to have lost interest upon realizing only Hux is daring to speak with her. He clearly views the general as a fly to be swatted — one who has his uses, but a fly all the same. Rey isn’t so certain. She takes a moment to consider how to best play off of the optics of this situation, considering Hux had walked in on them yesterday. Maybe he had thought Kylo was punishing her then? She really should have read those espionage romance novels.

            “Seems like the sort of thing that’s need to know,” she says simply.

            “Yes, you would like him to think you’re on your best behavior,” Hux muses. “I imagine that’s how you managed to sleep your way out of a death sentence.”

            Her head snaps up immediately. “What did you say?”

            “Don’t play coy. I admire just how much you’ll endure to stay alive. Must be the desert scavenger in you.” Hux takes another sip of his wine. “Mm. A few days ago he was about to call everyone together for some extravagant presentation, and I can only think of a few occasions that would warrant such ceremony. The execution of a Jedi would be one.”

            “I wouldn’t know.”

            “Of course not.” Hux watches her face. “But as fate would have it, he suddenly changed his mind. He does that often. That, you must know by now.” He lets the remark sit for a moment, as if expecting it to make her squirm. Then he asks, “Have you ever wondered why he’s the way he is?”

            Rey blinks. “Which way?”

            “Capricious, volatile.” Hux presses his lips together, raises his eyebrows. “Borderline mad.”

            “I…” Rey frowns. “Well, he draws his power from the Dark Side of the Force. That means he needs to tap into his anger, hatred—”

            “I wasn’t asking for a lecture on your dying religion. There’s a more mundane reason. Profane, some might say.”

            “What are you getting at?”

            Hux sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “You know his ostensible parentage,” he says. “And you’re a worldly girl now, Rey. You can’t really believe Han Solo is his father?”

            Rey stares at him for a few seconds. “I— are you implying—”

            “Don’t be so naive. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories, even on Jakku. Organa and Skywalker knew each other for years before they discovered their true parentage.” Hux finishes off his glass of wine while Rey gapes. “What a scandal it must have been. Good thing Solo was there to take the fall.”

            “What— you can’t—” Rey actually laughs. “You can’t actually believe that garbage.”

            “It would explain so much.”

            “I’ve met Leia Organa and Luke Skywalker and Han Solo,” Rey says. “Skywalker wasn’t his father. He’s much too short, for one. And there are so many ways in which Kylo Ren is clearly Han Solo’s son.”

            “Yes, Han Solo. The criminal.” Hux shrugs. “What a pity. Well, you’d know best, I suppose, seeing as you possess the most intimate knowledge of him.”

            Rey squares her shoulders. If they were in Niima Outpost, they’d be brawling. She’d have him on the ground with one hit from her staff. She’d much prefer that. At least in a brawl there’s a clear winner.

            Leia, she reminds herself. Channel Leia. Grace and dignity. “This is the sort of conversation civilized people have, General?”

            “Forgive me.” Hux inclines his head with mock deference. “After the way you’ve spent your week I didn’t think much would shock you anymore.” He glances once again at Kylo, whose attention is being monopolised by yet another group representing some-such system. Then he risks leaning in closer to her, and says quietly, “I saw that look in your eyes. How can you stand it? Lying beneath him, subjecting yourself to his whims, letting him ravage your body.”

            “Sounds like this is something you think about a lot,” Rey says dryly. “Does he know how you feel?”

            “Very funny.” And instead of talking her retort as a cue to back off, Hux circles her nearest wrist with his gloved hand. Rey looks down and suppresses a shudder of revulsion, but doesn’t pull away. When Hux speaks again, his voice is even lower, more conspiratorial. “I’m only saying that there are better ways to stay alive. Ones that don’t involve such gruesome compromises.”

            “I don’t know what you mean.”

            “I’m certain you do.” His pale green eyes search her own. “Are you really as tame as you pretend to be?”

            Rey reminds herself that she absolutely cannot grab a bottle and break it over his forehead. She reaches out to peer into his mind, not probing deeply enough that he would notice, and comes up against a wall so suddenly that she almost reels back. Of course. Snoke would have had to teach Hux a few tricks if he wanted to be able to pit him against Kylo Ren with any efficacy. She could break through that barrier, but it would involve no small amount of effort and cause a very big scene.

            But, as she’d thought, Hux is more dangerous than Kylo Ren gives him credit for. His statement is open-ended enough that he might be suggesting she join a revolt against Kylo, or he might merely be asking her to go to bed with him. If she were to react unfavorably to the former, he could claim he only meant the latter. But why should he only mean the latter? Surely asking to take her to bed would only end in pain, even if hell froze over and she acquiesced. Especially then, if Kylo were to ever find out. There would be no upside. Which means...

            Rey avoids committing to either possibility by letting her eyes wander back over to where Kylo sits and adopting what she hopes is a nervous energy. “I’m just a desert scavenger, as you pointed out,” she says, pulling her wrist back at last. “I don’t really know much about wine. Is there a vintage you’d recommend?”

            Hux frowns slightly at her evasion, but he points out a bottle to her. Rey asks the serving droid to pour a little into a glass for her, and then she takes it and holds it out to him. “Would you mind sampling it for me?”

            He chuckles. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”

            “Please,” Rey says, and she flutters her eyelashes, which may or may not be overkill. If he really was just trying to bed her, surely that would help persuade him. “I’ve had some bad experiences with wine lately.”

            If those words mean anything to him, he doesn’t let it show on his face. He just says, “How unfortunate. I’m so sorry to hear it,” takes the glass from her hand, and drinks down the wine within with no hesitation. He sets the empty glass aside, and the droid sweeps it into a receptacle. “It’s very good. I wouldn’t lead you astray.”

            “Good.” Rey turns away from him to face the bar, and asks the droid to pour her two full glasses. As far as she’s concerned, the conversation is over.

            But as far as Hux concerned, it isn’t. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices him push off from the bar. He takes a couple of steps to circle behind her, then leans over her shoulder and says in a undertone, “How clever of you to have me test it, if one of those glasses is for him. We shouldn’t want any dark fate to befall our dear Supreme Leader.” He pauses, and adds, “Then again, would it really be such a shame if he choked?”

            Rey turns around to gape at him, but he’s already slipped away into the throng.


            The evening wears on, and liquor flows more freely. Hux publicly talking with Rey had apparently opened the floodgates of conversation for her, and she finds herself no longer unapproachable. After she returns to her seat, a few of the guests begin engaging her in conversation, trying to solve the riddle of her identity by sprinkling questions in amongst compliments about her figure, her clothes, her hair. The last of these, a lady named Carise, flatters Rey with such obsequiousness that it leaves her dizzy, although she really seems to be preoccupied with impressing Kylo, who couldn’t care less. Eventually, all wander off when they realize Rey won’t open up, and regroup to speculate amongst themselves.

            Kylo had engaged in his first toasts with the visiting guests reluctantly at first, but after the first few his shoulders begin to relax and he drinks with less hesitation. Rey watches carefully and puts out feelers, more bodyguard than guest, for any sign of foul play. Thankfully, no one seems to be considering assassinating the First Order’s Supreme Leader in front of over a hundred loyalist witnesses.

            Initially, Kylo is also on his guard. She notices him pausing for a fraction of a second with each toast to make sure the other party or parties drinks first, until the alcohol finally sways him into abandoning even that modicum of caution. He’s a big man, and despite not imbibing often it takes a while for him to become affected. Rey senses the change in him, slowly, as she drinks down a second glass of wine, and then a third, and tries a little of an enticing golden brandy that Kylo offers her after he’s sipped from it. Drunkenness manifests in a sort of blurring across their bond, and his cheeks grow flushed. Rey’s not certain she’s had enough to drink herself to feel as buzzed as she does, but maybe he’s siphoning some of his intoxication off on to her.

            Either way, when Kylo lays down on his side with his head on her thigh, no one bats an eye. They wouldn’t dare challenge him on anything he does, of course, but reclining, even on Rey, doesn’t seem out of place. All the guests are behaving more casually at this point in the evening. Some, if accompanied by spouses or companions, get touchy with each other, sitting close, looping arms around waists, but more have begun flirting with the attractive young servers.

            A few of the First Order generals have loosened their collars — even Hux undoes his at the throat, making him more casually dressed than Rey has ever seen him. He lounges in a nearby chair, keen to stay a part of Kylo’s inner circle, but also so he can answer questions about the army should one come up. Whenever he notices Rey’s wary but unfocused gaze upon him, he smirks. Rey hasn’t been keeping count, but she feels like he may have been nursing his same drink the entire evening, which would make him less drunk than just about everyone else in the room.

            Hux tilts his head down in Kylo’s direction, and so does Rey, and she finds that at some point her hand snuck into his soft, thick hair and loosened the the tie holding it back. She finishes pulling his hair free and sets the tie aside, then he directs the Force to tug her wrist back to him.

            “You’re drunk,” Rey murmurs, half-amused, half-admonishing. She strokes his hair lightly, well aware that most people are still paying at least a little attention to him, and them.

            “No,” he says, and there’s that familiar petulance again. “You are.”

            “I might be, but you certainly are.”

            Kylo shakes his head, slightly. “Drunk’s usually worse. More destructive. Then again...” He wills the Force to wrap around Rey’s hand again and draws it out of his hair and down to his mouth, where he takes it lightly in his own and begins kissing her knuckles. “You,” is all he says.

            “Me?”

            “You.”

            “Hm,” Rey says, considering this. They’re speaking softly enough, but she knows this exchange wouldn’t make sense to eavesdroppers regardless. “What about you? New normal, maybe.”

            He shakes his head again, this time half-nuzzling her knee. “You,” he says again, and then he presses his mouth to one of her knuckles and lightly sucks on it.

            Rey leans against the sofa, letting her head fall back in contemplation of the ceiling. Outside of the borders of her and Kylo Ren, the gathering swirls on, light and color and chatter. The musicians play their upbeat, refined music; the servers artfully navigate guests’ demands and the occasional groping hands. In the inner circle that’s closed around Kylo Ren, a discussion that Rey should really be following more carefully carries on without them.

            Then an overly loud man says something ending in “revolt,” and Rey picks her head up. “Sorry? I missed that.”

            The man who spoke has clearly availed himself of the bar; his complexion is even ruddier than Kylo’s. Rey squints at him. She thinks they were introduced earlier in the evening, or maybe she’d seen a less red version of his face on the datapad earlier in the day, but she has no idea what his name is, or where he’s from. The governor of a sector containing a cluster of important mining systems, she thinks. “Typical chatter,” he huffs. “Rumors that the rebels are covertly arming the workers. Can’t give it too much credence, but perhaps support from more troops in the sector, imposition of a curfew… standard procedures.”

            “What, so you—” Rey blinks at him, then shakes her head as if to clear it. “Sorry, you don’t even know if anything’s going on, but you’re gearing up for a revolt anyway?”

            “Of course.”

            “But won’t harsher restrictions only sow discontent?” asks Rey, any awareness that maybe continuing to speak isn’t the best idea having dissolved in her wine. “Won’t the presence of more Stormtroopers only remind people of how much they loathe them in the first place?”

            “It will remind them of how they fear the might of the First Order,” the governor counters. “How much they fear retribution. Making an example of a few local criminals wouldn’t go amiss.”

            “Making an example!” Rey exclaims. She doesn’t need any clarification as to what that means. She shakes her head. “If it’s a revolt you’re afraid of, you’re not going to quell it that way.”

            He harrumphs and crosses his arms. “Then let’s hear your suggestions.”

            Rey thinks on this for a moment, frowning. The hand stroking Kylo’s hair slows and stops, now just resting on top of his head. “You improve working conditions,” she says, to disbelieving sneers from the group. “Impose— hard limits on how long shifts can be. Increase their pay. You do pay them, don’t you?”

            “They have enough,” says the governor.

            “Give them even a little extra,” says a lady to his right, “and they’ll want to take the lot.”

            A few heads nod in agreement. Rey’s contributions aren’t very popular with this group, some of whom are refusing to meet her eyes, others of whom are staring. Yet Rey continues, voice rising out of anger, “People don’t want to rebel, if they can help it. They want to survive and they want to be happy— they want happy lives with their families. They want to live in peace. If they only had reasons to appreciate you instead of fear you, you wouldn’t have to worry about a rebellion at all, but instead you insist on cruelty and brutality—”

            “You know nothing, girl!” snaps the governor, red face even redder now with irritation. “Mind your tongue.”

            As soon as the words leave his mouth his face is awash with regret, and a chilly silence falls over the group. All eyes turn to Rey, as if anticipating some sort of violent reaction from her. But nobody knows that she—

            Oh, of course. Curse her wine-addled mind. It’s not her they’re all worried about.

            Kylo shifts his weight to his shoulder and raises his head off of Rey’s lap. He doesn’t make to push himself all the way into a seated position, but he doesn’t need to. He already has their attention. “Governor,” he says, slowly.

            The governor’s eyes are nearly bulging out of their skull, not from any invisible punishment, but from the anticipation of it. “Supreme Leader, I didn’t intend—”

            “If you’re concerned with cost,” Kylo says, “it would cost less to increase workers’ pay than to quash a revolt, wouldn’t it?”

            “Well, yes, I suppose in the short term—”

            “So there is wisdom in the proposal.”

            “Supreme Leader, with all due respect...”

            “Isn’t there.”

            Rey can’t see Kylo’s eyes, but she knows what they must look like in this moment, knows the weight of that gaze. The governor shifts in his seat. “There may be some,” he concedes.

            Kylo nods to himself. “Then carry it out.”

            “Pardon?”

            “You heard me.” Kylo puts his head back down on Rey’s thigh. Rey’s heart hammers in her chest. This couldn’t be happening, could it? They don’t seem to realize they’re talking about the lives of at least thousands, if not millions, if not billions, of people. “Begin with one thing, perhaps,” he continues. “Increased pay. See how it’s received, and if the whispers of rebellion cease.”

            “Y-yes.” The governor draws a handkerchief from his jacket and mops his forehead with it. “Your wisdom is most appreciated, Supreme Leader.”

            Kylo reaches for Rey’s hand again, but she sits still, frozen. She can’t believe they just arbitrated a livelihood issue for who knows how many people over drinks. Is this how business works? Is this how politicking is done? No one else in the inner circle seems to be at all struck by the weight of the discussion they’ve just had.

            In fairness, none of them seem to know how to react to what just transpired, either. They all seem paralyzed and rendered mute, whether from shock that Kylo Ren managed to navigate an argument without flinging anyone across the room, or disbelief that some strange girl has his ear, Rey cannot say.

            The person who breaks the silence is Hux. Strangely, the fact that he’s used to being on the receiving end on Kylo’s outbursts seems to have emboldened him in this situation. “Why, Supreme Leader,” he says dryly, “you seem to have picked up a radical.”

            “Yes,” says Kylo, and he kisses the back of Rey’s hand.

            “Best hope she’s not catching,” Hux quips, and a few people seated near him chuckle. Kylo lets the remark slide and, with the ice thus broken, the conversation resumes, steered well away from issues of governance.

            But Rey can’t get that remark out of her mind. Catching. She struggles to keep hold of her thoughts, keep them from slipping through her fingers, but she knows that Kylo had listened to her. He had listened, and the lives of real, living, breathing people would be improved for it.

            “Thank you, darling,” she says quietly.

            Kylo turns her hand over in his and presses his lips to her palm.

            Rey rests her heavy head on the sofa again. She remembers the thought she’d had earlier in the day, of running away with Ben to a planet where they could live and teach and be safe in one another’s company. But now she sees another possibility, foggier: one where she whispers in Kylo Ren’s ear and slowly, gradually, directs him to make the galaxy a better and more peaceful place. Rey doesn’t know that she could pull it off without assistance — she very much doubts her own political acumen — but then again, he had listened to her. He doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of that. She does.

            Would it be worth it, though? Rey can’t help but wonder this as she traces her thumb back and forth over Kylo’s lower lip. She’d have to compromise almost every tenet she holds dear if she were to walk that path and stay with him. She wouldn’t be able to contact her friends, wouldn’t be able to continue teaching, at least not for a long while. Yet this is the future that Kylo would prefer, isn’t it? He’d want her to stay at his side. And she’d likely have an easier time staying than convincing him to come away with her.

            Rey wishes she could ask Leia. Leia would know what to do.

            At any rate, staying or going — these are decisions best made sober. Rey releases her hold on those musings and lets them fall to the back of her mind. She inhales the perfumed air as the babbling around her resolves into a white noise, punctuated at regular intervals by the bleating of a musician’s horn, Kylo’s head a warm and heavy anchor in her lap.

Chapter Text

            Rattling and rolling sounds wake Rey from a shallow, too-brief slumber. Her head is the first part of her that protests this awakening, steadily pulsing with a dull ache. She groans softly as she stretches, impossibly stiff, and her tongue flickers out to wet her dry lips, brittle as parchment. It feels as though a thin layer of scum coats her skin, and she longs to go back to Kylo’s shower so she can sit in the steam for an hour or so to rinse it all off and sweat it all out.

            Her cheek rests on the silken fabric of Kylo’s tunic, and beneath her his chest steadily rises and falls. She blinks her eyes open with another groan and lifts her head to squint up at him. The lights in the room are still dim, thankfully enough, but she can both see and sense that he’s completely asleep, with one leg dangling off the side of the sofa. Apparently they’d drifted off laying together, his arm around her waist.

            Rey doesn’t quite remember how the night ended, although she remembers kissing him inelegantly, tasting the alcohol on his tongue. From the looks of their rumpled garments — his partially undone tunic, her missing vest — they’d tried to do a bit more than kiss, but hadn’t quite succeeded. At some point, someone or something or maybe she herself had drawn a curtain around their sofa on the dais. Rey hopes this happened before they started sucking face in full view of all the party guests, and not after.

            She sets her head back down. Despite the hangover, there is something nice about waking up before him. It happens so rarely. On the days she’s shared a bed with him, he’s either been the one to rouse her or he’s just gone off somewhere, training. Now she’s awake while he slumbers, a shift in their status quo.

            Rey reaches out to part the curtain and squint out through it. Any sentient partygoers seem to have already returned to their guest quarters. The rolling and rattling that had woken her comes from droids bustling about, collecting discarded glasses and cleaning up spilled food or drink. One spindly-armed astromech collects tablecloths and rolls away with them, out the open doors—

            The open doors.

            For the first time since Rey arrived, she is presented with an opportunity to move freely about the Conquest II with no escort. Kylo lies still beneath her, sound asleep. This might be the only chance she gets to investigate the mysterious doors that called to her the other day. The ones that appeared in her dream. She could do it.

            She pushes up to her elbows with some effort and looks down at him. His mouth moves slightly, but she can’t tell if he’s dreaming. He looks so at peace, though, all tension smoothed out from his brow, rigidity gone from his jaw. Rey smiles down at him. She’s a little loath to leave him alone and unguarded, even though he’s perfectly able to take care of himself. She looks for his lightsaber hilt and finds it missing — probably for the best, since she was laying on him all night. After a brief search, she spots it a foot or two past his head, retrieves it, and clips it to his belt. Just in case.

            “Just a few minutes,” she murmurs, leaning down to press a kiss to his cheek, along the jagged scar that marks him as hers. “I’ll be back.”

            Kylo says nothing, of course. She listens for him for a moment, but he doesn’t seem to be in any danger of waking. With the gentlest touch of the Force, she brushes his mind lightly through their bond and wills him sweet dreams.

            Sitting up fully is difficult, but standing is worse. The unusual sleeping position coupled with last night’s drinking has left her stiff and sore in ways she doesn’t think she’s ever been before. She looks around for her vest and her boots and pulls them back on, wincing at her headache. Then, after one last look at Kylo, she pushes her way through the curtain.

            The droids pay no attention to Rey, not even when she stumbles down the steps leading to the dais and has to catch herself with the Force to keep from falling flat on her face. She shakes her head. She can do better. She has to if she’s ever going to get to where she’s headed.

            The hallway is much brighter than the party chamber. Rey brings up a hand to shield her eyes and calls the horizontal elevator. Nerves heighten her senses as she waits for it to arrive, and she tenses as a pair of black-uniformed officers approach her. She steels herself for a confrontation, but they keep their eyes straight ahead and pass without incident. No one is about to tell her where she should or shouldn’t go. Curious, but well enough.

            When the elevator arrives, she steps inside, alone, and presses the button she believes will take her to Kylo’s chambers. When she was younger she thought she simply had a knack for guesswork, but she knows now that the Force has always guided her. This time is no different. When the doors open, she’s in the correct hallway, and she retraces her steps back to Kylo’s chambers to reorient herself. She can’t get in without Kylo himself, but she doesn’t need to.

            Pathfinding is a skill Rey acquired through necessity on Jakku. Sometimes the terrain shifted and changed so much after one of the planet’s violent sandstorms that she would never be able to retrace her steps to one of her half-buried junk caches without having ways to get her bearings that didn’t involve landmarks. She takes a moment, back against Kylo’s chamber doors, to chart out the route in her head, and then she sets off.

            As she grows closer to where the doors should be, however, it becomes clear to her that something is very wrong. She expects to feel that same pull, that prickle as hairs rise on the back of her neck, but there’s nothing. For a minute she thinks she must have made a wrong turn, that she’s lost in the ship’s labyrinthine belly, but then she turns a corner and sees them: two large, heavy double doors, sealed shut. And she feels nothing.

            She stands before them, hands on her hips. Nothing.

            Reaches out and places a hand on one of the doors. Nothing.

            She looks to her right, sees that there’s a control panel, and assumes doors wouldn’t open to her regardless, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever called to her in this room is there no longer.

            Rey leans forward and sighs, letting her aching head fall forward against the door’s cool metal surface. She rolls it to one side, thinking it might be wise to return before Kylo realizes she’s even left. After all, she doesn’t know how long he’ll stay asleep. It’s difficult to recall a day where he hasn’t risen before her…

            There is something fishy about that, isn’t there? Upon reflection, there’s something off about that whole routine. Her early days here, he’d left her in his chambers while he went about his Supreme Leader business, but all of that had fallen by the wayside as they grew more and more entangled. No, not all of it. Hux had said— what had Hux said? No one had seen Kylo in days, apart from his “morning exertions.” Rey hadn’t thought to question that at the time; she thought Hux had meant Kylo’s time training with her.

            Yet Kylo also says he’s training before she wakes, doesn’t he? Always training. But he’s still willing to train with her after his early morning session, to the point of exhaustion. Something curious in that. Rey frowns. She wishes her brain would work faster. Maybe nothing about it is curious. Maybe he’s doing solo training, lifting weights or— not sparring. And yet the first time she’d entered that room, a droid had been wiping sweat off of the mats. So someone in there had been sparring, or practicing forms, or—

            A flutter at the back of her mind. It’s faint and far away, but she can feel it. Kylo’s waking up at last. She tries to clamp down on their bond before he can sense where she is or what she’s doing, but she’s too slow. She feels his gradual blooming awareness that she’s not with him, feels him reach out to find her through their bond, and then the briefest brush of his fingers at the forefront of her mind, trying to ascertain what she’s thinking.

            And then, just before she cuts him off, a flash of alarm that means she’s right.

            Rey takes off for the training room at a run.

            She can’t sense Kylo anymore, but she knows he must be up and moving, and that he’ll have caught up with her within minutes because he knows the ship far better than she does. She runs until she can’t for feeling like she’ll lose last night’s light supper, and slows to a jog, vowing never to drink again as long as she lives. Silently, she appeals to the Force to let her make it to the training room before he does. She doesn’t want to demolish all of the good will they’ve built up with each other, but if he’s hiding something from her she has to know what it is. It could be nothing, or nothing good.

            By some miracle, neither officers nor Troopers move to detain a woman running in semi-formal wear, and were Rey thinking of anything but reaching the training room before Kylo she’d wonder if they’d been specifically ordered not to cross her. A couple of times, she nearly slips, sliding across the polished floors, and a droid beeps its indignation when it has to swerve out of her way, but she doesn’t stop for anything. As she draws closer, she feels that pull. Whatever she needs, whatever the Force wants her to discover, it’s in there.

            When she arrives the room, its doors open for her automatically. And she halts in the threshold, frozen.

            “No,” she whispers.

            Her heart hammers in her ribcage for more than one reason. Adrenaline has burned away the edges of her hangover, but she still feels the toll of her exertion. And yet the physical concerns all fade away as she takes in the training room, and its occupants.

            Standing on the mats are six adults with various weaponry. They wear light training tunics and breeches, all black, but she would know them by their masks, and by the energy they emanate in the Force, even though she’s only seen them in visions. These are the Knights of Ren.

            Interspersed among them are eight adolescents in training garb, clutching quarterstaves, who look to be about the same age as Rey’s own pupils, ranging between twelve and sixteen. Children.

            He didn’t lie to her. Every morning, he is training. He’s training the children.

            Rey goes cold with rage.

            No one moves. The Knights of Ren don’t move to engage her in attack; she assumes they, specifically, have been ordered not to. The children regard her with curiosity but little else. Behind her, she hears the whirr of an approaching horizontal lift. Of course there would be a more direct route to this place. And of course he would know it.

            When Rey hears the elevator doors woosh open at her back, she acts on instinct. She scans the room for usable weapons and finds that one of the Knights holds a long poleaxe. It will have to do. Rey reaches through the Force to call it, and it wrenches itself out of its owner’s hands and flies into hers. She grips it like she would her quarterstaff, or her saber, or any more familiar weapon, and then she pivots to bring it down in an overhead strike, axe blade facing away from her target.

            The movement is heavily telegraphed, but even if it weren’t he would know it was coming. Kylo Ren catches the axe by its haft in an ungloved hand.

            “Wait,” he begins.

            She doesn’t. Grunting, she yanks the poleaxe back out of his grip and takes a couple of steps back to ground her stance. She doesn’t want to hurt him, and certainly doesn’t want to cut him with the axe’s blade, but she has to get these children out. She has to get them away from here.

            He should understand that.

            When she brings the axe down again, swinging it as she would a staff and not a bladed weapon, his lightsaber meets it, crackling angrily. To her surprise, his saber doesn’t sheer through the axe’s haft. Like the weapons of Snoke’s Praetorian Guard, it must be able to resist the plasma blade.

            With a grunt of his own, Kylo pushes her backwards into the training room, forcing her to stagger back a few more steps. He approaches, and it’s slightly different from how he would advance on her were he making to attack. Where he would normally be aggressive, he instead adopts a defensive posture, knees slightly bent to make him a smaller target, saber in front of him but kept close to his torso as he anticipates her next blow. He shuts the doors behind him with a wave of his hand.

            “Stop,” he says. He doesn’t raise his voice to shout at her. It’s quiet instead, an almost-plea.

            “So you can explain yourself?” Blood roars in Rey’s ears. She can’t believe it. After all he went through, with Snoke, he would inflict the same on children. After all he did pursuing her across the galaxy as she gathered her own pupils, he expects her to trust him with his own? The image of Taylin’s burning village springs fully-formed into her mind.

            Rey says, “I don’t want to hear it.”

            She twirls the axe in her hands so that the non-lethal end faces him and lunges as if to strike at his side. When he brings his blade over to parry she twists her body at the last second to strike his thigh instead. It’s a good hit, one that will bruise, and Kylo hisses but he doesn’t falter. He swings at her, but there’s no heart behind it; the attack is just meant to get her out of range. And it works. She leaps back onto the mats, and they both regroup.

            Knights of Ren and students alike fan out in a semi-circle around the mats’ edges, as if they’re the audience to an interesting demonstration. Rey wants to scream to the children, but can’t. She tries to send them the idea that the Knights, their minders, are distracted, and that they could use this as an opportunity to get the drop on them. These are Force-sensitive children — it was the gathering of them all in one place that had called to her — and they outnumber the Knights. They could do it. And she could help them, once she takes out Kylo Ren.

            But therein lies the problem. Neither she nor Kylo are in peak condition, and neither of them truly wants to cause real injury. Without a way to temper the intensity of his lightsaber’s blade, it would be easy for Kylo to burn or maim her, but when he lunges to attack he swings his weapon in wide sweeps that she can easily avoid by dodging or rolling. He knows her well, and he keeps her at a distance where she can’t do what she wants, which is trip him up or knock him out with the poleaxe’s haft. Compromise him or incapacitate him. That’s all.

            They move around each other in familiar circles, and for a moment Rey is back in his chambers, circling the sitting room with him in a much less violent dance. But they seem made for violence, and their partnering now is as natural as breathing. Sparring over the past few days has only proven how well-matched they are, and how difficult it would be for either of them to best the other. If the Knights and the children are watching this fight as a demonstration, it must be a boring one with them locked in this stalemate. Even though the prospect pains her, she’ll have to start swiping at him with the axe’s bit just to prove she means business.

            She positions herself squarely in the middle of the mat. “Ben,” she says. Her voice is uneven. Whatever the Force is that guides her now, keeps her upright and fighting, it vibrates in her back teeth. “End this. Let them go.”

