These are the days of flight; of running, of system-hopping, of such long stretches of time spent in hyperspace that Rey thinks the backs of her eyes will forever bear the imprint of starlines, black and neon-blue smeared across her vision when she retreats into her makeshift bunk to snatch a scant few hours’ rest. These are the days that have already begun to blur together in her mind, time slowing to a crawl in the boundless void of space until the hours lose their shape and she takes to marking her wall again just to have some tangible sign of their passing at all.
These are the days of dreaming, of searching, of learning what it is to have become one soul split into two bodies, and to have left the other half behind.
The Resistance is shattered, few enough to fit on one craft but numerous enough to make that craft feel cramped: there’s barely even enough space for all the ghosts that rub shoulders with the living in the cabins and corridors of this old ship, and for the first time she’s starting to feel the strain.
(Leia trails one hand over the console, and understands.)
There’s no more than a dozen of them now, the others having parted ways on Eriadu to rendezvous with the remnants of squadrons still scattered across the galaxy. It’s grown quieter, since then, but into the silences have crept the newer ghosts, the ones against whom certain members of this desperate crew have no defence.
Ben comes to her nearly every day now.
Sometimes it’s for no longer than a heartbeat’s span. He flickers in and out of existence, a shadow on the edge of sight gone before Rey can even turn her head. Sometimes it’s for longer. Regardless, she tries not to look him in the eye, too afraid of what she’ll see: of the hate, the betrayal that she has no doubt will lurk in his haunted stare.
The guilt follows her, still, for what happened on the Supremacy. It shouldn’t—the rational part of her knows that, knows that she made the only choice she could and were she to go back she would make it again, but—oh, if she could just make it a little differently.
More often than not, though, she doesn’t see anything, because Ben won’t look at her at all.
i. en route to the Anoat Sector
Somewhere along the Nothoiin Corridor, the bond begins to sing.
She’s become as attuned to the shift in the air that heralds his appearance as she is to the faint jolt of the Falcon dropping out of hyperspace, that subtlest of changes in the Force, their frequencies pulling together across the systems that divide them, and so when she becomes aware of the bond awakening and of Ben's presence in the room at her back, Rey doesn’t turn around.
She’s exhausted, on the point of falling facefirst into bed and sleeping till someone drags her out of it. He can just do what he always does, stay quiet and pretend she doesn’t exist, and leave her alone to rest.
For all her luck, this time he doesn’t.
Her fists clench around the shawl she was about to throw over her shoulders.
“I can’t do this now,” she says quietly. “I won’t.”
He’s moving, behind her, his footfalls heavy in the cramped space she’s staked out for herself. “What’ll you do, then?” he asks. He sounds about as shattered as she feels, but there’s a thread of antagonism in his voice that Rey recognises all too well. He’s come to bait her, to pick a fight. She hadn’t thought he would take this long about it, honestly. “Would you run again? Like you always do?”
Her temper spikes. Rey shoves it down, tries not to think of how she’d left him unconscious at the mercy of the Order’s sadistic generals. He doesn’t seem to have fared too badly from it, all things considered—outwardly, at the least. The inside is another matter, but then, it always has been. “You didn’t give me much choice.”
It takes a while for him to answer. “I thought I did,” he says, in the manner of one making a confession. “I offered you everything.”
“No,” Rey rounds on him. “That wasn’t fair. I didn’t want to rule. I didn’t want a throne. All I wanted was an end to the war. To protect the light. To help my friends. To—”
“What?” Ben draws closer, his eyes hard and unforgiving. He looks tired too, like he hasn’t slept a night through since she left him among the bodies. Like the Falcon’s crew aren’t the only ones keeping company with ghosts. “Say it. Why did you do it? Why did you come?”
“To help them,” Rey glowers up at him, meets his cool scorn with an implacable heat. “To save them. Luke wouldn’t, so—”
“So you thought you could do it? Take on the Order yourself? Fight Snoke alone?”
“No. I thought—” she falters, and watches comprehension dawn in his eyes. Watches the look on his face turn slowly cruel.
“You thought you could make your vision real,” there’s a note of realisation in his voice, and something else—a lack of surprise, an acceptance that cuts Rey to the quick. “You thought you could just will the future into being. Skywalker wouldn’t help you but you thought all you had to do was come to me, offer me your hand, and it would all fall into place the way you wanted. That I would bend to your will, be what you wanted me to be. You thought it would be that easy.”
The way he says it turns her cold.
It wasn’t like that, don’t put it like that, it wasn’t—
But it was.
“It’s alright,” he cuts her off, his voice too light, “I understand.”
She’s going to be sick.
“Rey, enough.” His jaw works impatiently. “We are where we are meant to be. All is as it should be.”
“Do you believe that?” she demands, tears in her eyes and uncaring if he sees them because how did she make such a mess of this? “I saw us side-by-side. You and I.”
And we were. For one moment, we were. You at my back and I at yours. Couldn’t you feel it too?
“That future is dead,” Ben shakes his head. “It’s done, Rey.”
“I don’t believe that,” she insists.
“Then you’re a fool.” He looks so rueful, like he regrets having to say it, like he regrets everything that’s been said and done between them but it won’t stop him because it’s never stopped her, has it? She’d just blundered on ahead, idealistic and utterly naive with her dreams of turning Ben Solo to the light; she’d thought she could sway him, use him, and he would never have anything to say about it one way or another, and then she’d left him flat when it turned out that actually, he did. “But you’ve always been good at lying to yourself.”
“Don’t,” Rey breathes.
