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All Our Days

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 42 ABY.

 

There isn’t a soul in the galaxy who’d be foolish enough to call Ergel of Jakku a solicitous or selfless man— that’s a fact. Ergel owns a bar in Cratertown, which is less a proper settlement than it is a sad ramshackle collection of shanties. Everybody knows the place has more Tuanulberry bushes than it does sentient beings.

 

But Ergel doesn’t mind. He’s got two of his three daughters to help tend the bar and keep the place clean; his nights are spent drinking or gambling or most often both, and his days are spent sleeping it off. It’s a good setup, for Ergel.

 

His eldest daughter, Verla, a vain clever creature who likes to sit around gossiping with the regulars, leaves most of the work for Ergel’s second daughter, Rey, a sad wisp of a woman who, many mean souls mutter to each other under their breath, is well past her prime. The youngest, Gozetta, a nice enough girl although she never saw a sorry circumstance she couldn’t turn into a pity party for herself, is already married off. Few years back some hotshot pilot for the New Republic’s fleet who goes by the name Poe Dameron swept through Jakku on a reconnaissance mission. He was sweet on Rey for a while, even asked for her hand once he’d finished what he came to do, but Rey turned him down, kind but firm, and in his distress he fell into the open arms of her little sister. Now they live in what only a blind idiot might call domestic bliss on the Core planet Chandrila.

 

Ergel fancies himself of noble birth, but anyone with any sense knows that’s only in comparison to the half-starved scavengers that wander into his bar. His favorite holobook is a compendium of every famous figure in the galaxy’s umpteen thousand years of history, cross-indexed by name, homeworld, wealth, familial connections, achievements, and rank. People say he’s got the damn thing memorized.

 

We’re descended from Contispex the First himself,” he likes to tell people. Nevermind that Contispex is famous for two things: his affiliation with the anti-alien Pius Dea Crusades, and the fact that the illegal dynasty he founded unjustly held control of the galaxy for well over a thousand years. No, that doesn’t bother Ergel; the man was a shining star in the Old Republic’s firmament, according to him, and a name that everyone knows.

 

That’s all that really matters.

 

Some folks call him Ergel the First. Some bow and scrape at his bar, blurting out ridiculous compliments in the hopes of getting a free drink. Some refer to him as the Chancellor of Cratertown. Most of ‘em are joking. Most.

 

But then again, people say a lot of barvy things, ‘specially after they’ve imbibed a few too many shots of Ergel’s specialty, knockback nectar. People should be careful with that stuff, too much of it’ll steal a body’s voice and numb their mouths— making them liable to bite their own tongues off. Although… maybe that’d keep ‘em from wagging about Ergel so much.

 

Another thing people wonder about Ergel: will he ever marry again? There aren’t too many eligible women wandering around Jakku. Handful of old scavengers who aren’t related to anyone famous, and in any case, are too smart for the likes of Ergel. Most of them, though, have done whatever’s necessary to get off that dead rock of a planet by the time they reach a marrying age.

 

But you see, the reason people ask that, is because when Ergel returned to Jakku, ‘bout six years ago or thereabouts, he came with his wife, Hedda, and Verla and Gozetta. Only member of the family who wasn’t part of this glorious return was Rey— ‘cause she was exactly where they’d left her: on Jakku. They’d fled when she was just a grubby-fingered youngling, and the day they showed up again? She didn’t even recognize them ‘til Hedda pulled out a bunch of old holovids Ergel had filmed years back. The vids showed all sorts of things Rey only half-remembered: Rey and Verla running around on the Crackle, that great field of shining black glass that surrounds a crashed Star Destroyer out near the Starship Graveyard; climbing up the thick, armored legs of the luggabeasts that sat waiting for their Teedo masters outside the Niima Outpost; the three of them, Gozetta still just a tiny baby, napping quietly on the sofa in their Cratertown living room while a Holoprogram droned quietly in the background.

 

She’d gasped when Hedda had shown her those, and embraced them— all of them— and called them ma and pa and sisters, and that had been that.

 

Didn’t have enough room on the ship, Ergel says with a shrug, when people ask about those lost years. We knew our Rey was tough like a spinebarrel. If any of our girls could take care of themselves ‘til we came back, it was her. Gozetta was too small and Verla was too delicate for the desert. Didn’t come back sooner ‘cause we ran outta money in some backend shadowport, had to stay a while.

 

Ergel usually fails to mention that the ‘while’ they stayed amounted to about a decade and a half.

 

He also fails to mention that the night before he and his family up and left, he’d won the pot in a game of sabacc he’d been playing down at Niima Outpost. He fails to mention that he sold Rey to the post’s Crolute junk boss, Unkar Plutt, who made her work her fingers to the bone for years without telling her where her family was, while he and his wife and his two favorite daughters were off enjoying the spoils from that one lucky game. And funnily enough, he’s never deemed it worth sharing that Plutt, without telling her, took a portion of Rey’s daily scavengings and forwarded the credits to Ergel.

 

Ergel doesn’t like to talk about how thin and tough his daughter was by the time he came crawling back, out of credits and riding the last sputterings of a light freighter’s dying ion engine.

 

After all… that doesn’t make him look too good, does it?

 

No, Ergel of Jakku is not a very nice man. But he is Rey’s father, and no one can deny him that, least of all Rey, who spent all those years waiting and hoping he’d return.

 

And Hedda? Well, before she died, she’d usually give a pained smile whenever anybody asked her that question, about Rey. Then she’d excuse herself from the conversation and go find the daughter in question, usually hard at work keeping the bar in order. She’d wrap her middle child up in her wiry arms, even though they were both full-grown women and practically strangers, and she’d bury her freckled nose deep in Rey’s shiny sweat-damp hair.

 

“‘M sorry, baby,” her mama would murmur.

 

“For what, ma?” Rey would ask, every time, and by the lack of guile in the question, Hedda would know that somehow, her daughter had forgiven them for what they’d done.

 

She would start to cry then, and Rey would rock her gently, her wiry arms wrapped now around her mother’s thin frame. She’d comfort Hedda until the guilt had passed, hushing and humming and petting Hedda’s long blonde hair.

 

So that’s how it was— right up until the morning they all woke to find Hedda had passed in her sleep.

 

Old age, Unkar’s medi-droid had said, after they’d paid him his fee. Tough life. Not surprising, for a Human female from Jakku.

 

And now Ergel scoffs, when his customers ask him about marriage. “Couldn’t dream of it,” he says, piously. “Got my girls to think of, don’t I?”

 

By which he means, of course, that one daughter’s his beast of burden, and the other he’s hoping to foist off on some rich Chandrilan senator. And why would Ergel bother with all the effort of impressing a woman, when he’s perfectly comfortable as is? And who on Jakku is even worthy of marrying a former Imperial administrator? And wasn’t Hedda more of a headache than anything else, when she was still alive? Always nagging him to go back to Jakku, always fretting about Rey and every other fool thing.

 

No thank you, thinks Ergel. I’ll never marry beneath my rank like that again.

 

And that, as they say, is that.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

It’s a dead Wednesday afternoon in Ergel’s Bar. Dust motes waft around in the streaky sunshine streaming in through the boarded-up windows— the air conditioner is on the fritz again, so the place is beastly hot, its few creaky ceiling fans not doing much more than pushing the hot air around the room— and an old autojuke warbles out some jizz tune from a shadowy corner. The old moisture vaporator out back generates a constant buzzing drone, an underlying noise that everyone inside the bar has been hearing for so long they don’t even hear it anymore. Not really. Everything in the place is sticky; it’s always sticky, or dusty, or both— no matter how much Rey mops and scrubs— but she’s scrubbing the bar down anyway, because, well, what else is she going to do?

 

Verla’s seated at a large round table near the mirror-covered back wall with a Human man, a Melitto, a Teedo and an old Abednedo. She’s running a game of Corellian Spike, which Rey has explicitly been told she is not welcome to join. As the dealer, Verla’s wiping the floor with the bar’s customers… a skill Rey’s father, Ergel, who’s fast asleep upstairs, never quite mastered.

 

“House wins,” she crows, offering them all a knowing smirk. “Again.”

 

“Cheater,” hisses the Melitto, his words translated by the vocoder attached to his breathing apparatus. The chitin plates of his insectile face ripple with fury, the cilia on his bare wrists stand up straight, quivering as though ruffled by a slight breeze, and his long green fingers grip the table so tightly they’ve gone pale at the knuckles.

 

Verla taps the blaster pistol holstered at her hip. Not taking it out, just laying her hand on it. A reminder. “You sure about that?”

 

“Leave it,” growls the wizened Abednedo. He gives a slight snuffle, making the fleshy tendrils hanging from his snout sway alongside his long white beard. “Take your winnings and deal the next hand, girlie.”

 

“You… I like you.” She winks at him, then, turning in her chair to seek out Rey, she hollers, “Hey, barkeep! ‘Nother round of Eyeblasters for me and the gang here.”

 

Rey peeks up over the counter of the bar, just a pair of wide hazel eyes, a high brow that is damp with perspiration from her labors, and the uppermost of three buns visible at the back of her head. Her tied-back hair, while mostly chestnut brown, is streaked with a few fine threads of silver, and there are the beginnings of some crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes, where her long dark eyelashes fan out against her high cheekbones.

 

“I can’t, Verla,” she sighs. “We finished off all the rotgut.”

 

Slowly, Verla raises a perfectly plucked eyebrow, her green eyes flashing. “Then… don’t you think you ought to go buy some?” she asks, enunciating each word so that Rey knows, without a doubt, just how feeble-minded she believes her sister to be.

 

“‘M a little busy,” Rey mumbles.

 

“Whatever you’re doing, it can wait—go on, get going.” With a roll of her eyes and a flick of her bleached blonde hair over her shoulder, she turns back and leans in, over the table. In a whisper loud enough for Rey to hear, she says, “It’s such a burden, keeping an eye on her. Honestly, we’d all be better off if she went back to picking at Star Destroyer bones.”

 

“Not much left to pick from those old ships,” the Melitto rasps. It has no humanoid features on its face, but its plates shift with some unknowable emotion. “Work’s drying up. Everyone’s getting out.”

 

The man and the Abednedo nod sadly in agreement.

 

“She need simple work, for simple mind,” the Teedo declares, head tilted. Despite how its rusted helmet turns its voice into a mechanical-sounding croak, something like amusement is still audible in its words. Stroking its metallic chin, it trains the dark glass of its eye-holes on Rey as she dons her cowl and steps out from behind the bar. “Could take her off your hands, put her to work? Need someone to tend my luggabeasts.”

 

“No.” Verla shakes her head, all full of frustrated malaise. She doesn’t acknowledge the Melitto’s gloomy warning. “Pa says we can’t cut her loose. We have to take care of her, since she’s obviously not clever enough to get off this rock, and she’s not pretty enough to snag a partner.”

 

“I’m right here,” Rey snaps, although her voice is muffled by the cowl. If her sister hears her, she doesn’t respond— she simply gives a resigned shrug, then begins shuffling the deck of sabacc cards. Rey, in turn, doesn’t argue with Verla’s harsh words; there’s no point in it, she’s learned. She turns and makes her way through the hot, stuffy room towards the exit.

 

As Rey is leaving, she hears Verla let out another sigh, then conclude, in that same faux-confidential tone, “We’re stuck with her, I’m afraid.”

 

When Rey steps out into the bright afternoon, she slams the door behind her, hard. It won’t make any difference, she knows; it’ll probably even support the Teedo’s argument that she’s simple-minded.

 

But it makes her feel better. And these days, that’s about the best she’s going to get.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The heat from Jakku’s sun is brutal, especially when it reaches its zenith in the sky. Now, in the late afternoon, it hovers above the southern horizon; in a few hours, it’ll set. The winds will pick up, the temperature will plummet, night will sap any remnant of warmth from the land. And until the sun returns, the darkened world will somehow become even more tortuous than it is during the day.

 

Rey’s not worried, though— she’s lived her whole life here, and she understands Jakku’s rhythms. That’s not to say she loves them, of course. But she knows what she’s in for. Which is why she’s outfitted in light Tsu-seed linen trousers and tunic, arms wrapped, head and bust protected by a cowl of the same fabric, thick transparisteel goggles keeping her eyes safe from Jakku’s ever-present grit; her bloggin leather boots and belt are the only non-linen items she’s got on. After all these years, it’s easy enough for her to ignore the way sweat pools in the small of her back and between her toes, to focus instead on the rush of air that cools her, as she zips away from Cratertown.

 

There are few things that give Rey so great a dose of joy and relief as riding her speeder. It’s probably the only property she has which she can truly call her own— as it was conceived and constructed by Rey’s own two hands, during the hard times when her family was gone. No one can take that from her, neither the transport nor the accomplishment. It’s her custom design, made from civilian and military parts that she salvaged herself from the corpses of the Empire’s doomed and desert-bound fleet, combining the best assets of a swoop bike and a speeder, equipped with top-of-the-line Imperial repulsorlifts and an electroshock security mechanism. She’s damn proud of it.

 

Sometimes, when Rey takes her speeder out for rides, she thinks about that time. Before. Before they returned for her. Living in her AT-AT, longing for her family, her only company Mashra, a fellow salvager and old friend of Ergel’s. She gets lost in the long stretch of years between the blank slate of early childhood and the dull misery of present day, and she smiles to herself, faint and rueful.

 

(She rarely allows herself to think of him, on these rides. It’s too painful. Still.)

 

She’s not smiling now, though. She’s beaming. Under her cowl, hidden from the world, she wears a wide wild grin that stretches from ear to ear, dimpling her sunken cheeks. The only witness to her raucous joy is Rey herself, of course, but that’s fine by her. She whoops into the wind, switches gears and hits the foot pedal hard, sending the twin turbojet engines into overdrive and setting the afterburners aflame. With a loud ‘nyoom!’ she’s off, zooming over the canyons of the Goazon Badlands, where nightwatcher worms lie hiding in wait, over the Sinking Fields, where innocent-looking divots in the pale blond earth will devour an entire starfighter in seconds, and around the foothills of the Fallen Teeth mountain ridge, where many salvagers make their camp at night.

 

Soon enough, Niima Outpost appears in the distance, a dark blur smudged across the windswept landscape, just barely visible through the shimmering heat that rises up off the sand.

 

And although she’s been riding her speeder for the better part of an hour, it is still with a heavy sigh that she parks it, when— only a few minutes after first catching sight of the outpost— she finds herself at its gates. It takes her less than ten minutes to haggle for and purchase what she needs, alcohol home-brewed by one of the vendors in the marketplace and a few other much-needed supplies, and then she’s storing them in the cargo net of her speeder alongside her quarterstaff, ready to return to the drudgery of a long, boring afternoon at the bar.

 

“Rey?” calls someone, from behind her. It’s a raspy voice— most are on Jakku, burnt by years of drinking and sun and sand— and it belongs to a female, although it’s deeper than a Human woman’s register.

 

Mashra.

 

Rey is a tall woman, stands just six inches shy of six feet, but she still has to tilt her head back when the stately Abednedo salvager approaches. “Hullo,” she just barely gets out, before she is swept up into the female’s strong arms, feet no longer touching solid ground.

 

“It’s been months,” Mashra says, chiding. “Six of them, at least. Where have you been? Why haven’t you come to see me?”

 

“Working, mostly.” It’s not easy for her to speak around the fabric of Mashra’s tunic, and feeling a little faint from how tightly the Abednedo is squeezing her, she gives Mashra’s shoulder a light tap. At once she is set back on her feet. “Just out in Cratertown, you know, tending the bar.”

 

Mashra’s gaze roves over her face, studying it. “He works you too hard, that Ergel.” Rey can hear the disapproval in her friend’s voice; it makes her curl in on herself, just a little.

 

Defensively, she argues, “He makes us money, too. With the gambling. Sometimes.”

 

“Oh yes, I’ve seen him around gambling, all right,” huffs Mashra, “he wins more than he loses, I’d say.” Rey winces, but doesn’t refute that. A pause hangs between them, contemplative. Mashra gives a few blinks of her bulging eyes. She sniffs; the long slitted nostrils in her hollowed cheeks quiver and her mouth tendrils swing from her long snout. Then: “You’ll stay for dinner, of course.”

 

“I wish I could, really, but I can’t. I’m sorry, it’s just—Verla’s waiting on the rotgut—”

 

“Hang Verla!” Mashra’s words ring out, loud and deep and resonant even in the muted buzz of the marketplace. A few people pause in their bartering to turn and stare. “Verla can wait,” she adds, at a lower decibel. “You’re too thin, Rey, and it’s been too long since we really talked. We… need to do that. You’re coming for dinner.”

 

Her tone brooks no argument, so Rey gives a small shrug. “Alright, Mashra.” As she climbs up onto her speeder, she has a moment of inspiration; pulling her comlink from the satchel she has strapped across her body, she gives her oldest friend a sly smile, then says, “I’ll come for dinner… but you have to explain to Verla why she won’t be having any more Eyeblasters this afternoon.”

 

“Deal,” Mashra sniffs, imperiously, and snatches the comlink from her hands.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“You noticed how empty Niima Outpost is getting, no doubt,” Mashra says later, after they’ve settled into their soft sandbag chairs, a bowl of pole-snake stew in each of their laps.

 

“Really? I didn’t, but now that you mention it…” Rey bites into her hunk of pastebread, dripping with broth. The bread is next to flavorless, having been removed from a can sitting for Force-knows-how-long in Mashra’s corrugated-tin bunker, but… the stew is good— spicy, and hearty. Thoughtfully, she chews.

 

“I’ve been meaning to come see you for a while now, Rey,” she tells her, sounding remorseful. “I should’ve. I know that. I’m supposed to take care of you. But I’ve been busy, getting my own affairs in order. Everyone’s been talking about it for months… The big dry-up. You really haven’t heard anything in the bar?”

 

Now that Mashra’s mentioned it, Rey can remember some grumblings from their dwindling clientele: whispers that many of the Hutts have already left— a sign that the planet’s profitability is coming to an end— and that the ships have been stripped of most of their valuable parts, that many of the planet’s salvagers had been recruited by both sides of the distant war raging in the Outer Rim. The big dry-up, just like Mashra says.

 

But she hasn’t really given it much thought, as busy as she’s been keeping the bar open. (And in not thinking about anything or anyone else.) And she’d mostly chalked it up to the kind of bellyaching that often gets thrown around, when the knockback nectar is flowing. But now that she has a moment to breathe, a moment to think, a moment to herself… she considers it.

 

Jakku has been a dried-up husk of a planet for what seems like forever. Once, when she was very young— eight, maybe nine years old— and scrubbing up her haul in the shade of Unkar’s canopied shack, she met one of the grim-faced old monks who belongs to the Church of the Force, way out in the village of Tuanul. He’d looked at her with pity and she’d resented that, but she still hadn’t been so proud as to reject the cup of clean water he bought for her. And as she sat enjoying the novelty of a cool, refreshed mouth— that rarely occurred, back in those days— he’d told her a story.

 

The story of Jakku.

 

Many, many millennia ago, it was a rich green forest world. And then something had happened, some cataclysmic event that should’ve been the end for everything. But it wasn’t. What it did do, however, was annihilate much of life on Jakku, leaving only the nastiest, hardiest plants and animals to thrive. And in time, over the course of all those millions of years, the planet had become a barren desert.

 

Rey couldn’t fathom it, back then. (These days, she thinks she can relate.) And when she stops to think about it, it doesn’t seem all that improbable that this planet would be abandoned by sentient life eventually… although it looks like that is going to happen sooner rather than later.

 

She’s drawn back to the present when Mashra asks, “Ergel talk to you much, ‘bout how the bar is doing?”

 

“What d’you mean?” She dips her spoon, gathers broth and pole-snake meat onto it. “I run the place, I know how it’s doing!”

 

“I mean the finances.”

  

That stops her dead in her tracks, spoon halfway to her mouth. Now it is her turn to study Mashra’s face, but as always, she finds it difficult to glean the Abednedo’s motives; her expression is cagey, her black eyes trained on her stew. She slurps loudly from her own spoon, ignoring Rey’s gaze. But it doesn’t matter. Even if Mashra won’t explain her meaning, it’s been six years since her family came back to Jakku, and Rey knows her father well enough to know exactly where this is heading.

 

After a beat, Rey sighs. She drops her spoon back into the bowl; her appetite has vanished. “Tell me how bad it is.”

 

Now. Now Mashra looks up from her lap. She also heaves a sigh, a heavy exhale blown out through her snout.

 

“The worst it’s ever been,” she says, dark gaze pitying. “And he’s been banned from all the sabacc games on Jakku. Verla too, everyone knows she cheats.” She hesitates, blows out another resigned sigh. “I’m going to need your help in convincing him to sell the bar. For his own sake.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

By the time Mashra walks Rey to her speeder, the twin moons of Jakku glow like Veda pearls in the inky night sky. There is so little civilization around, so little light pollution, that mere minutes after Rey has hugged Mashra goodbye— with a promise from the Abednedo that she will visit tomorrow— donned her cowl and goggles, and zoomed off back towards Cratertown, the stars come out. In bright clustered constellations, they emerge from the dark expanse; winking at her like old friends saying hello, Rey mournfully greets them in kind.

 

She cuts the engine when she gets close to a dark shape, hidden amongst the dunes. A hulking corpse of an AT-AT, rusted out and laying defeated on its belly; it is steeped in long shadows cast by the silvery moonlight, and they set Rey on edge. After locking the speeder down and removing her goggles, she stumbles over the sand; once she is close to the opening in the old transport’s hull, she retrieves her glowrod from her satchel.

 

With a flick of her thumb across its activator, she dispels the shadows. Miraculously, no one has taken up residence in her former home; somehow, it has remained empty all these years. As Rey moves inside, and eases herself into her old makeshift hammock, she wonders if Mashra scares away anyone who tries to move in. She wonders if she knows Rey comes out here, that it’s the only time she allows herself to think of the past, and Mashra wants her to have that. A safe place, a secret place. Something that’s still her own.

 

It’s a nice thought.

 

A less nice thought: it’s strange to Rey how her sleeper in Cratertown, in the shabby apartments above Ergel’s Bar, never feels as comforting or comfortable as this knobby old rope hammock. And now that she’s thinking about Ergel… she allows herself a moment of complete, absolute despair.

 

Just gives into it, lets it fill her up, lets herself drown in it.

 

He’s always been on the brink of ruin, since the day he returned. She’s the first to admit that. But she’d had no idea the depths of his debts… and when Mashra had laid them out for her, in all their horrible detail, adding that she was almost certain the Niima Outpost Militia was going to come for Ergel if he didn’t start paying up—

 

Rey had wanted to cry. She still does. In fact, without further ado, she begins to. Why not? There’s no one around for kilometers, and she knows for a fact— verified by a decade and change spent on her own, in this very AT-AT— that her family won’t come looking for her. Not if they don’t need her for something.

 

This. This is what she had waited for. (This is what she had turned down his proposal for.) The only members of her family who even seemed to miss her, or care how horrible her life had been in their absence— her mother and her younger sister— are gone. One gone to the beyond, and one gone to Chandrila, married with children to care for; too far away, even with their sporadic communications.

 

And sure, she and Verla could probably hold off the Militia for a while. Verla’s a whiz with her blaster and Rey, when armed with her quarterstaff, is not someone to be trifled with. But this is her home. Has been her home, all her life. And she’d thought…

 

She’d always imagined, in those nights spent lying in this hammock, that when her parents returned, she wouldn’t have to scrape like this anymore. She thought the fighting would be finished. She thought that the return of her family would bring about the end of her fending for herself.

 

She thought she’d be taken care of. Or at least… loved. That's it. She thought she’d be loved.

 

The tears are really flowing now, hot and furious. Gently, she swings the hammock with the tip of her booted toe on the sandy durasteel floor.

 

Oh yes, they’d come back alright, just like she had promised herself every night, while she rocked herself to sleep. They’d come back, but not for her. Not because they loved her. They’d come back desperate, and bitter, and in the intervening years, they had heaped all their bitter, desperate vitriol upon Rey’s head.

 

As she often does these days, she thinks about leaving them. It makes her heart seize up, wild fear drumming in her ears. She could, she knows. She could ask Mashra to help her, she could sell her speeder to Unkar, she could ransack the bar and barter for credits from the other junk-lords, she could buy passage from some off-worlder to get her to a shuttle.

 

She could go. Just like that.

 

But if she did, she’d be no better than them. And what’s more… she’d be alone.

 

Alone. The very idea of it, that’s what makes her pulse thready, what steals her breath. Rey has spent so much of her life alone. They might not be much of a family, they may be selfish and lazy and uncaring and they may be pulling her down into an inescapable morass of insolvency and misery, but that does not discount the fact that they are hers.

 

(And she does not have him anymore. She did, for one dizzying moment. She did have him, but now she doesn’t. That’s her fault. He’s long gone; he probably never even thinks of her anymore. This is all she has left.)

 

Rey brushes the tears from her cheeks. She closes her eyes, hums an old lullaby, continues her gentle rocking.

 

And for just a little while, only a handful of stolen minutes, she allows herself to remember all those times she fell asleep under this roof— including that brief blip of time where he was here, falling asleep beside her, tangled and sweating and—

 

No. She’ll remember all the rest, but not that. She won’t think about that. Never that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“You’re in real trouble, Ergel.”

 

Mashra’s tone is sanguine, her fleshy tan face as inscrutable as ever. She and Rey sit on barstools, leaning on the counter. As Mashra advised her last night, Rey keeps her posture loose, her face relaxed.

 

But the words are no less potent for the calm manner in which Mashra delivers them, and Rey can tell they’re a blow to Ergel. Across the bar from them, also leaning on his elbows, he goes ashen in the face, and rushes to pour himself a drink.

 

“That so?” he asks, lightly, as if he thinks she’s joking. Still, his hands shake as he brings his glass of rotgut to his lips, and finishes it in one swallow. “What kinda trouble?”

 

“The debts, Ergel,” she says, stressing the words. “You’ve got to think of your daughters, of their well-being.”

 

“You been talking to Plutt?”

 

She nods, stiffly. “He says if you sell the bar and give him ninety percent of whatever you get for it, he’ll consider forgiving the rest.”

 

“Consider?” Ergel lets out a scornful chuckle. “Not good enough.”

 

“Pa, please,” Rey tries. “Jakku’s emptying out, everyone—”

 

“So?”

 

“There’s not going to be anyone left to drink in your bar pretty soon,” Mashra says. “And if you don’t pay the debts…”

 

A storm cloud passes over Ergel’s face, brows knitted and thin lips downturned. Absently, he scratches at the week’s worth of stubble on his cheeks and jaw.

 

“There’s plenty of good work on other planets.” Rey attempts to keep the anxiety from her voice, but it still trembles, just a little. She’s seen the electroprods that Constable Zuvio and his band of Kyuzos carry around, and she’s seen what happens when a body comes in contact with the end of those electroprods. It isn’t pretty; she'd rather not take them on, if she doesn't have to. “You’ve heard of Rinnrivin Di, haven’t you?”

 

Mashra nods, and, glancing between the two of them, Ergel’s expression grows even darker. Surely he can sense that they’re conspiring, but still Rey marvels in how much her father’s laziness and pride prevent him from acknowledging the severity of his problems. Stupid stubborn man.

 

“Over on Bastatha,” he says, in a suspicious tone. “Runs a cartel.”

 

“A very successful one, that is always looking for good men.” Mashra takes a tentative sip of her knockback nectar, then coughs, recoiling at its acrid burn.

 

Rey pats her back. When her father casts an appraising eye her way, she adds, “Bastatha was on the side of the Empire in the Civil War, pa, remember? Rinnrivin Di likes hiring former Imperial soldiers, everyone says so. They say he likes it ‘cause it makes him feel patriotic.”

 

“Don’t lecture me on history, girlie.” That’s her father’s only response. He pulls the jug of rotgut back out, pouring himself another full glass. Takes a sip. Ponders for a moment. Then: “What do you think, Ver?”

 

Across the room in one of the rickety chairs sits Verla, feet propped up on a table, nursing a cocktail and pointedly ignoring them all. She looks up from her datapad upon hearing her name. “I don’t give a Psadan's patoot, pa.”

 

He snorts at that, then sips for a while more, still stewing. Finally: “I’ll think about it.”

 

“Don’t think for too long,” says Mashra, with a wag of her long hairy finger. “Crolutes are infamous for their impatience, and we all know Unkar’s the worst of his lot.”

 

“That’s enough talkin’ about unpleasant things,” Ergel replies, brusquely. “Mashra, you came all this way out here, you goin’ to play me in a couple hands of sabacc or not?”

 

Mashra rolls her eyes, and Rey does too. When Ergel says the conversation is over, there’s no reaching him; he becomes like an ion wall, and not a word about the topic will get past. All they can do now is hope that he’ll see reason, eventually.

 

“Fine,” she concedes. “Two hands. But no betting, Ergel.”

 

“Spoilsport.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Three standard days later, an advertisement goes up on the HoloNet:

 

For Sale: Ergel’s Bar, Cratertown, Jakku. Cantina with built-in client base, reputable establishment. Building and twelve square kilometers of land. Asking Price: 20,000 credits.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

“Bastatha is a very important place,” Ergel declares a week later, all seriousness and not a hint of irony, as if he is one of the Tuanul monks issuing a sermon on the Force. “It was a key Imperial ally during the First Civil War, and if not for the blasted Alliance it would undoubtedly be one of the most prominent planets in the galaxy! The people on Bastatha have certainly never fallen in with all this New Republic rubbish.”

 

“That’s right, pa.” Rey is cautious; her tone mild, she keeps her eyes trained on the air conditioner she has disassembled on top of one of the barroom tables. Despite whatever irritation she feels at Ergel and his pompous tone, she’s not getting sucked into a debate.

 

“We’ll be rather celebrated there, I wager, what with my sterling record on the Coruscant Security Force, and then with the Imperial Navy.”

 

Her irritation swells. An administrator, thinks Rey. A desk jockey. A form filler and a data processor. You’re no hero.

 

But it deflates just as quickly, so she remains silent and simply nods. She has more important things to worry about anyway, like how she’s going to repair the busted thermostatic expansion valve, and how she’s going to quell the dread she feels at moving into the fetid underground tunnels of Bastatha. It’s their best option, Rey knows that, and it might just be the only one that saves her from a return to salvaging… but that doesn’t mean she has to like it. Still, she reminds herself as she digs around in her tool-kit for spare parts, she should put on a good face. For her family.

 

Mashra, who has been diligently visiting at least once a day since her and Rey’s meeting, gives an approving hum. She’s perched on one of the barstools, typing intently on the datapad in her wrinkled hands. “They’ll welcome you with open arms,” she says, distracted, “and they’ll be very happy to employ you, I’m sure of it.”

 

“I should think so,” Ergel sniffs, “After all, we are descended from Contisp—”

 

“Any potential buyers get in touch yet, Mashra?” Rey chimes in, unable to listen to her father’s lecture on their family tree for the umpteenth time.

 

“Hm, a few. But they’ve all sent offers of much less than what we’ve advertised. Insultingly less, really. Only one even bothered to match our advertised price.” A pair of wire-rimmed spectacles are perched on the end of her snout; absently, absorbed in her correspondence, she takes a sip of the Endorian sunberry wine Ergel has poured for her. “Oh, that’s a very nice vintage. Bravo, Ergel.”

 

He winks at her. “Anything for our esteemed real estate agent.” Then he returns to his shuffling of the deck of sabacc cards in his hands.

 

“And… message sent,” she says, after another minute’s worth of typing. “I’ve invited him to come visit the place. Hopefully we’ll hear back soon.”

 

“Good. Sooner we sell this dump and get ourselves to Bastatha, the better,” Ergel decrees.

 

Rey could scream. She really could, hearing him disparage the cantina her late mother helped to build. Instead, through clenched teeth, she offers only the weakest of protests. “Ma loved this place, though…”

 

“Who’s the prospective buyer?” drawls Verla. Slouched in a chair beside Rey’s makeshift worktable, she occupies herself with filing her nails. Business is always slow at Ergel’s Bar, but this is the third day in a row without a single customer; Rey’s sister has stopped pretending she’s not interested in the proceedings. Even Verla’s propensity for doing nothing has reached its limit.

 

“Well…” Mashra takes a deep swallow of her wine, as if to buy herself some time. “That’s the thing. I’ll tell you, but… you all have to remain calm. Rational. Can you manage that?”

 

“Me? I’m always rational,” Ergel says.

 

A snort escapes her. Three sets of sharp eyes cut her way. Verla quirks an eyebrow, and Rey can see it, how she’s already gearing up to deliver some derisive retort to whatever Rey’s opinion may be. So— knowing that none of them care at all about the inner workings of an air conditioner— she remarks, “Oh, the… expansion… valve! I figured out the problem, it’s the compress—”

 

“We’re all adults here Mashra, there’s no need to coddle us,” Verla snaps, waspish. “Tell us who it is.”

 

“Of course,” the Abednedo sighs. “Apologies. The buyer is Luke Skywalker.”

 

CLUNK.

 

In the hush that follows those words, accentuated by the nearby vaporator and the squeak of the ancient ceiling fans, the dull sound of Ergel’s glass slamming down onto the bar is thunderous. Ominous.

 

“Absolutely not,” he hisses. Without another word, he turns on his heel and storms off towards the back of the bar, where a sagging, crooked staircase leads up to their apartment.

 

Stunned, Rey looks at Mashra. Mashra looks at Rey. Verla continues filing her nails.

 

The tension draws on and on, ever-tighter, both of them dejectedly listening to Ergel’s heavy footfall as he stomps up the stairs and begins pacing the floors overhead.

 

At last, Verla rolls her eyes. “A New Republic war hero? Great job, Mashra,” she jeers. “Real smooth.”

 

Mashra removes her glasses, runs her fingers over the sleek, dappled surface of her bald head. Tiredly, she scratches the wide valley of snout between her protruding eyes. When she exhales a heavy sigh, there’s no mistaking the tenor of the sound, even with her impassive expression.

 

It sounds like defeat.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Hours later, after Mashra has gone home and Verla has sequestered herself in her bedroom for a nap, Rey brings Ergel up a plate of protato curls, his favorite snack.

 

“Pa,” she says, rapping her knuckles lightly on his bedroom door. “You should eat something.”

 

“Not hungry,” he grunts back.

 

“Can I come in?”

 

There’s a long pause, and then she hears, faintly, as though he’s muttered it: “Suit yourself.”

 

The door slides back into the wall with the press of a button to its control panel. Inside, Rey finds Ergel seated in his conform lounger by the grimy bedroom window, staring sullenly at his portable hologame table. Atop it, the flickering holomonsters of a dejarik game fidget and growl restlessly, bored of standing in their starting positions. After she’s handed him the plate, Rey grabs a nearby wooden footstool and places it across the table from him. Then she sits.

 

“Wanna play?” She pokes at her side’s K'lor'slug figure, and huffs with amusement when it gives a tiny disgruntled roar.

 

“I ‘spose we can,” he says, not meeting her eyes. “But I don’t want to hear one word about that Rebel scum, or his dang-blamed offer. Hear me?”

 

“Sure, pa,” Rey sighs. “My lips are sealed.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

It’s Verla who cracks first. Two days later, they’re sitting around the kitchen table with their breakfast gruel, in their customary strained silence, when suddenly, she lets out an exasperated groan.

 

“Y’know, pa,” she snaps, “the Jedi helped to bring about the Empire, in their own way. And we all know who his father is. And what’s more, if you weren’t so damned bad at gambling, we wouldn’t even be in this mess in the first place!”

 

With that, she shoots up from the table, throws her bowl— still half-full of her mealy breakfast— in the sink, and flounces off towards her bedroom.

 

Rey meets Ergel’s gaze. She blinks twice, trying to think of something that will smooth things over.

 

“Don’t,” he growls, reaching for his mug of caf.

 

So she doesn’t.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The day after Verla’s blow-up, some half-starved Human salvager wanders into their bar in the early afternoon, begging for water. Ergel offers to play him for it; if he wins, the salvager has to hand over everything in his knapsack— which amounts to a few starfighter engine parts, a melted ration bar, and about two kilos of sand— and if the salvager wins, he’ll have all the water he can drink.

 

Ergel loses, of course. The salvager, who introduces himself as Corwin once they’re seated at a table, playing cards in hand, tells Ergel he doesn’t want to talk about where he’s from. Ergel shrugs his acceptance, but Rey can see that it irks him.

 

Even so, they must find some common ground to bond over, because she overhears a snippet of their conversation later, as she’s fiddling with the still-busted expansion valve; they sound like old friends, gossiping about the galaxy’s hottest celebrities. They’ve had a few rounds of potent Sarlacc Kickers by that point, and Ergel’s tone is cavalier, his slouched posture that of a man completely at ease.

 

Apropos of nothing— after refusing to discuss the Skywalker issue for days— he informs Corwin: “He’s the son of Darth Vader, y’know. Luke kriffing Skywalker. And he’s interested in buying this place. Can you imagine?”

 

Corwin beams, a gap-toothed grin that creases his sunburnt cheeks. “Lucky. You should double your asking price, whatever it is. Can you imagine what the place’ll be worth, once it’s owned by a legend like him?”

 

“The son of a legend,” Ergel corrects, in a haughty tone, although he’s beaming too. “But it’ll suffice.”

 

Rey tries to understand the expression on her father’s grizzled face at that moment— his narrowed eyes, his rough chuckle, his wide grin— and only one word comes to mind.

 

Conniving.

 

 

. . .

 

 

"’I have sold my bar to Master Skywalker,’" sounds pretty dag good, don’t you think?”

 

Rey gives an inattentive thumbs-up, then continues her adjustment to the air conditioner’s compressor. She’s almost got the damned thing licked back into shape.

 

“Rinnrivin Di will be very impressed, when he learns that I fleeced the legendary Luke Skywalker out of forty thousand credits,” Ergel continues, mixing himself an Eyeblaster. “It’s a brilliant plan, girlie; I really can’t lose. It’ll make me look good to the cartel, the Jedi won’t know the difference, and I’ll make a tidy profit—”

 

“Which you have to hand over to Unkar Plutt,” she reminds him, with a final twist of her screwdriver.

 

“Oh, stop ruining it.”

 

Rey glances over at her father; he’s posted up against the bar, looking far too self-satisfied. The salvager, Corwin, sits at the other side, elbow on the counter, also wearing a smug grin.

 

She knows it’s useless. She knows how Ergel is. But she can’t help herself, especially when she sees him gloating like this. “They say he’s a hero, pa,” she mutters. “That he saved the New Republic.”

 

He snickers, and Corwin does too. “Quite right, quite right. And that’s why he’s gonna pay double.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

The next night, five days after Mashra initially informed them of Skywalker’s offer, Rey feels as though she is crawling out of her skin. She’s been tinkering endlessly in an attempt to fix the damned air-conditioner, in-between doing her best to tidy up the bar and their apartment for their potential buyer. Verla has been of no help, of course, and Ergel has spent most of his time plotting with Corwin, who has conspicuously not left Cratertown, seemingly content to hang around Ergel’s Bar and drink for free until they pack up and leave.

 

Now, the bar is blessedly cool. The air-conditioner purrs once more from its station, fixed in the transom window above the front entrance, blowing brisk air through the barroom. Not a speck of dust can be seen on the long steelcrete bar or the scattered chairs and tables; the ferrocrete floor is swept clean of the miniature sand dunes that habitually sneak their way inside. The place shines. Or at least, it shines as much as it ever will.

 

Rey is exhausted.

 

“I’m going for a ride,” she tells Verla and Ergel; they do not even look away from their dejarik game. Corwin, who’s been spectating and cheering her father on, offers her a disinterested smile. Ergel waves half-heartedly in her general direction.

 

Unlike her last moonlit ride, this time Rey must use the floodlights affixed to the front of her speeder; a thick blanket of mauve clouds hang low overhead, and as she zooms through the dark, the wind gusts hard against her, blowing grit at her covered face and threatening to drive her off course.

 

Still. It’s worth the hassle. When she settles into the old hammock inside her AT-AT— rough-hewn Alliance pilot doll clutched to her chest— the tension she’s been carrying in her wiry muscles and the hard clench of anxiety in her stomach finally begin to ease.

 

Rey breathes in deeply, savoring the familiar smell of rusting durasteel, cracked gorraslug leather seats, and the dessicated bouquet of long-dead nightbloomers she’s never had the heart to throw away, which hang by a strand of copper wire above her hammock. (She does not think about the day he gave her that bouquet, the slight tremor in his giant hand, his shy smile—)

 

For a little while, she feels safe, and… not quite happy, exactly, but… content. There’s still some solace, here in her childhood abode, with her childhood things about her.

 

Gradually, another sound cuts through the wind’s high-pitched screech: the drone of an approaching speeder. The tension returns to her muscles, the anxiety resumes its churning of her stomach’s contents; someone is coming. She scrambles to kill the glowrod she propped up on the floor, then holds her breath, waiting and praying that whoever it is, they will pass her by.

 

They don’t. The buzz of their engine grows increasingly louder; Rey marks the change in pitch when it is downshifted, then the absence of sound when it is cut off. Close, wherever the interloper is, they’re very close. And sure enough, not a minute later, from the darkened entrance of her little home, she hears:

 

“Rey. I know you’re there—I saw your floodlights, earlier.”

 

To her relief and her disappointment, she recognizes the deep feminine voice, but it isn’t the one that for a wild, irrational second she’d hoped she might hear. (It isn’t his, although she can still remember the way he said her name. How wonderful it sounded, in his deep baritone.)

 

No, it’s only Mashra. A flick of Rey’s thumb across the activator reveals the towering Abednedo in the yellowed beam of her glowrod, crouched nearly in half to fit through the hole in the hull.

 

“May I join you?”

 

“Sure,” she says, since any other reply seems rude.

 

Mashra clambers in, pulling the heavy trap door closed behind her. “You’re letting sand in. What are you doing out here, at this time of night?”

 

Rey gives a tired heave of her shoulders, blinking back tears borne from weariness and frustration. Mashra spies them anyway, and her face falls.

 

“Oh, Rey,” she huffs, taking in Rey’s fetal position, the doll in her arms. Is that guilt in her dark piscine eyes? Is that a quiver in the lips of her snout, does her sympathetic grimace seem just the slightest bit tremulous? Rey can never be sure, with Mashra.

 

“So. You heard about Ergel’s decision, then—to take Skywalker’s offer.” At Rey’s nod, Mashra settles herself on the floor beside her. Gently, with one hand, she begins to rock the hammock, back and forth. Back and forth. Rey lets her eyes sink closed. “It’s for the best, you know,” Mashra says, in a low, sad voice.

 

“I wish we could stay here, on Jakku. There are…” she swallows, forcing the next words out around the horrible tightness in her throat, “…so many memories, here.”

 

“I know. I wish that too, for you.”

 

“Have you spoken to… Master Sk—ywalker?” Despite her best efforts, her voice breaks on the name.

 

“Yes. He’ll be in Cratertown tomorrow.”

 

“Did he say anything about… about…”

 

“No, of course not,” Mashra assures her. “There was no reason to discuss your families. I cannot even be sure if he’s aware of your history with his nephew. Not to worry, dear, we stuck to business.”

 

“Mashra,” she gasps, breathless, “I can’t help thinking… sometimes… I—I might have been happy, if I’d only just… if I hadn’t been… persuaded to…”

 

She tries to keep going, but only a small, broken sob comes out.

 

“Oh, dear,” Mashra pauses, running a hand over Rey’s tousled hair. “You were… how old? Nineteen? So young, back then. You didn’t know your own mind and—and… he was a smuggler, Rey. Like his father. A vagabond. And the grandson of—”

 

“Yes, of course,” she replies. “I know that.”

 

An uncomfortable pause follows. The wind's groan, muted by the AT-AT’s heavy hull, carries on outside. At length, Mashra asks:

 

“Have you… followed the news of him? His deeds, I mean, during the war?”

 

“No. I couldn’t bear to.”

 

A sigh. “Child.” Rey opens her eyes; Mashra gives a small shake of her head, continues smoothing her calloused hand over Rey’s hair. It feels nice. Helps, even. A little. “You made the right choice. A wise choice. You needed to wait for your family. You deserved better. You deserve better! It was… it was an inappropriate match, my dear.”

 

“Yes,” she says, wrestling to keep the emotion in her voice contained. It’s no use, even to her own ears she sounds strained, choked, on the edge of a breakdown. “Yes. So you have said, Mashra.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“So he’s a Jedi and a pilot. So what? Like it’s difficult?” Ergel sneers, the next afternoon, as he, Mashra, Verla, Corwin, and Rey sit around the bar, awaiting their guest’s arrival. The air-conditioner hums merrily above the entrance, and the air inside is cool, crisp.

 

Rey’s leg bounces under the table of its own volition. Verla has grown bored enough, what with their complete customer drought, that she’s reduced herself to playing sabacc with her sister and their guest; the women and Corwin sit around one of the bar’s smaller tables, each studying their hand.

 

Waiting for Verla to make a play, Rey unleashes a nervous tumble of thoughts that, normally, she would never share with her family. “We’re all in their debt, y’know. I would’ve liked to be a pilot for the New Republic. Bet I could’ve joined the war, defended the galaxy against the First Order.”

 

Verla and Ergel snort in perfect harmony; even Mashra gives a bemused huff.

 

“You? What do you know about flying?” Verla asks, putting down her card and picking up another from the pile. “You’ve never even been off-world.”

 

Rey picks up two cards. “I spent years teaching myself, with old flight simulators I found in the Starship Graveya—”

 

“Yes fine.” Ergel cuts her off, as he always does whenever Rey brings up life during his absence. “The navy’s all well and good, R’iia knows we need it, but I don’t particularly like the way it fills young people’s minds with nonsense, thinking that any old farmboy can just show up from some backwater planet like Tatooine and they’ll become a… a… Jedi, or an Admiral, or some other bumblefluff. That’s not how it works. You don’t just become that, those positions should be chosen, for those who are born to do that kinda thing.”

 

And what Rey wants to say is: I’d bet every credit in the galaxy that you’re only saying that because that’s not how it worked for you, when you reported for duty from Vandor-3, and everyone laughed at your backrocket ways, at your barvy claims to aristocratic lineage. Because you were too mediocre to rise very high through the ranks, too lazy and too unlikeable, and it left you bitter.

 

What she says instead is: “Sure, pa.”

 

“C’mon,” Ergel turns now to appeal to Mashra, who has held her tongue for the duration of the conversation. “Piloting starfighters?” He hesitates, eyes sliding towards Rey, lip curled in disdain. “Any idiot could do it.”

 

Rey resists the bait, and turns back to the sabacc game. They’re all a little on edge today, that’s all. She’s sure he didn’t mean anything with his words, even if they did land on her frayed nerves like a direct hit.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Luke Skywalker,” says Mashra, warmly, her large hand swallowing Luke’s when they both reach forward to shake, in greeting. “An honor.”

 

“Me? Not at all. The real honor is meeting her,” Luke jokes, tipping his head sideways towards the statuesque redhead who has accompanied him. “This is my wife, Mara.”

 

Mara’s luminous green eyes sweep across the barroom, taking them all in; she lingers on Rey, her full lips pursed, as though in contemplation of Rey’s appearance. She’s an intimidatingly beautiful woman, and at once, Rey feels cowed. When she speaks, her voice is as deep as it is musical, lilting with a Coruscanti accent. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all. What a… lovely… bar, this is.”

 

And despite her careful choice of words, there’s no irony in her tone. Simply kindness. Rey just barely restrains her scoff; looking around the shabby interior, she knows it’s anything but.

 

Her gaze returns to Rey. Again, when she addresses her, she sounds sincere; although Rey would not blame her if she wasn’t. “I’m especially pleased to finally meet you, Rey.”

 

Rey gawks at her, jaw hanging. Have Luke and his nephew spoken about her? She’d thought, when Mashra assured her that she’d discussed only business with the Jedi, that she might escape this meeting unscathed. A hot flush travels up her cheeks, her stomach turns over; she cannot think of a single socially acceptable thing to say. Haltingly, she nods.

 

“Yes, well,” Ergel blusters, “Come in, come in. Have a seat. Rey, pour us all a round of my best knockback nectar, will you?” He ushers them towards a table, and Rey wonders if he misses the knowing look Luke and Mara share, or if he purposely ignores it. Either way, she passes to the bar, and does as he’s asked.

 

And as she pours, she eavesdrops. Luke begins to tell them what sounds like a censored version of the couple’s past: they met during the First Galactic Civil War, found themselves thrown together often— as two of the New Republic’s most powerful Force users— fell in love over the course of countless missions and battles. They married right before the New Republic declared war on the First Order, about eighteen years ago, and now they are more than ready to hang up their pilot helmets, and finally found the Jedi Praxeum they’ve been dreaming of building together. Remake the Jedi Order. Try, in a more pacifist way, to bring balance to the Force, and the galaxy.

 

As Luke speaks, Ergel and Verla hum in eager agreement, obsequiously throwing in compliments wherever they can. Corwin, hanging onto the table at Ergel’s elbow, grins and nods along.

 

Mashra seems somewhat less eager to please. “Why Jakku?” she asks, accepting the glass of knockback nectar Rey hands her with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you could start this school of yours anywhere.”

