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Play To Win

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“Millenia on the roof, Millenia on the roof! Someone take care of her before she gets to our – Mother FUCKER!” Ben Solo rips off his headset and throws it across the room. From the corner of his eye he can see it hit the wall and clatter to the ground, but his attention is mostly focused on Millenia. She transforms into a meteoric white javelin that obliterates what remains of Ben's health, the integrity of his teams' objective, and any hope they had of winning the match.

The defeat screen pops up on his central monitor, flashing red like his temper.

Distantly he can hear the defeat music and the garbled voices of his angry teammates, meaning that once again his volume is probably turned up way too high. If his mother were here she’d be nagging him about damaging his hearing. Thinking about his mother at a time like this will only serve to plunge him further into the depths of his black mood though, so he forcibly swats the thought away and goes to collect his headset.

The black and red leather of his expensive new gaming chair creaks when he stands, as do all of his joints. He realizes that he’s been playing non-stop for about four hours. Not an exceptionally long time for someone who routinely plays for eight to twelve but it feels like an eternity considering, for the first time in his entire career as a pro StarKiller player, he hasn’t won a single match.

Ben snatches up his headset – also new, also expensive. It’s slightly scuffed from bearing the brunt of his anger, but thankfully not broken this time. In the last two months alone he’s been through at least four pairs, which is excessive even by his standards. He stalks back across his darkened room to drop heavily down into his chair once more, leaning back against the headrest stamped with the logo of his team, The First Order.

When he slides the headset back onto his head, his ears are instantly filled with the angry chatter of his teammates.

“- well if you didn’t get so tilted whenever you get shackled then maybe you’d actually be able to get free and you’d stop fucking up our strat!” Snaps Hux.

“Like you have any room to talk about getting tilted, Hux! You left our fucking objective unguarded to get into a Sniper war with the other Executor!” Phasma snarls back.

“Either make out and get it over with already or stop flirting,” says Eyja, sounding bored as ever, “We have bigger problems here. Like why the fuck Ben keeps getting owned by that asshole playing Millenia. All you’ve been doing for the last four hours is feeding kills to that little shit.”

Ben’s fingers tighten around the armrests of his chair so hard that his knuckles turn white.

“He’s fucking hacking,” he snaps, “no one is that fast or that good.”

“Sure, whatever you say,” Caide drawls, thick Texas accent somehow making his sarcasm all the more irksome, “Get your shit together though. You’re our Striker and if we can’t count on you to do your job then maybe we should invite… what was his name? ReyOfLight? To take your place.”

One of the arms of his chair makes an unsettling cracking noise.

“Come talk to me when you actually learn how to respond to a fucking call out,” Ben spits out.

“Hey maybe we should go cool off for an hour?” Comes the hesitant voice of Mitaka.

Mitaka, the sixth member of the team, has never been overly fond of conflict. Ben secretly suspects that the only reason he’s here – aside from actually being an incredible Support player – is that their manager knows that without some sort of peacekeeper, the team would destroy itself with the same ruthless efficiency that makes them a force to be reckoned with in game.

There’s some general sighing and grumbling before Hux says, “Fine. I wanted a smoke break anyway.”

“Just get a goddamn vape like everyone else and you’ll save yourself a lot of time,” Caide says.

Ben’s just about to sign off, thinking that maybe some time beating the shit out of his punching bag might do him some good, when he catches sight of the little icon on his mailbox that means he’s got a private message.

He clicks on it.

From ReyOfLight

nice trick with the whirlwind before the shadow shroud, u almost had me last time! GG! :)

Ben stares for a few seconds, brain short-circuiting. Is this asshole fucking with him? Is he trying to taunt him? Hot rage boils in his stomach. What the fuck is he supposed to say to this?

From KyloRen

Nice trick with the hacking. 1v1 me without the help of a DDoS attack sometime and then we can talk.

He hits send then immediately reports ReyOfLight for cheating and closes out the game window, still seething.

 


 

Rey Sanderson blinks at her computer screen, feeling disgruntled and frankly offended by the message from KyloRen.

“This guy thinks I’m hacking,” she says to Finn, who looks up over the top of his monstrous gaming laptop to meet her eyes, “Why does he think I’m hacking?”

“There’s a lot of ego at this level of play,” Finn says, shrugging, “You handed his ass to him pretty soundly. I’m not surprised that he got nasty. Just block him and move on.”

Rey nods and her finger hovers over the mouse, poised to click the Block Player button, but at the last minute she switches over to the Report Player button instead and files a complaint about abusive behavior.

It's not that she never wants to play with this guy again. He might be a giant dick, but he's also the single best Silencer player she's ever seen. Plus Silencer is a hero she's always struggled to play well, and it had been interesting to see an expert at work. Even if she had beat him soundly.