“Do they know?” he asks, gentle as the knife going in. “Did you tell them you came to me? That you freely boarded the Supreme Leader’s flagship and let yourself be chained without a fight?”
“Do they know about this?” Quieter yet, he pares her secrets to the bone. He already knows what he’ll find there. “About us?”
She stiffens. “There is no us.” Not now. Not anymore.
His mouth twitches. “Do you think they would understand?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
Ben tilts his head curiously, “then why haven’t you told them?”
She clenches her fists at her side, says nothing: what can she say?
“What does it take, to keep yourself hidden? How many lies?”
He’s too close, now. He’s enjoying her discomfort, she thinks: he’s trying to pay her back for leaving, for turning her back when he held out his hand. “My mother lied. For more than twenty years she kept the secret of our bloodline. In the end it was exposed to the galaxy anyway. That was how I found out—that my mother had lied to me, my uncle, my father, and that my grandfather was—”
“Vader.” It’s barely a breath.
He nods. “How long can you lie, Rey? How long can you look them in the eye and pretend you’re like them?”
Lifting her chin, Rey glares at him. “How long can you keep lying? Telling yourself you want this?” She steps up to meet him and puts herself firmly in his space. “You killed Snoke. Why?”
Her life had been on the line and she wants so much to believe that he’d done it for her. To spare her. To save her.
But if he’d done it to free himself, how could she condemn that?
Does it matter, why he did it?
“How did you explain what happened to him? Did you tell them it was me?” The sour twist to his mouth is her answer. “What, that I’d fought and beaten everyone in that room with my hands tied? D’you think they believe you?”
“They follow me. I don’t require them to believe.”
“No. Just to kill. Just to destroy,” she shakes her head, looks away. “What galaxy would’ve been left for us, Ben? If I’d said yes? What would you have left for us to rule? Dead worlds? A hundred thousand Jakkus?”
“A future,” and just like that his voice has lost its edge, becoming soft-spoken and earnest again. He wants so much to persuade her, to make her see, but he lacks the gift of words to do so, too often tripped up by his own ungentle tongue. For all the politicians in his family line, Rey thinks, he hasn’t a diplomatic bone in his body. “We could’ve built it ourselves. Made something new. Something better.”
She can see it, in his mind—a future sweet with promise, making hopeful fools out of the pair of them. “Not like this,” she says. “This isn’t the way, Ben. The Force...it’s bleeding. I hear it in my dreams. I see it every day. This war can’t go on.”
“No,” he agrees. “It can’t. And the rebels cannot win. Even with you at their side—for however long they let you stand there. There is only one way this can go.”
She steps away from him, wrapping her arms around herself as though she would protect herself from the unkind edges of his words.
“You’re wrong,” she whispers, “I’ll show you.”
The corner of his mouth tilts up, sad and doubt-filled and pitying. The bond is already parting them again when he answers.
The sapphire-blue veils of yet another hyperlane have drawn in around them when he comes again.
Ensconced in her bunk, Rey contemplates feigning sleep, but through her closed eyelids the amber glow of the cargo bay has already grown dimmer, as though some great hulking thing has passed across the light, and a girl weaned on treachery and backstabbing in the badlands of Jakku will never take her eyes off the gnaw-jaw in the room.
She cracks one eye open, blinking even in the dim light of her little lamp. Maybe it’s just the effect of so much hyperspace travel in so little time but her head’s felt tender all day, her eyes sensitive to the light and a dry ache in the back of her throat. Maybe she’s getting sick again.
Either way, this inevitable confrontation is the last thing she wants.
His broad bulk lowers into a crouch beside her, one gloved hand reaching out to trace the little tallymarks she’s made on the bulkhead where no one will ever see them but the two of them. His brow furrows.
“Don’t say it,” Rey mutters.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” he lies quietly, and she lets out a mirthless huff of air.
Ben draws back a little, looking down at her with a faint bewilderment in his eyes. “I was going to ask what it is you’re doing, if you’re this unhappy.”
“I’m not unhappy,” she snaps, forces herself to lower her voice before someone comes along and catches her talking to herself—or worse, to him.
In response, he simply glances back up at the wall, and the hidden ledger of her unravelling.
Rey lets her head fall back against the bulkhead.
“I’m not,” she whispers. “I’m tired, and I feel like I'm losing my mind out here.” She shouldn’t be telling him, but what use is there in hiding? He’s in her head, in her bones. “I feel like haven’t seen sunlight in weeks.”
Desert creature, warm-blooded and out of sorts without the sun on her face, even Ben can see how pale she's become without steady natural light, her freckles standing out in stark relief against her skin. She's as strong and beautiful as ever, but something of her radiance is withering in the cold light of space without earth and warmth and a breeze to ground her.
“I would’ve given you sunlight,” Ben says, low and more than a little churlish, “I would’ve given you worlds.”
She throws him a sharp look. “I don’t want worlds. I’ve never wanted worlds.”
“I know.” He does. He’d known even as he offered it to her. “Where are you?”
Rey turns her head towards the bay door. “I don’t know. Hyperspace.”
She doesn’t let them tell her, anymore. In the beginning she’d been so full of conviction that she could keep him out, that she’d never let anything slip through, but now...
She isn’t even sure she wants to keep him out.
“There’s nowhere to run,” he tells her—reasonably, he thinks, because even if the scattered dregs of the Resistance manage to put the entire galaxy between them and the Order’s forces, it won’t matter. So long as she’s with them, there is a weakness, a chink in their armour they can neither predict nor defend against.