 

Luke’s piercing blue eyes land on Rey. For a moment— too long, she thinks, nervously tapping her fingers on the empty tray in her hands— he considers her, before turning back to Mashra. “We were drawn to this planet. There’s a feeling of life here, buried beneath the dunes. Maybe it’s the… history, of the place.”

 

Mashra has followed Luke’s gaze; her wide brow furrows, at where it has landed. And at the implication in his words. “History,” she echoes, sounding unsettled. “The… Imperial history, I presume?”

 

“Sure,” says Luke, shrugging. “And the Church of the Force, out in Tuanul.”

 

Rey takes her seat on one of the barstools, sips gingerly at her own drink. She’s not sure what she was expecting; she knows it’s vile, and accordingly, as the acrid sourness burns her throat on its way down, she winces. There’s an awkward beat, a moment where no one appears to know what to say.

 

It’s Mara who gets the ball rolling again. “Now that the First Order has essentially been defeated, soldiers and pilots will start returning to their homeworlds. We’re hoping that those who have discovered or developed a sensitivity to the Force—” Here Ergel snorts, then tries to hide it in a cough. Mara eyes him leerily for a moment, before continuing, “—they’ll find their way here.” She gags loudly, upon trying the knockback nectar, and although she politely swallows the mouthful, she pushes the rest of the drink in Luke’s direction. Rey catches him trying to hide his laughter. Rolling her eyes, Mara ruffles his shaggy grey hair.

 

“We flew over a bit of the planet, earlier. Jakku reminds me of my own homeworld, Tatooine,” Luke muses. “But without all the painful memories, of course.” Mara nods at that, and pushes the offending glass of liquor a little closer to him with a sly smile, which makes him laugh in earnest.

 

“Is an old cantina really the right place to turn into a school?” Rey wonders aloud; for her troubles, she receives a hissed ‘quiet, girlie,’ from Ergel.

 

But Mara just laughs, wryly, and takes another look around the place. “Maybe, maybe not. We like it though, don’t we Luke?”

 

“Sure,” he repeats. “Er… rustic.”

 

“Rustic,” says Ergel, bluffing, “Uh, yeah… that’s, uh… that’s what we were going for.”

 

A bit more stilted small talk follows, before Ergel briefly shows them around the second-floor living space. Then it’s decided— and when Rey thinks back on it later, she can’t remember how exactly everyone seemed to agree this was a good idea, only that they all fell into a strangely harmonious accord, all at once— that Rey will give Luke and Mara a tour around the property, such that it is.

 

And so, Jedi in tow, she sets out to do just that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“This is the vaporator,” she tells them, pointing to the tall, spindly machine. “It’s industrial sized, big enough to produce water for my family and our patrons.”

 

A soft frown pulls at Luke’s mouth. “I remember them well,” he says, sighing. “Grew up on a moisture farm, you know. I spent a lot of time with these things.”

 

“Er, right. So… you know how it works?”

 

Mara takes his hand when he nods and looks off into the distance. Pulling him close, she lays a soft kiss on his cheek. Then she turns to Rey. “Could you show us the rest?”

 

Rey consents with a dip of her chin, and begins walking. Surreptitiously, in stolen glances, she studies the casual affection they show one another: the way Mara brushes Luke’s hair away from his eyes, the way he leans in toward her, resting his head against hers.

 

“The Sko'rraq Mountains,” she rasps, pointing to the sharp-ridged range that rises up to the north of Cratertown. Both Jedi turn their heads to look, although Rey notices that Mara’s is tilted, as if she is listening to something that Rey can’t hear, or maybe, she is listening to the words that Rey has not spoken.

 

They’re headed due west. To their left, the sky is a brilliant, fiery orange. “If you walk in that direction a ways,” Rey says, thumbing towards the sinking sun, “you’ll reach Old Meru’s. It’s a campsite settlement, for the anchorites making the trek along Pilgrim’s Road.”

 

“Hm,” is all Luke says.

 

“Rey,” Mara begins, then hesitates. She and Luke exchange a loaded look, and when he nods, she does as well. Her green eyes once more riveted to Rey’s, she asks, “Do you ever… feel as though there is something inside yourself? Some sense, a connection maybe, to the world around you?”

 

Immediately, she knows what Mara is getting at. (After all, he used to talk about this too, didn’t he?) She’s spoken with the anchorites who live outside of Tuanul, heard them commune about the Force in rushed whispers. From Luke and Mara’s hints, she’s gathered that they might be interested in her for this reason.

 

(She remembers that thrill of discovery, of learning together, during their brief affair. And after, when it was all done, how it had become a burden.) For a brief instant, she contemplates feigning ignorance, but then she considers the possibility that they might bring him up, if she does. That they might speak his name.

 

So she simply replies, “Yes.”

 

And it’s true. She had always felt it, the rhythms of Jakku— the Vworkka soaring high above her head, the nightwatcher worms slithering through the sand meters below her feet, the bones drying out in the scalding sun, the ghost of the water that used to keep this planet verdant, the way that life, vicious and snarling though it may be, seemed held together in a kind of balance— she’d always felt… attuned to it, somewhere in the back of her mind.

 

(He’d noticed that about her, right away. And when he left, she’d walled off that part of herself. Now, she still understands the delicate balance of Jakku. But it no longer moves within her.)

 

Mara smiles. “You know what that is?”

 

“The Force,” she says.

 

“Maybe… you should come back to Jakku, once our little school is set up. I think there could be a place for you here.”

 

Rey swallows hard at that. She hazards a glance at Luke— the legendary Luke Skywalker, who took down the Empire, who has just finished taking down the First Order’s sad attempt at mounting a new Empire— and affably, he nods his agreement. Inside, she quakes.

 

“There,” she points out, not trusting herself to respond to the invitation, “is the edge of Namenthe’s Crater. There’s how Cratertown got its name.”

 

“And how did the crater get its name?” Luke’s mouth quirks up on one side, boyishly. She wonders if he’s teasing her. Yet there’s something about his tone— soft, almost consoling— that suggests it’s not amusement he feels for her, but pity.

 

“From a salvager who was messing around with proton bombs,” she says. “Dropped ‘em, created a new landmark.”

 

“Scavenging seems like a very difficult way to sustain oneself,” Mara notes, studying Rey’s face. “Hard on the body, and the spirit.”

 

Now it is her turn to look off in the distance; Mara and Luke make her feel too visible, like they can see past her skull, into her mind… like they know all her secrets.

 

“Can be,” she replies, terse. Then, because she doesn’t think she’ll get another chance to speak with them alone, and because she’s dying of curiosity, and because so far they have been shockingly kind to her, she blurts out: “There’s something I’ve been trying to understand—this is a barren planet.”

 

Mara’s eyebrows shoot up to her hairline. She affirms this, with an amiable, “Mmhmm?”

 

“You could build your school anywhere, here on Jakku. It belongs to nobody. So why buy the bar, and the land?”

 

It’s Luke who answers. First with a rueful laugh, and then: “I recognized the planet, when I saw the advertisement. Jakku.” He wraps his arm around Mara’s shoulders, she leans into the embrace. “And… I seemed to recall, that a relative of mine told me, once, about someone he knew here. That this… someone… had a family they were waiting for. I only had to make a few inquiries to find out that the Ergel of Ergel’s Bar was, as I suspected, related to that someone.”

 

Rey’s lip trembles. Her eyes burn. He knows. Luke knows. And he’s told Mara. They know. What must they think of her? Her scalp itches, is that strange? Her stomach is lying down on the ground by her feet, her heart has climbed up into her throat. Who else knows? Has the whole galaxy learned of her inconstancy, of the promise she broke? She stares at the blazing sunset, in the hopes that it will burn away the gathering tears. Maybe she hopes it’ll burn her away too, or at least, burn away this horrible shame that squirms in her chest.

 

(Does he think of her, ever? Does he remember her as she was, at nineteen, not yet sapped of all her vivacity by the desert? Does he envision her with youthful dewy skin and eyes shining with hope? Does he know that she’s been here, all along? Does he have regrets?)

 

Rey thinks she might be sick. She wraps her arms around herself, a defensive measure. Finally, when trusts herself to speak, she asks, “Is that why you’re here? You… pity me?”

 

Again, a look passes between the couple. Mara turns to the sun as well; slowly, cautiously, as one draws near a wounded animal, she reaches out and rests her hand on Rey’s shoulder.

 

The only one who ever touches Rey anymore is Mashra, and even then, it is only fleeting. Affection is not in an Abednedo’s nature, and Rey knows those sporadic touches are for her benefit, not Mashra’s. And so Mara’s hand on her shoulder is like a searing brand, a heavy anchor.

 

“The place where the Empire died,” Mara murmurs, “it seems like…” she trails off, staring at the sunset thoughtfully.

 

For a moment, they all do. In the distance, a lone steelpecker caws hungrily, no doubt circling its carrion supper.

 

“Sometimes,” says Luke, at last, “not always, but sometimes… right on top of the bones of the past—that’s as good a place as any to rebuild.”

 

Rey shrinks further into herself, a feat she hadn’t thought possible. Luke offers her a small rueful smile, and does not comment on the anguish that— she imagines— is stamped across her face. When it becomes clear she has nothing to add, he clears his throat.

 

“We should get back to the ship before sundown. They’re expecting us, in Tuanul.”

 

They don’t speak again until they’re standing by the ramp of the Jade-Skywalker’s shuttle, a lightweight thing that has the look of a diplomatic transport.

 

“Go on ahead,” Mara says to Luke, jerking her chin towards the cockpit, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

 

“Hm,” he replies. “It was nice to meet you, Rey of Jakku.” He gives her a half-hearted little salute, then ambles up the ramp, disappearing into the craft.

 

“There’s a lot of stories about him on the HoloNet.” Rey whirls to face the Jedi. In a bid to cover her embarrassing eagerness, she crosses her arms and averts her gaze. Mara inhales deeply, and on the exhale, she sighs, “His nephew, that is.”

 

“I… don’t know…” she attempts to lie.

 

“Nothing about his personal life,” Mara presses on. “But… he’s a Captain now, really moved up in the galaxy. You should see for yourself.”

 

A Captain. This is the closest she’s come to hearing his name spoken aloud in years. Mashra had not been so cruel as to belabor the point, once he’d left, and her family hadn’t cared enough to ask, once they’d returned.

 

The wan echo of it tolls within her now; as Mara pulls her close, murmuring a reminder to consider their offer, as the Jedi climbs up the ramp, as it closes behind her, as the couple waves goodbye to her from the cockpit, as the shuttle jolts to life— rising from the ground, its thrusters glowing a radiant ion blue— as they whoosh off into the darkening sky, leaving Rey standing on the edge of Cratertown, feeling small and alone.

 

It’s often said that a bell cannot be unrung. And his name— carried on the dry westerly winds of Jakku— whips around her, pulling at stray tendrils of her hair, fluttering through the tails of her drapey linen tunic.

 

Mara did not ring the bell, but that hardly matters. She didn’t need to. The bell was rung eight years ago; its ringing has reverberated in Rey’s ears ever since.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Rey gets two steps inside Ergel’s Bar when conversation, her father and Mashra’s, hits her like the suffocating grit and haze of a sandstorm.

 

“I think he cut a fine figure, to be honest,” Mashra is saying, and her father is chuckling, they both are, and in a condescending tone, he adds:

 

“He’s not descended from anyone so important as Contispex the First, but… I have to hand it to him, he’s got a pretty wife. And yes alright, very fine clothes.”

 

Shooting a vindictive little smile in Rey’s direction, Verla notes, “A childless old witch is just the kind of person you want buying the place. She’ll keep it clean, and who knows? Should we decide to return to Jakku one day, the bar’ll be waiting for us in good shape.”

 

“Should… decide?” That’s all Rey can get out; she’s furious, her voice an indignant little squeak. “…Waiting?”

 

“She’s only joking, Rey,” Mashra chides.

 

“All in good fun,” Verla agrees, in a placid tone that sets her teeth on edge.

 

“In any case,” says Ergel, dismissing Rey’s sputtering with a roll of his eyes, “I think we should go higher than forty. Did you hear them talking about the…‘Force’ ? If they believe in that bantha fodder, we can sell ‘em anything.”

 

Tonight, Rey doesn’t bother telling them that she’s leaving. She’s too disgusted. Her cowl and goggles hang from a hook by the door, along with the old bloggin-leather jacket she made by hand as a teenager, to protect herself against the raw Jakku nights. She grabs them all in an angry fist, then she’s out the door. One step, two, three, and— thankfully— the repulsorlifts dutifully keep her speeder from sinking down to the ground, when she throws herself up onto its seat. Hastily, she yanks on the garments.

 

And then she’s off.

 

From Cratertown, the ride to the Starship Graveyard takes longer than it does to Niima Outpost or her old AT-AT. Maybe an hour and a half. She conducts it in silence; just her and the rattle and buzz of her engine and afterburners and the wind— ever-present, whistling his name in her ears, sending the dunes walking across the face of the planet, every night they shift and stretch and slink along, like living beasts— and out in front, her floodlights like twin antennae, reaching over the endless stretch of sand, guiding the way.

 

She’s taking herself her back to the place where it all ended, where the bones lie. Where she lost some of her hope, a thing she’d once thought was inexhaustible; where she began to lose him, the man she’d once thought would never leave her.

 

She mustn’t cry. She must not cry.

 

But she could.

 

How many tears has she already spilled? Rey ponders it, as she brings her speeder to a halt inside one of the main docking bays of the Ravager, a behemoth of a decaying ship, an Executor-class Star Dreadnought. Nineteen kilometers in length, equipped with thirteen giant, useless engine thrusters, meters upon meters high but deceptive, from the outside, because it has been slowly listing deeper and deeper into the sand since the day it crash-landed here.

 

Could she fill the Ravager, with her tears? She locks the speeder down, then slips through the toppled, destroyed TIE fighters and interceptors that litter the tilted floor.

 

Could she fill this hangar, this colossal empty space that remains as a testament not to the Empire’s ability to ravage, but to its inevitable ravaging? It’s a shrine now, to the inescapable ravaging all things must endure. Rey can respect that.

 

She finds what she’s looking for at the back of the hanger, near the inner wall, where never-to-be-used-again doors lead deeper into the bowels of the ship.

 

There sits a TIE bomber, damaged beyond repair. Its tri-paneled wings, built to curve around the twin barrels of its hull like rudimentary shields, are decaying, blackened and lace-like, spotted with burned-out holes.

 

One barrel is for the pilots and the artillery, the other is outfitted for passengers. Could she fill the passenger pod of this bomber, with all her tears?

 

With a great leap (and she remembers this, this leap, it was easier last time, because he was here, because he made a basket with his hands and she placed her foot in it and he hoisted her up) she manages to grab hold of the edge of a hole torn in the hull. Hissing— the sharp, serrated titanium alloy slices through her palm like hot butter— she begins to pull herself up, kicking wildly. With one great propulsive swing of her long legs, she’s up and over, and then she finds herself lying on the hard floor of the pod.

 

The interior is spartan: dull grey walls, six berths built into the hull on one side, a small galley and a few lockers for supplies on the other, and at the far end of the pod, a useless refresher, behind a hydraulic door that she knows from experience will not open.

 

She makes for a berth, clutching her injured hand to her chest. Not just any berth, either. She heads for the berth. And when she lays down in it, she tips her face forward, pressing it into the pillow.

 

It’s been eight years. Eight draining, difficult, infuriating, melancholy years. Can she still smell him there, on the pillow? Maybe not. But maybe her mind conjures up the memory of his scent anyway.

 

Within the folds of her tunic is a hidden pocket. Carefully, she thumbs open the pocket’s fasteners, and takes out its precious contents. A postcard, creased and soft from endless foldings; on one side, a photo taken from the atmosphere of Bespin, where amidst the stiff peaks of white clouds, the wide disk of Cloud City floats. And on the other side, a drawing.

 

Her drawing, done by her own hand, in this berth. His face, as he lay sleeping beside her, right here. His dark eyelashes fanned across his pale cheek, dotted with moles. The strong beaky curve of his nose, and his full lips, slightly parted. His heavy brow, smooth and undisturbed. He was dreaming, maybe of her. Years and years of sketching the world around her had finally come in handy: she’d been able to capture him here, while he slept, on the back of a postcard she’d pilfered from his father’s ship.

 

“Ben,” she croaks, then bites her lip.

 

Even thinking the name makes her lungs seize. Speaking it makes her feel like she’s drowning. Could she drown herself, in all her tears? She moans, and lets loose a shuddering dry sob, but no tears come. She does not cry.

 

She could, though. She could. Rey imagines she has tears enough to fill up two Ravagers twice over, maybe even enough tears to bring the forests back to Jakku.

 

There's no point to it, of course. What’s done is done. But she misses him, misses what could have been, what should have been. And although she will not cry, Rey is not strong enough to continue refusing her memories. So she curls in on herself, and sets the drawing of his face on the pillow beside her.

 

She stares at it. At him. Well, at this ghost of him, which she stole, with a burnt nub of charcoal and his old postcard.

 

And Rey lets herself remember.

Chapter Text

34 ABY.

 

The ship shows up about three weeks before they do.

 

She notices it one afternoon, after she’s exchanged the day’s findings with Unkar for a half a portion. In an attempt to stretch the afternoon out— so that when she returns to her AT-AT and eats her pittance of a supper, it will be after nightfall, and she can tumble into her hammock afterwards, burying her hunger in sleep— she takes a walk through the junkyard.

 

And there, between all the old ships— more useful as scrap than anything else— she spies it. A light freighter, if she’s not mistaken, from Corellian Engineering Corporation. She draws nearer, if only to confirm her suspicion, and yes, there on the wide sloping underbelly of its discoidal body, is written: YT-1300f. That’s one of Corellian’s codes, there’s no mistaking it. The cockpit sits separate from the body, like a growth that has bloomed on the freighter’s starboard side, and at its bow, two blocky mandibles reach forward, narrowing to squared-off points.

 

Squinting up at them, Rey wonders if they aren’t detachable. Cargo bays, maybe. Or escape pods? In any case, the freighter has clearly taken a few batterings in its life. Although the thrust vector plates appear salvageable, its duralloy hull is blackened, its viewports grimy, shield projectors all crushed or missing.

 

Rey cannot help muttering, to herself: “What a piece of junk.”

 

From off in the distance, she hears Unkar holler, “Girl! Leave that garbage alone!”

 

Yet she stares on; there’s something about it… a feeling she gets when she stands beneath it, like something inside is calling to her.

 

“Girl!”

 

Unkar’s voice carries a note of warning that is not to be ignored. So with a heavy sigh, Rey tears herself away from the freighter, and heads towards her speeder.

 

 

. . .

 

 

But she thinks about it, sometimes.

 

One night, she even doubles back to Niima Outpost to study it more closely. She sneaks past Unkar’s thugs, who sit sentry at the edge of the junkyard— negligent, well on their way to intoxication with whatever local rocket fuel they’ve dredged up— then dislodges one of the plates on the hull. Guided only by the moonlight and her own intuition, she digs around in the ship’s guts for a couple hours.

 

For her trouble, she receives no answers, besides this: it’s an eccentric bit of spacecraft, heavily modded, strangely resilient, and still seemingly operational despite the damage it has sustained. But otherwise? Not special, in any way that she can detect.

 

Still. Her mind wanders back to it during quiet moments of the day. She doesn’t know why.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She’s barely hanging on, by the time they track the ship back to Jakku.

 

In fact, as she drags her netful of Star Destroyer parts under the awning of Unkar’s stand, she’s mentally calculating the value of her cargo; pessimistically, she wagers she’ll be lucky if he gives her one ration portion, for what’s she got. It’s likely, if this streak of misfortune continues— a rolled ankle, and then a malfunctioning afterburner on her speeder, the combined effect of which kept her home for more days than she could afford to spare— she’ll have to go to Mashra, and beg for rations.

 

The thought is abhorrent, so Rey banishes it from her mind. Begging is a last resort, and she’s not there yet. She can’t be. This can’t go on forever, can it? They said they would come back for her, she tells herself, for the millionth time. They said they will, so they will. She has to keep that hope alive.

 

Moving as if on autopilot, she sets herself to fixing up what she’s gathered at Unkar’s crude processing table. Her attention drifts across the dusty, sun-scorched scene: shifty-eyed off-worlders come and go, haggard salvagers haul in their day’s loot, and the Niima Outpost Militia patrol the market stalls. Same as always. Eventually, her eyes wander further— to the junkyard.

 

The scene has changed; she almost drops the laser actuator in her gloved hands when she notices two men standing by the Corellian light freighter, arguing… with Constable Zuvio.

 

It’s difficult to make out their faces, yet she’s certain she has never seen them before. They’re both tall, and dressed similarly, although the dark-haired younger man stands about a head above the older man, whose own hair is a shaggy silver-blonde. Their postures are different too: the younger man stands legs apart and spine straight, with one large hand resting on the blaster pistol holstered at his hip and the other clenched in a fist around his belt, while his older companion has a cat-like slouch, an innate light-footedness that is apparent even from a distance. And while the older man continues to argue heatedly with Zuvio— a dangerous choice, Rey thinks, noting how the Kyuzo reaches for his electroprod— the younger man does not. He merely spectates, hand on his weapon.

 

“I should help them,” she says to no one, and since there is no disagreement, she peels off her rubber gloves, grabs her quarterstaff, and hurries towards the junkyard.

 

“You’re not getting it, pal—this is my ship,” she catches the older man saying, once she’s within hearing distance. “It was stolen. Stolen! It’s not my fault, oh-kay ? We were on Myrkr, me and my associate here—”

 

For the first time, she sees the younger man react. Calmly, he interjects: “I think you’re allowed to say ‘son.’”

 

Deep. His voice is deep and dark, like the Jakku night sky, and it rumbles the way the ground does when the happabores trample past. Rey wants to hear it again; she wants him to speak to her.

 

Silver hair rubs his neck, offering his son a sheepish grin before turning back to Zuvio. “We run a family business, y’see? The ship was stolen from us, by Gannis Ducain, while we were conducting… business.”

 

“Hmph,” says Zuvio, obviously unconvinced.

 

“Ben,” he grits out, “can ya—will you—will you deal with this? I gotta—come on Chewie, just look what they did to the damn shield projectors!”

 

An indignant, staccato roar sounds out from the shadows of the freighter. Leaning against one of its landing legs, stone-still but alert, is a massive Wookiee. As silver hair storms off toward the freighter’s ventral ramp, the Wookiee lumbers after him, ranting in Shyriiwook.

 

The younger man— Ben, he was called— steps forward, coming to a halt directly in front of the Kyuzo. He towers over the diminutive Constable, almost twice his height, but Rey suspects he would tower over taller creatures, too. Humans, even. She wonders if he’d tower over her.

 

“Zuvio,” he says, tonelessly. “How much do you want for it?”

 

“Plutt says it’s not for sale,” the tiny Constable hisses, still clutching his electroprod defensively.

 

She can see the muscles in Ben’s jaw ticking. “Take me to Plutt, then.”

 

“No!”

 

“Oi! I will!”

 

Rey doesn’t even realize her mouth has opened, and words have emitted from it— loudly— until he’s spun around, searching for the source of her voice. When she thinks back on it later, she won’t be able to remember why she volunteered, exactly. She’ll tell herself she was trying to be helpful, or that she just wanted to annoy Zuvio. But the truth is this: Rey simply wants the tall man to look her way. And see her.

 

Which he does.

 

Due to her limited experience with Human men, Rey struggles to identify what’s so immediately intriguing about him, until it clicks for her— he looks completely at ease, like he knows exactly how this will all play out. But at the same time… there’s a kind of simmering fury in his expression. A hint of something else, resting just beneath the surface.

 

Proud nose, full lips, dark perceptive eyes— all set in a long, angular face. Moles dotted amongst his features. His black hair falls its way down past his ears in waves, brushing his very broad, very solid-looking shoulders. He doesn’t have the kind of lithe young man’s torso that tapers down into a narrow waist, he’s just… solid bulk. All the way down, from his chest— the definition of which is visible through the grungy white shirt and black vest he’s wearing— to his thick thighs, which are covered (but by no means concealed) by his black leather trousers.

 

Despite the grease-stained spicerunner attire, there’s something about him that is almost— regal? Aristocratic? Dignified, she decides. He has a dignified air that is utterly incongruous with his surroundings. It makes him all the more interesting.

 

Rey has seen maybe a dozen or so Human men pass through Niima Outpost in her existence; scrawny, nervous outlaws mostly, and not one of them would she have deemed ‘handsome,’ so she can’t exactly claim to have a substantial basis for comparison. And yet she knows he is. Or at least, he is… striking. She likes his face, almost at once. The newness of this— attraction— it’s confounding; she doesn’t understand why her fingers twitch restlessly, nor why her toes have gone a little numb, her mouth a little dry.

 

He stomps over, his expression stern, boots landing heavily on the packed sand. Nervously, she sucks in a deep breath, then adjusts her sweaty-palmed grip on her quarterstaff, and braces herself.

 

“You know where Unkar Plutt is?” he snaps, once he’s standing before her, almost toe-to-toe. Rey was right, in her supposition that he would tower over her. He’s so close, she has to tip her head back, to meet his gaze.

 

Oh, R’iia, what has she gotten herself into? She feels like someone’s unleashed a whisper of sand moths in her belly, and their wings are setting everything a-flutter. Should she run away? Should she lean up and into him, bury her nose in that stubbly juncture between his jaw and his throat?

 

No, in all her nineteen years on Jakku, Rey has never, ever met a Human man like this. An interesting one. A clean one. One she’s wanted, for… something. She doesn’t know what she wants, she just knows that— by the eternal— does she want.

 

Not trusting herself to speak, she merely nods.

 

And then she realizes, squinting against the sun as she raises her eyes to meet his, that he’s been studying her, too.

 

Tingling. Heat, but not external, not bearing down from Jakku’s sun or up from its sands; it’s inside her, and spreading, up to her chest, her lungs, out through her arms, down to her palms and fingers, which are sweating even more profusely.

 

He’s looking at her. At her. And she can’t stop looking back. One of them must do something, or they will be stuck in this contest for the rest of their lives.

 

His lips twitch, just a slight quirk. Blink and you miss it, really. But Rey has the strangest sensation that Ben hasn’t just simply been looking at her. He’s seen her.

 

In a much gentler voice, low, like they’re sharing secrets, he requests, “Take me to him?”

 

“Okay,” she chokes out, then spins on her heel, taking off at a forced march.

 

She doesn’t check to see if he’s following. Maybe that’s cowardly, maybe it’s callous, but in a moment of pure honesty with herself— admittedly, a rare thing— Rey can concede this: she’s not certain her pounding heart can take another moment like the one they’ve just shared.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She leaves him at Unkar’s stand with a soft ‘good luck,’ to which he gives a grateful nod and a lingering, wistful look. Even as she walks away, she can feel him watching. Feels the weight of his eyes, making her legs sluggish and leaden. Only after she’s climbed onto her speeder, rations pack safely stowed away in her satchel, goggles on, cowl wrapped securely about her head and bust, does she feels safe enough— hidden from view like this, surely he won’t catch her— to dart a furtive glance his way.

 

And like the needle of a compass swinging due north, his eyes swing past Unkar’s blobbish, dour face, and land squarely on her. He tilts his head, curious; it’s obvious she’s been caught.

 

“Kriff!” she gasps, kicking at the ignition.

 

It takes a few times. She fumbles, suddenly clumsy— which only fuels her mortification— before the engine finally roars to life, and off she zooms.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The smell hits her first, the next time they meet. (Not his, although she’ll come to know that all too well.) Unwashed bodies, happabore scat, rotting carrion, stagnant water: she’s well acquainted with the malodorous air of Niima Outpost, well enough that she’s grown accustomed to breathing through her mouth on the days when there is no wind to whisk it away.

 

So the sweet fragrance that presents itself while she’s seated at a processing table, scrubbing up her day’s loot, comes as such an utter surprise that she almost gouges herself with the length of magnetic coil in her hands. She can’t identify it, has never smelled anything like it. Only knows that whatever it is, it’s making her mouth water.

 

Suddenly, in front of her face there appears a small round fruit, wine colored with white veins, resting in the center of a massive outstretched palm.

 

The palm is connected to a hand, also huge, and a corded forearm, and as she follows it up, there is an elbow where an off-white sleeve is rolled, stretched taut around a heavy bicep, which extends up to a solid vest-clad shoulder, and oh—

 

It’s him. And… he’s not smiling down at her, per se. But he doesn’t look quite so angry or serious, either. Stoic. He’s a stoic man, she thinks, looking back at the proffered fruit in his hand. Or maybe he just wishes he was.

 

“Jogan,” he mumbles, quietly enough that it feels like a confession, meant only for her ears. “You like fruit?”

 

“I’ve… never…” is all she can come up with, in response.

 

Taking that as an invitation, he seats himself beside her on the bench, jutting his chin towards her gloved hands. “Take them off, try it. It’s good.” His gaze is searching, like he’s combing her face for clues; it makes her toes curl inside her boots.

 

“Ripe,” he adds, voice dropping deeper.

 

While she peels off the gloves, he peels off the skin of the fruit, revealing the wet lavender flesh within. “My hands aren’t clean,” she tells him, cheeks going hot as she gestures to her grubby fingers, nail beds black with grime.

 

He frowns down at them, which makes her blush harder, but when he looks up, he jerks one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. “Doesn’t matter.”

 

She opens her mouth to protest— really, her hands are filthy— and unceremoniously, he pushes a bite-sized piece past her lips. There’s a moment of frozen shock; his fingers still touching her bottom lip, her jaw hanging. Then she gathers her wits enough to shut her mouth. When she does— without meaning to— her tongue brushes across the pad of his index finger, and he sucks in a sharp breath.

 

The fruit is good. Sweet, with a texture that is slightly gritty, but soft. Pleasant. Ben watches her as he drops a piece in his own mouth. Contemplatively, indulging in her desire to watch him right back, she chews and swallows.

 

After a beat, she manages, “It’s very… sweet?”

 

“I made too much food,” he says, offering her another piece. Without hesitation, she opens her mouth to receive it, and this time when she brushes her lips against his fruit-bearing fingers, it’s no accident. “On the Falcon.” He pauses, dark eyes riveted to her lips. “Will you help me?”

 

“Help you?” she echoes.

 

“Eat dinner with me,” he clarifies, leaning on the table, his whole body oriented towards her own.

 

“I—”

 

“I’m Ben.” He throws the jogan rind into the sand, then offers a stiff smile. But it doesn’t quite reach his eyes, which remain honed in on her. It seems, to Rey, that smiling is not a frequent pastime of Ben’s. Not like Rey, who makes it a point to smile often, and widely, despite how very little she has to smile about.

 

“Rey,” she replies. “And—I don’t think—”

 

“You’re not hungry?” He eyes her sinewy arms, the collarbone protruding sharply from the neckline of her tunic.

 

“No, I—It’s just…”

 

She glances down at the netful of myriad ship parts that still need cleaning before they can be traded for food, then back at him.

 

“Ah,” he says, understanding at once her unspoken dilemma. “So. We’ll clean, then we’ll eat.”

 

“You don’t have to—”

 

“Got nothing better to do,” he cuts in, and makes another awkward attempt at a smile. “You’d be my guest.”

 

The thought of refusing his offer— both the food and the company— throws her into such a blind panic that before Rey’s pride can stop her from accepting what is obviously charity, she blurts out, “Fine!”

 

“Fine,” he agrees, reaching around her for a part from the pile. In doing so, his chest presses up against her back.

 

She’s not proud of the fact that the contact, fleeting and surely accidental, makes her whimper. He’s warm, and solid, and big, and interesting. She wants him to touch her again. She wants more.

 

She doesn’t get more, although he does take another moment to study her, and she thinks maybe— just maybe— he heard that whimper, because his gaze feels even more searching, more heated. But he doesn’t touch her again. Instead, silently, he sets to work on repairing the compressor in his hands.

 

Torn between elation and disappointment, swiping her tongue along her teeth to catch the last traces of the jogan’s sweet flavor, Rey does the same.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“What did you say this ship’s name was?” she inquires, as she looks around the main hold, running her hand along the faded yellow cushion of a booth that curls around an old holotable.

 

Millennium Falcon!” comes his faint reply, muffled by the passageways of ship that lay between them.

 

“The Millenn…” she trails off, realizing even as she’s speaking what that must mean.

 

Following the trail of steam and clanging sound of metal on metal, she finds him in a small galley near the crew’s quarters. He’s moving a skillet across an old-fashioned cooking burner, the kind with a real flame, heating up something— colorful vegetal blooms, in shades of magenta and red and blue, and coated in a thick brown sauce. She breathes in the aroma of hot oil and cooking food, unable to remember the last time she’s smelled anything so good.

 

“Does that mean—is your father,” she pauses to look back at the passageway behind her, excitement getting the better of her, “this is the ship that made the Kessel Run in fourteen parsecs!”

 

“Twelve,” he says, not looking up.

 

“Then… your dad. Is he…”

 

Her sputtering elicits a glance, and his expression darkens, at whatever he sees on her face. “Han Solo,” he supplies.

 

“I can’t believe it.” She leans on the counter, winded by the realization. “The Han Solo? The famous smuggler?”

 

He gives a mirthless chuckle. “Yeah.”

 

“Where—is he?”

 

“Han and Chewie took a shuttle off-world, to get some parts for the Falcon,” he says, lifting the lid on a pot filled with something white and starchy. He nods at it. “Mounder potato rice.”

 

They left him behind, on Jakku. Why does the thought— that he’s been abandoned, like she was— make her throat tight, and words difficult to come by? Straining, her voice thin, she forces herself to ask:

 

“…When are they—coming back?”

 

“Hm?” He’s distracted, between the frying vegetables and the bubbling rice. “Oh. They’ll be back…I don’t know. When they’re back.”

 

Rey takes a step into the galley, then another; hands balled tightly, she has to fight the urge to grab the hem of his shirt and pull him towards her. After all, she hardly knows him. But she has so many questions: are they the same, him and her? Would he like to be alone together? Would he like to touch her?

 

She settles for: “Oh.”

 

If he’s startled at all by her proximity when he half-turns to speak, he doesn’t let on; the only trace of a reaction is a slight lift of his eyebrows. Just a twitch, really.

 

“This,” his eyes flick down to her insubstantial chest, then drag back up to her face, and when he continues, he sounds winded, “… should be hot enough now.”

 

She clears her throat. “We’ll eat in the—main hold?”

 

Skillet in one hand and pan in the other, he nods. She can feel him looming like a shadow behind her, as they make their way through the ship. Once she’s seated, he places both dishes on the table and pulls two forks from some heretofore hidden pocket inside his vest, handing one to Rey and collapsing into the booth.

 

He sits close beside her. Very close. It makes her wonder if maybe her impulse to touch him in the galley wasn’t so strange after all.

 

“Dig in,” he says.

 

So she does.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“How long have you been here?”

 

She’s inhaled about half the pot of potato rice and almost all the fried sauce-laden flower things, and a glorious fullness that borders right on the edge of painful has left her feeling sedate.

 

“All my life,” she tells him, right before she is overtaken by a yawn.

 

Ben pauses mid-chew, blinking at her. “Hm.” He shakes his head. “Seems lonely.”

 

Scrunching her nose, she shrugs, then spears a blue floret on her fork. She doesn’t look at him as she brings it to her mouth, pretending that this act takes all her concentration. But beneath the table, his knee brushes hers and when it doesn’t move away, she lowers her eyes to sneak a peek; he’s spread his legs apart, perhaps on purpose. Perhaps to catch her attention. Gently, he knocks his foot with hers.

 

And after she’s taken a deep steadying breath, she brings her eyes back up. He’s watching her. Somehow, she knew he would be.

 

“You like it?” he asks.

 

At a loss for how to respond, Rey gapes at him. For a moment that could be an instant or an eternity, they study each other. The air around them, though silent, seems to hum at a low vibration with… something. Possibility, maybe.

 

“Jakku. Do you like it here?”

 

“It’s—home.” She fidgets, twirling her fork. Then, to change the topic: “How’d you get the ship back from Plutt?”

 

“I can be very persuasive,” he bites out, scoffing at the name; he waves his fork in the food’s direction, in his own bid to redirect the conversation. “How was it?”

 

“It’s—” considering whether or not to temper her praise, she glances at him from beneath her eyelashes and finds him watching her, eager for an answer, “… the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my whole life, to be honest. I’ve—never had any of this. Anything green, or fresh.”

 

Would that a giant maw could open up in the booth and swallow her whole, at the look he gives her. Tender, understanding all too well what she’s saying and not saying, like he’s borne witness to the nights full of miserable, aching hunger that hide behind her words.

 

At last, he rasps, “Ah. I see.” He smooths his hands up and down the red-and-silver stripe that runs the length of both his trouser legs, then removes the blaster pistol holster, setting it on the far side of the booth. Then: “I’m—glad. That you liked the food.”

 

Again, his attention seems to wander down to her lips, then lower; she could almost laugh, realizing how oddly entranced he is by her tunic-covered chest. They would probably disappoint you, she wants to tell him, but can’t quite work up the nerve.

 

“You know how to play dejarik?” he asks her breasts.

 

“No.” She shifts, bringing herself ever-so-slightly closer on their shared bench. That seems to jar him from his reverie.

 

“I could teach you,” he offers, moving the skillet and the pan to the floor and tapping a couple switches on the holotable. Tiny monstrous creatures, semi-transparent and brightly-colored, flicker to life atop the checkered squares on either side. “It’s a game of strategy.”

 

“You want to be my teacher?” She bites her lip. They are touching from hip to knee, knee to ankle; his heat bleeds through his trousers and hers, warming her leg.

 

She can see his Adam’s apple bob, as he swallows. “Yes.”

 

“Oh—okay.”

 

He inhales, bringing his chin up as he lowers his eyes to the board, almost as if he is sneering down at the holomonsters. Maybe he’s looking for something, in their fanged and furious faces. Maybe the right words.

 

He strikes an imposing figure when he does that, and again Rey wonders if it’s possible that he’s as affected by her presence as she is by his— if he’s trying to impress her, somehow.

 

“Good,” is all he says, eyes on the board, although she catches them flitting her way when he thinks she’s not looking. “Good.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Not fair!” she cries, as the last of her pieces succumbs to its gruesome death. “You cheated!”

 

“The Kintan strider death gambit is not cheating,” he says, untroubled. “I’m just better at this than you are.”

 

Rey glares at him, half-anger, half-teasing. “I only started playing two hours ago, so… that’s not fair.”

 

“You want me to go easy on you?”

 

“I—I didn’t say that,” she backtracks. He scoots closer, slinging an arm over the back of the booth behind her. Their bodies are touching; there’s so much contact: his pectoral against her shoulder, his hip and hers, their thighs. She gulps. Audibly.

 

“I can let you win, if that’s what you want.” His voice is all but a purr, low and hoarse and full of promise.

 

“No,” protests Rey, “I don’t—want that.”

 

“You could come back tomorrow,” he says, with a dip of his head, so their faces are almost touching. His eyes are heavy-lidded, probing. “Play me again. That’s the only way to improve.”

 

Her breath comes quick through lips that suddenly feel chapped. Tight ragged inhalations and exhalations: in-out, in-out. She darts her tongue between her lips, wetting them, then taps the button to restart the board. He feels this too, she knows he does; the way he watches her, the quick rise and fall of his broad chest— they give him away. He’s short of breath, just like she is.

 

Prodding the serpentine creature on her side of the board, she asks, “What’s this one called?”

 

“K'lor'slug.”

 

Is he moving closer? It feels like he might be, like he’s a towering wall of man that is slowly coming down around her, and Rey admits to herself— sitting tucked into his side with a full belly of fresh food and an evening’s worth of timid flirtation stirring her mind into mush— that she would not mind being crushed by him. Not one bit.

 

“I like him,” she says, taking another swipe at the thing with her pointer finger, “he’s fierce.”

 

Ben watches her, jaw ticking, for a good long while. They say nothing, but the silence isn’t uncomfortable. Finally, he reaches up, pulling her hand away from the K'lor'slug. A press of palms, their fingers touching, although the tips of hers only reach his outermost knuckles. Together, they stare at this point of contact.

 

“Rey—”

 

“I have to go,” she rushes to say. Because she wants this moment to last forever, but if she leaves right this very second, nothing can ever ruin it in her memory. It will always be perfect, encased in amber and untouchable.

 

“I know,” he says, lacing his fingers with hers.

 

“I wake up before sunrise,” she continues, rubbing her thumb along the knuckle of his index finger. Soft, his skin is soft here, although there are some knicks and burns. “So I can be at the Graveyard, before it gets too hot.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“And if I don’t get a full night’s sleep—”

 

“I get it, Rey.” His voice is hushed, and thick with emotion.

 

“Okay,” she sighs.

 

And it seems as though that, as they say, is that.

 

But when she’s standing beside her speeder, parked right where she left it under the Falcon, and he’s in front of her, so tall and warm and peering down at her with that look, like he’s waiting for her cue, she feels bold enough— under the cover of night— to whisper:

 

“You really want me to come back?”

 

“Yeah,” he says, brushing an escaped lock of hair behind her ear. “I really do.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Sleep eludes her, when she drops down into her hammock that night. Instead, her mind races. Instead, her body feels like a live wire, twitching and sparking. Instead, her fingers find their way down beneath her underwear, slipping through rough curls; her flesh there is quivering, overheated, and soaked with something slippery.

 

Without a clue as to what she’s doing, just an awareness of the need throbbing through her— she begins to rub.

 

It’s only by chance that she happens upon that tucked away little nub, only by chance that she brushes it with her thumb and sends a chill running up her spine, an inaudible groan escaping her parted lips. But now? Now she knows. Oh, how she knows. Again and again, she rubs.

 

Her eyes flutter shut. A scene has staged itself in the back of her mind, a fantasy in need of an audience: him and her, divested of their clothes. Entangled atop the holotable, moving together. Soft moans, his deep and needy, hers high and breathless.

 

Rubbing isn’t enough. It devolves into grinding with the heel of her hand, and the grinding soon becomes a kind of frantic mauling. She feels so good, better than anything else in her life makes her feel, besides food and pretend-flying with her simulator and him… and there’s a sense of something looming, like the wall of a sandstorm rising up far above her head, then…

 

It comes crashing down around her, a bone-deep sigh of release running out from her core, down her legs to her toes, up to her scalp, out through her arms to her fingertips.

 

When Rey finally returns to her senses, she pulls her hand out of her pants. It’s sticky with her release, and she catches a faint whiff of it— salty-sweet. Embarrassed, she wipes her hand on the side of her pant leg until it’s dry.

 

Within minutes she is asleep, and waiting for her in dreams is a strong pair of arms, a dark pair of eyes.

 

 

. . .

 

 

He joins her at Unkar’s stand the next day. Simply sets himself down next to her, plucks a negative power coupler out of her net, and gets to work dismantling it. Looking slightly more lighthearted than the day before, yes, most likely sensing her eyes on him, sure… but he stays maddeningly focused on the part, and won’t say a word no matter how long she stares.

 

Finally, she gives up. Unable to resist the smirk pulling at her own lips, she returns to the wiring on the Chatterbox sensor component before her. In contented silence— her smiling softly to herself, him not smiling exactly, but exuding a sense of good cheer nonetheless— they work.

 

 

. . .

 

 

He feeds her when they’re finished, for the second night in a row. Tonight it’s a hearty stew and fresh bread, with a crisp crust that crackles when he tears it apart and hands half to her.

 

The meal is tranquil. Shyly, they offer each other small pieces of their lives. He’s got a decade on her nineteen years, he’s been working on this light freighter with his father since he was a teenager, though he’s been a crew member, more-or-less, for even longer. She asks if he’s ever flown it, and he laughs, a soft fond sound, before affirming that yes he has, many times. He always wears the blaster pistol he modded himself in a holster on his thigh, he tells her, just like his old man taught him.

 

And in turn, she regales him with stories about the flight simulators she’s found, and about building her speeder. Does her best impression of Mashra and Plutt, and shows him the hand stitches on her leather jacket. He seems impressed, she thinks, and something about that makes her feel like she’s glowing. Like she’s made of pure light.

 

“My family left, but they’re coming back for me,” she declares, full of certainty. He gives her an odd look, but simply replies:

 

“My mother was raised a princess of Alderaan.” A sigh. He fiddles with the hem of her tunic, and she tries not to blush. “And now she’s a senator of Chandrila. My father was born no one on Corellia, became a General during the first Civil War, and returned to the—shipping business—not long after I was born.”

 

And Rey can hear the weight of unspoken history in those words, tiny resentments that have piled up, but Ben shrugs his shoulders dismissively when she asks if he misses his mother, and she decides not to push.

 

“Why did you join up with him?” she tries instead, at the same time he asks, “When did your family leave?”

 

They are both stymied, unsure who should speak. Ben presses his lips together, gesturing for her to continue, so she repeats her question.

 

“He had more time for me than she did.” He tosses his hair, as if to dispel an unwanted memory, then prompts, “And your parents?”

 

“I was five.”

 

He blows a long breath out through his nostrils at that, gripping the table so hard his knuckles go white.

 

“Rey—”

 

“It’s fine!” she chirps. Then, more assuredly: “It’s fine, really. They are coming back. They told me.”

 

He looks… wounded by that, somehow. But he nods, then gathers their dirty dishes, trudging off with them towards the galley. By the time he returns Rey has the holotable activated, monsters ready in their starting positions.

 

They play four games, and there is no more discussion of parents.

 

Rey wins the fourth game.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Do you ever take a day off?” he asks, as he escorts her down the Falcon’s ventral ramp.

 

“No work, no loot—no loot, no food,” she throws over her shoulder, placing one foot on the speeder’s foothold.

 

“Rey. Wait.”

 

She turns, and he’s right there, almost on top of her. Gently, he brings his hands up to cup her cheeks. And it’s as if he is memorizing the terrain of her body with his palms, when he works his way down— tracing the line of her throat, across her bony shoulders, skimming her arms, then inward to her waist, which he can almost encircle in his hands, before sliding around and up, to the jutting wings of her shoulder blades.

 

“Rey,” he croons, tugging her away from the speeder. Into him. Her feet rest almost atop his; not even the breath of R’iia could pass between them. Touch: sensuous, warm, beautiful touch everywhere. She can feel his body against hers, feel its dimensions, feel its muscle and heft. He cranes his neck, brushing his beak of a nose against the thin skin beneath her ear.

 

“If I feed you,” he proposes, in a hoarse whisper, “will you take the day off, tomorrow?”

 

Rey can hardly think, for how good it feels to be held like this. She reaches up, testing the firm bunched muscle of his biceps— not a bit of give. Hesitantly, wondering if she’s falling too hard and too fast, she gives a small nod.

 

“Good.” He exhales, a warm puff of air against her collarbone. “Where can I find you?”

 

A thought occurs to her: she could take him to her AT-AT, right now. Let him undress her, let him do whatever it is that lovers do. Fall asleep in his arms, swaying in the hammock. She buries her face in his shirt, rubbing her cheek against his hard chest and breathing in the scent of him; oil, cooking and lubricant for the ship, a hint of smoke, and something rich, green, like how she’s always imagined a forest would smell. And something that is just him, a musky scent that has no comparison.

 

She could do it. He would go with her, she doesn’t doubt that.

 

But then what?

 

He’ll leave eventually, won’t he?

 

Rey pulls away from him, and takes a step back. “No. Sorry, no. No, I… I have to work.”

 

He sighs. Nods. Works his jaw and stares off into the night, considering. Then: “I’ll go with you.”

 

“I leave before dawn—”

 

“C’mon, Rey,” he says, another one of his strained smile-attempts. It’s better than the first one he gave her, she notices. More natural. At ease. “I’m bored out of my mind. No one’s stealing this piece of junk. Help a guy out.”

 

Nibbling on her lip, Rey deliberates. It doesn’t take more than a few seconds. “All right,” she yields. “But I’ll be here an hour before the sun is. You better be ready.”

 

“I will,” he promises.

 

And then he leans in, brushing his lips across her cheek, so quickly that she has no time to react.

 

He’s rocked back onto his heels, blinking down at her, by the time her mind can process what has just happened. There is one achingly tender moment of locked eyes, of hammering hearts, of a cheek that still burns, and a pair of lips too. She has to tear herself away, and it almost physically pains her to do so. In stunned silence, she turns and climbs up onto the seat of her speeder.

 

Does he say goodnight to her? Rey will not be able to remember, when she thinks back on it later. Just the feeling of being kissed, softly. She will suppose she must have offered a small wave, maybe a muttered ‘Goodnight then,’ before she raced off into the night. She’ll never be certain, but that will not bother her.

 

It is her first kiss, and it is perfect. Untouchable. Encased in amber, for all time.

 

 

. . .

 

 

As soon as the gusts of early morning air hit her face, upon leaving her AT-AT, Rey feels a pang of doubt. Is it wise, to bring him along to the Graveyard? He’ll slow her down, surely. Does he own gloves, and protective garments, to shield him against the harsh Jakku afternoon? Can he climb a rope, does he know what parts are worth salvaging? Can he keep his wits about him if they meet one of the hostile salvagers that sometimes rove the Ravager?

 

Twice on her way to him does she stop, braking her speeder to a shuddering halt so that she can ponder whether spending more time with him— and with each passing hour, finding herself more susceptible to the heady mix of attraction and affection stirring between them— is in her best interest.