Too bad he’s a raging asshole, she thinks.

“Well last game was a resounding success so I think we should probably log off for a while, end on a high note. BB needs a walk and I know half of you haven’t eaten since this morning so I’m laying down the law,” says Poe, and through his headset Rey can hear the sound of his aging chair squeaking as he leans back and stretches.

“Rey, you absolutely have to play with us though,” says Rose, giddy excitement pouring through her headphones, “if we work this well together with no previous experience and Finn not even playing on his real rig, I can only imagine how unstoppable we’ll be with a little practice!”

“Right?” Her sister, Paige, chimes in, “Finn! Why didn’t you tell us you had another friend in Diamond? Rey makes everyone else we’ve been playing with look like a monkey with a mouse!”

That gets a chuckle out of the whole team.

“I’ve really only been playing for about a month!” Rey demures, “Surely you’re exaggerating a bit!”

“Nu-uh,” Finn says, grinning at her over his laptop, “You’re a natural! A prodigy! You make most of us veterans look like noobs.”

“Finn! Stoooop!” She says, covering her flushed, grinning face with both hands in embarrassment.

“If we get him to lay off the over-the-top flattery and early 2000’s slang can we please keep you?” Jessika asks, “Qualifiers for the championships are opening up soon and we really do need a Striker.”

“It’s true,” says Poe, “And I know you’ve really only just gotten into this but if you think it might be something you’d consider doing seriously, well… Listen. It’s hard and it’s a longshot but there’s a lot of money in eSports right now and I’ve been talking to some of our old team’s sponsors about signing us again if we can get a team together.”

Rey leans back and chews on her lip. She’d known when Finn had coaxed her to play with his group today that it was essentially an audition for a spot on the team. True, she has only been playing StarKiller for a few months, but for as long as she’s been able to scrape together the funds to do so, she’s been playing games on used consoles and borrowed machines and she loves it. She loves it in a way that she doesn’t really love anything else.

Video games have been her lifelong escape from a world that wasn’t good and wasn’t kind. They taught her to be her own protector, her own problem solver, and they led her to Finn. All of this is to say: gaming has given her a lot.

The idea is… well. It’s tempting, to say the least. The team is awesome, StarKiller is fun, and while it would be a huge risk to drop her hours at work enough to do this for real… it’s also a dream come true being handed to her on a silver platter.

“Rey?” Finn prompts, making her realize that she’s been silent for too long.

“Let me think about it for a couple days?” She says, at last, “I really want to say ‘yes!’ You guys are the coolest and this sounds like an amazing opportunity, but there’s a lot to consider.”

“Yeah that’s fair,” Rose says, “It wasn’t an easy decision when Paige and I decided to go full time with streaming so we get it. And you should know that there is a chance that we will work our asses off and still fall short.”

“Think about it,” Jessika says, “Just let us know by next weekend okay? If you don’t want the spot, you’re always welcome to play with us for fun, but we’ll need to see if we can find someone else to be a permanent team member.”

“You got it!” Rey says brightly, “I’m gonna go take a break… maybe make something to eat, but I’ll be on later if you guys want to join up again.”

She signs off and pushes back from her desk, but doesn’t get up quite yet. She stares at her computer, a cobbled-together beast of a rig that runs like a monster and looks like a heap of junk, and thinks about the choice ahead of her.

Risk: essentially quitting a stable, reliable job to pursue a dream that might as well be on the moon, it’s so far away.

Reward: a career as a professional gamer.

Her bank account is healthier than it has ever been but that’s still not saying much. She’s also so new to StarKiller, she knows nothing about the culture of it. Is this really the world she wants?

Thoughts of food buried under her musing, she decides to take a run to think it over, hoping that the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the pavement will shake the right answer loose.

 


 

Ben reads the email message for the fifth time, hardly believing his eyes.

To: bensolo@firstorder.com

From: aholdo@starkillersupport.com

Subject: RE: [REPORT #3396572]

KyloRen, Thank you for bringing a potential rule violation to our attention, we at Far Galaxy take cheating and hacking very seriously and as such we have spent the last few days carefully reviewing the behavior and activity of the Player, ReyOfLight. We are pleased to report that we have found no evidence of any rule violations. We hope you’ll continue to be a valued member of our community. Please let us know if there is anything we can help you with further.

Sincerely,

Amylin Holdo

StarKiller Support Team Lead Moderator

“This cannot be real,” he mutters into his darkened room. There has to be something they missed.

Maybe it’s not directly on ReyOfLight’s end, maybe he’d hired someone to fuck with Ben personally? Or maybe it’s a tech issue. He needs to call his ISP again and make sure that they’re not throttling his speed like they did once a few years ago when he had exceeded his data limit too severely for three months in a row.