(Whether he’d ever take advantage of that weakness, he hasn’t been in a position to discover yet.)
He’s with her, always, and she with him. He couldn’t get her out if he wanted to.
“There’s always somewhere,” she says lowly, and ah, her fire has been banked but it’s still there, it’ll never burn out altogether and he adores her for it.
(He gave up pretending he didn’t somewhere between watching her fight at his side and watching her resolve to leave him, when the realisation hit him that the bond between them still existed even though the one that claimed to have engineered it no longer did, and through the despair of what he’d done came the new flush of hope.)
(He gave up pretending when he realised that he missed her.)
“Would it have been so terrible?” he asks. “Staying?”
Her eyes meet his and the pain there is all the answer he needs.
“You know that wasn’t it,” she whispers.
It would have been so easy—the easiest thing in the world, to stay, to take the offered hand, if it had just been him behind it; just the man, and not the taint of Snoke’s evil lingering in the damage done to Ben’s psyche, causing him to cling to the last scraps of solid ground left to him. A lonely throne: a heavy crown.
It needn’t have been lonely.
Oh, it would’ve been so easy. Effortless, like sinking beneath dark waves and letting the riptide draw her out beyond where her feet could touch the bottom—like spilling out her heart into his waiting hands, and trusting they would not let her fall.
Part of her, a part Rey tries with everything she has to ignore, whispers that it wouldn’t have been terrible at all.
Run away with me, she’d thought of saying for one brief, selfish moment. Just us. No more killing. No more hurting. We’ll find that future together.
She couldn’t have.
But to stay...she would’ve lost herself, the only thing she’s ever truly had.
And so she chose, and now they pay the price for it.
Her cheeks are wet. Rey sniffs, blinking back the tears, still hating such a waste of water. “Ben,” she says.
His eyes are too bright, the way they were that night in the hut, the way they were when he begged her to stay with him. He reaches out like he would touch her but—as though unsure of his welcome—seems to think better of it at the last. He withdraws, settling for looking at her with such imploring intensity that her heart thuds in her chest.
“Stop running,” he says softly, “Rey, please.”
His gaze burns into hers and they’re so dark, so deep, his eyes, the same eyes that nearly had her and, gods, she’s so tired of flight—
“I can’t,” she whispers, her eyes roving ceaselessly over his face in turn and she doesn’t ever want to have to look away, not when he looks at her like this, like she’s everything, but one person can’t be everything to another and it frightens her because she feels it too and it takes everything to remember that she shouldn’t.
Not that should or shouldn't has ever changed anything.
“I know,” Ben says.
“Ben,” she leans toward him, “come home.”
“I can’t.” For the first time, it looks as though it pains him to say it.
They’re deep in the Expansion Regions the first time Rey encounters a cold.
Threepio had warned her it would likely happen, in his customary forthright-yet-roundabout way: her immune system could be compromised, he’d informed her, by being around so many new life-forms after her limited exposure to foreign illnesses on Jakku, and the Falcon had been running low on medical supplies even before it became both home and base for the remaining Resistance fighters.
Rey hadn’t paid much mind to the droid’s warning, at the time; she’s been so rarely unwell in her life, usually due to extreme hunger or infection, and more often than not she’d had to simply power through it if she hoped to earn enough to eat and give herself a chance at recovery. But as the adrenaline-fuelled haze of the journey back into the Mid Rim fades and the rebels finally find themselves with a little breathing space, sure enough, she begins to notice a soreness in her throat and muscles, and a new sensitivity to light and sound, her body running hot and cold by turns until finally—though her skin feels searingly warm to the touch—it settles on freezing.
Naturally, the bond chooses to connect them just as she’s coughing up what feels like an entire lung, shivery and sweating and silently cursing every organic life-form she’s crossed paths with in the past fortnight. Her head feels like it’s full of sand, so stuffy and thick that she doesn’t even notice the change in the air that usually portends the connection’s awakening, so it’s only when she looks up to find herself on the bridge of a star destroyer that Rey realises.
No. Not now.
Lifting her head, she looks around blearily. She’s sitting in an unoccupied seat, knees pulled up to her chest and her arms folded on top of them, still huddled beneath her worn old blanket.
And there across the room, in the centre of the bustling deck, bridge officers moving this way and that and taking care not to stray too close to him, stands Ben, staring right at her with undisguised alarm on his face.
With a muffled groan Rey curls further in on herself, turning her back on the bridge and all of its flashing, humming consoles, each blinking pinprick-light a needle stabbing straight between her eyes. At any other time this would be an opportunity too good to waste—she’d be up and about exploring, to see what secrets she could steal, what information might be gleaned from access to the flagship’s bridge, but with her head pounding fit to burst and her ears ringing it’s all she can do it keep from screaming into her own knees.
Distantly, she can hear him speaking, issuing commands in that soft, clipped way of his. His voice washes over her, deep and dark and strangely soothing through the low hum of activity on the deck, and she lets it, sinking deeper into her stew of self-pity and trying to ignore all the other sounds, focussing as best she can on the sound of Ben’s voice.
At one point he sounds so close she thinks she can almost feel him behind her, the edge of his dark cloak brushing against her back. She doesn’t turn her head to look, keeping her face buried in her folded arms until she feels the threads of the Force unwrap from her, and then she’s alone again, nauseous and aching and tired, and somehow so much colder than before.
No, no, no no, not again. It's only been a few hours, is the Force trying to test her—
“Rey, look at me.”