 

Should she protect her heart, from him? He’ll just leave her, won’t he? Why even let him in?

 

But she told him he could come with her. Rey is a woman of her word, and what’s more— the truth she’s finding difficult to deny— she really does want to spend the day with him. So. With renewed resolution, she starts the engine, and presses on.

 

He’s waiting for her by the massive copper-plated archway that marks the entrance to Niima Outpost. At the sight of him, illuminated in the twin beams of her floodlights— thick black gloves, grey leather jacket, a dark swathe of fabric wrapped protectively around his head and shoulders— Rey forgets why she was second-guessing this choice. There’s a canvas knapsack slung over his shoulders, and he’s holding something in his hand that she can’t quite make out. He looks more than ready for a day of salvaging, and what’s more… he looks good.

 

Warmth pools in her chest. The arguments against their connection she’s built up during the ride— they’re drowned out by her need, her excitement. There’s nothing to fear from him, she tells herself.

 

“Mask?” she asks, coming to a halt in front of him.

 

He holds up the previously unidentifiable object, with a quirked brow; it’s a set of welding goggles.

 

Rey laughs, and whatever’s left of her apprehension is washed away. “Good enough.”

 

Night lightens into day by gradients, as they ride out along the dunes. First the world around them is obsidian, stars like glittering diamonds overhead. Then, minute by minute, everything becomes cobalt blue, durasteel grey, and finally, it is all tinged with the faintest hints of calcium orange, gold, ruby— and the clouds on the horizon, great billowing plumes, blaze every minute more wild, more fiery, like elemental life itself is being breathed into the sky.

 

Ben is an iron belt around her waist, and a molten permacrete blanket at her back, all solid heat molded against her. He tucks his chin over her shoulder, and although she must stay focused on not crashing them into the sand, she feels it when he buries nose against the cowl that covers her hair. Feels him breathe her in. It makes her shiver, and at her reaction, his arms squeeze her tighter.

 

At the bottom of the Ravager’s gaping, inoperative engine thrusters, Rey parks the speeder. The gentle breeze, the brilliant sunrise, which still glows rosy in the northern sky: these things are lulling, and in peaceful tandem they haul what supplies they’ll need up the sandy incline. The work is easier, with Ben here to help.

 

Once inside, she seeks out a massive deadened power cable she’s been using to climb the inside wall. A gloved finger pressed against her cowl-shrouded lips. Then, under her breath: “Do you know how to climb?”

 

He scoffs, volleying back in a low, scornful undertone, “I grew up fixing the Falcon.”

 

“Right. Good.”

 

“Why are we whispering?”

 

Rey sweeps her arm out, gesturing to the cavernous curved interior of the thruster. “Not all salvagers are as nice as me.”

 

Before she can utter the next question, whether he would like to ascend before or after her, he takes hold of the cable. He gives one hard tug; a test, she supposes. Maybe he is as slow to trust as she is. Then he clutches the cable in both fists, kicks his feet up and onto the wall, and grunting softly from the effort, begins to climb.

 

She’d thought it was a shock to be hand fed fruit by him, or to watch him cook, or to receive such a chaste first kiss; they were nothing, compared to watching him pull himself up the wall with only the cable. Idly, peering up at him, she wonders how much he weighs. Ninety kilos? A hundred? And all of it, seemingly, muscle— if he can perform a feat like this.

 

He whistles down to her, a quick high-pitched signal that startles her from her calculations; with a jolt, she realizes he’s a good fifteen meters up the cable.

 

“Not fair,” she mutters, scurrying up after him, “your legs are longer.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

The inner wall of a Star Dreadnought’s Executor-50.x engine thruster is not smooth, like much of its hull. It is filled with complex wiring and highly radioactive components, which are— for the most part— safely ensconced behind titanium-reinforced alusteel compartments. What this careful design means for Rey and other salvagers like her, of course, is that it’s fairly easy to climb. Lots of footholds and handholds, where compartments begin and end, where wiring and parts are cosseted by alusteel cartridges.

 

She’s not sure she’ll ever enjoy this work, but— looking up, admiring his firm behind and thighs as he ekes his way up the wall— she acknowledges that she’s been doing it for so long that in some ways, her body feels more her own when she is climbing than when she is at rest.

 

Rey whistles up to him when they reach a height where there are parts to salvage, and he jumps off the cable, clinging to the wall while she hauls herself the rest of the way up, until she is level with him.

 

Certain components are worth more to Unkar than others: actuators, stabilizers, radiation shields, magnet coils. Spying one such component, she reaches within the groove between compartments, and rips it from its socket. She’ll have to teach him what to look for. The thought brings back the doubts from earlier in the morning; and yet, when she glances over at him— he’s creeped his way along the wall, about five meters away— she sees that he knows exactly what parts to retrieve, and that he’s already twisting to deposit one such part in his knapsack.

 

It dawns on her, at that moment, that she doesn’t really know him at all. That just as she smiles all the time despite her circumstances, perhaps his dignified bearing and his stiff solemnity belie an upbringing far humbler than the one she’s imagined for him.

 

Sighing, wishing that this work leant itself more to light chit-chat, she throws herself into her own hunt for parts.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“C’mon,” says Ben, a few hours later, after sidling up beside her on the wall. He doesn’t offer any further explanation, just jumps towards— and miraculously, latches onto— the cable, then begins rappelling back down the wall.

 

Dismayed, she hisses out, “Wait!” but he’s already gone, rapidly dropping down to the ground. Groaning to herself, teeth gritted, she follows.

 

“What’d you do that for?” she snaps, once she’s standing beside him. Her voice, a shrill yelp, echoes throughout the thruster. Wincing, she pulls off her goggles and cowl.

 

A blasé shrug, then he does the same, revealing his pale face, shining with perspiration. “My bag is full, and you must be hungry.” Without further ado, he settles himself on a pile of sand, and reaches into a side pocket of his knapsack.

 

He withdraws a jogan fruit, and a cloth-covered bundle. Bread, she realizes, as he unwraps it.

 

“We’re—going to have climb back up there. You do realize that, don’t you? This—what we have here,” she gestures to her half-full satchel of parts, and his own stuffed pack, “it’s enough for two portions. Maybe. If Unkar’s in a good mood.”

 

There’s no response. Instead, he levels a long, even look at her. Eventually, he pulls the gloves from his hands, peels the fruit, and tears off a piece, holding it up towards her. All of this is done without speaking, and then he gazes up at her expectantly.

 

Rey cracks. She gets the sense that he could sit there, waiting for her with the fruit in his outstretched hand, until the end of time. And in truth? Hunger is a distant point, passed hours ago— as always— without notice or mention. Perpetual emptiness is a thing she’s learned to ignore, after all… there’s no helping it. If he weren’t here, she would force her energies into other channels, denying the tight pangs in her belly like she denies every other discomfort, physical or otherwise.

 

But he is here. With food, that he wants to share with her. Rey’s belly makes the choice for her; she seats herself in the sand beside him. Like a fluffy little Vworkka chick, she opens her mouth. He brings the hunk of jogan fruit to her lips, and two things happen in one instant: sweet flavor explodes across her tongue, as she pulls it into her mouth, and her stomach gurgles out an extended, growling complaint.

 

Ben arches an eyebrow, watching her chew; she casts her eyes down, unable to answer his knowing look.

 

Half a loaf of simple flatbread, the size of his hand, appears in her lap. Furiously blinking back tears, she pulls off her gloves then tears at its doughy insides. Not caring about the grime on her hands, she stuffs the bread in her mouth, one piece after another, as if she’s partaking in a frantic race with him to see who can devour their half first.

 

“Rey,” he says, soft. Pitying, she thinks, unable to look at him. The tears well up, blurring her vision, then spill over, dripping down onto the bread. She doesn’t so much as glance his way. She doesn’t stop eating.

 

“Rey.”

 

If she doesn’t look at him, if she doesn’t see the pitying expression on his face, then she doesn’t have to feel pity for herself. For her hunger, for her need. She doesn’t have to acknowledge that she’s crying at his act of kindness, and at her privation. She can finish this bread— she almost has, now, just a bit of crust left, and she’s sure she can stuff that in her mouth even as she chews the previous mouthful, in fact, she does just that— and then she can go back to work, and they can never discuss this.

 

While working through the wad of half-chewed bread in her mouth, she tries to discern the hour. Rey thinks it might be about midday, the sun at its zenith in the sky, going by the light and how it skirts the outer rim of the thruster, not yet sliding its way inside.

 

He doesn’t say her name again, but she does feel a pair of powerful arms around her waist; then she is being tugged towards him, onto his lap. Eyes still deliberately fixed on the distant dunes, she feels his legs beneath her bottom, his torso at her side. She is being held, she is being cradled.

 

“It’s okay,” he murmurs, rocking her.

 

“I’m fine,” she croaks.

 

“I know, Rey. I know you are.”

 

Why does that break her? She can’t say. But it does; the flow of tears grows heavier, and grudgingly, she looks up at his face.

 

Not pity. She thought she’d see pity, but she doesn’t. Just… a sort of eagerness. Like maybe he wants to fix it, fix her. Rey knows that feeling; she’s wanted to fix lots of things in her life.

 

“Thirsty?” His voice is rough, like he is choking on his own tears, although he does not cry.

 

“Yes,” she gasps.

 

Once more he reaches into his bag, and pulls out a dented durasteel canteen. “Drink,” he bids her.

 

She does, taking huge swallows of the lukewarm water, almost upending the canteen before she remembers she should leave some for him. She forces herself to stop, and hand it back to him.

 

He takes it, finishing off the rest of the water, before nuzzling her hair with a sigh.

 

“That’s enough for one day,” he says. She can’t tell if he means the upswell of emotion, or the food, or the work.

 

“But—”

 

“Back at the Falcon,” he cuts in, “I have more bread. And stew. You liked that stew, didn’t you? It’s my mother’s recipe. Her people—on Alderaan—taught her how to make it. She taught me.”

 

“I have to work,” she protests, her voice still wet, and raw.

 

He shakes his head, his lips soft against her temple. “Not today. Today you need to beat me again at dejarik.”

 

An errant sob breaks loose, jerking her chest. “And when you’re gone? Who will make Alderaan stew for me, play dejarik with me?”

 

He shifts, pulling her closer. “Well—”

 

“Forget it,” she bites out, not wanting his excuses.

 

“No. Rey—”

 

“Yes,” she hesitates, doing her own search of his eyes, his expression. He wants to speak, she can tell: his lips are parted but he’s waiting, because she’s interrupted, because he wants to hear what she has to say. “Don’t—let’s not ruin this. We can enjoy our time together, however much we have, for now.”

 

Another weary sigh tickles the short hairs at the nape of her neck, the ones that always slip out of her lowermost bun.

 

“Okay,” he allows. Under his breath, so low that she almost misses it because he rests his cheek against the crown of her head, looking back into the thruster as she stares out at the desert, he says, like an afterthought: “For now.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Can I try it out?” he asks, tipping his chin towards her speeder, after they’ve slid down the steep dune outside the thruster, on a piece of old shield plating.

 

Rey bites her lip. “I don’t know. She’s my baby.”

 

“She’s a beauty. Practical design, hardy, but—that engine.” His voice lilts with appreciation, and the heated look he gives her makes her wonder for one hysterical second if he’s talking about the speeder or herself. He huffs, at her reluctance. “I’ll treat her kindly. Promise.”

 

“… All right,” she sighs.

 

She’s nervous, for the first few minutes of the ride. Can’t even bring herself to wrap her arms around him, just digs her nails into her own thighs, worrying at her lip. But they hit a pocket of air, somewhere near the Kelvin Ravine, and it bounces the speeder up so high that her instinctual response is to plaster herself to his back, just to avoid getting thrown off.

 

He inhales sharply at the contact. She can feel it, feel the way his lungs expand; turning her face to lay her cheek against the broad plane of his back, she can hear his heart pounding away.

 

Is this what it means, to be taken care of? Is this what it’s like, to have a family? To belong? Is it wrapping your arms around a thick, muscular waist, closing your eyes inside your goggles, allowing your mind to wander into a fantasy of ever-after?

 

Rey is huddled against his back, breathing in the smell of him, committing it to memory. Shielded from the wind, shielded from everything for the first time in as many years as she can remember, she issues a warning to herself, lest she get too comfortable—

 

This isn’t forever, she reminds her fluttering stomach, her hammering pulse, her throbbing cunt.

 

Nothing is forever, on Jakku.

 

 

. . .

 

 

And later, they climb once more. But this time it’s up a ladder, then out of a hatch, onto the top of the Falcon, contented and laughing quietly about some riddle he’s told her, a Shyriiwook one that Chewie taught him.

 

The sun sets in the same tones with which it rose this morning, albeit on the other end of the world.

 

They sit side-by-side, bellies full. She steals a glance at him, but he’s watching the sunset; feeling like she’s getting away with something— salvaging a part from a ship that still has an owner— she tips her head, resting it against the firm curve of his bicep.

 

“My mother was afraid,” he confesses, with the kind of muted reverence demanded by sunrises and sunsets, “that I would be born with a sensitivity to the Force.”

 

“Oh,” she replies, unsure what else there is to say.

 

“Hm.”

 

He takes her hand in his; in an instant, she decides that if he wants to kiss her again, she’ll allow him to. She’d invite him to, if she didn’t have the feeling there’s more he wants to say. But he doesn’t speak; he rubs her hand, enveloping it between his. His gaze remains on the horizon; his profile is limned in warm, soft light.

 

Finally, she prompts, “Were you?”

 

“No. Not… no. I could feel her fear. Can feel other things, sometimes. Nothing came of it.”

 

“Ben—” she falters, embarrassed by her own ignorance. With a nod from him, she steels herself, and pushes on. “I’ve—heard the monks talk about the Force. But—I don’t—”

 

“Ah.” His eyes, flecked with gold by the setting sun, slide down to meet hers. “The Force. It’s… all around us, binding us together. I can feel you in it. Can you feel me?”

 

Is it possible to understand something completely, and not understand it all, at the same time? She closes her eyes, breathes him in, remembers how drawn she felt to his ship, how she needed him to look at her. See her.

 

“I feel you,” she tells him. “I don’t know how—but I do.”

 

“Never explored it further.” His voice is that low rumble again, the one she likes best. “Never wanted to. My father—”

 

“Is Han Solo part of the Force?”

 

He huffs, an abrupt amused exhale. “We’re all part of it. But he’s not— like that. And—I never wanted to be either. Not like them. So. I’m not.”

 

“Okay,” she murmurs, even as her mind races with a thousand more questions. There are so many; she feels besieged, unsure where to even begin.

 

“My mother is leading the war, against the First Order,” he says. “Has been, since before I was born. Most of my life, she and my uncle have been leading that war.”

 

“I understand.” She doesn’t, but it seems like the right thing to say.

 

“Han Solo—he’s the one who needed me.” The finality in his tone suggests that he’s just explained something very important to her.

 

She nods, eyes still closed, and gives a sleepy little hum of agreement. It’s been a long day. Good— there’s been food, and him, and dejarik and lingering looks and soft touches— but long. Longer, in some ways, than her usual day of salvaging.

 

“What do you need, Rey?”

 

The words are just a whisper, barely louder than the breeze. They’re followed by a soft tugging on her scalp, then the tickle of her hair around her shoulders; he’s taken it out of her buns. Running his long fingers through the tresses, he sighs, waiting.

 

And Rey cannot think of a single answer to the question that will not betray the depth and scope of her longing. So she lifts her shoulders indifferently, a quick twitch, and does not open her eyes.

 

He doesn’t push. Just continues gently combing his fingers through her hair. And eventually, she falls asleep— his chest her pillow, his heartbeat her lullaby.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Panic. Crippling, sweat-drenched panic. One minute there is a dark deep well, and she sleeps soundly at the bottom of it. The next, she’s awake. It’s still dark, but nothing is sound anymore—

 

She’s not in her AT-AT. Not in her hammock. Doesn’t recognize the padded overhang of the small berth in which she lies, tucked under several thick blankets. It’s comfortable but… it’s not home.

 

Jackknifing into a seated position leaves her dizzy, and she sucks in quick shallow breaths, trying to rein in the spiraling panic. But…

 

They could be on Jakku, right now. They could be looking for her, and she’s not there. They could have already left again, having come back to find her absent.

 

What if it’s all over? What if it all happened while she was sleeping in a strange bed, on a strange ship, beside a man she only met two days ago. It’s all over, before it even began, and she’s been left behind. Again. Again and again and again and—

 

“Rey?” A deep baritone, spiked with concern. “You okay?”

 

“Where am I?” Her voice is wavering and thin, much higher pitched than normal. Shrill.

 

“You’re safe, you’re with me.” A flicker of movement in the dark, then the glowpanel overhead turns on, bathing the small viewport-less compartment in light. He crouches beside the berth. “We’re in the crew’s quarters, on the Falcon.”

 

For a few seconds, she focuses on breathing— in-out, in-out— and stares at his worried face.

 

“I never—never sleep anywhere but my home,” she groans, “What if they came back tonight?” She’s up, brushing past him. Still in her clothes, although the metal deck is cold against her bare feet. “And they’re looking for me?” Stumbling through the doorway into the passageway, she lists in one direction and then the other, disoriented. “And I’m not there?”

 

Two hands, warm and steady on her shoulders, gingerly spin her around. He peers down at her, brow furrowed.

 

“It’s just one night,” he reasons.

 

“But—but—”

 

“No.” He purses his lips, giving a tiny shake of his head. “You’re right.” He relinquishes his hold on her, then backs away. “Of course. Go, if you need to. I’m—I thought you needed sleep, or I would have woken you. You were… tired.”

 

“I can’t remember ever sleeping anywhere that wasn’t my own bed,” she tries to explain. Now that he’s not touching her, now that he’s retreated into stoic acceptance, eyes shuttered, she feels bereft all over again in a different, sharper way.

 

“You were safe, here. With me,” he says, softly, although his face gives her nothing.

 

“I always—sleep alone. I’m always alone, Ben. Always.” And she always will be, if they’ve come back and she's missed them. She reaches for his hand, needing that solace, and is relieved when he gives it, then pulls her into a hug.

 

“You’re not alone,” he tells her. “Please—stay.” At the feeling of him brushing stray hairs away from her forehead, she lifts her eyes, searching for some sign of his thoughts. He doesn’t smile, not really, but his eyebrows raise, the way they might if he were smiling.

 

Eager, she thinks, remembering his expression from earlier. Eager for company, for her company. Eager for her. She feels seen, and she feels wanted.

 

“You’re not alone, Rey,” he repeats.

 

A weary nod is the best she can muster, although the words make her heart pound double-time. “Neither are you,” she whispers.

 

When they amble back to the crew’s quarters, he makes for his berth, situated in the bulkhead cornerwise from her own. But she doesn’t release his hand, doesn’t want him so far away. No, she holds onto him tightly. And upon realizing that, he whirls around to face her, eyes wide.

 

Rey says nothing, as she draws him towards her own berth. Even once they are settled— his big furnace of a body curled around her back, one heavy arm pinned against her belly, so close she can feel him (all of him) against her— she still says nothing.

 

His breath tickles her neck, his legs twine with hers, his thigh hard against her sex. And yet, there isn’t any urgency to this embrace. Their breaths fall into the same steady rhythm, perfectly synchronized. Even, and slow. In. She’s not alone, after all. Out. It’s better than any of the endless promises she’s made to herself about the future— that someday she would not be alone, that they would return for her— because there’s no uncertainty to it. He is here, now.

 

In. You’re not alone. Out.

 

There are no words better than those; they’re all she needs to lull her back to sleep.

 

 


 

 

42 ABY.

 

It’s late when Rey finally returns home to Ergel’s Bar, making her way on tiptoe through the darkened cantina, up the slatternly stairs, and down the hall towards her bedroom.

 

She should sleep.

 

And it is precisely because she should— she’s stressed, defeated, confused, and so full of sorrow she feels like it’s about to start leaking out her ears at any moment— that she knows she won’t. Can’t. Soundlessly, she slips past the bedrooms, to the kitchen. She’s in luck; Verla has left her datapad on the table, and it’s still got a pretty decent charge.

 

It’s a mistake, what she’s about to do. Locking away that part of her life, willing herself to pretend she’s forgotten him: these were good ideas. Looking him up on the HoloNet: this is a bad idea. Stacked up against all the other mistakes she has made in her twenty-seven years of life, however, it seems… inconsequential.

 

Her heart is already broken. What are a few more cracks?

 

She types his name into the HoloNet News' database, and is inundated with hits. A few, scattered throughout the years, stick out to her:

 

Son of Chandrilan Senator Makes Name for Himself after Helping Take Out Super Star Destroyer Eclipse During Naval Assault

 

 

New Republic Defense Fleet Ensign Benjamin Solo Provides Crucial Assistance in Successful Defense of Outer Rim Planet Ryloth

 

 

Plans for New Superweapon, Starkiller Base, Intercepted and Exposed by Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Solo

 

 

Senator Leia Solo-Organa Awards Son, Commander Benjamin Solo, with Medal of Honor for Heroic Actions in the Battle of Atterra Bravo

 

 

Says Captain Benjamin Solo of the Decisive Final Battle that Won the New Republic’s War against the First Order: “We are ready to reclaim peace.”

 

 

Rey cannot bring herself to click on a single article; it’s enough to scan the headlines, and let her imagination run wild through the accolades that must follow. Does she blame Mashra, at that moment? Does she resent her?

 

No. It would be easy to, but she doesn’t. Ultimately, there is only one set of shoulders upon whom the onus of her decisions must rest. And they shudder now, as she carefully slides the datapad away from herself, then lowers her head into the shelter of her folded arms.

 

A hero. He’s a kriffing hero, and she’s even more of a nobody than she was when he left her.

 

Rey has never felt so alone. 

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

“You wouldn’t deny your baby sister her final request, would you?” whines Gozetta, plaintive.

 

The profile of her face is a flickering cyan cloud over Rey’s holoprojector. It’s clear from the tilted angle of her head and the throw pillow beneath it that she’s lying in repose in her home, probably on a couch or in bed. Rey wonders what is supporting the holorecorder. An end table, maybe. Gozetta and Poe must have a nice home, or at least, she’s always imagined so.

 

“Make no mistake,” she continues, with a woeful little sniffle, “I am languishing. Not that anyone cares.”

 

Gozetta turns onto her side, looking into the holorecorder lens and thus, directly at Rey. Knowing her sister is scrutinizing her face for signs of incredulity, she does her best to keep her expression neutral. And not roll her eyes.

 

It’s a struggle. It always is, when Gozetta falls into one of her glum moods and insists that the cosmos are conspiring against her. Rey hardly ever hears from her sister outside of these moods, which usually culminate in Rey sitting with Gozetta’s hologram for hours, reassuring her that she is loved and appreciated. Oddly enough, neither their elder sister nor their father ever seem to be available for this duty; it’s almost as though they have shared precognition of these times and plan ahead to make themselves scarce.

 

Rey shakes her head; surely that’s just the exhaustion turning her thoughts uncharitable.

 

“I’m sure it’s not that bad, Goz,” she says, offering her younger sister a tight smile.

 

“Isn’t it? Here I am—mortally ill, as I said—and where are my children, Rey? Where is my husband? Where are my mother and father-in-law, hmm? And my sister-in-law? Out enjoying themselves, of course.”

 

Rey sighs.

 

“You don’t know! You’re not here, you don’t see how they treat me.” Another sniffle. Gozetta’s hand comes into view, holding a handkerchief. Gingerly, she dabs at her visibly dry eyes. “So… you’ll come, won’t you? Just for a month or so. You might as well, it’s not like you’re needed in Bastatha! And—I am a stranger in a strange land, here. Alone and unloved. No one has ever come to visit me.”

 

Rey just barely manages to not snort at that, but it’s a close call. As if Gozetta has the first clue what it’s like to feel alone and unloved. She wasn’t left behind on Jakku, was she?

 

No. No. That wasn’t Goz’s fault; she was a newborn when all that happened. It’s not fair to hold a grudge against her for Ergel’s decisions. And Rey resolved long ago not to cast blame on Ergel, either.

 

What’s past is past, she reminds herself, not for the first time.

 

Instead, she focuses on Gozetta’s request. Her younger sister can be a bit much at times, sure, but at least she wants Rey around, to some extent. That’s more than Rey can say with any certainty about Ergel or Verla. Moreover, Rey has never met her nephews, nor her sister’s relations, other than Poe. It would be nice to finally see them all in person… even Poe. Nice— a little awkward, maybe— but nice all the same.

 

And of course, there’s Chandrila. How many times has she sat in this living room while Gozetta complained of Chandrila, bawling over tales of picnics and parades and balls? It’s a lush living planet, with oceans and forests and cities bursting with people. Who live above ground.

 

If she went, she could smell rain for the first time in her life. She could see trees. She could learn to swim. She could dance, maybe.

 

(He taught her how to dance, one night. They’d had to keep quiet— bare feet padding on the hard grated deck of the Falcon’s crew quarters— because Han and Chewbacca were sleeping, just down the passageway. He’d spun her, then dipped her back before kissing her soundly. And she’d felt safe, letting herself hang suspended in his arms like that. So safe.)

 

Rey heaves another deep sigh. As much as she’d like to accept Gozetta’s invitation, she really shouldn’t. How will Verla and Ergel even survive, without her? And what about Corwin, who has somehow insinuated himself into the moving plans? Rey doesn’t like the insincere way Corwin talks about the Skywalkers and the Damerons, doesn’t like the way he’s always hinting that he’s some important person on Bastatha. Doesn’t like the flirtatious winks he keeps giving Verla, doesn’t like the advice he’s been giving her father, and certainly doesn’t like how avidly Ergel’s been listening to it.

 

Who will keep their eyes on Corwin, if she goes to Chandrila?

 

She does a quick scan of the apartment’s living room. No one’s around, of course. The place is almost completely bare; in the past week, most of the family’s furniture and belongings have been sold off. Whatever was left has been boxed up in packing crates, ready to be lashed onto Rey’s speeder and taken to Niima Outpost in two days’ time, when their chartered light freighter— passage paid by Mashra, as if their circumstances weren’t humiliating enough— will be taking them to Bastatha.

 

Bastatha. A shudder passes through Rey— also not for the first time— at the thought of descending down through the planet’s toxic gases and barren surface to the dark hot tunnels underneath. She shies away from the thought. Don’t dwell on the past, she chides herself, and try not to linger on the future, either.

 

“I don’t know if your in-laws count as strangers, Goz,” she demurs, a belated response. “I’m sure they’re very concerned for your health. As are your children, no doubt.”

 

Gozetta gasps, then feigns another melodramatic sob. “Not bloody likely! Rey. Please.” Rey wavers, worrying at her lip. Casting a shrewd eye over her, Gozetta must be able to see that she’s about to crack, because she delivers the clincher with ease: “I want my big sister here. I miss my family.”

 

“Oh!” cries Rey, faintly. Gozetta has dealt her Ace card; if there’s one thing Rey cannot resist, it’s feeling wanted. Especially by her family members, who so rarely have any use for her. “Well—”

 

“Please!” Gozetta pouts, pushing her lower lip out. “Please, Rey. I’ll even tell Ver and Pa for you! All you have to do is get yourself here! Pleeeea—”

 

“All right,” she yields. “Just—stop making that face. You look like a happabore.”

 

Her sister’s melancholy seems to dissipate at once; she grins, her cheeks dimpling in the same way Rey’s always do. “So you’ll come?”

 

“Yes, yes. I’ll—figure something out. In a few days, after I see Pa and Verla off.”

 

Rey struggles to appear aloof for a moment longer, then gives in, returning Gozetta’s smile. Maybe she should feel bad about forsaking her elder sister and her father, leaving them to establish themselves in Bastatha without her help. Maybe she should be overrun with concerns about Corwin and why he’s hanging around, what he’s up to.

 

And she’s sure she will be, later. But in this moment, she doesn’t and she isn’t. A wild flicker of elation moves within her chest, setting her fingers trembling and her pulse racing.

 

A new planet. A green planet. Somewhere that isn’t Jakku, with its sand and its bones and its ghosts. She bites her lip; she can hardly wait.

 

(And of course, there’s a tiny sliver of possibility that she might see him there. Who knows where he’ll go, now that the war is over? He might go anywhere; he might join his mother, who still serves in the Senate. But Chandrila is his homeworld, so his returning is not an impossibility, and if that thought causes her stomach to swoop like a Vworkka riding the thermals high in the sky, well… that’s her own private affair, and no one else need know about it.)

 

 

. . .

 

 

Corwin’s sitting at the bar when she clatters down the stairs, in search of Verla. He’s well on his way to being completely blitzed; draped over the counter, his head is propped up by one hand. In front of him sits a full glass and a half-empty bottle of knockback nectar.

 

“You’re still here,” she observes, blandly. Rey glances around, but her father and Verla are nowhere to be seen. The bar is dim— none of the overhead sonic lamps are on— and only the light filtering in through the partially boarded windows illuminates the place; the old chronometer on the wall reads just after two o’clock.

 

“Where else would I be, sweetheart?”

 

Her mouth snaps shut so abruptly that her teeth clack together; she fights to restrain the harsh retort that bubbles up. Blinking back memories, she stares across the bar at nothing.

 

(Sweetheart, he’d called her, in a low deep rumble, and she’d felt like she could be. Her heart could be sweet for him, she could be sweet for him.)

 

A knowing smirk. “Na-a-ah,” he says, drawing the word out, his nasal voice a punishment to her ears. “You’re not anyone’s sweetheart, are you?”

 

She glowers at him, and stands her ground. “What about it?”

 

“Just sayin’,” he slurs, sipping at his drink, “You’re not gettin’ any younger. Maybe you should—” he waves his hand around, nectar sloshing over the sides of the glass, “—put a little more effort into it. Like your sister does. You could be pretty like her… if you tried.”

 

It’s about ten steps to the front door. Then five to her parked speeder, where her rarely-used quarterstaff is lodged securely in its net. A second to pull it free, another five steps back into the bar, and she could bring him to his knees in less than a minute— especially in his intoxicated state. She could make him bleed, make him cry. Make him beg for her forgiveness.

 

But to what end?

 

The sudden flare of her temper extinguishes, upon consideration of how useless anything she might do to Corwin would be: it would only endear him to her father and sister, only cause them to sympathize with him, and further their animosity towards her.

 

“I’m—very content,” she manages, through gritted teeth.

 

“Sure y’are.” He hiccups loudly.

 

This man is no plotting mastermind, is he? Surely, he can’t be. Rey realizes, as she studies him, that he’s gaunt in a way she used to be— desert-starved. His hair has been bleached by the sun, his skin leathery, his stubble flecked with grey. There’s grey in his eyes too, and they stare back at her with a passive kind of interest. Who are you? she wonders.

 

“Where is my father?”

 

He shrugs and waves his hand, spilling more liquor onto the floor. “Settling things with Plutt.”

 

Good enough. “Why are you really going with us to Bastatha?” she asks.

 

“I can be of service,” he says, speaking slowly, enunciating with care and punctuating the thought with a hearty swallow from his glass. “I have connections.” Another gulp. “You’re gonna need someone like me around—t’introduce you to the right people.”

 

Rey draws nearer to the bar, still keeping her distance from Corwin. “But why do you want to help us?”

 

“Can’t a person just be helpful?” His eyelids have begun to droop and he drops his cheek back into his palm.

 

“… Sure,” she replies. “Maybe.” Another step closer and now she can smell the pungent odor of his drink; Corwin watches her, slit-eyed. “But are you a helpful person, Corwin?”

 

His eyes snap open and he glares at her, a frown pulling at his thin chapped lips. Rey glares right back. What follows is a long fraught moment, a staredown, wherein neither moves, not even to blink. Finally, with a growl and a sneer, Corwin breaks eye contact, sending his gaze down into the dregs of his nectar. He shrugs again, a churlish dismissal.

 

“‘Course I am.”

 

Rey smiles at him, grim and determined. If nothing else, she’s at least let him know that she won’t be as easily duped as her family. That she’s onto him. “Have you seen Verla?”

 

“No,” he sniffs, not looking at her.

 

It’s as much an end to a conversation as any ‘no’ ever was, so Rey turns on her heel, and marches back up the stairs.

 

 

. . .

 

 

After she’s forestalled seeking out Verla with far too many cups of caf and a redundant burst of cleaning in the apartment, Rey locates her sister out behind the building, on her knees, bent over and collecting mushrooms from under the moisture vaporator.

 

And if that isn’t a sign of the times changing— Verla, working, she nearly trips over her own feet at the sight— then Rey doesn’t know what is.

 

“Ver,” she says, quietly, as she approaches. Cautiously.

 

“Goz already told me, on commcall.” Verla’s voice is bone-dry. She doesn’t push herself up from the ground or even bother to look in Rey’s direction. “Have fun on Chandrila, I guess. I’m sure the Damerons will be a grand time.” She snorts, as though she’s just told a joke.

 

“… Oh.” Rey hadn’t really believed Gozetta when she had promised she’d tell Verla, but it’s a nice surprise, knowing her sister broke the news for her. “Uh, all right then.”

 

“Anything else?”

 

Verla’s gloved hand swings out from the little mushroom patch and deposits a fistful of white caps into a plastic container that rests in the sand beside her.

 

Rey can think of a few more things. She thinks about saying: Why don’t you like me? Why aren’t we close? You’re my big sister, don’t you feel anything sisterly or nurturing towards me?

 

Or maybe: Why didn’t you protect me? Why didn’t you make Ergel take me with you when you left, or make him come back for me? Didn’t you miss me?

 

Or: Did you forget about me?

 

Or: Did you ever love me? Did any of you even care, besides Ma?

 

But she can’t imagine she’ll get any answers she’ll like, from those questions— or at least, not any easy ones— and Rey is too tired, despite all the caf, for difficult questions and difficult answers. So she doesn’t ask.

 

What she says, instead, is: “I’m worried about Corwin.”

 

No response from Verla, but she’s already put it out there, so she decides to press on. “I think—I don’t know. I think he’s angling for something. I don’t like the way he talks about the Skywalkers, or about all his important friends on Bastatha.”

 

“And what exactly do you think he’s angling for, hm?”

 

“I don’t know,” she admits. “Maybe he wants to use Pa, somehow? Don’t you think it’s odd, how he’s stuck around? And now he’s coming with us? That doesn’t strike you as—”

 

Verla surges upwards, moving out from under the vaporator as she hisses, “Corwin has been nothing but a supportive friend in this difficult time, Rey. To Pa and me, both. A lot more supportive than you, as a matter of fact. All you ever talk about is logistics this, money that. Half the time you’re off doing brix knows what—”

 

“Fixing this!” she snaps, unable to resist the bait. “I’m trying to fix this mess we’re in!” She bites her lip, and turns away. Takes a few calming breaths until the anger and hurt subsides. Then, in a dull voice, she asks, “What do you want me to talk about? We’re broke, we’re getting run off the planet. All we’ll have by the time we reach Bastatha is what Mashra has lent us.”

 

Frowning, Verla looks away, off across the desert towards Namenthe’s Crater. The sun sits low in the sky to the south; it’ll set in a couple hours.

 

“And,” continues Rey, “we’ve never been—close, have we?”

 

Verla ignores that afterthought. “We have things; we’re not broke. We have our connections. We have our good name—”

 

She can’t help but laugh at that, perhaps a bit hysterically. “What name? Ergel’s? No one knows or cares who Ergel is, Ver!”

 

For that bit of unwelcome truth, she receives one Verla’s icy sneers; then her sister continues as though she hasn’t heard. “And we have our pride. Well—” she pauses, looking Rey up and down, “—some of us do.”

 

“Pride?” she echoes, disbelieving. That one wounds her, there’s no pretending it doesn’t. Verla gives a curt nod, then returns to a prostrate position and shoves her arm back into the mushroom patch.

 

Under her breath and through pressed lips, Rey retorts, “Like that’s ever done any of us any good.”

 

“What was that?”

 

“Just—keep an eye on Corwin, will you?” Rey shifts her weight from one foot to the other, then circles the vaporator, trying to catch Verla’s gaze. “There’s something—I don’t know. I don’t trust him, Ver.”

 

Verla twists her head to glare up at Rey. “There’s nothing to watch. You’re just bad at trusting people.”

 

There’s a limit to how much unkindness Rey can take, even from her own sister— and Rey has just reached that limit. She turns to leave, muttering as she stomps off, “Bad at trusting people? Wonder why that could be.”

 

And if Verla hears her, she doesn’t deign to reply.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Well,” Mashra sighs, when Rey informs her the next day about the change of plans, “I don’t like seeing the family separated, to be honest. But I suppose we’ll be able to visit each other in Hanna City, at least. So that’s something.”

 

“Who are you staying with, again?” she asks, shifting in the seat of her speeder.

 

They look on from the outskirts of Niima Outpost as the few weary salvagers left on Jakku haul in their day’s work; Rey grimaces in sympathy, remembering when she was one of them. Her family’s return may not have provided quite the outcome she was hoping for, but it has at least spared her this particular brand of grueling daily labor.

 

“A cousin, from my mother’s side.” The Abednedo leans against the speeder’s front, one arm casually resting on its hood. “Returning General, believe it or not! He was wounded in the Battle of Crait; they couldn’t get him to a bacta tank quickly enough to save his arm. I think he’ll be very glad for the company, while he adjusts to using the prosthetic.”

 

“Ah,” is all Rey says.

 

She takes a deep breath, inhaling the stale smell of desert and the outpost— so familiar, not quite comforting, but still the same air she’s been breathing all her life. Tomorrow, though… she’ll breathe new air. First, that of the freighter she’s chartered, with loaned credits from Mashra. Then, eventually, that of Chandrila. Absently, she wonders if she’ll forget the smell of Jakku, after she’s been gone for a while. She’s never thought to ask her family about that.

 

At Mashra’s feet are two large plasteel footlockers and a cloth knapsack; her own ride, a chak-root smuggler passing through the Core on their way back from Erysthes, should be here within the hour.

 

Nothing is forever on Jakku. Not Mashra living here, not her family’s supposed happy-ever-after. Not the forests or the water, not the Starship Graveyard. Not the Imperial Remnant, not the Hutts, not even Unkar Plutt.

 

Nothing. (Not even him and her. Or, rather: especially not him and her.)

 

“I can’t believe we’re really leaving, Mashra,” she reflects, “I can’t believe this is how we’re leaving. It just seems so—”

 

“Tragic?”

 

Rey huffs in sardonic amusement. “I was going to say pitiful.”

 

“It is a pity,” Mashra agrees, misinterpreting Rey’s use of the word. “To see your family torn apart, driven from your home—”

 

She bites her tongue, to keep a sharp rejoinder from spilling out.

 

Mashra continues, “It breaks my heart. Really. This separation saddens me deeply, Rey.”

 

And what of my broken heart? Rey yearns to reply. What of the separations I endured? Where was your heart then?

 

Going back to the Ravager was a mistake. Just as its name denotes, it has reopened all her old wounds, left them weeping and raw. She’s been on edge this past week, harsh words for everyone just on the tip of her tongue. More than once, she’s almost slipped and let out some resentful barb or pointed question, as she did with Corwin.

 

What’s past is past. What’s past is past. What’s past is past. She says it to herself until she feels the anger wane once more, replaced with the resigned acceptance that has come to shape her life.

 

And besides, isn’t Mashra the one who looked after her, who kept her fed when she would have starved, who kept her hope for her family’s return alive when it was on the verge of being smothered? Mashra loves her, she knows that. Her counsel was necessary; she’s said it before and she’s right— Rey was so young, then.

 

“When you get to Bastatha—keep an eye on Corwin,” Mashra advises, apropos of nothing.

 

“You’ve noticed it too?”

 

She feels vindicated by Mashra's nod; she’s not imagining things in regard to his suspicious demeanor, in any case. They lapse into a pensive lull for a moment, before Mashra begins again in a new direction.

 

“The Skywalkers were very… cagey with me, when they signed the deed last week,” she says, “Did they give you any idea of what they plan to do with the building or the land?”

 

Rey shrugs. “Jedi school or something. Beyond that, I have no idea, but—I can’t see how it matters.”

 

“You might buy it back from them one day!” Mashra looks vexed; she blinks her piscine eyes rapidly, and brings her large hand up to rub at her long snout. “We might reclaim Jakku as our home, in time.”

 

“I think—” she bites her lip, considering how to best voice her sentiments, “—maybe it’s better if we don’t.”

 

Mashra sighs tiredly and looks off toward the outpost, perhaps committing it to memory, perhaps accepting this is the final time she will see it.

 

“Maybe it’s for the best, leaving Jakku,” Rey concludes, proud of how firm her voice sounds.

 

Silently, to herself, she adds: Maybe I should have already left, a long time ago.

 

 


 

 

 

34 ABY.

 

She wakes to semi-darkness— just one glowpanel bathes the Falcon’s crew quarters with fuzzy light— but it’s not as frightening as it was before. His arm is wrapped around her tightly, a few quilted blankets covering them both, and her senses are flooded with Ben: his warmth, his sturdy thighs pressed flush against the back of hers, his breaths puffing onto her shoulder. His hand— holding hers to her breast, their fingers entwined.

 

Rey smiles, a lazy tender thing. She could get used to this, waking in his arms; she can’t remember ever feeling so safe.

 

From somewhere on the ship, a ‘whoosh’ sound, followed by metal sliding against metal, disturbs the tranquil moment and heralds the lowering of the ventral ramp. Then the footfall of booted feet on the durasteel deck rings out. She goes completely still, ears straining to pick up what’s happening; panic makes her heart race, and she cringes when she remembers that she’s left her quarterstaff far away, in the main hold.

 

A gruff voice bounces around the bulkheads of the passageway; it’s a running commentary, peppered with a Wookiee’s yowling responses.

 

“So I said, ‘I never made a deal with Kanjiklub,’ and he had the nerve to say he didn’t trust my word! Me! You believe that?” The voice makes a disapproving click with its tongue. “You know what I told him?”

 

The Wookiee offers up a retort in Shyriiwook. Rey’s not very adept in the language, but she thinks it might be a sarcastic ‘not my fault.'

 

No, wise guy, that’s not—”

 

The footfalls halt abruptly, as does their conversation. Rey— on the inside of the bunk, pressed up against the hull by Ben’s hulking body— keeps her eyes squeezed shut and doesn’t so much as breathe. Her heart is pounding so loudly now that she’s sure they can hear it, and she can feel two sets of eyes drilling into her and Ben’s backs.

 

With a soft huff, Ben noses at her neck, then gives her hand a squeeze. So. He’s awake as well. Still she stays frozen, petrified, waiting to see what the intruders will do. What Ben will do.

 

“Well well,” says the voice, sounding amused, “what have we here, Chewie?”

 

A response in Shyriiwook, which Rey can’t make out over the hammering of blood in her ears.

 

The voice snorts. “I gotta say—I think you’re right.” A few claps ring out. “Hey!” Clap. “Ben!” Clap. “Wake up, kid!”

 

Ben sighs, noisily. She feels him prop himself up on an elbow, twisting to look at whoever is speaking.

 

“Not a kid, Han.” His resigned tone leads Rey to suspect they’ve had this exchange many times before.

 

“‘Spose not,” Han replies, with a barking laugh. “You finally found a girlfriend, huh? Who would’ve thought it’d be on this rock?”

 

Rey’s cheeks are immediately aflame. Her toes curl with pleasure at the word ‘girlfriend.’ Although she’s tempted to continue feigning sleep— just to hear what else they might say about her— her curiosity about the famous smuggler Han Solo wins out, so she stretches, rolls over, and sits up.

 

Han—

 

“Hullo,” she interrupts, “I’m Rey.”

 

It’s him, the old man who was with Ben on the first day she saw him. And behind him, the same Wookiee— Chewbacca. Han wears a roguish, knowing smirk; he jerks his elbow back into Chewbacca’s gut and chuckles.

 

“Nice to meet you, Rey.” He grins at her. “You havin’ a nice time on our ship?”

 

“Cut it out, Han,” says Ben, tersely.

 

Han sends a pointed look Rey’s way. “My own kid calls me Han, isn’t that somethin’? I didn’t teach him that—that’s all his mother.” He studies her for a moment, before his gaze passes around the cabin. Finally, it returns to her face. “You two look very cozy in here.”

 

“Er,” is about all Rey can come up with.

 

Han.” Sharper this time, spiked with warning.

 

Ben’s hand swings back, landing on her thigh in a gesture that might be reassuring, or maybe possessive. Maybe both. In any case, Rey likes it there. She lays her own hand on top of his. On seeing that, Han smiles in earnest. Chewbacca mutters his approval, from over Han’s shoulder.

 

“Oho! We-ell.” He chuckles, then tells Ben, “We got what we’ll need to rebuild the shield projectors and the hyperdrive—so we start this afternoon, kid, once it cools off out there.”

 

He and Chewbacca turn, making to leave, but Han pauses on the threshold and throws back: “Hey, uh, Rey, was it? You like caf, Rey? And butter pastries?”

 

She shakes her head. “I don’t…”

 

Ben is glaring at his father; his hand on her thigh clutches tighter, ever so slightly.

 

“Ah,” says Han, “more used to desert fare, huh? I knew someone like that, once.” His eyes go distant for a moment, before re-focusing on her. “Well Rey of Jakku, Chewie and I brought back some of the best butter pastries in the galaxy and we’ve got a pretty damn good caf machine on board. What d’ya say, make an old man happy by joining him and his crew for breakfast?”

 

Is this flirting? She’s not sure. It seems right on the very edge of it, and Ben’s body has gone utterly rigid, like the fate of his life hinges on her response.

 

“That sounds… nice,” she says, casting a questioning look at him. He doesn’t respond, merely continues glowering at Han.

 

“Great!” Han waves his hand in their direction, once again smirking. “I’ll, uh—give you two a moment.” And with that, he disappears back into the passageway.

 

Groaning, Ben shifts and presses a feather-light kiss on the ball of Rey’s shoulder. “He always does that.”

 

“Does what?” she asks, trying not to visibly exult in the feel of his lips on her tough, tanned skin.

 

“He has to be on,” he grouses. “Has to be Han. Still has something to prove, even now.”

 

Rey frowns. “What’s he trying to prove, Ben?”

 

Gently, she lays one hand on the tensed muscles of his abdomen. When he sucks in a breath at the contact, she can feel it; his response lends her the temerity to clamber into his lap, legs folded on either side of his hips. His eyes sink down to her chest, where they remain fixed, even as his hands come to rest on her waist.

 

“Ben?” she whispers.

 

He snorts, almost scornfully, to himself. “Nothing. I don’t know, I—just wanted you all to myself, for a while longer.”

 

“I think…” she trails off, choosing actions over words.

 

Rey doesn’t know where she gets the nerve— except maybe she does, because there’s the fact that she’s wanted to do this since the first moment she saw him, and the fact that he’s done nothing but try to take care of her since then, and the undeniable gesture of him placing his hand on her thigh in front of his father, which is proof enough for Rey that this is real, this is not in her head— so she rotates her hips slowly, grinding on him. And she he can feel him, the shape of him, even through his trousers and hers, thick and increasingly hard with each pass.

 

“…You have me,” she murmurs, finally. “All to yourself, I mean. Here. Right now.”

 

Ben’s eyes flit up to hers; they’re dark, so dark she can’t see the smoky amber ring around his dilated pupils— just dark need, pure want. His hands slide down to her hips and tighten their grip, directing the speed and pressure with which she moves against him. Rey’s breath quickly becomes labored; raggedly, she pulls in air, and beneath her, Ben does the same. Their lips are a hair’s breadth apart. She leans closer, hoping he’ll kiss her. Between her legs, she can feel it— the storm’s rising up, threatening to bury her.

 

He clutches her, pressing her down harder, and she bites her lip to stave off a moan. Still, a whimper gets through. She wants it, wants to be buried. Needs this, whatever it is, and wants no one but Ben to give it to her.

 

Ben brings his lips to her throat, mouthing gently. Rey does moan now; she can’t hold it back. It feels so good, and something is going to happen, something like that night in her hammock with her hand down her pants—

 

“Hey kids!” comes Han’s voice, from amidships. “Enough hanky panky! Stop fooling around in there and come eat these damn pastries!”

 

Ben goes still. “Kriff,” he spits out, then releases her hips and sighs against her collarbone.

 

It’s not going to happen. Whatever they’d started, wherever they were going, the mission has been aborted by the sound of Ben’s father’s voice. Rey wants to cry, she’s so frustrated, but instead she simply says, “Should we—”

 

“You go,” he bites out, gentling the harsh command with a pat on her thighs. He doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’m just—need to use the ‘fresher.”

 

Disappointment. Rey tries to hide it, tries to brush it off, but it creeps in anyway. “Okay,” she says, soft.

 

Belatedly, she returns the chaste kiss he laid upon her cheek the other night with one brushed against his. Before she can pull away, he turns his head and their lips meet.

 

And then they’re kissing.

 

She is kissing Ben. And he is kissing her back.

 

Her pulse sings out in jubilant celebration, and the pressure of their lips together tears a fierce noise from him, throaty, like it’s rising up from the depths of his chest. He runs his hands up and down the outside of her thighs. Straining up towards her, he captures her lips more firmly with his own. It’s a tentative kiss, experimental and questing. She holds onto his shoulders, for balance and because they’re nice shoulders; she likes the feel of them, strong and sure under her palms. His nose jabs her cheek for a moment until he tilts his head and she tilts hers, and then her eyes flutter closed, because it’s perfect.