He’d thought that was dealt with, though, especially considering he pays an assload of money each month for his state of the art fiber optic connection. Stranger things have happened.

What has never happened is that he has never been so absurdly outclassed by another Striker.

Could my computer have a virus, he wonders as he begins running a scan that he knows isn’t going to catch anything because he’s not stupid enough to use his precious gaming machine for anything other than gaming. Well, and streaming. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is it’s not like he’s torrenting porn on this computer. The odds of him having a virus are slim to none.

Frustration curls hot in his stomach. It’s not unusual to end up in intense Striker vs Striker battles in StarKiller. That’s kind of whole point of the class: to shoot far ahead of the team, clear out the AI adversaries, and stake out territory for the rest of the team to hold.

There are only so many footholds on each map and battles over them are common. But somehow ReyOfLight always seemed to be one step ahead of him. Somehow they were always after the exact same targets and every time ReyOfLight had pulled ahead, victorious. Perhaps most distressing of all was the fact that – more than once – ReyOfLight had actually managed to kill him in the first stage of the game. Technically that sort of PvP wasn’t even supposed to occur during the first stage; both parties were still fully shielded by teammate buffs that had yet to run out and the sheer amount of damage that it took to override that was staggering.

The whole thing just feels off. Millenia is not even the designated counter to Silencer. The way this kid had used her was totally out of the box. Ben had been flummoxed at every turn. It’s wildly embarrassing how badly he’d been beaten and the only saving grace of this whole mess is that Ben hadn’t been streaming today.

He shudders just thinking about how awful his Twitch chat would have been about the whole thing. Ugly doesn’t even begin to cover it.

“This is bullshit,” he says aloud, “there’s no way this fucker is actually that good. It’s probably some kid who just got lucky by accident on someone else’s account. He certainly types like an uneducated infant.”

“Or maybe you just suck,” Says Hux’s voice in his ear, making Ben start. He’d forgotten that he was still on Discord with his teammate, talking about their practice schedule for the next month, “It might just be that your pro days are coming to a close.”

Championship qualifiers are coming up in two months. Setting aside the ReyOfLight incident, The First Order is the best team around. The idea of them not qualifying is, frankly, laughable, but they still can't afford to lose focus or get sloppy. James Snoke, their manager, doesn’t fuck around and failure is not an option as long as they’re under contract with him.

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you,” Ben sneers, “you really think Snoke would let you take my place? Hah. We both know that Sniper is the gateway into this game and you don’t have what it takes to be a Striker.”

“Neither do you, if some… what did you call him… ‘fucking child who just got lucky’ can beat you that thoroughly,” Hux says and Ben can hear the nasty little smile curling his lips.

“Go fuck yourself Hux,” He says, clicking over to the google doc that houses their team schedule, “Also, this looks fine but I won’t be able to practice on the 8th through the 12th of March; I’m guesting at StarFall Con. I’ll be back in time for our games on the 14th though.”

Hux sniffs and makes a note on the doc. Ben watches the text appear in real time, feeling at slightly better. Needling Hux about the fact that he’s still not well known enough to get guest spots at big conventions without the rest of the team never gets old.

“Don’t get distracted while you’re there, Solo, Your performance can’t afford to take any more hits,” Hux says, by way of a goodbye and then drops the Discord call.

Ben rolls his eyes and stretches. He checks the clock on his screen. It’s a quarter past six; still pretty early. He hasn’t streamed a lot recently and he’s got aggressive energy to burn. He figures that a few hours of kicking random assholes to kingdom come and arguing with his Twitch chat should leave him feeling at least a little better.

He fires up his broadcaster, drops a link to his stream onto his twitter, and takes five seconds to indulge in his vanity. He checks to make sure that his hair is neat and that he doesn’t have crumbs on his shirt or something equally embarrassing before he switches on his webcam.

The monitor on his left fills with his rapidly scrolling Twitch chat as his regulars tune in. Most of them are posting dumb memes and emojis, although a fair number are also spamming him with trolling comments, trying to bait him into fighting with them in particular. His viewers are always eager to see his famous temper in action, and even more to grab a small piece of his fame by becoming immortalized as a part of his channel’s history.

“WHAT’S UP EVERYBODY I’M KYLO–FUCKING–REN AND YOU’RE WATCHING THE ONLY STARKILLER CHANNEL THAT MATTERS,” he nearly yells into his mic, allowing his public persona to drop into place. Satisfied that he’s got everyone’s attention, he lowers his volume a bit and continues, “Tonight’s stream is gonna be a little different. I’m not gonna play with the rest of the Order tonight, because we’ve been practicing all day and I’m fucking sick of them. So I thought I’d do something else instead. I’m gonna queue publicly and play with the rest of the assholes on this shitshow,” he says.