            “You have it wrong,” he insists.

            Rey is a lot of good things. She’s a steadfast and loyal friend. She’s strong. She’s compassionate, empathetic. And when calm, she’s a good listener. But she’s also impulsive, and hot-blooded, and quick to anger at perceived injustice, and when not calm she’s a storm all her own, one there’s no weathering.

            She turns the axe over in her hands. “And you’ve had enough warnings.”

            Kylo looks at the head of the axe. It glints in the overhead light. Rey doesn’t know what purpose the two additional red lights embedded in it serve, but that bit looks sharp enough to cut to bone.

            “You’d give me more scars,” he says.

            He doesn’t sound frightened. He sounds a bit somber, but his intonation also hints at a few other things that Rey just— she can’t think about any of it right now. Her arm muscles tense, and she bares her teeth at him.

            “Get out of my way,” she snarls.

            He doesn’t.

            She charges at him, twirling the axe once in her hands and then bringing it around to the side with the aim of cutting him at the shoulder — just enough to weaken his grip on his saber. He parries, then sweeps his lightsaber out in an arc once again, forcing her to alter her course at the last second, sending her into the semicircle of spectators.

            Someone jabs the prongs of an electro-shock prod into her side.

            She looks up at Kylo and for the fraction of a second she’s able to glimpse his face, she wishes she saw pride in his victory there. She doesn’t see it. She doesn’t even see anger, just disappointment, and resignation.

            Rey knows blinding white pain, and then she knows nothing more.


            Being stunned does nothing for Rey’s hangover. When she awakens for the second time that day, her head pounds with a vengeance, and the few white lights shining down from the ceiling blur into each other as her eyes refuse to focus. Sweat breaks out on her forehead just before a wave of nausea overcomes her. She rolls to the side of her narrow cot to empty the contents of her stomach into a garbage bin someone had the foresight to leave out for her. She hears the sound of shifting fabric, but doesn’t quite register it for what it is.

            Rey pants, then falls bonelessly onto her back again, letting her head drop onto the pillow. It’s a down pillow, not unlike the ones on Kylo Ren’s bed, and as she cocoons herself in the blanket that had been draped on top of her she finds it thick and well-made, more than effective at shielding her from the cold air circulation on the ship. But not even these comforts can disguise that the cot she lays upon is little more than a slab of metal. Even before the lights resolve back into their proper shapes and she can make out the grooved metal walls of the tight quarters which enclose her, she knows she’s in a cell.

            It was probably about time, she thinks.

            It’s so tempting to let unconsciousness claim her again when everything is bleak and everything hurts, even parts of her that live only in her heart and mind, but she senses she has company. Kylo Ren’s presence charges the very air in this small room. Without even looking she knows he’s crouched at the foot of her cot, waiting for her to stir again. So she gathers all of the strength that her numb limbs will lend her and tries to push herself into a seated position.

            Almost immediately, he’s at her side with one hand on her back, supporting her. She tries to shrug him off, but there’s no heart in it. Her vision stubbornly refuses to cooperate, all bright spots and glowing auras, but she feels something cool and smooth press against her lips and Kylo murmurs, “Drink.”

            He’s such a frustrating contradiction of a man. Rey wishes she could hate him.

            She has half a mind to refuse, but she’s parched, and even her obstinance has its limits. She opens her mouth to cold, clear water, which slakes her thirst, rinses the taste of vomit from her mouth, and eases the burn in her throat. After a few swallows, Kylo pulls the glass away to allow her to catch her breath, then holds it to her mouth again. Rey feels the slightest twinge of gratefulness. She can barely hold herself up, let alone hold anything else.

            Only once she’s fully drained the glass does he put it down somewhere she can’t see. It seems to vanish when it leaves his hand. But Kylo remains crouched by her side, unbothered by her sick or by the fact that she recently attacked him. It’s incredibly tempting to lean against him. Her body is so heavy, and aches so much, she knows just how it’ll feel if she lets her head fall into the crook where his neck meets his shoulder, how she’ll be able to inhale his scent.

            But she restrains herself, remembering why she’s here in the first place. It takes her a while to work her mouth to speak. When she does, her voice is slightly hoarse, as if she hasn’t spoken in days.

            “I’m angry with you,” she says quietly.

            “Yes,” he replies. “You came after me with an axe.”

            His tone is guarded, and Rey thinks the humor he employs here is slightly different from their usual banter. It’s dry and distancing, a verbal wall between them.

            Rey shakes her head slightly. “Children, Ben.”

            He says nothing. She blinks, and her vision finally clears enough again for her to see his face. There’s melancholy in his eyes and a pout on his lips. It’s a look she knows well. It’s the one that he wore the day she closed off their bond for a time, the last one she saw for three long years, before the day he crossed to her from his shuttle with anger and triumph written all over him.

            “After all that was done to you,” Rey continues. “You always resented your parents for sending you away to Luke Skywalker, and then Snoke — the way he mistreated you, the things he taught you.” She thinks of that day in the training room, when he urged her to strike him. Thinks of him beating his bowcaster wound on Starkiller Base so he could fuel himself with anger and pain. Then thinks of him passing the knowledge along to others. “How could you? How could you do that to other children?”

            “You don’t understand,” he says. Neither of them seems able to raise their voice above a whisper.

            “Then.” She draws a breath in through her nose, lets it out through her mouth. “Then explain. Explain it to me.”

            Now he shakes his head. “Why should I? Your mind is set. I feel it.”

            But she feels him, too, and feels him ache for her understanding. She marvels at how often they think they understand each other, only to be proven wrong. Wordless knowing isn’t enough. Apparently they actually need to talk. “If only you’d told me,” she whispers. “If you’d told me before, we could have avoided all this.”

            “I tried.”

            She frowns at him. “You didn’t.”

            “I did.” But for his eyes, for the softness in his lip, his face is a mask. “Whenever I brought up your own students, you lashed out. I tried to broach it another way, through the idea that we could teach together, and we were interrupted.”

            “That’s hardly trying,” Rey snorts. “You could have sat me down, and—”

            “Rey,” he says. His voice is the distant rumble of thunder that heralds whipping winds and driving rain. “What would you have had me say?”

            Rey rubs her eye. Her thoughts come to her slow and languid, like oozing nectar. “You said you wanted to let it die. The past. The Sith.”

            “I do.”

            “But this—” She stares at him. “This isn’t letting it die, Ben. You’re training children to use the Dark side. You’re leading them down that path.”

            He’s quiet and still beside her. He doesn’t speak for so long she thinks he may let the subject drop entirely. Then he finally says, “I didn’t want this.”

            Rey scoffs.

            “You have to believe that. I felt the pull of the Force, as I know you do. It’s what drives you to travel from system to system, gathering your students. Isn’t it?” He tries to meet her eyes, but she looks away from him. “I ignored it for as long as I could,” he contends. “Until I couldn’t.”

            “The Force will have its way,” Rey mutters. She has trouble comprehending what the Force’s will is here, though. Surely it couldn’t want him to do this.

            “One of the children was right under my nose, in the Stormtrooper program.” He shifts. “You wouldn’t have had me leave her there. I know your feelings about it.”

            Rey doesn’t want to know the answer to her next question, but she has to ask. “And the rest?”

            “I had my Knights gather them and bring them here, where they could be properly trained.”

            “So you took them.” Her voice wavers. “You took them from their homes to teach them anger and hate—”

            “To teach them to channel it.” He can’t keep the hurt out of his voice. He certainly can’t keep it from seeping into his voice. “Most of them were orphans already. War orphans. They’re no strangers to anger.”

            Children of war. That phrase he used. Rey takes another breath. The way he presents what he’s doing, it’s a kindness. And maybe to him it truly is one. To her, it reeks of exploitation. “Orphans of your war,” she says, a little more forcefully. “Orphans of your making.”

            A short, sharp exhalation. “You think the officers on Starkiller Base didn’t have children?” he asks her. It’s an oddly gentle, probing question, as if he’s explaining the workings of the universe to a child. There’s no malice in it. “You think the soldiers who serve on the ships the Resistance destroys don’t have families? The war is also yours. Take credit.”

            “You don’t get to do that. Those people were combatants. They knew the risks—” Rey feels her face grow hot. She looks at him. “And you would raise their children to do the same. You would have children go to war for you! How do you not see that what you’re doing here is wrong?”

            “Should I?” he asks. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?”

            Rey recoils as if he struck her. “How dare you,” she growls. “How dare you!”

            “No one will make my students do anything,” he continues. “Can you say the same for yours? If my mother needed them to take up lightsabers and fight for the Resistance, would you refuse her?”

            “It’s not— they’re not—” Rey stops, swallows, and starts again. Fury rises within her, burning like bile. “I’m only teaching them to master the powers they have within them. That’s all.”

            “Again,” says Kylo, “you wouldn’t allow me to do the same. Rey—”

            He leans forward, toward her. Rey folds her knees into her chest and wraps her arms around them, edging away from the hand on her back. “Don’t touch me.”

            His eyes flicker with hurt again, but he lets his hand drop. “You don’t remember how it felt?” he asks. There’s a true plea in it now. “When Skywalker wouldn’t teach you? When you thought you were alone?”

            It’s a dagger to the heart. She says, “Don’t.”

            “You came to me. You knew you weren’t alone. And you know that these children need the same assurance. They’re confused, they—”

            “Ben, don’t.”

            The way Rey says it, it’s a final warning. Kylo lets the conversation rest for a moment. Rey looks at the wall, nostrils flaring as she tries to master her breath.

            “What is it you fear?” he asks, at last. “What are you afraid these children will become?”

            “You know what they’ll become,” she snaps. “They’ll be consumed by the Dark Side. They’ll be eaten alive by their hatred.”

            “That’s not it.”

            Rey lets out a bitter, bitter chuckle. An angry tear spills down one of her cheeks. “Because you know me so well.”

            “I do.”

            “I thought I knew you.”

            He isn’t distracted. “You fear for them. What is it you fear?”

            She keeps her head turned away from him and doesn’t reply.

            “Rey. Say it.”

            “Why?”

            “Because then you can’t run away from it.”

            Another tear. Rey scrubs it from her cheek with the heel of her hand, and then she finally turns her head to look at him. “You just want me to hurt you.”

            “I want you to be honest,” he says.

            Somehow she knows that’s all he’s ever wanted, from anyone. Still, she says nothing.

            “You don’t want me to train these children. Why?”

            Rey feels a weight settling on her chest as the galaxy catches up with them both. She supposes it was naive to think it never would. The war, their preconceived notions, how they perceive one another. Generations upon generations of conflict between two sides of the Force that could never quite find balance.

            Kylo does already know, and he knows that she knows, and that now she can’t deny it to herself. There’s a part of her that fears the planting of his seed, the idea that he would live on in others. It seems pointless to pretend otherwise, and yet everything within her recoils at speaking the truth. Sometimes silence is kinder. Yet for whatever reason, he’d rather have honest than kind.

            So she gives him what he wants.

            “They’ll end up like you,” she whispers.

            All at once, the emotions that whip around him are compressed to nothing as he conceals them from her, and the only ones she’s left with are her own, almost too painful to bear. “Like me,” he echoes tonelessly, and he gets to his feet.

            “I don’t—”

            “You don’t owe me an explanation.”

            “Ben, just— wait.”

            “I’ll have food brought in. You should rest.” He speaks flatly, but she knows his voice only sounds cold because any of the alternatives would be too revealing. “You have a fitting in two hours.”

            “A fitting?”

            “Your dress for the gala.”

            She blinks up at him. “What?”

            “You said—” This time he’s the one who has to stop and collect himself. “You said you would go.”

            Rey can’t imagine why he would still want that, knowing what they know. She supposes there’s a wide gulf between knowledge and acceptance. Bewildered, she says, “I did.”

            “So, you’ll go. And then.” He just looks at her. She knows that when he says “and then,” he thinks that either they’ll work it out, or they won’t.

            But the gala will mark the completion of her mission. A mission — Rey realizes, belatedly — that she almost botched just now when she let her anger overpower her judgment. If she had managed to best Kylo Ren and his Knights and abscond with the children, then what? She had no ship, no safe place to hide them, and no rendezvous planned for days. A single traveler might be able to slip away and move through the vastness of space undetected, but a woman and a gaggle of Force-sensitive adolescents? No, she’d acted without thinking and very nearly ruined everything.

            But it seemed as though she hasn’t ruined her mission. The gala will go on as planned. And then, as planned, she’ll have to leave, with a new wrinkle. If she can, while he’s dealing with the fallout from the Resistance attack, she’ll take his students with her.

            “And then,” Rey agrees.

            Kylo just looks down at her, and then he vanishes. Because Rey had awoken to his presence, so strong and so visceral in the room, she hadn’t realized he had used the bond to be with her. But now that he’s gone, the connection that had charged the air in her cell is, too, and she is left hurting, and bereft, and alone.

Chapter Text

            Rey tosses and turns on her bunk for a while after Kylo leaves her. Between her dry mouth and her aching head, she’s unable to get comfortable. The unyielding bunk doesn’t bother her much — after all, she grew up sleeping on hard, packed sand — but she does miss Kylo Ren’s bed, mostly for the familiarity of his scent and the warmth of his body—

            No. She can’t think like that now. She doesn’t know why she thought she ever could. When Luke told her to have compassion and be whatever way she felt, he couldn’t have meant for her to throw caution to the wind and forget any and all of her misgivings. But that’s what she did, and she blinded herself to the secret school Kylo was running right under her nose. The new knowledge that he’d been sneaking off every morning to train Force-sensitive adolescents taints the memories of their last few days together, which had otherwise been almost dreamlike.

            Rey knows she needs to formulate an escape plan for herself and for Kylo’s pupils, but she can barely think with this headache. Maybe this is the Force’s way of punishing her for— something. For the look on Kylo’s face when he stood up from her side, perhaps. She tries to banish all thoughts of him from her mind and focuses only on her breathing, managing at last to fall into a light and fitful doze.

            She is awoken by the sound of her cell door opening. A droid trundles in bearing a tray; with no table in sight, it performs calculations and decides to set its burden down on the bunk near Rey’s head. The smell of food nearly turns Rey’s stomach, but she opens her eyes to peek at the meal as the droid removes the garbage bin at her bedside. It’s real food, rich for prison fare: a single fresh roll with butter, a diced fruit medley, scrambled nuna eggs, and sliced meat, accompanied by two tall glasses, one containing water, the other juice, and a third, about the size of a shot glass, filled with a strangely-colored liquid she can’t identify.

            “What’s this?” she asks the droid.

            “Hangover remedy,” it intones. She may or may not be imagining the disapproval in its voice.

            “Of course it is,” she mutters. She sits up with a soft groan, silently vowing never to drink again, and picks up the small glass so she can sniff its contents. Scentless. Rey doesn’t know what to expect, but she figures getting this over with will make it easier for her to keep down breakfast, so she takes a breath, pinches her nose, and tosses the hangover remedy back with one swallow.

            What Rey can make of the taste is unpleasant, and she rinses it away with small sips of water. She closes her eyes briefly, opens them, and finds that everything in the cell’s gone bright fuchsia. The color fades after a few slow, confused blinks, and so does her headache, and soon her roiling stomach settles enough that she feels it’s safe to start slowly picking at her breakfast. As soon as she chews and swallows the first couple of pieces of fruit, her appetite hits her all at once, and she devours everything on the tray within minutes.

            The droid returns to clear the dishes, and Rey has a moment to examine her surroundings. If she knows anything about the First Order, she knows that she’s been placed in a luxury cell. It’s small and cramped, and another bunk crowds the wall space above her head, but there’s also a private fresher cordoned off from the rest of the room by two-meter-high walls. Despite the second bunk, she has no cellmate. So Kylo wants her kept apart from others, with basic necessities on hand. He doesn’t want her humiliated. Just contained. Just away from him.

            A four-Trooper escort appears to march her to the cell block’s showers, sparkling-clean but fairly basic. As she strips out of her clothes behind a barrier and steps forward to let the sonics do their job, she misses the running water of the shower in Kylo Ren’s washroom, just a little, and scolds herself for it. How spoiled she’s become.

            Rey finds last night’s party clothes gone when she emerges, replaced by a pair of slippers and a short dressing gown she doesn’t recognize, one made of opaque, dark-red synthsilk, splashed at the shoulder and hip with a flower pattern. She frowns at it, but pulls it on and ties it around her waist. She’s not fond of letting the Stormtroopers lead her back to her cell in only a robe, but she doesn’t have much choice. It at least fits perfectly and keeps covered everything that needs covering, so she supposes it will have to do.

            There’s a figure seated on the low bunk when Rey returns to her cell, and as Rey draws closer, she’s surprised to see Nara Ordula, of all people, awaiting her. Modestly dressed in a fine black tunic and leggings, she certainly doesn’t seem to be a prisoner. And when she spots Rey, she stands and breaks into a smile. “Young one,” she says.

            “You— how—” Every single possibility hits Rey at once. Is this a rescue mission? Isn’t that far too risky? And how would Leia know that Rey had gotten herself thrown in a cell, anyway? Did Rey subconsciously reach out through the Force while she slept?

            “What are you doing here?” she finally manages.

            “You asked for me,” Ordula says. She seems calm, as at ease in this cell as she had been in her own shop.

            “Right. I did.” Rey rubs her eye. She’d forgotten that she’d requested a consult with Ordula. Somehow she thought that Kylo wouldn’t indulge her request after that morning’s fight.

            “Come in, come in,” says Ordula, beckoning her forward. “We’ve personal matters to discuss.” She eyes the Stormtroopers at Rey’s back.

            Rey nods, dumbly, and re-enters her cell. The door hisses shut behind her, and Ordula steps forward to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. Rey could almost cry from relief at the touch. She so longs to tell Ordula everything that’s transpired since they last saw each other, but even the mere presence of someone unequivocally in her corner eases the burden Rey carries by half.

            “I’ll admit, young one,” says Ordula with a friendly twinkle in her eye, “I was expecting more glamorous accommodations.”

            “Everything’s upside down right now,” says Rey, a little despair seeping into her voice. And then she adds, sincerely, “I’m so glad to see you.”

            “I’m glad to see you, too. Let me have a look at you. Turn around.” Baffled, Rey obliges, stepping in a circle where she stands. Ordula nods her approval. “Good. You’re all in one piece. And the robe suits you. I thought it might. Now, I hear you need something to wear under your gown.”

            “Um, yes,” says Rey, who feels like that’s the least of her concerns right now. “But—”

            Ordula holds up one finger, shushing her. Then she bends over and removes the lid from a box resting on the bunk. She rifles through some ornamental paper, then pulls out an undergarment unlike any Rey has ever seen: little more than cups that would cover her breasts, linked in the middle by a magnetic clasp. That’s all. No back. Rey’s confusion only deepens.

            “It will adhere to your skin,” Ordula explains. “And the padding creates a fuller silhouette. Go on, touch.” She depresses one of the cups, which seems to be made of some springy foam, with her thumb.

            “I believe you,” says Rey, growing a little frustrated. “But I—”

            “Believing is one thing. Feeling is another.” Ordula holds the strange garment out to Rey. “Touch it.”

            “Fine. All right.” Rey copies Ordula, pressing down into the cup with her thumb. She feels the foam, but when it’s compressed she feels something else concealed in the cup, something that’s flat, and stiff. She raises her eyebrows, and runs the pad of her thumb back and forth over the foreign object. By its shape, and its firmness, it feels like it might be a bypass key, one a slicer would use to crack a lock’s encryption. She looks up at Ordula, a question forming on her lips.

            Ordula shakes her head and steps closer to Rey. “Maz Kanata sends her regards,” she whispers, so softly that it’s almost difficult for Rey to hear her. Then she raises her voice to a normal volume, and adds, “You’d be amazed at the doors a good set of undergarments can open.”

            “I think I’ve figured that out for myself, actually,” says Rey, playing along. “The last things I purchased from you certainly expanded my horizons.”

            “I told you that you’d discover a new galaxy. Now, why don’t you change in the fresher, away from prying eyes?” A subtle twitch of her lekku directs Rey’s gaze to a security camera mounted high in the back corner of the cell.

            “Prying eyes,” Rey echoes. “Right.” Of course they’re being monitored in here. She should have realized that long before now. It explains why Ordula had been calling her “young one” and not “young Jedi,” as she had on Cantonica — they can’t risk speaking freely. She nods in understanding, and Ordula hands Rey the parcel she’d brought along and ushers her into the fresher.

            The space is small, mostly occupied by the toilet and sink, and there’s barely room for Rey to move, much less change. She closes the toilet lid and sets the box down on it, then turns the strange breast covering over in her hands until she spies a tiny slit in the seam. With a little wiggling of her thumb, she’s able to slowly push the concealed object out. Her instincts had been correct: it is a small silver bypass key. Opening doors, indeed. Even if Kylo decided to throw her back in a cell, it wouldn’t hold her long.

            “Thank you, Maz,” she whispers, slipping the key back into its hiding place. That’s one question answered. Her escape just got a lot simpler.

            That settled, Rey briefly sheds her robe to put on the things Ordula brought her. The covering does adhere to her skin, as Ordula said it would, and shifts to match her skin tone, rendering itself near-invisible. The underwear she takes from the box and pulls up her hips is low-rise and tight, and there are clasps dangling from the hem for some reason unknown to Rey. Then, so far buried in the paper that she nearly misses them, she finds fine, near-transparent shimmersilk stockings. Rey can’t even imagine what such delicate material must be worth, and she rolls them up her legs with great care. She puts her robe back on, but leaves it open so that Ordula can inspect the fit of her underclothes.

            When Rey steps out of the fresher, Ordula makes a few adjustments the padded breast covering slightly and attaches those clasps to the tops of the stockings to keep them in place. Then she stands back, examines her handiwork, and nods.

            “Perfect. And not a moment too soon,” Ordula says as the door wooshes open again, “because I believe that’s your gown.”


            It is indeed Rey’s gown, but Rey barely gets a glimpse of it. A human woman, presumably the gown’s designer, bustles into the cell with two droid attendants, and the next half-hour passes in a whirlwind. She barks instructions to the droids, who help Rey into the dress, but before she can process anything more than the breezy lightness of the draping fabrics, all three intruders are poking at her, pointing, frowning, asking for her to turn, no, to stop, no, another quarter-turn, now raise your arms, now lower them. They pull at the dress in some places, fold it in others, pinning and unpinning, marking it up with chalk lines. Ordula steps to the side and lets them work without comment, but, thankfully, doesn’t leave.

            Only after the designer is gone does it strike Rey as odd that no one, not Ordula, not the designer, seems to bat an eye at her being locked away in a cell. Then again, with Kylo Ren’s reputation for tyranny, perhaps it’s not so strange that he’d keep a woman caged.

            After the fitting, the serving droid from before returns with a small plate of grapes, nuts, and cheese for Rey to snack on as the next phase of preparations start. She does, because she never turns down food, but she feels a slight ache, knowing that all of this is on Kylo’s orders. He could starve her if he wanted, and, even now, that’s not what he wants. Maybe it’s not so unusual to outsiders that Kylo Ren would keep his beloved under lock and key, but Rey knows he constantly disappoints in small ways when it comes to cold-hearted villainy.

            No one tells Ordula to leave, so she stays seated next to Rey on her little bunk, even after WR-38 appears and begins the process of making Rey over. Rey appreciates Ordula’s presence, and how smoothly she steps into the role of beauty translator, explaining why 38 does what she does as the droid dampens Rey’s hair and arranges it in pincurls to dry.

            When 38 finishes with the pins, she brings forth a black-green velvet box with rounded corners. It looks like something that might hold jewelry, although it’s large for a bracelet or even a necklace. “This was delivered for you this morning,” 38 says stiffly, as if in disapproval that someone would give anything to such an uncooperative charge. Rey wonders if the astromech is secretly gloating over her imprisonment.

            Ordula runs two fingers down one of the box’s edges. “A gift from an admirer?” she asks.

            Rey’s brow furrows as she takes the box from 38. “I don’t have admirers.”

            “I don’t believe that’s true,” Ordula teases. “I’ve heard so many rumors about you in the past week.”

            “Rumors?” Rey echoes, nearly dropping the jewelry box. “What rumors?”

            “Never you mind. Let’s see what’s in that case.”

            Rey nods. She’s not about to let the matter drop for good, but she, too, is curious about the mysterious box. She sets it on her knees, and traces the sides of it until she feels the hinges, and the seam where the lid begins. She curves her fingers underneath to pop it open.

            Resting inside, on a bed of cream-colored fabric, is a near-circular silver hair ornament, ribbed in a way that makes it appear as if it’s composed of two wings, tips nearly touching. The edges look almost sharp enough to cut. Rey inhales. It’s a beautiful thing, and a dangerous thing, and must also be very expensive. She runs the pads of her fingers over the ribs, then the edges, letting them press into her skin, verifying that the object is real.

            “I think that’s our note,” says Ordula, nodding down into the box.

            Nestled above the wingtips is a small holoprojector, which Rey removes and activates with a curious frown. A bluish hologram of a well-dressed Chagrian springs to life above it.

            “Oh!” Rey exclaims, sitting up a little straighter. “I know him. Kars Akaanas. He’s a collector. He thinks I saved his life.”

            Ordula raises an eyebrow. “Did you?”

            “I suppose,” Rey gumbles. She’s thankfully spared further explanation when the holorecording of Akaanas begins to speak.

            “My dear lady,” he begins. Ordula presses her lips together in a smile, and Rey cringes. “Please accept this humble token of my gratitude. The piece that you hold is an artifact from my personal collection. It was worn by Senator Padmé Amidala of Naboo on the very day the Galactic Empire was founded.”

            This name seems to hold some meaning for Ordula, who gasps, very softly, beside Rey. Rey, however, has never heard of Padmé Amidala, and she watches with interest as the hologram of Akaanas is replaced by a woman’s head and shoulders, rotating slowly above the projector. Amidala looks young for a Senator, Rey thinks — surely no older than her mid-twenties — and she is, or was, beautiful, with delicate features and a sharp, intelligent gaze. She wears a purple velvet robe with a high collar, and her hair is woven through the very ornament in the box. From certain angles, it looks as though Amidala’s face is framed by a halo.

            “Amidala was a model of kindness, bravery and integrity,” Akaanas narrates, as if anticipating that Rey might need more context, “as you yourself have proven to be. It is my deepest wish that you wear this token of appreciation when you grace the gala with your presence this evening.”

            “A bit of a flatterer, is he?” Ordula asks, with a hint of amusement.

            “What gave it away?” Rey quips back. She’s beyond grateful to have someone here who appreciates the absurdity of her situation. 38’s expression never changes, but Rey imagines that a message like this one would win the droid over.

            Amidala’s face vanishes, and Akaanas returns. He says, with utmost gravity, “I remain, as ever, your humble servant.” He bows deeply, and then he, too, disappears as the recording ends.

            “Padmé Amidala, what an interesting choice,” Ordula muses. “May I?”

            Rey nods, and Ordula carefully lifts the hair ornament out of the box, holding it out from the shadow of the bunk so that the harsh lights of the cell wink off of it. “What makes her interesting?”

            “Amidala was a staunch advocate for democracy and publicly disapproved of military expansion,” Ordula says, studying the ornament as if she can compel it to give up its secret intent. “Privately, she also disapproved of the future Emperor’s lust for power. They shared a homeworld, you know. Amidala was elected queen of it as a teenager.”

            “She was elected queen?” Rey echoes, with disbelief. “Elected queen? As a teenager?”

            “They have interesting ideas about monarchy on Naboo.”

            Ordula hands the ornament back to Rey, who turns it over in her hands. “She sounds fascinating. How do you know so much about her? I’ve never heard of her.”

            “Amidala’s a subject of historical curiosity these days.” There’s an edge to Ordula’s voice, as if she’s on the cusp of divulging a piece of particularly salacious gossip, that makes Rey look up from the ornament. Ordula continues, “It was revealed about a decade ago that she was secretly married to Anakin Skywalker, and the mother of his two children.”

            For the second time in five minutes, Rey nearly drops this priceless pre-Imperial artifact. “Anakin Sky— Darth Vader? She’s Luke and Leia’s mother? That means she’s—”

            Ben’s grandmother, she almost says, but she stops herself from finishing the thought. Kylo Ren’s parentage isn’t public knowledge, after all, and there are ears everywhere, as Ordula herself had implied.

            “So, as you see,” says Ordula, nodding at the halo, “it’s a potentially subversive gift. But potentially harmless. If Amidala did wear this on the day the Empire was born, maybe it’s meant to honor the Imperial legacy.”

            “Maybe.” Ben’s grandmother. A senator and a queen. The wife of the man that Kylo Ren himself had admired, not so long ago. Rey recalls the image of Amidala wearing the hair piece she now holds in her hands. Her eyes were large and dark — like her daughter’s, like her grandson’s — and keen. To have accomplished so much so young, she must have been ambitious, and intelligent. Akaanas had said she was also kind. Maybe a young Ben Solo had chosen the wrong grandparent to idolize.