 

For a long time— or maybe it’s only a short while?— there is just this perfect first kiss. His hands soothe her while his lips tease her; without Rey’s consciously deciding to do so, her hips begin to move again. A groan, his or hers, maybe both, and then Ben pulls away.

 

He sucks in a deep breath. Rey imitates the action, gasping. They stare at each other, profoundly and undeniably affected by the kiss.

 

Finally, Ben speaks, his voice a low growl. “I—we—see you at the breakfast table,” he settles on.

 

Rey nods at him, feeling a little sheepish at her enthusiasm but pleased that he’s matched it. She thrills when his lips twitch in that way of his, that not-quite smile. Lowering her face until their foreheads tap, she brushes a light kiss across the bridge of his prominent nose.

 

That elicits a final frustrated groan. He unseats her, carefully depositing her on the mattress beside him.

 

There is a moment between them, after he stands, hands clasped in front of himself. He turns and looks down at her, and it’s almost as if Rey can see inside his mind, see the battle waging there: one side argues they could close and lock the blast door and continue this, the other parries that his father would never let him live it down if they did, that his father never lets him live anything down. A distant memory, blue skin and a shapely bust, which he squashes down the moment it arises.

 

Personally, she knows which side of the battle she’s on— she doesn’t give a frizz what Han Solo thinks, not right this second. She just wants his body back, close to hers. But she does have to wonder about that, if he’s done this before. If he knows what he’s doing.

 

Ben sighs. Reaching out, he strokes one of her cheeks and Rey offers him as reassuring smile as she can. At that he nods, then lumbers off towards the ‘fresher.

 

And Rey is left seated in the berth, needy and overheated, pondering where exactly things might have gone, if they had continued.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Belly full of butter pastries and caf, Rey says to the Solo men, “This has been—wonderful. Absolutely. But I have to go now.” She glances at Ben, who’s working his jaw, glaring down into his mug. “Work to be done.”

 

Han quirks an eyebrow. “Oh yeah? What d’you do to make a living around here, kid?”

 

Both of them are seated, long legs stretched out, in the yellowing semi-circular booth of the main hold. Even if they weren’t dressed similarly— heavy belts and blaster pistol holsters holding up tight trousers that are tucked into high boots, with dingy stained shirts and darks vests— even if they didn’t have the same high cheekbones, full mouths, and long noses, Rey would know that they were father and son in how they look like a matching pair, sitting side by side with their dented tin mugs full of oversweetened caf. Han sniffs, takes a sip. Ben does the same not a second later, in exactly the same way: sniff, sip.

 

Like father, like son. In some ways. The lopsided grin on Han’s face doesn’t extend to Ben’s, although there is that ever-present ghost of a smile haunting his somber expression. Always just barely discernible, but never completely absent.

 

“Salvaging,” she tells him. “In the Starship Graveyard.”

 

Han presses his lips together contemplatively. “Tough job.”

 

“Han,” Ben rumbles, that warning tone back again.

 

“Ach, don’t Han me,” he says, with a dismissive wave of his hand towards Ben, “that’s Leia’s job.” He shifts back to Rey. “Listen kid—”

 

“Rey.” She offers a smile to Ben, who looks less than amused, then repeats to Han: “My name is Rey.”

 

“‘Course it is, I know that.” Han looks between Rey and Ben. Grins. “Look, me and Chewie here, we’re not as spry as we used to be—”

 

From one of the sackcloth-covered crates on the far side of the room, where the Wookiee has been quietly enjoying his own caf, there emanates an indignant protest.

 

Han glances his way. “Okay, okay, we get it pal—you understand what he said?”

 

“Er,” Rey says, shrugging, “I know a bit. He’s—not old?”

 

“Never lets me forget that in Wookiee years, he’s in the prime of his life and I’m just a teenager,” Han supplies. “A kid, like my kid.”

 

“I’m twenty-nine.” Ben hasn’t looked up from his caf, but he does now— straight at Rey. Is he mad at her, for what happened in the berth? No, he takes her hand, smoothing his thumb across her knuckles; he isn’t, she decides, searching his annoyed-looking grimace. Not at her, anyway. He seems to default to a kind of sullen silence around his father. They’re partners, but they’re not the same in temperament. Maybe he takes after his mother.

 

Oil and water, she thinks. Ben loves his father— or at least, she believes he does— but she can imagine that they don’t always get along.

 

All of a sudden it strikes Rey, that in all the years that she’s hoped for her family’s return, she’s never thought about what her relationship with them might be like when they do. Will she get along with her father? Her mother? Does she have siblings? Will they like her?

 

She has to imagine they will. No, she knows it. She knows they’ll like her. No. They’ll love her. She’s theirs, after all— it’s just that something went wrong. There was a mistake. But when they come back for her, there won’t be any bad blood. They’ll be a happy family.

 

They have to be.

 

Han scoffs, drawing her attention back to the conversation. “Twenty nine? Yeah—still a kid.” He relaxes deeper into the booth seat, bringing his booted feet up to perch on the edge of the holotable. “Well, kid—'scuse me, Rey—we could use another hand for repairs on the Falcon. What d’ya say? Take a few days off from scavenging, help us get this beauty back on her legs?”

 

“I—I don’t know—” she stammers, gaze darting back and forth between the two men.

 

“He’d pay you.” Ben’s eyes slide over to his father, a hint of something sly in the lift of one dark eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you, Han?”

 

Han sucks on his teeth, looking like someone just shoved something sour in his mouth. For a long moment, he stares at Ben with narrowed eyes. “Yep,” he says at last, popping the ‘p.’ “Sure thing. We’ll pay you for your help.”

 

Ben’s got that eager look again when he turns back to her, and his father nods his head slowly, studying her. When he notices his son’s expression, the old man’s eyes soften, and he gives them both a rueful smile. Then he shrugs, seemingly letting go of any reluctance.

 

“The going rate, let’s say,” he suggests. “Uh… twenty credits a day, how ‘bout?”

 

Rey has no money. She’s never had any money, not as far back as she can remember. The question of what she’ll do when they leave, when she must return to the monotony and hardship of her life, nags at her, but she sets it aside. Credits. Money. All her own.

 

“Deal,” she says, scrunching her nose in delight. Under the table, Ben’s big hand lands on her thigh again, right above the knee. It rests there, solid and warm and comforting. When she looks over at him, he draws a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

 

“Good,” he murmurs, nodding. “Good.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

She wants to kiss him again. Wants to sit on him, wants to rub herself all over him until she feels the sandstorm rise and fall inside herself. Wants him to feel that too, wants to have that with him.

 

But Han sticks her with Chewbacca, who needs an extra set of hands as he does some minor repairs around the ship, which is how she ends up sitting cross-legged atop the Falcon once the afternoon heat has begun to subside.

 

She’s trying not to stare down at the sands, where Han and Ben stand at a remove from the ship; they squint against the slanted light as they speak in low tones. Rey can’t help but wonder what they’re discussing. Is it her?

 

Does she want it to be her?

 

“Sub-loop spanner,” Chewbacca requests. Without looking, she plucks the tool from the kit and hands it over to him. He grumbles his distracted thanks.

 

Ben stands straighter, taller than his father. His posture is better. Han is speaking, gesticulating with his hands in a way that suggests he’s reeling off a list. Pursing his lips, Ben gives a tight nod. Han continues, and Ben rolls his head back and along his shoulder, clearly exasperated.

 

She wishes she could hear them.

 

“What d’you think they’re talking about?” she blurts out, wincing but looking towards Chewbacca for an answer all the same; she’s only human, after all.

 

Chewbacca yowls out what she thinks is a laugh. You,” he says.“They’re talking about you, little one.”

 

He’s probably right. He would know, better than she would.

 

Ben holds up a hand and, turning to his father, declares something to Han with a sweeping wave of his arm. Whatever it is, it stops the old man in his tracks; she can read the shock in the way his jaw drops, the way he pulls his head back, gaping at his son.

 

And then… he shrugs. Holds out a hand, which Ben takes. They shake, and Han pulls him into a hug. Ben appears to tolerate it, even when Han slaps him on the back. He might even be sagging into his father’s embrace, although Rey can’t be entirely sure from this distance.

 

By the core of everything, does she wish she could hear what they’d said to each other.

 

But she gets something of a clue, because when they pull away and Ben’s dark eyes seek out hers, that quirk at the edges of his lips is back. Then it cracks open, and Ben—

 

Ben is smiling.

 

 

. . .

 

 

After Chewbacca has dismissed her with the amused assurance that he no longer needs her help, Rey floats around the ship, simply luxuriating in a deeper study of its eccentricities.

 

Ben finds her in the cockpit, nosing around in the circuitry overhead the starboard console.

 

“This ship is weird,” she declares, upon noticing him. “It’s got almost none of its original parts, and—there’s definitely more than one droid brain operating the main computer.”

 

He pushes off the entryway where he’s been leaning, and moves closer.

 

“It’s a piece of junk.”

 

His tone is wry and he’s returned to almost-smiling. He comes so close she can feel his body heat, warming her back.

 

She beams up at him. “I think you’ll have a much easier time breaking atmo and jumping to lightspeed—” here she pauses, turning once more to the console and wrenching a component from the wiring, which sends her stumbling back towards him, “—if you bypass the compressor,” she finishes, with a thick swallow. She presents the extraneous compressor for his perusal.

 

Ben tilts his head. One heavy hand falls to her hip and the other takes the compressor, examining it. Brows drawn together, he looks up at the circuitry. Maybe he finds it satisfactory, because he squeezes lightly, and tugs— forcing her to take another half-step back, her behind connecting with his groin— but she’s not complaining.

 

Maybe she even leans her body into his.

 

“You’re right,” he says, calmly.

 

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Han’s gruff voice exclaims, and not a second later, he appears in the entryway. “What I wouldn’t give to hear him say that to me, from time to time!” He grins. “You’re a lucky woman, Rey.”

 

Expecting Ben to release her and jump away— feeling personally like she’s been caught misbehaving— she glances back at him. Wordlessly, he pulls her closer, wrapping both arms around her waist. Han’s grin grows wider.

 

“Shut up, Han,” he mutters, nosing against her pulled-back hair.

 

Han shrugs affably. “No procreating in the cockpit, kids. Take it to the crews’ quarters.” He pauses, eyebrows lifted. “And this time—close the damn door, will ya?”

 

A heated blush blooms across Rey’s cheeks. “I—no, we were just—”

 

“Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time. Where do you think lil’ Benny boy here was conceived?” Han laughs as he disappears once more, ambling back out into the passageway.

 

Ben sighs.

 

“Was that a joke?” she asks, under her breath.

 

“I wish,” he groans, against the crown of her head.

 

 

. . .

 

 

That night, after a dinner eaten in the main hold, just the four of them— Han teasing his son the whole time, dropping hints about him becoming a man now, whatever that’s supposed to mean, Chewbacca in turn teasing Han for his own youthful misadventures— Ben catches Rey in the passageway outside the ‘fresher. With a finger pressed to her lips, he ushers her silently into the forward hold, shutting the heavy blast doors behind them.

 

Then he herds her back against the doors and lowers his lips to hers. She flings her arms around his neck, pulling him in closer. For another moment, there is just the hypnotic feel of their entwined bodies, this kiss— bolder and more heated than this morning’s.

 

“Spend the night again,” he says, when they break apart. “Stay here, with me.”

 

“I can’t,” she protests, anguished at the thought of separating but fully aware she’s already pushed her luck by staying away one night. Distantly, some part of her mind trips a siren, warning her that this is dangerous. She’s becoming too attached, too quickly. Ben blinks at her with disappointment and she hates that look, especially on him, so she tries to explain. “I—I need to go back home. Just… in case.”

 

He raises his fist, banging it on the door behind her. Not hard or loud— a muted, half-hearted display of his frustration. “Rey, I want—”

 

“Come with me,” she blurts. It’s a snap decision and she can't be sure it’s a good one, but so far Ben has been more than happy to give her everything she wants, and what she wants is him. But she also wants to be in her home, in her safe space, in the place she’s carved out for herself in this world.

 

She can have both, can’t she?

 

“Okay.” He accepts with a nod, his pelvis pinning her to the door, his torso an anchor, pressing her to the metal. Rey doesn’t mind it; this feels nice. Safe.

 

His hips roll smoothly as he plants a trail of soft kisses from her ear down to her clavicle, and once again, she can feel him through his trousers. All at once, she is confident in this inevitability: they’re going to lie together, the way she’s heard other salvagers talk about, at Niima Outpost. Maybe tonight, maybe not. But they will. The thought sends her into a scorching tailspin— slick and pulsing in her underwear, her stomach fluttering excitedly— and she jumps, bringing her legs up around his waist, trusting him to catch her, hold her. He does, with a low groan.

 

As sure as she knows that her name is Rey, she knows that they’ll get there. She’s going to share this with him. And she can’t think of a damn thing she wants more.

 

“Let’s go,” she croons. He nods, delivering one final peck to her neck, then disentangles himself from her and takes a step back, adjusting himself in his leather pants. Tipping his head back in that way that makes him look regal and imposing, he sweeps his arm out with a dip of his chin, gesturing for her to leave first.

 

Walking on air, she does.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Upon entering the AT-AT through the modified escape hatch that serves as her front door— it’s laughable, how low he must stoop to get through it— Ben gravitates towards the large expanse of hull where she’s carved out her tally of lonely days. She can’t read his expression because he has his back to her, Rey is nonetheless wracked with shame.

 

He knows that she’s been here for a long time. But seeing the evidence, carved into the hull line by line, day by day, makes her feel pitiful and small.

 

She has to turn away from the wall, cannot bear to watch him study her sad secret record-keeping, so she busies herself with activating the glow-lanterns.

 

Ben’s hand lands on her arm, interrupting her progress after just one lamp. He strokes down the length of her linen wraps before taking her hand in his grasp. Gently, he tugs her around and into his embrace. Rey goes willingly, readily, tucking her face into the soft faded cotton of his shirt.

 

He clears his throat. “I want…”

 

“Yes?” Her voice breaks only a little, barely noticeable. She’s proud of that.

 

“Force, I don’t know.” He cranes his neck, sweeping a series of kisses across her cheek. “I want to touch you—I want you to feel good.”

 

Rey recalls Han’s teasing, his jibes about Ben ‘fully’ becoming a man. “Have there been others, Ben? Before me?”

 

He pulls back and works his jaw, avoiding her eyes, balling the hem of her tunic in his big fist. It’s all the answer she needs.

 

“Oh,” she murmurs. “Did you love them?”

 

One sharp shake of his head, his dark hair bouncing from the movement. “It was at a brothel.”

 

“A what?”

 

“A… pleasurehouse,” he clarifies, and it’s easy enough for Rey to deduce the meaning of such a word, such a place. “Han took me. Thought he was—I don’t know. Helping me, I guess. I was your age.”

 

She swallows. “What—what did you do there?”

 

“We don’t have to—”

 

“No,” she cuts in. He shudders, slightly, so she rubs her cheek against his pectoral then glances up at him through her lashes. “I want to know.” The smile she offers him is tentative, but she can see he appreciates it, because he nods in acquiescence.

 

“She was Twi’lek.” He takes a deep breath, as if bracing himself. “She showed me—how to touch her, how she liked it. And how to—” he falters, throat flushed, “stroke—her lekku.”

 

“Oh.” Rey imagines she’s probably as flushed as he is. Her face is certainly heated, not just because of his words, but because of how tightly he’s holding her. She’s never touched anyone like this, never been touched liked this.

 

Ben’s eyes stay fixed to a point somewhere behind her head. “She—used her mouth. On me.”

 

“Oh,” she says again. So he’s not quite so innocent as her. But then, he’s a decade older— did she really expect him to be? Rey bites her lip, unsure how to process this new information. This emotion isn’t jealousy, she realizes— it’s curiosity. She needs to know what it feels like, to be touched by him like that.

 

“Rey—” he starts, sounding deflated.

 

“Did you like that?”

 

That brings his eyes back to her, piercing in their intensity. “No,” he breathes, then shakes his head. “Yes. I—it felt good. But—hollow. There wasn’t any—”

 

“Any what?”

 

She sounds very faint, very far away from herself. Ben tilts his head, watching her. When he surges forward, catching her in a brief kiss, and Rey makes no move to repel him— he sighs against her lips, the not-quite-a-smile returning.

 

“Feeling. I didn’t know her.”

 

He takes her hand again, then steps back and cautiously folds himself into the hammock. A tug is all the suggestion Rey needs to settle herself in his lap, once more. Like this morning. His sex and hers, touching, even if just through their clothes. Can he sense how how she feels down there, how it throbs, how wet she’s getting?

 

“I didn’t love—” he cuts his thought short when she does a little twist of her hips. “Kriff, Rey.”

 

“And me?” Breath held, hips gyrating, Rey is desperate for this affirmation. And yes, it’s only been a few days, but he can feel this too, can’t he? He must. She leans over him, tangling her fingers in the net behind his head.

 

He stares up into her eyes. “You—”

 

“Do you know me, Ben?” she interjects, unable to help herself. “Do you—”

 

“Yes,” he chokes out. “Yes, Rey. Yes.”

 

“I don’t have any lekku.” One hand drifts up self-consciously, to trace the buns that scale the back of her head. “I don’t have a lot here, either,” she adds, hand dropping down to her chest. Still she moves, riding him; Ben’s eyes follow her hand, then become riveted to her breasts. “I’m not clean, I don’t have any perfume—”

 

“Don’t care,” he growls. “Not about any of that. I want all of you, just like this.” He presses his lips together, nostrils flaring on his heavy exhale. “Come on, sweetheart. Really move your hips for me.”

 

“Like this?” she asks, panting. The pressure of the inseam against her sex is just right, and he’s hard beneath her. Twitching? Is that him, or is she just imagining it? It’s good, R’iia, it’s good. The storm begins to swell; Rey collapses onto his chest, using his shoulders as leverage to rock herself against him.

 

“Perfect.” His hands run wild trails over her body, up to her breasts, cupping, then wandering away, as if there is too much for him to learn and too little time. “Just perfect.”

 

“I want to—use my mouth on you,” Rey implores. “Will you show me how?”

 

“Yes,” he groans.

 

It’s not very bright in the AT-AT; the lone lit lantern casts a faded yellow glow over them, barely illuminating their faces. Yet it’s all the more intimate for being dim— Rey closes her eyes, gives in to the rolling pleasure rising up from her cunt, envisions the sandstorm. And Ben is there in her mind, riding the storm; she can almost hear the grains of sand pummeling the hull of the AT-AT. In her mind, Ben is unpanicked, moving with purpose, without fear.

 

“What else?” she cries, nuzzling blindly at his jawline. “What else will you show me?”

 

“I’ll—do the same.” He sounds strained; the twin bands of his arms across her back tighten. She’s begun to sweat, it’s dripping down her temple, beading along her spine and under her breasts; his forehead is similarly damp. She wants to lick it, wants to taste him. Beneath her, his own hips respond, rising up to meet hers, joining her in this strange dance.

 

“Your mouth?”

 

“Would you—want that?” One hand reaches down, sneaking under her tunic to brush the soft tender skin of her belly before seeking lower, petting her through her trousers. “I could kiss you, here,” he tells her. He’s breathing heavily, panting— like her— but his words sound assured. Completely confident. “You’d like it.”

 

“I—I think I do. I would.”

 

“Okay,” he huffs. “Anything you want.”

 

“Can we… keep…” she can hardly speak, for feeling— so much feeling, so many thoughts and emotions whirling around her. The storm, the storm. It’s coming, it’s rising. Faintly, she hears a heavy thudding noise, but right now she can’t focus on that. Everything is good and soft but hard at the same time, bright ribbons of color flitting through her veins in a way that makes her toes curl; she’s so warm, her body a sparking live wire and a wispy cirrus cloud, all at once. “I think—”

 

“Yes.” His voice is a deep dark rumble, dark like the back of her eyelids, deep like the roar of the storm. She could lose herself in it, in him, without fear. “Yeah,” he repeats. “Just like that. Rey, I’m gonna—”

 

“I’m—ah,” she moans, high and breathy. Then all that building pressure, that surging upswell of pleasure, crashes down upon her, more satisfying than any single thing in her life. “Oh!” is about all she can manage; she’s shaking, trembling really, and panting against his throat.

 

Ben grabs her behind in his big hands at the same time he finds her lips, curling in on himself so they can kiss, even as he moves her limp body, rubbing her up and down the front of his trousers. Not even a minute later, he speeds up, and Rey feels another fluttering, a gentle echo of the first storm; he moans wantonly, clutching her tighter, ever-tighter. His hips stutter through a few more thrusts, then he too falls pliant, lying back in the hammock.

 

Finally, Rey finds the energy to open her eyes—

 

And gasps in shock. “Ben,” she hisses, urgent, poking him in the stomach. “Look.”

 

“Hm?” He opens his own eyes and gasps, renewing his tight grip on her. “Kriff!”

 

All around them, hovering in the air, are the contents of the Hellhound Two. Grains of sand, her fighter pilot doll, old starship components, cables, the bloggin-leather pilot seats, the fuel cells used to power her generator— all of it, floating.

 

“Did we—are we—” Rey can’t seem to find the words to get at the question properly. When she glances back at Ben, his eyes are wide and round, wider than she’s ever seen. Jerkily, not breathing, he nods.

 

“We must have, when we were—distracted. But I thought…” his voice fades away into silent gaping, his jaw still working although no sounds are produced. After a long, puzzled beat: “It can’t be. I don’t—I’m like my father. I’m not sensitive to the Force.”

 

So. Neither of them are doing this on purpose. Is it even them, doing this?

 

Rey peers deeper into the darkness of her home, and gasps again— one of the portside hulls is dented all over, as though some great beast pounded on it while they were wound up in each other and preoccupied. “Is that—” she starts, pointing to the damaged durasteel plate.

 

“The Force,” he mutters, shaking his head. A soft, disbelieving huff. “The kriffing Force.” Then his expression shifts to one of resolve; gently, he clasps the back of her neck, bringing her body back down to rest against his. “Relax, Rey. Clear your mind.” The instruction is hushed, the last gasp of a wild storm as it rolls out.

 

Rey does as he’s bid, inhaling deeply and stilling her thoughts. He nods, almost as if he is partaking of her forced calm, and matches his breathing to hers. On the next shared exhale, all the various belongings and sand in the AT-AT that have been suspended in the air drop, without warning, to the ground.

 

She blinks. Everything is in a state of disarray, but nothing seems damaged or broken, besides the battered hull. So there’s that, at least. “Did that—happen to you? Before? I mean, at the—”

 

He shakes his head. Swallows thickly. Looks down at her, curious. “When I first saw you, I felt you. And you felt me.”

 

“Yes,” she agrees. “Is it—are we—what was that?”

 

“My family is strong with the Force,” he explains. “But I’ve never—I didn’t—”

 

Rey rearranges herself so that she’s stretched out on top of him. “We did that. We made everything—float.”

 

“Yes.”

 

And this is strange. This needs to be explored, to be understood. But there’s another concern, more pressing, which she needs to have assuaged by Ben right now.

 

“Was that—was it good, what we did, Ben? Did we—do it right?”

 

He takes her hand, palm to palm; his other arm, slung around her, squeezes carefully. “Yes. We did.” Under his breath, so faint she thinks maybe he doesn’t want her to hear, he adds, “I think.”

 

“Can we—do it again?”

 

“Now?” That twitch of his lips; Rey purses her lips to one side, to keep from laughing.

 

“No,” she says, “but, I—that is… some time?”

 

“Whenever you want.”

 

“Good,” she murmurs, wriggling in the hammock until she’s nestled more comfortably into the negative spaces of his body. “Good.”

 

All around them, her home is a mess. Her underwear is a mess, maybe his is too. But when Rey glances up at his long face, the mountain ridge of his nose, the dunes of his cheekbones and the towering bluffs of his brow, she finds his eyes are fixed on her, dark and clear and fond. He looks serene, unbothered by the chaos of their coupling. Like he’s already accepted the surreal events, maybe even like they weren’t as surprising to him as they were to her.

 

His unruffled gaze soothes her concerns. Tangled up together in her too-small hammock, sweat cooling on their bodies, his bulk like a gravity well that pulls the netting down and keeps her anchored to him— Rey lets her eyes slip closed, lets herself slide into sleep.

 

And she sleeps deeply, even better than she did last night, better than she has for years. She dreams of meeting Ben, again and again, in the becalmed eye of a spinning sandstorm.

Chapter Text

34 ABY.

 

When Rey and Ben return to Niima Outpost late the next morning, after waking in each other’s arms— overheated and sweat-damp, their muscles sore from a night spent jumbled up in the hammock, but happy, so happyMashra is waiting for her, at the edge of the junkyard.

 

“Rey!” Her voice booms across the marketplace and Unkar’s stand, and she waves her arms for emphasis, as though she fears Rey might walk past her without acknowledgment.

 

“Mashra?” she puzzles, when she and Ben have drawn close enough to speak at a normal volume. “Are you alright?”

 

The Abednedo shakes her head; flitting her anxious gaze between Ben and Rey, she wrings her hands. “A minute, Rey?” she blurts, “… Alone?”

 

Ben peers down at Rey, making no move to go. Waiting for her to agree to Mashra’s request, she realizes, with a start. Waiting for her to tell him it’s okay to leave. Something in her chest flutters, at the gesture. Pushing herself up onto her toes, she cranes her neck and purses her lips in an unspoken request for a kiss, which he obliges readily. Then she nods, murmuring against his lips, “Go on, I’ll just be a moment.”

 

His face is clouded when they break apart, but he does as she’s asked without objection, sending only one wary glance in Mashra’s direction before turning and boarding the Falcon. Rey watches him ascend the ramp, admiring the broad breadth of him, the way his dark leather trousers pull tight around his backside and thighs.

 

“What were you doing with him?” Mashra’s question is innocent enough, but her sharp tone cracks like a whip through the lazy morning heat.

 

“Nothing,” she says, shifting her focus back to the closest thing she has to a matriarch. “Nothing, I—”

 

“Did he spend the night in your home? With you?”

 

Biting her lip, Rey glances around; no one is standing particularly close by, or paying them any mind. “Yes,” she breathes, leaning forward, a smile overtaking her face. “And it was wonderful. We—we did things, beautiful perfect things, and… after, he held me and we fell asleep together in my hammock.” A girlish giggle sneaks out, and she scrunches her nose in delight.

 

Mashra draws herself to her full height, eyes wide, one hairy hand pressed to her chest. “Rey,” she gasps. “How could you be so foolish?”

 

Perhaps Rey is drunk in some way— intoxicated off the hazy passion of their night spent together— because she hears the words Masha has spoken, but cannot seem to grasp their significance. Trying to keep up, she replies, “Well… I do have a bit of a crick in my neck, but I don’t thi—”

 

“You need to be careful!” Thin lips pressed into a disapproving slash across her snout, Mashra clamps her hand down on Rey’s shoulder. “What you’re doing—that’s how women end up with children they can’t feed. Is that what you want?” She tilts her head, eyes narrowing. “A babe?”

 

Now Rey takes her meaning; she gives a weak laugh, trying to deflect. “We haven’t… we didn’t even take our clothes off.” She holds her hands up, a gesture of innocence. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Mashra looks utterly unconvinced, already shaking her head in disappointment, so she adds, “Ben cares about me!”

 

“He’s trouble,” Mashra counters. “If your dear mother was here, she’d agree with me.”

 

“But she’s not, is she?”

 

Rey regrets the words the moment they’ve escaped her lips; Mashra recoils, shocked, as if she’s slapped her. Mournfully, she tries to rectify her mistake, crying, “You don’t know anything about him!”

 

Mashra sighs. “Don’t I? I know who he is. I know who his father is. I know what they do—” she pauses, hand tightening on Rey’s shoulder as she dips her head, forcing Rey to meet her dark unblinking gaze. “I don’t want that kind of life for you, Rey. You deserve better.”

 

“He cares about me,” she repeats, in a sad small voice. Mashra blows another exasperated breath out through her long slitted nostrils.

 

No, she can’t do this, can’t be here. Cannot listen to Mashra say these things, cannot bear to have the glow of amber taken away. Not yet.

 

Not yet.

 

She forces out, “Mashra, he lo—” but… no. She can’t say it, can’t presume like that. And not to Mashra, not the first time. She wants it to be true, but it’s too much to say aloud. Too new, too precious. Rey swerves away from the word, from the thought, demurring, “I have to go. Han Solo’s paying me to help fix his ship.”

 

And with a final sigh, then a nod, Mashra releases her hold on Rey. She takes a step back, still staring at Rey unhappily. “Remember what I said, child,” she warns. “Be. Careful.”

 

“All right,” is all she can muster, a weak concession half-spoken, half-swallowed, because she’s already pivoting towards the ship, already stumbling away from this unwelcome dose of sobering reality.

 

She doesn’t look back.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, seated once more in the main hold with a steaming mug of caf in her hands and Ben’s arm draped around her shoulders, she can almost forget Mashra’s exhortation. What does she know, anyway? So she’s heard of Han Solo, and his son. So what? She doesn’t know them, not like Rey does.

 

She does know them, doesn’t she? Conducting a study first of Han’s craggy face, the casual way he lounges in the booth, the rakish half-smile he shoots at Chewbacca in response to the Wookiee’s disgruntled harping about the Falcon’s erratic behavior, and then of Ben, reserved and thoughtful, sipping at his caf, dressed in the same clothes, as per usual, sitting not as loosely as his father but not as rigidly as he sometimes does, his body warm and solid and flush with hers, Rey thinks: maybe, maybe not. But I could. They’d let me get to know them.

 

They want her here. She knows that much. It’s enough.

 

“So,” she starts, interrupting Han and Chewbacca’s sleepy banter, “this… business… you do. It’s smuggling, right?”

 

Han chokes on his caf, coughing for several seconds before he regains control. Looking at her askance, he barks, “Who told you that?”

 

She glances at Ben, who offers no comment. Just continues staring down into his mug intently. “Everyone knows about Han Solo,” she reasons, “the famous smuggler.”

 

A tense moment follows, wherein no one speaks. Finally, Han puffs out an amused breath through his nose, a gesture she knows all too well by now, having watched Ben react just the same many times before.

 

“Hear that Chewie?” He knocks back the rest of his caf, then slams the mug on the holotable. “Everyone.” He rolls his eyes. “Famous!”

 

Rey grins, relieved. “Famous,” she affirms. “Across the galaxy.”

 

She catches Ben’s roll of his own eyes, as he finishes his caf. Rey leans further into him. A happy little shiver runs down her spine when he presses a soft kiss against her hair— right in front of his father, without reservation. She tilts her head back to search his face for hints of a reaction but he just blinks down at her, sleepy and unruffled. A sense of optimism rolls off of him in waves, or at least, Rey thinks she can sense that. Then again, maybe it’s just her own infatuation taking over.

 

Han clears his throat and reluctantly, Rey tears her eyes away from Ben’s, looking once more at the old man’s weathered face.

 

“Ben,” he says, with a knowing smirk. “Since we’re letting Rey in on our operation here, maybe you oughta… show her the ropes.”

 

Ben huffs. “You sure, Han?”

 

But he’s wearing that ghost of a grin, that twitch at the edges of his full mouth. Rey wants to claim it for her own, right here in front of Han and Chewie. How can she pretend otherwise? She’s not used to this— this want, this need, this desire clanging in harmony with her thrumming nerves, her pounding heart— she’s lived so long on her own, just doing any old thing she felt like, really, and it’s maddening, the amount of self-restraint required for her to sit here calmly, after what she and Ben did together last night. She settles for beaming up at him, although her muscles have all gone rigid; he arches a brow down at her before looking back to his father.

 

There’s a beat, then another; Han appraises her, Ben appraises Han, and Rey, waiting with no small measure of disquiet for Han’s approval, swirls around the errant grounds left behind in the last swallow of her caf.

 

“Yeah,” Han replies at last, with a chuckle. “Yeah. ‘Course. We can trust her.”

 

He’s smiling, lopsided but genuine, when Rey brings herself to meet his gaze. Gratification, validation, the warm glow of affection, all of them move through her, settling her nerves.

 

A quick jerk of Han’s chin, and then: “Come on, Chewie. Let’s get to work on those shield projectors—try and get in an hour or two, before the heat’s too much.”

 

Sighing happily, Rey relaxes once more. Ben gently squeezes her shoulder, so she leans back, pressing a kiss to the part of his body that’s closest— the hollow of his throat.

 

The amber— fiery and delicate and as strong as if it had sat deep beneath the ground for a million years— it’s still around them, protecting this new thing they’re exploring, despite Mashra’s attempt to shatter it. She’s safe here, on this ship, in Ben’s arms. Trusted; Han said so. Valued. Needed.

 

Ben’s gazing down at her, eyes soft.

 

Loved, maybe.

 

For now, warns a treacherous little voice in the back of her mind that sounds like Mashra’s. Not yet, she tells it. Don’t take this from me.

 

Not yet.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Doing what we do—it’s not that difficult,” Ben confesses to her, as he strides along one of the Falcon’s passageways.

 

“It isn’t?” Rey hurries to keep up, drinking in his noble profile, outlined against the greying bulwarks by the ship's dull lighting.

 

His nostrils flare, subtly. “Not if you do it right.”

 

“Well Han Solo must be doing it right then, if he’s so famous.”

 

“No.” He shakes his head, turning to lead her down a passageway that takes them aftward, towards the engineering bay. “Han Solo hasn’t done it right—that’s why he’s famous.”

 

“But—”

 

“He was a general, in the war.” He comes to a halt by an unremarkable piece of paneling near the engineering bay’s blast doors. “Fought alongside my mother and uncle—awarded the Medal of Honor. After, he continued serving as a soldier, a pilot, even a guard for my mother." A pause, then he adds, "For a while.”

 

“Oh,” she says, feeling sheepish. She should have known that, probably.

 

“A hero, people say." He gives a contemptuous toss of his hair. “But bit by bit,” he pauses to elbow the lower right corner of the panel, which comes loose under the blow, “he slid back into his old ways.”

 

The panel swings opens, revealing the complex face of a magna-lock safe; Ben shoots her a tight-lipped grimace. “Then he passed them on to me.”

 

“Are there—secret doors like this, elsewhere on the ship?” Rey asks, fiddling with the hidden hinges of the panel.

 

“All over.”

 

“Will you show me more of them?”

 

He exhales, a short puff of air blown out quickly, then shrugs. “If you want.”

 

Rey considers the safe for a moment— its blinking lights, the keypad where its code must be entered. “I guess… we should be working. On the ship,” she says, grudgingly. “The hyperdrive? That is what Han’s pay—”

 

“I have a better idea,” he cuts across her, taking her hand. With no more explanation than that, he leads her towards the crew’s quarters. This time, she notices, he’s careful to press a few buttons on the control pad beside the entryway, causing the blast door to shut behind them with a hiss.

 

Then he turns, tipping his chin up so he can look down his nose at her. “Find the hidden compartment in here, and you get your pick of whatever’s inside,” he offers, commanding and serious.

 

Giddy, Rey bounces up onto the balls of her feet, resting a hand on his chest so she can bring her face close to his.

 

“Is it… your stuff?” she purrs.

 

Another shrug. “You’ll have to find out.” There’s a kind of steely resolution to his response; arms crossed, he seats himself on the berth— no, her berth, or rather, the one they shared— as if to reinforce that that’s all the help he’s going to give her.

 

So Rey gets to work. She pokes around for a while, elbowing panels the way that Ben did, pulling on the grated durasteel deck— which doesn’t budge— lifting up mattresses and pillows, and checking all the obvious, marked storage compartments underneath and around the bunks. It’s not as though she has no experience in this, hunting around in an old ship. But still, she favors thoroughness, so she works at her own pace, enjoying the heavy weight of Ben’s gaze on her as she moves about.

 

Finally, tipping her head back to scrutinize the overhead, she spots it: one of the panels is slightly less discolored than the rest, just above the berth where Ben is seated. Licking her lips, she climbs onto the lower of the two bunks, boots on the mattress beside Ben— not missing how his eyes linger on her posterior— then clambers up to the higher bunk. Kneeling on its mattress, one hand gripping its overhang for stability, she taps each corner of the pale tile carefully.

 

After tapping the last corner, it drops down into her hand.

 

Stored inside the dark cavity above the tile are a set of gold dice, a blaster pistol, a vibroblade, a small black satchel made of velvet-soft fabric, and a faded old postcard. Gingerly, Rey removes each item from the hiding spot, piling it up on the tile. Arms full of her loot, she eases her way back down before collapsing next to Ben on the lower bunk.

 

She gives him a pointed, victorious look and he smiles, wide, his cheeks creasing to either side of his crooked white teeth, his full lips.

 

“Not bad,” he says.

 

“Scavenger,” she reminds him. He hums his agreement, and she sets the stash on the mattress between them. “So—these are all yours, aren’t they?”

 

He just smiles, untying the satchel’s strings and tipping it. The contents spill into his palm: two dozen little balls, black as night. The cabin's wan light makes them gleam silvery-blue. Each one is flawless, smooth and round and fit for a queen’s diadem, or so Rey imagines.

 

“Naboo night pearls,” he tells her. “Worth a fortune.”

 

She frowns. “And you keep them up there?”

 

“Where else?” He shrugs, offering up his pearl-filled palm for her scrutiny.

 

“The… safe?” she asks; it’s the obvious best choice, for something this valuable.

 

“That safe is the first place any competent pirate would look,” he scoffs, watching her take a single dark pearl and roll it between her pointer finger and thumb.

 

I found them easy enough.” The smirk that goes along with her words is irrepressible, not that she tries very hard.

 

“Scavenger.” She huffs in protest at his using her word against her, but Ben hastily continues: “You’ve spent your life looking for things, haven’t you?” He leans in, stealing a glance at her lips before dragging his eyes back to hers. They’re dark, fathomless in a way Rey is beginning to recognize— in a way she’s beginning to crave.

 

“You’re good at it,” he murmurs. “Special.”

 

She blushes, diffident. “I s’pose.”

 

“Well, a promise is a promise,” he says, not appearing the least bit put out at ceding something from his cache to her. “What do you want to keep?”

 

Your heart, your body, this life we could have together, she almost says— is on the very verge of saying, before she decides against it. Some persistent trace of Mashra’s warning stills her tongue.

 

Rey looks down at his belongings, swallowing heavily against chagrin. Her inspection goes on for a while, long enough for her to steady her emotions. Squinting one eye, she aims the pistol at the far wall. Then she activates the vibroblade, turning it this way and that to study its near-imperceptible vibration. Next, she rolls the chipped dice. They’re weighted, she observes, with a nonplussed sigh.

 

Finally, she plucks the old postcard from the pile. It’s blank on the side where a message would normally be inscribed.

 

Ben, who has watched her do all this in his customary loaded silence, takes the postcard and turns it to the side with the picture. “Bespin,” he reads. “Cloud City. Ah, right. Han and I picked this up on a visit to Lando.”

 

“Lando Calrissian,” she prompts, more than a little breathless, just from the name. He is one of the most famous and infamous criminals and war heroes in the galaxy, after all; it makes sense Ben would know him, would have visited him in the past— everyone knows about Lando and Han’s tumultuous partnership, from back in the day— but she’s still starstruck, at the idea of him.

 

“Yeah,” is his only response, besides a dry mirthless laugh.

 

Everything else in the cache is valuable or useful, save for this postcard. Its value must be merely sentimental. Rey knows all about those kinds of things, and it makes her want the postcard desperately. She wants nothing more than to have in her possession something that means so much to him, but… again, she curbs that impulse. Instead, she plucks a single pearl from his hand.

 

“This?” she checks with him.

 

“Just that?” His brow is furrowed; his eyes sweep over the other items on the mattress, then back to her.

 

“This is plenty.”

 

Ben nods, pressing his lips together. “It’s yours,” he says, eying her curiously.

 

“Good.” Biting the inside of her cheek, she rises and tucks the pearl away in an inner pocket of her satchel, which she rested by the crew quarters entryway when she first boarded the Falcon this morning. She turns back to him, and thrills to find him observing her.

 

“Should we—” she inhales sharply, taking in his eager expression, “get to work now?”

 

“Probably.”

 

Though he agrees with her suggestion, his posture— leaning forward, knuckles white from how tightly he grips the edge of the berth— and his eyes— dark, glittering hungrily— do anything but.

 

She drifts back towards him, teasing, sing-song: “No rush, then?”

 

The look he gives her in response is frank yet sultry, filled with blatant meaning.

 

“Oh,” she breathes.

 

“Come here.” His hand, stretched out to her. Without hesitation, she takes it, letting him guide her down into his lap.

 

And for some mysterious span of time, during which the outside world seems to be held at bay by the blast doors, there is just them, just Rey and Ben. Rolling around on a lumpy old mattress, stealing time and kisses and ever-more-confident touches… they give themselves over, for a little while longer, to the opulence of young love.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The blaster she found in the overhead is an X-8 Night Sniper, he informs her, as they amble down the ventral ramp at twilight. Given to him by Chewie, on his eleventh birthday. The sky, so vast and clear above them, is tufted with clouds, a warm lavender-tinged pink, and for once, Jakku’s arid heat is not oppressive.

 

Just pleasant. Just welcome. The light breeze plays with the locks of hair that have escaped her buns, and Rey removes the tsu-seed linen cloth she wears draped over her sleeveless cotton shirt, then her linen arm wrappings. She flaps her arms gracelessly while Ben’s attention is diverted; he’s focused on setting up their targets, a few dozen paces away. The air feels lovely on her bare skin.

 

The Night Sniper is strapped snugly against the outside of her right thigh now, held there by a spare holster Ben found in one of the crew quarters’ compartments. He’d helped her tighten its buckles; although she hadn’t needed the help, she’d allowed it, because his long dexterous fingers had lingered, as he worked, brushing soothing strokes across her hips, her backside, her thigh, while his eyes stayed riveted to hers.

 

His blaster pistol, a modified DL-44, same as his father’s (best in the galaxy for their line of work, he’d explained) sits on his own thigh, holstered, just like hers.

 

They match, she thinks, watching him secure their targets, pushing them down in the sand— a bunch of scrap metal he’d found in the rear hold and hefted easily over his shoulder, carrying it out into the junkyard— and something about that, about their matching pistols, hers small and almost delicate-looking in comparison to his, sets her cheeks aflame.

 

She likes matching with Ben.

 

They had actually gotten some work done today, once they finally forced themselves to separate. In fact, Rey and Chewbacca have almost finished repairing the shield projectors, while Ben spent the afternoon repairing busted valves in the engineering bay. They’ve earned a break. They’ve earned some fun. Or at least, that’s what Chewbacca told them, after a few solid hours of labor.

 

Warming up with her quarterstaff to keep from staring at him while he works, as is quickly becoming her wont, Rey shifts through a few basic moves: sweeping leg attack, downward strike, stab, upward strike. A swing of the heavy metal staff above her head, then she brings it down onto the sand, squashing a gnaw-jaw that was attempting to scuttle past her unnoticed. She grins.

 

With this weapon, Rey is smooth and practiced. She feels no hesitation, no trepidation. The staff is an extension of her arms and core and legs; a part of her. It’s nice to give herself over to that for a few minutes. Nice to remind herself that though this budding thing between her and Ben sets her adrift in emotions and senses, this weapon— and the life that has led to her building it, wielding it— will keep her anchored.

 

“Impressive,” he comments, from behind her. Rey turns to find he’s finished with the targets, and has lumbered back to her. He stands outside of striking distance, his dark eyes glinting in the fading light. “Can I see it?”

 

She hands the quarterstaff over to him. It looks smaller in his massive hands, and he swings it competently enough, despite possessing none of the grace or speed that she does. And maybe she’s a little gratified by that; here is something at which she is an expert, and he is not. She smirks at him, but he merely arches an eyebrow.

 

“So,” he says, jerking his chin towards the scrap. “Time to shoot.”

 

She scoffs. “Easy.”

 

She draws the Night Sniper from its holster. Its weight in her hand is different from the quarterstaff, of course; where wielding her weapon took a certain amount of balance, an understanding of the forces of gravity and how they’d act upon a heavy metallic rod swinging through the air, the pistol asks much less of her.

 

Closing one eye, she holds her arm out straight and lines up the shot.

 

“Wait!”

 

“What?” she huffs, irritated… until he steps behind her, his legs against hers, his crotch against her bottom, his torso flush with her back. She forgets her irritation when he gently runs his hand the length of her bare arm— and maybe that’s gratuitous, but the feel of his fingers on a part of her body that is so rarely exposed makes her shudder, makes her sex throb— before he covers her pistol-bearing hand with his own.

 

“The safety,” he murmurs in her ear, depressing a small nodule on the back of the blaster with his thumb.

 

“Oh.”

 

Sheepish but determined not to show it, she bristles. “I knew that. I was just… practicing.”

 

“‘Course.” His voice is still a low rumble in her ear, and although he takes hand off of hers, he is no less distracting when he settles it on her belly, fingers fanned out, and tugs her body back into his.

 

“Relax,” he bids her. “Aim.”

 

“I am aiming!”

 

“Then take the shot.”

 

“It’s—very hard to concentrate,” she protests, as he noses at her neck.

 

“Good. It’s hard to concentrate in a shoot-out, too.”

 

With another vexed little huff, Rey forces herself to ignore his hands and his lips and his body, closing an eye once more as she realigns her pistol. Deep inhale, and then… she pulls the trigger. The plasma blows a hole through the twisted bit of ceramisteel hull plating she was aiming for, dead center.

 

“Perfect,” he breathes, against her temple. His other hand lands on her hip, then creeps its way forward to rest below her breasts. “As I expected.”

 

“It was pretty good, wasn’t it?”

 

She twists her neck, smirking up at him. It’s all the invitation he needs; his lips descend upon hers, and when his warm rasping tongue swipes her lips, Rey readily engages it, delighting in this new trick. There they stand, the hot day slowly sinking into night, their tongues brushing, lips pliant and searching. Still his hands hold her belly and now, one breast, now, the other— gently kneading through her thin shirt.

 

This is probably inappropriate, it occurs to her, self-consciousness spurred on by the baying of a distant happabore. With a great deal of reluctance, she pulls away.

 

“We should—” she starts, but he cuts her off.

 

“Now… make the same shot, again.”

 

He dusts a few final kisses across the line of her neck and shoulder then steps away, giving her a healthy amount of breathing room. Rey wants him back immediately, wants his hands on her, wants his lips and his tongue again. But she’d wanted to try out a blaster pistol, and that’s what he’s trying to help her do. So she allows herself only one more longing glance back at him; he’s picked up her quarterstaff again, and swings it idly as he bobs his head, encouraging. Then she turns to the scrap.

 

“Same shot,” she mutters to herself. “Easy. Like taking crickets from a Bloggin chick.”

 

An amused snort from behind her, which she ignores. One eye closed, she lines up the shot. Safety’s off, hand’s in the right position. She counts down from three in her mind, then pulls the trigger.

 

Only… something goes awry.

 

Later, much later, when she goes over every detail of their time together, second by agonizing second, she still won’t be able to discern what pulled her hand. All she knows in that moment— and all she’ll remember, in the years to follow— is that one second, she’s locked onto the hole she just blasted in the ceramisteel.

 

And the next? She’s shooting at a bit of alusteel armor to its right. A bit of armor which she hadn't realized is impenetrable by plasma bolt, something she discovers when, with a wild screech, it pings off the armor and goes flying directly towards Ben’s face.

 

It all plays out in slow motion, or so it seems: she takes the shot, a bright blue blur of plasma racing towards the shield, then returning, crackling as it whizzes past her face. And when she tries to whirl around to check on Ben, she feels like she’s moving through rapidly freezing carbonite.

 

Yet, turn she does. Her eyes land on him, and she’s shocked to see that he’s fine. Not a scratch on him. Both hands raised aloft in front of his heaving chest, he’s holding the quarterstaff— also built from alusteel components, she recalls, the stupor of shock making the thought sluggish and dull— and in the sand before him, there is a dark shiny spot, where the plasma has transformed it into charred glass.

 

“Kriff,” she gasps. “Ben, I’m so—”

 

“Do it again.” He’s equally breathless, but his eyes are laser focused, his face tensed with determination. “Shoot at me, this time.”

 

“What? No, you’re out of your mind! You’re lucky you’re not d—”

 

“Rey,” he says, tipping his face down to the burnt bit of sand. “That wasn’t luck—I deflected the blast. Shoot me again.”

 

She swallows heavily, lifts her arm up, aiming for his chest… but her hand begins to shake. She quails, at the thought of hurting him. “Ben, please. I can’t,” she pleads.

 

“You can. Trust me.” It’s as if something has taken over him, some irresistible call that demands he answer. He doesn’t so much as blink, his dark hooded eyes boring into her. “It’ll be fine.”

 

“But I missed once!”

 

“That wasn’t you,” he tells her, sounding unshakably certain, “that was the Force.”

 

“But—”

 

Trust me, Rey.”

 

For a full minute, she worries her lip, blaster pistol aimed at him in the semi-darkness. Finally, she sighs in defeat. “All right. If you die, I’ll never forgive you.”