His chat goes nuts with people begging him for his friend code or asking if they can queue up with him instead. Ben ignores it all.

“As usual, if you can actually play well enough to get matched with me, then you’re welcome to come for me,” He smiles, more of a twist of his lips than anything genuine, but it gets the point across. Looking directly into the camera, he says, “I’ll be more than happy to destroy you publicly.”

He clicks the Public Game button and the loading screen pops up. It takes about a minute to fill out the team, a bit slower than he’d like, but it is still early on a weekday. The West Coast isn’t on at this hour. It also doesn’t help that he’s so highly ranked that the pool of players who fall into the same category as him is very small.

StarKiller’s ranking system is complicated, almost needlessly so. It stacks up as follows: Copper, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. And within each color there are numeric levels – from one to one thousand.

Since the very first time he finished his placement games, Ben has never dropped below Diamond 900. He’s at the top of his personal game and the game at large. Currently he’s the top-ranked Silencer player in the world, no small achievement, considering the fact that there are nearly 30 million players on StarKiller worldwide.

The screen flashes white, swapping over to the hero selection menu. As usual, he goes to click on Silencer, but hesitates for a split second, and to the surprise of himself and his audience, he finds his cursor selecting Millenia instead.

Millenia’s avatar is a shapely woman in a suit of totally batshit silver sci-fi armor with a massive jetpack on her back and a smooth, reflective helmet that covers her upper face, leaving only her mouth exposed. She strikes a triumphant pose on the screen as the game asks him to confirm his pick.

“Ah, what the fuck. Let’s get really crazy tonight,” he says, half to himself, and half to his chat, which is going so fast that it’s more of a blur than anything coherent. He clicks confirm.

“I played against some glitchy little hacker last week who was doing some stuff with Milly that I’ve never seen before. I reported his cheating ass but you know how Far Galaxy’s support team is – fucking useless – so I’m gonna try to recreate the bullshit I witnessed earlier. I won’t be able to because I know what I saw and none of that should have been possible, so maybe this will prove my point,” He says, cracking his knuckles and rolling his wrist as the rest of his team locks in their characters.

The team comp is aggressive, but not completely unbalanced. Aside from Ben playing Striker as Millenia, there are two Offense players (Coronet and Lothal, one fast, one powerful, both acceptable choices), a Sniper (V-19, not Ben’s favorite but he’s been buffed recently and his new exploding rounds can take down half of most heroes health in one hit), a Tank (Libertine, slow but a good damage soaker), and their Support, who is the only real sour note.

The player whose name is SandWizard37 has chosen Nebulon.

He pushes the talk button on his mouse so that his team can hear him and says, “I just want everyone to know that if we lose this match, it’s because SandWizard37 is a dumbass,” several other people on the team laugh and SandWizard curses at him, “No idea how you made Diamond when everyone who's ever played this game for five seconds knows that Neb can’t heal for shit and her AoE stuff only works half the time.”

This predictably sets off a war in his chat between people trashing Nebulon and the people who are racing to defend their status as Nebulon mains.

“Listen we all know that you think you’re a big fucking deal, KyloRen, but you’re a punk ass bitch and no one actually gives a shit about your opinion,” SandWizard bites out, “I wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”

“Ah, I get it. Like hero, like player: totally useless. Good thing I was planning on carrying you to begin with.” Ben replies, before glancing over at his chat where the debate is still going. “Yeah, fight it out in there; victor wins absolutely nothing.”

The chat obliges and the argument continues (along with a lot of comments that just say ‘lul owned’ and ‘get wrecked’), as the game screen flashes and their lineup is displayed, posing in formation in front of a massive, wrecked starship half buried in sand, below the banner that reads “Jakku”.

“Oh great, Jakku,” he groans, as the countdown timer starts, “this map is such a shitshow. Hey Far Galaxy, since I know you stalk my streams, when are you gonna fix this map so that people stop getting stuck on the geometry when using movement-based Ultras?”

The last time the First Order had lost a really big tournament match it had been thanks to Phasma’s hero getting caught on nothing in the middle of her Ultra’s dash, meaning she hadn’t been able to back Ben up at the final push, and he’d been crushed by Kessel Run’s entire offensive line as well as their Striker.

“Supremacy on Jakku! Ready! Fight!” Calls the voice of the lightly-accented female announcer and the game begins.

 


 

The thing about Rey’s life is that for the majority of it she was in a bad place. She had bounced through foster homes and orphanages from the age of six until she was able to emancipate herself at seventeen.