            “We still have much work to do on your face,” says 38, interrupting Rey’s thoughts.

            “What’s wrong with my face?”

            “My programming does not permit me to answer that question.”

            “Oi!”

            “But,” 38 promises, “I will remedy it to the best of my abilities.”


            Ordula remains good company throughout the rest of the makeover. When 38 asks Rey to sit still for two full hours while she painstakingly glues a long false eyelash to each of Rey’s lashes, Ordula fills the time by regaling her with stories of her most ridiculous and demanding clients from Canto Bight. When 38 draws lines on her face and begins smudging them out with a brush attachment, Ordula educates Rey on the different types of war paint worn across the galaxy, and how makeup can be considered similar, under the right circumstances. And when the setting powder 38 applies to Rey’s face makes her sneeze, Ordula’s light, low laugh makes her feel as though she’s a co-conspirator in a joke, not the subject of it.

            By the time 38 is unraveling and brushing out the curls she’d set in Rey’s hair, Rey feels as though she and the merchant from Cantonica have been friends her whole life. Then she realizes that Ordula has actually told Rey next to nothing about herself, but Rey warmed to her quickly regardless. There’s an art to that, Rey thinks, one more delicate than even the old Jedi mind tricks. Rey can’t see herself ever being particularly good at it, but maybe when she gets out of here she should ask for lessons, all the same. She’ll put it on the list of things she doesn’t know but probably should, with diplomacy, politics, and history.

            38 is just releasing the last curl from its pin and combing her long, mechanical fingers through it when the door to Rey’s cell hisses open. Ordula and Rey both turn their head to look, but 38 is not diverted from her task, and she ends up yanking on that lock of Rey’s hair as Rey moves. Rey winces, but keeps her gaze fixed on the door, where Armitage Hux stands, flanked by a two-Stormtrooper escort.

            Hux, who presumably thought he’d find Rey with only the attendant droid for company, squints at the half-Twi’lek woman seated next to her on the bunk. “You are?”

            “General Hux,” Ordula says smoothly, with saccharine deference. She stands up and inclines her head in his direction. Rey is impressed with how there’s no trace of fakery in her demeanor. “It’s a pleasure, sir. Nara Ordula, I’m acting as Rey’s personal stylist.”

            “Ordula,” Hux repeats, with a slight wrinkle of displeasure to his nose. Just a slight one, though. He seems torn between annoyance at Ordula’s presence and relishing that she clearly knows her place. “The shopkeeper from Canto Bight? Well, take your leave. Your services have been rendered unnecessary for the time being.”

            Ordula glances at Rey, but it’s 38 who voices an objection. “General,” she says, “we are already behind schedule. The lighting in here is not conducive to this delicate preparatory work.”

            Rey never thought she’d want to thank WR-38 for anything, but apparently there are still pleasant surprises to be had today. She looks at the droid, whose photoreceptors are pointed at Hux, before also turning back to face the General.

            “I only require a moment from your charge,” says Hux, sounding a bit strained. “You will still get her to the gala on time. Leave us.”

            He waves his hand to dismiss 38, who says, “Of course, sir.” She rolls out past Hux with what Rey would interpret as a bit of irritation, were 38 programmed to be irritable. Ordula squeezes Rey’s hand, asking a silent question. Rey nods at her, and she stands and leaves, too. The door closes with her, 38, and the Troopers out in the hallway, leaving Rey alone in her cell with Hux.

            Hux takes a few steps into the tiny cell, looking around as if he’s trying to find the best place to strategically position himself for maximum authoritativeness. Eventually he decides to stand at the far end of the bunks, facing Rey. Rey stands too, not wanting to remain on uneven footing with him. He looks her over, taking in her hair, makeup, all her extra eyelashes. His pale, colorless eyes linger on the place where the hem of her dressing gown brushes her stockinged knees.

            “What?” Rey snaps.

            “Nothing.” He looks back up at her face. But he doesn’t approach her. He raises one arm and leans against the top bunk, tapping the metal as if deep in thought.

            Rey doesn’t like the look he’s giving her. It’s not unlike the one some offworlders stopping on Jakku used to give her before they asked her if there was a price she’d put on her body. But it’s not entirely like that look, either. She can tell that he’s making his own calculations, although, as at the party, she can’t access the depths of his thoughts. But she knows he came here to see her at what he considers her lowest low, metaphorically and literally stripped.

            She folds her arms, marveling at his arrogance. Even here, in the belly of the enemy’s flagship, the Force surrounds her, flows through her, weaves her like a thread into its grand tapestry. No matter what he thinks, she is not defenseless. She regards him coolly, and waits.

            “You’re not much of a sabacc player, are you?” Hux asks at last. “I’ve never seen someone dealt such a favorable hand, only to throw it away.”

            “Oh?”

            “You know what I’m talking about,” he says. He swipes a gloved finger along the edge of the bunk and pulls it back to inspect it, as if checking for an accumulation of dust and grime. “You were in a position to take it all, Rey. And you folded.”

            “Did you come here to gloat?” Rey asks. “Or to give me pointers on card games?”

            “Neither. I’m here to offer you something you desperately need.”

            “And what’s that?”

            “Friendship.”

            Rey stares at him.

            “In a manner of speaking,” Hux adds, clarifying himself without actually clarifying anything at all.

            “I’m not—” Rey begins, and then she closes her mouth, swallows, and starts again. That was not the answer she expected. “I’m not that desperate for friends.”

            He chuckles and looks conspicuously at their surroundings. “If you say so.”

            Rey glowers at him, then exhales and reminds herself that the best way to find out what he’s after is to play along. It had gotten her somewhere the previous evening, after all — he’d at least thought they might be on the same side. She thinks of how Ordula read Hux immediately and hadn’t skipped a beat in flattering him, and shakes her head. Her hair, which now falls over her shoulders in loose curls, bounces with the movement. “What’s your proposal?”

            Hux holds up his hands, briefly flashing her his empty palms. “I’ll lay my cards on the table,” he says, with a small smirk of self-satisfaction. “I think we both agree that the galaxy would be better off without Ren at its helm.”

            Rey had known this, but she wasn’t expecting him to just say it outright. Her eyes widen in surprise before she can recover a mask of neutrality. “Careful,” she says, glancing at the camera in the corner, over his shoulder. “Eyes and ears everywhere.”

            Hux sighs, unable to completely disguise his exasperation. “Whose eyes and ears do you think they are, girl? The recordings will be erased as soon as I leave. Ren will never know of this meeting.”

            There is something deeply unsettling about that, but Rey doesn’t have the time to dwell on it. She speaks slowly to give herself more time to choose her words. “Even if I agreed with what you said,” she says carefully, “I’m fairly certain you and I have different ideas about how the galaxy should be run.”

            “Yes, you do have some revolutionary inclinations,” he agrees. “But I’ve very generously put that up to a lack of education.”

            “What—”

            “If we did things your way, we’d have anarchy.”

            “Maybe we’d have democracy,” Rey fires back. She may not have any experience with governance, or even really with military command. But he can be as patronizing as he likes; she knows at her own durasteel core that a First Order dictatorship isn’t the way to ensure freedom and safety.

            “Democracy,” Hux scoffs. “Democracy’s an experiment that has failed the galaxy twice over. But I suppose you’ve only ever had Leia Organa’s word for what’s right or wrong. I can’t blame you for being confused.”

            “I know right from wrong,” Rey says sharply.

            “You ought to be more flexible,” he chides. “But we’ve strayed from the point.”

            “Yes, we have.”

            “Tonight, at the gala, I’m going to ask a small favor of you,” he continues. “It would be in everyone’s best interest if you said yes.”

            Rey shifts, adjusting the cross of her arms. “What favor?”

            “I’ll tell you when the time comes.”

            “I don’t like surprises,” she says, frowning deeply.

            “You don’t have much of a choice, I’m afraid. You’ll be face to face with Ren again soon enough, and I can’t risk him probing your mind. Although,” Hux muses, “you too must have methods of concealing your thoughts him. What do you think would happen if he found out he hadn’t really tamed you?”

            Rey stills. “What?”

            “Sure, there was the little lover’s spat that landed you here.” He waves his hand at the cell with a swishy flick of his wrist. “But that isn’t the half of it, is it, Rey?”

            “What are you talking about?” Her heart thuds dully in her chest, blood pounding in her eardrums. He can’t know. Hux can’t know about the Resistance’s plan. If he does, all of her friends are in danger, and she’s in no position to warn them—

            Hux takes a step toward her. In the tiny cell, that means he’s too close for comfort. “Oh, you’ve put up a very good show,” he says. “But you didn’t have me fooled for long. I’ll admit that, at first, when your little escape attempt failed on Canto Bight, and when you kept our secret, I thought you genuinely feared him. I thought his abilities overshadowed yours. But I saw you pulling your hits when he sparred with you. I’ve overseen enough Stormtrooper training to know when someone’s holding back. You were letting him knock you around.”

            He takes another step forward. This isn’t good. Rey struggles to keep how stricken she feels from showing on her face. “Why would I do that?” she asks, quietly.

            “Because he had to think he bested you, didn’t he?” Hux asks. “He had to think he dominated you in every possible way, in and out of the bedroom. It’s the only way he’d let you in.”

            When Hux makes to take his next step forward, the one that will bring him inches from her, he finds his feet rooted to the ground. Rey’s breath comes harsh and ragged through her nose as she grips the Force tight, keeping him right where he is. He looks down at his shoes, then up at her, and he cocks his head to the side. “Aren’t we past all this?”

            “I don’t know what you’re going on about,” Rey says, her voice tight.

            “Of course you do. A risky plan, to be sure, but it paid off brilliantly. Anyone with eyes can see that he’s smitten with you. You must know it. It’s what you were counting on.”

            A twinge of confusion interrupts Rey’s fear. “What— exactly are you accusing me of?”

            “I’ll tell you when you release me.”

            Rey grits her teeth. The way he condescends to her makes her skin crawl. “You’ll tell me now,” she says, with the Force behind it.

            “I’ll tell you now,” Hux agrees, amiably. “I know Organa sent you to whisper in his ear and poison the First Order from within. And it was working, until you lost your temper. Now you’re on very thin ice. If I were you, I’d be looking for a new ally.”

            Taken aback, Rey blinks and releases both her hold on him and the mind trick. He’s wrong. He’s close, so close, but wrong. She exhales through her mouth, knowing she can’t afford to look relieved. His arrogance has clouded his judgment. He thinks he knows what’s happening. He thinks he knows her.

            He doesn’t. But if she’s to figure out what he’s planning, he has to think he’s right.

            Hux blinks back to himself. “Charming,” he says. “Don’t try it again. I’ll be ready this time.”

            “Why would I seek that ally in you?” she asks out of pure disbelief, ignoring the warning. “You— you’re against everything I stand for. That I’ve ever stood for.”

            “Oh, but how much does that matter, I wonder?” He takes that final step, looming over her as best he can. He’s a tall man, but skinny under that greatcoat, not nearly as physically intimidating as Kylo Ren. Rey thinks she could probably best him in combat without a staff or the Force to aid her. She almost wishes she agreed to wear high heels so they could truly speak eye-to-eye, and so she could grind the point of one down on his foot.

            “You should read the datafile he keeps on you,” Hux murmurs. “It’s very thorough. I’ve studied it. I know what a stubborn little scavenger you are, Rey, and you’re in Ren’s blind spot now, but I wonder how long you’ll remain there? You’re only still alive because of his juvenile infatuation, but eventually he’ll uncover your true purpose here. And he will kill you.”

            “He won’t do that,” Rey demurs, keeping her eyes on his. She says it with certainty, remembering the look on Kylo’s face as he held her while she succumbed to the poisoned wine. Killing her would mean tearing his own soul in half, again. He would never. He couldn’t.

            “If you sincerely believe that, you know nothing of the human heart,” Hux tells her, and although Rey finds this statement beyond ironic, he seems to mean it sincerely. “When he discovers the depth of your betrayal, he’ll be driven mad. If he can’t possess you entirely…”

            Hux reaches out to touch a lock of hair that spills over the shoulder, studying the way it shines in the lights of the cell. Rey stays very, very still as he takes it in his hand, running his thumb over every individual strand. It’s been a while since a nauseating wave of revulsion has compelled her to do anything but fight, but she clamps down on that urge. If she uses the Force to push him away, she’ll break his conviction that she’ll be swayed to his side. And if he thinks there’s no use for her, he’s the one who’ll have her killed. He’s told her too much.

            But if he puts a hand on her skin again, he’ll find himself plastered to the far wall. He must know he’s already pushing his limits. Yet he seems more interested in gauging just how much she’ll let him take than self-preservation. After a long, uncomfortable moment, he takes his eyes from her hair to return her gaze. “I’m your only option if you want to weather this storm. One way or another, your little secret will come out. And then...”

            Hux lets the silence speak for itself. So that must be the bind he thinks he has her in. Either she cooperates, or he’ll find or manufacture some evidence to smear her to Kylo. She touches his mind again, only to find it closed to her, the mental shields she’d encountered before raised. Keep him talking, then. She has to keep him talking. “What is it you’d have me do?”

            He smiles and shakes his head, releasing her hair and stepping back to give her space again. Rey inhales. She hadn’t realized she’d been holding her breath.

            “I already told you I won’t say,” Hux says. “Not until the time comes.”

            “What time?”

            “You’ll know.”

            He steps around her to the cell door, but because he is who he is, he can’t resist one last remark. “The makeup can’t hide the truth of you, Rey,” he says. “If there’s one thing I know about scavengers, it’s that you’ll choose survival. Every time.”

            The door slides open for him, and he steps out. As he passes Ordula in the hallway, Rey hears him say, “Ordula, is it? I’m impressed with your handiwork.”

            “Very kind of you to say so, sir,” Ordula purrs. But the instant his footsteps recede down the hallway, she is at Rey’s side. “What a vile man,” she whispers, and she conceals a rude gesture from the camera behind one hand.

            Rey smiles back at her weakly, her heart and mind still racing from the conversation she just had. She’d tried, but she couldn’t get Hux to tell her what he had planned for Kylo Ren. Something is to happen at the gala—

            She must appear visibly shaken, because Ordula says quietly, “Come, come, sit. You’re all right.” She guides Rey to sit back down on the bunk as 38 rolls back in to put the finishing touches on her hair, and asks, “Did he lay a hand you?”

            “What?” Rey looks at her, incredulous. One of her hands automatically reaches for the lock of hair that he’d held, but she knows that’s not what Ordula meant. She shakes her head. “No. They’d be cleaning him up off the floor if he tried.”

            “I thought so,” Ordula says, and she smiles reassuringly. “I just wanted to be certain. You look pale, numa, even under all that paint.”

            “I’m fine,” Rey says, but her voice sounds distant in her own ears. She knows it isn’t safe to speak, and she isn’t sure what she would say if she could. She can’t tell a Resistance spy that Kylo Ren may be in danger. Most of the Resistance would consider that a good thing. And yet, Rey’s heart hasn’t stopped jumping. Kylo may not consider Hux a threat, but Hux does have something up his sleeve, and Kylo—

            Kylo’s too preoccupied with her to see it. He’s been too preoccupied with her to see anyone or anything else the entire time she’s been aboard his flagship. That had been the point. But instead of a strategic victory for the Resistance, her distraction might lead to his downfall.

            If she tries to warn him of that now, will he even listen?

            And what madness possesses her, that she would even think of warning him? She should let the First Order eat itself alive. Let Kylo Ren and Armitage Hux succumb to exhaustion vying for the Supreme Leader’s seat, so the Resistance only has to endure until it all collapses. But the part of her that voices those thoughts is hollow and cynical, and maybe sounds a bit like Poe. It sits uneasily within her. She won’t ally herself with Hux, but does her duty to her people dictate that she stand idly by and let events play out how they will? That she wait?

            Then why does waiting seem wrong, and warning right?

            Her hands curl into fists on her thighs. I owe him nothing, she thinks. Nothing.

            38 pulls the top half of Rey’s hair back from her face and weaves it through Padmé Amidala’s hair ornament. Within the hour, Rey knows, she’ll stand face to face with Kylo Ren once again, and she’ll have a choice to make. To warn him or to keep silent. She tries to summon that morning’s anger and finds that while she still possesses it, it’s tinged now with a sickly pallor of confusion and concern.

            She owes him nothing, not as long as he remains on his current path. Not a warning. Not her loyalty. Not her help. And not her heart.

            If she repeats that enough, maybe it will start to feel true.

Chapter Text

            Rey only requires a little more primping and prepping before she’s ready for the gala. WR-38 finishes up her hair, then hands her a hand mirror — her first glimpse of her reflection all day. She’s surprised enough by what she sees that she’s not sure whether she should thank 38 or ask the droid to scrub everything off.

            Her face has been covered in something that matches and smooths out her skin tone, and her cheeks are rouged but also sculpted somehow. Her eyebrows have been pencilled, her lash line seems to extend almost to the tips of them, and her eyelashes are so full and thick and winglike that they threaten to fly away. She appears all angles now, no softness. Every part of her either glows or falls away to shadow, save for her lips, tinted what 38 says is rose pink. Rey has still never seen a rose, but at least now she can tell Rose what color they are.

            She likes her hair, at least. With the top half tied back and looped through Padmé’s hair ornament, and the bottom in loose curls that fall down her shoulders, it’s not so unlike the way she normally wears it. Just polished to shine, like all the rest of her.

            Then, finally, the dress is returned to her. The first thing Rey registers as it is briefly laid in her arms is the lightness of it. For all the layers, it feels as if it is something the wind might blow away, like flower petals. The tailor droids have disappeared, so 38 helps her into it, and soon Rey is standing in the middle of a river of purple-red fabric that flows down her body and pools on the floor behind her. She notices that the underskirt fits more closely to her narrow hips than it had that morning. The collar that fastens at her neck is silver, as are the bangles that hold the sleeves in place — if these draping extensions of the dress can be called sleeves. Rey was unprepared for how low it would dip in the back, and how bare it leaves her shoulders, but she does find herself captured by the silver embroidery at the lower hems, where the dress is darkest in color: there are leaves, and blossoms, and creeping vines, all things she seldom saw growing up.

            Kylo took her demand for no heels seriously, at the least. She’s given closed-toed sandals with straps that circle her legs to the knee. The straps are decorative, not practical, but at least she won’t spend the evening tottering around, always one step away from falling flat on her face. Rey still feels as though one wrong move might yet tear her whole ensemble to shreds; at this point, she’s more a decoration than a person.

            “Well,” says Ordula, stepping back to admire the final picture. “You look like royalty.”

            Rey picks up her arms. The sleeves attach to the fabric at her collar, which doesn’t really facilitate a full range of motion. “Is royalty usually this fragile?”

            “Oftentimes, yes.” A small smile plays across Ordula’s lips, but Rey feels very much excluded from the joke.

            The hiss of the cell door makes them both look up. Two Stormtroopers step into the cell, but they address Ordula, not Rey. “Ma’am,” says one, “We’re here to see you to your transport.”

            “It is about that time,” says Ordula amiably. She turns to Rey and takes both her hands, squeezing them briefly. “Best of luck, young one.”

            “May the—” Rey begins, out of habit, but Ordula arches an eyebrow at her and she clears her throat. “May your journey be safe.”

            Ordula nods, and then she goes with the Stormtroopers, willingly. Two of Kylo’s robed guards take their place, silently beckoning Rey to go with them. Rey takes a moment, closes her eyes, and allows herself a single grounding breath, which gives 38 one last chance to adjust her curls. Then she, too, leaves the cell behind, not at all disappointed to see the last of it.

            The guards lead Rey through a maze of lifts and corridors, as usual. When they finally draw up to the last elevator, she sees her full reflection, distorted, in the doors. Even disregarding the strange elongation and truncations of parts of her, she doesn’t recognize the person peering back: a person with tame, shiny hair and no blemishes, with thick dark eyelashes and impossibly pigmented lips. This person, in this dress, has never lugged salvaged capacitor bearings from the corpse of a Star Destroyer across an infinite desert, under a merciless beating sun. No, this person has smooth, perfect skin, and filed nails, and lotioned hands, and looks as though she’s never suffered a day of hardship in her life. Rey has no idea who she is.

            But she has very little time to feel lost in her own body before the doors open, and she finds herself blinking at the sudden appearance of Kylo Ren, flanked by his four remaining guards.

            Her heart jumps. It can’t be more than half a day since they last touched, but it feels like a lifetime. Her eyes find his face before she takes in his attire, and she notices that some cream or lotion has also been applied to his skin to make the bags under his eyes less pronounced. It must not be as thick as what’s on her face, because she can still re-count every mole she’s ever inventoried, and his scar is undiminished. His hair, like hers, is half-pulled back, but his is woven into three braids that meet at the crown of his head in a bun.

            Then the rest of him. His clothing. A purple-red cape that falls to just below his knees, secured at his throat by a silver clasp. A long coat made of panels of fabric and leather, elegant in their intentional haphazardness. Purple-red piping borders the panels, and it’s only that which makes her realize, with a start, that he’s dressed to match her, and that his guards’ robes match her too. He looks as regal as he ever has, and more.

            Kylo also takes her in. And he swallows.

            “Rey,” he says, quietly.

            They stand there, staring at each other. She knows they can’t keep staring forever. Movement in her periphery — one of the guards, moving as if to take her arm and push her forward. Kylo holds up a hand to stop them, and they still. Rey is grateful to be able to step in and stand beside him of her own volition. She turns to face the doors as the last two guards file in behind her.

            Then the doors shut with a finality, sealing them all in together.

            Rey shifts her weight from the balls of her foot to the heels and back, rebalancing, grounding her stance. Maybe it would be wise to tell him, now, what she knows: that Hux is planning a very vague something, and that he wants to involve her in it. But she finds herself wary of the enclosed space, and the guards’ masks, which hide their features. It’s only a hunch, but Rey knows to trust her instincts, and right now they’re telling her that if someone had compromised Kylo’s guard as they had his personal attendant, warning him of potential trouble might be a very good way to get skewered by a vibro-voulge. With Rey unarmed and Kylo’s lightsaber clipped to his belt as always, they might be able to eke out a win, but it would be a near thing.

            Before she can think or act either way, Kylo says, “I heard you were cooperative.”

            His voice is like a faraway avalanche, all broken pieces of rock. It throws her, but only for a moment. “You didn’t exactly leave me much choice,” she points out. “You threw me in a cell.”

            “I thought cooler heads might prevail,” he replies. “With— time. And distance. It was safest.”

            Rey scoffs. “Safest.”

            He’s mostly tamped down on their bond, but she can still feel the misery seeping through it, along with the tiny glimmer of relief that just comes from having her at his side again. “I thought you might not want to join me,” he says. “Even just for the evening. I thought you might resist.”

            She shrugs. “There didn’t seem to be a point in fighting it,” she says, obviously unable to explain her real reason for sticking around. She’ll leave after the Resistance bombers strike, and not before. “Besides, I said I would come.”

            He has, fundamentally, never told her a lie, if one doesn’t count lies by omission. Rey figures that if he understands one thing, it’s the language of promises they make each other. And he does. He says, “Yes, you did.”

            “But that just means I’m here,” she cautions him. “It’s not going to be like it was before.”

            Kylo is quiet for a moment. And then he says, “It could be.”

            She turns her head and sees him standing close to her, leaning toward her, radiating awkwardness and hesitancy. How different he is now than he was the first time they kissed. But as it had then, her stomach lurches at the prospect of being touched without initiating touch herself — not just with him, she thinks, but with anyone. What a farce this is, all of it. And then, just beneath that repulsion, there’s the fear that kissing him might make everything else melt away, as it so often does. She can’t afford that. The ribbon of sadness that winds its way around her insides isn’t helping either. She is all too aware she may never see him again after this, or they may meet only on the battlefield, as enemies. They may never have another chance.

            Oh, that she could kiss him. And oh, how she can’t.

            “I’ll ruin my lips,” Rey says with quiet firmness, looking back at the elevator doors. “You’ve no idea how long it took 38 to get my face looking like this.”

            A brief silence follows.

            “Well, I hate it,” Kylo snaps, some of that old churlishness returning as he jerks his head away.

            “I do too,” Rey replies, and out of the corner of her eye she sees him glance back at her. “But it’s your gala. Your rules.”

            Another pause. “I hate the gala, too,” he admits, with downcast eyes. He holds his shoulders stiff, arms at his sides, and he speaks low enough that even in these close quarters she’s not sure if the guards can hear him. “All of this, I hate. I’d have no part of it.”

            Rey swallows. Of course, this is the entire reason why she’s here, to keep him busy and ensure the gala proceeds as planned. And of course she’s still angry with him for concealing his students from her, for taking students at all. But she can’t help but empathize with him, and it’s somehow comforting to know that she’s not the only one who dislikes standing before a crowd in fine clothes. She remembers telling him, not so long ago, that it’s difficult to stay angry with him. This is why. For all the trappings and all the complications, there is so much at the core of them that is the same.

            Tentatively, she moves her hand closer to his and brushes her little finger over the back of his glove. She hears his breath catch.

            “Why do you do it?” she asks, softly.

            “Snoke was seldom seen,” he replies. “I— am different. I’m active. And while rumors of my involvement in military campaigns may precede me, putting in official state appearances is… also wise. It’s one day a year. I have no reason to hide.” He tilts his hand, skims his finger against hers. “And now I have something to show.”

            Rey notes language that might imply him needing to be persuaded of the importance of public appearances. She wonders who would have the nerve. Hux? She now knows Hux has a vested interest in keeping the gala running smoothly, too. Kylo wanting to distinguish himself from Snoke might have been a compelling enough idea to make him cave.

            She says, “Neither of us wants to be here. It’s going to be a long evening. I guess for the sake of civility, I owe you an apology.”

            “Do you?”

            There’s a tenderness to his voice, not tenderness like gentleness, but like Rey’s pressing down hard on a fresh bruise. He thinks — they both know — that if she were to apologize for the last thing she said to him, it would be a lie on two counts. The statement came from a visceral place, one that she did mean and feel sincerely, and moreover he had asked for her honesty. He had wanted to know what she felt.

            So Rey doesn’t touch that part at all. “I won’t apologize for my anger,” she continues. “I will, maybe, admit that I shouldn’t have chased after you with an axe.”

            He nods. “I accept that.” Then he pauses, takes a breath, gathers his nerve. He bumps his knuckles against her fingertips, and says, “I want you to meet them.”

            “Your students?”

            “Yes.”

            Rey’s heart aches for more reasons than she can count. “To what end?”

            “So they can watch you, and feel how you use the Force. How it’s different. How it’s the same. And they’ve noticed my absence. They keep—” The tip of his ear, just visible between locks of shiny black hair, goes a bit pink. “Pestering me.”

            “About?”

            “My girlfriend.”

            Rey exhales. It might be the start of a chuckle if she didn’t feel so sad. “Well, they are teenagers. They’ll do that.”

            “They will.” He nods agreement, then adds, “It feels reductive.”

            “What, calling them teenagers?”

            “No. Saying you’re my ‘girlfriend.’”

            “Oh,” says Rey, who now feels herself blushing too. She seeks out his forefinger and lightly hooks it with her own. “What would you call me?”

            He doesn’t hesitate. “My partner.”

            “Partner.”

            “My equal in the Light, and sometimes the Dark. My opposite. And—”

            The lift slows to a stop, and the doors open. The guards file out around them in their columns of three, but Kylo stays behind, and Rey does, too. They seem to be at the top of a staircase, nowhere she recognizes. She can hear music and movement and a swell of chattering voices, overlapping and resolving into mere white noise.

            “But you feel how you feel, about me, about all of it,” he says softly, now that they’re alone. He keeps his eyes forward, keeps his finger looped around hers, but she feels it tremble, slightly. “I know there are doors that are closed to me.”

            Rey looks up at him, and sees him set his jaw. “Those doors aren’t closed, Ben,” she says. “You just have to be the one to open them.”

            “So it’s conditional.”

            “That’s not what I mean and you know it.”

            He looks at her, and the light catches his eyes, rendering them almost amber instead of deep, dark brown. She’s struck, as she has been before, by how he seems so young, and yet so ancient. “What do you mean, then?” he asks.

            Answering his question would mean admitting that she doesn’t know what she means, or that she knows but can’t say. Besides, there are more important things to tell him. They’re alone: this might be her best chance to let him know trouble is brewing. And she has to tell him. Looking at him now, she doesn’t know why she ever thought she wouldn’t.

            So she opens her mouth, and says, “Ben—”

            Then a hush falls over the din below, and the orchestra beings playing a somber, dignified march. Rey winces, knowing that must be their cue to enter, knowing they have so little time.

            “Later,” Kylo promises, misunderstanding her reaction.

            “But there—”

            “Later.”