 

A twitch of his lips, a solemn nod. That’s all she gets out of him. So with a final deep breath, and a quick, “I’m doing it, now!” shouted out as a warning, she pulls the trigger once more, firing directly at him.

 

Effortlessly, Ben swings the quarterstaff, once again sending the blast down into the sand. More confident in his abilities, jaw hanging, Rey shoots again— with the same result. And so she shoots again. Again, and again, and again, rapid-fire, until she’s exhausted the blaster’s cartridge. And each blast, he deflects, with only a few centimeters’ width of alusteel quarterstaff whooshing deftly through the air.

 

All around Ben, like a dark speckled nebula, are burnt patches of sand-made-glass. Still he stands unharmed, slightly winded from the effort, but otherwise unaffected.

 

Except for his eyes. They’re darker than ever, and she cannot look away; he has her captivated, frozen where she stands, a cornered skittermouse. He breathes through his nose, nostrils flared, chest rising and falling dramatically, and with slow, careful steps, he passes over the scorched glass, advancing towards her.

 

When he is so close she can feel his breath on her cheek, she manages to get out, “How—how did you do that?” Her voice is high and breathy, embarrassingly so, but she can hardly feel any shame for it, so shocked is she by whatever it is they’ve just done.

 

Gently, without answering her question, he takes the pistol from her hand, returning it to the holster on her thigh.

 

“Have you always known how to fight with a staff?” she tries to deduce, but he merely shakes his head. “Then—how?”

 

“How are you such a good shot?” he parries, eerily calm. “Have you ever used a blaster before?”

 

“Never,” she admits on a sigh, shaking with— what is this? Adrenaline? Excitement? Lust?

 

“What’s happening to us, Ben?”

 

“I think you know.”

 

She rests her hand on his chest, where his heart is hammering in double-time. “We’re doing this,” she says. “With—the Force. And last night, with the sand…”

 

“Yes,” he says, and finally the severity in his expression thaws, becoming something languid and gentle, though not any less heated. “We are. We did.”

 

Ben,” she cries, overwhelmed by the surreality, overcome with dueling fear and excitement. “I don’t—I don’t understand—”

 

“Okay.” She’s in his arms before she gets another word out, her quarterstaff falling forgotten to the sand with a soft thud. And then he’s shushing her, one hand cradling the back of her head, the other rubbing a calming path up and down her back. “It’s okay,” he murmurs.

 

“I don’t understand,” she repeats, feeling numb from shock, from the vast chasm of all that she doesn’t understand, which has opened up beneath her feet, even as the tears well up.

 

The light is almost gone now; wine-dark night is settling in around them. Only the lanterns at the edge of the junkyard, where the sentries have set up their vigil, and from within the Falcon, keep away the shadows. Above, twinkling stars peek out through the clouds, and to the west, Jakku’s moons have begun to rise. Half of Ben’s face is obscured by the night when he pulls away, peering down at her with an inscrutable look.

 

She wonders what he’s thinking, craves understanding so fiercely it sets her teeth on edge, and like a shaft of light piercing through the darkness, she senses it: he’s afraid. And then the shaft widens, becoming a flood of light, and she sees his thoughts as though they are forming in her own mind.

 

He’s not just afraid. He’s terrified, actually, though he’s doing a good job of hiding it.

 

Rey cocks her head, listening to the jumbled stream of his thoughts. “You don’t understand, either. You’re—afraid.”

 

“You can feel that?” His voice a guttural gasp, he lowers his forehead to hers, their noses brushing. She nods. “You are too, aren’t you?” She nods again. “I feel it.” And then, after a moment: “Don’t be. Don’t be afraid.”

 

A beat. They hold each other, their breathing gradually slowing to a more normal rate.

 

“We—we’ll figure this out, Rey. Together.”

 

That unshakable certainty, again. Rey has never needed it more than she does right now; it surrounds her, cushions her, holds her like his strong arms do, and she feels her fear and shock abate.

 

“Yeah,” she agrees, pushing closer, seeking out his lips. “Okay. Together.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, after they’ve calmed each other down and then excited each other in different ways, with soft kisses and wandering hands, Ben sits in the main hold, disassembling and cleaning both blasters. Chewie is off rewiring something in the circuitry bay, and Han is busy preparing dinner for all of them, in the galley. There’s a sense of quiet, familiar routine among the crew of the Millennium Falcon.

 

In a hushed mumble to Ben, Rey excuses herself to the ‘fresher. He nods; she can feel his eyes on her, watching as she rises from the booth and moseys off.

 

But once out of view, she strays from the path to the ‘fresher, heading instead to the crew’s quarters, where she crawls up the bunks to dislodge the secret overhead panel. It’s easy, so easy, to pluck the postcard from the cache, folding it and tucking it inside an inner pocket in her tunic.

 

She should feel guilt at this trespass, this violation of Ben’s privacy and his trust. Have they not turned a corner this evening, with the remarkable things they were able to do? Should trust not be paramount, now? And she does feel guilt at this, really, she does. But the surge of relief, of solace, of comfort, that rises within her, at keeping this secret, personal thing so close to her body— something of his, something whose value is more than credits or utility in a fight— it overrides the guilt. Overrides everything.

 

Silently, she replaces the panel, then slips back down to the deck and back out into the passageway. And when she rejoins Ben in the main hold, snuggling up to him while she watches him work, her smile is genuine. She can live with the guilt. Stealing this small piece of his past… she’s made the right choice, if not the ethical one.

 

Because in her heart, her own fear is growing, too: into the dark gaping void of all that nothing, eventually these happy golden days must go. (Nothing lasts forever on Jakku, after all.)

 

Whatever they have, no matter how special and unique it might be, no matter what promises he makes, no matter what they’ve discovered within themselves… it cannot last. Nothing can. Not on Jakku.

 

So she tucks herself into his side, letting her head fall to rest against his solid bicep, and tries not to think about the inexorable fact that the postcard and the pearl will someday soon be all she has left of him.

Chapter Text

34 ABY.

 

“We have to go off-planet again,” Han gripes, once Rey and Ben have returned from her AT-AT late the following morning; they’re lounging around under the Falcon, in the flimsy plasteel folding chairs Chewbacca has retrieved from the number three hold, waiting out the worst of the day’s heat. “Damn motivator’s busted.”

 

“What’s the problem now?” Ben drawls, not bothering to open his eyes.

 

Rey, perched on his lap and slumped against his torso, still glowing with post-coital inertia after he brought her to another shivering peak in her hammock this morning— just grinding their clothed bodies together, sumptuous slow kisses and caresses being exchanged like they had all the time in the world— snacks contentedly on a jogan fruit. Feeling magnanimous, she brings a piece to Ben’s lips. He accepts it with a quirked brow, although his eyes remain shut.

 

“Energy flux,” says Han, ignoring his son’s arch tone. “Keeps bleeding back into the Quadex power core.”

 

Rey winces. “Oh, that’s no good. That’ll cause a—”

 

“Surge!” Chewbacca growls, slamming his furry fist down on the arm of his chair. It bends slightly, from the blow. “Kriffing Gannis Ducain.”

 

“Yeah.” Han lets out his own frustrated growl then slumps down, defeated. “No way can we jump, if we don’t replace it. Whole thing could blow, release gas into the ship.”

 

Ben chews and swallows the fruit before asking, “How long?” His eyes are open now. Fixated, he watches Rey with heated a gaze as she chews her own mouthful.

 

“Few days, tops. We’ll take a shuttle again. And—” pausing, Han leans forward, giving an exaggerated wave of his arm until he’s got Ben’s attention, “—stay with the damned ship this time, will ya? No sneaking off to Rey’s place. I mean it, kid.”

 

No. Completely unacceptable. She needs Ben in her hammock with her, warming and holding her; Han is not allowed to steal any of their nights together. Not yet, screams a voice in her mind. Not yet, not yet. Rey scowls, narrowing her eyes at Han.

 

“Why?” she demands, sitting up straight.

 

“We don’t trust Plutt,” Chewie informs her. “He’s a two-timerhe’ll steal this ship back in an instant, if we give him the chance.”

 

“It’ll be fine!” Rey objects, somewhat shrilly. “You don’t have to worry about Plutt—I can handle him.”

 

“Not if you two are shacking up halfway across the planet, you can’t.”

 

Han’s words have a ring of finality and he crosses his arms, challenging her to push back. But she knows— despite how begrudging that knowledge is, how furious it makes her— that he’s right. So she resumes her reclining against Ben, who welcomes her back with a big hand rested gently on her hip. All the joviality and comfort of the morning has dissipated; he looks as irritated and indignant as she feels.

 

“Not fair,” she says, sulking. Ben nods his agreement.

 

“That’s life,” comes Chewie’s less-than-sympathetic reply.

 

And that, as they say, is that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

And so it is jealously that they hoard their hours together that evening, after Han and Chewbacca have eaten and departed. They play dejarik for a while, but grow distracted quickly, Rey in Ben’s lap, guiding each other through the storm.

 

But soon, all too soon, the night has grown late.

 

“Stay,” he pleads, hands clenching around her hips. “Just stay, Rey.”

 

“I can’t.”

 

“That’s not true.”

 

It’s not, really. She could stay. She could. R’iia knows, she wants more than anything else to stay. But there is that thought, like the needle of a Tentacle-cactus, lodged in her mind: what if they come back? What if tonight’s the night? What if they can’t find me?

 

And then the competing thought, clashing against it: not yet, not yet.

 

Ben’s eyes, heavy-lidded and beseeching, stare up at her. It would be so easy to stay, it would feel so right. Mashra’s warning returns to her, that bracing dose of reality, and Rey knows. She can pretend all she wants that she doesn’t but she does.

 

She must be careful.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says, soft and sincere.

 

The worst part is, he dejectedly accepts that without further argument. Helps her into her jacket, holds her hand as they head out into the night, even keeps hold of it as she shoves one foot onto her speeder’s pedal. Never in her life has she needed assistance in mounting her speeder; she built the damned thing, for edge’s sake. But the gesture— like his helping to tighten the blaster holster the day before, like his sharing food and his bunk and his family with her, like all the small thoughtful things he does— breaks her heart, so she leans her weight on him while she swings her leg over the body of the speeder and settles into its seat.

 

“Good night, Ben Solo,” she whispers, lilting sideways to press her lips to his. He catches her there, in a regretful kiss.

 

And then he lets her go, with an equally hushed, “Goodnight, Rey of Jakku.”

 

She thinks that’ll be it; dons her goggles and cowl, ignites the engine. But just as she’s leaning forward, bracing herself for the initial jerk her speeder always gives when starting, she hears him call, still hushed:

 

“Come back tomorrow?”

 

“Of course!” she shouts, into the dark. Then— before she can change her mind, climb off the speeder, hurry back into his arms— she shoves her foot down on the pedal, hard, and away she goes.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The night is long and sleepless, no matter how many times she buries her hand in her underwear and rubs away at herself. Her mind churns with thoughts of Ben: the seven days they have spent together, what they have done, the way he looks and smells, the miraculous changes he has awoken within her.

 

And when morning finally dawns, it is on an irritable, exhausted Rey who grumbles as she dons her clothing and climbs onto her speeder. Yet that gloom melts away when she spies him across the junkyard: sitting at the bottom of the Falcon’s ventral ramp, booted feet planted in the sand, holding what looks to be a mug of caf in one hand, and a cluster of something red she can’t identify in the other.

 

Nightbloomers, she realizes, once she dismounts and marches towards him. An entire bouquet of them, dusty crimson blooms, a little faded in the stark light of day, but lovely nonetheless. They look almost comical, sprouting up from his giant trembling fist.

 

“Good morning, Ben Solo,” she sighs, offering him a shy smile.

 

He hasn’t slept well either. She can see it in the shadows beneath his eyes, in the tired way he hunches in on himself. The smile he returns is also shy; it’s almost like they’re starting over.

 

Shy, but keen. Shy, but full of craving. Shy, but intent… Not quite starting over, then.

 

Nearer and nearer she approaches, not stopping until she’s dropped herself into his lap. And every vein in her body thrums, dizzy with relief, when his arms come up around her and he buries his face in her neck.

 

“Are these for me?” she asks, low, in his oversized ear. Teasingly, she runs a finger along the thin cartilage edge; with her free hand, she reaches for the flowers.

 

“Mmhm,” he hums, and lets her take them. “Found them this morning.”

 

“You’re lucky, you know. These are nightbloomers—they grow near the Sinking Fields,” she says, thrilling when he pulls her closer, bringing his lips to the hollow of her throat. “You could’ve been swallowed whole by the sands, walking out there.”

 

So faint it’s more breathed than spoken, she hears: “Worth it.”

 

A serene lull ensues; Rey is draped over him, Ben mouths at the underside of her jaw, hungry but tender, so tender. Their connection has held through the night, if anything, absence has made the heart grow fonder, but… how much longer do they really have? Rey worries at the thought like a scabbed-over wound until he discovers a spot behind her ear that whites out her mind before filling it with other, more salient ideas.

 

Apparently, she’s going to have to be the voice of reason here.

 

“We should—” she drags in a ragged breath, pushing on his shoulders until she dislodges him, “—shouldn’t we get to work?”

 

“No rush.” The words are a teasing reminder of her own from the other day, hummed against her cheek.

 

“Ben—”

 

“Let’s go for a ride,” he cuts in, and juts his chin towards her speeder. “Show me the sights of Jakku.”

 

“Really?”

 

Pursing her lips, she throws her head back to study the underbelly of the Falcon. The shield projectors are all repaired, at least. As are the damaged, burnt bits of the hull. The canon lasers look good. Someone has even cleaned the viewports between yesterday and this morning. The work isn’t finished, but… decent progress has been made.

 

But they can’t leave yet, laments a small part of Rey. Not yet. Not yet.

 

He gives the slightest lift of his shoulders. “Why not?”

 

“You’ll never get off of Jakku, at the rate we’re working,” she hints, pensive, watching him closely.

 

He stands, easing her onto her feet. Arms still around her, holding her in a tight hug, he says, “Hm. Unfortunate.”

 

“Or intentional?” She barely dares to hope, waiting with held breath for his reply. Everything, it seems, hangs in the balance.

 

Tilting his head, his eyes crinkle at their outer edges, and he gives her that faint trace of a smile. Nothing else. That smiles says: you already know the answer to that.

 

It takes no more than a second before she cracks, hearing herself blurt out a shivery, “Okay.” His smile blooms in earnest now, like the flowers in her hand under the silvery light of Jakku’s moons. His cheeks crease, two valleys bordering his mouth; his teeth are big and white, but not straight. His small eyes become smaller, squinting, yet they shine, dark and deep, contented. It’s a lovely smile, boyish almost, and Rey feels compelled to return it.

 

“Okay,” she says again, nodding to bolster her own confidence in her decision. “Let’s go for a ride.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

That’s just what they do. For hours, they zip across the barren surface of Jakku. So long do they ride that eventually, they must stop at Blowback Town, way out beyond the badlands, to re-fuel. Ben purchases some ice-cold drinking water for them while they wait for the mole-like Blarina attendant to fill Rey’s speeder engines with the liquid tradium needed to power them.

 

When the attendant is finished, he pays for everything, the tradium and the water, though neither are cheap on Jakku. She tries to object, but is silenced with a steely look from him, and an obstinate shake of his head.

 

They continue on. She takes him past the elevated plain of the Plaintive Hand plateau and the shadowy Valley of the Eremite, the sun-baked Pilgrim’s Road and Old Meru’s tent village, the sackcloth flaps of its many-colored tents fluttering in the wind; all of them are places where the monks and their acolytes dwell, worshiping the Force. He studies them without comment, just tilts his shrouded head and nods at each. Then they pass the jagged peaks of the Fallen Teeth and Kelvin Ravine and Ridge, then the Sko'rraq Mountains and finally, what little there is that constitutes Cratertown— monuments both natural and constructed. All the places she has spent her life whizzing by, hardly ever giving them a second thought.

 

As she points them out to Ben, she feels giddy; he’s distracting, in the best possible way. His hands are flattened against her belly, their thighs pressed flush together, his hulking torso curled around hers. Rey shouts back bits of information, and he nods his comprehension, nose tickling the back of her neck.

 

This place is her home, but it has never been as beautiful as it is today. Everything seems… brighter. Sharper. The whole world has been thrown into vivid relief; even the air she pulls into her lungs, in short shallow breaths, drenched in the subtle smell of him, tastes different.

 

Finally, she brings the speeder to a halt, right in the middle of the Crackle. For kilometers in every direction, the desert— once sand, now smooth blackened glass— shines almost painfully bright under the glaring afternoon sun.

 

The heat is unbearable, so they don’t linger, only staying long enough to brush up on the history of this place: that final decisive battle between the Empire and the Rebellion, and the Empire’s fall, both literal and metaphorical, in its wake. He shrugs off questions about his parents’ role in the affair, and Rey does not press.

 

The amber in which she is storing these moments must not be shattered. What they have must be hoarded, for as long as they can manage. So they agree to seek shelter inside the Ravager, to wait out the midday heat, and drop their discussion of wars, past or present.

 

“We could do some salvaging,” Rey suggests, parking the speeder within the main docking bay of the gargantuan Executor-class Dreadnought. Though she speaks quietly, pulling off her cowl and goggles as Ben does the same, her words carry throughout the cavernous hangar. She flinches at the echoes, lowering her voice to a murmur to add, “There’s plenty of valuable stuff in here.”

 

“We could do that,” Ben agrees, face upturned, studying the massive space. “Or… we could try something.”

 

She frowns. “Try what?”

 

“Don’t you want to understand what this is?” Ben shifts to stare down at her, looking focused. Resolved. Resigned. “Between us? And—the Force?”

 

She blinks up at him, taken aback. He’s waiting for an answer, and he deserves one. But Rey is lost in his eyes, lost in the way he looks at her, lost in the reflection of herself she finds in their dark depths. She reaches out for him, as she has before— with her senses, her mind and her soul— and when she finds him, she feels it, as she did the other night: fear. But it’s edged with something else, something urgent.

 

Something that suggests he has not been entirely forthcoming about his connection to the Force. A secret, locked away. Rey pushes that aside; he’s still waiting.

 

“Yes,” she says at last, borrowing his resolve to shore up her own concerns, attempting— clumsily, not knowing if he can even feel her— to settle his nerves, in return. He breathes in deeply, nostrils flared, and cups her cheek with his hand.

 

“Thank you,” he sighs, bringing his forehead down to hers.

 

So it’s worked, then. Maybe. He feels calmer anyway, and Rey drinks in that calm as much as she can, then presses her lips to his. Another mysterious amount of time is lost, discounted, as they reassure each other through this uncanny connection and through the far more understandable medium of affectionate touches, murmuring kisses.

 

When he breaks away from her, he nods, then gestures to a rusted out TIE fighter, absent one wing and missing all nine panels of its geodesic central viewport. It sits lopsided before them, a hobbled beast.

 

“We’re going to lift that,” he tells her.

 

More confused blinking. She regards the starfighter, mentally calculating how much it must weigh. One ton? Two? More?

 

“Together?” she asks, peering up at him.

 

“Yes.” His voice wobbles, ever so slightly. “Together. That’s—the right way for us to do it.”

 

She takes a deep, steadying breath. “Oh—kay.”

 

“Look at it—memorize it,” he instructs. She's tempted to ask what makes him the expert, but he does have something of an advantage over her; after all, his uncle is Luke Skywalker.

 

So, “Got it,” is her only response, as she commits to memory its battered shape.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

He’s standing behind her, not touching but close enough that she can feel the heat pouring off his body. In her mind’s eye, she imagines him taking two steps forward, bringing them into contact, everywhere. She licks her lips and tries to focus.

 

“Are they closed?”

 

“Does it really matter?” she wonders.

 

An indignant huff, and a resultant puff of warm air against the exposed nape of her neck. “It does. Are they?”

 

“Yes.” She rolls her eyes before closing them obediently. “Are yours?” He hums in the affirmative, and she presses, “But why?”

 

“Concentration. Focus.” His voice turns sheepish as he continues: “That’s—the only thing I remember. From my uncle’s dinnertime lectures on the Force.”

 

“I’m plenty focused,” she insists. “So… now what?”

 

“Think… about… lifting it?”

 

It’s meant to be a statement, she can tell, but his voice lifts up at the end. Rey has to smile; he’s trying so hard to sound authoritative and assured. She wants to tell him to scrap this whole thing and come here, into her waiting arms. She even goes so far as to glance back at him.

 

Eyes closed, brows furrowed, he’s reaching forward, towards the TIE fighter. So she turns her focus back to it and does the same, pulling at the energy humming in the air, the dynamic charge that’s run through her all her life. The energy of Jakku. No, beyond that. The energy of the cosmos. She gathers it to herself. And then, she does her best to wield it.

 

For a moment, nothing happens.

 

Then there is a harsh metallic groaning, like the steelpecker’s cry but louder. Durasteel and transparisteel, protesting bolts and nuts, beams and panels, all beginning to shift and move, all at once. Their strength has not been tested in many years, they have not been moved since the Ravager plummeted to the sands and settled here.

 

But, oh, are they moving now.

 

Excitement kicks at her belly. “I’m opening my eyes,” she tells him.

 

“Good,” he rasps. “You should see this.”

 

She cannot contain her shocked gasp when she opens her eyes and beholds what they've done. Though she knew what she’d see, she is not prepared for the actual sight of it: the TIE fighter hovers a full three meters above the hangar deck. No noise emanates from its thrusters, nor are any of its running lights shining; it’s not operational. There’s not a doubt in her mind… she and Ben have done this. Are doing this.

 

“Ben!” she shouts.

 

“Yes,” comes his response, steadier now than it was a moment ago. “Focus. Bring it towards us.”

 

She does. But something happens, even as it begins to drift forward; she feels Ben in the Force, a brilliant presence, warm and radiant. And yet— that light is being eclipsed. Blotted out, bit by bit, by a kind of darkness.

 

“We’re doing this!” she cries, never tearing her eyes from the hovering TIE.

 

“The Force,” he mutters, as if that explains anything. “We’re—using the Force.”

 

His deep voice rumbles with awe and something else, something that sounds to Rey’s ears like panic and fascination, intertwined. The panic, she realizes. That’s what is blotting out the light.

 

His fear.

 

“Ben?”

 

The TIE is poised almost directly over their heads now.

 

“We’re going to put it down,” he directs her. “Ready?”

 

“I don’t know!” she yelps. The panic has spread to her, his fear— she can feel it, inside her, like ink diffusing through water, muddying her mind— it blocks her judgement, cuts off the feeling of well-being that warmed her only moments earlier. Blocks off everything, even the warm flow of the Force. “Ben?”

 

“Shh,” he hushes, reaching for her, a hand on her shoulder.

 

With a groan, the TIE fighter is sent hurtling away from them, colliding thunderously with the far wall of the hangar before screeching as it tumbles down to the deck. There it goes still, and silent.

 

“Ben,” she says again, shaking, then again: “Ben?” Tears have blurred her vision, and breathing is difficult. All she feels is his fear… each wave of it only stokes her own. “What… happened?”

 

“I’m here.” And he is, the hand on her shoulder becoming strong arms enveloping her, pressing her face against his chest, holding her so tightly it steals her breath away. “You’re safe.”

 

“You’re so afraid!” she wails, tears spilling over.

 

“Yes.” His response is muted; he sounds numb, although Rey can still taste the acrid surge of his fear in her own mouth. “Yes, I am.” When she unearths her face from his shirt, the dingy white cotton has become dark and damp with her tears; she looks up at him, searching his mournful expression.

 

“All the time,” he adds, for good measure.

 

She opens her mouth to say something, not yet knowing what that something will be. What can she even offer? Reassurance perhaps, or a promise of understanding. She sniffles. Gently, Ben runs the pad of his thumb over one tear-stained cheek.

 

But another sound interrupts the moment; the hiss of a door opening, somewhere. Then: the guttural shriek of dangerous skeletal predators, the Uthuthma, pierces through the silence of the hangar. Rey scans the space wildly, searching for its source; when she swings her eyes up towards the shadowy gloom of the upper-level walkways, she sees them: three Uthuthma, red eyes glowing, white jawbones clacking angrily as they search the hangar for the cause of Rey and Ben’s noisy disruption.

 

“What the…?” he trails off, also staring up at them.

 

This time, her fear is her own. The Uthuthma are no joke; they’re lethally swift in hand-to-hand combat, and they adhere to the policy of ‘shoot first, question later.’ There’s a vast distance of hangar between them, but they could close it easily enough— the fall to the hangar floor would not kill them. Not much will, besides a blast to the brain.

 

“Come on,” she hisses. His hand clutched in hers, she dodges for shelter behind a nearby TIE interceptor. “We need to get out of their line of sight!”

 

Leaning against the pincer-like wing of the interceptor, he searches the hangar before muttering: “The bomber.”

 

Rey follows the path of his pointed finger; there’s a broken down TIE bomber about twenty meters away, with tri-paneled wings tattered by scorched holes. Squinting through the gloom, she can make out a tear in the hull of one of the two barrels that comprise its body. Hiding within that barrel— a passenger pod, she suspects— is a decent choice, if they're about to be in a shootout.

 

Ben glances at her. “See it?”

 

“It’ll do!”

 

With that, she sets off, darting towards another interceptor that sits between them and the bomber. She can hear Ben’s heavy breathing, the thudding footfalls of his boots behind her.

 

The shrill rattling cries of the Uthuthma grow more enraged, and then… the shooting begins. Plasma flies fast and furious, whizzing past them in lethal streaks of screaming blue as they continue scurrying between starfighters, making their way to the hopefully reinforced bomber.

 

Rey hears Ben’s snarled shout right before she feels a sudden shove against her right shoulder, which sends her toppling behind a TIE fighter’s hexagonal wing. She catches herself before her jaw hits the deck, and whirls around in a crouch, ready to bite Ben’s head off for his ill-timed impertinence.

 

Except he’s standing out in the open, unholstering his blaster. The sleeve of his pistol arm is singed and there's a burned gash visible underneath; he’s been shot, although the wound isn’t bleeding much. Carefully, heedless of his wound, he takes aim, ignoring the hail of projectiles that rain down on him. In an instant, Rey sees how she can help; she thrusts one arm out towards him, focusing with all her might and all of her fledgling connection to the Force, and just like that— all of them freeze in the air, somewhere between the Uthuthma’s blasters and Ben’s body. Crackling, volatile bolts of ion blue, they stutter and shiver, but her grasp on them holds. They come no closer to Ben or herself.

 

Rey gasps. She’s doing that; she’s stopping them. Without Ben.

 

Taking his time, especially now that their blasters are no threat— with each new pulse fired, Rey extends her grasp, freezing the bolt mid-trajectory just as she has its brethren— he raises his blaster in the air, closes his eyes, and shoots.

 

Three Uthuthma, three shots. Rey hears the rattle of their osseous bodies collapsing to the durasteel deck high above their heads, followed by utter silence. And then Ben turns, making his way to her.

 

She releases the volatile rays she’s held suspended in the air, now that he is clear of them. As if nothing has interrupted them, they continue on their paths; striking the deck, they singe it before burning out in a series of harmless glowing fizzles.

 

Rey’s bones feel heavy, her limbs unwieldy. How strange this whole day has been, how little sleep she got last night. Everything is over-bright, deafening, too real and yet not real at all. What has she just done? Who is Ben, anyway? How is any of this possible?

 

She wants nothing more than to lie down and rest. As he draws closer, she peers up at him, her lip wobbling. Take me away from here, she wants to say. Please don’t ever leave, she wants to say. I’m so tired—I’ve grown addicted to sleeping in your arms and I’m afraid of what will happen to me when you go, she wants to say.

 

What are you so afraid of? she wants to say.

 

But she doesn't speak. Ben doesn’t, either. As if she weighs nothing, he picks her up— one arm under her knees, the other across her back, so she cannot help throwing her arms around his thick neck— and carries her like a bride. With a dozen more steps, he brings them to the TIE bomber.

 

There, under the hole in the hull, he puts her down just long enough to lace his fingers together, making a basket, then indicates she should place her foot inside it. Easily, so easily, he vaults her up and over the hole’s jagged edge. Seemingly jumping the several meters up into the ship without any trouble, he follows nimbly. His nimbleness is confusing; unexpected, for a man so bulky. Like she’s a cotton-stuffed ragdoll, he pulls her deeper into the cabin, away from the opening, then plucks the glowrod from her satchel, setting it before them and activating it. Rey allows this, more than happy to let him make the choices while she works her way back from numb shock.

 

He settles them both against the small galley built into one side of the hull. Across the cabin are six bunks, built into the opposite hull. At the far end is a door that presumably leads to a ‘fresher, and to either side of the hole in the hull, there are various compartments.

 

They’re out of sight. Safe, supposedly. Not that it matters, now. Rey tries not to think about the dead Uthuthma bodies lying out on that overhang in the hangar. The Vworkkas will begin to pick at them for their marrow, soon enough.

 

“Ben,” she starts, with a hesitant glance his way. His jaw ticks rapidly, as does a muscle beneath his left eye. But he remains silent, waiting for her. “What happened out there…” her voice fades away to nothing; in her uncertainty, she flounders.

 

A minutes passes, then another.

 

Finally, he sighs. “A mistake. I never wanted this. The Force—” his eyes drift down to his hands, which are clenched into fists atop his bended knees, “—Leia Organa, the Skywalkers, my—family—” again he halts, and this time, he does not finish that thought. Whatever he’s trying to get out, he can’t quite seem to find the words. Just like her.

 

Rey rests her head against his shoulder. Another sigh follows, buried in a kiss against her hair, which is damp with cooled sweat, left over from the heat and that sickening surge of his fear.

 

“We don’t need this,” he states. Rey doesn’t know what he means, but she gets the feeling he’s not speaking to her. Maybe he sees her incomprehension, because he clarifies: “We don’t need the Force.”

 

There’s so much feeling behind the declaration, so much resolve. Like this is something he decided long ago, and it has become an inviolable mandate in his life.

 

You don’t need the Force, she wants to say, or you don’t want to need it?

 

His lips are on hers, hot and fierce and demanding, before she can give voice to the thought.

 

“Rey,” he groans, a prayer uttered between kisses. He gathers her to him, pulling her into his lap. She goes easily, sitting astride him, holding onto his neck like a lifeline. “Rey. Rey. Rey.”

 

She craves this just as much as he does; whimpering into his mouth, she licks back at his tongue, kissing him like her life depends on it. Like this is the first time, or maybe the last. Before she knows it, he’s pushing himself up the wall, one large hand supporting her bottom, palming it, and the other pressed against her spine to keep her body fixed to his.

 

Shuffling, he brings them to a bunk, stopping only to pull off the dusty top blanket before he gingerly deposits her on the sheets. He crawls in after her, over one leg, planting himself between her thighs. She’s prepared for him to kiss her again— wants it, needs it— but he pulls away, then rises to his knees.

 

“Ben.” Her own voice is just as much a groan, strained and throaty. Her arms are still raised, reaching for him, but he does not accede to her. He just looks, lips parted, chest rising and falling erratically.

 

“Rey,” he repeats, faint. Solemn. His fingers dance over the hem of her undershirt. “Take all of this off.” A sharp breath sucked in, his lips pursing and unpursing. Then:

 

“Please.”

 

For an instant, only an instant, she wavers. A faint echo of Mashra’s warning jangles in her ears— or maybe that is just the pounding of her own heart. Either way, she reminds herself that she does want him to see her, just like she wants to see him. In fact, that’s all she’s wanted from him from the moment she first laid eyes on him, cool and calm and collected as his father raged at Constable Zuvio. She’s just wanted his eyes on her, his attention on her. Her fascination, reciprocated; that’s all she wants. The time has passed for words and doubts, hasn’t it?

 

How much time do they even have left?

 

Hastily, she yanks off the satchel she has strapped across her body, then her belt. The linen she’s draped across and around her shoulders goes next, followed by her cotton undershirt; all are dropped heedlessly to the deck. Finally, she tugs loose the length of linen that serves to bind her breasts. Looking down at them— paltry, pale as sun-bleached bone compared to the freckled golden hue of her shoulders and cheeks, mauve nipples pebbled into peaks in the cool musty air— Rey is struck by self-consciousness.

 

What if he doesn’t like them? Or any of her, for that matter? For all the time he’s spent admiring her through her clothes, perhaps he’ll be disappointed with stark reality. She’s thin bordering on gaunt; there is very little, to her eyes, that is soft or sweet about her body. Feeling more like a sharply honed weapon than a woman, she crosses her arms over her chest, then looks up.

 

Ben is gawking at her, jaw hanging. While she was preoccupied with stripping, he has also disrobed. Gone are his vest, shirt, and blaster holster. Exposed for her own greedy perusal is a wide, powerful torso, just as pale as hers, though under his skin are well-fed stores of muscle and fat. That muscle is not sharply defined or sinewy the way hers is, but neither is there anything wasteful about his form. He’s just healthy— strong, and thick.

 

Stretched across his right flank, and up by his shoulder, and along his arms, are patches and slashes of shiny gnarled skin. Silvery lavender scars, no doubt received during illicit ‘business’ transactions gone wrong. What will soon be his newest one, on his right bicep, is still red and raw, although it’s very superficial, hardly even bleeding. His big hands linger on the opened fastenings of his trousers, but they’ve stilled; he is completely enraptured, she deduces, by her breasts, shielded though they are.

 

Breathing heavily, they regard each other for several fraught moments.

 

Rey licks her lips, a nervous habit. It breaks the spell. Carefully, Ben lowers himself down to his elbows, then rests his chin on her tensed abdomen, just above her navel.

 

“Let me see,” he says, a plea and a demand.

 

How can she deny him anything, when he’s looking at her like that? His hands land on her trouser-clad hips and slide upwards, tickling her as they smooth over her trim waist, the lower rungs of her ribcage. Two thumbs brush her forearms, beseeching she grant him access. So she does, slowly moving her arms out of the way, clasping his shoulders.

 

A murmured, “Beautiful,” and then he is surging forward, planting a lingering kiss on her bony sternum, between her breasts. Rey buries her fingers in his thick dark hair, squirming happily when he shifts his head to nuzzle the inside of her right breast, then her left.

 

Again: “Beautiful.”

 

“Really?”

 

It’s not that she doesn’t believe him; he’s completely sincere in his admiration, she can tell. And she can feel it, through their connection. His lust, his desire— throbbing and intense, making her a slick mess. It’s just… she wants to hear him say it. Wants to be seen. Wants to be admired, out loud.

 

Wants to make this count.

 

“Yes,” he answers, sighing.

 

He works his way up the barely-there swell with his lips until he reaches her nipple, then teases with kisses around the areola. And when he takes it in his mouth, so perfect is the sensation— wet but warm pressure, and a clever tongue that toys with the bud— that she almost bucks him off her.

 

She manages not to, though, instead hissing, “Kriff. Oh, Ben—”

 

“Hmm,” is his reply, hummed against her sensitive skin as he turns to the other nipple, applying the same attention. She can feel his fingers fumble against the front of her trousers, searching for their fastening. In the time it takes for him to kiss a soft trail back to her lips, she decides to take mercy on him; grabbing at his right hand, she leads him to the leather laces at her spine.

 

They make quick work of her trousers and underwear after that, with Ben’s deft fingers tugging, and Rey assisting by planting her feet and pushing her hips up towards him. Once she is bared to him, Ben seems to forget about his own trousers. He leans down, on his knees in a worshipful position, to bestow one kiss on each of her sharp jutting hip bones.

 

She could cry, at his tenderness.

 

His attentions wander lower; he eschews the dark, damp thatch of hair between her legs, instead bringing his lips to the sensitive skin of her thighs. Each one receives a line of soft kisses.

 

“Be-en,” she warbles. Never in her life— that she can remember— has she been so vulnerable as she is right this second.

 

And it’s okay, because it’s him. Because he asked her to trust him, and she does. But she still needs to see his eyes, needs to hear his voice.

 

“M’right here, sweetheart,” he mumbles, flicking his pitch-black eyes up at her. “Going to kiss you—here.” He brings one of her thighs up to lay over his shoulder while he speaks, opening her further to him. Rey whimpers a little, embarrassed by the wet sound that seems deafening in the quiet passenger pod when he strokes one finger through her exposed lips. “That okay?” he asks, brow creasing as he studies her reaction.

 

She licks her dry lips, pants out a huffed, “Yes,” and watches him lowers his lips to hers.

 

And then, R’iia, and then. He does exactly what he’s said he will, and gives her a kiss, possibly her favorite of all the kisses he’s given her so far. The feel of his lips against her— gentle, teasing for a moment before he groans faintly and his tongue sneaks out and swipes a long path up her sex, before his groan turns feral, his mouth hungrily devouring her— Rey throws one arm over her eyes, overcome and unable to look any longer.

 

The other hand, she brings down to his, which cradles her behind. Eagerly, he twines their fingers against the subtle flare of her hip. It helps a bit to alleviate some of her bashfulness, holding his hand like that. Ben continues on, his prominent nose nudging that sensitive, throbbing bundle of nerves at the apex of her sex, his throat producing the kind of appreciative noises a starved man might upon being fed a feast, leaving no part of her undiscovered by his lips and his tongue before he focuses on that throbbing nub, sucking hard.

 

It makes her whole body go taut, trembling.

 

When she gathers the nerve to remove her arm— just a bit, just enough to steal a peek down at him— he grins against her, probing with one thick finger the place she’s barely dared to touch herself, except to dam with strips of sackcloth during her irregular bleeds. His touch doesn’t feel the same as when she does it; Rey finds herself getting wetter the more he teases, gently working a finger up into that narrow, secret part of her.

 

She cries out, a soft husky whine, and pushes her hips up, closer to him.

 

“Like that?” he gasps, coming up for air. Still his finger explores her, and his thumb fills in for his errant mouth, rubbing that tiny scrap of flesh that brings about the storm. Quickly, it’s all happening so quickly. And yet it’s just right. Just what she would’ve asked for, if she had the capacity for speech right now.

 

But all she can do is hum softly, and rub up against him. Ben lets out something that is extraordinarily like a laugh, and eases her other thigh up onto his other shoulder.

 

Then he dives back in.

 

He continues to suck and lick, tease and devour; the storm rises and falls within her, sweeping her away for a few blissfully electric moments during which she uses his hair as her reins, steering them both while she trembles and shouts her way through it. For a time, it's like a feedback loop across the bond they share; her throbbing pleasure fuels his, then his redoubles that, sending her higher still. Finally, her body begins to calm. His face re-emerges from between her legs, slick-shiny and wet. He wears an expression she’s never quite seen on him before: something between smug satisfaction and the kind of awe exhibited in the face of a natural wonder.

 

He eases her legs back down to the mattress, then pushes himself up her body until she is covered by him. He’s so broad that Rey imagines if someone were to climb up into the passenger pod right now, she would be entirely obscured by his torso. That makes her feel safe; it makes this— what they’re doing right now— feel safe, too.

 

Ben leans out of the bunk long enough to pick up his shirt and wipe his cheeks dry; then he descends upon her, catching her in a demanding kiss, opening her up to him at once. Rey thinks she can taste something tangy, maybe herself, on his tongue.

 

“That was—” he sighs, when she pushes him back, needing air, “incredible. You taste…”

 

Instead of finishing that thought, he cranes his neck, returning his lips to hers with a moan that Rey can feel vibrating in his chest, pressed as it is against her own.

 

“Better than the Twi’lek?” she asks, self-conscious and cringing as soon as the words are spoken. Was that too obvious? Too needy? Too jealous?

 

“Just different, sweetheart,” he says, soothing. “That—wasn’t this. You and me, it’s something different.”

 

“Did it taste… did I taste…”

 

“Incredible,” he repeats. “C’mere.”

 

There is more kissing after that, soft and sweet and just on the cusp of loving, and yes, there is a part of Rey that is tempted to ask if it is loving, if this is love, just as there is a part of her that is tempted to ask how he shot those Uthuthma without looking, how she froze the plasma bolts, how is any of this possible, and most of all—

 

What does it mean for them?

 

But the kissing. There’s no room for thoughts of all that, when they’re kissing like this. It’s good, lewd but reverent, elemental. Their bodies are entwined, finally, nothing between them but Ben’s trousers— which have slipped down to his thighs. She throws her arms around his neck to keep him close, his hands clutch her behind, kneading what meager offerings she has back there.

 

Feeling bold, relaxed, needing to explore him like he did her, she reaches down and takes the thick root of him in her hand. It’s not the first male organ she’s seen; some alien, one Human, all have been flashed at her by some drunk salvager. All were flaccid and uninspiring and unsolicited. There was nothing sensual about them, nothing beautiful. Nothing like Ben.

 

It’s hot, like all his body is— she’s beginning to sweat, trapped beneath him, although she has no complaints to register on that particular issue— and soft. Well, the skin is soft, the thing itself is… quite hard. And a bit twitchy, like a living thing.

 

“Rey,” he wheezes, a man besotted. “Stroke—move your hand. Up and down, slow.”

 

Holding him in a loose fist, reveling in the feel of his silky skin and the way he’s staring at her like she will decide the fate of his entire future, she does as he’s asked.

 

“Your—your hand on my cock…” he doesn’t finish that thought right away; crushing her to him, her hand trapped between them as she continues to pull on— his cock, she thinks, that’s what it’s called, of course, she’s heard that word in passing at the outpost though she never paid it any mind— he kisses her, grunting bestially into her mouth when she passes her thumb over the hole on the glans, smearing the thick pale fluid she finds beaded there.

 

“So small…”

 

“Maybe you’re just big,” she croons at him, with a smirk. Now she understands his smug satisfaction from before, watching him grunt and whine just from her hand wrapped around his cock, just from the slow passes of her fist up and down its length, just from a few teasing strokes against the underside of the flared head. Rey could get used to this.

 

Curious about his noticeable size now that she's remarked upon it, she brings his cock between her legs with a slight tug; eager to give her what she wants, Ben drops his weight down onto her.

 

He rolls his hips and his cock nestles between her folds, just moving along them, not advancing. The sensation is divine; Rey thought that after the storm, she’d be finished, but the longer he works at it, just rubbing their sexes together, the closer she feels to that messy upheaval again. Another round, another storm.

 

More, more, more, crows her heart.

 

She digs her fingertips into the shifting terrain of his strong back— she has no nails to claw him with, she must keep them clipped to cut down on the grime they accumulate— but she tenses her fingers anyway, dragging them across the bunched muscles she finds there.

 

“Rey,” he pants, for the hundredth time, or maybe the hundred thousandth, she doesn’t know and she doesn’t care. He sounds needy. Desperate.

 

Something happens then, something that changes everything in an instant. Her hips shift, or his do, or they both of them move together, seeking out something subconsciously, at just the right time and just the right angle. And that wide flared tip of his cock, whose size she appreciated with her own hand only moments ago, is suddenly pressing forward into her. The pressure is immense, but it feels right. He’s kissing her, lush lips against hers— she can feel his breath hitch, just from that initial entry, the way her body gives way for him— and Rey wants this, she wants him inside, all of him, where he belongs. She wants to be his home, his true North, his sun and his moon, but then—

 

That’s how women end up with children they can’t feed. Is that what you want? A babe?

 

“No!” she yelps, panicked. “Not inside!”

 

Fear. All Rey’s this time, although just as his carnality has been feeding hers, now her fear spreads to him, then back to her— an instantaneous echo chamber of emotion swirling between them like a vicious cyclone. And at once, the pressure is gone.

 

Ben recoils as though burned, rearing up on his haunches, and his cock— flushed red and rigid, wet, from her— bobs tragicomically in response. His face is stricken. That pale face has been flushed with ardor, ardor for her, but now it’s blanched of all color, haunted, as he attempts— awkwardly, the trousers binding him at the knees making his movements ungainly— to shuffle backwards, away from her.

 

“I’m—sor—Rey, I—” he sputters.

 

The fear rises to a fever pitch, wild panic bouncing between them, and with each pass, growing more intense, more devastating. What troubles her more right now— that she might have fallen pregnant, or that she might have driven him away?

 

There’s no time to ponder. He’s off the bed, trying to tuck himself away in his trousers, pulled back up around his hips. He stumbles back towards the ‘fresher door. “I’ll just…” she hears, muttered, as he turns and begins to jab at the keys on the control panel. “I’m… uh…”

 

But he can’t bring himself to finish any of his thoughts. He’s mortified. Revulsion with himself, for possibly hurting her, is making him nauseous. Rey can feel it all.

 

“Wait,” she manages to get out. Just as fear made her stop him, fear makes her fling herself out of the bed, hurtling across the pod and plastering herself to his back. “I’m sorry—come back,” she keens, into the tough skin of his shoulder blade. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”

 

“I’m just—the… ‘fresher…” he trails off, resorting to pounding on the smooth surface of the door. But it’s locked, and makes no acknowledgment of his efforts. Sucking in a deep breath, he raises his hand, preparing to open it with the Force. Rey can sense the corresponding wobble and flux of energy in the air around them.

 

“Stop, Ben,” she whispers. Her hand on his arm stills him. Gingerly, she turns him back around to face her. He still wears that stricken look; every muscle in his body is tensed, ready to flee.

 

“… I’m sorry,” they both begin to say, in unison.

 

A nervous laugh escapes Rey. “I just can’t—that—it’s only—” Sucking in a deep breath, willing her fear to subside so that she might soothe his, she tries again. “We can’t have sex, Ben,” she tells him, as gently as she can. “I haven’t got anything to—stop it. Pregnancy.”

 

“Oh,” he rumbles, dully.

 

“Come back,” she says, slowly, leaving no room for quarrel. She wants to cry, at how confused and frightened he looks, but she steels herself. She'll be strong for both of them, if she has to. “Please.”

 

“I can't do something wrong.” The fear again, a horrible jolt, like a bolt of lightning. “I can't hurt you.”

 

“I know. I’m—sorry I shouted. I just… panicked,” she explains, nuzzling his pectoral.

 

“Yes,” he says. “I felt it—then… I did, too.”

 

Rey kisses upwards until her lips meet the sharp bone of his clavicle. “Come back.” She casts her gaze up at him through her lashes, attempting to be coy and flirtatious, attempting to recast the spell that had fallen over both of them before her panic.

 

It works; he huffs, his features relaxing back into an enamored simper.

 

“Can I… touch you? I’ll, um—with my mouth. Like the Twi’lek did? Like you did for me. Is that—”

 

“Yes,” he gasps.

 

She reaches for him with one hand while the other once again shoves his trousers down to his thighs.

 

And then she kneels before him. The deck is cold and hard on her knees, but Ben’s gaze is warm, so warm, and she can barely feel anything at all, except for this: their shared need, a frisson of excitement, of promise. Throwing bashfulness to the wind, she brings her face flush with his groin. Then she licks along the throbbing blue vein the runs up the length of his cock. Root to tip, never breaking eye contact. His skin is smooth; it smells of musk and tastes of salt.

 

“Like this?”

 

“Per… uh,” he groans, cutting himself of as she takes the head in her mouth; the whole thing, unabashed. Her cheeks hollow from the pressure she exerts, sucking on him, and his voice is weak when he manages, “Perfect.”

 

So it’s not what she’d once imagined; it’s not him and her, tangled up in each other. It’s not him inside her in the way she craves and fears. But there is unspeakable power in this position. With each pass of her tongue across the small slit at the tip, collecting the fluid there, or the sensitive corona of the swollen head, each pull of him deeper into her mouth, then her throat— deep, as deep as she can take him, until her nose is buried in his dark crisp hairs, until she’s gagging and teary-eyed and he’s whimpering— he succumbs to Rey.

 

He is hers.

 

Is this not what lovers do, too? They aren't lying together in a sleeper, but that's just semantics. In this instant, they belong to each other, completely. The how’s and why’s of that possession, while she’s got her mouth on him, are immaterial.

 

And when he comes, not long after she’s buried him in her throat— he warns her that he's going to, in a choked huff, tugging on her hair, but she just stubbornly grabs his hips and locks eyes with him, humming— he howls. He howls for her, and she swallows him down, not caring that the taste of him is bitter, because that bitterness is hers, too.

 

For one brief moment of clarity, she has something that belongs only to her. This moment. She traps it in amber in her mind, to be immortalized for all time. Here in this moment Rey is an ageless eternal being, and Ben is, too; they have always been here in this TIE bomber, giving themselves to each other, and they always will be.

 

For one moment.

 

But the moment passes, like all moments do.

 

They curl up together in the bunk, after. Soft caresses and sweet words pass between them. He falls asleep soon enough, replete and content, an overgrown loth-cat draping his warm naked body over hers. When he does, she slips out from underneath him so she can scrounge up a burnt nub of charcoal from the bottom of her bag, and the faded postcard from a pocket of her trousers.

 

Then, with the painstaking care of a woman who knows her time is running out, she begins to sketch the face of the only man she’ll ever love.

 

 

. . .

 

 

A day passes, in which they do not speak of what happened in the Ravager.

 

Nor the shootout, nor what they were able to do together, beforehand. Nor the Force. Nor the fear. And definitely not what came after.

 

Or what didn’t.