It was in one of many foster homes that she’d first come across video gaming as a form of entertainment.

She had been staying in the spare room of the Johnson’s drafty house in Surry, just outside of London, and on one night when she was about eight and was missing her parents too badly to sleep she had crept out into the living room, thinking she might try to quietly watch some telly. There had been a strange device plugged into the television, though, with a colorful box that held something called Super Mario World perched atop it. Several minutes of fiddling around later and Rey was sitting on the floor, nose so close to the screen that the static from the cathode rays made her hair stand on end. Lively music played as she steered a tiny pixelated man around a matching world. She was entranced, enthralled, and utterly hooked.

Her foster parents found her the next morning curled around the controller, snoring.

She stayed with the Johnsons and their three children for almost a year, until they’d gotten pregnant again and she’d headed back to the orphanage. Despite how young she’d been, the memories of that time had endured and crystallized into the closest approximation of childhood happiness. In that time her fascination with gaming had been fanned into a full-blown obsession, aided by her foster father gifting her a used Gameboy Color and a small stash of games that had belonged to his oldest son when he was younger.

Through a combination of craftiness and sheer determination, Rey had managed to hang onto those precious gifts through the next nine years, despite many a stint spent in very gaming-averse households.

Her obsession to the medium led to her making friends at school purely so she could play games on their shiny new consoles, and to this day she could still call up a mental list of every gaming store in the Greater London area, if really pressed.

It was in one such store that she had met Finn.

The summer of 2012 was hot and muggy and Unkar Plutt, the mechanic she’d been living with since the new year, had booted her out of his shop because she wouldn’t stop bothering him about teaching her how to dismantle a vintage engine block that had been sitting untouched in the corner since she’d arrived.

“Isn’t there a bathroom for you to mop, or something you should be doing instead? Like homework? Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” He’d snapped.

“Finished it earlier, I could be learning how to take apart an engine, and nope! School’s been out of session since last week,” she’d snipped right back.

“Listen kid, I don’t have time for your shit right now. Got three cars to finish by tomorrow, so you can either get out of here before I whack you or learn to fuckin’ shut your trap,” He’d told her, from below the chassis of a beat up Vauxhall Corsa. He rolled out just enough to lock eyes with her over the rise of his massive belly, “Got it?”

Rey didn’t need to be told twice.

With nothing else to do, she’d wandered down the street to the nearest tube station, hopped the turnstile, and caught a train to the other side of town to her favorite gaming store.

The Trading Post was a hole in the wall, crammed floor-to-ceiling with used games and consoles, racks of magazines and guidebooks, shelves of action figures and vintage collectibles, and it always smelled vaguely of dust and cigarette smoke.

Teedo, the short, balding owner of the shop, acted like Rey was the world’s biggest inconvenience every time she darkened his doorstep. All the same, he would let her set up consoles in the back of the shop and play whatever she wanted, so long as she helped him unload boxes from the high shelves in the back of his store-room when she was done.

That afternoon, when she walked back to her usual spot, there was already someone there.

“Hey Teedo, I’m here to keep playing Call of- ” Rey broke off as she caught sight of the newcomer.

He was a dark-skinned boy with close-cropped hair and the widest smile she’d ever seen on anyone. He wore a white collared shirt with some sort of fancy crest (a school, maybe? She could remember thinking) embroidered over his heart.

“Oh great, now there’s two of you freeloaders. I don’t care who plays as long as one of you moves boxes,” Teedo had grumbled, throwing his hands into the air and storming off to go smoke behind the store, pausing only long enough to call, “If you steal anything, I’ll tan your hides!”

Rey and the boy looked back and forth between the retreating shopkeeper and each other for a split second before bursting into laughter.

“Hey,” he’d said, in an American accent that took her by surprise, “I’m Finn. Wanna be my player two?”

He scooted over on the sagging, faded loveseat, patting the space next to him.

Rey glanced at the television, where the opening screen of Halo: Combat Evolved was waiting expectantly, and then at Finn. She smiled back hesitantly and sat gingerly next to him.

“I’m Rey,” she said, taking the controller he handed her.

“You ever played this one before?” Finn asked and when she shook her head, his smile got impossibly brighter, “Me either! Let’s have some fun.”

And they had.

Every day for the next three weeks they had met up at the Trading Post, helping Teedo with chores and working their way tag-team through the entire Halo series. They stuffed themselves with crisps and candy that Rey nicked from kiosks along her route to the shop, drank room-temperature soda and bonded over their shared passion – and their shared status as orphans with guardians who couldn’t care less about them.

It hadn’t occurred to Rey that Finn wouldn’t be around forever until the day he told her, sadly, that his grandmother was taking him back to the States. And Rey had suddenly been consumed by a feeling she’d never felt before: fear that she would never see someone she cared about again and that the pain of that might kill her.