            He walks out of the lift, not allowing any room for argument. Rey follows, even as she wonders whether later will ever come.


            They find themselves on a raised platform, with a full view of the gathering below. No one announces their names, or titles: there is no need. The room is dead silent. Rey has never seen so many people in one place before, but as she looks down over the edge she thinks there must be at least thousands in attendance, maybe five thousand, maybe ten. It’s possible that there are more people assembled for this one gala than in the Resistance’s entire active force, and these are just high-ranking officers, or key officials from various subservient systems, not even soldiers.

            Kylo stands at her side, hands folded in front of him, taking stock of the scene. Nothing unites two people more quickly than a common foe, and while the guests may technically be aligned with Kylo he too sees this entire ritual as an obstacle to overcome. She feels through the bond that he believes they are better than any of the people looking them, that Rey alone is worth ten thousand people, and another ten thousand over again, and that this is a comfort to him. It’s an honest sort of arrogance, borne of his bloodline and his power and his respect for her as an equal in all things. If only the galaxy operated on such principles, it might be a simpler place. It would also be worse off.

            Rey takes a breath as holodroids zip out seemingly from nowhere and swarm them, capturing their images from all angles for projection in various parts of the room, and for broadcast and distribution across the HoloNet. A siren sounds in her mind, telling her that this is not the place for her, that these are not her people, that the weight of so many expectant gazes may be impossible to bear. She should flee, says that part shaped by years of solitude, the part that finds comfort in silence and stillness, the part that’s paralyzed. But she doesn’t flee. She hasn’t frozen in the face of a perceived threat in years. She just needs a moment.

            Kylo gently places a hand on the small of her back, the leather of his glove a familiar comfort to her bare skin. He doesn’t press her forward. He waits for her to take the first step.

            Rey looks down the stairs. She is unsure of the etiquette here, but she can’t really be bothered with etiquette, because if she doesn’t gather up her skirts she knows she’ll trip and tumble all the way down. She pulls them up away from her feet and begins the descent, and Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader of the First Order, moves with her.

            This chamber, she sees now, is a converted hangar, likely one of the only spaces on the ship that can fit so many. Large swaths of black fabric have been draped over walls and pinned to the ceiling, as have red banners adorned with the hexagonal First Order insignia, but there’s no livening up the space, except by the warmth and breath of thousands of bodies. The stairs lead down to a dias, where they branch, and on the dias Rey sees a throne: Snoke’s throne, although it belongs to Kylo now, with chairs to either side and a table set in front.

            Everyone stands for their entrance, as they had the previous evening: some by the sides of circular tables, and some around the edges of an area designated for dancing. Rey rolls her shoulders back and keeps her head raised, even as her gaze flits around the room, assessing threats. The robed guard stands to one side of the steps, and the Knights of Ren, still masked but in slightly more coordinated ceremonial honor, to the other. To the left of all of that, a massive orchestra, with too many instruments for her to name. She spies Hux, standing behind his chair a few seats to the right of the throne. In the crowd, by tables close to the dias, she sees some of the dignitaries who had approached Kylo the previous evening, some of the women who had flattered her appearance.

            Kylo looks out over the crowd, too, but more at the space above all their heads than at their faces. He doesn’t seem to seem to register any single person at all outside of her and them.

            They reach the dias together, and she knows without instruction that this is where they diverge. Kylo walks to the right stairs, and Rey walks to the left. She recalls what he said the previous day: that they would enter from opposite sides of the dance floor, and come together in the middle. And so they do, walking with an eerie synchronicity even when they’re parted.

            When Rey finally sets foot on flat flooring again, she takes a breath. She hadn’t realized that she’d had her eyes on her feet for those last few steps. She raises them as she proceeds toward the center of the floor, and the sight of Kylo walking to meet her in all his finery makes her breath catch in her throat.

            She clears it as he draws close to her, and she picks up her arms so she can place her hands on him, and he can place his on her. She looks up at his face, so close, then to the side. So many distractions: the holodroids flitting around her, the orchestra readying to play, all those pairs of eyes, the thoughts of the gala attendants, their breathing, the rustling of their finery. With the rift between her and Kylo, will they even be able to pull this off?

            Kylo senses her trepidation and inclines his head down to her. “Close your eyes,” he whispers.

            “What?”

            “No one else is here,” he says. “Close them. Remember.”

            She closes her eyes, and they’re like they were yesterday, almost. How much she feels like she’s aged in a single day. But once the room is out of sight, it’s easier to pretend they’re alone, that the only things in her universe are his breath on her hair, his hands on her skin, his heart beating in time with hers, so loudly that she thinks she can hear it over everything else. He’s also nervous, she realizes, but there’s pride there, too, at holding her in his arms in front of everyone and claiming her as his, just as the scar on his face marks him to the galaxy as hers.

            Music swells from the orchestra. Rey senses Kylo’s first step before he takes it, and steps with him. They move as they were meant to: together.

            And as he sweeps her around the floor, as her dress flares out around her and his cape flutters behind him, Rey wants to rail against the unfairness of it all. How well they fight together, dance together, fit together, and yet how unlikely it is that they’ll never be able to be together unless one of them bends. He must be the one to do it, much more than her: the Force will never find balance while the First Order reigns, while darkness reigns with it. There’s no avoiding that. But maybe after all that’s transpired, they can yet learn from each other. And while the part of her that clings stubbornly to principle insists there’s nothing to learn from him until he rights himself, she wonders if that’s quite true. Slowly, so slowly, she’s seen him adopt some of her patience, and mercy, and humor, or find them again within himself. She ponders, coming away from all of this, what she has learned from him.

            They dance on with ease. In their moments of serenity it’s difficult to believe they’ll end up any way but together. With her eyes closed, Rey feels like she can almost see their afterimages in the Force. They are twin flames, she and he. Whipped about by the winds of fate, nonetheless they burn the same.

            But then she hears a massive noise, a creaking, a shuddering, and she opens her eyes. What she sees makes her gasp. The massive hangar doors are opening, and beyond them, beyond the magnetic shield that ensures the hangar retains its pressure, the procession begins. As Kylo turns her, she glimpses two Resurgent-class Star Destroyers gliding past, a trail of TIE fighters in their wake, falling into a formation and then breaking it to form shifting complex shapes before finding their places again. Kylo notices her fascination, and on their next turn he lifts her, partially showing off but also giving her a better view of the demonstration. When he places her back on the floor, she finds the steps again, easy as breathing.

            Slowly, one by one, then in pairs, other couples return to the dance floor. As they pick up the dance in the middle, whirling around Rey and Kylo, Rey realizes that in truth, neither she nor Kylo have much in the way of grace at dancing, given her newness at it and his ever-present rigidity. But they make up for it with something more, she thinks. Anyone watching them would never claim they were poor dancers, because of the natural way they match each other’s movements, beat for beat, step for step. It’s something that cannot be practiced. It’s something that just is.

            Beyond them, the ships continue to pass, not just capital ships and starfighters but smaller cruisers and frigates, too. How long would it last? An hour, maybe two? The pageantry of it all is impressive, but Rey can’t help but see in each ship another burning village, another planet rendered scorched and barren. Kylo senses her unease, and the next time he twirls her out from him he pulls her in close to his chest. Their steps become neater and tighter until they barely cover any surface area aside from the tiny square in the middle of the dance floor they’ve marked as theirs.

            And at last, the song crescendos, and slows, and the dancers slow with it. On that final, note, the lingering resolution, Kylo dips her, low, as he had in his chambers, and holds her there as the music fades, and polite and persistent applause from the onlookers takes its place.

            The song may have ended, but the spell isn’t broken. Rey looks at his head, bowed over her breasts as he holds her, and realizes they’re both quivering with exertion, and with so much more.

            Kylo pulls her upright, setting her back on her feet. The hand on her back slips around to her waist as she comes to stand on her own. She looks up at him, all unsaid words and unasked questions. But she feels that tug again, and remembers how she thought about it when she first came there: if the universe had its way, they would always be touching. If he had his way, too. And she’s beginning to think she wouldn’t mind that fate, not like she had when they first kissed, but there’s so much in their way. So much, but in these moments, so little.

            “I’m still angry,” she whispers, although her heart isn’t in it.

            “I know,” he replies, but he doesn’t sound hurt. His gaze finds hers and holds it. “We’ll— talk about it.”

            “Talk?”

            “Like… ‘normal people.’” The corner of his mouth twitches. “That’s what you said.”

            “That’s what I said,” Rey agrees.

            He disentangles their fingers and raises his hand, reaching out as if to stroke her cheek. But before he can, someone nearby clears their throat. And when the throat-clearing goes unacknowledged, that person says, “Ahem.”

            Rey and Ben turn toward the voice, and find Hux looking at them, stooped in a half-bow, his hand outstretched. “Supreme Leader,” he says, “I was wondering if Rey’s next dance might be mine.”


            “I’m truly surprised he didn’t kill you,” Rey says, once the orchestra starts playing the next song and the dancing begins anew.

            “He may not know much, but he knows that would be passé,” says Hux. He leads her with stiff precision, although he holds her at arm's length, as if her mere proximity might sully his noble personage. He wears the same uniform as always, pressed and clean, although tonight a number of medals adorn the front of it. Rey wonders if he ever tires of that outfit, and how many of those medals he bestowed upon himself. “You bring a date to these affairs, you can’t expect to hoard them. Other people will ask them to dance. It’s a courtesy. An honor, even.”

            “You’re honoring me?” Rey doesn’t bother keeping the skepticism out of her voice.

            “In theory, but you’re also honoring me,” he corrects. “They did good work on you today. You truly do look like royalty.”

            Rey grimaces, both at his flattery and because she’s quickly learning it’s not as easy for her to dance with a partner who isn’t Kylo Ren. Hux executes the steps with perfect adequacy, yet Rey still feels that she’s always a near-miss away from stepping on his toes or tripping on her own train. Maybe that wouldn’t be such a tragedy, true, but she’s not sure how she’s also expected to carry on a conversation while performing this balancing act. She imagines it involves not having to count one-two-three one-two-three in her head. “I’d really like it if we stuck to business, thanks.”

            “This is business.” He spins her out, as Kylo had, and then back in. “Surely you must have thought about what kind of Empress you’d make once he wed you.”

            Rey scoffs, then looks over Hux’s shoulder for Kylo, who has decided to abstain from dancing for the time being. He’s returned to his throne, and sits on it with hands on his knees. A man in a general’s uniform is making a valiant effort to engage him in conversation, but he is far too busy glowering at the back of Hux’s head to care. Apparently a few snide remarks exchanged at a party is no big deal, but dancing at a gala is a step too far.

            Rey doesn’t disagree. She hadn’t anticipated needing to dance with anyone else, and the amount of exposed back she’s showing means that the customary hand on her waist unavoidably touches bare skin. Thank the Maker that gloves are part of Hux’s uniform; she might have staged a riot otherwise.

            “Ironic, really,” Hux says, answering a question that no one had asked. “If not for your misguided ideals and the unfortunate circumstances of your birth, choosing you might be the only good decision Ren’s ever made.”

            “Small matters, then,” Rey says, half-rolling her eyes at him.

            “In the scheme of things, yes. You have poise. Made up, you’re not entirely displeasing to look at. There’s a rags-to-riches narrative to be spun around you, which would inspire envy but also aspiration. You’re more perceptive than Ren, and therefore an asset to him. And last night people seemed to find you likeable, which—” He wrinkles his nose. “There really is no accounting for taste.”

            “There isn’t,” Rey assents. “They made you a general, didn’t they?”

            Hux doesn’t seem insulted. He smiles at her, which is worse. “I made myself a general. I’m not ashamed to admit that I dirtied my hands to get here. Not unlike you. Well— no, that’s not true. I didn’t spend any time on my back.”

            Rey ignores this. A reaction is what he wants. “How’d you do it, then?” She pauses, then she ventures, “Poison?”

            “Sometimes.” His tone doesn’t change, which unsettles her. They could be discussing the weather. “As it happens, my own father succumbed to poison, although you’d be hard pressed to prove it.”

            Rey’s voice wavers with anger as she says, “But you had trouble with Kylo Ren.”

            “Ah. That nonsense.” He spins her again. Out, from him, and back in, so her back presses against his chest for the next few steps. “He’s a sentimental fool. I didn’t think he’d share that wine with you.”

            “So it was you.” He admits to it so casually. The pounding of her heart nearly drowns out the music. “You were the one who poisoned me.”

            Hux doesn’t seem to see any point in denying it. “I orchestrated it. Although I must say, I’m sorry that—”

            “Stuff it,” Rey snaps, and Hux very nearly recoils from her. He clearly isn’t used to being spoken to like that. “I almost died,” she hisses. “You almost killed me.”

            “I don’t know why you’re so put out. It didn’t take.”

            “It didn’t—” Impossible laughter bubbles up within her. She pushes it down, down. “It was a very near thing!”

            “But wasn’t it illuminating?” He sends her out from him once again, and when he pulls her in they’re the standard distance apart. They launch straightaway into a quarter turn, narrowly skirting around another dancing couple. “Ren finally revealed a truly exploitable weakness. You.”

            “And now you think you have me in a bind,” Rey says, keeping a tight rein on her fury so she can keep him talking. He loves to hear the sound of his own voice, and eventually he’ll tell her what she needs to know. And then she can tell Kylo. “You think you can use me to get to him.”

            “I know it.”

            “Well, I’ve been thinking.”

            “Have you? What a shock.”

            “Your whole scheme hinges on Kylo Ren believing your word over mine.” Rey straightens, defiant, holding her head high. “And he won’t.”

            “No,” Hux agrees, voice mild. “He won’t. But he might find the Resistance spy I’m detaining in the lower portside hangar very convincing.”

            Rey’s eyes widen, and although she tries to smooth her features back to something acceptably neutral, she sees a slow, triumphant smirk spreading across Hux’s face and knows there’s no point. She’s given herself away.

            “Oh, you’ve only yourself to blame for that, I’m afraid,” he continues, with barely contained glee. “With perspective, I became suspicious of how emboldened you were after our trip to Canto Bight, considering how humiliated you seemed at the time. I did my due diligence. I had my men question that shop girl who works for your friend Ordula. With enough prodding, she sang like a bird.”

            Vaguely, Rey recalls the green-skinned Twi’lek girl, Dessa, from Ordula’s. She had minded the shop while Rey and Ordula spoke. Seething, Rey asks, “What did you do?”

            “She hadn’t heard much,” Hux says, ignoring this question. “But she’d heard enough. Enough for me to know that I was on the right track, that is. From then it was a question of how to get the spy aboard without alerting your Resistance friends and scaring you off. Imagine my surprise when I heard you’d already asked for her.”

            Rey’s head spins. Through this whole conversation they’d never faltered, never lost the rhythm of their dance, twirling and swerving between the other pairs, but she knows that’s not why she’s dizzy. “That was chance,” she says.

            “I thought Jedi didn’t believe in chance. Perhaps it was the will of the Force.” That smirk widens. “I was waiting until the last moment to take her, but you provided a better excuse. When Ren was sulking over your outburst earlier, I suggested that a companion might do you good. Women do so love to talk amongst themselves, and you’d been starved for company. And he told me you’d already asked for a woman by name. That woman. The shopkeeper from Canto Bight.”

            Rey breathes out through her nose, nostrils flaring. “She won’t talk.”

            “Maybe not at first, but I have my methods.” Rey must look unconvinced, because Hux adds, “And Ren has his. In case you’ve forgotten.”

            She hasn’t. Kylo Ren’s invasion of her mind paled in comparison to the later experience of Snoke wrenching her memories to the surface one by one, but she could never forgot it. That Force technique had worked on Poe, and on her, to a point. It would work on Ordula. Ordula may not know all of the details of Rey’s mission, but she certainly knows that Rey is a plant. That would be enough to bring everything crashing down around them both.

            And while Rey doesn’t believe that Kylo would strike her down in anger, it’s still possible that he might have Ordula killed. If he didn’t, Hux certainly would. And no one needs to die for Rey today. “Let her go,” she whispers, fiercely.

            Hux looks bored. “She’s rebel scum and a spy. I can’t have her out in the galaxy stirring up trouble.”

            “Then don’t— kill her.” Rey’s mind races. Ordula seems like the type of person who’d figure her way out of a cell block, given time. “Just lock her up.”

            “Your sentimentality will be your end someday,” he drawls. “But fine. It will be done, provided you uphold your end of the bargain.”

            A chill runs down Rey’s spine. She has a bad feeling about this. “And you haven’t told me what that is.”

            “Nothing of consequence,” says Hux, extending his arm to allow Rey to spin out from him one more time. Rey wishes she could keep spinning, off of this dance floor, far out of reach of Hux or any of his schemes, leaving him alone with his ambitions.

            Alas, she only has a moment of freedom before he pulls her back into him, tight, a pole-snake wrapping around its prey. This is closer to Hux than Rey has ever wanted to be, and she bites down hard on her back teeth. She cannot punch his lights out in the middle of a First Order gala. She cannot, she cannot.

            He lowers his voice, and continues. “Nothing you haven’t already done, in a sense. But you’re probably the only person capable of it, and that’s why I’ve gone to such great lengths to secure your cooperation.”

            Rey wishes he would just get to the point. She feels like a climbing rope pulled tight, fraying at the middle, threatening to snap. Staring straight ahead, over his shoulder and out through the gaping hangar doors, she asks, “What is it you’d have me do?”

            Hux leans forward. “I need you,” he murmurs against her ear, a sickening warmth to his breath, “to kill Kylo Ren.”

Chapter Text

            At first Rey thinks she’s misheard. She says, “What?”

            Thankfully, Hux does not decide that the best way to correct her is through further murmuring. He pulls back to put a more socially acceptable amount of distance between them without missing a beat of their dance. “Nothing you haven’t done before, as I said. Ren maintains that you killed Snoke. What’s another Supreme Leader to add to your tally?”

            Rather than gaping at him, Rey focuses on making her feet continue to move in time with the music, even as her mind races at a much faster pace. She had thought that he would ask a smaller favor of her, something that would allow her to walk away with the illusion of a clear conscience. Lure Kylo away somewhere, for example. Get him alone, and let whatever happens next play out. Surely he can’t have laid his entire hand on the table only to reveal that his trump card is her willingness to carry out an assassination.

            What irony, then, that he should ask her for the one thing that she knows she absolutely will not do.

            The thought is simultaneously the most obvious thing in the galaxy and something that shocks her to her core. She wonders if this is how Kylo had felt, when he had watched her slipping away in his arms. This is a problem, or— it should feel like more of a problem than it does. They’re enemies yet, aren’t they? He’s a tyrant still, isn’t he? It’s more than likely her own people will call upon her to kill Kylo Ren, somewhere down the line. And yet...

            Her mouth moves, her body moves, but they seem almost detached from the rest of her, which is busy grappling with the realization that she cannot kill him, she will not kill him. She hears herself ask, “When?”

            “Soon. I’ll be giving a speech. You’ll act at the end of it.”

            “In the middle of the gala? That’s suicide.”

            “It doesn’t have to be,” Hux says. “I’ve come to an arrangement with the ceremonial guards. They’ll take you into custody and ensure you disappear after it’s done.”

            Rey recalls her instinct to say nothing in the elevator. It had been the right one, as her instincts so often are. She supposes she should stop calling them instincts and start crediting them to the Force. What an unfortunate choice of words: “disappear.” She has no doubt that Hux will have her killed once she’s served whatever purpose he needs. He thinks she’s a softer target than Kylo Ren because he believes much of her value comes from how distracted Kylo is by her bare skin. She knows Hux is clever enough — it’s why he’s still alive — but how is it possible to be such a clever idiot?

            He must read something in her expression, some amount of reluctance or mistrust, because he adds, “My dear, it doesn’t have to be so messy,” like she’s a child in need of placating. “You can lay low for a time, somewhere warm and green. Or back in the desert, if you prefer the coarseness of sand.” He twirls her one last time, and she endures it, numbly. “With a new name and some reeducation, you might make a suitable Empress yet.”

            Rey wrinkles her nose in disgust.

            “Or not,” Hux says quickly. “But if you agreed, there would be strategic benefits. You’ll have your life and all the time you’ll need to think it over.”

            She says nothing, because she knows well enough that there’s no thinking it over where Hux is concerned. He’ll always arrange it so the second option is death. Kill Kylo or die. Lay low in custody, or die. Submit to “reeducation,” or die. Agree to a marriage of convenience, or die. Each choice is no choice at all.

            “Why does everyone think I want to rule the galaxy with them?” Rey asks. “I don’t.”

            “But you do want to affect change,” Hux points out. “And you want to save your Resistance friends. This is the most efficient way. Concessions for concessions. It’s the sort of thing that was done to cement alliances back when the Elder Houses were relevant and bloodlines were given more credence.”

            “That won’t work,” Rey objects. “I’m not the inheritor to any sort of bloodline, and the Resistance will never agree to an alliance with you.”

            “The Resistance is nothing more than Leia Organa’s cult of personality. When she’s gone, who will they look to for leadership, hm?”

            Rey could prolong this argument — Poe is being groomed for leadership, not her, whatever mythos she has as the last Jedi — but she doesn’t respond. Debating won’t change that this is the most ridiculous and offensive proposition she’s heard in her life, and Kylo Ren once called her nothing while offering her his hand. Kylo, at least, had the decency to put some emotion behind his plea; Hux could be organizing a dinner party for sometime next week in the same tone he’s using to barter with her life and the lives of her friends. She focuses on keeping her own expression neutral so he can believe she’s processing, agreeing, cooperating, a helpless pawn. Inside, she simmers with rage.

            She barely realizes her feet have stopped, the music has stopped. Hux releases her, and he takes a step back to bow before her, keeping up the appearance of respect. As he straightens, he whispers, “Your weapon is under the table. When you hear ‘a new era,’ end his life. And do it quickly.”

            He walks away then, up the stairs to the podium at the far end of the dais, leaving no room for objection. Just as well. He wouldn’t have liked anything Rey had to say.

            The dancing guests all glide away from the open floor to their seats. Rey looks up to find Kylo waiting for her, standing behind the chair to the right of his throne. She doesn’t think his eyes have left her since their dance. She meets them now, too far away to make out all of the emotion contained behind them but struck by the intensity of his gaze all the same. They had stood on more solid ground after that elevator ride, but Rey suspects that her acceptance of an invitation to dance with someone else had shaken him. She holds that gaze as she departs the dance floor, unsurprised to find her hands trembling as they lift her skirts away from feet.

            She barely registers mounting the stairs of the dais until she’s walking behind the table to the chair Kylo has pulled out for her. He clutches the back of it a little too tightly, and when she draws near he lifts a hand to skim her bare back, as if to reassert his claim on her through touch.

            Rey looks up at him, and he makes to draw his hand back, as if he’s overstepped his bounds. Before he can, she utters, in a low voice, a one-word warning: “Darling.”

            Kylo blinks, remembering the code they’d agreed upon before the previous night’s party, that “darling” means “someone’s said something awful.” He seems a little surprised that she still wants to use it. Maybe he had thought the time for pet names was past.

            “What was it?” he asks, eyes flickering toward the podium, where Hux is moving into position, squaring his shoulders and drawing himself up to his full height in order to look more authoritative. Kylo’s mouth presses into a line, and his hand moves toward the lightsaber hilt at his belt on instinct, as if he’s preparing to strike Hux down this very moment.

            Rey shakes her head. “No,” she whispers. “I’ll show you.”

            Kylo’s eyes search her face, then he nods. Whatever else between them, he trusts her, and Rey feels it like a punch to the gut. Trust is more meaningful and less easily given than his attention, than his lust, than even his affection.

            She swallows and sits as he pushes her chair in behind her. The traitorous thoughts return: how could she desert him so easily, after all of this? He said he was willing to talk with her about his pupils. He had proven himself willing to trust her counsel. Maybe another option will present itself. If the Force is so desperate to have them together, the Force might yet provide.

            At least this gives her an opportunity to ignore Hux’s speech. As soon as he begins with, “Honored guests,” his voice a little too hard and harsh to mean it sincerely, she reaches for Kylo under the table. The arms of his throne get in the way, and for a moment she fears he won’t perceive her intent, but then she feels the bare fingers of his right hand brush against hers and sighs quietly with relief. She stares at Hux’s back and feigns interest in his words as she shares her memories with Kylo.

            It’s easier than it’s ever been. He tugs, lightly, as if pulling at a thread, and she pushes her conversations with Hux to him, edited in places. She knows she’ll have to tell him everything soon enough, but she doesn’t want him getting distracted in the meantime. If he doubts her now, it might spell the end for both of them.

            As Kylo rifles through her memories, Rey feels under the table with her free hand. Sure enough, beyond the tablecloth, her fingertips find the smooth, cold metal casing of her saberstaff, held fast in place by some sort of adherent. Hux kept that promise, at least. She allows her eyes to wander the room, taking note of who is armed and unarmed. She wonders how many of the people assembled are in on the plot. A few, she’d bet. Hux would have to be be stupider than she ever imagined to stage an assassination without any kind of backup in the event that it went sideways. She remembers that knot of other generals who had been watching her and Kylo train through the observation windows. Her eyes roam the crowd, briefly, and she spies the female general Hux had been conversing with the previous evening. There’s one. At least some of Kylo’s guards. How many more?

            That general’s eyes flit over to Rey, and Rey angles herself to face Hux more directly. He’s still droning on about the First Order’s military capabilities, its unparalleled greatness. He throws a glance or two in her direction, eyes narrow, ostensibly to see how his Supreme Leader is receiving the speech but really to check that Rey isn’t stirring up trouble. He seems satisfied by what he sees, every time. Rey sits quietly like a cooperative little minion. She isn’t saying a word to Kylo Ren.

            Then again, she doesn’t need to. He’s just about done processing her memories.

            What ensues between them now is less a dialogue than a sequence of feelings transferred. From him: inquiry. What does Rey plan to do? From her, apprehension. Even if his Knights remain loyal, the robed guards may be compromised, and there certainly are more than a handful of Stormtroopers prowling the walkways above their heads. From him, dismissal. They can handle it together. Perhaps he should just stand up now and call Hux’s bluff. Gentle reproach: that wouldn’t be wise. Gentler defiance: let him try to kill me himself instead of having you do his dirty work. Amused shock: Ben!

            She chews the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing at his boldness, and feels a rush of warmth from him. I should kill him anyway, Ben thinks in a very clear-cut sentence, not just for poisoning you, but for daring to try and steal you from me. Rey brushes this aside. She’s not something that can be stolen, and besides, she’s more than capable of fighting her own battles.

            The stormy sea of his mind settles for a moment, and Kylo sits back against his throne. Very well, then. Hux is her problem now.

            As Rey squeezes his hand, a massive holo flickers to life above the heads of all of the guests. It breaks her concentration, and Kylo’s mind partially uncouples from hers, although she can feel him still, feel a new edge of wary alertness drowning out his discomfort with formal events. She looks up at the holo and feels a queasy pang of recognition. She’s seen this image before, although it was not of such good quality, or so close. These are the twin Dreadnoughts Poe and company should be en route to destroy right now. They don’t look all that incomplete to Rey, and she shifts in her seat.

            “It is to my extreme regret that these Dreadnoughts could not be a part of tonight’s procession,” Hux says, not sounding entirely regretful. “But I am pleased to present live footage of our progress. Soon they will join the rest of our fleet. These ships—” He points up at them. “—will be the crown jewels of my navy!”

            Murmurs of approval from the crowd, most of whom, Rey would imagine, have already profited from these massive fleet-killers or will soon. Kylo sits forward. Now that he’s been brought up to speed, Rey knows he can’t help but notice that presumptuous choice of words. My navy. She caught it too.

            “The few remaining independent systems will have no choice but to bow before us or accept destruction. Organa’s Resistance will crumble.” Hux’s voice rises as he speaks, in pitch, in fervor. “With these weapons, we will usher in a new era of—”

            That’s her cue. As Hux expects, she wrenches her saberstaff out from under the banquet table and stands as she ignites it. The weight of it in her hands again is so right; she hadn’t realized until this moment how much she missed it.

            At least five thousand pairs of eyes turn to her. Kylo’s do, too, but they’re bright and expectant. A couple of holodroids speed over to begin recording her. Hux is mostly angled away from her at the podium, but she can still see the corner of his mouth turn up in a triumphant smirk when he hears that telltale hum.

            His victory is short lived. She vaults over the banquet table and lunges at him with a yell.

            And then—

            Chaos.


            Rey blinks back to consciousness. She couldn’t have been out for more than a few seconds, she thinks. Her vision is still clouded by gray smoke, and she can’t hear nothing beyond the ringing in her ears. She opens her mouth to speak, or to breathe, and coughs, tasting ash at the back of her throat.