 

There is peace between them, but it is a fragile peace. He spends that time perpetually on the verge of asking her something, jaw working and eyes questing; she tenses every time he’s close to speaking his mind. She spends the day pretending she doesn’t notice how tentative his touches are now, how uncertain of her he has become. In her hammock that night, Han and Chewbacca having surprised them by returning early, he holds her as if she were made of spun glass. They do not speak.

 

They’re both working through her refusal of sex, maybe. Or her refusal to discuss the circumstances surrounding that refusal. Or maybe just her knowledge of his fear. She doesn’t know. And if they never discuss it, she never has to know. Just a little bit longer, she begs the universe. Don’t take him. Not yet.

 

Han seeks her out, the next afternoon. She’s sitting in the pilot’s seat of the Falcon’s cockpit, lost in thought. Ben and Chewbacca are still trying to calibrate the motivator, the final repair before the ship is once more operational.

 

Without saying a word, he drops himself down into the co-pilot’s seat. In companionable silence, they stare out the viewport at the junkyard. Salvagers and smugglers come and go; in the distance, under his canopy, Rey spots Unkar’s blobbish form, his face nightbloomer-red and pinched, visibly angered by the Teedo haggling with him. A steelpecker swoops past. This time of day is, as always, burnt to a crisp and blindingly bright. It is only at the edges of the light, hidden in hidey-holes and tents and canyons across the world, that most things are even able to function during these hours.

 

Only in the shadows. Only in secret. Jakku is a planet that survives the heat and light of the day, but thrives in the dark secret shadows of the terrible night.

 

“So,” begins Han, after a while. “You and him.”

 

“Me and him,” she echoes, shifting in her seat to give Han her undivided attention.

 

“Serious?”

 

Honestly, tiredly, she replies, “I—don’t know.”

 

Han huffs. “It is. For him at least. Trust me.”

 

“Oh,” she says, on a sharp inhale.

 

He lifts a vein-embossed hand to his brow and rubs. “Very serious, if I’m not mistaken.”

 

“Are you ever mistaken about this sort of thing?” she teases, maybe deflecting.

 

She’s leveled with a sort of amused glare, before Han continues, “He’s a good kid. Always has been. Sensitive. Smart. When he was younger—” but he doesn’t continue, only sighing as he stares down at his hands.

 

“What?” she prompts, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees.

 

“Leia and me, we were worried,” he explains, voice gruff with emotion but steady. “‘Bout Ben. ‘Cause of… well, I’m sure he’s told you. Leia’s family, the Force. All of that.”

 

“A bit.”

 

“Thought maybe he’d turn out like a Jedi or a Sith or something, but—he didn’t. Turned out like me instead, miracle of miracles.” His smile is wry, his tone self-deprecating.

 

Now it is Rey’s turn to stare down at her hands, and swallow back all the things she cannot tell him. Which is fine, because Han’s not finished.

 

“You’re good for him, Rey,” he says, quietly. Again she swallows.

 

“I can see it. You’re good for him, and he wants to be a good man… for you.” When she doesn’t respond— unable to speak, and not knowing what to say anyway— Han blows out a deep breath. “He’s relaxed, since you showed up. Sort of. Y’know, as much as the son of Leia Organa can relax.”

 

At last, she manages to croak out a, “Thanks,” before falling silent again.

 

“Hmph.” One of Han’s weathered hands lands on her arm, and a quick gentle pat is delivered. Then the hand is pulled away, just as quickly. “You’d be a good addition—to any crew. Any family.”

 

Her head whips up to find him watching her, his face crumpled with sympathy.

 

“‘Specially this one,” he says.

 

Before she can find the right response, he pushes himself up out of the chair— groaning theatrically when his knees crack— and saunters out of the cockpit, leaving Rey alone once more with the tangled briar patch of her thorny, dangerous hopes.

 

 

. . .

 

 

It’s not until Ben is once more in her AT-AT that evening, seated across the cabin in the salvaged bloggin-leather pilot seat, that Rey spies that tell-tale squint of his eyes, the way his hands grip the holster at his waist. She recognizes his tells by now, and knows what must come next.

 

It’s time to talk.

 

She lowers herself into her hammock, swinging herself; forward, then back. Forward then back. Again and again.

 

“Rey,” he starts. The glowlanterns cast his angular face into odd relief, shadowy and enigmatic.

 

She blurts out, automatic: “I’m sorry.”

 

“Don’t be.” There’s heat in his voice, a biting edge, like he’s angry. “Do not be sorry. It’s your body. Your… life.”

 

“I know,” she sighs. “I just… a babe…”

 

“What we did together—it was good. Perfect.”

 

He’s up then, crossing the AT-AT in only a few steps; when he’s on his knees in front of her, huge hands making her muscular thighs look tiny, he says, “Look at me.”

 

So she does.

 

Ben is beautiful, long-faced and solemn and staring up at her like she’s a priceless, valuable thing. A subtle shake of his head, and then: “We leave tomorrow, or the day after. Chewie says the Falcon is ready to fly.”

 

There it is. She’s known all along this moment would come, hasn’t she? Still it burns the back of her throat, sets her eyes afire once more with gathering tears. It’s too much, so she closes them, trying to will time to move backwards.

 

Not yet. Oh please, not yet.

 

“Come with us,” he says, hushed.

 

The tears are not deterred by the mesh of her eyelashes; they roll freely down her cheeks. She feels his thumb gently brush them away. His voice comes again, this time much closer, his warm body leaning over hers, a whisper in her ear.

 

“Marry me.” He pauses, gauging her surprised reaction. “Or—be my partner. Kriff, Rey—I don’t care how it happens. But come with us.”

 

“I—” is about all she can get out, before her eyes fly open, meeting his. He’s half in the hammock, though his knees are still on the ground, and his thick body is wedged between her thighs, weighing her down. Anchoring her to the knotted ropes. “I don’t—”

 

“Han wants you to join us. Chewie, too. Something about pulling the stick from my ass.”

 

No half-smiles now; he beams at her, revealing his uneven teeth. It’s so vulnerable, that smile, more vulnerable than when they were naked together in the Ravager, more vulnerable than the first time he approached her. The enormity of what he’s asking of her, how much of himself he’s offering to her, brings fresh tears to her eyes.

 

Rey wants to accept at once, without doubts… but she can’t. How can she leave, knowing that her family will return to Jakku for her one day? She can’t do that to them; even if it’s the very same thing they’ve done to her.

 

They’re going to come back. And if she’s not here, who knows if she will ever see them again?

 

“I don’t know,” she sobs. “I can’t leave, Ben.” He sighs at that, but when she snatches his hands up in hers, he threads their fingers together and sweeps soft, consoling kisses across her cheeks. “They’ll need me,” she attempts to explain, “when they return. I have to wait for them.”

 

For a long terrible while, Ben hides his face in the crook of her neck and does not respond. She feels wetness there, his own tears, and he shudders against her, but by the time he lifts himself up off her, his eyes are dried, his expression calm.

 

“Then I’ll stay with you,” he resolves, sniffling. “Right here. We’ll wait together.”

 

His fear, his devotion, his need— Rey can feel all of it. She should deny him this, she should send him off towards a destiny befitting a Skywalker.

 

She should ask him why he’s so afraid.

 

But all she can think to say is: “You would, wouldn’t you?”

 

“I would.” He’s serious now, no more smiles. “I will.”

 

“Yes,” she says, breathless, bringing his lips down to hers before reason can prevail. Forget the doubts, forget the fear, forget everything that tells her this is not going to work.

 

It can work. It can. He’ll wait with her, and she’ll never have to be alone again.

 

“Stay, then. Don’t leave, Ben. Stay with me.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

After parting from Ben at the foot of the Falcon’s ramp the next morning, with a drawn-out series of love-drunk kisses, Rey jumps back on her speeder. Off she zooms, intent on sharing the news with Mashra and obtaining her blessing, dizzy with excitement.

 

Of course, she knows Mashra will be a bit hesitant; she’s already voiced her reservations. But surely when she sees how jubilant Rey is, and hears how devoted Ben is, she’ll change her tune?

 

Rey is certain she will. Mashra wants what’s best for her; what could be better for her than having Ben here, as a friend and lover and partner?

 

She doesn’t see Mashra at the outpost, so she continues on to her bunker. On finding the hatch shut tightly, she pounds on it with the fleshy side of her fist.

 

“Come in!” rings out Mashra’s muffled reply.

 

With a few turns of the ring that serves as handle for the hatch, Rey unlocks it, then pulls it open. Eagerly, she throws herself down the ladder, jumping the last few rungs to the sandy floor and landing in a heap. By the time she’s seated upright, Mashra is standing over her, blinking at the light she’s let into the otherwise dimly-lit bunker. One large hairy hand hovers in front of her face: an offering of aid.

 

Rey takes it, and hoists herself back onto her feet.

 

“Well,” sighs Mashra, turning back towards the gas-burner, where a handful of dried lichen is steeping in a pot of boiling water, “I figured it’d only be a matter of time before you came ‘round.”

 

“Oh?” Rey crosses the chamber and collapses into one of the leather sandbag chairs, then watches as Mashra strains the tea into two tin mugs. After ambling across the uneven floor, she shoves one of the mugs into Rey’s hands, then settles herself in her own chair.

 

“Getting involved with a man like that, how else could it end—besides heartbreak and ruin?”

 

“What do you mean?” she asks, struck by the enmity in Mashra’s voice. “It hasn’t ended!”

 

Mashra takes a long swallow of her tea, the interior of her Abednedo mouth impervious to the drink’s scalding heat. Then she takes a deep breath, frowning, as though preparing herself for a dive into the sinking sands.

 

“It’s not right, you and him. Look at who his father is, look at the trouble his mother has caused for the galaxy. Look at his uncle, Rey.” Mashra pauses, gesturing to Rey with her tea. “It’s not a good match, nor is it a practical one. Surely, you must want better for yourself.”

 

“I—”

 

“You certainly deserve better,” Mashra sniffs. “You deserve to have your rightful place with your family, and to be with someone your family approves of. If you leave with him, what will they think, when they return? Hm? How inconstant will you seem to them?”

 

She could easily correct several of Mashra’s misconceptions, but her temper flares before well-reasoned arguments can present themselves. Furiously, Rey hurls the mug to the floor, splattering the sand with tea, then shoots to her feet. For once, she looms over Mashra instead of the other way around, and it gives her the edge she needs to spit out, “How inconstant will I seem? They left me!”

 

“With good reason.”

 

“Which is?” she demands, eyes narrowed. “What possible reason could there be to leave a child with a junk-boss like Unkar Plutt? On a desert planet? Why didn’t they take me, Mashra? Where are they now?” She’s shouting now, spittle flying with each word, but the questions have gone too long unasked, and they demand answers.

 

She’s not thinking about how just last night she insisted to Ben that she had to stay, or how Ben agreed to stay with her. She’s not thinking about anything but this open wound that festers at the very center of her being, never healing, never allowing her to move forward or change. This wound her family inflicted on her, the day they left her behind. That day has ensnared her in a web, which has grown tighter and stronger every day since then.

 

Right now, Rey is reliving that day. But this time, she doesn’t do so with the befuddled sorrow of a child who longs for her parents; she does so with the rage of a woman who has grown up yearning and lonely, who is finally on the cusp of belonging, who is frightened she might never be able or allowed to accept what she has gone so long without.

 

But she gets no answers from Mashra; all she gets is a long-suffering sigh. “Child, I cannot say,” she mutters. “They didn’t share their reasons with me, before they left. But I know your dear mother—she would not go unless your father assured her they would return. And there was a good reason.”

 

“You might know her, but I don’t,” argues Rey.

 

“You must trust me, then.”

 

Rey turns from her, unwilling to let Mashra see the angry tears that have begun to well. She swipes at them, and in a hoarse croak, she informs Mashra, “It doesn’t matter, anyway. Ben’s staying here. With me.”

 

“You can’t be serious.”

 

“And why not?!” Whirling on Mashra, teeth bared, she snarls, “He loves me, Mashra! And I him. That’s what I deserve—I deserve to be loved.”

 

“By the grandson of Darth Vader?”

 

The question is asked so coolly, so calmly, so without feeling, that it is like being smacked across the face by a cold frying pan. Rey is pulled up short, mouth working uselessly as she tries to process what Mashra has just said.

 

“What?” she finally manages.

 

“So you haven’t heard the news,” Mashra surmises. She rises from her seat and moves to one of the bunker’s shelves, where she grabs a small hologram projector; after tossing it to Rey, she leans against the shelf. “I would’ve figured you had—or at the very least, that he would have the decency to tell you—since you two have been… off cavorting together.”

 

Rey looks down at the projector, no bigger than the size of her palm, then back to Mashra. “What?” she repeats.

 

“See for yourself.”

 

The projection comes to life with the flick of a couple buttons; it’s a Bothan newscaster for the Channel 72NA HoloNews. The clip is cued up, and as soon as Rey presses play, the bulletin begins.

 

“Shocking revelation coming out of the Senate today on the heels of Senator Organa-Solo’s announcement of her bid for First Senator. It appears fellow Senator Ransolm Casterfo of the Inner Rim planet Riosa has come forward with an allegation as to the Senator and Alderaanian Princess’s true heritage. We go now to footage from the Senate floor, recorded earlier this morning.”

 

The scene shifts, from the newscaster to the Senate’s many-tiered meeting chamber, where a sandy-haired man with bright blue eyes is pointing at something off-screen.

 

“Do you deny, Senator Organa-Solo,” he hisses, leaning over the balustrade of his floating repulsorpod, “that you are the daughter of one of the galaxy’s most feared and hated despots? Do you deny that Darth Vader is your father? Or that there has been an elaborate cover-up to obscure this scandalous truth?”

 

The camera swings around, capturing countless stunned and whispering faces, before landing on Leia, Princess of the long-gone Alderaan, Senator of the New Republic. She looks… defeated, and sad. Bone-tired. She’s smaller than Rey had imagined— petite, really. Her hair is coiled in intricate silver-brown plaits around her face, and despite the poor quality of the hologram, it’s clear that her maroon gown is fashioned from a sumptuous shiny wool, elegantly flattering yet still appropriate for a government official. A cape of the same material is draped over her shoulders, which shake, almost imperceptibly.

 

“I do not,” she replies stiffly, jutting her chin into the air in a way that is all too familiar.

 

Somehow, when the camera finds him again, Casterfo seems both crestfallen and victorious. The Senate erupts into a cacophony of shocked exclamations and gasps, and the bulletin cuts back to the newscaster, who looks a little pale himself.

 

“Casterfo…” he bumbles for a moment, before he clears his throat, regaining his footing, “has issued a statement as to how the Senate will proceed in this matter.” He clears his throat, then continues: “A committee has been formed, to decide the future of Senator Organa-Solo’s place both within the Senate, and within the war effort against the First Order. We’ll be bringing you more on this story, as it develops. We go now to Arkanis, with live footage of the funeral of the First Order's General Brendol Hux—”

 

The hologram goes dark, and she is left with Mashra, who has stood silently at Rey’s side, rewatching the bulletin.

 

“Does… that mean that Ben…” she tries, but she can’t quite bring herself to say it.

 

All of sudden, she knows where Ben’s fear comes from. The terror he felt— at what they were able to accomplish together— it was because of this.

 

Because he knows.

 

And he didn’t tell her.

 

She’s told him everything about herself. Everything. (Almost everything, she’ll amend later, when she thinks back on their time together. She never really told him just how deeply and quickly she’d fallen in love with him— something she’ll berate herself for. Repeatedly.)

 

Barely registering that she’s collapsed down onto the floor, arms wrapped tightly around her bent knees and holoprojector dropped into the sand, Rey tries to puzzle this out.

 

Leia is mother to Ben. Sister to Luke. Wife to Han.

 

Darth Vader is father to Leia. Father to Luke. Grandfather to Ben.

 

Han must know. He must. Does Chewbacca?

 

Ben does, she’s sure of it. But what does it mean for him? Does he carry the same darkness inside himself that Vader did? Is he afraid because he knows he does, or because he suspects he might?

 

She recalls the fear that had clouded both their minds, back in the Ravager. And that night, with the blaster and her quarterstaff.

 

Of course. Of course. Her airway feels tight, like she’s choking, and her chest aches. Everything aches, as a matter of fact.

 

“The way I see it,” Mashra says, interrupting the sickly hush that has fallen over the bunker, “that boy is going one of two ways. He’ll end up a ne’er-do-well, like his father—or something far worse… like his grandfather.”

 

“We don’t know that,” she gasps.

 

“Rey.” Even for her sanguine temperament, Mashra is unnaturally subdued. She stares at Rey evenly, her brow smooth, her hands relaxed around her mug. “Try to think about this rationally.”

 

Rey shudders; a broken whimper is torn from her throat. She buries her face in her arms.

 

There will be no blessing.

 

How foolish she has been, how deftly she has lied to herself. Of course, Mashra was never going to approve of her and Ben. She sees that now. Especially now that she knows what Mashra knows.

 

“If your mother and father were here, they would agree with me, and you know it. You must see reason, Rey,” she says, as if she can bend Rey’s will to her own if she just insists on it enough. “It is not a good match—it was never a good match.”

 

In her heart, Rey concedes defeat. Mashra is probably right. Another sob she cannot swallow erupts like a wet hiccup, and then another.

 

Because now she gets it. All of those not yets were for naught; yet came anyway. Rey cannot help weeping into her knees. She wants to beg Mashra to turn back time, to not tell her about Vader, to give her just a few more days.

 

She is not ready for yet.

 

Here is the stark truth: the very thing that they have discovered together is what Ben has spent his entire life fearing, and denying. And what’s more, in learning his secret, Rey has been reminded of his place in the galaxy— and her own.

 

How can she be so selfish, as to ask him to stay on this forsaken rock with her, discovering a part of himself that he loathes? How can she keep him here, when he is clearly meant to be so much more— whether following in his mother’s footsteps, or his father’s, or forging his own path free of them? How can she divert him from that path?

 

No. She cannot. She will not. Feeling hopeless, understanding what must be done, she weeps. For him. For herself. For what might have been. Mashra shows her compassion, in that she leaves Rey to her heartbreak; silently, she watches over her, intruding only to wrap a scratchy bantha wool blanket around her shoulders.

 

In the dark golden smokiness of light shone through amber, they have tentatively stumbled into love; now there is only the light, no more amber. In the shadows, in ignorance, their love could thrive. But in the light?

 

A blazing trail of truth has scorched Rey, within and without.

 

This, she understands, they cannot survive.

 

 

. . .

 

 

By the time she leaves Mashra's bunker, the sky is blood red and packed with heavy clouds that will bring no rain or relief from the stifling heat. The wind has died down to nothing, the whole world hangs in a few final moments of stasis. Everything still feels vivid to the point of surreality to Rey; implicitly she knows, as she pushes her speeder to its limits, racing back to the junkyard, that she will remember every detail— the scent, the sky, the stillness— for the rest of her days.

 

Ben is right where she left him, right where he always seems to be: waiting for her, at the bottom of the Falcon’s boarding ramp.

 

He pulls her into his arms before she can say a word. Maybe he senses her anguish, although her eyes have long since dried, and she did what she could to gather her wits before leaving Mashra’s.

 

Under his breath, almost past the point of hearing because Rey’s ear is pressed to his chest, inside of which the thundering of his heart is deafening, she hears him ask, “How’d it go?”

 

The ache blooms once more in her own chest— a physiological response to that question and the inevitability of what must happen next. Trying to breathe through it, she murmurs, “Let’s take a walk.”

 

Rey cannot think of a way to begin, so for a long while, they meander along in stilted silence. The air is still, but not peaceful; she’s wound tighter than a shock whip and she’s buzzing with twice as much nervous energy. Ben senses it, of course. How could he not? They’re connected now. He sends anxious, curious frowns her way as they walk, his gaze lingering as he tries to decipher her mien, her bearing, her silence.

 

But she is desperate. Still feeling as though she’s choking, she holds onto these last moments with him. The last bit of life with Ben; even now, she knows that she will miss this, miss him, horribly. It eats at her. So— maybe out of pure selfishness— she refuses to speak.

 

In this way, they venture far enough that they come to the Sitter. There is a lonely tower of rock several kilometers north of Niima Outpost, carved into being by a great river an eon ago, when Jakku still had rivers. On it, there sits a man. A monk and a hermit, who has devoted his life to solitude and his supposed connection to the Force. She can just barely spy him atop the outcropping; he sits facing south, watching the scarlet sun sink behind the dunes. Wondering if Ben will ask her about him, if maybe they can prolong this fragile peace just a little while longer, she darts a cautious glance his way.

 

“Okay, enough,” says Ben, quietly. He stops walking, and takes her hand in his.

 

With a tug, he halts her progress as well, bringing her round to face him. “Rey…” He looks worried, and he should be, and already Rey knows two things: she can’t put this conversation off any longer, and she will not escape it unscathed. “What’s wrong?”

 

Do it, she spurs herself on. Do it. You have to say it—you have to let him go.

 

“I can’t…” is all she gets out, before the first sob wracks her chest.

 

He reaches for her but she pulls away, tugging her hand free of his.

 

You,” she amends. “You can’t stay here with me.”

 

“What?”

 

A step forward from him, a step back from her. He’s frowning, confused. If he touches her, she’s lost. If he puts his arms around her, if their lips meet— she’ll never have the strength to do this. She’ll never set him free from her, from what their connection has done to him. What it’s awakened.

 

It's no more than a whisper, when she forces the words out. “Darth Vader."

 

Ben’s face falls. His arms hang limply by his sides; for one moment, his features contort with horror and despair, then he schools them into that old stoic mask. Full lips pressed together calmly, eyes narrowed to slits, chin raised high in the air. Proud. Dignified.

 

“So you heard. My mother…” he pauses, exhaling heavily through his nose, “is not having a good week.”

 

“How could you not tell me?”

 

“How could I?” he sends back. A long beat passes, and then: “I tried. I told you, I decided long ago—I’m not him. I’ll—never be like him.”

 

“Then why hide it?”

 

He sighs. “Leia told me the truth when I was eight years old. She’d been protecting me, before that—my uncle taught her to shield my presence from other Force users, even before I was born.”

 

“She has the Force too?” Rey gasps.

 

“Yes,” he bites out, looking at her like she is crushing all his hopes. Again, he corrals his expression into something neutral and inscrutable; it kills her, to feel him move backwards like that. Away from her, even if he’s standing right there. Even if she could make herself take two steps and reach out to him, he’s slipping away from her in ways that can’t be halted with a touch or a kiss.

 

“I told you.” He tosses his hair back from his face and glares up at the Sitter. “Han Solo needed me—and I him. I didn’t need the Force, I didn’t need Vader’s legacy. I was eight years old. My parents asked me to choose my future, and keep their secrets.” He shrugs. “So I did.”

 

He turns towards her, although he doesn’t make another attempt to step closer. “It doesn’t mean anything. Who he is—who I am. I’m not him.”

 

“Ben, I… I can’t ask you to stay.”

 

She blinks rapidly, trying to keep the tears from once again falling. She’s cried more today than she has in a long time, and more since she met him than she has since parents left; her eyes burn from all the crying. No more tears, she begs the universe, although she knows it’s not a request that can be granted. All that is going to be left to her is her tears, when this is said and done.

 

“You don’t have to,” he says. “I want to be here. With you. Together, remember?”

 

“You can’t—” she starts, but he’s blinking back tears now too. She must make a choice; she decides to take the path of least resistance. “I can’t ask you to be nothing like me, left behind on a dead planet. You’re a Skywalker,” she mumbles.

 

“No. No!” he bellows. Frantically, he tears a hand through his hair, an angry gesture she’s witnessed his father do, from time to time. “Rey, what are you saying? This isn’t about Jakku—”

 

“Okay, it’s about me.” She sounds so ragged, so despondent, she can hardly believe it’s her lips moving, her voice speaking these words. “You… you deserve better.”

 

He looks struck by that. Hurt. “Do I? And you get to decide?” he spits out, before huffing, “Yeah, it’s about you. Your fear. In the Ravager, when we—”

 

“Fine,” she heaves, wetly. “It’s about my fear.” Now she steps towards him, but it is Ben who stumbles back. Away from her. Away. “But it’s about yours, too.” Two more steps: hers forward, his backward. “When we use the Force together, you’re so afraid, Ben. Why? Is it because of him—Darth Vader?”

 

“Don’t.” He shakes his head, stepping back again. She couldn’t reach him now, not even with her quarterstaff extended in her hands, he’s put so much space between them. “Don’t. I’m not him.”

 

“But you’re afraid you could be.”

 

Rey pulls herself up to her full height. Stiffly, formally, in the manner she saw his mother address her rival on the Senate floor this morning, she declares, “I cannot ask you to stay here with me, Ben. I can not ask you to spend your life in fear of the things we can do together—to risk becoming like him. I can’t. But I can’t leave. So you have to.” She bites her lip, then forces the last bit out, flinching when her voice breaks: “Without me.”

 

It’s almost done now, she can tell. He has tears in his own eyes, and his lips quiver before they draw back into a sneer. Anger. Fine. She’ll take his anger.

 

“It’s fine,” she bluffs. “We had fun together, we might have been in lo—” no, she can’t quite bring herself to say it, because right now she has to finish this, even though her chest is beginning to crack open, and his wounded glower is pouring venom inside, and she’s going to die from this pain, this is going to kill her—

 

“But this isn’t your path. You’re meant for other things. Better things, probably,” she says.

 

“I wasn’t so afraid,” he murmurs. “Not when I was holding you.”

 

“You were, though. I felt you, Ben.” She nearly chokes on her sob. “This isn’t—we both knew it wouldn’t last.”

 

“I didn’t,” he says, the hurt in his tone bleeding out into the dusky air. “I didn’t know that.”

 

“My family—”

 

“You’re still holding onto them. Why?” he seethes, volume rising as he speaks. “I let go of Vader." A lie, Rey now knows, but not one she has the heart to correct. “Let go of them—they let go of you. Sold you to a junk-boss. Forgot about you!”

 

Rey sucks in a sharp inhale, breathing all of his vitriol into herself. “They didn’t!” she shouts, refusing to meet his eyes.

 

“They did.” A long painful second passes; Rey offers no response. It’s all she can do not to throw herself at his feet, and beg him to take back his angry words if she takes back hers. She wants to beg him to ignore her, to fight for her, to stay— even if it dooms them both. “Rey…” he implores, “Look at me.”

 

How can she know, at that moment, that this is the last sliver of vulnerability that he will ever share with her? Would she have answered differently, if she had known that in the next breath he was going to shut her out so tightly that she'd feel as though she’d been jettisoned into the cold dark emptiness of space? Would she have said something less heartless, less callous?

 

Would she have shown him grace?

 

She looks at him. He’s moved close again. So close. “I love you,” he says, hushed. “Please—”

 

Rey will wonder for years after. She’ll replay this moment, and her next words, again and again. And each time, they will bury her, a rockslide of cruelty from which she can never unearth herself.

 

But in this moment, Rey does not benefit from the wisdom of hindsight. So she hugs herself defensively, looks down at her booted feet, and mumbles:

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

It’s all done now. All their moments, all their days, all the not yets, all the tenderness, all the understanding, all the forgiveness— ruined. Her boots are scuffed, ragged; a hole is forming near one toe. She can barely see the hole, through the tears.

 

Horrible, empty silence ensues. She can feel his gaze, trying to pry her open again. She can't bring herself to look up.

 

“I’m sure you are,” he scoffs, at last. Only then, when she hears that disgusted acceptance in his voice, does she allow herself to drink him in, one last time; he’s sneering at her, lip curled, shaking his head. “I thought I knew you. I thought you and I…”

 

“You were wrong,” she cuts across him, another errant sob breaking free. But she takes nothing back. Let it be done, she prays, to R’iia, to the Force, to whoever or whatever will release them from the pain of this separation. Let it all be over now.

 

“You’re right.” His eyes are shuttered once more, his thoughts unknowable, his body unreadable. He turns from her. The last thing Ben Solo will ever say to her before he allows her to break both their hearts is almost lost to the growing distance them and the still night; she has to strain her ears to catch his final words.

 

“I was wrong.”

 

With that, he’s gone, storming off towards Niima Outpost.

 

Rey drops to the sand for the second time in one day, cross-legged and crying. For a long time, she sits like that, at the foot of the Sitter’s rock tower, watching Ben grow smaller and smaller in the distance until he disappears completely behind a dune. The Sitter, not visible from this angle, offers no sage wisdom from on high— he has given his life to silence, and probably resents her and Ben’s intrusion upon that devotion.

 

She’s not welcome here, although she’d very much like to climb up there and devote her life to silence and abstention as well. She basically has anyway, why not make it official?

 

She cries and she cries and she cries and she cries. Until it hurts, until she’s empty, until everything feels hollow and and brittle and broken.

 

Finally, just as the last of the red is drained from the darkening sky, she wipes her cheeks dry with one of the drapey ends of her linen wrappings. Then she picks herself up and plods her way back to her speeder. She will barely remember the ride back to the AT-AT, later— it is conducted in a kind of sorrow-filled fugue state.

 

What she will remember is the feeling of tumbling into her hammock. The feeling of more hot tears on her cheek. The feeling of a hot jagged splinter burrowing itself deep into her chest while she stares up at the bouquet of nightbloomers he picked for her, which she has hanged on a copper wire above her hammock.

 

The feeling of regret.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She’s on her speeder before sunrise the next morning, but the Millennium Falcon is nowhere to be seen when she arrives at the junkyard.

 

She searches for them everywhere, frantic, desperate to take it all back. But wherever she looks, she finds only more absence. More nothing.

 

The junkyard. Niima Outpost, the Starship Graveyard, the Badlands and the canyons, the foothills of Carbon Ridge, Tuanul and the two shanties that constitute Cratertown. Everywhere. Every last place she can think of.

 

But they are nowhere, nowhere, nowhere. Endless aching nowhere.

 

Gone. The Millennium Falcon is gone, Chewbacca is gone, Han is gone.

 

Ben is gone.

 

Her love is gone.

 

Finally, as another day slips into night, she returns home to her empty AT-AT, and once more curls up in her hammock, not bothering to light any glowlanterns, or feed herself, or sleep. She clutches her purloined postcard, stares at the tallied marks— the total sum of her life, scratched each dusk into the wall of an abandoned armored transport in the desert of a nowhere rock— and she thinks of nothing.

 

Nothing, nothing, nothing. Endless aching nothing.

 

She does not leave for nearly a week. Not until Mashra finds her and forces her to get up, helping her to bathe and eat. With wet eyes but a firmly-set snout, she strong-arms Rey back to work, compels her to keep living.

 

No. Living is too strong a word, for life after Ben. It lends more credit to the quality of her days than they deserve. Rey does not live, she subsists. She survives. She fights, as she always has, all her life.

 

She endures.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Two years later, when her family returns, they are pleased as can be to find her exactly where they left her.

 

And that, as they say, is that.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

Chandrila is blue, from a distance.

 

Rey can just catch sight of it, if she leans forward in the cargo hauler’s uncomfortable jumpseat and peeks out the starboard viewport. A deep coruscating sapphire blue, like the fruit of the Tuanulberry bush. Dressed in wisps and sheets of drowsy white cloud, it spins through the velveteen black cosmos, illuminated by a single star and orbited by two moons, one a glowing lavender and the other golden amber.

 

The hauler glides into the planet’s orbit. Land masses begin to emerge from beneath the passing clouds. Between the seas rise white-tipped peaks and shadowy green valleys; in the places where the world is flat, there stretch vast expanses of wheat-hued plains.

 

This is no barren rock. It’s a living planet, alive in its own right and supporting all manner of lives in the bargain. She breathes in the ship’s stale recycled air, and tries to quiet the strident thumping of her nervous heart.

 

She’d thought that leaving Jakku would change everything, would change her. She’d thought there would be a defined before and after, like there was with him. It’s been three days: she can say with clarity that it both has and has not. She’s left something behind, she knows that much; a piece of herself has been abandoned to the desert so she could be free. There was something electrifying about it: leaving, finally, after all this time. Boarding the ramp of the hauler, bidding a wordless farewell to Niima Outpost, the Graveyard, the Badlands, Cratertown, the dunes and canyons and everything else that had made up the first twenty-seven years of her life. It had been like a stiff breeze across sweat-chilled skin.

 

She’d felt alive, in that moment. Truly alive.

 

But as she watched Jakku recede in the viewport, becoming nothing more than a pale blonde dot before it was swallowed by darkness, a wave of apathy washed over her.

 

She was still Rey, after all. Child of the desert, forgotten girl— when they soared past Jakku’s moons and then its sun, when they made the jump to lightspeed, all the galaxy a blue-white blur outside the ship—

 

Unaltered. Forever a sad shade; still tired, still lonely, still alone. Even in a hauler full of fellow travelers on their own journeys across the Core and Inner Rim, she was alone. Is alone. Will always be alone.

 

The days have passed, in galactic standard hours. One day, then two, then three. Listlessly, without all the labor that would lend shape to her days, she has eaten, and slept, and roamed the drab rusted passageways, looking at everything and seeing nothing.

 

And then the time comes— between what seems to be one blink of her weary eyes and the next— for them to strap themselves into their seats, because they’re broaching Chandrila’s exosphere. The ship bounces along, fighting the drag as it sinks down towards the planet’s surface.

 

“As I understand it, we have left Chandrila’s stratosphere and entered its richly oxygenated troposphere,” says the genteel librarian droid strapped in next to her, who has provided a continuous monotone narration of the proceedings whenever he’s encountered her, ever since she sat down next to him on the first day of her journey.

 

Now, at the edges of the seas, rising from the forests, and nestled alongside the dark snaking rivers, Rey spies the silvery-white gleam of cities, sprawling and proud.

 

“The average year-round temperature in Hanna City, the planet’s capital, located on the shore of the Silver Sea,” he continues, as the tallest of said capital’s alabaster buildings sweep into view, “is a balmy twenty-four degrees Celsius. Average rainfa—”

 

“Yes,” Rey interrupts, not bothering to tear her eyes from the spires and domes, the busy skylanes and trees, everywhere trees. A sprawling forest rolls away from the city as far as the eye can see; more shades of green than she’s ever imagined could even exist in the galaxy. “Thank you, Persee.”

 

“Oh! But—oh, I see. Well. You are—quite welcome, Miss Rey,” he replies, before lapsing into dejected silence.

 

Before she knows it, they’re easing down onto the Hanna City Spaceport, a massive duracrete landing platform upon which Niima Outpost could fit with room to spare. Three officers— militia, maybe, or law enforcement of some kind— board the hauler to check the identichips of disembarking passengers. Once she's been checked and approved, she stumbles down the gangway behind a Bothan family, the bright glare of the Chandrilan morning sunshine making her eyes hurt. Her sackcloth satchel crammed full of all her possessions is slung over one shoulder, she clutches her quarterstaff in a death grip; she turns just in time to watch the hauler lift up into the air and zoom off into the sky.

 

That's that, then.

 

Rey worries at her lip. The platform is busy, ships endlessly arriving and departing, blaster rifle-armed officers everywhere and all manner of sentient species milling about. Teary-eyed hugs are taking place alongside stacks of cargo crates; the ground vibrates beneath her feet as does the air around her, from all the commotion.

 

A deep inhale; she fits as much Chandrilan air into her lungs as she can. The starport doesn’t smell particularly sweet but the air carries scents that are decidedly unfamiliar, so she savors them.

 

Forest, she notes, looking out across the landing pad to the trees that hem one side of the port. Trees. And looking the other way, at the looming silver and white buildings— city. People.

 

(Was she able to smell these things on him? Can she still dredge them up, the sense of calm she felt when she pressed her face between his jaw and his throat, breathing in the smell of trees and mechanic’s grease and cities and him?

 

Maybe it was all in her mind.)

 

Rey’s been given strict instructions from her sister, which she does her best to follow; weaving between ships and cargo and passengers and pilots and officers, she makes her way towards the city side of the port.

 

Go through the station. Do not buy anything.

 

She passes into the duracrete terminal, a hulking grey eyesore that seems oddly brutish and slapdash compared to the beautiful silver filigree and glass edifices rising up behind it. Then she crosses the echoing hall, attempting to filter out the shouting vendors and bright advertiscreens and million other things that draw her eye in every direction. It’s almost too much, the colors and the sounds and the people, R’iia’s shorts, all the people. To avoid standing spellbound in the current making its way towards the doors, Rey keeps her head down, eyes riveted to her booted feet.

 

Leave through the big front doors, then walk down the stairs. Poe will be there, waiting for you.

 

Do not talk about his older sister.

 

He’s been quite snippy since he got back.

 

Exiting through the looming front entrance out onto the streets of Old Hannatown district, quite close to the water, she’s set off blinking once more at the shift from the terminal’s stony gloom to cheery morning sunlight. It seems to set the city ablaze.

 

And sure enough, when her eyes adjust, there he is. Parked at the foot of a hundred or so stone steps is none other than the retired Captain Poe Dameron. He’s sitting in the driver’s seat of a beat-up old airspeeder. Its aggressively cheerful pink paint is chipped and scuffed, its leather seats— visible because its roof has been retracted behind the back seat— are marked with stitches where they’ve been torn and mended. The thing is wide and flat, hovering a half meter off the street; it could easily fit six or seven on its two bench seats.

 

A good vehicle for a family, maybe.

 

Poe doesn’t see her at once; his feet are propped up on the console, and he’s scrolling through something on the datapad he holds in one hand. A pair of dark glareshades hide his eyes from her.

 

If the shift from terminal to street made her blink, this shift, from the Poe of her memory— thirty-something, outfitted in the standard orange flightsuit all pilots of the New Republic wore, his dark hair trimmed short and his cheeks clean-shaven, an easy smile making his handsome face more approachable— to Poe as he is now, on the brink of forty and looking tired, dressed in trousers and boots and a drab nerf-wool sweater, all speckled with mud… it takes her breath away.

 

He’s got greys in his longer-than-regulation curls; he’s grown a grey-flecked beard. Struck by the passage of time, feeling like a thousand-ton anchor has been strung from her neck, Rey stands frozen on the top step of the terminal, staring down at him.

 

As if he can feel her eyes on him, he looks up from the datapad and scans the vicinity. His head swivels towards the station; she catches the surprised jump of his dark eyebrows from behind the glareshades.

 

“Rey!” he calls out.

 

That breaks the trance. With a start, Rey begins to pick her way down the stairs. Poe jumps out of the speeder, doing the same in reverse; they meet in the middle, and he gestures for her to hand him the bag. She obliges without comment but holds onto her quarterstaff, giving him a subtle shake of her head when he reaches for it.

 

“Uh, right,” he says. “C’mon then.”

 

Once her bag is deposited on the back seat, he wipes his hands on his trousers, then pulls in a deep breath. Awkwardly, they stand there, looking at each other.

 

“Hullo, Poe,” she manages at last, through a smile so wan he must be able to sense her unease.

 

“Hey. Sorry about—the clothes.” His grin is weak too; more of a grimace, really. “We’re in the middle of harvest season.”

 

“Oh. It’s… no bother. Thank you, for coming to get me.”

 

He sighs, then runs his hands through his curls. The sun catches the silver strands, drawing her notice again; he’s got even more than her. Another reminder: none of them are getting any younger.

 

“Welcome to Chandrila.” He shrugs. “It’s… good to see you, Rey.”

 

“Yes, er—same.” She juts her hand out, in lieu of offering a hug to the man who, for a brief time, wanted to marry her. Lips pursed in a dissatisfied moue, he takes it. They shake once, perfunctorily.

 

“You look…” he trails off, watching her hand fall back to her side. Rey adjusts her grip on her quarterstaff and waits for him to go on. He doesn’t.

 

“Yes?” she prompts, after a beat.

 

Is it that bad? Is she as altered as he is? Again, she recalls how weary she’d felt of her own mind upon leaving Jakku, how unchanged she felt. But then, how can she compare who she is in her mind to the way she appears to others? Self-conscious, she smooths her hand over her tightly braided tresses, a new hairstyle. New planet, new hairstyle, new Rey, she’d told herself when she’d awoken just hours ago on the hauler. Who knows if saying the words makes them real? Maybe it’s pointless. But she’d figured she should at least try.

 

“Swell,” he mutters, not meeting her eyes. Hands shoved in the pockets of his trousers, he rocks back on his heels. “Real swell.”

 

“…Th—anks,” she says.

 

Across the street stands the entrance to the Old Hannatown Market, cheerful and welcoming. It’s a stone arch from which hang colorful fluttering flags, each inscribed with a different sigil. Beyond it, there is a small plaza lined with stalls and shops, and the ingress points of several shadowy winding alleys. The entire place is teeming with shoppers and vendors, all laughing and conversing and haggling. There’s more activity in that plaza and its alleys than she has seen in the entirety of her life on Jakku.

 

Over their heads, skylanes buzz with traffic: airspeeders and hovertrains and bikes and taxis and buses. Above that, a perfect azure sky is streaked with high cirrus clouds, tattered and spare. A yellow sun shines. These, at least, she recognizes. Two familiar things: a sun and a blue sky. Just like home.

 

Land transports come and go along the street. The road— she’s only ever seen one before, the pilgrim’s road, no more than a long stretch of sand compounded by centuries of passing monks— is paved with duracrete, same as the the port’s landing zone and the station. It glitters in the sun. There is noise, and warmth, but it is not like Jakku’s warmth. The air holds moisture; she can feel it on her skin and in her lungs, after a lifetime of sere desert air.

 

She should have left a long time ago. She should have come here, she should have breathed this air. Should have been with her sister and her nephews.

 

“Uh,” Poe says, interrupting her reverie, “We should get going. Got a lot of work to do in the orchard, and—Goz is pretty eager to see you. She’s,” he clears his throat, his expression somewhere between annoyed and embarrassed, “not feelin’ too well today.”

 

“Right.” She nods. When he gestures to the passenger side of the airspeeder, she clambers in beside him.

 

Having apparently already run out of safe topics for conversation, they head off in uncomfortable silence.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The Dameron house is a small one-story bungalow situated on a strip of land where the forest that surrounds Hanna City meets the sands that flank the Silver Sea. A country home, technically, though riding by airspeeder it takes mere minutes to reach it. The house is backed by tall narrow-trunked trees with peeling silver-brown bark and branches dripping in dark green needles, and its living room, which Rey can see from the wayside garage where Poe parks the airspeeder, looks out upon the water through floor-to-ceiling windows. Its white steelstone walls shine in the morning sun; a dark green roof, interrupted by wide stretches of skylight, slopes down over the front and back of the bungalow.

 

There isn’t anything ostentatious in its architecture. As Gozetta has complained to her over her periodic hologram calls, it is a modest home. In harmony with the elements around it, Rey thinks. It looks, to her, as though it has been nestled quite comfortably into this meeting ground between beach and forest. She likes it, from the moment she sets eyes on it.

 

They climb out of the airspeeder, Rey’s bag settled on Poe’s shoulder, and walk slowly towards the house, still without speaking. The soil around the home is sandy; idly, she wonders if they chose this place on purpose because it reminds Gozetta of Jakku. Then she scoffs at her own sentimentality, because of course, her younger sister did not grow up on Jakku. She could not possibly have much attachment to the planet.

 

Off a ways, near the dunes that separate beach from trees, sits a gazebo constructed from light green wood. Rey ogles it without shame; it’s beautiful, its sturdy columns elaborately carved with fruits and flowers. But that’s not what draws her eye. Inside it are two dark-haired boys seated on a bench swing, beside what appears to be a general labor droid. They’re playing with a fleet of model starfighters. She recognizes them immediately as her nephews; they are the spitting image of Poe. They’re so big.

 

She has already missed so much of their young lives.

 

“Tintolive tree,” says Poe, out of nowhere. Rey glances at him and he nods at the gazebo. “That’s what—the gazebo. It’s made from tintolive tree, native to Chandrila. It was a wedding present from Senator Organa.”

 

She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from peppering him with a hundred questions. Instead, she simply rasps, “Lovely.”

 

The boys have taken notice of their father’s arrival; haltingly, the older tugging on the hand of the younger, they scramble over the dunes to greet him.

 

“Dad!” shrieks the older, throwing his arms around Poe’s right leg.

 

“Dad!” emulates the younger, doing the same to the other.

 

“Oh-ho, all right,” Poe laughs, tousling their hair. “Say hello to your Aunt Rey.” The boys peer up at her from behind their father’s legs, suddenly bashful. “Rey,” he say, “This is Poe Junior and Weir. C’mon guys, say hello.”

 

They issue a barely-audible, “Hello,” in unison before redirecting their attention to Poe. In turns, they impart on him a rambling tale about the bulabird nest they found earlier this morning.

 

Rey glances towards the house. She thinks she might catch sight of a pale face in the wall of glass— strikingly like her own, she and her younger sister have always looked more like Hedda, while Verla’s looks resemble Ergel’s, haughty and sharp— but before she can wave, it disappears.

 

“Is that so?” Poe replies, bemused, as they ramble. He varies this with the occasional, “Huh,” and “Wow!”

 

Her attention is drawn to the mechanical sounds of a landscaping droid, hard at work weeding a small garden blooming with vegetables and flowers; another beeps out something to it in binary from an open window, and it responds in kind, a litany of irritated-sounding whistles and chirps.

 

“Little Poe’s almost five now,” Poe says, calling her gaze back to him and the boys. They grin up at her; the younger Poe is missing one of his front teeth. “So he’s allowed to take Weir as far as the gazebo. Exciting stuff, huh?”

 

“Ah,” she says. For lack of any experience with children and not knowing what else to say, she smiles at Little Poe and affirms, “Very exciting!”

 

“Is it true you’re a scavenger?” he blurts out.

 

“Poe—” says his father, warningly, but he’s already got the next question lined up:

 

“Is it true you’re a desert rat? Also, what’s a desert rat?” He barely takes time to breathe before adding, “It is true you helped Dad find old ships on Jakku during the war?”

 

Poe winces. “All… right, that’s enough, big guy. Time to head to the orchard! Whaddya say, want to help Dad pick some fruit?”

 

“Yeah!” comes their raucous response. Poe ushers them towards the house, with instructions to put on their grubby orchard clothes.

 

When they’re out of earshot, he sighs and gives her a sheepish shrug. “They’re fine,” he says. Rey isn’t sure if he’s reassuring her or himself. She nods along, agreeing either way. “Lots of energy, very rambunctious. I was the same, back in the day.”

 

“‘Course.” She forces a smile, trying to convey her understanding. “They seem very nice. And—they look just like you.”

 

“You think?” he asks, perking up.

 

“Spitting image.”

 

He puffs up like a Vworkka at that, his face glowing with pride. Just as quickly as his spirits rise, they fall; his eyes linger on her face a moment too long, he opens his mouth to speak, and Rey is afraid he might be about to address their shared past, so she hastily proclaims, “I’d better go inside, see how Goz is doing!”

 

Poe slams his mouth shut for a moment before replying, “Right. Yeah. I’ll just… work to do. Harvest, and all that.” He hands Rey her bag, then turns towards the speeder, leaving her alone on the lawn.

 

“Poe!” she calls out.

 

“Yeah?” He spins back, eager, as though he’d been hoping she would object to his departing.

 

Earnestly, Rey says, “I’m—so glad, that you made it back. From… well. That you’re back.”

 

A half-hearted nod. His face is directed away from her, towards the sea.

 

“Thank you again,” she continues, “for letting me stay here. It must be nice, to finally be home again and I—” she scrunches her nose, hesitating, unsure if it’s the right time to bring up the sister he lost in the war. Gozetta had forbid Rey from mentioning her, but that doesn’t seem right. Yes, it’s uncomfortable enough between them already, but shouldn’t she pay some sort of respect? For a moment, she wavers, unsure what recourse is kindest. Now Poe watches her, dark eyes shining; it’s likely he knows exactly what’s got her so conflicted.

 

The boys’ shouts cut through the tension. They’re barreling towards the speeder, dressed in attire equally drab to Poe’s. Sensible for farming. Beyond the sands, the sea lives up to its name; its roaring silver swells glitter so brightly that Rey cannot look directly at them. The breeze rushing past them is briny; she had never imagined, in all the holos she’s seen of oceans, how much they would smell of salt.

 

“I’m so sorry about Terena,” she whispers, at last.

 

A slight raise of his shoulders, like he is shaking off the sentiment. “We’ve all lost people.” He tilts his head, words infused with unspoken meaning. “Haven’t we?”

 

Does he know? He might; his family is acquainted with the Solo-Organas, after all. And the Damerons and Luke Skywalker are old war buddies, aren’t they?

 

(He might even have fought the First Order alongside… him. Ben, she forces herself to think. Maybe if she says his name more often in her mind, it’ll hurt her less to hear it spoken aloud.)

 

Then again, he could be talking about her and himself. Does Poe still feel jilted, after all these years? He looks at her with a guarded expression, which suggests he might. But what did he expect? That she would arrive in Chandrila and apologize— again— for her kind but firm rejections of his short-lived attempt to woo her?

 

That she would want to dredge up the week he spent moping around Cratertown after, before he and Gozetta suddenly became an item? Or their whirlwind courtship, encouraged by Mashra? The impromptu marriage in Tuanul? Their hasty departure? Rey lifts her chin high. She has nothing to apologize for. Not to Poe.

 

Besides, she’s had enough of the past, of bad blood and half-buried bones. Let Poe’s affection for her stay on Jakku, where she did her best to swiftly snuff it out.

 

“I suppose we have,” is all she says.