For the first time since she was a child, Rey, who had mastered the art of never being attached to anyone, had cried over the idea of losing touch with someone.

She and Finn had exchanged email addresses and vowed to keep in touch. Rey had curled her pinkie around his and made him swear that no matter what they’d see each other again. It had taken four years, a lot of saving, scraping, and some questionably legal hustling, but they managed to keep that promise.

Now, she and Finn sit in their shared living room in San Diego. The cool evening breeze of January in southern California blows gently in through the open window of the apartment. The place is slightly shabby, but it’s fantastically located.

A graphic designer and a junior auto shop mechanic, they really shouldn't be able afford this place on their salaries, but the landlady, a tiny, ancient woman named Maz, had decided to cut them a deal because they apparently reminded her of some old friends. As the wind brings with it the soft sounds of people going about their business in the open green space of Balboa Park across the street, Rey thinks about the life she had before this one.

The life where she was small and scared and lonely, the one where she clung to every scrap that she could get her hands on because she never knew where the next one would come from, if it ever came. She thinks about how many people had told her that she would never amount to anything; that the combination of her unfortunate birth and her more unfortunate interests had set her up for a life of obscurity and failure.

And very abruptly, Rey has the answer she’s been trying to settle on for the last week.

“Hey Finn?” She says, poking him in the thigh with her bare toe to get him to look up from the thread he’s engrossed in on the StarKiller Reddit sub.

“What’s up, Peanut?” He asks, meeting her eyes.

She grins at him. “I’m in. I’ll be the Striker for The Resistance.”

Finn smiles at her like he had that first day, seven years before, letting out a loud whoop of joy and pumping his fist in the air.

“Hell yes! You won’t regret this, Rey! We’re going straight to the top, just wait and see!”

He holds out his fist for her and she bumps her own against it, laughing.

“I can’t believe you actually convinced me to do this, but you’re right: this is once in a lifetime stuff. If Poe really does have sponsors lined up and we can really do this the right way… It’ll be tight but I think I have enough in the bank to tide me over until we start winning competition games,” she draws her brows together in mock seriousness and wags her finger at him, “And we’d better win! No excuses!”

Finn nods emphatically, holding his hands up in surrender, “I would never dream of disappointing you. You’re scary when you’re mad!”

She nods fiercely, “Damn straight. Now I’m gonna go heat up that casserole Mrs. Tico sent you home with; all this life-changing decision stuff has made me hungry. I’ll try my best to leave you some.”

Finn laughs, “I’m glad you’re joining us, Rey. I know you think we’re exaggerating, but girl… I’ve always known you were good at games, but you play StarKiler like you were born with a mouse in your hand. It would be a waste to not show the world how good you are.”

Rey flushes and waves him away, getting off the sofa with some effort as this couch is the sort that tries to eat everyone who sits down on it, and walks around the back of it into their kitchen.

She’s puttering around, debating whether or not she wants to drink a beer or if she wants to stay clear-headed so she can play a few gamse after dinner, when she hears Finn calling to her.

“Rey, Rey, get in here! You need to see this!” He says and Rey hustles into the living room, leaning over the back of the sofa behind Finn so that she can see his screen. There’s a Youtube video open on it, showing a StarKiller match. She has a second to wonder why it looks so familiar before she realizes that it’s because she’s watching their match from last week, the one with the player who had accused her of hacking.

It’s switching point of view from player to player in the way that indicates the footage was captured by a spectator of the match, but mostly it’s alternating between her and the other team’s Striker as they duke it out across the crystal caverns of the Crait map.

The video is entitled STARKILLER PRO KYLOREN GETS OWNED OVER AND OVER BY MYSTERY PLAYER IN EPIC SMACKDOWN

It has been up for about an hour and it has nearly twenty thousand views.

She and Finn glance back and forth between each other, mouths open in shock for a few seconds as the video plays out and she unleashes her meteoric Ultra on KyloRen, snatching a last-second victory from the jaws of defeat. Then the video cuts to footage from another match, this one on Takodana where she had managed to box him into a room where he couldn’t escape.

“Rey,” Finn breathes, “You didn’t tell me the guy you were fighting was KyloRen.”

Rey swallows around her suddenly very dry tongue, feeling nervous and unsure, as though she’s missing a crucial piece of information that she really ought to have here. “I didn’t even know his name until after the last match when I messaged him. Why? Is he famous or something?”

Rey,” Finn says again, “Famous doesn’t even begin to cover it. He’s the best Striker in the world and one of the biggest assholes in the game.”

“Oh,” Rey says, feeling numb and a little tingly.