            The explosion flares out, weaker than it would be but still strong enough to sear, and the last thing she feels is a wave of heat before—

            She lays on her stomach with her face burrowed in the crook of her left elbow, and as she moves it to push up to her forearms her flesh stings and throbs. The pain nearly sends her back to unconsciousness, but she grits her teeth and bears it, her forehead pressing against the cool metal floor. Her entire body shakes. She smells burnt hair. Hers, she thinks.

            She tries to remember how it had all happened, winding the memories back from end to beginning, like she would a length of climbing rope.

            Rey closes her eyes against the white-blue fire, almost blinded by it. Both of her outstretched arms shake as she tries to keep it confined to a sphere until it burns itself out. It’s up the hangar from her, much closer to where Ben and the Knights were fighting moments ago. But even they are gone from her thoughts. All she knows is the explosion, and the full-body agony she feels from the effort of channeling the Force to keep it from destroying them all.

            Her knees begin to buckle, and her face softens as she is overcome by an odd sense of peace. She has this, she can do this, she’s capable. If this is the only thing she can do—

            Someone shouts, “No!”  Then a weight barrels into her from behind, knocking her to the ground, covering her, as the blast roars to life, filling the hangar bay.

            The ringing in her ears begins to subside, and as it does Rey hears the crackle and popping of a hundred small fires. Had Ben been the one to knock her down? No, impossible. Rey was certain that voice had been a woman’s.

            She tries to gather the Force to her, tries to reach out to him through their bond, but her body’s too weak a vessel and her soul is spent. Trying to stop that torpedo from incinerating them all had drained her more than she realized. She can’t feel him yet. Or maybe that’s because—

            That’s not possible. Rey refuses to consider it.

            “Ben,” she croaks, picking up her head. “Where’s Ben?”

            Rey sees him go down as though it happens in slow motion. From across the hangar he looks small enough to be a toy. He falls to the side with the blade still in him, but it slips out as the guard holding it falls back. One of the Knights has discharged a blaster into his gut at close range.

            Her scream echoes in her ears, but Ben is soon the least of her worries, because a spark of blazing light slips through the gap between the closing hangar doors, a bright trail streaking behind it as it arcs toward the floor.

            No, the torpedo. She remembers the torpedo. Before that.

            She turns her head and manages to get a look at the burn on the back of her arm and shoulder. A few, very small, bubbling white blisters in places, but otherwise her skin’s only been scorched a deep pink from the wave of heat that rolled out from the explosion. Not so bad, all things considered; a bacta patch will heal it up and prevent scarring, once she can get to a medpac, and she’d managed to shield her face. In the scheme of things, she’s very lucky. It all could have been worse. Presumably, anything explosive like fuel or munitions had been removed from the hangar in preparation for the gala.

            The Knight of Ren who’d knocked her down is sprawled out on the floor a couple of meters away. Her helmet had come off when she hit the ground, and Rey sees that she has shiny black hair braided in a long plait, woven into a circle at the back of her head. Her skin is light brown, her nose is long, and a crescent-shaped white scar circles one of her eyebrows. She can’t be any older than Ben; maybe a little younger. As Rey crawls toward her, she stirs and opens one eye.

            “All right, milady?” she asks, a little gravelly, in a voice with a thick accent not too unlike Rey’s.

            Rey blinks at her, dazed.

            “You all right?” she asks again. “Ren would have my hide if you weren’t.”

            For some reason, Rey hadn’t registered that she was the one being spoken to. Probably that “milady” nonsense. She clears her throat, swallows thickly. “I’m Rey,” she says.

            “I know.”

            “I mean, call me—” She shakes her head. No time for any of that. With a groan, she manages to push up to a seated position and looks around.

            The Knight also sits up. “Nasty burn, Rey,” she says, easily. She feels around for her poleaxe and pulls it to her. Rey realizes that this is the Knight she’d stolen a weapon from in the training room earlier that morning, but if she begrudges Rey for that, she doesn’t show it. In fact, she smiles at Rey, which Rey finds mildly disconcerting. She would have thought all of the Knights were dour and serious. “I’m Aylu, since we’re on a first name basis.”

            “Aylu.”

            “You really ought to wear more armor if you go on picking fights like this.” Aylu grimaces as she gets to her feet, leaning heavily on her axe. She holds her hand out to Rey. “Up, we’ll find him. He’s not dead. Too stubborn for it.”

            Rey takes Aylu’s hand and allows herself to be pulled up. She takes a second to breathe, and as her aching head clears she can feel the Force again; the hilt of her saberstaff calls to her, and she wills it into her hand.

            Ben calls to her, too. He’s not dead. Rey’s other senses may still be muddled, but the longer she’s conscious, the more their bond reawakens, the more she can sense him. He is alive. She feels his aching arms, his— pain sears through her, and she presses a hand to her side. “He’s hurt.”

            She stands with her back to Aylu’s parrying volleys of blasterfire; the remaining guards encircle Ben and the other Knights, too focused on breaking through to him to bother with a girl and one errant Knight. Not so for the Stormtroopers and the officers, who seem to realize that keeping Aylu from completing her task is essential to winning the day, if it can still be won.

            But Rey is growing weary; sweat beads on her forehead. She reaches out with the Force, sending two of the assailants flying back, but she’s contending with four more, and her arms ache with the effort of keeping her staff moving quickly enough to provide cover. “Hurry!” she shouts to Aylu.

            “Almost there,” Aylu calls back. “Just a few moments more.”

            Rey can’t even spare a glance over her shoulder to see what the Knight is doing. She’s too focused on keeping them both from getting shot. But Ben is in her line of sight on the dais, and she can see that he, too, is flagging. His shoulders shake with the effort of redirecting the torpedoes away from the hangar, his outstretched hand wavering. His lips curl back from his teeth, baring them. It would be an ugly snarl were he not busy saving them all. Funny how context makes so much difference.

            Aylu lets out a yelp of triumph, and the hangar doors shudder and begin to close. Just as she’s thinking it, she sees a flash of movement; one of the Knights, hamstrung, sinks to a knee, then, lightning-quick, the glint of a vibro-voulge—

            “No!” she tries to yell, to warn him, but she’s too far away for Ben to hear.

            “Let’s not tarry, then,” says Aylu, looping an arm around Rey’s waist. She’s a little shorter than Rey, but seems stockier, more muscular, although that may be due to her armor. Rey is also privately relieved that she didn’t have to ask Aylu to support her. Weariness drenches her to the bone, and her legs might give out on her at any moment.

            Aylu begins moving slowly through the debris, the overturned tables, the bits of burnt First Order banners raining down around them. There are fewer bodies than Rey would have thought. She sees some on the upper walkways, a few on the ground, the flash of a guard’s wine-colored robe up by the throne, which itself is scorched but unbroken. Most of the guests must have escaped. Rey feels oddly thankful for that, and questions it. Surely it would be a boon to the galaxy if most of the First Order’s leadership were destroyed?

            But the idea of cutting people down unarmed, in their evening finery, turns Rey’s stomach. If nothing else, she and Ben were able to buy time. She looks for him at the dais, but doesn’t see him.

            “We have to close those hangar doors!” she yells over the thrumming of the lightsabers in her hands, the seemingly endless blaster fire. They stand back to back in a circle of Knights of Ren, who are busy fending off Kylo’s traitorous guards and the attackers from various other points in the room, Stormtroopers and a few scattered officers loyal to Hux who are busy covering his escape.

            Ben says nothing, but he takes his eyes off of the entrance for a brief moment to look up at the command center. Rey watches as a TIE fighter swoops in and fires off two more torpedos. She grits her teeth and reaches for them with one hand. It’s becoming more and more difficult to redirect them, but she locates them in space and wraps the Force around them to altering their trajectory away from the hangar, nothing fancy. They burst harmlessly against the hull of the Conquest II, and the TIE dodges and dives under the ship and out of sight.

            As soon as Ben turns back to keep vigil, Rey sneaks a glance up at the command center and sees that there’s smoke pouring out of broken windows. “That’s no help.”

            “No,” says Ben, who deflects another torpedo with a wave of his hand and a grunt. He makes it look almost effortless, but she can tell he’s tiring.

            “The emergency release is by the doors,” shouts the Knight with the poleax, who Rey now knows to be Aylu. “There’s a code. I know it.”

            Rey looks at Ben over her shoulder, meets his eyes. They know their course of action immediately. “I’ll cover you,” Rey says to Aylu, and Ben gives her a small nod as they peel off from the group and begin sprinting through the hangar.

            She can’t keep working backwards toward her failure. Something else, anything else. It had been Aylu who knocked Rey down and broke her focus, so she asks, “Why did you stop me? I had it contained.”

            “You were about to kill yourself.” Aylu steers them around a few half-charred tables. They’re near where the torpedo struck, now. Rey can see the blackened scarring it left on the floor. “Better to be a little burnt than to channel the Force so hard you join it.”

            It takes Rey a moment to parse those words. She wonders if she isn’t a little concussed. “You’re Force sensitive,” she says, slowly. “You were one of Master Skywalker’s students?”

            “That’s right.”

            “But you left to go with Be— Ren?”

            “I did.”

            Even now, Rey’s curiosity is an unscratchable itch. “Why?” She asks.

            “His sparkling personality, of course,” says Aylu.

            Rey huffs a laugh. “Something tells me that’s not quite true.”

            “Not completely.” Aylu readjusts her grip on Rey’s waist, and explains herself in very simple terms. “Skywalker tried to kill him. Didn’t seem right to stay.”

            Rey recalls her own flare of temper upon learning of Luke’s folly. Even now, even though she knows both sides better than she did then, it burns in her belly. “I suppose I understand that.”

            Aylu smiles again, a little ruefully. “I thought you seemed okay for a Jedi.”

            “Even though I stole your axe?”

            “Yeah, even though.”

            Rey looks at her feet. That morning seems far away, like it happened months ago, or in a dream. She remembers her fury at finding the children. She can’t muster it now. There’s just the numb void of exhaustion and the overwhelming concern that Ben could be laying on his back somewhere, his blood staining the floor of the hangar bay.

            Ben.

            It feels familiar. It feels right. She’s retreated to the dais to be at Ben’s side, twirling her saberstaff to deflect the blasterfire from the Stormtroopers above. Finn had told her how strongly Stormtrooper conditioning emphasized the brilliance and supremacy of Hux and his late father. It makes sense that he’d leave the dirty work to them while he himself flees, a coward’s escape.

            Ben grunts his agreement as his lightsaber blade sizzles against the vibro-voulges of two of his guards. He pushes them back, and two of his Knights immediately fill the space, coming between him and danger. Three form a semicircle in front of Rey; one with a long-range blaster rifle begins returning fire at the assailants above.

            “I don’t need bodyguards!” she exclaims, deflecting a bolt that would have hit Ben’s shoulder.

            Ben doesn’t reply, and as she turns her head to look at him she sees what’s drawn his focus. Outside of the hangar, the procession has broken up. Confusion ensues, and a few of the ships are taking advantage of it to wreak havoc on the rest. How deep the conspiracy goes. Hux must have ensured that some of the ships were crewed by officers loyal to him in the event that his plan went awry.

            Three TIE fighters break off and speed toward the hangar of the Conquest II. Once they’re remotely within range of the open hangar, one fires off two torpedoes. At this distance, they might be comets. Rey lets out a wordless yell of warning that seems utterly useless in the face of their imminent demise, and wonders briefly why Hux wanted Ben dead if he could have just torpedoed the hangar and killed everyone in it.

            She isn’t left wondering long. Ben extends a hand, and the Force moves through him, a massive amount, directed out of the hangar, out into space. The torpedoes freeze for a brief instant before looping back toward the TIE that fired them. It can’t escape quickly enough, and one of the torpedoes collides in a direct hit with the cockpit. The TIE explodes on impact, and a piece of its wing careens into one of the neighboring starfighters, which can’t dodge in time.

            One of the Knights whoops in triumph. Ben grimaces. He had made that look easy, but Rey had felt the great effort it took to move objects traveling so fast, so far away. But now she also knows such a thing is possible, and sometimes confidence is all it takes. If he can do it, she can. Next one’s mine, she tells him silently.

            And she makes good on that.

            Rey hears him before she sees him. He’s on the far side of the dais, hidden from her sight by the throne. She drops her saberstaff with a clatter and wrenches herself out of Aylu’s grip to stagger over toward the sound, to where she hears him saying a little too loudly, “Rey is alive. Find her.”

            She pushes past the throne to see him with his back turned to her, seated on the steps of the dais. The other five Knights are clustered around him in various states of dishevelment; the one who had been hamstrung by the guard is leaning heavily on a companion.

            “My Lord, you need medical attention,” protests one of the Knights, a man.

            “I won’t leave her.”

            “I understand, but we will see to it that she’s returned—”

            “Ben!” Rey cries. He doesn’t seem to hear her at first, but then one of the standing Knights points to her and he turns his head. He waves one hand to silence them and makes as if to rise, then collapses back to the steps, holding his side. Rey hurries toward him, holding up the torn and blackened edges of her gown, nearly slipping on the hem of a corpse’s robe.

            “Rey,” he says, and then she sinks down to sit on the stairs beside him and places one hand on his scarred cheek and she’s kissing him, kissing him, kissing him, so enthusiastically that he can scarcely keep up with her, his lips chasing hers half-seconds after they move. Something blooms within her, something nourished by the combination of the adrenaline and the relief and the exhaustion and the comfort she only finds with their mouths pressed together. He brings his free hand to the small of her back and shifts to his side to press her to his chest.

            Behind them, Aylu coughs. Ben breaks away first; it takes Rey a second to register the sound for what it is. He doesn’t seem at all embarrassed to have kissed her in front of all of his Knights, and Rey finds that she mostly isn’t, either. After all, they might never have kissed each other again.

            “Let me see that wound,” Rey says, looking down between them. He’s been stabbed very near the place Chewbacca had shot him with the bowcaster, years ago. She can see blood seeping through the fingers of his glove, and winces on his behalf. That puts the pain in her own abdomen into perspective. “I can close it, I think, but you’ll still need a bacta treatment later.”

            Ben doesn’t seem to hear her. He notes the burn on her arm and, in his delirium, or his elation, he reaches for it. “You’re hurt—”

            “Would you sit still,” she hisses. “I’m not very good at this at the best of times.”

            He acquiesces, dropping his arm to rest his palm against her hip, instead. She peels his hand away from the stab wound, and sucks her breath in through her teeth. The cut is clean, but deep, and bleeding freely. Rey hovers both of her hands above it and closes her eyes, trying to muster the will, the strength, to channel the Force one more time tonight, to ride its currents down into the wound.

            Healing is tough work, requiring finesse and unbroken concentration, and Rey’s already drained. The Force feels slippery somehow, but she manages to hold it, to direct its flow, to begin knitting Ben’s capillaries back together, his veins, his muscle tissue. She’s thankful to find that none of his internal organs are damaged, and thinks this is no accident. The Force isn’t done with him yet. It’s not done with either of them.

            “—pairs. Two to see to survivors. Two to the bridge,” Ben says to the Knights, just at the edge of Rey’s awareness. She grits her teeth and redoubles her focus as he keeps talking. “And if any of the conspirators remain, track them down before they can reach their transports. I want them alive.”

            Rey works from the deepest parts of the wound back to the surface of his skin, trying to force out any contaminants. It’s delicate, painstaking work, and somewhere in the middle of it she swims out of consciousness for what she believes to be a brief moment. When she comes back around, the Knights of Ren have gone, and she and Ben seem to be alone. Ben is cradling her close and kisses her temple, her forehead, the bridge of her nose to wake her.

            “What happened?” she mumbles, curling in against his chest.

            “You overexerted yourself,” Ben replies. He doesn’t sound cross. At some point one of his arms came to wrap under her shoulder blades. He keeps kissing her — the tip of her nose, her cheek, her hairline when she comes to duck her head under his chin to avoid his tickling lips — as if through kisses he can restore some of her energy.

            It seems to be working. Rey already feels better. The burn on her arm stings less, and when she turns her head she sees his hand hovering over it. She realizes that he’s siphoning off her pain through the bond and using it to fuel his own power, so he can return the favor and heal her back. Clever. Rey wonders how many tricks they’ve yet to discover. She noses his collar apart to nuzzle at his throat.

            “I may have also hit my head when I fell,” she confesses against the cool metal clasp of his cape.

            “Then rest,” he says. “No more. I’m healed enough.”

            “But you’ll bleed out if—” she says, pulling back to look down at his wound. She feels down his sides until she finds the place where the voulge rent his jacket. The gash is pink and shiny, as if freshly scabbed. “Oh.”

            “Yes.”

            “I did that.”

            “There was no stopping you.”

            “Mm.” She begins running her hands over his chest, down his sides, ostensibly checking for any other wounds she might have missed. Ben makes a soft, needy sound against her hair. There’s very little else to find; his cape and jacket are singed in a couple of places where he narrowly dodged blaster fire. The Knights had guarded him well. She presses her mouth to his neck and doesn’t stop touching him even once she’s satisfied he’s unharmed.

            “Rey—” Ben begins, but he cuts himself off with a strangled gasp when she starts sucking a welt into his neck. Above her head, he tugs off the glove that’s sticky with his own blood so he can press his bare hand to her back. He removes the other one with his teeth, and combs his fingers through her loose hair.

            She tilts her face up toward his, pressing her nose to his jaw. “Darling.”

            “Rey.” He seeks out her lips with his own and covers them. The hangar is cold now that the only other bodies in it are corpses, but he’s warm, and his breath is warmer, and she would swear she can feel his heart beating against her chest, even through all his layers of clothing. He’s alive, and it’s all that matters. He says, “My love.”

            That word on his tongue both frightens and thrills her. She shushes him gently and reaches up to undo his bun and unravel his braids, letting her fingers luxuriate in the softness of his hair as if for the first time. But as she pulls his dark locks down and fluffs them to full volume, she feels something warm and sticky, and takes her hand back to find it wet with a little of his blood. Rey looks up at him. She can’t see any obvious cuts, but she locates the source quickly when she pushes his hair out of his face: a slow ooze from his left ear. “Oh, Ben.”

            He shakes his head and pulls her hand away, then busies himself with kissing the backs of all her knuckles. That means later. That means nothing that can’t be fixed. And she should tell him they need to go get patched up now but he buries his head in her neck and she’s kissing his hair and if he’s wholly to blame for distracting her she’s at least a little complicit.

            “Ben,” she whispers, grabbing at his sleeve, his back, her fingers slipping over his cape. “Ben.”

            Ben picks up his head, briefly, to undo the clasp at his neck. His cape falls away, allowing her better purchase. Then he kisses her on the mouth again and again and presses her back to sit on a step so she no longer lies awkwardly on her side. Rey doesn’t know if they are truly alone, if the only people left in this massive hangar bay are the dead, or if there are personnel scampering about to begin the cleanup or look for survivors, but she doesn’t care. She can tell herself they’re hidden by the shadow of the throne. The day they spent fighting, as enemies and allies, was too long. She needs him on her skin again. Everything else can wait.

            And he feels it, too. When she parts her legs, he crawls up between them immediately, setting his knees a few steps below her hips. He pushes her dress up to her thighs, and as he bears down on her she feels that he’s already half-hard. His skin is flushed and hot and slick with sweat. All that combat, all that killing, all that death, and they lived through it. They survived it together. They always do.

            Rey yanks the top button of his coat through the buttonhole a little too hard. She would have him undress completely so she could see him, all of him, the planes of his body, his moles, his scars, wounds new and old. But he doesn’t leave her a lot of time to think about the thousand reasons she can’t have that right now, because he slips a hand inside of her underwear to rub against her clit and her mind goes brilliantly blank. Her head falls back against the dais as she pushes her hips forward, grabbing at his bicep and squeezing. She’s aroused too, hot and wet against his hand, and she marvels at that, wonders giddily if she isn’t a little addicted to danger.

            Ben picks up on her thoughts, and he chuckles and shakes his head. This is just how it works, he thinks, and she’s briefly overwhelmed by flickering memories of him undressing after battles, touching his scars, burning for her even though she’s impossibly far and closed off from him. But she’s here now, she’s here and warm and writhing at his touch. His hair falls into his eyes and clings to his damp forehead and cheeks, but he never once stops watching her face, not even to look as he works a finger inside of her. He knows her body by heart now, and he effortlessly curls that finger in the way that makes her squirm.

            No more waiting. She has to have him. She can’t grasp the words to tell him, but he’s in her mind as she’s in his, and he knows. The second finger fits too snugly because they’re rushing, but Rey endures it until her discomfort turns over into something better. This time, as she gasps and her abdomen clenches with pleasure, she pulls his hips up so she can start undoing his trousers. He only grew harder as he coaxed her to readiness, and he barely needs her help, but she touches him anyway. When she does, when she wraps her hand around his cock and begins stroking it, Ben falls forward ungracefully, not unlike he had the first time she palmed him through his clothes. Rey smiles and lips at his shoulder. This time feels a little like that time, the imperativeness of it. Ben brings his free hand up to grip the edge of the dais by her head as she pumps him.

            Then he’s ready, and she’s ready. All he has to do is pull her underwear down. But when he tries, he finds it clipped to her stockings, and her stockings secured under all those buckles of her sandals. He growls his frustration until Rey, catching on, crooks a finger and undoes all of the clasps at once. He tugs her underwear to her knees, and she pulls one leg out. It’ll have to do. This will have to be enough for now.

            She watches him as he grips her with one hand and aligns them with the other, his eyes glowing, covetous, the shape of his lips needy. When he shifts his hips to enter her he shifts the rest of himself too, lowering his body onto hers, covering her. She reaches up to touch his hair again, scraping her fingers over his scalp, gripping, pulling as he rocks into her, deeper, deeper still, until he’s settled all the way inside at what feels like the core of her. The weight of him presses her down against the stairs, and the edge of one juts uncomfortably into her back behind her shoulder blades. She drags her fingers down his arm and wills him to move.

            Ben moves. He wraps his arm under her again and moves them both so her entire upper back can rest against the surface of the dais as she sits on the topmost step. Better. Much better. She sighs his name and cants her pelvis up into his, relishing their togetherness, their correctness, and he answers with a wordless moan and a thrust of his own. His hand finds her thigh and he helps her hold it up— higher, and at a better angle for them both. She wants him deeper than deep, she wants for them not to part again; she wants those things so badly and in a way that’s almost unrelated to the pleasure she takes in the way they move as one.

            At first the pace they set matches the urgency of their entwined need, an almost animal rut, then Ben slows a little, savoring her for a moment. The only sounds Rey can hear aside from the still-sparking fires are the whisper of their clothing, their puffs of breath, the occasional gasp or soft cry that falls from someone’s mouth. She closes her eyes, glad for the momentary reprieve, the opportunity to memorize the way he feels between her thighs, the brush of his lips against her forehead or her cheekbone or her lips, the breathy exhale of yes and Rey, the salt of his sweat on her tongue. It might be the last time, she realizes with a twinge of despair. If she runs back to the Resistance, she might never have this again.

            It’s an ugly, broken thought, unpalatable, inconceivable. The only time she’s ever felt balance, the way the universe should be, has been when he’s inside her. She refuses to believe the Force would be so cruel as to tear them apart when she knows with such clarity that it wants for them not to be adversaries, but lovers. Rey pulls herself up against him and shoves the thought aside. No. She’s certain now of what he’s known, she thinks, for slightly longer: some way, somehow, they belong with each other.

            She turns her head to press her nose to his cheek. They don’t have time for slow, and she knows, he knows, but he doesn’t want it to be over so quickly, and he doesn’t want to finish alone. Rey blinks, her eyelashes brushing his skin, and she realizes that this one time she doesn’t really care about finishing. It seems almost beside the point. The point is more that they’re here, they’re alive, and this is how they prove it. The point is that she’s enveloped by his body as he is by hers, that his essence and hers are inseparable.

            But Ben doesn’t agree. He keeps the one hand by her head so he can brace himself, but the other finds its way under her navel and down between her thighs to her clit again. Rey pulls at his hair as he picks up the pace, and before long there’s that familiar tremor in her thighs that heralds the coming of her orgasm, and her breath goes short and hot, and her galaxy narrows to the one bright point of their intersection before—

            “Rey,” he gasps, and he bucks into her one final time as her muscles tense and her body clutches him to her, in every way, in the best way she knows. Relief courses through them both as they hold themselves there, right there, trembling, flushed, tangled.

            He stays on top of her for a moment, and she cups his face in both her hands and kisses him, long, savoring kisses, drinking him in. But it’s not a pleasant position to hold long-term, and she feels a distant stab of pain in someone’s knees — his, must be — and that, along with the danger of being intruded upon, spurs him to roll off of her and onto his back, panting to catch his breath. He lets his head fall back across the dais, like hers, but keeps his eyes soft and closed like he doesn’t want to wake from a particularly good dream.

            Rey begins to notice the small ways in which they’ve made a mess of each other. Ben’s coat is all out of sorts, especially where she’d wrenched the collar open, and she notices the sheen of drying fluid on his trousers as he does them back up. The coat should cover it, at least. She’s sticky with his semen, but unfortunately the best she can do is wipe her underskirt between her thighs to absorb it and hope nothing visible seeps through to the front of her ruined dress. She sits forward to tug her underwear back up her legs, over her stockings, but her abdominal muscles betray her by throbbing with a dull ache and she quickly flops back down again once she’s decent.

            It’s worth it, though, Rey thinks. The mess, the aching, all of it, is worth seeing his lips parted and curled up at the corners, his hair fallen over his face, his chest swelling with the depth of his breath. “We should cap off every battle like this,” she remarks with a very small smile.

            Ben opens his eyes and looks over at her. “Every battle?”

            “Mhm.”

            “That means you’ll fight more of them by my side.”

            Despite how drained she is, despite her injuries, despite the choice she still has to make, despite all of it, Rey feels blood rushing hot to her cheeks. She says, “I haven’t decided yet.”

            “I see.”

            “It’s possible.”

            “Yes, I understand.” He lays one of his large hands on her belly. “Rey.”

            She turns her head toward his. “Yes?”

            “Nothing,” he murmurs, stroking his thumb up and down the soiled silken fabric of her dress. “I just wanted to say your name.”

            Rey shifts closer so she can kiss him again, her eyes softening closed, but before her lips brush his a voice somewhere beyond their borders says quietly, “Supreme Leader?”

            She feels Ben shift to look before she even opens her eyes. The moment’s passed. “What is it?”

            “Hux is gone, sir,” says the officer. It’s the young male officer that had delivered the bad news about her clothes soon after she arrived. He looks nervous at the prospect of having to share more, but he is still here, which means he hadn’t been recruited for the coup. Or maybe he just fears Kylo Ren enough to stay. “There’s no trace of him. Half the fleet jumped to hyperspace, the Finalizer included. We assume he’s aboard. And—”

            Ben sits up and reaches to the side. He hands Rey his cloak so that she can cover her bare shoulders. “Yes?”

            “We were running through his recent transmissions…” The officer casts his eyes up to the ceiling, to the massive holo projection of the two Dreadnoughts, which still flickers in place. “He sent the activation codes for the Dreadnoughts off a few days ago.”

            “What?” asks Rey, pushing herself up off the stairs. “What do you mean?”

            Startled, the officer looks at her as though he hadn’t been expecting her to speak. “Err, well,” he says, “the ships need to receive a specific transmission for activation as well as have a startup sequence input from the ground before they’ll fly.”

            “But they’re not ready to fly, are they?” Rey asks. “He said they weren’t. That they would be the jewels of— of his navy.” She exhales and looks up at the holo. “No, he can’t have—”

            Ben comes to stand beside her. “What is it?”

            She looks at him. “Hux didn’t want there to be a firefight,” she says. “He wanted me to assassinate you so he could seize power in the aftermath. But clearly he knew there might be one, so he kept the Dreadnoughts well out of the way of it. They’re not still under construction. They’re—” Her stomach sinks. “They are ready. Now.”

            “But if that’s true, he could have used them to do more damage here,” Ben says, his brow creasing.

            “He hoped he wouldn’t have to,” Rey points out. She is a bit uneasy about how clear the plan is to her, how well she can divine Hux’s intent. “That was all Plan B. He hoped the Conquest II would become his flagship without an outright coup. But if things didn’t work out that way, he’d still have two perfectly good Dreadnoughts to use against you later.”

            “Not if we get there first,” Ben says, with increasing volume. “Not if we jump to hyperspace now. We could intercept his fleet before he has a chance—”

            “Supreme Leader?” says the young officer, his voice wavering. “I think it might be too late for that.”

            Above their heads, one of the Dreadnoughts’ ion engines begins to glow.

            There’s no escaping the weight of her failure now, the magnitude of it. Rey closes her eyes, and finally relives the battle’s beginning.

            Two of the guards move to put themselves between Rey and Hux, raising their vibro-voulges to block an overhead strike that would have cleaved him in two. Hux recoils from her — coward — and a swell of gasps rise up from the watching crowd. “Supreme Leader!” he cries to Kylo Ren. “She’s gone mad!”