 

He huffs at that, mouth closed and eyes shuttered. “Okay, Rey,” is all he says, sounding unimpressed, before he turns once more towards the airspeeder where her nephews sit waiting for him.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She enters the house from the beach side, slipping through a hallway of closed doors— leading to bedrooms and washrooms, she suspects— before walking out into an airy open room that clearly serves as parlor, dining room, and kitchen.

 

At the far end of the space, a kitchen droid beeps cheerfully at her as it cleans a nanowave stove. Through the windowed ocean-facing wall, Rey can see the beach and the shining water. The room borders on sweltering, a result of morning sunlight. She can tell that it was probably very nice when it was first built; now it is strewn with toys and clothes, its carpeting faded and stained, its white Fibrolite walls dappled with scuffs.

 

Quietly, in case her sister is asleep, she lays her bag and quarterstaff down.

 

“So,” laments a reedy voice, “you’ve arrived. Finally. Thought maybe you’d forgotten me.”

 

She draws near the sofa. Her sister was hidden from view by its high back, upholstered in what was once doubtlessly luxurious phil-fiber brocade. Another step, and now she can see her; there, on the sagging cushions, lies Gozetta. One of her slim pale hands is flung dramatically over her eyes. Her form, not dissimilar to what Rey’s might have been at twenty-two if she’d been fed well all her life and had borne two children, is covered up by a thick knitted blanket. She’s taller than Rey had remembered, taller than Rey even; her socked feet are propped up on the threadbare arm at the opposite end of the sofa.

 

Rey circles it and seats herself beside Gozetta’s leg. Pushing her hand away from her face, Rey offers up a tentative smile.

 

“Hullo, Goz,” she says softly, looking upon her sister— not some flickering holoprojection, but the real thing— for the first time in years. The resemblance between them is uncanny; same freckled cheeks (though hers have become sunken where Gozetta’s are still full), same pert nose, same soft square face and high brow, same messy chestnut brown hair.

 

“I’m sick again,” is Gozetta’s reply, followed by a plaintive: “I haven’t been able to eat a thing all morning. And no one has come to check on me once. The boys ran in here just to change, then ran out again without saying a single word to me!”

 

“Good to see you, too.” Rey smirks, and Gozetta rolls her moss green eyes.

 

“You took so long to get here,” she says, accusatory.

 

“There were a lot of loose ends to tie up before I could leave.”

 

“But I missed you! What could be so important that it would keep anyone on that ugly rock?”

 

Rey sighs. “Just… things. Had to get the bar in order, see Verla and Pa off, sell my speeder—”

 

“No!” Gozetta’s response is a shocked gasp; she understands, at least to a degree, how much the speeder meant to Rey.

 

“I couldn’t ask Mashra to pay to bring it on the transport,” Rey says, with studied indifference.

 

“That’s a shame.” Gozetta frowns. Then: “Aren’t you going to ask me about the Damerons? They’ve been so rude to me lately, Rey, really, it’s a miracle I haven’t taken the boys and—”

 

“Well,” she interjects, adjusting her perched position on the sofa cushion, “I’m here now, and I’m never rude to you. And I really did miss you, too. How about your kitchen droid—”

 

“Elnine-Geeate.”

 

“Okay—Geeate can make us some tea, how about? And you can tell me all the news of the Damerons and Chandrila and everything that’s happened since we last spoke.”

 

“I suppose.” Wiping her dry cheeks, Gozetta sniffles piteously. Then she cranes her neck, directing a barked command at the droid across the room. “Geeate, tea! The good stuff, manellan jasper. And… bring me a plate of sliced nerf jerky. And a bowl of brestel nuts.” She stops to consider for a second, then adds, “And a couple of koyo fruits, pitted and peeled.”

 

L9-G8 trills out its understanding and begins to prepare what she’s asked for; Gozetta is hardly paying attention, having already pulled herself up into a seated position and launched into a diatribe on her current bout of illness.

 

Rey settles herself on the cushion where Gozetta’s legs were previously resting. Feeling strangely content in a way she doesn’t care to examine, she listens closely, comments sparsely, and commits herself wholeheartedly to the delicate mission of cheering her sister up.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Chandrila is populated entirely by snobs and rubes,” Gozetta concludes, around a mouthful of brestel nuts. “And not a single one of them appreciates the importance of our ancestry.”

 

Now it is Rey’s turn to roll her eyes, at hearing her father’s tired complaints coming out of her sister’s mouth.

 

“A travesty,” she deadpans.

 

“It is!”

 

“But… you live between the ocean and the forest, Goz. Look at it.” She gestures at the window; the sea rolls in and out, its silvery-blue waves tipped in pearlescent foam as they crash upon the sand, and the tall trees sway in a gentle breeze under the nearly cloudless sky. “It’s wonderful. Paradise.”

 

Gozetta gives a slight harrumph; Rey thinks it sounds something like an acknowledgement of the truth in her words.

 

“Being a mother is hard,” she admits, in a small voice. “I’m not sure if I like it.” Her eyes are wide, brimmed with genuine tears. “It makes me feel like a bad person, saying that.”

 

“You’re not,” Rey assures her. Gozetta shrugs so she repeats, more insistently, “You’re not. Really. You’re not bad, to feel that way. You’re doing your best, aren’t you?”

 

That gets a reluctant nod.

 

“Well, then.” Rey tilts her head to meet Gozetta’s eyes. How young she looks, how scared. “Oh, come here.”

 

She gathers her sister up in her arms, hugging her tightly. Gozetta gives a little whimper, then falls quiet. For a few minutes, they simply sit there, listening to the waves and the quiet whirr of L9-G8 as it tidies up.

 

“How about some fresh air?” Rey suggests, after a time. “I’d like to see that orchard I’ve heard so much about.”

 

“Yes,” Gozetta says, nodding and wiping her cheeks, down which run two drying trails of tears. “Yes, of course. I shall give you the grand tour.”

 

Groaning, she rises from the sofa, pulling Rey up with her. Again, her height surprises Rey; though they’d lived together for a time, she’s forgotten just how statuesque her little sister is. She stands at least ten centimeters above Rey.

 

“Let me just change into something nice.” She gestures down at the simple cotton leggings and t-shirt she has on. “Since we will be going past the Great House.”

 

Rey purses her lips and casts her eyes down at her own desert-stained linen clothes. “Should I—?”

 

“No, I wouldn’t worry,” she tosses back over her shoulder, as she moves towards the hallway of closed doors, “they’re not expecting much from you.”

 

She’s disappeared into a bedroom before Rey can respond, which is perhaps for the best, since all that comes to mind are sarcastic, barbed retorts. In some ways, Gozetta possesses a much softer and sweeter temperament than their sister or father, more in line with that of their late mother; in other ways, she is every bit the product of selfish, pompous people who endlessly encouraged her self-indulgence while raising her. If Rey stands any chance of nudging her sister towards a better-natured character, she must be patient. She must be understanding. She must speak with care.

 

Give it time, she bids herself. Choose your battles wisely.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The Great House is more a manor than a house, built from the same materials as Poe and Gozetta’s bungalow— white steelstone walls, a sloping dark green roof interrupted by numerous skylights. It’s two stories high, and at least twice the square footage of the bungalow. Or so Rey guesses, from her cursory inspection. Wrapped around three sides of the manor is a wide veranda, furnished with cushioned wicker chairs and low tables.

 

“Gozetta!” exclaims a cheerful feminine voice, from one of the chairs. The sisters shift towards the source: an older grey-haired woman, whose familial resemblance to Poe is undeniable. She sits beside a young woman and an older man, both also clearly related to Poe. They’re laughing over something, and as Rey and Gozetta draw closer to the veranda’s white balustrade, it becomes clear that they’re sharing a late breakfast of sandwiches and caf.

 

“Good to see you up and about,” the older man says, smiling. “Feeling better?”

 

“I suppose,” sniffs Gozetta. “Rey, this is Mister and Missus Dameron, Poe’s parents.” She waves her hand in the direction of the younger woman. “Brixie, his sister.”

 

“And you must be Rey of Jakku. It’s so good to meet you!” The older woman beams at Rey, creases fanning out from her warm hazelnut eyes. “Please, call us Shara and Kes. No need to stand on formality around here.”

 

Gozetta issues a soft contemptuous snort, but none of them react. Shara merely says: “Would you like some breakfast?”

 

“I’d love some,” she replies, before Gozetta can reject the offer. She makes her way around to the veranda’s stairs then settles in a wicker chair beside Brixie, who welcomes her with a smile very much like her mother’s.

 

“So, Rey,” she says, as Kes pours her a mug of caf and Shara prepares her a plate piled high with sandwiches— a reaction, perhaps, to her narrow frame— “I want to hear all about Jakku, and your journey here! Tell me, did it take very long?”

 

And with that, Rey finds herself launching into a heavily edited version of her life to a captive audience of Damerons. As she speaks, she inhales the delicious meat and veg sandwiches and dark sugary caf, stealing glances every so often at her younger sister, who sits listening sullenly by her side.

 

It’s a pleasant enough tale, at least the way she tells it, and peacefully, the Chandrilan morning passes them by.

 

 

. . .

 

 

In time, the conversation turns to the Damerons. Just as Rey shared her life, they share theirs.

 

Shara Bey was a lieutenant in the first Galactic Civil War; Kes was a sergeant. They fought together, flew together, and over the course of a few years, fell in love. By the end of the war— not the decisive battle on Endor, but a conflict on Vetine involving a mysterious Force tree— Shara and Kes were married and more than ready to settle down somewhere with Terena and Poe, who’d spent the early years of their lives with Shara’s father while their parents flew missions for the fledgling New Republic.

 

So they’d happily transitioned into semi-retirement on the jungle moon Yavin 4. Though they’d continued flying— not for the New Republic but for Yavin's Civilian Defense Fleet— the majority of their time had been devoted to raising Terena and Poe, and a few years later, Brixie, while tending to their small koyo tree orchard.

 

But when skirmishes between the New Republic and the burgeoning First Order had started up in the Outer Rim, not even a decade after the first civil war had concluded, Shara and Kes had been forced to make a decision: leave their children and rejoin the fight, continue defending Yavin 4 and risk their children getting caught in the crossfire, or relocate to a safer Inner Rim planet.

 

“In the end,” Shara says, giving Kes’s hand a squeeze and returning his fond smile, “there was really only one choice we could both live with. I rejoined the war, serving as lieutenant of the Green Squadron until my heart condition took me out of service. And Kes came here with the koyos and the uneti tree and the children. He built a wonderful home for me to return to, didn’t he?”

 

“He really did,” sighs Rey, swept up in the romance and derring-do of their tale. She pats her full stomach with contentment. A glance to her side reveals Gozetta’s stiff posture and stiffer smile; Rey wonders if hearing about her in-laws’ activities on the side of the war opposite Ergel’s is what makes her uncomfortable, or if it’s simply her boredom with the whole affair.

 

“Served on the Chandrilan Civilian Defense Fleet, though,” Kes adds. His tone is teasing; he waggles his dark eyebrows for emphasis. “Wasn’t quite ready to hang up my flightsuit.”

 

“Best pilot they had!” Brixie crows. “Until Poe broke all his records, anyway. And I should know. I flew with both of them, once I was old enough.”

 

A sharp twinge of jealousy shoots through Rey, not only at the thought of having a family as kind as the Damerons, but flying with them. “A family of pilots,” she says. “Remarkable.”

 

Brixie shakes her head. “Not me. Didn’t suit me at all! I barely made it through flight school.” She laughs when her mother shakes her head.

 

“Don’t let her fool you,” Shara says. “She might not have enjoyed it, but she was top of her class.”

 

“I like what I’m doing now much better, in any case.”

 

“What’s that?” Rey asks.

 

“I’m an engineer, over at Chandriltech,” Brixie informs her. “I help design droid parts.”

 

“Help!” Kes scoffs. “Don’t be so modest, Brix. You design droids. Yourself.”

 

A faint blush pinks up Brixie’s dimpled cheeks; she smiles diffidently at her father. “Well, yes—that’s what I meant, Dad.”

 

And then, when Shara pulls Gozetta back into the conversation with an inquiry about her children, Brixie leans in towards Rey, one elbow resting on the arm of Rey’s chair. In an undertone, she says, “We’ve heard so much about you, Rey.”

 

It’s difficult for her to hide her surprise at that. “You have?”

 

“Oh, sure—Gozetta talks about you all the time.” Brixie gives her a meaningful look. “Far more than the rest of your family, I’d say.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I think she’s missed you,” she says, speculatively.

 

“… Oh,” Rey repeats. “I—I see.”

 

“And… she really looks up to you. I can hear it in her voice, whenever she mentions you.”

 

Rey feels a blush heat up her own face. Just as she’s about to issue some demurral, Kes loudly declares, “Yes, true… should we take a walk through the orchard, then? Find Poe and the boys, show our guest here the grounds?”

 

“Good plan, Dad,” says Brixie, and— for the time being— the subject is dropped.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The orchard begins not far from the manor; there’s a stretch of neatly mowed lawn, and then the koyo trees appear, in one neatly-planted row after another stretching over the nearest rolling hillock, and the next, and the one after that, right up to the distant edges of the surrounding forest. Scents new to Rey fill the air. Kes is more than happy to identify each in kind— the dark rich earth used to grow the trees, the rich cloying fruit weighing down the leafy branches, the bright eukamint oil being burned to repel Yavinian tree-ticks, which makes the inside of her nostrils tingle— and Rey breathes them all in deeply as he speaks, categorizing and filing away their particular dimensions.

 

They choose a path at random, and begin to climb the gentle swell of the hillock. Soon enough, they come across harvesters.

 

“Not enough money for an entirely droid operation,” Brixie explains, at the sight of Humans and blue-skinned Pantorans plucking and depositing the dark koyo fruits into rolling durasteel bins. She waves to them as they pass, and distractedly, they wave back. “So we have a mix of workers and droids.”

 

Sure enough, further ahead, after they pass over the crest and start down into the shallow valley, they come across one such droid; built from shining cerillium and possessing five arms that pluck and clip the fruit from the tree simultaneously, each carefully depositing its harvest into the large bin attached to its base, it is truly a marvel to watch it work. They pause for a moment to do just that.

 

“See how careful it is with the fruit?” Kes asks, pointing to one of the droid’s many arms as it places— not drops, not throws— the koyo fruit in with the others. “Brixie reprogrammed it to do that. Used to be far too rough, would just bruise 'em up.”

 

“Just a couple alterations to its central processor,” Brixie says modestly. “It was nothing, really.”

 

Rey doesn’t know much about fruit; what she does know (what she remembers), she prefers not to think about. But the koyos are certainly interesting specimens. They’re round, each about the size of her palm, and their shiny peels are black as onyx. Shara notices her interest and takes one from the bin, handing it to her.

 

“Try it!” insists Kes. “They’re the best they’ll ever be right now. Height of the season.”

 

An indignant huff comes from somewhere behind her. “What, none for me?” snaps Gozetta, as she elbows past Brixie to lean over the bin, plucking a fruit for herself. With relish, she takes a huge bite, and dark red juice spills down her chin.

 

Rey rolls her eyes at her sister’s petty jealousy, which causes Brixie to giggle. Then she bites into the waxy skin. The flesh underneath is tart and soft and blood red. Its juice is uncontrollable; before she can prevent it, it has trickled over her jaw, down her neck, and past her wrists.

 

(A faint memory: long, thick fingers feeding her a chunk of much-sweeter jogan fruit. A pair of dark eyes covetously watching her chew. The feeling of being desired, and belonging. No. As quickly as it arises, she bats it away.)

 

Kes is already speaking when she’s shaken free of the recollection. “… the best, we’ll sell as fruit,” he is saying. “The rest we’ll turn into koyo wine, juice, or preserves.”

 

“Lovely,” Rey hums. The Damerons grin with delight; Shara pulls a handkerchief from a pocket of her jacket and hands it to her.

 

“Transplanted from Yavin Four by yours truly,” Kes tells her, all full of pride. “Best damn fruit in the galaxy.”

 

It’s a nice enough fruit, but nowhere near the jogan, thinks Rey. This fruit hasn’t changed my life.

 

But she nods politely, and onward they tread.

 

 

. . .

 

 

As they walk, Shara loops her arm in Rey’s; their steps slow until they’ve fallen twenty paces behind.

 

“We really have heard so much about you from Gozetta,” she murmurs thoughtfully, glancing at the others to ensure they’re out of hearing range before canting her head to look at Rey. “She admires you, do you know that?”

 

Rey lets out a huff, once again surprised. Who is this sister, who supposedly goes on and on about her virtues? To be sure, she’s never met her.

 

“She does?”

 

“It might be hard to tell, but—I believe so,” Shara says, with a firm nod. “And you know about her… moods, I’m sure. Her health problems, that is.”

 

“I’m familiar…”

 

“They always seem to coincide with a time when there is work to be done, or a visitor coming she doesn’t care for.” Shara sighs. “If it were just that, it would be one thing. But the droid, Rey. I just—it’s not right.”

 

“The droid?” Confused, she tilts her head at her sister’s mother-in-law. The Dameron residence houses a handful of droids; in her short time since arriving, she’s spotted at least four.

 

“It’s—look, I understand she feels poorly sometimes. But using a labor droid for childcare?” Rey has seen the labor droid she’s referring to; the RIC-920, a clumsy claw-handed thing that rolls around on one wheel, its dull brown plating rusted in places. It had been sitting in the gazebo with her nephews when she arrived. Shara’s mouth pulls downward in a discomfited frown.

 

“The boys have told me that it tries to vacuum their hair and vibro-sand their faces when they’re upset. One time Little Poe cut himself, and do you know what it did?”

 

Whatever happened, Rey can tell it was not the paradigm of appropriate childcare; she braces herself, asking, “What?”

 

“Glued his skin back together. And not with wound glue, mind you—with industrial adhesive, the stuff Poe keeps on hand for his speeder,” Shara scoffs. “Gave him a terrible infection—we had to soak the whole hand in bacta for two days!”

 

“Oh,” she says, wincing. “That’s not good.”

 

“She’s your sister. I know this is meant to be a nice visit, and the last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable. But… as I said, you’re one of the few people she actually listens to, Rey.”

 

Up ahead, Gozetta and Brixie and Kes have located Poe and the children. Red juice stains Little Poe and Weir’s faces and hands. Excitedly, the boys hug the newcomers. Despite what Shara is telling her, Rey cannot help but imagine what a happy childhood this must be for them. Idyllic.

 

She clears her throat. “I wouldn’t necessarily say—”

 

Shara interrupts, with a knowing glance her way. “Please. Talk to her. If she must use a droid to watch those boys, she needs to spring for a nanny droid. Or at the very least, let Brixie make a few changes to Rick’s processor.”

 

Rey looks back to the boys. The elder has already resumed his climbing of the nearest koyo tree; once again, the younger attempts to copy him, jumping up against the trunk.

 

If anything were to happen to them, especially a mishap so avoidable as droid malfunction…

 

“I’ll see what I can do,” she promises. Shara gives a relieved sigh, and nods.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Not two minutes after Rey and Shara have caught up with the group, Brixie is at her side, steering her between two koyo trees onto a footpath to the left of the one everyone has begun to traverse back towards the Great House.

 

“I like Gozetta a lot, really,” she whispers, as a prelude to whatever, Rey senses, is going to be her complaint. “We all do! I just don’t think she has any respect for Mom.” She leans towards Rey as though they are plotting a conspiracy. “It’s the little things. Rejecting our invitation to dinner unless she thinks someone important is coming, always pretending she’s sick when there’s work to be done in the orchard.”

 

“I—don’t think Gozetta had to do much work, growing up,” Rey says, a weak excuse and she knows it. She swallows, trying not to let resentment in, trying not to let it color her next words. “Baby of the family and all that.”

 

Brixie snorts. “Well I’m the baby too, and I still have enough sense to help out. This is what she married into, isn’t it?”

 

“I’m not sure she…” Rey falters. Of course, she agrees with Brixie. Gozetta probably should’ve come to terms with the man she’s married by now, and his family, and their situation. Or she should’ve found some resolution to her unhappiness. And yet she finds herself not at all surprised to hear that her younger sister’s response to her circumstances is petulance and avoidance.

 

“She’s mother to two young children,” she points out, instead.

 

“Pfft, fine, except she hardly spends any time with Little Poe and Weir.”

 

“Her illnesses—”

 

“Oh, please,” Brixie cuts her off. “Rey, you don’t really believe all that, do you?”

 

Rey looks around, as though a diplomatic way out of the conversation might be found dangling from one of the koyo tree branches.

 

Brixie continues. “If she changed even just a little bit, it would mean the world to all of us.”

 

“How little?” she wonders.

 

“Well, how about how she’s always calling Mom and Dad ‘Mister and Missus Dameron’? Mom’s asked her not a dozen times, but she still does it.” She rolls her eyes at Rey. “Like she’s some kind of visiting dignitary or something. Tell her to call them Shara and Kes?”

 

An exasperated sigh escapes Rey before she can restrain it. While Verla inherited Ergel’s haughtiness and cruelty, Gozetta has their father’s opinions about formality and rank ingrained in her very soul. She nods a wordless agreement.

 

As though she has read Rey’s mind, Brixie continues: “And… maybe she could discuss your father… less? His place in the Empire, I mean.” Well aware of where this is headed, Rey once again winces. “We’re—well, we’re a family of New Republic fighter pilots. It’s—” Brixie huffs, shooting Rey a bemused look, “…let’s be honest—it’s awkward. Very awkward.”

 

“Yes, alright. I’ll talk to her,” she concedes hastily.

 

“Bless you, Rey,” sighs Brixie. “I knew you’d understand.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“You know what the problem is?” Gozetta hisses to her, as they ramble back through the forest that stands between Great House and the Dameron bungalow. “Every time the boys come back from grandma and grandpa’s, they’ve been loaded up with sparklemint sticks and fizzer-sweets and stormfruit candy! How exactly am I supposed to deal with two boys bouncing off the walls from all that sugar and carbosyrup, hm?”

 

Rey shakes her head and twitches her shoulders sympathetically. And then, when Gozetta sinks into indignant contemplation, she hazards a meek challenge: “What—about the droid?”

 

“Which?”

 

“The one that watches them. The labor droid, Rick Nine-Twenty.”

 

Gozetta groans. “Oh, is that what Shara was nagging you about? I shouldn’t be surprised, I really shouldn’t—it’s one of her favorite topics. Look, Little Poe is nearly five, he can take care of Weir for a few minutes here and there.” After a beat, she adds, “Rick is just there as… a failsafe.”

 

“Maybe if you found a droid better-suited—”

 

“What would suit me better, I think,” says Gozetta, running roughshod over her, “is if my husband and my in-laws didn’t encourage the boys to run so wild. I do my best to discipline them, and then Mister and Missus Dameron just spoil all my efforts!”

 

“Ah,” is Rey’s tepid response.

 

“Not to mention how little they care about my personal well-being,” she sniffs. “Remember how you found me all alone this morning? They never even bother to check on me, even though they know I have a poor constitution.”

 

Rey could bring up the fact that Poe left the orchard where time-sensitive harvesting was clearly in full swing just to come collect Rey from the station, or that it is Gozetta herself who has instituted the distance between herself and her relations, but once again she decides to choose her battles carefully.

 

“I’m sorry, Goz,” she says. For a bit, they continue on over the sandy path, dappled sunlight dancing across their faces. In the absence of conversation, Rey revels in the whisper of the needled branches far above their head, the cheerful birdsong, the distant roar of the ocean. Finally, she takes a deep breath, then begins, haltingly, “Er, by the way… why do you call them that? Mister and Missus Dameron, I mean. It’s a bit… formal, don’t you think?”

 

“Manners. It’s about being polite,” Gozetta huffs. "Having some pride."

 

“I think they might prefer just their names, Goz.”

 

She makes a face. “Their first names? How common. How familiar! What would Pa say?”

 

“Speaking of that…” Rey bites her lip, then decides that this is a battle worth fighting. “Do you think it’s, er… you know they were on opposite sides of the first war. A little discretion might go a long way, when it comes to discussing Pa’s politics. Don’t you—don’t you think so?”

 

Gozetta blows an angry breath out through her nose, then looks away. They share another quiet minute or two of walking, until, just as the bungalow is coming into view through the trees, she allows, “… Maybe.” A sigh follows before she asks in a wheedling tone, “Could you just… say something to them, about the sweets? They might actually listen, if it’s coming from you. An outsider, I mean.”

 

It hurts to be called an outsider, but Rey lets that go, just as she has so many slights and insults her family has knowingly and unknowingly hurled at her over the years.

 

“I’ll—try, Goz,” is what she murmurs, the best she can offer. “I’ll try.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“It’s not my dream job, farming koyo,” Poe confesses to her, that evening. “If I had my way, I’d still be out there with my squadron, cleaning up the Outer Rim. But… my kids were growin’ up without me. And this orchard was my dad’s dream.” He rubs the back of his neck, then takes a sip from his bottle of beer. “He’s not getting any younger, either.”

 

“None of us are,” Rey replies.

 

They’re sitting out in the tintolive gazebo, waiting while Gozetta reads the boys a bedtime story. She tilts her own bottle back, taking a swig. The carbonation of the beer tickles, and a very low tolerance— despite working at a cantina on Jakku, she rarely sampled the merchandise— has her head already beginning to buzz, slightly.

 

“She’s trying her best.” He’s switched topics without warning, but Rey needs no elaboration to know he’s referring to Gozetta. “She’s a fine woman and a fine mother… when she’s not in her, uh—”

 

“Moods?” she prompts.

 

“Sure.”

 

“That’s good,” she says, blandly.

 

“I know my family get annoyed with her,” he gripes. “And she gets annoyed with them. But everyone’s just doin’ their best.”

 

“Ah.” And there it is. For one instant of utterly lunacy, she contemplates asking Poe if he’s happy, or why he even married Gozetta in the first place. But she fears she knows the answers to both those questions; it won’t do either of them any good to have them out in the open.

 

Some things, she has learned, are better left unsaid.

 

And anyway, he’s already barreling onward with his train of thought. “She thinks my old man should lend us money. Did she tell you that?” He snorts, irritated. “Wants to build a bigger house. It’s ridiculous—our house is just fine. She’s just—”

 

He hesitates, so Rey deigns to help him out, supplying: “Spoiled?”

 

“Well,” he laughs uncomfortably. “I wasn’t gonna say it.”

 

“Don’t worry, I will.” She grins at him, reassuring.

 

He laughs again, more subdued this time. “She is trying, though. I love her for that. I just wish…”

 

Rey takes a long swallow from her beer, needing the fortification. Not much above a whisper, she asks, “What do you wish?”

 

The bench’s chains rattle as Poe shifts to face her; a moment passes, then two, then he has been staring too long. Rey fidgets and looks away, out at the moonlit sea. The contrasting shades of amber and lavender from the two moons— Chandra and Chandrakant— blend to a muted pink glow, making the rolling waves appear by turns rosy gold and a fathomless obsidian.

 

His sigh is almost lost to the susurrus of the sea. Whoosh, swish, shurr. Whoosh, swish, shurr. He swings them gently. Somewhere behind them, she can hear a door opening and closing; her sister is rejoining them.

 

“Nevermind,” he mutters, right as Gozetta calls out, “Finally, I thought they’d never go to sleep! I brought another round.” She settles herself on the bench between them, passing out the bottles. “What are we discussing, hm?”

 

“The… moons,” answers Rey, lamely.

 

“Oh!” Gozetta pulls from her own beer with a satisfied little hum. “Yes,” she says, “they are nice, aren’t they?”

 

Rey can hear how hard she’s trying to be upbeat and amicable. She appreciates her little sister for that.

 

No, not just appreciates.

 

She feels a fierce surge of protective love, a need to steer Gozetta away from the influence their father has had. A need to protect her from herself; a need to ensure that her life here with Poe is a happy one. Resolved, she throws an arm around Gozetta’s shoulder to bring her close. Gozetta accepts the gesture with another soft hum, resting her head on Rey’s shoulder and tucking her legs up under her.

 

Poe says nothing; he just continues swinging the three of them, back and forth. He doesn’t meet Rey’s eyes again.

 

 

. . .

 

 

A few days later, Rey wakes to the pitter-patter of a light rain falling on the roof and skylights.

 

There’s a musicality to it that she loves at once. There’s no chronometer in her room, but if she had to guess, she’d say it’s still early morning. From her vantage point, snuggled under the soft warm covers of the guest bedroom's comfortable sleeper, she can watch the drops splatter on the windows above her head; from somewhere in the house, she hears Little Poe and Weir running, their footfalls booming through the halls.

 

Attempting to roll over while not disturbing the warm cocoon she’s created in her sleep, she slips her hand in the drawer of the nightstand and rummages around until her fingers touch upon a small tin box. Inside, the box is lined with tufts of dried tsu-seed. Carefully, one eye not yet fully open, she burrows a finger into the fluffy fiber until she finds what she’s looking for: a smooth black pearl.

 

Pearl in hand, she rolls over onto her back once more, watching the rain and rolling the pearl around in her right hand.

 

The rain picks up, turning into a steady tattoo that drowns out even the boys. Funnily enough, she is reminded of sandstorms on Jakku; the sound of sand battering the metal walls of her sad little home is not so different from water pouring down on the roof, and where Jakku had the high wailing screech of the winds, Chandrila has the low rumble of thunder and the storm-tossed sea.

 

There is a twinge, just a bit of stray longing, that comes with recollections of Jakku. When she tries to explore that, tries to understand how she could ever miss the place that was the stage to so much of her misery, she quickly stumbles upon its source: what she really misses is the home she built with her mother. Side by side, day after day, with the help of a few rented construction droids, they worked together to build the cantina that would become Ergel’s livelihood. Reacquainting themselves with each other, learning how to make each other laugh and smile; in the end, they’d gotten less than a year together. But in that time, Rey had learned what it truly meant to be a daughter. To be loved like a daughter.

 

Hedda. Rey frowns up at the rain. Poor woman, she did her best to temper Ergel’s worst impulses. Mostly failing, mostly faltering. She can still remember the way guilt and regret would make her mother’s face fall, whenever she looked at her middle child.

 

I’m so sorry, she would gasp. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

 

But by that point, she’d understood guilt all too well. And although she couldn’t seek absolution herself (from him), she could give it to her mother. Could offer whatever relief forgiveness might bring. So she had, again and again.

 

For what, ma? And: It’s alright, ma. You did your best, ma. I love you, ma.

 

Her sister’s voice rings out above the rain, demanding quiet from the boys. They pay her no mind. In fact, their roughhousing seems to grow louder.

 

Time passes. Rey doesn’t rise from the sleeper. The pearl grows warm between her fingers and palm; still she gazes up at the skylight and beyond, at the steely clouds blurred by splattering raindrops. She bobs along in the current of her thoughts, never lingering, never fixating. Guilt and love and regret pass her by, all faded from the years that have passed. Not-quite sadness or happiness, but a kind of numbed contentment: all are like fellow travelers headed somewhere on the same current. The rain keeps falling.

 

But eventually, as has inevitably happened every time she’s let her mind wander since the day she met the Skywalkers, she finds her thoughts landing on him.

 

She can’t help but ruminate on his origins. Where did he grow up? In downtown Hanna City, with its glittering skyscrapers? In the narrow alleys of Old Hannatown? The political district? Where?

 

And furthermore, has he ever been here, to the Damerons’ orchard? Has he walked the sandy path between the families' homes? Has he jumped into the shining Silver Sea?

 

Maybe, maybe not. There's no way of knowing. But still she wonders; the dam that held back thoughts of him all those years has burst, and all rivers lead her back to him now.

 

Where is he? Who was he, really, before they met? Who has he become, during his years at war?

 

She considers the many, many news articles about his shining career in the New Republic’s military.

 

She considers the look on his face, the last time they spoke.

 

She wonders if he’s married. If he thinks of her.

 

If he resents her, still, after all this time.

 

Although it’s unsettling to think about him, like a scab being picked at, she can’t deny how comfortable she is otherwise, lolling around in this sleeper, watching the rain bombard the skylight. If she could, she would happily spend the entire day right here.

 

An entire day spent reading, maybe. Watching a holoprogram, or seven. Luxuries the likes of which she could never afford on Jakku. Gozetta would sulk about her absence, unless…  she could convince her to join in. It could be fun, even. They could spend the day lounging in the sleeper, reading and laughing and becoming friends. Real friends, like they should’ve been growing up, like they never got to be during their brief cohabitation on Jakku, because of Verla and Ergel. Rey smiles softly to herself at the idea.

 

But the boys have begun to scream at one another and Gozetta is screaming back at them, growing shriller by the minute. The right thing to do is make herself useful to her sister, and she knows it.

 

So with one last lingering look up at the blurred canvas of cloud and rain above her head, Rey heaves a heavy sigh and throws the covers back— not exactly ready to start her day, but resigned to doing it anyway.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The Damerons have frequent guests, as Rey learns in the following week. They’re popular, not only because of their kindness and hospitality, but because of how well-respected Shara, Kes, Poe, and Terena are for the important roles they played during the first and second civil wars. Even Brixie has played her part in the Civilian Defense Fleet, a feat that does not go un-admired.

 

A family of pilots, of leaders, of optimists. Rey loves them more and more each passing day. And the awkwardness with Poe abates, in time; once he’s gotten over the shock of seeing her— have her looks changed so much? she wonders, and for the worst?— they fall into something like friendship. Or at the very least, they are able to maintain a veneer of congeniality.

 

“Tomorrow,” announces Kes one morning, having walked over to the bungalow for coffee with his son while they plan out the processing and distribution of the koyo fruit they’ve harvested, “Lando Calrissian is coming to dinner. You are all invited to join us at the Great House, if you want.”

 

The Lando Calrissian?” Rey wheezes, her mouth hanging agape.

 

“There’s only one in the galaxy,” Kes replies, with a chuckle.

 

And that is how Rey finds herself, on the following evening, dining up at the Great House with her sister, the Dameron family, and the legendary Lando Calrissian.

 

 

. . .

 

 

He’s already there when she and her sister arrive, Poe trailing into the dining room behind them.

 

The table setting is simple but elegant; indicative of its owners’ good taste. Lando is seated beside Kes, who is at the head of the table. They’re deep in discussion, matching sober expressions on their lined faces, when Rey and company cross the threshold.

 

Lando stands abruptly upon seeing them. His clothes put the homespun simplicity of everyone else’s to shame; shiny black fleekskin trousers and shoes, and a billowing Aeien silk shirt under a matching cape, both a royal blue color, like the sky in the moments before the sun rises. He tosses the cape back over one shoulder as he flings his arm out dramatically and cranes forward into a deep bow. Its lining is ornately printed silver silk; it shines in the light of the old-fashioned wax candles that serve as a centerpiece on the table.

 

He’s dressed exactly how she’s always imagined royalty should look. All he’s missing is a crown.

 

She glances down at her own clothes: a simple dress on loan from Gozetta, made from faded grey silkweed. It’s too big in the bust and hips, and falls all the way to the floor though it is meant to brush its wearer’s ankles. She feels ridiculous, but Gozetta had insisted.

 

Introductions are passed around, then everyone moves to take a seat. Rey cannot help but be struck by how gallant Lando is; it’s utterly incongruous with all the tales she’s heard of his roguish adventures and misdeeds. He’s got a mustache and goatee— clearly once dark but like his hair, now mostly white. While he speaks, he tugs on the tapered end of the mustache. Even that small tic, undoubtedly unconscious, seems dignified to Rey.

 

A servant droid brings out a bottle of koyo wine, which Kes uncorks and pours for everyone. It’s so dark it’s almost black, but the wine feels velvety on Rey’s tongue and tastes rich and full, almost like caf, except sweet instead of bitter.

 

“Good?” Kes inquires, gauging her reaction. “That’s been aging in the cellar underneath the Great House for about ten years.”

 

“It’s wonderful,” she says. “Maybe even better than the fruit.”

 

“Maybe?” asks Lando, with a smirk. “Undoubtedly better. It’s a triumph, old friend.”

 

Kes and Shara chuckle delightedly at that, and a few rounds of toasts ensue.

 

Food begins to arrive from the kitchen; appetizers, salty fried shroomchips and crumbly blue-milk cheese, then fresh marmalfish served on a bed of crisp Naboo lettuce, and finally, the main event, a massive rack of nerf ribs, slow roasted and glazed in a koyo reduction, served with creamy mashed daro-root and pickled Brekka beets. The kitchen droids have truly outdone themselves.

 

Small talk is exchanged while they eat, though Rey— consumed with the variety of new flavors and textures— pays it very little mind. Eventually, as everyone is finishing, the conversation drifts towards the topic of the war. More specifically, its end, and what will come next for the galaxy. Rey is only half-listening; long after everyone has finished, she is still abashedly sneaking nibbles from her plate.

 

And then, without warning— or perhaps she has simply missed the warning signs, as consumed as she has been with consuming— the discussion turns to Captain Solo.

 

“There’s a lot of speculation about what he’ll do now,” Lando says, in response to a question from Poe that she did not hear. Again, he is fiddling with the end of his white mustache. “Because of his mother’s… illustrious career in politics, people like to assume. But nothing’s set in stone.”

 

Rey is paralyzed; unable to speak, to move, to breathe. She listens helplessly as her own sister— traitor, can’t she see the chasm opening up in Rey’s heart?— prompts him, saying, “You know him well, then.”

 

Lando laughs and leans back in his chair. “Since he was a boy. ‘Uncle Wanwo’, he used to call me.” His smile turns fond, eyes gleaming with nostalgia in the candlelight. Softly, reflectively, he says, “The good old days.”

 

“Terena flew under his command,” Brixie informs him, with a heavy swallow. Poe takes her hand in his, and they share a long, sad look.

 

“She died a hero,” says Poe. “Shot down in the battle of Atterra Bravo.”

 

Lando grimaces. “That’s a damn shame. I might’ve met her, in passing. His squadron often refueled and took leave on Bespin.”

 

“To heroes,” Brixie rasps out, raising her glass. They toast, and there is a moment of pensive sipping.

 

It’s Shara who breaks the lull, her voice wobbling ever so slightly. “Terena sent us holos speaking so highly of Captain Solo.” Her smile is strained, but she perseveres. “She always praised his excellent decision making under pressure. A steady hand, she always said.”

 

Rey’s stomach turns so quickly she almost excuses herself, but it’s like watching a catastrophe in slow motion; she cannot look away, and she cannot bear to not hear this.

 

Kes claps a hand on Shara’s shoulder, picking up where she left off. “There were rumors he could use the Force like his mother and uncle, but the only time she mentioned it was to dismiss ‘em,” he says. “Said he was a good captain and a strong leader, and the rest didn’t matter.”

 

Lando nods. “Ben turned out alright, if I dare say so myself.” He leans across the table, catching Shara’s eyes. His voice is quiet and serious when next he speaks. “I’ll let you in on the truth, but you’ve gotta keep it quiet—he’s coming back to Chandrila for a while, now that the fighting’s done.”

 

Gozetta, who has been drinking her wine while staring vacantly at the candles’ dancing flames, perks up, her interest piqued. “Where will he be staying?”

 

Before Lando can answer, Shara cries, “He should stay here with us! It’s the least we can do, to show our appreciation for what he did for…” she trails off, time-worn sorrow spilling across her features.

 

Gently, Lando takes her hand in his. “That’s very generous, dear. But his mother has an apartment in Hanna City, in the diplomatic residency complex. I believe he’s already made plans to stay there.”

 

“Oh,” she murmurs. Nothing more. She slumps back into her chair, eyes riveted to the floral tablecloth.

 

A painful pause; they all look at each other apprehensively.

 

At last, Poe clears his throat. “I’ll get in touch with him, Mom.” Shara’s head snaps up, her eyes hopeful. He elaborates, “I coordinated with him a few times during the war—he’d probably be happy to come over for dinner.”

 

“There you have it!” says Lando, with a satisfied clap of his hands. “Problem solved.”

 

“Yes.” A little color returns to Shara’s face; she brings her wine to her lips and takes a sip. “Yes, a visit for dinner would be nice, I think.”

 

“It will be,” Poe agrees.

 

Rey, having sat in silence through all of this, sees no polite avenue for objecting to such a visit, or abstaining from participating in one. Especially now that she knows the full extent of his connection to the Dameron family.

 

The conversation carries on, but she hears none of it.

 

She can think of nothing but the future; a future that, for the first time in eight years, includes Ben Solo.

 

 

. . .

 

 

After dinner has been finished off and hot chocolate drank, after goodbyes and fare-thee-wells have been exchanged, Gozetta and Rey shrug into their jackets and prepare for the walk back to the bungalow.

 

Brixie extends an offer to escort them back, ‘on account of Poe staying behind to reminisce with General Calrissian’. Although Gozetta mutters in annoyance at what she judges to be Brixie’s presumption, Rey is grateful. The night is dark, the path through the forest winding; she’s perfectly capable of defending herself normally, but at the pleading of Gozetta, is currently absent her quarterstaff. Not to mention, she’s been stumbling all night in her oversized hand-me-down dress.

 

There is barely any moonlight to guide their way, and though Rey carries a glowlamp, its light hardly extends farther than a meter or so in front of them. Carefully, they head home along the sandy trail.

 

“I’m dying to meet Captain Solo,” says Brixie, with a girlish giggle, once the Great House is out of view. “I can’t really talk about him to Poe or my parents, but… I’ve heard so much about him. And—”

 

Yet again, Rey finds herself holding her breath. Please don’t ask me about him, she thinks, hoping Brixie will sense her reluctance. She couldn’t know about Rey and Ben, could she?

 

Does Poe know? Does Gozetta? She really needs to figure that out, and soon.

 

But Brixie’s thoughts veer in a different direction. “Do you think he’d like me? He seems so… assured, and capable, in his press conferences. I’ve watched all of them.” She sighs, a breathy lovelorn sound. “So bold. I like a bold man. And that scar on his face—I think it just makes him more handsome.”

 

Rey looks to Gozetta for a way out, but her sister has struck out ahead of them on the path, still peeved at the suggestion that she could not find her way home without assistance.

 

“Well? Rey? What do you think? Do I have a chance with him?”

 

Rey snaps her gaze back to Brixie, wounded by the very words, but Brixie doesn’t notice. She merely winks and laughs.

 

For a moment, she really studies the younger woman. Her looks are not dissimilar to Poe’s and his parents; her skin is olive-hued, sun-kissed and glowing. Soft dark ringlets frame her heart-shaped face like a cloud. Warm aged-honey eyes look out from above high cheekbones, a pert nose, full pink lips.

 

Brixie is beautiful. And five years younger than Rey. She’s slim but not worn out the way Rey is; she hasn’t had to hone herself into the sharp tool like Rey has.

 

She still has softness; soft cheeks, soft curls, soft hips and thighs. She’s lovely.

 

Rey blinks back the beginnings of tears, and glances away, into the forest.

 

“You’re very pretty, Brixie. I’m sure anyone can see that,” she says quietly, conceding defeat in her heart. “And I’ve… met Captain Solo. He’ll—” the words must be pushed out, they’re unwilling to leave her lips, like reluctant stragglers at Ergel’s bar, “—be quite won over by you.”

 

You’d be a better match for him, too, she doesn’t say. You haven’t broken his heart, you never failed him or betrayed him with your weakness.

 

He doesn’t know you. He doesn’t hate you. She says none of that.

 

“I agree,” Brixie chirps, doing a graceful little twirl around Rey, filled with the enthusiasm of a young heart that hasn’t been broken. “Mom always says I’m a strong, independent woman and I need someone who can deal with that. Who better than a hero of the New Republic?” She resumes her place by Rey’s side. “A famous captain, known for his acumen in battle and his strong principles?”

 

“Right,” is all she can manage to cough out.

 

“He’s just the sort of man I need,” Brixie cheerfully asserts. “And I’m just the sort of woman who’d be good for him.”

 

And really, Rey can think of no argument to that. So she offers none.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The following morning brings more rain, and a slight fever for Gozetta. Nothing Rey says can convince her to rise from her sleeper; she barks out a rattling cough every few minutes, and sneezes just as often. When Rey lays her hand on her sister’s brow, it’s warmer than it ought to be. Finally, at seeing that his wife is likely to be sleeper-ridden for the day, Poe informs them he’s taking the boys to the Great House. Rey readily agrees, and helps see them off.

 

“Oh Goz, I’m sorry,” she sighs, once she’s finished and settled on top of the covers of her sister's sleeper. “How can I help?”

 

A slight sniffle and a dainty sneeze can just barely be heard from beneath the pile of blankets, and then, sounding congested, Gozetta says, “Well, if you really wanted to do something… you could go to Old Hannatown Market and pick up some more manellan jasper tea.”

 

She nods. “Yes. That I can do. Is it alright if I use the airspeeder?”

 

“I don’t see why not,” Gozetta replies, still muffled by blankets.

 

Rey hesitates for only a second before peeling back the covers and pressing a soft kiss against her sister’s brow. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” she promises.

 

“Well, get going then.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Neon advertiscreens glow orange and cyan and pink through the downpour in the dim winding alleys of the Old Hannatown Market.

 

Banner-strewn lines hang above the narrow passageways, the sigils of various old families fluttering under the deluge. Even dressed in her sister’s fur-lined hooded poncho and rain boots, a shiver passes through Rey. Within a few minutes of parking and locking the airspeeder, her teeth have begun to chatter.

 

And yet, she does not rush. Leisurely, taking in everything, she wanders from stall to stall, alley to alley, marveling at the sheer crush of life in the market, even on a day when most shoppers have chosen to stay home. It’s all so much: the goods and services, all the languages, the voices and the smells and the noise, a steady hum of adverts and conversation and rat-a-tat rainfall.

 

It’s beautiful. Rey knows she could easily meander all afternoon, just taking it in. But the cold and the wet gets to her more quickly than she’d like to admit, so she ducks under the roof of a noodle stall, planting herself on a hard steel stool in front of its long counter. Behind it, a four-armed Ardennian is doing five or six things at once, cooking noodles and frying various components and still joking around with some of the customers, who are obviously regulars.

 

Sal, they all call him.

 

He doesn’t so much notice her as he does wave unceremoniously in her direction with one of his hands. “What’ll you have?” he barks out, in a gruff voice befitting his wizened simian face.

 

“Uh, what’s… good?” She scans the menu; most of the items, she’s never even heard of before.

 

Now he looks at her, perhaps unaccustomed to patrons who don’t have their favorite order memorized. He blinks disbelievingly a few times. “Phazik meat, peanuts and vegetables with garlic sauce,” he tells her, none of his hands pausing their labors. “That’s the most popular bowl.”

 

“Right. One of those, please.”

 

He smirks. “Comin’ right up, cutie.”

 

Rey bites her lip at the offhand compliment. It was just a courtesy. Still, it’s nice to think that someone might still find her… decent-looking. Contentedly, she contemplates buying some sort of thank you gift for Poe and Gozetta while she waits for her noodles.

 

Beyond the overhang of the stall, the rain continues falling in sheets. A few drenched shoppers hurry past. The air smells of ozone and wet stone and hot oil. A few minutes later, a bowl is plunked down in front of her, its garlicky aroma wafting up at her in a cloud of steam. Her mouth waters. Without hesitation, she plucks a pair of grub-sticks from a dispenser on the counter. Then, awkwardly, having never used the tools before, she digs in.

 

It is not until she is halfway finished and mid-slurp, the end of a glass noodle dangling from her pursed lips like a wriggling nightwatcher worm’s tail, that she spots him. Maybe five meters up the alley, standing at a stall selling chronometers with his back to her. A black umbrella in one hand, the other pointing at something behind the Pantoran merchant’s head.

 

It might not be him, she tells herself. The black waves of his hair reach a broad set of shoulders, and the man’s build, from what she can tell, is every bit as solid and strong as she remembers his being, but what does that mean, really? It’s a big planet. It’s a big galaxy. Surely, there are lots of men with dark hair and strapping bodies.

 

And there are some differences. Those dark locks are shot through with silver, and combed back neatly against his scalp. He never wore it like that.

 

That styling reveals a large set of ears, though.

 

Just like his.

 

No, she scolds herself. They’re just ears. Anyone’s ears. And the man is not dressed in spicerunning attire; he’s not covered in grease stains from what she can see, nor, she imagines, is there a blaster pistol holstered to one thigh. But then, he wouldn’t wear that anymore, would he? He’s a Captain now. Those broad shoulders strain like boulders at the seams of a grey wool coat that sweeps down to the back of his knees. Hands gloved in black leather peek out from the coat’s sleeves, and below the coat, long thick calves are protected from the rain by black leather boots.

 

Rey has been staring at him for entirely too long; the noodle is cold by the time she gathers her wits about her and slurps the rest of it up into her mouth. She manages to swallow a few spoonfuls of thick broth but before she can stop herself, her eyes are drawn to the man again. He’s almost finished his transaction with the vendor. She can tell because the Pantoran is wrapping up what appears to be an antique wooden chrono. A second more, and it is passed across the stall. The man tucks it under his arm, dipping his head in a polite nod.

 

Then he turns.

 

It’s him.

 

It’s him, it’s him, it’s him.