“And you annihilated him repeatedly,” Finn says, glee creeping into his voice, “Oh my god, Rey, I’m so glad you’ve agreed to play for us because you’re about to become the most desirable player on the pro StarKiller circuit.”

 


 

Ben’s out for a run when the messages and calls start pouring in. First from his teammates, then from every random person he’s ever spoken to in what feels like his entire life. At this point he’s actually half-surprised that his parents haven’t decided to call him about it too.

To: First Order Group Chat

From: Armitage Hux

Just thought you might want to know that a video of your crushing defeat officially leaked last night, Solo. Thanks in advance for the shitstorm we’re all in for now.

From: Armitage Hux

Snoke’s not going to like this.

From: Armitage Hux

Have you watched it yet? It’s brutal.

From: Eyja Fjord

Hux it’s 5 fucking am if u don’t stop texting I’m going comreover to ur house and murder u >:(

From: Phasma Scyre

Wow they made a supercut! It’s that whole set of matches.

From: Caide Steton

no idea who that milly player is but they’re gonna be trouble aren’t they

From: Eyja Fjord

WHAT PART OF IT’S 5AM STOP TEXTING DON’T YOU ASSHOLES UNDERSTAND

From: Armitage Hux

This is a crisis. Mute your fucking notifications if it’s such a big problem.

From: Dopheld Mitaka

Oh this is bad...

From: Ben Solo

It’s just a stupid video. It doesn’t matter.

From: Armitage Hux

That’s not how Snoke is going to see it.

From: Eyja Fjord

SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I’M QUITTING THE TEAM!!!!!!!!!!

Several people are typing...

Ben pinches the bridge of his nose and scrunches his eyes shut for a few seconds before following Hux’s advice to Eyja and muting the conversation. It’s too early in the morning for him to deal with his teammates. He normally sort of likes that – with the exception of Mitaka – they’re all kind of assholes. They have an understanding; none of them need to be delicate about each other’s feelings. But every once in a while he thinks that it might be nice to have someone in his life who didn’t simultaneously love watching him fail while also punishing him for it relentlessly.

He’s aware that this is a hell of his own making but at this point he’s in so deep that he really wouldn’t even know how to begin digging himself out.

Ben has never been great with people. He was an awkward teenager: constantly putting his foot in his mouth, stumbling into social faux pas after social faux pas, an emotional bull in a china shop. To be fair, it’s not like his parents were much help.

His mother, Leia Organa, the brilliant politician with the gift of gab, had never understood his social ineptitude or the acute pain and shame of being repeatedly forced into situations to which he was not at all suited.

And his father, the famous Formula One race car driver who always seemed to ride the fine line of being just enough of a jerk to be interesting, was still sensitive enough to know how far was too far. For all his smoothness, Han Solo could never quite explain to his son how that all worked.

His parents had both been so caught up in their own lives and their crumbling marriage that they had neither the time nor the emotional energy to help their anxious, awkward son learn how to be a real person. So he’d learned on his own. The internet had taught him that being mean first would protect you from ever having to be genuine or vulnerable, and then the livestreaming community had taught him that if he was mean in just the right way, people would actually love him for it.

At this point, Ben’s not even sure if he has actual, real feelings or if he’s just so many layers deep in the persona of KyloRen – pro gamer, untouchable douche – that there’s just nothing inside his heart any more.

He shoves his phone back into the pocket of the slimline black jacket he wears for running in the freezing New York City winters and picks up his pace again. He’s somewhere near the south side of the Harlem Meer lake in Central Park, about half an hour’s run at a decent pace from his place on the Upper East Side.

As much as he hates to admit that Hux is right about anything, he does need to get home and see for himself how bad the damage to his online rep actually is. And regardless, Snoke is definitely going to have something to say about it.

Ben can imagine that it’s going to go something to the tune of ‘how disappointing, Ben Solo, that you continue to disappoint me by being a disappointing disappointment, who despite having won every championship for the last two years, still will never be good enough to justify all the effort I, noted billionaire philanthropist, James Snoke, have invested in your sorry, disappointing career, blah blah blah disappointment’.

His feet pound against the pavement, long strides eating up the ground as he swaps his music for something that fits his mood a little better. More bass, more guttural screaming, less comprehensible lyrics.

Ben’s not bitter. He’s not. He has no real reason to be. Snoke has helped him build his career from a streamer with a few hundred subscribers to a household name in the gaming world. He’s always been a good gamer, but Snoke has made him great. It’s just that there is literally no pleasing his manager.

No sponsorship deal is good enough, no victory is absolute enough, and every defeat is a personal failing instead of a factor of playing a game of chance and skill where sometimes things just go sideways. But without Snoke, there’s no First Order, and without the team, there’s no career at this level. With no career, there’s no KyloRen, and without him… well.