            Rey glances back over her shoulder to see that Kylo is standing now, one fist raised to keep the Knights of Ren from moving in on her. His gaze is calm and cold as he regards Hux, who seems to quickly realize that, somehow, he’s been made.

            “She hasn’t,” Kylo says. “I’m letting her arrest you.”

            The not-entirely-feigned look of shock fades from Hux’s face, replaced by an ugly sneer. “She hasn’t the authority,” he says, which seems like an odd thing to quibble over. “She’s Jedi scum. Even now she’s working to betray you.”

            “That’s rich, coming from you!” Rey shouts, trying to push the guards back. “You asked me to murder him!”

            “As a— a test of your loyalties.” It’s weak. Hux glances at Kylo to see whether he buys this explanation; he clearly doesn’t. “Well,” says Hux, “so be it.”

            He moves quickly, ducking behind the podium, and wrenches a blaster off a nearby officer’s belt. It’s small, largely ceremonial, probably set to stun; he fires it anyway. Rey recoils, but the bolt never finds its mark, and when she looks up she sees Ben — the anger etched across his face is Kylo Ren, but the heat in his eyes when he looks at her is all Ben — flick his fingers and redirect the bolt up toward the ceiling.

            The two guards seize on her moment of distraction to try to herd her back toward the throne, the table. She wraps one up in the Force and pushes him aside, then darts down the stairs toward her target, undeterred. Behind her, she can hear Ben shouting out orders to clear the room, can hear his lightsaber ignite and blasterfire volleys begin. But she doesn’t turn back. She knows he can handle himself.

            Besides, this is personal.

            Hux is running for a side door, and the distance between them is too great for her to catch up with him, not running in this dress, in these shoes. Another officer is holding the door for Hux, beckoning him forward, and when he sees Rey coming he takes a blaster from his own belt and fires a couple of bolts her way. They go wide, and she jerks her head, sending the weapon flying out of his hands.

            She takes one hand off her saberstaff so she can gesture, directing the Force to trip Hux, but before she can pull her toward him a pair of Stormtroopers begin shooting at her from a walkway above. She has to dart out of the way of the fire, and she loses her hold on him. He’s almost at the door now, almost out of sight. Frustrated, she lets out a growling yell, and because she can’t think to do anything else she wrenches Padmé Amidala’s hair ornament out of her hair and hurls it at him.

            The edge clips his arm, slicing through his uniform, and he turns his head, his face ruddy with outrage. He had been barking orders to the other officer, who now takes his arm and says, “Sir, our window is closing.”

            “See to it that our allies get to their transports!” Hux shouts, as another pair of Stormtroopers keep Rey at bay with a rain of covering fire. His eyes meet hers as he says, “Then tell them to let everything burn.”

Chapter Text

            Rey takes a few agitated steps toward the holo of the Dreadnoughts, pulling Ben’s cloak more tightly around her shoulders. The ships are large and bulky, and subject to the gravity of the planet on which they were being assembled; it takes the first warship an interminable breath-holding moment to rise up off the ground and begin drifting out of frame, kicking up dirt and dust. The engines of its twin flicker to life.

            “No,” she says, under her breath. She doesn’t know which would be worse: the Resistance showing up now to find two fully operational Dreadnoughts awaiting them, or the Resistance arriving too late, to find the ships gone, to find that all their time and effort have gone to waste.

            Even though her voice is quiet, Ben senses her rising panic, if not the reason for it. He moves toward her, but hesitates to draw even with her again. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There are only so many places they can hide. We’ll intercept them, and when we do— even Dreadnoughts are no match for this ship.”

            Rey’s eyes remain fixed on the warships. She opens her mouth to say something, then closes it. Her heart thuds behind her ribcage again, and she wonders whether the repeated hammering could ever break bone. It’s nerve wracking, exhilarating, exhausting to fight in a battle where she can affect the outcome, but to be so far away, to be unable to stop what’s happening or warn her friends of what might come is far, far worse.

            “Do you think they’re fully crewed?” she asks.

            The young officer is the one who pipes up in response. If he finds her question strange, he doesn’t let that show. “Those warships are meant to have a crew of over two hundred thousand men, ma’am,” he says. “No way to move that many personnel without attracting someone’s attention.”

            “A skeleton crew,” Ben muses. “Until they rendezvous with the rest of the mutiny.”

            Rey notes the barely-contained rage that darkens the word “mutiny,” and glances back at him over her shoulder. He glowers up at the Dreadnoughts beneath heavy, knitted brows, as if he considers their activation a grievous personal affront. In a sense, Rey supposes it is one. She opens her mouth to call his attention away from the ships and back to her when she glimpses a flicker of birdlike shadow in her peripheral vision.

            She turns bodily back to watch the warships rise, and— no, she wasn’t imagining that shadow. It passes by again, diving and darting away from the higher Dreadnought like an irritating, blood-sucking insect. The dorsal point-defense turrets activate automatically, firing at the shadow, which is quick enough to dodge away every time. Not only does Rey recognize that shadow as an X-wing, but she nigh-instantaneously realizes who must be in the cockpit.

            The Resistance made it in time. Rey doesn’t know yet whether this is a blessing or a curse.

            But she’s spared further thoughts on the subject because, from behind her, Ben says, “I know those maneuvers. That’s Dameron.”

            “Yes,” Rey breathes, watching Poe’s new X-wing swoop to narrowly avoid a barrage of green turret fire. “Come on, Poe.”

            She doesn’t need to worry. Again and again, the black X-wing finds its mark, blasting the turrets into oblivion. As it does, three others swoop in on the second Dreadnought, the one that hasn’t left the ground just yet, and begin clearing out its surface cannons. One of those X-wings takes a hit, and Rey visibly winces when it blows up, becoming a tiny red and orange nebula against the backdrop of the burning room. She doesn’t know who that pilot was, but she must have met them, and she hopes that it wasn’t someone she knew well, not Jess Pava or Snap Wexley or… She clenches her fists so hard that her filed and varnished nails dig into her palms as Poe’s new Black One and the two other X-wings complete their tasks.

            The first Dreadnought begins to accelerate away from the skirmish to give the second room to get off the ground. There’s not much of an attempt at retaliation; the Dreadnoughts not being fully crewed limits their ability to improvise, and the X-wings are managing to stay on their dorsal sides, making for difficult targets for those giant ventral autocannons. A few TIEs flit in and out of view, but there can’t be more than a dozen protecting this outpost since the gala procession demanded most of the fleet, and X-wing reinforcements make short work of them. One crashes into the surface of a Dreadnought, leaving a smoldering patch behind; others simply explode in midair.

            Poe — Rey would know it was Poe even if he hadn’t insisted on the black X-wing — somehow manages to get behind the Dreadnought and sabotage one of its engines, preventing it from leaving as quickly as the crew would no doubt like. Even so, the Dreadnought continues to rise, vanishing from the frame of the holo as half a dozen gnat-like X-wings continue to harry it. Rey watches breathlessly as the other Dreadnought begins to do the same, wondering if this is the last they’ll see or hear of this battle for some time.

            But again, she should know better than to doubt her friends. The holos are soundless, but she doesn’t need to hear to recognize the reddish tinge of an explosion just out of the holo’s scope, and then the first Dreadnought plummets back down to crash into the second. It drives them both into the unknown planet’s surface. The light show is spectacular. Fire ripples and tears through both Dreadnoughts, rending them to shreds, and they rupture into pieces. The Resistance ships, out of sight now but not out of Rey’s mind, are no doubt retreating to their cruisers to make a quick getaway. Now the only thing visible in the holo are two burning scrap heaps, of use to no one. The fleetkillers would never rise.

            Rey lets out a delighted little yelp that she doesn’t think to suppress. She feels as though she could sink to her knees with relief. This was it. The culmination of everything. Despite the complications on her end, despite the state of the Dreadnoughts, they had done it. At the very least, this one thing went right.

            “By the Force,” she whispers, bringing a hand to her mouth. “They did it.”

            Ben says nothing. Of course he’d known nothing of the plan, but the way it had worked out was entirely in his favor. Hux had planned to use those Dreadnoughts against him, and the Resistance had taken them out. A feeling of near-unbearable lightness swells in Rey’s chest cavity. Surely, surely, it had to be the Force’s will that everything resolved itself so neatly. The First Order’s fracturing, the Dreadnought plan, her presence here, it all fits together like the pieces of a massive galactic puzzle.

            To Rey, the way forward is nothing if not clear. As she looks up at the smoldering wrecks, she breaks into a wild grin. Death is never something to revel in — it’s not very Jedi-like — but she can find the beauty in victory. The reds and oranges and whites and occasional flickers of blue reflect in a kaleidoscope across the floor of the hangar.

            “Rey,” Ben says, from behind her, and she turns, expecting to see him similarly enraptured.

            But Ben isn’t looking up at the holos anymore. He looks, instead, at her, as if she’s a stranger to him.

            Rey’s grin vanishes immediately. When his name falls from her lips, it’s the softest question. “Ben?”

            “You knew about this,” he says. It’s less an accusation than a statement of fact. His tone is inscrutable, but there’s an ache to it. Their bond, a vivacious hum since their coupling on the steps, shifts, feels weightier and darker.

            Rey exhales. Right, of course— of course. Naturally he would be suspicious of this turn of events. But this is fixable. She can fix it. She can allay his fears. Because although this had started as something else, although they had both come into it from very different places, they stand together now. Her people had scored him a victory. There’s room here for growth and unity. There’s room for them to come together.

            And for that to happen, she owes him the truth. So she nods, just once.

            “How long?” he asks. “Did an informant contact you, or—” His face shifts with the unspoken realization that she must have known the entire time she was aboard, that this was, perhaps, why she was aboard in the first place. His eyebrows draw back in surprise, but there is a new resoluteness to the set of his jaw.

            She reaches for his bare hands. “I can show you everything.”

            “No.” He takes two steps back from her. “I don’t think that’s wise.”

            “Ben,” she says. She manages a hasty half-step toward him, planting one foot down, and he flinches, not in his whole body, but in the slightest contraction of his fingers, in his face, in the twitch below his left eye. Rey pauses, shows him her own open palms. “I’ve nothing to hide.”

            “Anymore,” he corrects. “You have nothing to hide anymore.”

            Rey’s nostrils flare out slightly as she exhales. “You knew I was a diversion,” she says. “From the very beginning, you knew. You just thought I was a diversion for something else.”

            “I thought your role had been played out by the end of your first night,” he rebuts. He doesn’t raise his voice to her. “I knew you surrendered as part of a pretense. I kept you closely confined at first, but there were opportunities for you to escape after you nearly died. And yet you stayed. I had thought…”

            He trails off. It dawns on Rey all at once. “You thought I stayed because I lo—”

            “Because you wanted to,” he interrupts, as if what he actually thought is now too painful to hear spoken aloud. “But I was a fool.”

            Something in him is cracking. She feels it within her, too, this fragile thing, not unlike the kyber crystal in his lightsaber. Cracked, on the verge of shattering. “I do want to,” she insists. “Ben, these last few days, I’ve only thought about the possible ways for us to stay together. There didn’t seem to be any, but now—”

            “But you deceived me, all this time. Through everything else we shared.” A brief image flashes in Rey’s mind, of her own face, her own naked body, from above, her eyelashes fluttering and her lips parted as he moves inside her. Ben quickly pushes it aside, and one of his hands tightens into a fist. He casts his gaze down to it, as if in disapproval, and straightens out those fingers one by one.

            Without looking back up at her, he asks, “Would you have ever told me? Or would you have just disappeared when it was done?”

            Rey shakes her head, unable to give him an answer that he’ll like. She’s not certain she knows herself. She has gone back and forth on it so many times, and then everything went so sideways this last day. “That doesn’t matter.”

            “It’s all that matters.”

            “Not now. Don’t you see that?” Rey has to raise her voice a little, not to be heard, but to be listened to. She throws her arm out, indicating the holo of the wrecked Dreadnoughts. “The First Order is broken. The Resistance just scored your side a massive victory. If we join together we can do what you spoke of. We can create something new, something different. This— it has to be the will of the Force!”

            “Does it?” he asks. He sounds utterly miserable. “It’s the Force’s will that you should use me?”

            Rey drops her arm to her side. “No, Ben. Of course not. I wouldn’t—”

            “You did,” he says. “Like everyone else.”

            She doesn’t respond. There’s nothing she can say. But she remains open to him through their bond, allows him to feel her hurt and that sad, sickening twinge of guilt. If she has any chance of guiding him through this it will only be through honesty and sincerity. Despite what he said, she knows this is entirely unlike any of the other betrayals, true and perceived, that he’s experienced over the course of his life.

            Then Ben asks, “Was any of it real?”

            No hesitation. “It was all real,” she replies, and she’s surprised to find her voice wavering with anger. A small part of her is angry, she realizes, that he could doubt that about her. “You must know that.”

            He just says, “Not anymore.” Then he turns his shoulders away from her, as if steeling himself to go. Rey takes a couple of small, quick steps toward him, barely closing any of the distance between them. He holds up his hand to bring her to a halt.

            It is meant, Rey knows, to be a simple gesture. He doesn’t even call upon the Force to keep her back from him. But pain is a well from which his power drinks, and he is full to the brim with it. All his unconscious mind knows is that he can’t bear to have her near. All the Force does is his bidding.

            A crackling tendril of blue-white lightning sparks from his fingertips, arcs harmlessly over his palm, and vanishes.

            They both see it. The moment stretches out between them like a chasm.

            Rey stops. She knows from her texts that that Force lightning is a dark side ability. She knows through their bond that he’s never conjured it before. As much darkness as there is within him, he’s never surrendered to it in that way. Not until now, on accident, in pain. He pulls his hand back and looks down at it, eyes shining with moisture, then closes that hand into a fist as if to prevent any other unanticipated displays of power.

            Rey stays where she is, but she says his name, imploringly, trying to bring him back to her. “Ben—”

            “Don’t,” he says. “You don’t get to call me that anymore.”

            The words lance through her like a lightsaber’s blade. She shuts her mouth.

            He looks back up at her, one last time. His dark eyes bore into her face, hardened to her now. When he speaks, his voice is barely louder than a whisper. It devastates her more than a shout would. “Run home, Rey.”

            “Don’t be like this,” she says, pleading with him now. How familiar, and how shattering, it feels to plead with him. “Don’t. You know I—”

            “We’ll see each other again,” is his reply. It’s a promise. It’s a threat. “But I can’t—” He stops, presses his lips together in that thin straight line. “My place now is on the bridge. I don’t have time to fight you.”

            “Please.”

            He’s a maelstrom within, and her plea is carried away from him as if whipped by the wind. Most potently, she feels his despair, not just that she deceived him, not just that she remained with him out of a duty to her people and not by choice, but that if she never really wanted him then he is truly unloved, and unlovable. Shame and fury thread through it, at his having been deceived, at having let her so close, but they pale in comparison with how visceral his pain is. What hurts Rey the most, though, is that there is a part of him that wants so badly to believe her when she says she wants to be with him, and that that part is already being walled away behind a protective shell of anger. He won’t be hurt, not again.

            And then, all at once, he cuts her off, and it’s gone. Rey is left with the cold of the ship prickling her skin and the crushing burden of her own feelings.

            “Go,” he says. “Before we jump to hyperspace.”

            He turns on his heel and sweeps out, and the young officer, present but mute the entire time, follows quickly behind, leaving her in the giant hangar bay among only the ruined decorations and the dead.


            Rey leaves the hangar through the same side exit Hux had used, although of course Hux is long gone now. She collects the hair ornament that had once belonged to Padmé Amidala from the floor; it’s far too valuable to be left lying there, although Rey may be the only person who knows that. She tucks her saberstaff hilt up under her arm, holds the ornament in one hand and her dress in the other, and jogs through the halls, letting the Force guide her path through the Conquest II.

            She only has a few minutes to spare, if that. There’s no time to cross the ship to find Ordula. Rey isn’t even certain the spy is still onboard. Hux may have left her in the hangar, or he may have taken her as his prisoner when he fled, or she may have already escaped. She’s canny, and Rey has confidence in her ability to use the confusion to her advantage.

            And while Rey doesn’t know where Ordula is, she knows exactly where Ben’s students are.

            She’s never been to that room from this hangar, but she can picture its doors clearly, and she keeps that image locked in her mind as she allows her instincts to take over. Her sandals provide very little traction against the durasteel flooring, and she nearly slips several times as she quickens her jog to a run. Stormtroopers and officers alike are also running to and fro, trying to assume posts, to find some semblance of normalcy among all the chaos. None of them stop the disheveled woman with knotted hair who wears a ruined gown and the Supreme Leader’s cloak. Then again, it’s very likely she’s not the first unkempt gala attendee to come this way.

            Rey darts into an open elevator that, by luck or chance or the Force’s intervention, is the right one. She slams the button to close the door and leans against the wall, shuddering with exertion, as the elevator catapults her up to the floor she knows the best, the one that houses Kylo Ren’s chambers, and the training room, and the biodome, and the doors behind which must be his pupils’ dwellings.

            While in the elevator, she puts down the hair ornament to fumble for the bypass key hidden in the cup that covers her right breast. Rey had thought this a very clever way to smuggle the key in, but that hiding place is much less convenient for getting the key out in a hurry. She has to shift her dress aside and peel the cup away from her skin for a moment to wiggle the key free, and is suddenly conscious of just how much she’d sweated under her clothing, due to the fighting, due to what came after—

            No. Rey can’ afford to think of any of that. She fixes her clothing and picks up the hair ornament just before the elevator doors open. Now she knows exactly where to go.

            And this time, when she arrives at the two heavy double doors, sealed shut, she knows just how to unseal them. She waves her hand to pop open the bottom half of the control panel, inserts the bypass key, and lets it do its work.

            The doors hiss open almost immediately. Eight heads turn toward the sound. Eight pairs of eyes blink at Rey standing in the doorway.

            The students’ living quarters are spacious, although they leave much to be desired where privacy is concerned. There are eight bunks embedded in the right wall, each of which can be sectioned off from the main room by a sliding panel. There’s an area for socializing and relaxation to the left of the door which boasts furniture that looks slightly more comfortable than the usual First Order upholstery and even a red rug on the floor. Toward the back, a long table for dining, and a couple of machines against the wall that dispense drinks and snacks. A door with a water droplet on it marks the way to the ‘freshers.

            Despite the situation on the rest of the ship, the students don’t seem to be in any state of distress. Two sit on a top bunk, conversing; another hangs upside down over the edge of the adjacent bunk, holding a datapad close to her face. One dozes lightly in a lower bunk, but sits up with a start when the doors open, three more sit on the couches, and one snacks at the back table. All of the seated adolescents stand on instinct, save for the ones in the bunks, who climb out nimbly as Rey collects herself in the doorway.

            “Come on!” she says, breathless. “Come with me, I’m getting you out of here.”

            The students come to gather a few meters in front of the dining table, at the room’s midpoint. One of them, a short, pale girl, her dark hair buzzed close to her scalp, steps to the front of the group, as if to act as their spokesperson. “You’re the Jedi,” she says.

            A young female Mirialan stands on her toes to whisper in the ear of a lanky human boy, who snickers. Rey ignores this, and says, “Please, we don’t have much time.”

            The girl folds her arms, looking Rey over from head to toe. “Are we in danger? We heard explosions.”

            Theoretically, Rey could lie to get them to go with her, or she could attempt to use the Force to persuade them to come. She does neither, and says truthfully, “Well, not imminently, no.”

            “Okay, so…” says the girl, with the extremely unimpressed adolescent vocal inflection that Rey knows from her own students, although it’s rarely directed at her.

            Rey sighs. She hadn’t anticipated having to explain herself to a group of teenagers, but maybe she should have, considering what she now knows of teenagers. “If you come with me to the Resistance, I can teach you the ways of the Force.”

            The girl rolls her eyes. “We’re already learning the ways of the Force. You mean the ways of the Jedi.”

            “The Jedi sucked,” a younger boy chimes in.

            “Well, no. I mean, yes, the old Jedi did fail in many ways.” Rey’s head spins. There’s no time for this, and she doesn’t have the wherewithal for a philosophical debate. “These are new ways.”

            The girl in the front mimes stifling a yawn, and asks, “What can you offer us that Lord Ren can’t?”

            “What—” Rey frowns, deeply. The group seems perfectly well cared for. Rey had been concerned that they were learning through exposure to discomfort, or anger, or fear, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. They certainly don’t seem to fear her.

            She says, “I can offer you balance. I can show you the ways of the Light in addition to the ways of the Dark, so the Dark won’t consume you.”

            “But Ren’s teaching us the Light,” the lanky boy insists. “He says everything about it that he knows is ours to learn.”

            Rey doesn’t know how much mastery of the Light Kylo Ren truly has to offer to others, but before she can formulate a rebuttal, the girl says, “And if we go with you, we’ll answer to your side. The Resistance. If we stay with him, we’ll know no masters. He’s promised us that.”

            “He’s your master, though, isn’t he?” Rey asks, confused. Somehow that does seem like a very Ben thing to offer, but it’s also at odds with most of what she’d assumed about this training.

            “Only for now,” says the girl. “Only until we’re done with our training. And then he says we’re free to leave or stay as we choose, as long as we don’t abuse our gifts.”

            It takes Rey longer than it should to process this, and the girl continues, “Look, Jedi, you don’t have a better offer. And we’re not going to leave Ren to go with you. We owe him. Before we met him, we were powerless. Now nobody tells us what to do.” She jerks up her chin. “Not even you.”

            “Wait,” says the tall boy in the back. “If you want to teach us so bad, why don’t you stay here?”

            The query tugs at Rey’s heartstrings, makes her gut clench. Her tongue flickers out between dry lips, to wet them. “I can’t.”

            “Why not?”

            “I just— can’t.”

            The girl snickers. “So you’d rather go back to an underfunded terrorist organization instead of staying here, where you’d have actual security and resources? I guess it’s your funeral.” She shakes her head. “We’re not going.”

            Rey exhales. She doesn’t know what she was expecting to find. It certainly wasn’t this. It certainly wasn’t loyalty.

            And she doesn’t have time to talk them out of it, if it’s even possible. After all, these students aren’t loyal to the First Order, the galactic dictatorship. The way they speak, they’re loyal to Kylo Ren alone. She says, “I really can’t stay any longer. But if any of you ever change your minds, the offer stands.”

            The girl looks skeptical, but says nothing.

            As Rey turns to go, one of the boys calls after her, “Hey, did you and Ren break up?”

            And although she doesn’t look back, she hears the ringleader girl grouse, “Shut up, Simon.”

            Once out of their view, Rey wipes at her eyes. There is no time to dwell on any of this. She has to keep moving. She must, to ignore what feels like a massive knot forming in her stomach. If she stops, she’ll think; if she thinks, she’ll never get going again, and she’ll wind up trapped on the ship.

            She makes her legs carry her to the elevator, all too conscious of how much effort it takes to walk, to run, all too aware that she can’t afford not to stay in motion.


            No one gives Rey any trouble as she makes her way to one of the hangar bays. A few officers glance at her, but promptly avert their eyes. She begins to suspect that they have been ordered not to impede her, but to be fair there are other matters that demand their attention.

            The TIEs and other hyperdrive-lacking craft that had participated in the procession now zip back into the belly of the Conquest II, so as not to be left behind when the flagship jumps to hyperspace. It’s all too easy to slip in the back of an unattended shuttle and sit herself down at the controls.

            In the end, she cuts it close. Her commandeered shuttle speeds out of the hangar moments before the ship and the other remnants of the divided First Order fleet make the jump to hyperspace, becoming streaks of light that culminate in glimmering pinpricks as they accelerate into the unseen dimension. Then it’s only Rey, and the infinite blackness that stretches out before her, dotted with stars.

            When she was a girl, laying on her back on the Jakku sands, looking up the stars, knowing that each one was a system or another galaxy and enraptured by how it all went on forever, the vacuum of space had always seems full of possibility. Now, with the procession gone and the Conquest II vanished, it seems cold and vacant, even though she knows Coruscant would come into view were she to nudge the shuttle into a shallow dive. Where she floats now, she may as well be the only person left in the galaxy.

            Rey draws her legs into her chest and takes a moment to breathe. It’s difficult to ground herself when nothing feels solid, or certain, but she always has her breath, and through it she has the Force. Even that doesn’t seem much of a comfort right now. She folds her forearms atop her knees and looks out at the point where the First Order’s ships vanished, the glowing afterimage of the trail that had briefly stretched behind them still imprinted on her vision.

            The shuttle’s interior is cold. Rey fiddles with the temperature controls, then unclasps Ben’s cloak, which she still wears. She pulls it out from under her so she can use it to cover herself, as if it were a blanket, and as she does she nearly holds it to her nose to smell it, to smell him. But she shakes herself out of that trance, whatever it is, and pulls the cloak up over her body, all the way to her neck.

            She feels the connection at first as the prickling of the hair at the back of her neck, then that slight tug just at the edge of her perception. She thinks it must be Ben, but the voice that resounds through her mind is female, gentle yet firm, and slightly raspy with age. It’s a voice she knows well.

            Rey, it says.

            Rey sighs, although she can’t tell whether from relief or disappointment. “Leia,” she replies.

            Thank the Maker, Leia says from the Resistance base on Akiva. I thought you might not hear me.

            The connection is tenuous; she and Leia aren’t connected by blood, or by whatever cosmic destiny binds her to Kylo Ren. Rey grasps at it firmly, and when she does she can feel the effort Leia had expended in seeking her out at such a distance. Now that Rey is aware, she can ease that burden to a degree. Even so, she says, “You shouldn’t strain yourself—”

            Leia brushes Rey’s concerns aside with a little brusqueness. I can have a conversation. You seem to be all in one piece. A pause. Although you feel…

            “I’m fine,” Rey snaps, and her tone leaves no room for argument. Then she adds, with a little sheepishness, “Sorry.”

            The momentary silence that follows makes Rey fear that she’s lost the connection, but then Leia says, Poe and the others succeeded. The Dreadnoughts were destroyed before they got off the planet.

            “I know.” Rey leans back in the pilot’s seat, letting her head fall against the headrest. “I saw it.”

            And we saw you. The way Leia says it is neutral, nonjudgmental. Those of us in the command center were able to watch you at the gala until the holos cut out.

            Rey’s stomach tightens at the thought of any of the Resistance having seen her at the gala. She doesn’t want to press for more detail, but she must. “When did they cut out?”

            After you jumped that table.

            So Leia, at least, had witnessed much of what played out. Poe would have been busy with the bombing run; maybe Rose, too. What about Finn? Rey shifts in her seat. Finn may not have understood what he saw beyond her playing a role for the greater good. Leia is keener. She seems to know everything. If she had watched Rey dance…

            Rey might as well begin her report now, at least. She says, “The First Order is fractured, split down the middle. Armitage Hux ran off with half the fleet. And Kylo Ren—” Something sticks in her throat, and she is unable to continue. She tries to swallow it down.

            It can wait.

            A phantom hand comes to rest on Rey’s shoulder. It’s a feather-light touch, a comforting touch. Rey turns her head, and she sees nothing.

            Leia says, You’ve borne so much, Rey. Come home.

            Then the connection winks out, and both touch and voice are gone.

            Rey closes her eyes. Come home. Those words had no meaning, once. Her planet had been Jakku, her dwelling the hollowed-out carcass of a downed AT-AT, but her home had been nowhere. But now she thinks of home, and she thinks of the cool jewel-like raindrops, clear and glistening, falling from the dark and swollen storm clouds that lumber across the sky, far above Akiva’s jungle canopy. She thinks of turning her palms to face skyward, as though she could collect them in her hands as they strike her cheeks, her bare forearms, her laugh melding with the rustle of the undergrowth. She thinks of Rose passing her a laser welder, of Poe clasping her shoulder while he laughs at something she said, of her late night conversations with Finn, where they discussed fate and future and destiny. She thinks of Ben stroking the backs of his fingers down the length of her spine—

            No. Moments of peace, like grinning up at a bursting supernova with her fellow rebels as they watched it peak through their monoculars. Routines, like meditating through every sunrise along with her students, feeling connected to all things, living and dead, as the Force gathers and swells around them; like morning sparring sessions in the training room with Ben, grinning as their staves clack together—

            No. Lying on her back on a sofa with her feet on Finn’s thigh as he reads from a datapad and she tries to decipher one of the ancient, yellowed Jedi texts. The smell of weak mess hall coffee. Basking in the warm glow of Leia Organa’s approval. The old, firm mattress pad on her bunk. Ben’s sigh tickling her ear as he holds her close to his chest, flushed and breathless, and murmurs her name.

            Home.

            Rey hunches forward, sets her head down on her folded arms, and weeps.

Chapter Text

            Rey pilots her stolen shuttle down to Coruscant. On the way down, she disables the tracker, erases any prior flight logs from its navicomputer, and patches herself up with the shuttle’s medpac. The black market dealer she sells it to shows a great deal of interest Padmé Amidala’s silver hair ornament, which Rey will not “throw in” no matter how much she is needled. She has to accept a frustratingly low price for the ship in order to ensure no further questions asked.