“Go away,” she mumbles into her pillow—only to find that it’s not hers, anymore. It’s not the worn softness of her bunk under her cheek, but the uncomfortable arm of a leather chair.
An impatient sigh. “You’re in my quarters.”
She answers with a hacking cough.
The air shifts around her, and then she can hear his breathing from somewhere very near.
Slowly, reluctantly, she lifts her head to find Ben crouched before her, arms resting on his bent knees in a bizarre echo of another meeting.
It’s in his pose that the similarities end. He looks so different, now—no mask or cowl to hide him from her sight, he’s even taken his gloves off, hands hanging loosely between his knees. His features are wide-open with curiosity, and something else that might—if she were feeling very generous towards him—be concern.
His eyes narrow slightly, taking in her pitiful state.
“Are you—” he stops himself. She wonders if he was about to ask if she’s alright. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Rey croaks. “I’m fine.”
His lip curls sceptically. “It looks like nothing.”
Why do you care?
She pushes herself a little further upright. “It’s just a cold. People get colds.”
From the look on his face, she can tell he wants to disagree. “The Resistance’s medics aren’t up to much, if they can’t take care of a cold.”
She scowls, turning her face away.
Unfortunately, he reads her silence too well.
“...Rey, where are you?”
“In my bunk,” she mutters.
“Have you been to the medbay?”
She hides her face in her arms again.
He doesn’t get it. On Jakku, there’d been no one to take care of her, and a lifetime of looking after herself is difficult to leave behind. Even now, it’s hard to accept that she will be cared for, if she only asks.
“They can cure this kind of thing in a heartbeat,” Ben says, at a loss. “Even your rebels.”
“I know,” her voice is so small.
Rey lowers her arms again, looks at him seriously with her big hazel eyes. “I’m not—I don’t need it. It’s not serious. I’ll be fine.” Those eyes squeeze shut as a colossal yawn stretches her jaw, her whole body tensing and relaxing with it. She looks so young in that moment, all mussed hair and dimpled cheeks, it reaches deep inside him and tugs at something he has no name for.
She’s slipping away again right in front of his eyes, her head falling back to rest on her crossed arms, her features smoothing out as she loses consciousness. The bond remains open, and Ben’s left with a sleeping girl curled up in his armchair, tiny rasping snores escaping her as she breathes in through blocked airways, her shoulders trembling with the cold seeping through her body.
The way she makes herself small even in sleep speaks of long years snatching rest in dangerous places, and the Supreme Leader’s own personal chambers would certainly qualify as such, Ben thinks, but the way she just—relaxes into his chair, lets herself be completely vulnerable like she feels, of all things, safe here. Like she has no fear of harm coming to her in his presence. Like she trusts him not to hurt her.
It shakes him.
Helplessly, Ben reaches up to remove his cloak, and with unsteady hands leans in to spread it over her sleeping form. He has no idea if it’ll help keep her warm or if she’ll even feel it at all, but it’s not rational thought that moves him—it’s something else, something instinctive and without logic, that innate impulse to protect her while she cannot do it herself.
Weakness, he tells himself.
Even in his own mind it rings hollow. He thinks of that moment, kneeling before the crimson throne as Rey cried out in torment and the saber’s hilt spun before him like the needle of a compass pointing the way ahead; how for the first time in his life it felt like the whole universe had fallen into alignment, and he knew, with a resolve he’d never felt before or since, just how far he would dare go for her.
That—that had not felt like weakness, and as he moves away from her now, leaving her to sleep until the bond cuts them off from one another again, Ben cannot convince himself that she is either.
He’s poring over reports when she emerges from the fresher—from his fresher—only mostly-dressed, dark hair hanging wet about her face and cheeks still flushed from the shower’s heat.
A squawk escapes her when she notices Ben, followed by an indignant scowl as she gapes at him in silence, apparently flabbergasted. Her jaw tenses. Then—
“You know how to pick your moments,” she grits out, resuming tugging a far-too-big sweater over her head. Ben tries and fails not to glance at the stripe of lean, golden abdomen on display before it’s hidden by faded green wool, covering up his lapse—and the inevitable slow crawl of heat across his cheeks—behind a snort.
“Sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t plan this.”
“Don’t call me that,” Rey snaps, crossing her arms over her chest as though to fend off the accidental endearment. Truthfully, it had just slipped out, but something deeper than hurt pangs in the bond and when he tries to look he finds a wall in place, some dark part of her heart guarded against him.
He withdraws. “Rey,” he amends solemnly, “you know as well as I do how this works.”
She rolls her eyes. “The Force, then. Either it has the worst sense of timing in the kriffing galaxy, or the worst sense of humour.”
“Why not both?”
It’s her turn to snort, though she tilts her face away so he can’t see the little smile on her face as she pads across the floor. Though she comes within inches of him, she’s careful not to let any part of them touch.
She stoops to reach for something, and when she straightens up there are a pair of boots in her hands. “Murdered anyone lately?”
“No.” It’s true. “Terrorised any rebels?”
Rey’s whole body stiffens.
“They’re not—” she starts to protest, then, “they don’t understand, that’s all.” Leia’s never used the Force around them. You’re the only one they’ve ever really seen use it, the one they’ve heard all the stories of. It’s not that they’re afraid of me. It’s not.
“No,” Ben agrees, “they don’t, and they never will. They’re not like you, Rey.” You’re like me. “You’re more.”
She looks at him archly, her gaze landing somewhere between his eyebrows. “I thought I was 'nothing'.”