It’s not worth dwelling on.

Snoke is a fact of life for Ben and if he wants what he offers, then sometimes he has to swallow his fucking pride, leash his temper, and dance on command.

It’s still dark when he gets back to his brownstone townhouse, and the wind has turned bitter in a way that suggests snow is inbound. He dials the code to his door and hurries inside.

There are three messages from Snoke by the time he checks his phone again.

From: James Snoke

I got some interesting news this morning.

From: James Snoke

I’ll just assume you know what I’m talking about and save us both the time.

From: James Snoke

Call me.

He thinks about calling Snoke right away, but dismisses it because he still hasn’t seen the video and he wants to know exactly how bad a call he should be anticipating.

Ben sits down at his desk and switches his computer on. It takes a few minutes to come online but at last he gets Chrome open and types ‘KyloRen’ into the search bar, trusting that if this video is as big a deal as everyone’s making it out to be, it will pop up.

He’s not disappointed. It’s the first news hit, as a few gaming blogs have already picked up the video and run stories about it overnight.

Game Stats Blog says: ‘Controversial StarKiller player KyloRen suffers blistering defeat at the hands of a mystery player in new video!’

PixelExPolygon says: ‘Watch KyloRen get a taste of his own medicine in a brutal video!’

StarKiller Daily says: ‘An off-day or the new normal? Are KyloRen’s days on top numbered?’

He clicks on the StarKiller Daily link, and scrolls past the article, down to the video. It’s short, only about 6 minutes long, but the headlines weren’t kidding. While there’s nothing overtly wrong with his playing, ReyOfLight had played Millenia in such a perplexing way that Ben had been unable to predict his actions at all and he’d found himself floundering.

There are six defeat clips from their matches, obviously posted by someone who'd been hanging out in spectator mode, and he looks like an amateur in all of them. Ben, who hadn't given spectator mode much thought until now, suddenly feels extraordinarily angry about the newly released beta feature.

Disgusted, he closes the window, unable to even watch the ending of the final clip much less delve into the comments section to see what people are saying.

This call with Snoke is not going to be fun.

His thumb hovers over the call button next to his manager’s name for a longer time than he would ever be willing to admit to, before he finally forces himself to just nut up and make the call.

Snoke picks up on the fourth ring, because he’s the kind of dick who likes to make people wait.

“Ben, so good of you to call,” he drawls.

“Well, you told me to, so I did,” Ben says, forcing himself to hold his temper in check.

“And a good thing too,” Snoke says, “because I’m sure you realize that we have one big problem already and adding any sort of… unpleasantness between us right now would just be… so unfortunate, wouldn’t it?”

Ben grunts an agreement.

“The problem, my young friend, is not that you had some bad matches. It’s that you were personally humiliated in the public eye by a player that no one has even heard of before. Which makes you look bad. Which makes the team look bad. Which makes the sponsors nervous, which we simply cannot have,” Snoke says as though he’s explaining something complicated to a complete idiot.

“So here’s what’s going to happen. We’re going to do some damage control. I’ve already reached out to this ReyOfLight player and we’re going to stage some matches between the two of you, I think prime-time streamed games would be ideal, and you’re going to beat him so thoroughly that no one ever questions your skills again.”

Ben’s hand tightens around his phone.

“Are you telling me to cheat?” He asks, feeling his temper begin to escape from his fragile control.

“I’m telling you to clean up your mess,” Snoke snaps, any veneer of blasé friendliness gone and replaced with cold iron, “You looked like a fool and once again left me to mop up after your mistakes. I will be offering this person a not insignificant amount of money to play in this ridiculous charade, after which he is to disappear from StarKiller forever.”

Ben feels hot rage begin to claw its way out of his throat. Say what you would about his behavior, his record as a player has never been anything but spotless. He’s earned his spot at the top and nobody, not even Snoke, can take that away from him. This whole thing makes him want to vomit.

“What if ReyOfLight won’t do it?” He asks, forcing his voice to hold steady.

“Oh he will,” says Snoke, dismissively. “Everyone has a price and it’s just a matter of finding his. And when I find it, I expect you to play your part so we can all put this ugliness behind us and go forward into the qualifiers without any further… disappointments.”

Ben doesn’t trust himself to speak so he remains silent.

Snoke chuckles – a hoarse, uncomfortable sound, “Well, this has been fun but I have things other than cleaning up after you to see to today so I’ll be back in touch when I hear from ReyOfLight. And I expect you to answer.”

The line goes dead.

It takes a few seconds for Ben to let the phone fall away from his ear. When his hand slides back into his lap, he realizes that it’s shaking.