            With some of the credits from that deal, she purchases an ill-fitting set of clothes, a sewing kit, a pack in which to store her saberstaff hilt and odder possessions, and an overnight stay at a seedy-looking inn. But although she tosses and turns on the mattress for some time, and it seems as though her very bones ache with weariness, sleep does not find her.

            Instead, Rey decides to make herself useful. She washes herself, takes in her new tunic and cuffs the trousers, and salvages what she can from her gala outfit. Her stockings are intact, if dirty; she carefully folds them and sets them aside to sell later, if she must. The fine gown is ruined beyond repair, stained with ash and soot, its fragile fabric victim to a multitude of small tears. When she lays it out on the floor and takes her cutting shears to it, she is only able to harvest enough material from the outer layers for a scarf to cover her face and hair. From the sturdier underskirt, she thinks she has enough to make a second tunic, and she slices it up accordingly and stuffs the pieces into her pack.

            Kylo’s cloak is in much better condition, singed in a couple of places but otherwise intact. She leaves it alone. It’s unlikely, but he may, someday, want it back.

            In the morning she boards a ship to Onderon, then from Onderon to Mandalore, from Mandalore to Lothal, and so on, zig-zagging her way through the galaxy. Sometimes she purchases a ticket for one trip and stows away on another to throw off any pursuers, although none come for her. She tries, and fails, to doze in each transport, and instead makes herself small, hunches her shoulders, and takes the fabric out of her bag so she can work on her gala gown tunic. No one aside from the occasional flirtatious bore pays a small woman preoccupied with her sewing much mind. They certainly don’t see any resemblance between a meek seamstress and Rey, terrorist, assassin, and Jedi pretender, whose constructed holographic image has flickered in almost every spaceport for three years.

            It takes Rey two days to make her way back to Akiva, and during that time she hears the dozens of conflicting rumors rippling their way through the galactic gossip circles. The First Order had been attacked at its annual gala by the Resistance — no! by actors within — no! by a force that had come from beyond the borders of charted space. Kylo Ren was dead, driven into hiding, driven mad, or gloating, because he had successfully orchestrated the whole thing as an excuse to crack down harder on security in the Outer Rim. Or perhaps Armitage Hux was the mastermind, or perhaps he was the one who had been killed.

            Or perhaps the mastermind was the girl Ren had brought as his date, the mysterious beauty — or is she truly a beauty? Some would say she’s plain, some that she lacks the appropriate number of arms or eyes, some that her teeth aren’t nearly sharp enough — who, after she vaulted a table with a lightsaber in hand, was generally agreed to be the Jedi witch that haunted the wanted holos. (A hero of the Resistance, claim a few voices, always in hushed tones.)

            Conflicting propaganda broadcast over the HoloNet as the Hux and Ren factions vie for control of it do nothing to put any of these rumors to bed. Everyone is thoroughly uncertain of which side is winning the First Order civil war. In the absence of solid news, most people simply go about their routines. Stormtroopers remain on patrol, checking identification; a handwave and a Force suggestion takes care of them. Rey keeps her face hidden and avoids trouble. She tries to keep her mind off all of it, and off Kylo Ren, but with the constant chatter around her doing so had been impossible. She notices a strange side-effect, though: hearing him spoken of impersonally, as some larger-than-life figure, desensitizes her somewhat. Now it barely even stings to hear his name.

            The third day after the gala, Rey finally touches down in Myrra, wilting from lack of sleep and nourishment. She drags herself to the doorstep of Resistance sympathizers she knows in the city, a young married couple. She must look like death warmed over, because they quickly usher her into their spare room while they contact the base at the Vigilance over a secure channel. Rey drops to the mattress, and feels an eerie echo of the movement, as if someone very far away is mimicking her. Her eyes are already closed, and leaden, and she can’t will them open to look. But as the currents of slumber bear her downstream, she dreams that her nose bumps up against a sleeping person’s chest, that she turns her head toward him to hear to his heartbeat.


            “Do you think she’s all right?”

            “I don’t know. She looks all right.”

            “You’d think she’d have woken up when she sensed us coming. But if she’s really tired, maybe…”

            A pair of young female voices. Rey shifts a little, squeezes her eyes shut tighter. She’s not ready to wake yet. She could sleep for decades.

            “I guess we don’t know what happened,” the second speaker says, a little ominously. “What she’s been through.”

            “We know part of it,” says the first. “We know about the dance. Everybody knows about the dance. We just don’t know why, or really… I guess you’re right. We don’t know anything.”

            Rey groans softly. She’d hoped to avoid these conversations, but as soon as she saw those holodroids at the gala she should have known it’d be impossible. Without opening her eyes, she says, “Kaela. Tamar. Hello.” She pulls the blankets up over her shoulders. “Remind me what the Jedi Code says about idle gossip?”

            “Oh!” Kaela exclaims, mortified. “I— well, we—”

            “The Jedi Code doesn’t say too much about gossip,” Tamar says, almost automatically. “It’s frowned upon but not forbidden. Gossiping never drove anyone to the Dark Side.”

            “Teacher’s pet,” teases Kaela, fondly.

            Rey rubs her eyes, then opens them. Her two students, one blushing redhead and one wide-eyed Togruta, kneel by the mattress, peering at her. When she turns her head, they fall back on their heels to give her some breathing room. “Maybe we should add in a new rule, then,” she says. “One that deals with gossiping about people right in front of their faces.”

            That earns her a chastened “Yes, Rey,” and a “Sorry, Rey.” “We thought you were asleep,” says Kaela, “And it’s just, the scuttlebutt has it that—”

            “Hey!” calls Finn’s voice from the hallway outside. “You guys were supposed to tell me when she woke up!”

            “Finn,” Rey whispers.

            And before she can even blink, Finn’s in the room with her, kneeling by her bedside, arms wrapped tight around her. He’s warm, and even his scent is comforting— the cracked leather of his jacket, the jungle rains of Akiva. Rey buries her face in the juncture of his neck and shoulder as tears prick at her eyes. She won’t cry, she can’t cry, not with two of her students there, but it hadn’t hit her until just this moment that she’s safe. In Finn’s familiar embrace, she finally feels her muscles relax, her mind quieting, just a little.

            “I’m sorry,” Finn says quietly. “I couldn’t shake them. They heard I was coming to get you.”

            Rey chuckles. “It’s okay. I’m glad to see them. And you.”

            Finn pulls back. Over her shoulder, she sees Tamar and Kaela glance at each other. She’s used to those glances; whether or not she and Finn are an item has long been the subject of base-wide rumors. She realizes for the first time — she hadn’t thought about it before — that those rumors have probably grown a little more complicated in the days since the First Order gala.

            “It’s so good to see you,” Finn says, with such intense sincerity that Rey feels a pang of guilt, for reasons she can’t quite understand. “All that time with no contact, Rey—”

            “I couldn’t. It was too risky—”

            “I know, but with you in the First Order—”

            “I know. Finn, I—” Rey yawns, wide. “Sorry. I’ve been traveling for three days straight. I’ve barely had any time to rest my eyes.”

            “It’s okay.” Finn lays a hand on her shoulder. “Look, it’s pouring outside. Our hosts have offered us tea and cake before we head out. You can bring us up to speed on—” He notices something in her eyes and switches tracks. “We can tell you about all the excitement you’ve missed. The three of us have had a few adventures.”

            Rey presses her hands down into the bed to sit up straighter. Her back is sore from all that slouching, from making herself invisible. “The Force-sensitive children? You found them?”

            “Yeah, we’ve got them. They’re safe. One of them’s a little young, but we couldn’t leave him behind.”

            Young. Rey glances at Tamar and Kaela, still wide-eyed adolescents. They’re all so young. Her stomach twists, remembering how Kylo Ren had accused her back in that cell, how he’d posited that if her pupils were ever called to fight for the Resistance, she wouldn’t be able to deny that call. She feels a creeping sense of cold—

            “We saw you on Canto Bight!” Kaela interjects.

            That’s enough to pull Rey back to the present. “What?”

            Tamar elbows Kaela in the side, but she’s not deterred. “Ow! Look, we’re going to tell her eventually, we might as well tell her now. Rey, we came in before the First Order ship appeared in the sky and had to lay low until it left. When we saw they’d blocked off a whole street we went to see what all the fuss was about.” She pauses. “We saw you with that awful general. Tamar was about to fight the entire Canto Bight Police Department.”

            “I could have,” Tamar huffs. “They didn’t look so tough.”

            Despite herself, Rey’s mouth twitches. “That’s a great way to get arrested.”

            “Well, we didn’t,” says Tamar.

            “Finn saw to that,” Kaela adds.

            Finn, ever-modest, clears his throat. “Tea sounds great,” he says. “Rey, don’t you think tea sounds great?”

            “I think tea sounds great,” Rey agrees, pushing herself out of bed. Finn steadies her with that hand at her shoulder, and until she stands she doesn’t realize how badly she needed it. Her entire body feels as though it’s made of lead, dense like a collapsing neutron star. “Lead the way.”

            Finn does, but Tamar and Kaela lag behind. Noting their conspicuous absence, and following the inkling that they’re troubled by something, Rey breathes in through her mouth, out through her nose, and focuses her senses to hear their whispering.

            “Why did you tell her that!” Tamar says. “She doesn’t need to know we saw her get dragged around.”

            “You didn’t feel it?” Kaela asks. “Something threw her off-balance. It was like— there was a cloud around her. I was just trying to get her back.”

            Tamar is quiet for a second. Then she murmurs, “Yeah. I feel it too. Something’s not right.”

            “Of course something’s not right. She spent the last two weeks with Kylo—”

            Upon hearing that note of disgust, Rey stops eavesdropping. She glances at Finn and notices the lines of worry turning down the corners of his mouth, tempering his relief. She’ll have to keep better control over her emotions. If Tamar and Kaela notice, if Finn notices, then she’s not managing herself well. She has to do better.

            Sure enough, even with no Force-sensitivity, Finn senses her unease. “Hey,” he says.

            Rey looks up at him. “Hm?”

            Finn frowns, trying to figure out what to say to her. Finally, he decides on, “You know you can tell me anything, right?”

            She forces a smile. “I know, Finn.”

            But she doesn’t know that she can tell him about this. She doesn’t know that he’ll understand.


            They return to the Vigilance just in time to greet the returning bombing fleet. Poe and Rose and the rest of the complement assigned to the Dreadnought mission had been traveling back with extra caution, taking only seldom-traversed hyperspace routes. Rey is thankful to find the hangar packed with bodies, because she, Finn, and her two students melt away easily into the crowd, and thus don’t attract much attention. That is, until Poe, who climbs out of his X-wing to much raucous cheering, spots them.

            “Hey!” he calls, waving. “Finn! Rey! Rey, you’re back!”

            Rey arranges her face to beam at him and tries to ignore the shift in the energy around her. It seems she’s unwittingly adopted the Kylo Ren habit of reading the room, and can’t avoid sensing the curiosity, the admiration, the— suspicion. But that doesn’t matter for long because Poe’s cut a path to them to hug Finn, clapping him on the back and laughing wildly, BB-8 beeping away behind him.

            “Ah, it’s so good to see you,” he says, squeezing Finn hard before releasing him. “Both of you. Rey—” He moves toward her as well, but she notices the briefest hesitation in his voice and his manner before he says, “Can I get a hug, too?”

            “Why wouldn’t you?” Rey asks, wrapping her arms around him. “You’ve earned it. I saw the whole thing via holo. That was some fancy flying.”

            “Okay, okay.” Poe returns the hug with some care, which is very unlike him, and when he pulls back he ruffles her hair, lowers his voice. “I’m just trying to, you know.”

            Rey frowns. “No, I don’t know.”

            “Well, I just—” A matching frown flickers across his face. Rey tries to get a sense of his thoughts, but with the crush of minds pressing against hers, she can’t quite pick his out. “Okay. Later. It’s good to have you back in one piece.”

            “Right,” says Rey, unsettled. “Sure. Well—”

            A roar behind her, and then two furry arms lift her clear off the ground. She wasn’t entirely sure what she was about to say to Poe, but whatever it was is lost forever due to Chewbacca’s timely intervention. Rey thinks she should be grateful. They don’t need to open that crate of conduit worms right now.

            “Chewie!” she exclaims, as Chewbacca woofs Shyriiwook endearments and admonishments into her hair. “Of course I’m glad to see you— no, I didn’t tell you where I was going. This is exactly why! I know your feelings on how it went last time. Don’t call me a youngling, just because you’ve two centuries on me doesn’t mean— sorry, I smell like what?”

            Chewbacca puts her down and growls to her more softly, as if anyone standing around them might speak the language. Rey listens, brow creasing, and when she understands what he’s telling her the ever-present weight — on her shoulders, in her belly — returns.

            “No,” she says quietly. “I’ve washed, and I spent the next few days bumping into hundreds of people. There’s no way I still—” A slight groan of protest from Chewie, and Rey nods. “Yes, I understand. You’d know him anywhere.” Me too, she doesn’t say aloud. “Well, I’ll just have to use better soap from now on, in case there’s anyone whose sense of smell’s as good as yours.”

            Chewie strokes her hair affectionately, petting her with his large hand, and keeps peppering her with questions. Rey doesn’t have the heart to refuse him answers. It’s different than with Poe, or even Finn. “No, he’s in one piece, at least. Beyond that, I don’t know. But I thought you’d be angrier.”

            A plaintive moan. Rey nods her understanding. “I know,” she whispers. “I know. I know you can miss him and still be angry.” A huff. “Yes, he is… very stupid.” Another huff, and she laughs, wetly. “Yes, I suppose I’m stupid too.”

            “Rey!” says Rose’s voice, from behind her. It must have been more difficult for her to fight her way over than it had been for Poe. “I’m so glad to— are you okay?”

            “What?” Rey turns toward Rose, pulling away from Chewie’s embrace. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

            “Because… you’re crying.”

            “Oh.” Rey brings a hand to her face, feels wetness on her cheek. She’s relieved to be back, she should be relieved, but with all these people around, she feels only as though she might suffocate. “I’m just so happy to be back,” she lies, and then she excuses herself and retreats to her room.


            Life went on in Rey’s absence, and continues to go on now that she has returned. It never stops merely because the heart wills it so. Rey finds, upon resuming her teaching, that her older students had been able to capably establish a holding pattern until she got back, that no one seems to have suffered terribly in her absence. She meets the two new arrivals Finn, Tamar, and Kaela had picked up while she was away, and is pleased to see that Taylin has integrated a little better into the group, always chatting with one or two of the younger students whenever he comes in from breaks. One morning when Rey enters her classroom, she glimpses Tamar and Kaela holding hands before they quickly separate. She smiles to herself, although she feels a stab in her chest that she’d rather not probe.

            Rey devotes the better part of her days to her students, preferring to focus on them rather than herself. She is able to fall back into the rhythms of instruction easily, with the exception of the morning meditation, the time designated to being alone with one’s thoughts and the Force, to grounding, to balance. Rey knows that she must be in dire need of meditation because she dreads it so much, but her thoughts always pull her straight to the catacombs under Myrra, to the Dark, and the cold, and the shame, and the failure. She sees the face of that girl, Ben’s pupil, asking what Rey has to offer, and even in her visions Rey comes up tongue-tied and empty-handed. She sees Hux, snarling to let everything burn. And she sees Ben, heartbreak etched into his every feature, Ben, astounded as lightning creases his palm, Ben, telling her to run home.

            Repeatedly, in meditation, she is forced to confront the simple fact that she feels him nowhere, which means he’s still closing her out of their bond. She hadn’t realized how accustomed she’d grown to being able to sense his emotions, how strangely comforting that had become. And while some things come to her unbidden, unexpectedly, over the course of the day — the wrongness of sleeping on a mattress without his weight to counterbalance hers; the phantom sensation of his fingers massaging her scalp in the shower; the urge to look to her left and see him sitting there at mealtimes — it’s the naked hurt on his face in the hangar that haunts her quietest waking moments.

            Rey hadn’t thought him capable of feeling such hurt anymore. She hadn’t thought he still had a heart to break.

            She’d been wrong.

            Should it matter, though? The feeling in her chest tells her it should. But the long list of sins he’s committed against her, against his own family, against the galaxy, says maybe this isn’t so important in the scheme of things. Maybe he could stand to take a little hurt. Maybe it was just his turn. But then why does it trouble her so?

            Unwilling to engage in this debate with herself, she begins skimping on meditations, opting to help guide Taylin through his. He, too, is pulled to that dark place in the catacombs, and Rey knows that someday soon she will have to bring him down there. She focuses on strengthening his resolve, and tries to ignore the inquisitive looks Kaela, who seems to sense better than anyone that Rey can’t find her own balance, constantly shoots her.

            It’s not just her pupils who have questions she can’t answer. She is already aware of a new trail of whispers that seems to follow her wherever she goes, like a second shadow. Rey is no stranger to whispers — even before she left on her mission, some of her Resistance peers had found her odd, or intense — but these have a sinister, speculative bent to them. With her unwillingness to say much even to her friends, depriving them of ammunition to combat lies, the rumors only grow.

            Rey’s safe haven is the hangar. When she isn’t teaching, she keeps to herself and devotes her time to repairing the Millennium Falcon. The ship has a litany of complaints, and some, as R2-D2 relays to her with some sarcasm, are decades old. Rey has slowly been chipping away at them, although she doubts she’ll ever make the ship completely happy. Chewie, the only being who seems to judge her for nothing, joins her occasionally, and mostly she is allowed merely to be.

            But even there, her peace of mind can be interrupted. One day she enters the hangar to find a group of pilots chatting in a circle near their starfighters. When they see Rey, they fall silent, tighten the circle, and resume the conversation with hushed voices. Rey picks up her toolkit and straps on her goggles to begin another maintenance session. Despite her best instincts, she sharpens her hearing, too.

            “I always thought there was something off about her. You have to have a screw loose to even think about shipping yourself off to that monster, much less volunteer.”

            “Maybe you just have to be devoted to the cause.”

            “Oh, please. Would you?”

            “Well…”

            “I mean, I’d do a lot, but I wouldn’t do that.”

            “But do you really think she—” This speaker trails off, looking over at Rey, who steadfastly resumes tightening a bolt on the Falcon’s landing gear.

            “They were definitely fucking.” A man’s voice, confident, certain. “You’ve seen the holo?”

            “No, I haven’t yet.”

            “Oh, I have. The way he looks at her, there’s no question.”

            “Then it’s a good thing she’s on our side.”

            “We still know that for sure? That she’s on our side?”

            “She came back, didn’t she?”

            “What if he told her to?” A pause. “People have deserted for less. And she’s a Jedi. They have vows, right? If she broke them, it had to be—”

            “Hey,” says Poe’s voice, at a normal speaking volume. “That’s enough.”

            Chatter from the pilots immediately ceases. Rey looks over. She doesn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise. Poe can be heard across the hangar. The man says, “Commander Dameron, we were just—”

            “I don’t want to hear it,” Poe says. “Rey’s a friend and, moreover, she’s a hero. If you’ve got a problem with her, you’ve got a problem with me. Understand?”

            No one says anything.

            “Hello?” Poe asks. He looks more livid than Rey has ever seen him, his handsome face reddening against his orange pilot fatigues. “Did none of you hear me? Am I making myself clear?”

            Rey doesn’t wait to hear the answer. She throws her goggles down, drops her tools, and removes herself from the scene before her presence makes anything worse.

            A minute or two later, she hears someone running to catch up with her. She knows it’s Poe before she even hears his voice. “Rey,” he calls. “Hey, Rey.”

            “Leave me alone,” she says tightly. “It’s fine.”

            “It is not fine, okay?” He reaches for her, grabs her arm, making her stop in her tracks. “After everything you’ve done, they don’t get to talk about you like that.”

            She whirls around to face him, wrenching her arm from his grasp. “Why?” she demands. “They’re just saying what everyone’s thinking. No reason to punish them for it.”

            “Well, everyone is full of shit.” Poe bangs his foot against a nearby crate, hard, and scowls. “Look, I haven’t told anybody about the talk we had before you left. And I know you don’t want to discuss what happened. But I know enough—”

            “You don’t know anything!”

            “Hey,” he says, taking a step back from her, holding up his hands. She hadn’t realized that she snarled it like that, but Poe mostly just seems worried. “Hey, it’s all right. It’s just me.”

            “I’m sorry, Poe. I just.” Rey rubs her wrist across her forehead, trying to wick away some goggle sweat. “I feel like I’m losing my mind.”

            “It’s okay.” He pauses, then asks awkwardly, “Have you talked to anybody? Like a doctor or—”

            “What?”

            “You know, like a head one.” He motions at his temple. “A head shrinker.”

            “Why would I talk to a—” She stops, meets his concerned brown eyes. And she finally gets a bead on what he’s thinking, the theory he’s formulated based on the conversation they had before she left, her self-isolation after returning. “Oh, Poe. No, it’s not— it wasn’t like that.”

            “Rey…”

            “It wasn’t,” Rey insists, but she can tell Poe doesn’t believe her. In a perverse way, she wonders if there’s an element of comfort to the fiction. Of course Poe wouldn’t want to see Rey hurt, he never would, but maybe it’s easier to believe that Kylo Ren forced himself on her than to think she bedded him willingly. If it wasn’t like that, then what was it like?

            “Okay,” Poe says quietly. “All right.” He hesitates, then adds, “Look, this isn’t my strong suit. You know me, I’m an action guy. But if you need to talk…”

            “I’m fine.”

            “Right.”

            “I’ll see you at dinner.”

            Poe nods, and he lets her go on her way.

            Rey does not see him at dinner. She avoids the mess and brings food into her room, only to find she’s lost her appetite. Then she tries meditating to no avail, her connection to the Force jagged and spiky, as if it’s sprouted thorns. All she can do in the end is lie on her side staring at the wall, arms wrapped around her middle, until sleep finally claims her.


            Rose comes to find her the next morning, her students’ day off. Rey, irritated at what she perceives as being tag-teamed by her friends, snaps, “Rose, I swear, if you’re here to tell me that I can talk to you—”

            “I was running some tests,” Rose says quickly, brandishing a datapad. “The starboard bridge deflector shield generator isn’t functioning properly. We might not need it right now, but in the event of an attack, we’re going to want it. I was wondering if you’d help me take a look.”

            “Oh,” says Rey, immediately feeling sheepish. “Yes, of course.”

            Rose brightens. “Yeah? Okay. It’s still raining, so bring your cloak. I’ll meet you up on the bridge.”

            True to her word, Rey finds Rose on the bridge a few minutes later with her datapad and a glowrod. The Resistance doesn’t use the bridge much, since they’re not flying the Vigilance anywhere, and its upper sections are in particularly bad shape. A few pieces of the hull have rusted through here, and puddles gather on the floor, which makes walking slippery and dangerous. Rey wonders if they’ll have to go crawling around outside in the storm to locate the source of the problem, which would mean they’d have to go back for special climbing equipment. In space, it’s easy to forget just how tall these ships are. Not so planetside, with the wind whistling past the transparisteel windows.

            Rey uses the Force to move ceiling panels aside as Rose tucks her datapad under her armpit and points her glowrod up at wires and ducts. They’re below the shield generator now, and with only a little bit of searching the culprit quickly reveals itself: corroded power cables.

            “At least that’s an easy fix,” Rose sighs. “There’s probably a leak. It’s so hard to keep things shielded from the elements up here.”

            “Ironic,” Rey points out. “Shielding the shield generator.”

            “Ha!” Rose smiles. “Yeah. Well, when the weather dies down, we’ll replace them. And maybe put in a tarp or something to keep them dry for the rest of our stay. But we should cut power to this sector temporarily to keep any other wires from shorting.” She makes a note on her datapad.

            Rey gives her a sideways glance. “I feel like you could’ve found this yourself.”

            “Huh?”

            “I don’t know that this was a two-person job.”

            “Oh, maybe not,” says Rose, nose still in her datapad. She looks up at Rey, and adds, “But maybe you’re also not in your room anymore.”

            “That’s… true.”

            Rose tucks her datapad back under her arm. Unlike Poe or Finn, she doesn’t move to touch Rey. She just says, “I know it’s tough, but we trust you. Even if half the people on the base are being real sleemos about everything, we’ve got your back. No matter what.”

            Rey nods. Up here, with the monotonous drone of the rain against the hull as the only background noise, she feels strangely calm. She looks at Rose, and momentarily considers telling her everything, but then decides she doesn’t want to test her friends’ trust to that degree just yet. Instead, she says, “I don’t know if I deserve that. Lately I don’t feel like I deserve any of the faith people put in me.”

            Rose listens, mulls this over. And she just asks, “Why?”

            “I’ve been rash.” Rey doesn’t want to get too specific. “I’ve had lapses in judgment. And I’ve— hurt someone.”

            “Sounds like you’re human,” says Rose.

            It’s such a blunt, simple statement, and it gets to the heart of the matter so quickly that it takes Rey aback. She thinks if one of her students or friends had come to her with the same grievance, that might be her response. Part of the human condition. It’s just difficult to see that when looking within, rather than without.

            “I suppose,” she admits. “But what do I do about that?”

            Rose shrugs. “Wish I knew. Aren’t you the one full of arcane wisdom?”

            “Usually.”

            “But if I had to hazard a guess…” Rose points her glowrod back up at the corroded cables. “If you know how you hurt them, and it really matters to you, you try to patch it up.”

            Rey is quiet for a second. If only things were that simple. She asks, “Is it worth it?”

            “Patching things up?”

            Rey nods. “I feel like some people would say it’s not, in this case.”

            Rose taps her chin with the glowrod, casting shadows on her own face. “I’m going to act like I have no idea who we’re talking about,” she says. “I’m going to pretend you’ve wronged a hypothetical person named… Joe Starship.”

            “Fair enough.”

            “Joe Starship is a murderous asshole and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.”

            Rey is startled into laughter. It feels good. She presses a hand to her stomach and shakes her head, trying to suppress the smile. “Rose!”

            “What!”

            “Look, I know this may be difficult to believe,” Rey says, “but there is something weighing on my conscience that involves our mutual friend Joe—”

            “Oh, Joe is not my friend.”

            “I know that. But against all reason this does matter to me, so I’m trying to decide what, if anything, to do about it.”

            Rose sighs. “Okay. Well, you know my thoughts, but ultimately you’re the judge of whether it’s worth smoothing things over or not. Just remember that you can’t right all the wrongs in the galaxy, which is sometimes what I think you want to do. There’s a lot on you, Rey. I don’t envy that.”

            “Believe me, I understand.”

            “I guess if you were me, and I were you, I’d probably say something cryptic and Jedi-like, like ‘Sometimes you need hurt to heal,’ or ‘New life blooms from scorched earth.’”

            “I don’t sound like that,” Rey says, with some reproach.

            “You kinda do, sometimes.”

            Rey looks around at the bridge, thinking about how the Vigilance sat here, near-undisturbed, for three decades, left to rust and rot as the jungle reclaimed it. And she thinks of how the Resistance had come in, made it habitable, given it purpose again. She ruminates for a minute or so, until finally she says, “I think I may be able to salvage something. Not everything, but something.”

            “That’s your thing,” Rose points out. “You’re a salvager.”

            “That’s a nice way of putting it. Most people say scavenger.”

            “You basically salvaged the entire Jedi Order.”

            Another smile tugs at Rey’s mouth, which has so long been weighted by frowns. Forever, it seems. “I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she says. “I guess I’ll see what I can do.”

            “That’s a start,” says Rose.

            “Yes,” Rey agrees, thoughts already far away. “It is.”


            Rey hasn’t spoken to Leia Organa since her return. The General was resting when she arrived, Connix had said. Rey feared the effort of making contact from halfway across the galaxy had exhausted her, and didn’t press. She delivered her debrief on the gala and the First Order civil war to Poe, Connix, and D’Acy, careful to omit any of her personal issues and stick mainly to the coup. From Connix, she learned with some relief that Nara Ordula had escaped the Conquest II and managed to settle temporarily, under an assumed name, on Coruscant. With limited casualties, and Rey herself back in one piece, the entire operation had been a win for the Resistance, even more so because of the First Order split.

            That settled, Rey waits for the General to summon her. And Leia never does.

            So her fifth day back on the Vigilance, once she’s spent some time mulling over the concept of salvaging, Rey goes to Leia’s chambers, instead. She draws up to the door, clutching Padme Amidala’s hair ornament in one hand, but before she can even knock, Leia calls, “Come in.”

            Rey feels a sense of kinship; she has the bad habit of doing that to her friends when she senses them near. The door opens for her, and she steps inside Leia’s personal quarters, which are modestly furnished but far more spacious than Rey’s room. Leia sits on a sofa in a receiving area, her trusty walking stick leaning nearby, a datapad on the side table. Her health does not seem to have improved since their last one-on-one conversation, but Rey is relieved to note that it hasn’t deteriorated either. Even so, the air of frailty around her is distressing. Frail seems like a word to which Leia should be immune, one that should never apply to her.