Ben leans forward, irritation flashing across his features. “Never,” he growls, “that isn’t what I meant, and you know it. You have never been nothing.”
“Then why did you—” her voice cracks, and he can almost hear her berating herself for the momentary slip, as though to even ask were beneath her.
“Why did I say it?” he finishes. “It was in your head, Rey. All I did was let it out.”
“I didn’t ask you to.” Finally, she meets his eyes directly.
“You asked to be shown. You told me, what you wanted from the mirror.”
“Not like that,” she whispers.
“Then how?” He’ll be out of his chair if he leans any further forward but she does this—draws him out, pulls him close, some natural magnetism he’s never been able to resist. Rey, Rey. His due north. His lodestar.
“I...” Rey swallows. “I don’t know.”
“I know,” rising to his feet, Ben moves slowly towards her. She looks so small, standing in the centre of his office with her arms wrapped around herself and her hair straggly and damp, dripping dark spots onto her shoulders, but in the Force she’s infinite. “Perhaps it was cruel.”
“Then I’m sorry for that. But I’m not sorry you heard me. That you’re free.”
She looks up at him. “I don’t feel free.”
Ben tilts his head. “What do you feel?”
It might be minutes that pass while she regards him; it might be days. Eventually, her shoulders lower slightly. “Alone,” she murmurs.
He takes the liberty of studying her in turn. “You aren’t,” something a little truer, a little rawer breaks through, the echo of something that passed between them once before. “Rey...”
Rey. Stars, the way he says her name shouldn’t affect her this much.
“I know,” she mutters, turning her back on him and putting some space between them. What good is it, telling her she’s not alone, when she is—as alone as he is—and it’s because he saw more worth in an empty throne than a future by her side?
You made your choice, and it wasn’t me.
“Don’t sound so pleased,” he says dryly, either oblivious or uncaring of her souring mood.
“Why should I be pleased?” she snaps back. “You tell me not to feel lonely, but you’re the whole reason I am, and you won’t leave me alone.”
“You’re the one in my quarters,” Ben reminds her. “My apologies, if this is less than convenient.”
“I know,” she says again, and she’s grumbling for the sake of it, now, making the most of the opportunity to get it out with someone who can take it. “It’s not like I’m doing this on purpose.”
“I'm aware,” he echoes. “Rey.”
The change in his tone—still amused, but gentler—has her glancing askance over her shoulder at him.
She squints, immediately suspicious. “What for?”
Not that saying please has ever worked on her, he thinks, but this time it seems to sway her, for she crosses the few feet to stand before him again, her expression expectant. “What?”
Slowly, giving her the time and space to evade him should she choose, Ben reaches out and, with forefinger and thumb—making sure that not even the slightest sliver of his skin brushes hers—pulls the hem of her sweater down from where it had been turned up on itself over her hip, a tiny thing that had nevertheless needled at him.
Some mad impulse makes him leave his hand hovering at her side, still holding onto the edge of the garment.
“You could’ve just said,” Rey mutters, without much feeling.
Ben tugs gently at the sweater’s hem again. “I didn’t want to,” he says quietly.
Her hand rises to rest, light as a feather, over his.
His eyes dart up to hers.
Her breath catches as his thumb brushes over her knuckle.
“Rey,” he breathes.
The bond cuts off, leaving him standing alone in the middle of his rooms, one hand still raised to where her waist had been, his lips still parted on the sound of her name.
There are cities in the trees.
Even after all this time, the galaxy is capable of showing her such wonders as can take her breath away.
She hopes it always will.
Kashyyyk has recovered from the Empire’s reign in the way of all forests: slowly, season by season, its scarred face healing over with a fibrous new growth that seems all the more verdant and lush for its rebirth, as though the planet seeks to erase any sign of what happened here decades ago.
It hasn’t worked everywhere. The memory of the dead, and the tortured, and the maimed, lives on no matter which way Rey looks, but the Wookiees are a stubborn people, and Kashyyyk is an indomitable kind of world. She falls in love the second she steps down onto the gangway and sees the lower canopy of the titanic forest unfurl around her, dark and steaming and glossed in pale gold by the watery distillation of sunlight fighting its way through the clouds.
The bond hums with Ben’s interest, feeling her delight and wonder at this newest world, but she’s too busy making introductions with Chewie’s family to pay any attention to the muted sorrow buried beneath.
She and Finn venture out to the Black Forest, just to see what such a thing looks like—a dead wood, when forest by its very nature conjures images of unstoppable life in both of their minds.
Rey looks out over this vast stretch of desolation, and thinks of Jakku.
They’re the same: dead planet, dead forest, the same aura of utter lifelessness clinging to their very bones.
Sinking to her knees, she lets her fingers curl into the dark earth.
I know you.
I’ve felt you before.
“Rey?” Finn crouches beside her. “You okay?”
She throws him a wry smile to cover up the fact that her heart feels like it’s trying to fight its way out of the soles of her boots. “Feels like home,” she croaks, “Jakku levels of grim.”
He snorts. “Tell me about it.”
“Figure of speech,” he nudges her gently with his elbow, “if I never hear that planet’s name again it’ll be too soon. Only good thing that ever came of it was running into you.”
Her smile becomes more genuine, touched by the frankness in his voice. Still, she can’t help teasing him. “Did you eat all the air-cakes again?”
“What?” He looks scandalised. “No—I was being nice. It’s what friends do. I think. I mean, some of us do that. You need practice.”
She relents, elbowing him back. “Actually, the best thing Jakku ever did was give me you.”