            “I don’t mean to interrupt,” says Rey, noting the datapad.

            “You didn’t,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for you, Rey. I knew you’d come when you were ready. Have a seat.”

            Rey crosses the room to come sit on Leia’s right side, perching on the edge of the sofa. She begins, “I’m here to return something that belongs to you.”

            The General’s keen eyes roam over Rey, inspecting her, no doubt noticing things that Rey herself had not. “I don’t recall giving you anything.”

            “It’s a gift I received from someone else,” Rey says. “A collector I met during my mission. He gave me this.” She passes Leia the heirloom, and when Leia takes it, Rey notices for the first time how pronounced the veins in the back of her hands are, her skin papering them like thin, translucent parchment. “He said it belonged to your late mother, Padmé Amidala.”

            “And so it did,” Leia muses, tracing her fingers down the ornament’s ribbing. “I’ve seen the holos.” She turns the ornament over in her hands, captivated by it. “I once owned a collection of my mother’s things, but they were all lost. This…”

            Clearly moved, Leia trails off, and Rey watches her run her fingers over the edge of the hair piece. “I’m sorry,” Rey says, feeling the sudden need to explain herself. “I would have given it to you sooner. I had to clean off the blood.”

            Leia lifts her chin to wrench her gaze from the ornament and raises an eyebrow at Rey. “Blood?”

            Rey feels her own blood rush to her cheeks. Here’s an antique of inestimable worth, not to mention personal value to Leia Organa, and she has to confess to handling it like a weapon. “Just a little,” she says, slightly abashed. “I threw it at Armitage Hux as he fled. It nicked his arm.”

            Leia chuckles. “From what I know of my birth mother, she’d appreciate your creativity. And your spirit.”

            Rey doesn’t know how to respond to the compliment. The talk with Rose had helped, but she still doesn’t feel particularly deserving of praise. This seems like a good chance to change the subject. “I’m here for another reason.”

            “I thought you might be.” Leia watches her with bright, intelligent eyes. “Go on.”

            “With the First Order divided, I think we may have a real opportunity to come to some kind of accord with one side. Hux will never compromise, but Kylo Ren might yet listen to reason.” Rey expects to be interrupted, but Leia doesn’t say anything, so she continues, “I believe that if the option is presented to him, there’s a chance he’ll take it. And that might open up other possibilities.”

            “Rey,” Leia says, voice firm but not unkind. “This is more than I’d dare hope for. You understand why.”

            “I know. I do. After all he’s done, I wouldn’t hope for it either. But…” Rey turns on the couch to face her. “He still has a heart,” she says. “I know that, because— I’ve seen it.” She rubs her nose, and doesn’t add that she also broke it. “In his own small ways, he’s been seeking balance, and that does give me hope. Hope that more good might come of all this than destroying two Dreadnoughts.”

            Leia is quiet for a moment. She says, “I think you know that private actions don’t necessarily have bearing on public politics.”

            “Right,” says Rey. “But he’s not a true First Order believer. He can be swayed. The only thing that really stands in the way of an alliance is his pride, and…” She pauses, shifts. “For reasons I’d rather not go into, I feel like he might be willing to set pride aside for your counsel. But the window to act is very short. If too much time passes, he may just go back to what he knows.”

            “My counsel,” Leia repeats. She looks Rey over again, which makes Rey feel somewhat laid bare. “Ah, I see.”

            Rey swallows. “I’m able to contact him to bring him the offer, through our connection. He’s closing me off, but I think I know how to reach him. It’s probably best if I’m not involved much after that, though. He won’t want to talk to me.”

            Leia rests one of her hands on top of Rey’s, as she had before Rey left for her mission. “And you?”

            “What?”

            “You want to talk to him?”

            Rey blinks. “This isn’t— about me.”

            “That’s not what I asked.” Leia keeps her gaze fixed on Rey, calm, steady, piercing. “He never harmed you? I know that’s what you feared. I feared it too.”

            “Oh. No.” She shakes her head. “Although he did make a lot of noise about it, trying to convince himself he could.”

            The spark of a smile lights in Leia’s eyes, although it never quite reaches her mouth. “You don’t know how relieved I am to hear that.”

            “Probably not as relieved as I am to still be alive.”

            “Probably not,” Leia agrees.

            Rey takes a breath. “There was a time when I thought it would be simple for him to turn, and I was wrong. If there’s a path that leads him back to the Light, it’s long and winding. But I saw enough of him — of Ben — to know that there is still a chance.” She sits up a little straighter. “I can’t turn him, but maybe a partnership with the Resistance can set him on that path. Maybe it can be the beginning of something.” She thinks of his students, of how even as he wreaked havoc across the galaxy, he had made choices in private that mirrored her own. “Maybe something’s already begun.”

            Leia doesn’t comment on that. She says, “We might not like the results if we sit this out. Coming to an accord with his faction, if he’s willing, is a sound strategy. No one needs Brendol Hux’s son running the galaxy.” A pause. “Anything after that, we’ll see. You believe there’s a possibility, and I value that. Luke does too, especially after Ben saved your life.”

            Rey had forgotten that Leia and Luke were in contact. “He told you about that?”

            “He did.”

            Scowling, Rey glares into the corner of the room, as if she might be able to intimidate Luke Skywalker out of the Living Force and make him manifest right there. “What else did Master Skywalker tell you?”

            “Enough,” Leia replies, with a small, sly smile this time.

            Rey groans.

            “But he trusts you. As do I.” Leia looks back down at the ornament she still holds. “In fact, I’d like you to hold onto this for me.”

            “Sorry?”

            “Tell yourself it’s for safekeeping, if you want.” She presses it back into Rey’s hand, leaving her no other option but to take it. “The truth is that you’ve earned it, Rey. You were willing to make grave sacrifices, and I know that you’ve suffered through intense personal trials. Now you’ve taken it upon yourself to prioritize the greater good and forge a compromise, even in the midst of heartbreak. No,” she says, when Rey opens her mouth to protest. “Don’t argue. I was young once. I know what it looks like.”

            Rey pulls the ornament closer into her lap. A good excuse to look down at it, and away from Leia. “You must think me foolish, then,” she says. “That my feelings cloud my judgment.”

            “I think your judgment is clear,” Leia assures her, squeezing her wrist. “It is likely that Ben might want to speak with his mother right now. And you’re the opposite of a fool for striving to see the bigger picture.”

            Rey nods. She’d rather they not talk about her, or even Ben, anymore. “I’ll take care of this,” she says, keeping her eyes on the hair piece that had once belonged to Padmé Amidala.

            “I know you will, Rey,” says Leia. “And when the time comes again, I know you’ll wear it well.”

Chapter Text

            Two weeks after Rey’s return, she takes Taylin to the catacombs to confront the darkness, as she promised she would. She pilots a shuttle away from the Vigilance and parks it a few kilometers from the outskirts of the city of Myrra. There, she and Taylin switch to a pair of bala-balas for transport so as to better blend in with the locals. The wet season is taking its last gasping breaths, and while the wind isn’t so strong as to make outdoor travel impossible, the driving rains soak them both to the bone through their cloaks. Rey is relieved when they finally reach the concealed entrance that will take them into the city’s bowels, although it takes Taylin a few tries to move the boulder she’s placed in front of it, his concentration broken by discomfort.

            As soon as they’re out of the rain, Taylin throws back the hood of his cloak and begins flicking his ears, as if to fling the clinging moisture from them. Rey smiles and wrings out her own cloak; rainwater splatters on the floor. She hands him a glowrod, switches on her own, and they’re off, footsteps echoing from the catacomb walls.

            Taylin points his glowrod at the walls, the floor, then as far into the darkness that lies ahead as he can, shifting every few seconds. Rey knows this must be a nervous tick; his eyes afford him much better night vision than hers. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

            “I don’t like it down here,” he admits.

            “I don’t blame you,” says Rey. “Nobody likes it down here.” She herself isn’t particularly fond of the catacombs. She spent much of her youth shimmying through tight quarters on abandoned ships, but there was always the promise that with enough shimmying, she’d find herself back among the sand dunes. No such promise down here, where the tunnels wend and wind endlessly up, down, through and through. The air is stuffy; in this wet section, moisture seeps from the walls.

            “What about the Uugteen?” Taylin asks her, ears pressed back from his face. “Kaela told me about the Uugteen. She said they have sharp teeth and like to snack on younglings.”

            “She said that, did she?” Rey asks, suppressing a small smile. “And you believed her?”

            Taylin looks down, a little sheepish. “Well…”

            “You’re much more likely to find the Uugteen in the jungle, but the ones that live down here won’t pose us any threat. Tamar and I had a run-in with them when we came here for her trial, and they’ve left me alone ever since.”

            “I bet you showed them who’s boss,” Taylin says, perking up a little.

            “A Jedi doesn’t gloat,” Rey chides, but lightly. Taylin’s nose twitches, and she chuckles and adds, “But yes, we did, and they don’t trouble us anymore. So don’t trouble yourself, and concentrate on sensing where we need to go. We’ve no map. Let it call to you.”

            Taylin huffs, but he does as instructed, closing his eyes. The map bit is a lie — Rey does have one, provided by Snap Wexley, to be used in the event that they get hopelessly lost — but it’s important for Taylin to navigate these passages on his own. And before long, his eyes spring open, and he cries, “This way!” Rey jogs behind him as he takes off, and they run down deeper and deeper into the earth.

            It becomes clear that they’re heading in the right direction. The air around them grows more oppressive, weighed down by something unseen that transcends the natural humidity of the catacombs. Rey’s skin prickles in warning, but whenever she turns her head she sees only the walls and the way they came, and nothing more.

            Eventually they reach shadows their glowrods cannot penetrate. Taylin comes to a halt, and Rey draws up beside him. “Very good,” she says. “This is the place?”

            “Yeah,” he says. “The one I keep seeing when I meditate.” His ears flatten to his head again. “But I can’t see anything now. Just darkness.”

            Rey rests a hand on his shoulder. “You have to go in alone,” she says. “I can’t come with you.”

            He looks up at her, large yellow eyes shining in the light of the glowrods. “Why not?”

            “Whatever the Dark Side wants to show you, it’s for you and you alone. I can’t help you face it.” She offers him what she hopes is a comforting smile. “But don’t worry,” she adds. “I’ll be here waiting when you return.”

            “But what if—” Taylin begins, before he stops himself, and swallows.

            “You will return,” Rey says, with the gentle firmness she learned from Leia. “I know it.”

            Taylin inhales, and he nods. “Okay,” he says. He takes a second deep, grounding breath, then rolls his shoulders back, and Rey feels an overwhelming rush of fondness because she recognizes her same small ticks. She can feel that as nervous as he is, he trusts her. The darker places within her, emboldened down in the catacombs, whisper doubts about whether she’s worthy of that trust.

            He glances back at her one more time before he walks forward, into the darkness. His tail, twitching behind him, is the last thing to vanish from sight.

            Rey reaches out to sense his presence until it’s muffled by the shadows, then she lets all the air rush out of her own lungs. Despite what her dread may tell her, she has faith that Taylin will pass this trial. None of her students have failed yet, and she knows that’s for a reason. She encourages them to approach the dark with curiosity and healthy skepticism, not reactionary alarm and fear. She reminds them to repeat like mantras the things they’ve learned, the things they hold true, as she must remind herself of her own beliefs while she waits.

            This is where her strong will comes in handy. She is not easily talked out of what she believes true. But, murmurs the traitorous voice of her fears, isn’t that the root of all her mistakes with Ben Solo? Hadn’t her belief in his ability to turn directed her to place undue faith in him? Then, hadn’t her certainty that he would not turn led her to overlook small changes she might have noticed earlier? Rey tries to dismiss these thoughts borne of insecurity and doubt, heightened by the energy here, but she can’t quite snuff them out. Instead, she realizes they are the key she seeks, and for once lets them run loose and wild, taking up residence within her, gnawing at the insides of her ribs.

            She had counted on the power of the Dark Side in this place, and she is not disappointed. Every molecule around her, of air, of stone, seems saturated with it; every fiber of her being vibrates with it. She allows her mind to turn to Kylo Ren, to Ben Solo, to the questions she still has for him and for herself. She thinks of fighting him, and of holding him, and of other memories that bring her bittersweet agony so potent that she nearly doubles over. Their passion, their hurt, their ferocity — she taps into the vein of dark fire they share and follows its currents all the way back to him. She hopes the darkness here, the power to which he has so struggled to devote himself, the power that she hopes to strengthen, will be enough to draw him out.

            And so it is. She finds him here, her lover, her foe, her shadow self. He manifests as though he’s sitting on a nearby rock, but now that she knows his chambers like the back of her own hand she can envision him sitting on that rigid, uncomfortable sofa, hunched over his sitting room table with a datapad in his hands. She wonders if he still thinks of the chair to the left as her chair, even though she hasn’t sat sideways in it for a fortnight.

            Rey opens her mouth to call his name, then remembers how he’d told her not to use it. Reluctant still to call him Kylo, or by his title, she clears her throat instead.

            He startles, so absorbed in whatever he was reading that he hadn’t noticed her or felt her presence. When he picks up his head to look at her she sees that his hair is lank and greasy, his skin pale and sallow, the scar almost redder by contrast. His eyes seem sunken back in his angular face. So she is not the only one who has difficulty eating, or sleeping. By the looks of him, he’s been coping far less well than she has. Rey, at least, has her friends to look after her, to lure her out of her room when she tries to hide. Who does he have, if she isn’t there? The question scrabbles at her core, digs in with sharp talons. The Knights? His pupils? Anyone? Pain and weariness radiate from him in a silent scream.

            With his eyes focused somewhere beyond her, he turns his head, sensing the invisible currents of the Force swirling around them. “You came to the Dark to find me,” he says. “You stooped to meet me here.”

            Rey wants stoop to meet him, to come down to his level. She wants to smooth his hair back from his forehead and cup his cheek, tilt his face up to hers, soothe his ache with a kiss and kind words. But she doesn’t think that’s what he wants, and if it is, he’ll reject it. She’s the source of his anguish. So she remains where she is for now, even though the gravity well of his churning emotions threatens to suck her in.

            “I didn’t stoop,” she says. “Just embraced what was already within.”

            “Yes.” He closes his eyes briefly and inhales. “Anger, pain, fear.” He opens them again. “Passion. It will do you no good.”

            She feels him pinching at their connection, trying to cut her off. “Just— wait,” she says, holding up a hand, taking one step forward. “I’ve come for a reason.”

            It’s enough to give him pause. “I’m sure you have,” he says. It’s low, flat. As with their last encounter, he doesn’t raise his voice to her. Somehow, that’s worse. She almost wants him to shout, to scream, to raise a hand, to raise his saber. But he just sits, and watches.

            “I have an offer from the Resistance.”

            A flicker of disappointment crosses his face, quickly concealed. He lays his datapad down on the table that she can’t see. As soon as it’s out of his hand, it vanishes. “So my mother sent you. Again.”

            “It’s not like that.”

            “You don’t do her bidding?”

            “This was my idea,” Rey counters.

            “Was it?”

            “Yes.”

            This seems to intrigue him, to a degree. He sits forward, elbows on his thighs. “Was using me your idea too?”

            Rey winces, but covers it up by folding her arms. She wasn’t exactly expecting him to be thrilled to see her, but the quiet hostility still bruises. She knows he can sense the answer to his question, so she asks, “Do you want to hear the offer or not?”

            He works his jaw, presses his lips together. His hands on his thighs clench tightly into fists, as if her very presence twists the knife that much more. “Not really.”

            She blinks. “Oh.”

            The slightest shake of his head. He has his chance to close the connection again, but doesn’t. He just says, “So speak quickly.”

            “Oh,” Rey says again, with a little relief. At least that shouldn’t be a problem. She’d rehearsed her lines in her head a dozen times on the way here. She squares her shoulders, inhales. “The First Order’s divided. You don’t want to be caught in a two-front war—”

            “I said quickly.”

            This impossible man. Rey’s nostrils flare. It’s like the early days all over again, when they spoke but mostly argued. When she was cross with him for leaving her alone, and he with her for refusing his advances. No. Don’t lose focus. That isn’t the way. Even those memories drip with heartache and accumulated regret.

            “Fine,” she says. “At the least, a truce, until Hux is dealt with. At most— an alliance.”

            “An alliance,” he repeats, but although his face remains straight, his voice betrays some interest. “What could the Resistance have to offer me?”

            “We have a fleet. You saw how they made short work of those Dreadnoughts.”

            “A single Star Destroyer has more firepower than your so-called Resistance fleet,” he scoffs.

            “I’m not certain that’s true anymore. The Resistance has grown. We’ve been recruiting.”

            He waves a hand, dismissively, already looking away. “Anything else?”

            “We have an intelligence network that spans the galaxy, into the Unknown Regions. That’s where Hux is likely hiding out, as I’m sure you know. And—” She pauses here. “—we have experienced leadership.”

            “Mm.”

            A hint of mockery there, too. “Look,” Rey says, tapping her foot, “I don’t know how the split worked out, whether you or Hux came out the better. But if you’re at any sort of disadvantage, you’ll want General Organa on your side. Impossible victories are her specialty.”

            He stands. The catacombs are narrow; he is not far from her, and she is all too aware of that. His size doesn’t intimidate her, but it wasn’t so long ago that his body called to her in ways she had barely begun to understand. Despite the terms they’re currently on, that appeal hasn’t faded. The breadth of his shoulders, the span of his hands. For the second time, she longs to be closer. For the second time, she stays put.

            “I won’t be held under my mother’s thumb,” he says.

            “It wouldn’t be like that,” Rey insists, standing her ground. “It wouldn’t be what you’re thinking. It would be an alliance. You would meet as— as equals, and form a relationship of mutual benefit.”

            “A relationship of mutual benefit.” He looks her over, and the line of his mouth tightens. “I’ll consider it.”

            “That’s all I ask.”

            “And if that’s all you came to say—”

            “It’s not,” Rey says quickly, but she hesitates before saying what she has to say next. “I do have an apology.”

            He waits, arms at his sides. Still. Maker, why won’t he do something?

            “I don’t regret what I did,” Rey tells him, watching his face. “I don’t regret helping the Resistance, or my friends. But I’m sorry you wound up caught in the crossfire. It wasn’t my intent to—” Break you, she thinks. “—hurt you.”

            “Because you thought I wouldn’t care.”

            “Your own thoughts lead me to believe that,” she points out. “When we reconnected through the bond, all I sensed from you was hatred. How was I supposed to know that there was anything more to it before I—”

            “You’ve known before,” he says. “You’ve seen past it before. Now, you’re only sorry that you were right about me.”

            “What?”

            He takes a step closer, as if daring her to acknowledge his height by tilting her face to look up to him. Rey just follows him with her eyes and doesn’t compromise her stance. “Years ago, you saw something. You told me that you would help me be something other than what I was. And then you left.”

            “That’s not what happened,” Rey says, anger creeping into her voice now.

            “It is,” he insists. “And because I disappointed you, you hid those beliefs away.”

            “No, I did that because you refused the Light and spent the next three years burning down anywhere I’d shown my face. I didn’t have much reason to keep believing.”

            “Whatever you saw then, you think you see it again now,” he continues, undeterred. “I’m only not worth hurting if I prove my merit. That’s how you feel.”

            “If I have to listen to one more lecture about my own feelings, I will sever the connection myself!” she snaps.

            He recoils, but says nothing.

            Rey feels the pointed sting of heartache, but whether it comes from him or herself she isn’t certain. She knows he’s just lobbing accusations like grenades, lashing out to channel his own suffering somewhere. But his aim is true, and the ache behind the words is so genuine— no. She can’t let him get under her skin, no matter how insecure and on edge the catacombs make her. That he’s even continuing this conversation means that, although he finds it difficult to be in her presence, some part of him wants to keep her there. She  keeps her gaze fixed on his eyes, which appear almost charcoal-black in this low light.

            “I don’t regret leaving you then,” she says. “I couldn’t stay. You needed to find the path or fail on your own.”

            That familiar twitch under his left eye. “So what do you regret?” he asks softly. “That you left me alive?”

            “I could never kill you.” Fury lingers in her voice from his previous accusations, so she can’t quite lend the statement the vulnerable tenderness it merits. But it’s honest, and he should feel that. “You must know that. I’ve had chances. I didn’t take them.”

            “It was Hux who asked.” He steps toward her, closing the distance between them. “If it had been the Resistance, then what?”

            Rey exhales.

            “Then what, Rey?”

            “I still couldn’t,” she says quietly.

            A blink, and the slightest crease of his brow; that’s not the answer he expected. But he recovers quickly, moving along to another grievance. “They told me,” he says. “My students. They told me you came to save their souls.”

            “Well, they told me where I could stick my offer. And I honored their wishes.” She stares up at him and doesn’t shy away. Neither does he. “They’re very devoted to you.”

            “That must bother you.”

            Rey shrugs. He must know how much that discovery made her question. She says, “It is what it is.”

            How ironic that she’s near enough to hear his whispers, that he’s near enough to kiss her. It’s impossible not to be aware of it. They might have eagerly closed that gap, once. He might have put his lips to hers, she might have pressed her body up into his. Even a minute ago, Rey thought of doing just that. But his attempts to wound her have quashed those thoughts. Now that he’s close, the inches of empty air between his face and hers may as well be the light years that actually separate them.

            When he speaks again, he lowers his voice. “Do you hate it?” he asks. “Do you hate seeing the monster and the man?”

            She doesn’t dignify that with a response.

            “I tried to make it easy,” he says. “I tried to be the monster.” His throat bobs as he swallows, and then he adds, “But I wanted you because you saw both.”

            Wanted. It’s a slap in the face. It’s the blow that, finally, makes Rey avert her eyes. She doesn’t move away from him, but she looks off into the darkness of the catacombs. “So I take it my apology isn’t accepted,” she says dryly, retreating into her own anger.

            Silent, he walks away to sit back down. Reaches forward. His datapad appears in his hands again when he picks it back up.

            “That’s fine,” says Rey. “You owe me a handful too, you know. But I guess I can’t expect them anytime soon.”

            “I can’t accept something that’s not sincerely given.”

            “It is sincere.”

            “You don’t want to have hurt another person,” he says. She watches out of the corner of his eye as he swipes at something on the datapad screen. “You want to think of yourself as noble. You can’t if you’re callous or cruel.”

            “Stop telling me how I feel.”

            “I guess it is a relief,” he says, “to know that I’m still a person to you.”

            That lingers in the air for a moment. Then Rey says, in a tone that’s low and hard, “You have no high ground here. You’ve killed to find me. You would have had me executed. You thought to force yourself on me.”

            He’s quiet for a moment. And then he admits, “I regret that.”

            Rey snorts.

            “I do.” Another pause. “I could never kill you, either. And I didn’t hurt you. I— couldn’t.”

            She senses, through the bond, across the stars, that this confession is genuine, too. Neither dares ask the question of what these admissions mean for them, stranded as they are, for now, on the opposite sides of a war. They only stand there, not looking at each other.

            “Well,” Rey says, after a prolonged stretch of silence, “that’s why I came. Take as much time as you need to consider the offer. You know where to find me when you’re ready.”

            The Force hasn’t disconnected them yet for whatever reason, so she turns away and prepares to do it herself. But then she hears him say her name, and she glances back at him over her shoulder.

            He is looking at her again. The light from the datapad screen throws the dark circles recessed below his eyes into sharp relief. He says, “My mother. I sense her near you, but she feels…”

            Rey nods, slowly. “She’s ill.”

            His face changes, subtle shifts, the shape of his brow and the quiver of his lower lip full of unasked questions. Instead of voicing any of them, he looks down at his datapad. “I see.”

            “I know she’d like to see you,” Rey chances.

            “Don’t.”

            “All right.”

            He gives the datapad two quick taps of his forefinger in consideration, weighing his options on invisible scales. Then he says, “Tell her to meet me outside the city where I was born in forty-eight hours. If she brings no warships, I’ll do the same.”

            That said, he turns his back on her. This is far more than Rey had hoped for. She’d thought he might need days to come to a verdict, or weeks.

            “I’ll tell her,” she agrees.

            He nods too, and then, business concluded, he severs their connection without warning. Rey staggers backwards and catches herself on a catacomb wall. The only thing more jarring than seeing him so worn down is suddenly no longer seeing him at all. Why can’t he stay in her sight? She holds out a hand on instinct, as if she could reach for him, pull him back— but he’s nowhere, again. His shields are up, stronger than ever, barring her from him.

            But Rey should be overjoyed. He agreed to meet, to try and broker a deal with Leia. This should feel like a victory. Instead, a black hole has opened in the pit of her stomach, a void that consumes all, is never sated. It feels as though he’s taken all the oxygen in the catacombs with him. What other explanation is there for the tightness in her chest? Why do her eyes burn so, shimmering with grief?

            The spell is only temporary. It has its moment, but the moment must pass, because here is Taylin, staggering out of the darkness, and he’s her responsibility; his needs are more important than her own. He looks whole, if not a little dirty, but clearly he’s shaken. Here is a role that Rey can throw herself into: teacher, protector. She takes a deep breath in through her nose, exhales through her mouth, and reorients, pushing off the wall to go to him.

            “You made it back,” she says, with genuine pride and false cheer. “I knew you would.”

            Taylin looks up at her, his eyes huge and watery, pupils blown out. Not shaken— shaking. Rey immediately moves to reassure him, places her hands on his shoulders. “It’s all right. You’re safe now. Whatever you saw, it can’t follow you.”

            He sniffs. “I saw my mom,” he says. “She called to me. But I—I couldn’t go to her. I couldn’t—” He shakes his head. Rey senses that that isn’t the end of it, but these trials are personal, and he’s under no obligation to share everything with her. She keeps her hands on his shoulders, a light, grounding touch, as he gradually calms down.

            “You did so well,” Rey says. “You remembered yourself and you found your way. You came back.”

            Taylin sniffs again, and then he asks quietly, “She really is dead, isn’t she?”

            Rey exhales. She should have known Shi’illa would factor into whatever test awaited Taylin. She’s not ready to have this discussion. She’s not ready for so much. But the universe won’t wait for her to be ready. “The Dark Side shows you what you most fear,” she says. “And sometimes — as it did for me, once — it shows you what you’re afraid to accept.” She looks at him with a heart weighed down by her guilt. Had she never come to that village, had she never led the First Order there… “I’m so sorry, Taylin.”

            Taylin shrugs. “It’s not your fault,” he says, and there’s a slight edge to his voice. He stands there for a moment, staring past Rey at the wall, as if trying to sort through all of his thoughts, all of his questions. Then he asks, “That was the Dark Side?”

            She nods.

            He thinks for another second. “Does it ever get easier? To face it?”

            Rey looks over his shoulder at the rock where Kylo Ren — Ben Solo — had appeared to her, and she realizes she can’t give him an answer that he’ll like. She says instead, “Taylin, before we left your village, I saw your mother do something. Do you mind if I— would it help—”

            Taylin looks a little puzzled, but he says, “Okay.”

            The memory of Shi’illa pressing her nose to Taylin’s forehead just before they were separated is still clear in Rey’s mind. She doesn’t know if this is a custom of his people, or a secret language between mother and son, but she bends forward now and does the same thing. Taylin responds immediately, his shoulders relaxing under her hands as if she’d wrapped him in a loving embrace. “I can’t replace what you’ve lost,” she says, closing her eyes. His soft fur tickles her skin. “But I made your mother a promise, and I’m going to keep it. I’ll keep you safe, and I’ll do my best to do right by you.”

            Taylin nods, but his shoulders begin to shake under her hands, and he exhales a breathy sob. Rey picks up her head, steps back, and allows him the space to cry. Space is sometimes welcome, less stifling, and given the freedom to move Taylin turns his back to her to hide his face. Rey looks down at her own hands, and wonders how she can ever explain to this boy, to anyone, that she just helped forge an alliance with the man who ordered his village destroyed; a man who has committed so many atrocities; a man who speaks of his want for her in the past tense; a man she wants, still.

            After a minute, Taylin collects himself, and they begin their journey back to the surface. He sniffles a couple of times, but doesn’t cry again, although Rey would have been willing to stop and wait if that was what he needed. He doesn’t talk much, either, no doubt reflecting on whatever the catacombs had shown him, and Rey lets him have his silence. She needs her own to replay her conversation with Ben, memorize his every microexpression; to watch Taylin silently grieve, and try to figure out what she’ll inevitably have to tell him. Exhausted, they trudge back to the entrance together, and this time it’s Rey who moves the concealing boulder into place before they head out.

            Rey had brought Finn along with them, at his insistence. Since her return, he’s been reluctant to let her out of his sight, but she persuaded him to stay behind and guard the shut