Finn smirks a bit, leans into her until she wobbles. “I’m pretty sure what happened was you chased me with a stick, but sure, we’ll say that.”
“Hey, it was BB's word against yours. How was I to know you hadn’t murdered Poe and left him in a canyon somewhere?”
He grimaces. “That happen often?”
“On Jakku? What do you think?”
“I don’t really want to think, honestly. I want to go look at some trees that aren't dead. Coming?”
Rey grins, levering them both to their feet. "Coming."
It’s only later, when Rey’s sought solitude on a platform above the lower canopy, only the tallest trees and the pale white stars above, that Ben comes to her.
“This place is incredible,” she says before he can so much as open his mouth. “Look...”
He does, gazing out over the immense forest with an expression she can only describe as longing.
Something in the back of her mind clicks.
“Did he ever bring you here?”
The pause before he answers is too long, heavy with grief. “Twice, I think. Chewbacca was living here, trying to rebuild after the Empire made slaves and sport of his people.” His features grow dark. “Kashyyyk was not a world that prospered under its rule. He had a son, too.”
“He still does.”
“But it all felt too...close,” that little crease appears between his brows. “Such enormous forests covering everything. It felt like being buried alive.”
She understands. “Yeah.”
“Chewie took me up to the top of one of the trees, let me see the sky. I stayed up there until we left.”
Rey nods. “I get it. It’s better up here. I like the green, but...I don’t like not being able to see the sky.” She shifts onto her back, looking up at the sable arc of night overhead. “The stars are so bright here. I don’t know all their names.”
Ben moves to sit beside her, a great dark wraith of a man folding himself into the space at her side. Though he’s not here she can feel the warmth of him, a broad, muscular wall against the chilly night air.
“Show me,” he says.
“Which do you want to know?”
Rey considers. Opens the bond a little further, lets him see fully through her eyes. There is a vulnerability in the gesture, but if he considers taking advantage, she doesn’t feel it.
“All of them.”
Outside the base, the rain hammers down in silver-edged sheets, making enough of a racket when it hits the roof to drown out even the occasional rolling booms of thunder in the distance. Rey’s been curled up on her windowsill watching the downpour for most of the morning, two of the porglets whose parents have apparently adopted her storage unit as their nest snuggling in her lap, when her ears pop without warning and the gnawing echo of her bondmate’s nightmares in the back of her mind suddenly sharpens into uncomfortable focus.
She doesn’t turn her head, hoping vaguely to prolong the inevitable, but all she hears from the room behind her is the deep, steady breathing of someone fast asleep.
Rey glances over at the bed, rolling her eyes at the sight of the hulking form under her sheets, dark hair spilling out over her pillow, the pale rise of his bare shoulder sloping down into a back thick with muscle and tense with the disquiet of his dreams.
The unfamiliar stir of something in her gut at such an intimate sight lasts only so long as it takes Ben to groan, faintly, and for his distress to ripple through the bond again. He’s lost in his nightmares, haunted by ghosts he cannot leave behind.
The ghosts Rey has long since vowed she won’t abandon him to a second time.
“Ben,” she whispers.
If she were to close her eyes and let the Force take her, she’d see his dreams. She could, if she chose, get herself a firsthand view of what the Supreme Leader Ren’s nightmares look like.
She doesn’t. They’re not hers, she doesn’t want them—she never has, no matter that it’s a weakness, an exposed nerve she could pluck to her heart’s content—if she possessed that kind of heart. This connection allows them little enough in the way of privacy as it is: where she doesn’t have to, she won’t intrude.
Instead Rey opens her eyes and slows her breathing, centres herself and finds the Force the way she’s learned to, the same way she does when she’s trying to meditate, but rather than letting her awareness of her immediate surroundings fade in favour of focussing on the Force alone, she searches for both, keeps herself aware of everything her senses are telling her is real, and uses it to anchor both herself and Ben.
The rain belting down outside, loud as drumbeats on the roof; the flat grey plain of the tarmac barely visible beyond so much water, only the occasional flash of dark gold where the sun breaks through the leaden clouds; the wall, cool at her back, the chill of it worming its way beneath her skin no matter how tightly she pulls her blanket about herself; the soft chirrups of the porgs that try and take shelter under its folds when they think she isn’t paying attention.
Rey loosens her grip on her blanket cape a bit to let them under it. This is their makeshift clifftop, after all: they live in her locker, but this is the closest thing they have to a jumping-off point when they fledge so they’ve claimed it as Theirs as well. She’s the intruder here, and while she’d appeased them with some dried rations their warm little bodies help keep the cold away too.
Over the constant clamour of the rain, she begins to sing.
It’s more like humming, really. She doesn’t know enough words for it to be singing, but her voice sounds well enough when it catches on a tune that sometimes the porgs will trill along with her and it’s been the one sure-fast way—besides offering them food, of course—to get them to warm up to her. They like best the songs they can sway too, and Rey’s repertoire is small enough that they’re learning fast.
She leans into the bond a little, lets the melody float through it—and the porgs’ tuneful warbling, too, just because she can—until it permeates the sleeper’s troubled dreams.
He stirs a little, disturbed but not roused.
“Ben,” she says again, louder, one hand falling to trail a gentle finger along a porg’s spine. It shivers, cooing appreciatively, and she smiles down at it. “Ben, wake up.”
She’s only doing this because his nightmares affect her too. She doesn’t care that he’s in pain—and he is, she can feel it as her own, a muted ache in her limbs as her muscles tense and relax against her will, the pulse of adrenaline sending her heart-rate soaring in her chest.
—a flash of terror, wordless and raw, through the bond—
“Ben,” her voice rises. One of the porgs gives an alarmed little chirp.
—the image of fire racing up a pale limb, of flesh beginning to blacken and burn and smoke and wither away, and above it all a terrible scream—
She watches him jerk awake from her refuge on the sill, the sudden start of his consciousness as he breaks out of the dream causing her to experience a moment of disorientating double-vision, her own line of sight superimposed upon Ben’s until his chamber upon his ship fades away into the plain, uninteresting wall beside her bunk.
Slowly, he gathers himself, and Rey turns away again to give him the time, letting her attention drift out onto the curtains of iron-grey rain and occasional shards of dark, splintering sunlight outside.
He’s looking blearily over his shoulder, dark eyes barely focussed on her there across the room.
She meets his gaze evenly. “You were dreaming.”
“You woke me?” His disbelief ripples faintly in the bond.
A shrug, entirely disingenuous. “You were bothering me.”
Ben snorts out loud, mumbling, “sorry, sunshine.”
He’s recovered reasonably quickly, considering he’d woken in a cold sweat with the sheets tangled around his waist and his heart thumping fit to burst in his chest—but then he always had, on the surface, and it wasn’t till you saw the blood spray on the snow and caught the scent of animal fear in the air that you would realise the truth, and by then he’d be upon you. Rey can still feel the echo of that frantic heartbeat hammering away in her own ribcage, a phantom exhilaration coursing through her system. Her fingers find the pulse in her wrist and it’s as swift as the rain under her skin, a perfect mirror of that second heart taking up too much space between her lungs.
She yanks her hand away like her skin’s burning.
Too deep. This thing is too deep inside them, and while she can mitigate the worst of it, she still has no idea how to fix it.
It frightens her, how readily she’s accepted that perhaps she never will.
Belatedly, Ben seem to realise he’s in her bed, for he sits abruptly upright and swings his legs out over the side. He’s missing a shirt again, but the least he’s wearing long sleep pants. His feet are bare, and the sight is so oddly endearing that Rey has to look away.
“What is that?” Ben’s voice breaks through her disconcerted silence, baffled and a little bit fascinated.
Rey frowns. Either he’d missed her momentary alarm or he’s trying very hard to change the subject. “What?”
“Oh.” She glances down to where one of the porglets has clambered onto her knee. “A porg.”
“Porg.” The faint bewilderment in his voice brings a little smirk to her lips. “Nasty, vicious things. Carnivores. They go for the eyes if they don’t like you.”
To her mild surprise, Ben plays along. “And if they do?”
“I dunno. Never met a porg that liked anyone.”
Her vision blurs slightly, a familiar sensation after so many months: he can see them sitting on her knee, but through her eyes he’s watching more closely, gazing curiously down at the little seabirds. She can feel his interest, his strange delight in the porgs’ self-possessed indifference to the presence of humans. It’s an unusual thing to experience in the bond.
“They seem to like you well enough,” he mutters.
Rey snorts, digging her fingers into the porglet’s neck ruff until it purrs. “I feed them.”
“Oh, so you’re a kindred spirit, then.”
She suspects he doesn’t mean it kindly, knows that he once considered her little more than a half-starved feral thing herself and there’s a part of him that’s looked down his long nose at her from the moment they met, but when Rey feels the other of the porgs trying to climb onto her knees with its stubby wings, using its pin-sharp teeth to gain purchase on her pants leg, she can’t find it in herself to be affronted. With one hand she gently assists the downy creature, giving it just enough of a bump up that it can still do most of the work itself—they’re prideful little things, after all, and she better than anyone understands the satisfaction of getting there yourself—and as it settles onto the crook of her legs Rey thinks that maybe it isn’t such a far-off assessment after all.
Stubborn, territorial creatures, full of cleverness and attitude. There’s worse things to be likened to.
“You—” Ben hesitates, mulling over something in the relative privacy of his own mind before he shares it with her. “You feel far away.”
Rey rests her chin on her shoulder, wondering when the rain will stop so she can escape the base—and this conversation. “I am, I think.”
He nods, and she supposes it’s the most noncommittal answer he’s capable of giving to a statement that was, in itself, fairly neutral. “It’s getting stronger.”
“Maybe.” She frowns into the middle distance, bothered to have to admit that she still knows so little about the whys and hows of the bond: it’s not like Ben knows much more, despite the vast archives of knowledge at his disposal, and anything he did discover, he’d share. “I don’t know what distance does to it. We were always far apart, in the beginning, and sometimes I barely feel it, you know?”
“Then sometimes it’s like now—like you’re here in the room with me. Other times it’s more like you’re breathing down my neck, or...” like your heart is moving my blood, your lungs taking my air, your dreams in my head, it’s like we aren’t separate at all. “I dunno. It doesn’t feel beholden to things like distance or time. When I was on the island I thought maybe time was moving differently—more slowly, for me, like days were going by for us when it was only hours for you. It felt like I’d fallen off the edge of the galaxy. But it didn’t affect the bond.”
Ben says nothing, but she feels a quiet nudge of encouragement.
“Maybe it is getting stronger. Maybe it’s always as strong as it needs to be.” Rey shrugs. “I don’t know enough about the Force to explain it. You’re the one with all the training.”
She recalls how he’d questioned her when the connection had first awoken, asking things it hadn’t even occurred to her to think about at the time. Somewhere beneath the blunt instrument he’s been fashioned into, and the dark emperor he tries so hard to be, there’s the mind of a scholar, fastidious and insatiable. She hasn’t encountered many of them in her life: even when he drives her halfway to distraction, he’s rarely dull, and never stingy with his knowledge.
One day, she might ask him about the books she’d smuggled off Ahch-to.
(One day, when she can think about it without immediately reminding herself they’re on opposite sides of a war, or maybe when she grows impatient with her own inability to translate them. Whichever comes sooner.)
Ben looks contemplative. “You’re intuitive,” he says, “you see things in different ways. New ways. You stand more of a chance than a Jedi master at figuring this out. You are half of it, after all. Don’t underestimate that.”
He rises smoothly to his feet with that animal grace that never fails to take her aback for a man of his size—and his size has never been more apparent, miles and miles of pale sun-starved skin revealed for her as he moves across the room on silent feet towards her, and gods, but she can’t help but look.
He’s not just muscle, despite the fact that he’s built like the side of a house. There’s a softness about him, though not the kind that suggests there’d be any give to him were she to put her hand against his chest and push.
Rey blinks, wondering why in the name of the Force she’s thinking about doing such a thing.
The scar, her scar, extends down over his collarbone and onto his chest, curving around over the thick muscle there. It’s faded a little with time but it’ll never disappear completely: she’s marked him for life. On his other shoulder there’s a puckered scar, more on his arms and—worst of all—the terrible starburst-shaped wound left by the bowcaster. He has so many scars, maybe even more than her, and mostly long-faded. Some of them look like burns, others like the mark of whips, others clearly left by blades.
“Something the matter, sweetheart?” he asks, a faint smirk on his lips.
Rey glares. “I told you not to call me that.”
His head tilts in that way of his, and she can see the why already forming on his tongue.
She looks away, and holds out one hand in his direction.
He hesitates only a moment before taking it, and lets her show him.
The memory is only a voice—the echo of something she thinks was once said to her, but it’s haunted her for months now. Ever since she’d first touched the lightsaber in the depths of Maz’s castle.
She loosens her grip but Ben holds onto it a little longer, his face gone pale.
After a long pause, during which the only thing she can hear is the soft scrabbling of the porgs, he moves closer. He offers no apology—not that she expects one, sometimes she forgets that they’re supposed to be enemies but she’ll never forget who he is, nor that humility is generally as alien to him as snow used to be to her—and she’s glad, for it would shade a little too close to pity for her liking and that’s the one thing she’ll never tolerate from him.
Instead, thankfully, with a tact that does surprise her, he glides right over it. “What’ll I call you then?”
She raises a brow. “What’s the matter with ‘Rey’?”
Ben turns that crooked little smile on her again. “Nothing, sunshine.”
At her scowl, his smirk only deepens. “What?” he asks.
Rey looks away, not dignifying him with a response—or to let him feel the slow gathering of warmth in her chest at the unabashed affection in his voice. Why must he be so open? He’s supposed to be her enemy, or at least to act like it, and yet he never can.
Not that you’re much better, she chides herself.
Ben is looking down at the porglets again. “Where did you find them?” he asks curiously, reaching down to extend one tentative finger towards the chick perched on her knee.
“They stowed away when we left Ahch-to. They seem to adapt quickly. I think we might have unintentionally enabled their galactic takeover.”
He snorts, full and loud with real mirth, and Rey watches as he immediately looks down as though ashamed.
Why is he so embarrassed to be caught laughing?
“You don’t seem so vicious,” he murmurs to the little creature—which promptly sinks its needle-sharp teeth into his hand.
Ben swears loudly, yanking his hand back as Rey lets out a helpless giggle. He looks up at her, and he’s not fast enough to catch the thought that flashes across his mind at the sight of the radiant smile on her face.
Beautiful girl. Sunshine girl.
Her lips part around a gasp, her laughter fading as she meets his stare, words failing the both of them.
Has he gotten even closer, somehow?
“Rey,” he breathes, gaze burning into her own.
“Yes,” she says, her voice no louder, her eyes blazing trails over every inch of him.
He lifts a hand, so slowly, so tentatively, and she has every chance in the world to dodge his touch, to reject and outright shove him away from her, but in this moment nothing in the world could compel her to do it: she sits as though frozen, caught by the light in his stare as Ben—just as mesmerised—reaches up to brush his bare knuckles over her cheek.
Afraid to break the moment, Rey reaches up slowly to touch the back of his hand where the porg had left a little ring of toothmarks, and trace her fingers over it, before she slots her fingers into his and holds his palm to her cheek.
The breath leaves him in a shuddering rush, his fingers curving to fit perfectly against her face, and bond or no she’d be able to tell the direction his thoughts have taken from the flush of colour that creeps across his cheeks.
Rey closes her eyes, lets herself feel nothing but his skin against hers. Like this, he doesn’t feel so far away anymore: the naked proximity of him is too much and too little for her wanting heart to bear, all at once achingly new and the most familiar thing in the world to a girl who had spent her youth dreaming of a gentle touch. She leans into his hand, the tension unspooling from her weary muscles as the warmth of him bleeds through her.
Could we have had this? she thinks, like she always does. What could we have been?
The bond hums with their longing, perfectly mirrored and perfectly impossible.
Would this have been worth the price?
When the Force releases them, Rey’s cheeks are slick with tears and she can scarcely breathe for the thickness in her throat, and when she rests her right hand over the left, which had held Ben’s to her face, her palm is still warm with the lingering heat of him.
She presses that hand to her cheek again, trying to hold onto the ghost of his presence, trying not to wish he were here for real.