 

Even across an alley shrouded in a veil of rainfall, Rey recognizes that proud beak of a nose. His face hasn’t changed so much as she’d envisioned. A few lines around his mouth show the beginnings of age; perhaps they come from laughing and smiling. Signs of a happy, full life. Yet shadows under his dark eyes would contradict that theory. Frown lines, then, perhaps. A long-healed scar originates above his right brow, passing over the bridge of his nose and resuming its journey from tear duct to jaw, then down his neck, beneath the black tunic he wears under his coat.

 

It is a serious face. Severe, almost.

 

And yet, he’s even more handsome than her memory of him. Where once something wild seemed to thrum just under the surface, where his dark eyes burned, now they are steely and cool and dignified; now his features have finally settled into that impenetrable stoicism he was always attempting to don.

 

Shrugging his shoulders up to his ears, ensuring that the wrapped chrono is firmly wedged between his flank and his arm, he sets off in the direction of the noodle stall. Towards her. Rey can scarcely breathe.

 

And then, without ever once looking in her direction, he passes it. She watches, transfixed, as he walks away from her, tracking him by the breadth of his shoulders and his black umbrella and his towering height until finally, he disappears around a corner and is gone.

 

Gone, again. And here she has sat, watching it happen. Bereft of the courage she might have had a lifetime ago, when she was young and untrampled and fierce— when she might have leapt up from her stool and sprinted across the alley, spun him around, pulled him into her arms, begged him to forget Jakku. Insisted they try again.

 

It’s been almost a decade since Rey opened herself up to the Force. Not since that last time she felt his fear and his heartache and his disappointment has she allowed herself to access it, and she is not about to change that now.

 

But maybe she would, if she thought she might be able to glean what he’s thinking, even just a glimpse.

 

Her appetite has vanished. After flinging a few credit ingots onto the counter and giving a half-hearted wave to Sal, Rey pulls up the hood of her poncho and braces herself to head back into the cold rain.

 

After all— despite whether Ben Solo cares about her or even remembers her— there is still tea to be bought, and a sick sister who needs tending.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, after they’ve had their tea and sniffled their way through some melodramatic romantic holofilm together and Rey has hugged her sister, gently, her heart full to bursting when Gozetta drowsily returns the embrace, she slips from the house. The rain has stopped. The humid air still holds a chill, a stiff breeze rushes in off the water.

 

But Rey’s entire body is aflame.

 

The beach is compacted from the day’s deluge; so it is with less stumbling than usual that she makes her way down to the foamy water’s edge. A glance behind her reveals her footprints in the wet sand and beyond, the house, its windows all darkened. Poe and the children are most likely still at the Great House. Some unknown insects chirrup from the towering trees, their melody blending with the song of the sea.

 

At loose ends for the first time since she’s arrived, she decides to walk. For a while, ten minutes or maybe fifteen or maybe thirty, Rey drifts down the beach. She thinks about Jakku’s sand compared to Chandrila’s, she thinks about noodles and garlic, she even thinks about the drama’s tearjerking final act, in which the dashing hero earnestly confessed his love to the beautiful scarlet-hued Twi’lek heroine.

 

And that thought, of course, leads her to him. Would that real life worked the way it does in holodramas, would that he had come back to her in tears, on his knees, rejecting her rejection, committed to fight for her.

 

“Real life doesn’t work that way,” she whispers, an admonishment.

 

Kicking off her boots and leaving them behind her, she lets the waves lap at her bare feet and ankles. The sky sinks from silver into sterling into slate, darkening with nightfall. Still she walks. She’s sweating, can feel the rivulets rolling down her neck, beneath her sweater, between her breasts.

 

It’s possible she’s caught whatever virus plagues her sister. Maybe she’s in the throes of a fever. Or maybe… maybe it’s the mad cyclone of her thoughts that has sent her body into a tailspin. Maybe her toes curl into the sand from her residual shame over a mistake made when she was still a teenager; maybe her shortness of breath is because every time she replays the moment she saw his face in that alley earlier, his cheek is unscarred and his lip is curled with the same disgusted sneer he wore the last time she saw him on Jakku.

 

All her life, Rey has forgiven. Trespass after trespass, betrayal after betrayal. In her heart there exists a bottomless well, from which those who hurt her have drawn, again and again.

 

When will she be forgiven? When can she forgive herself?

 

“What of my heart?” she asks to no one, to the churning sea, to the dark forest at her back.

 

Her only answer is the roar of the waves, the whisper of the trees, the chirping of the insects.

 

It’s not good enough. She yanks off the poncho, then her tunic and her undershirt, then her trousers, tossing them carelessly higher up on the beach, out of reach of the waves. Clad in only a threadbare pair of underwear, she ventures further into the surf.

 

The water is frigid and bracing; it clears her head, it clears her fever. Her teeth are chattering again by the time she’s up to her waist, but she’s thankful for that. Her hands aren’t clammy anymore, her stomach has finally relented its ceaseless churning. She can’t think about him in his captain’s coat and shiny black boots, can’t think about the headlines that reported his heroic deeds, can’t think about his handsome face, can’t think about his body; all she can think about is the cold.

 

Just a bit further.

 

When the water laps at her clavicles, she stops. The waves push and pull at her. Ebb. Flow. Whoosh, swish, shurr. Bits of orange flame lick at the denim clouds before the last of the light drains from the sky. Then, at last, when night has completely descended…

 

Rey unlocks her knees and lets her head slip beneath the waves, giving herself a brief baptism in the dark and the cold. Just for a moment, just long enough to lose her sense of everything, before she must be returned to the world.

 

Calm washes over her, then.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

The days begin to blur together, in a way that Rey finds she doesn’t mind. One day, then two, and then before she knows it, almost a week has passed. A morning here being guided around the factory room floor by Brixie, whose eyes shine with excitement as she details the many parts and models in various stages of production; a day there spent with Gozetta and Poe and the children on Sarini Island, where they visit a zoo full of so many animals it makes Rey’s head spin. One afternoon spent helping Brixie and Kes with the beehives they keep at the far end of the orchard, harvesting honey and wax. Caf and breakfast with her sister and the Damerons most mornings; dinners together once or twice. Long hours whiled away on the beach, the waves crashing at her feet as she stares out at the Silver Sea.

 

How much she has missed, hiding away on Jakku all those years.

 

The weather takes a turn, the air grows almost… crisp. It’s unlike any kind of cold Rey has felt before.

 

“The end of the harvest always lines up with the beginning of the cold season,” Gozetta explains one morning, distractedly. She’s seated at the dining table with the boys, just beginning to teach Little Poe his Aurebesh; with a faint smile, she oversees his clumsy attempts at writing the characters.

 

“Careful, dearest,” she says, wrapping her hand around his to correct his form. “Mustn’t forget that Yirt has a little tail tucked inside.”

 

Weir, scrawling wildly on his own durasheet slate, cackles at his older brother’s mistake. When he is tsked at simultaneously by his aunt and mother, he falls into a momentary sulk before returning to his scribbles. Rey sinks into the old sofa across the room and pulls out her sketchbook to capture the moment. The day slips away.

 

Another morning, a few days later, brings unseasonably warm air and a bright clear sky, so Gozetta and Rey take the boys down to the beach for a breakfast picnic. Side by side the sisters sit, on an old blanket, sharing caf and crumblebuns. After a bout of top-secret plotting, Weir and Little Poe begin construction; in a frenzy, they scoop up sand with their plasticine buckets.

 

“What do you wager they’re building?” Rey asks, feeling lighthearted. It comes easily on a day like this, with her sister and her nephews and the sun and the sea; there’s enough to be happy about that she can almost forget her worries. For a little while, anyway.

 

“Castle,” answers Gozetta, without looking up from her datapad. “‘S’always a castle.”

 

Sure enough, when Rey glances back at the small mountain of sand the boys have collected, one particular lump rises up in a misshapen turret, and she thinks she spies the early diggings of what will be a moat.

 

“You have to admit, Goz… it’s a perfect day. And those are two very happy boys,” she says. “This is a good life they have, here.” Leaning back on her elbows, she lets her head dip behind her. Quietly, contented, she soaks up the sun’s warmth.

 

“Hmph. It’ll be a nightmare getting them to wash up later,” is her sister’s grumbled reply.

 

“Oh, Goz.”

 

“Am I wrong?”

 

“Am I?” she counters.

 

“…No,” admits Gozetta. Rey opens her eyes to find her gazing down the beach at Little Poe and Weir; there’s a softness in her expression that she rarely allows anyone to see.

 

Another sound mixes with the waves and the boy’s laughter, that of feet treading with difficulty through sifting sand. Rey doesn’t look away from Gozetta; for a long moment, Gozetta doesn’t look away from her sons. When their eyes finally meet, they share a smile.

 

“Good morning girls!” Brixie calls out, as she approaches the blanket. “Gorgeous day, isn’t it?”

 

Gozetta merely grunts, so Rey angles her head back to greet her. “Morning, Brixie. Have you got work today?”

 

“Mm-hmm,” she hums, flopping onto the blanket behind them. “Just stopping by to say hello on my way in. Also, I wanted to make sure Goz told you the news.” She arches one dark brow. “Has she?”

 

Rey frowns. “I’m not… sure.” She looks towards her sister, arching her own brow. “Have you?”

 

“Ugh, I was going to,” Gozetta says, exasperated. “I just woke up ten minutes ago, didn’t I?”

 

“Try thirty,” she teases. The words fall on deaf ears; Gozetta has turned back to her datapad and obstinately resumed her reading.

 

“Oh, nevermind her—I’ll tell you myself.” Brixie snatches a crumblebun from their basket, ignoring Gozetta’s irritated huff, then dips it in Rey’s mug of caf without asking. “So,” she says, chewing, “Poe got in touch with Captain Solo, who’s officially back on-world, and he’s going to come for dinner on Friday!”

 

Mentally, Rey tries to calculate what day it is now. Monday, she comes up with; she’s almost certain today is a Monday.

 

“You’ll come, right? You have to, Rey! I mean, didn’t you tell me that you’ve met him?”

 

Rey catches the sharp look Gozetta casts her way, perhaps hurt that this is the first she’s hearing of any such acquaintance. She winces.

 

“Yes… but…” she sputters, flailing for a way out, “Isn’t the evening more about your parents? And—” She stops just short of referencing Terena, well aware of how much it can pain a person to hear the name of someone they’ve lost.

 

“Well yeah, but we’re always happy to have you around.” Brixie’s tone is coaxing, her smile only slightly dimmed by the spectre of her sister. “You have to, really! I’ll miss you too much if you don’t.” With that, she gives Rey a cheerful pout.

 

Rey sighs. “Of course, if you want me there, I—”

 

“Great!” She jumps up, stealing one last dunk of her crumblebun in Rey’s caf. After she’s crammed it in her mouth, she wipes the sand off her leggings. “And we’ll be happy if you’re there too, Goz,” she adds, belatedly.

 

Gozetta glares up at her.

 

“Anyway,” she lilts, drawing out both ‘a’s for effect, “Gotta jet. Droids to build, and a wedding with Captain Solo to plan!”

 

Rey sucks in a sharp breath that Brixie doesn’t notice; she’s already thrown a wink their way and turned, ambling across the beach in the direction of the path back to the Great House.

 

“Insufferable brat,” Gozetta hisses, under her breath.

 

“Oh hush, Goz.”

 

Rey’s voice sounds faint, to her own ears. Winded. Gozetta's expression turns wounded, but she doesn’t retract her admonishment. Instead, she shifts back to watch her nephews perfect their driftwood drawbridge.

 

Her sister is more tentative when she ventures: “You knew Captain Solo?”

 

“It was a long time ago.”

 

A pause. “In any case…” For once in her life, Gozetta seems to pick up on Rey’s sentiments, and lets it lie. “That girl is no match for him. Not by a long shot.”

 

Rey shakes her head. “She’s just young and excited,” she murmurs. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

That afternoon, Gozetta insists on dragging her into town. She’s surprisingly competent at handling the airspeeder. Conservative, in fact, when compared to Rey or Poe; she keeps it in first gear for most of the ride. They head not towards Old Hannatown, the only part of the city Rey knows, but towards the shining skyscrapers downtown. After they’ve parked on one of the landing pads amid the towering steel-and-glass structures, Gozetta— side-eying the quarterstaff Rey has insisted on bringing— herds her inside the mall.

 

Rey knows her mouth is gaping as they pass by the store windows within, but she cannot help it; each window display’s mannequin is adorned in attire more sumptuous and lavish than the last.

 

“This is… a marketplace?” she asks, not knowing where to direct her eyes. Her sister ignores the question, which is fine by Rey, since she's preoccupied with taking it all in.

 

There's plenty to absorb: shoppers of various species milling around, light jizz music emanating from hidden speakers in the walls, kiosks selling cosmetics and jewelry and portable tech, and as they approach the heart of the mall, a bubbling fountain, ringed by lush plants and surrounded by a bench-filled courtyard. The smell of hot food drifts out of a cafeteria. There is an echoing quality to the space, like that of a large, high-ceilinged cavern. It sets her slightly on edge, reminding her of the old Starship Graveyard docking bays.

 

But the clothes.

 

Silks and brocarts, linens and leathers, cottons and furs, synthetic materials she’s never even seen before; more varieties of material and color and print than she could’ve imagined in her wildest dreams. And the garments? Every conceivable style.

 

“Here!”

 

Gozetta tugs on her elbow, bringing her into an alarmingly austere boutique; bare white walls accentuate the fact that only a dozen items are being sold, and all of them look very expensive. Rey checks a couple tags and is disheartened to find herself proven right: every item in the place is laughably outside her meager price range.

 

“Look how fine this dress is, Rey,” Gozetta purrs, holding up a shimmering emerald green gown for her inspection. “Imagine how the color would bring out your eyes! You must try it on. And ma-a-aybe we should buy a little makeup, while we’re out… you’ve got some bird’s feet around your—”

 

“Goz,” she interrupts, as she checks the tag dangling from the gown’s right sleeve. “This costs about half of what we got for the bar. I don’t have that kind of money.” She shrugs, tapping her quarterstaff nervously on the shiny white floor. “I barely have any money.”

 

“Just try it on.”

 

Rey sighs. “This place is… nice, but isn’t there somewhere we can buy fabric? I’ll make my own clothes.”

 

“What, by hand?” Gozetta asks, eyes cutting towards her. She looks offended by the very suggestion.

 

“…Yes, of course.”

 

Gozetta gazes longingly at the gown for a moment, still rubbing the fabric of the sleeve between her fingers. “Oh, right,” she finally says, sounding distant. “I remember that, about you. Your—” her lip curls, words dripping with disdain, “—homemade clothes, on Jakku.”

 

“How else was I supposed to clothe myself?” Rey presses her own lips into a thin line, willing herself for the hundredth time not to take offense at Gozetta’s callousness.

 

Her sister does not answer right away. Instead, she screws up her shoulders, seemingly coming to a decision. Then she drops the sleeve and takes Rey by the elbow again, marching her out of the shop and towards the exit. Glancing around furtively, she grumbles, “Fine. Fine.” A sigh of her own, and a softening of her voice, then: “Don’t tell Poe, but… I have an idea.”

 

They pass through glass doors back onto the spacious landing pad. Beneath them, speeders of all sort race along skylanes. “We’ll rent a tailor-droid for a few days to help you, hm?” She hops in their airspeeder, then turns to Rey after she’s done the same. “But you have to keep it hidden in your room.”

 

“Why aren’t we telling Poe?” Rey places her quarterstaff on the backseat, her head tilted with suspicion.

 

“Ugh,” is Gozetta’s droll response. “He says the harvest was less fruitful than he and… Kes … had hoped. It’ll be a tight year. Supposedly.” She dons a pair of glareshades, checking herself in one of the airspeeder’s mirrors before adding: “But really, who knows. He’s as bad with money as I am, to be perfectly honest.”

 

“In that case, I can’t ask you to—”

 

Gozetta’s tone turns haughty and incensed; she sounds like she’s doing her best impression of Verla. “I will not have my sister meeting Chandrilan society in handstitched rags! I won’t. What would Ma have said? What would Pa think?”

 

“He wouldn’t care,” Rey mutters. “It’s me we’re talking about.” Unable to meet her sister’s eyes, she looks out across the pad, watching the transports come and go.

 

“I care. I care.”

 

Rey turns back to see Gozetta baring her teeth as she speaks, a surefire sign she’s incensed. “You look like a damned desert rat, walking around in your rags, carrying that stupid stick—”

 

“Quarterstaff,” Rey corrects.

 

“Quarter-staff, half-staff, three-fourths staff—I don’t give a bantha shit!” She slaps the console for emphasis. “You’re not bringing it to dinner with Captain Solo—” She wags a finger in Rey’s face, giving a violent shake of her head when Rey opens her mouth to protest. “No, don’t even try it. You are not.”

 

“Goz—” she tries, soft, as if appealing to a cranky child.

 

Gozetta lifts her chin up. “I am your sister, am I not?”

 

“You are.”

 

“Then let me be sisterly, and stop being so damned binary about everything,” she growls. “Besides, the droid and the fabric will still be cheaper than buying from those boutiques, if that’s your hang-up.”

 

She starts the airspeeder then maneuvers it out over the landing pad, carefully merging into a busy skylane.

 

“So you see,” she says, as she navigates towards less shiny and towering parts of the city, “I’ve actually made a very prudent choice. You should be congratulating me for my cleverness!” She pauses only as long as it takes to draw breath. “You’re worse than Verla, Rey, I swear—the both of you, so stubborn, never appreciating my efforts…”

 

And that is as Gozetta a claim as she’s ever made, as if the truth is not that she’s three times more stubborn and willfully obtuse than anyone else in the family. But Rey recognizes an olive branch when she’s being handed one; her sister is trying. It means more to her than words can express, so she merely says:

 

“Yes all right, my deepest apologies. Let’s find a droid rental, then?”

 

Gozetta’s smile is dazzling, on the rare occasion she chooses to employ it; her whole face lights up, her cheeks dimple becomingly.

 

“Let’s!” she crows.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Rey favors the neutral desert tones and hardy but soft fabrics that helped her survive life as a salvager on Jakku; Gozetta, accustomed to the more glamorous styles of Chandrila, continuously demands she add color and glamor to her selections. It takes a few hours and a dozen shops to purchase all the supplies she’ll need. In the end, after much back and forth, the sisters manage to reach something of a compromise on her new wardrobe.

 

A bolt of black govath-wool for a heavy winter coat, Rey’s choice. Emerald green Fleuréline weave for an evening gown, a concession to Gozetta. Simple coarseweave for trousers and tunics, in dark shades of Tuanulberry blue and garnet and juniper, agreed upon by both sisters. And a handful of other fabrics and details, each one a complicated negotiation.

 

Finally, it is finished. The materials bought, the tailor-droid rented, all of it secreted away in her guest room where they know Poe will not venture; Gozetta declares the afternoon a success and herself in desperate need of a nap, much to Rey’s relief.

 

Sketchbook and some pencils in hand, she sets out from the bungalow. Not knowing where she’s headed exactly, she takes a wide path through the woods— avoiding the Great House, surprisingly in need of the solitude that had haunted her for most of her life— until she emerges from the trees at the back-end of the orchard.

 

There is a curious tree there, incongruous from both the koyos and the Chandrilan pines. Uneti, Shara had called it. A Force tree. It is massive, its bark smoother and redder than that of the others. It stands taller and wider as well, and bears no leaves or fruit. Just long bare limbs and branches, like a person made plant.

 

Rey seats herself cross-legged beneath it, her back resting against its trunk, and opens her sketchbook.

 

It’s so quiet here that she can hear the faint buzzing of the bees and the rustle of leaves dancing in the wind. And something else, something not entirely natural… a subtle hum that she thinks might be coming from the tree. It should be off-putting, that hum, but for some reason Rey doesn’t mind it. Maybe because it is not invasive in the way her fumbling exploration of the Force with him sometimes was; it is only welcoming, only lulling.

 

She sets her pencil to the paper. Her first subject: the orchard and in the distance, the Great House. Gentle rolling hills, carefully lined with now-fruitless but still lush leafy koyo trees. The Great House’s shining white walls, the steep slope of its dark green roof. Once satisfied, she turns the page.

 

Next she draws the branches of the uneti above her head. Twisted like corkscrews yet smooth, reaching up towards the warm yellow sun.

 

A bird lands in the grass before her, almost as if nominating itself to be recorded for posterity. Her final sketch, she decides. It picks at the pits of fallen and rotting koyo fruits, its black plumage starred with white, its delicate body so far removed from Jakku’s scavenging birds of prey that Rey wonders if they could even be counted as distant relations.

 

It’s lovely, though. She draws it with care.

 

The sun glides across the sky as she works, and Rey regains the calm she felt that night she threw herself in the ocean. She thinks of his face, drawn on a postcard she keeps under her pillow. Not paying attention, lost in a daydream, she begins to draw that face beside the bird and the uneti branches.

 

When she notices the profile taking shape, she nearly throws her pencil away in alarm.

 

You have to let him go, she tells herself. You did it before, you can do it again.

 

Don’t,says a voice deep within that is not her own.

 

Unsettled, she pushes herself up. The tree remains exactly as it was when she first saw it, unmoving and innocuous. With a shake of her head, Rey turns and heads home, choosing the shorter path through the orchard, the one that takes her past the Great House. And as she nears the veranda, she can see that Poe and Brixie are relaxing there, sharing a glass of koyo wine.

 

They are not alone.

 

There’s a third person— wide shoulders filling out an indigo blue sweater, ramrod straight posture, and a dark head of hair like a mane— seated with his back to her. She freezes, knowing at once who it is.

 

But it’s too late; Brixie has spotted her. “Rey!” she cries cheerfully, giving a wave. “Fancy meeting you here! I’ve just gotten off work. Maker, what a long one it was!” As Rey rounds the corner of the veranda, coming face to face with the Damerons and their guest, Brixie picks up an empty wine glass and dangles it in Rey’s direction. “Wanna sit with us for a while? Have a glass?”

 

Before Rey can answer, Brixie tilts her head in his direction. “Remember Captain Solo?”

 

Rey takes a deep breath, then forces herself to look at Ben. “Hullo,” she mumbles.

 

He sits stiff, motionless, his face pointed resolutely in Poe’s direction. Only for an instant does he let his eyes slide towards her— blink and you’d miss it— as if the sight of her is too repellent for his gaze to linger. His response to her is the very definition of the cold shoulder; the only sign that he gives of even acknowledging she exists is a curt nod towards Brixie, which could more easily be interpreted as an affirmation of her  question.

 

So this is what she means to him, now. First she feels heat blossoming along her neck and cheeks, her humiliation suffusing her with fever; she is tired, she is sweaty, she is somewhat bedraggled from a long day. Not that he even cares enough to look at her, really look at her. That brings on a chill: his non-greeting wracks through her, freezing everything within, making her chest seize up.

 

No amount of credits in the whole galaxy could entice her to keep standing there, let alone invite more coldness from him by joining their informal gathering.

 

She recalls Gozetta’s plan, of her being dressed in shimmering emerald green for the dinner on Friday. It had held a certain appeal to her, after some convincing; she would look her best when he finally saw her again. Not as she is today, in clothes cut from the same cloth of those she wore eight years ago.

 

Desert rat, her sister had said. Dressed in rags.

 

The unfairness of it all strikes at her, again and again.

 

He looks so handsome in that blue sweater and his dark fitted trousers and well-shined boots, his angular features only made more distinguished-looking by the passage of time, his dark hair as becoming with streaks of sterling coming in at the temples as it was in his shaggy youth. She feels as old and withered as the nightbloomer bouquet that rests in its tin box, hidden in the guest room closet.

 

She has mere moments to escape before the tears come.

 

“I… have to go,” she gasps, clutching the sketchbook to her chest. “I’m sorry.”

 

Brixie doesn’t seem to notice her distress, distracted as she is by the Captain. She gazes at him with stars in her eyes, a dreamy smile playing at her pink lips.

 

“Another time,” she says, distractedly.

 

Poe is frowning at her, his brow furrowed. Perhaps meaning to comfort her, he says, “We’ll all be together on Friday, anyway.”

 

Get out of here, scream her instincts. There was a time when Rey’s response might have been to fight rather than to flee; that time has passed.

 

Poe’s frown deepens, at the emotions flitting across Rey’s face or at the Captain’s pointed snub, she doesn’t know. “You okay?” he checks.

 

“Long day,” is all she can manage, already backing away slowly from the balustrade. “See you later.”

 

He nods, but still appears concerned. Not once, before Rey finally turns and all but scurries away, does the Captain look at her again. His eyes remain fixed on Brixie, who’s already struck up a playful polemic about some restaurant in Hanna City.

 

“It’s over,” Rey whispers to herself, arms hugging her own waist tightly as she stumbles home through the woods. “It’s over. You saw him, you survived him. You’re fine.”

 

Deep breaths, in and out. She hears nothing but the ringing in her ears, the agitated thundering of her heart. Her palms are damp; her legs tremble. Finally, she stops to rest against a boulder, brushing away the traitorous tears that have slipped free.

 

“You’re okay,” she chants. “You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Though she digs in her heels for the rest of the week, trying to stick to the most boring and mundane of activities so that time might pass more slowly, Friday evening arrives all the same.

 

The tailor-droid has worked practically non-stop, and most of her new wardrobe is finished. According to Gozetta, it is a paltry collection, but Rey is now in possession of more clothing than she has ever owned in her life. With every garment laid out on the guest sleeper, she feels like a pirate queen surveying her plunder. Carefully, clad in only a set of new kelpcotton underwear and brassiere, she lifts each and drapes it over her front, then spins to study the effect in the mirrored closet door.

 

Her hands are shaking.

 

In less than an hour, she’ll see him. And it will be as it was the other day; he won’t look at her, they won’t speak. But she’s prepared now: she’ll be wearing something new and nice, her face washed, her hair clean and neatly braided. She doesn’t have the vitality she once had, maybe, but she’ll look presentable. And what’s more, she’ll be ready for his indifference; it won’t be the brutal slap in the face that it was before.

 

Just as she’s settled on a soft sage-hued tunic, belted, over dark wool leggings, and is attempting to massage the lines out of the skin around her eyes, an earsplitting shriek shatters the chirruping serenity of twilight.

 

She rushes out into the main room, where Poe is bustling in from the beachside door, carrying a limp Weir in his arms. Gingerly, he lowers the boy onto the sofa. Gozetta, dressed in a rumpled gemweb gown, hovers over them. She’s in hysterics, hiccuping with the force of her sobs; it was clearly her shriek that Rey heard. After passing around the sofa, Rey takes one of Gozetta’s hands in her own before leaning in to inspect her nephew. His little face is pale, eyes closed. He’s breathing, but the breaths are shallow and wheezy. They sound pained.

 

“Goz?” she asks. “What hap—”

 

“Oh, Rey,” she wails, then turns to bury her face in Rey’s shoulder. “He and Little Poe were playing in the gazebo. And he—he—”

 

“Wanted to prove to his big brother that he could climb, too,” Poe finishes, his voice somber and fearful. “Fell off the roof.”

 

Rey looks around for Little Poe and spies him lingering by the hallway, his shirt clenched in nervous fists. Tears pour freely down his ruddy cheeks.

 

He squeaks out, “Aunt Rey, I’m—”

 

“Shh,” she soothes, beckoning him over with her free arm. He approaches timidly, afraid of rebuke, but she simply picks him up. “Only an accident, love,” she murmurs, and he buries his face in her other shoulder, crying as bitterly as his mother.

 

Time seems to speed up then, because there is a panicked flurry of activity; Rey takes the airspeeder to hire a medidroid from the closest medcenter in Hanna City while Gozetta and Poe watch over the boy, and RIC-920 is sent to the Great House to fetch everyone, a precaution demanded by an inconsolable Gozetta.

 

Night has completely fallen by the time Rey returns with the droid. She enters the bungalow to find the Damerons and Gozetta sitting crowded in a fretful semi-circle around the boy. He’s awake but glassy-eyed, lying still; they take turns patting his hair and whispering their worries to one another.

 

The droid’s examination takes no more than ten minutes: a bit of prodding, some scans done first with a medisensor and then an encephaloscanner, a few curt questions put to Weir in its mechanical unfeeling way. Then it nods its head, satisfied with its diagnosis.

 

“Is it his spine?” Gozetta blurts out, voice quavering, when it turns to face them.

 

Negative,” the droid replies. “Fracture one: right clavicle. Fracture two: small proximal phalanx of the right hand. Slight concussion.”

 

“Phalanx?” Rey puzzles.

 

Gozetta scoffs. “His pinky finger.” Poe looks at her, his eyes wide, eyebrows raised. The surprised expression is mirrored in his parents’ and Brixie’s faces; Rey fears her own probably looks the same.

 

“What?” she snaps. “I know things, too!”

 

“But what does that mean for Weir?” Shara asks the droid in a breathless gasp.

 

Without preamble, the droid reels off its prescription: “Treatment for fractured bones: bacta. Patient is too young for tank. Alternate solution: fourteen milliliters bactade ingested orally once an hour for the next twelve hours.” Here it pauses to withdraw a vial filled with blue liquid from its medkit before continuing: “Treatment for symptom of: pain. Medication, non-sedative painkiller. Dosage: one ampule every six hours, or as needed. Treatment for concussion: medication, antishock. Dosage: two ampules.

 

At this, it reaches back into the medkit and rummages for a moment, before retrieving the prescribed meds. Then it hands the ampules and the vial of bactade to Rey, who is standing closest.

 

Taken with water,” it adds, almost an afterthought. “On a full stomach.”

 

Rey nods. “Thank you.” Relieved, she turns to face the Damerons. “That’s not so bad then, is it?”

 

“N-no,” Shara sighs. “Thank the maker.”

 

Kes wipes some errant tears from the corners of his eyes and clears his throat. He crouches to press a soft kiss to his grandson’s forehead before addressing the droid. “I guess you need someone to take you back, huh?”

 

Affirmative,” is the droid’s monotone reply.

 

“Dad,” says Poe, “I can—”

 

“I got it,” Kes assures him, already leading the droid out the door. “You just worry about your boy.”

 

After Little Poe is calmed down and tucked into his sleeper, after Weir’s medication is administered and he is made as comfortable as possible on the sofa, after Shara is satisfied that he will live through the night and she and Brixie have returned home; Poe, Gozetta, and Rey hold an impromptu forum at the dinner table.

 

“We should cancel with Solo,” Poe begins, casting nervous glances back at the sofa, where Weir sips from his glass of koyo juice while quietly watching a holotoon.

 

“But he’s fine.” Gozetta wrings her hands, seemingly over the worst of her shock and desperate now in a different way, afraid of missing out on the evening’s entertainments. “The bactade will fix him up soon enough. We can give Rick instructions to keep him awake while we’re gone, until the antishock takes care of the concussion.”

 

Or we can just reschedule,” Poe mutters.

 

“Captain Solo is a busy man! Who knows when he’ll be able to come visit next?”

 

Rey studies her own hands, clasped in her lap, surreptitiously comparing them with her sister’s. Both are slim, but where Rey’s are bony, the backs traversed by prominent blue veins, Gozetta’s are fuller, unravaged by a lifetime of hard labor, absent the calluses that mar Rey’s palms and the pads of her fingers. She doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and she doesn’t contribute to the discussion.

 

Fine.” Poe’s fists land heavily on the table, frustration evident in his voice. “I’ll stay here, and you two go.”

 

“Absolutely not,” comes Gozetta’s rapidfire reply; when Rey looks up, her eyes are blazing. “What will your parents think of me? Oh, Gozetta the spoiled beast, wining and dining with the hero of the New Republic while Poe the Martyr stays home with their sick child?”

 

“Wouldn’t be that off-base,” he snarls.

 

What did you just say?”

 

Poe and Gozetta are both bent halfway across the table, glaring daggers at each other; they’re completely tensed, as if ready to pounce. The tension in the room has reached a boiling point, and Rey knows that regrettable things are about to be said. So in the interest of keeping the peace, protecting both her sister and her sister’s marriage from her sister, she sees no other choice but to intervene.

 

“I’ll stay,” she announces, calmly.

 

“No, Rey.” Poe shakes his head, still glowering at his wife. “That’s not right—he’s our kid. You should go, have a good time, enjoy—”

 

“It’s fine,” she cuts across him. “I don’t mind, really. I wasn’t… even feeling that up to it, anyway.”

 

“Well there you have it,” Gozetta sniffs. Poe opens his mouth but before he can speak, she shoots up from the table, leaning forward on her palms to spit angrily at him: “Now. This beast has to go finish getting ready.”

 

With that, she spins and stomps from the room, heedless of their son sleeping down the hall.

 

Poe sighs.

 

“Gozetta would never shut up about it if you went without her, made her go without you, or insisted that neither of you go,” Rey says, in a low voice.

 

He pinches the bridge of his nose. “I’m sor—”

 

“I meant it, Poe.” She waves her hand, dismissing his apology. “It’s fine. Really.”

 

For a long moment, he stares at her, once again frowning. He frowns so much these days; Rey can count on her hands the number of times she’s seen him smile since she arrived.

 

“Yeah,” he finally says. “Yes. Okay. You really sure?”

 

“I’m really sure.”

 

And so, approximately thirty minutes later— Gozetta sporting a face of flawlessly applied makeup and a synthfur stole wrapped around her shoulders, Poe freshly showered and shaved— they emerge ready for the evening, looking much happier with each other than they did before. One final burst of instructions about the boys and a grateful but rushed hug between the sisters ensue, and then they are out the door.

 

There is a very still, very stagnant, almost dreamy, stretch of time that follows. Rey sits at the table, picking at the soft coarseweave of her new tunic and leggings. She stares at the blank wall, she listens to Weir’s holotoon. She doesn’t cry, a fact for which she’s grateful. Her exhaustion, the dejection she feels: it’s too much effort to cry.

 

She just stares.

 

When she finally snaps out of it, she returns to the guest room and changes back into the desert rags she made for herself on Jakku, all those years ago.

 

 

. . .

 

 

At some point, she falls into a light doze, curled up in one of the main room armchairs. Weir does the same on the sofa beside her, his breathing steady. The holotoon they’ve spent the evening watching, Moray and Faz, continues projecting in bright colors and cheerful jingles from a low-slung coffee table long after they’ve both stopped watching.

 

That’s how Gozetta and Poe find them when they return home. Gozetta shakes her shoulder brusquely, snapping her awake.

 

“What time is it?” Rey gasps.

 

“Almost one.”

 

She jumps up from the chair in a panic. “His bactade!”

 

“Don’t worry about it.” Poe waves her off. “I got it. Go get some sleep. And thanks again, Rey, for staying with him.”

 

She nods gratefully, bids them goodnight, then heads down the hall.

 

But Gozetta trails after her. “What a night you missed!” she exclaims. “Poe was just in awe of Captain Solo.”

 

Rey gives a noncommittal hum.

 

Leaning on the door jamb of the ‘fresher, Gozetta watches as Rey picks up the ultrasound cleaner and begins passing it over her bared teeth. It tingles in a way that Rey has still not grown used to; she’s quick to rinse her mouth out with water after, although Gozetta has told her any number of times that she doesn’t need to.

 

“Like a new man, he said.” She smirks at Rey. “He’s always told me that when he first met the Captain during the war, when he was still just a pilot, he was one of the most temperamental and cantankerous men he’d ever had the poor fortune to fly with. But a genius in the cockpit.”

 

Rey spares no more than a glance towards her sister before returning her eyes to the mirror. Her wrinkles look pronounced under the bright vanity lights. Her whole face appears faded, really, even her light smattering of freckles. She sighs, but Gozetta barrels on, undeterred.

 

“Tonight, though? Lovely as can be! He was all charm, and full of incredible stories from the war.” She titters, as though still in recovery from a great shock. “And most shocking of all, he was quite friendly with our Brixie. I'm not ashamed to admit I was wrong about him and her! Really, I wouldn’t be surprised if something came of that.”

 

Though she tries to stop it, a sad little squawk is ripped from Rey’s throat. Him and Brixie. She should’ve seen it, that afternoon they were sitting on the porch. She had set her sights on him, hadn’t she? Why shouldn’t he return that interest?

 

Brixie is a pilot, Brixie is clever and educated, Brixie has a good family.

 

Brixie is young, and full of energy, and very pretty.

 

Brixie knows her own mind.

 

Brixie is so many things that Rey is not, that she has never been, that she cannot be.

 

She leans over to splash water on her face, in an attempt to forestall the tears that have begun pricking at her eyes.

 

“Ye-ep,” Gozetta says, sing-song. “Wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a lot more of that Captain Solo around these parts, in fact.”

 

She reaches for a towel to dry her face off and hide the hurt she’s sure is evident there. When she returns it to her rack, her sister is once more looking at her.

 

“He was… a little rude about you, though.” She reflects for a second, pursing her lips in thought. “At least, I thought so.”

 

“Is that so,” is all Rey can get out, no more than a gulping whisper. She cannot afford to spare her breath; she holds it in her lungs, waiting for his verdict, given secondhand.

 

Gozetta frowns. “He said, and I quote, ‘She looks so different, I didn’t even realize it was her.’"

 

Now her breath escapes her like air from a popped leak-seeker balloon: all at once, in a great rush. And after, she is just as deflated.

 

Unwittingly pouring salt in the wound, Gozetta adds, “‘Altered beyond recognition.’ That’s how he put it."

 

Rey stares down at the sink, blinking rapidly. She might have suspected he’d be so cavalier, from his brief glimpse of her, and yet… to hear her sister mention it so offhandedly, to hear his harsh opinion spoken aloud…

 

It crushes her. She’s only twenty seven. (So it’s a hard twenty-seven. She’s spent most of her life alone on a kriffing desert planet, fending for herself. He’s no youngling either, is he?)

 

Unfair. It’s just all so unfair.

 

But it is done now, isn’t it? It’s truly over, all of it.

 

“Okay,” she murmurs, then brushes past Gozetta and hurries down the hall without another word, keying in the code to activate her door's security lock once she’s inside.

 

The worst is over.

 

This is what Rey tells herself as she tucks herself in that night, her tears a secret she knows the pillowcase will keep.

 

The worst is over.  

 

 


 

 

 

Downtown Hanna City sparkles at night, a million lights in a million windows like a wall of fireflies sitting sentry, casting a hazy glow up at the inky-blue sky. Two moons peek out from behind the skyscrapers, one amber, one lavender. The crisp air still hums with distant skylane traffic, an errant outburst of laughter here or singing there, but things are otherwise quiet.

 

Peaceful.

 

Ben has almost forgotten what it’s like to live a life outside of war. He’s not sure if he’s ever been a man at peace, but there was a time, once, when he was younger and brasher and not yet burned out on the galaxy’s caprice, when he would sit in the main hold of the Millennium Falcon with his father and Chewbacca, laughing and gambling and shooting the shit. That was something like peace, he thinks.

 

(When he held her, too, he felt something like peace. A red-eyed beast that had always writhed just beneath his skin knelt down and was still, only for her. And what choice had there been but to love her for that, and for her beauty, for her mind? To offer himself up on a platter, for her taking? She’d tamed the beast, after all, and the man.

 

He should have known it was too good to be true.)

 

A door slides open behind him. Light from Senator Organa’s penthouse apartment spills across the balcony; his mother joins him, her heels tip-tapping as she takes a seat beside him on the cushioned bench. There’s a crystal tumbler in each of her hands, Corellian whiskey on the rocks. Without speaking, she offers one to him.

 

He accepts, in corresponding silence. Together they watch the night wind down, lights blinking out one by one as the city’s residents head off to sleep.

 

“Well?” she husks out, after a while. “How are the Damerons? I hope you told them how disappointed I was not to be there.” To herself she mutters, “Rather be out at their orchard than eating overcooked marmal-fish at the Skygarden Cafe with that wretched Carise Sindian any day of the week.”

 

“I told them,” he says.

 

“I’ll be gone tomorrow morning before you’re even awake,” she informs him. “Reconstruction negotiations are finally getting underway on Coruscant. They’ll take two or three weeks, maybe longer.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“Amilyn wants all of us to get together for dinner soon, on Gatalenta.”

 

An impassive grunt is the best he can muster.

 

She sighs. “What’s wrong?”

 

Leia sounds as weary as he feels, and his answering sigh is just as long-suffering as hers. “You told me once that you had hopes for me,” he begins, casting a glance her way to find her watching him, eyes narrowed. “Hopes that I… would settle down one day.”

 

“Oh? Have you met someone?” she inquires, with a studied aloofness that does not fool him.

 

Yes, eight years ago, he thinks, before reminding himself: But she was inconstant and weak. Weak of heart. Weak of mind.

 

But then, he was the fool who fell in love with such a woman, wasn’t he?

 

“Maybe,” he replies, instead. “Poe Dameron’s younger sister—”

 

“Ah, Brixie.” Leia’s dark eyes shine, reflecting the city lights. “She flew for the Civilian Defense Fleet for a short time, I think.”

 

Ben nods. “She’s at Chandriltech now.”

 

“Such a clever girl.” She takes a sip of her whiskey before arching a meaningful eyebrow at him.

 

“Hm,” is his laconic response.

 

“And a nice family. The Damerons are good people, well-respected and hard working.”

 

“Hm.”

 

“And…” A twitch of her lips; she stifles her smirk. “…so pretty, too.”

 

He works his jaw for a moment, contemplating, then asks, “You’ve met her?”

 

“Only in passing, when she was still just a tiny thing,” she says, tapping her finger against her chin. “Always trailing after her big brother and sister, from what I can recall. But I hear she’s grown up to be quite a beauty.”

 

Ben retreats to safety. “Hm.”

 

“Han would’ve liked her,” she says, softly.

 

Maybe his father would’ve, maybe he wouldn’t have. But there was only one woman on whom his father had insisted he not give up. It comes back to him: the disconcertingly grave expression on Han’s face when Ben had told him they were leaving Jakku without Rey, how he’d ranted and stalled for hours, insisting Ben go back and get her.

 

How stubbornly he had refused.

 

(The thought of it makes his chest feel tight. He soothes it with another sip of whiskey.)

 

His father had died less than a month later. A negotiation gone wrong, Han caught in the crosshairs. Not even a full bacta immersion would have been able to save him by the time Ben had pulled his body from the wreckage. Perhaps if he’d known more about his connection with the Force, in that moment when he’d found Han riddled with plasma burns and dying…

 

But he did not— could not— heal him.

 

Ben finishes his whiskey in one swallow, soliciting a strange look from his mother. He hadn’t. He hadn’t known, or understood, or accepted the Force. He’d barely begun to explore it, with her.

 

He’d hated it, that part of himself. Hated the thought that Darth Vader’s blood, in some sense, ran through his veins. His mother had taught him that hatred, when she’d sat him down at eight years old and explained who he was, what it meant to be the scion of such a man. He’d buried that hatred deep, and from it had sprouted the saplings of his fear.

 

And it had ruined them. In that, she had been correct. But— as he’d discovered later from Lieutenant Dameron, who’d heard it from her brother, who’d been told by that wretched sister he married, who of course had the confidence of her — she had allowed herself to be persuaded of his wrongness by that damned Abednedo, when before she had given him so much hope, when the thing between them could have saved them both, and in that…

 

He could not allow for any correctness in that; there was none. Only an unforgivable weakness.

 

No matter.

 

Chewbacca, loyal, brave Chewbacca, had left him not long after. Time to return to Kashyyyk, he’d said. My soul needs mending.

 

Of course, he had been able to relate. How terribly he had wished that he could do the same for his own, just by going home. Or returning to her. But there had been no solace for him in either option, and there was his pride to consider; it had not allowed for any such abasement.

 

And so, when the call had come from his mother, he’d answered it. He went to war, channeled all his rage and sorrow into his singular mission of redemption. Flying, first, and commanding, later; he’d liberated the Outer Rim planets that had been stripped and exploited for their resources by the First Order. He’d brought them to their knees, and returned peace to the galaxy, if not himself.

 

What could be done to undo his grandfather’s evil, he has done. He’s made amends, of a sort. He and Leia and Luke: all limbs belonging to the same body, the body of the New Republic. Working in harmony to steer the ship back to rights.

 

Because… what else was there, for him? Smuggling bored him to death, in truth. It had been for his father’s sake that he’d entered the profession in the first place, and once his father was gone— slain, and in no small part lost because of Ben’s rejection of the Force— there had been nothing in it for him.

 

Perhaps he could’ve taken up with his uncle and Mara Jade. Perhaps he could’ve learned the ways of the Jedi, as his grandfather had before him. But that had been the root of his family’s problems, hadn’t it?

 

No, even with Han gone, Ben had known that he was no Jedi, and that was not the path for him. He could not risk succumbing to the Dark Side; she had been the only thing that could have tempted him to chance it.

 

(Without her, there was less fear, yes. She had been right about that. But there was less passion, too. And a decided loss of optimism.)

 

He huffs, belatedly. An amiable quiet has taken up residence on the balcony with him and Leia; in the years since Ben joined the military, he has become much closer to her. Though neither of them likes to verbally acknowledge their shared sensitivity to the Force, it does instill in him a sense of well-being, when she’s nearby.

 

Of being understood, and accepted. A necessary thing. Vital, really.

 

“Brixie Dameron, Glorificent, Yvana Bailer, I don’t care who,” he says at last, interrupting that quiet.

 

“Glorificent?” Leia chuckles. “Somebody thinks very highly of himself.”

 

“The who is irrelevant,” he retorts. “I’m Captain Ben Solo, aren’t I?” He tries to shape his mouth into something roguish and cavalier, imitating that lopsided smirk for which his father was so infamous. It doesn’t feel right, so he lets it drop.

 

“Do you mean to tell me you’re just going to marry the first girl who offers?” she scoffs.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Ben.”

 

He shrugs. “A little beauty, a few smiles, some compliments to the navy—”

 

“This is a distressingly low bar you’re setting, kiddo.” Her tone is sardonic, her eyebrows once more raised, now in disbelief.

 

Ben’s mind swings to her, though he tries to avoid it. Her intrepid smile, her tears, the way her hand fit in his. Her soft breast in his palm, her chapped lips on his. How she would not meet his eyes, when she sent him away.

 

How time stood still in that moment, how he could not comprehend her choice. How she had just decided she wasn’t in love with him anymore.

 

How she changed her mind, just like that.

 

How miserable and wilted and sad she’d seemed, walking past the Damerons’ house the other afternoon. She’d looked like she had wanted nothing more than to disappear completely.

 

The years have been unkind to her, he muses, with what he supposes is satisfaction. As unkind as the damned family she was so desperate to see again.

 

This is validation. This is triumph. This is vindication. Yet… there is a pinch, somewhere at the base of his throat, like his windpipe has momentarily sealed itself shut. And a suspicion: the sentiments are hollow. What might he have felt, if Poe’s child hadn’t fallen and injured himself tonight, if she hadn’t stayed behind to play nursemaid? If they had spoken to each other at dinner? He chooses not to pull on that thread, instead returning his attention to his mother’s remark.

 

“Okay,” he concedes. “A sweet nature… and a strong mind.”

 

“Hmph,” is his mother’s only— less than impressed— response. Her thick Émeraude and Chalcedony rings clink against her glass, an arrested and distracted rhythm.

 

The night drags on.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

Gozetta’s prediction about seeing more of the Captain, unfortunately, proves true.

 

And worse yet, Rey has no excuse the next time dinner plans are arranged; not only have Weir’s collarbone and finger been healed by the bactade, but Gozetta— to Rey’s utter surprise— has seemingly taken her words to heart, and procured from somewhere an antiquated nanny droid.

 

Antiquated, but more than up to the task of minding her boys for a few hours in the evening.

 

So it happens that three days later, she finds herself once more hovering around the dining table at the Great House. This time they are to eat out on the lawn, the table having been carried out, wicker chairs brought over from the veranda, the scene illuminated by the incandescent glow lanterns that have been strung from the trees.

 

“The last warm day before the cold sets in, I can feel it in my bones,” Shara explains, as Rey helps her set the table and light the vast collection of beeswax candles she’s amassed in its center. “We have to make the most of it.”

 

Brixie steps down from the veranda’s bottom step not a moment later, barefoot and dressed in a swinging knee-length dress, its thin fineweave straps flattering on her graceful shoulders. Smiling, she treads through the grass towards them. Her hands are full with wine glasses, but as soon as she sets them down on the table, she throws an arm around Rey.

 

“We missed you the other night,” she says, her voice warm with affection. “But I’m glad my nephew had his wonderful aunt there, to watch over him.”

 

Rey forces a smile. “Of course.”

 

Shara sighs happily at the sight of them embracing. Then her face falls. “Oh, the priprak!” she gasps, spinning on her heel. As she rushes towards the stairs, she calls back: “Girls, finish the table, please?”

 

Brixie only shrugs bemusedly when Rey looks to her for answers. “She’s trying out a new recipe with the kitchen droids.”

 

Resuming her lighting of candles, Rey asks, “What’s priprak?”

 

“Chandrilan forest bird, an old traditional recipe.” Brixie gives an affectionate roll of her eyes. “Captain Solo mentioned it was a childhood favorite the other night. Mom is determined to recreate it perfectly.”

 

With the last of the wine glasses positioned by each plate, she begins folding a stack of cloth napkins into elaborate bird shapes.

 

“See?” she asks, balancing the first of these creations on her palm. “Priprak.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“By the way, why’re you here early but not Gozetta or Poe?”

 

Rey blushes, recalling the soft moment that had passed between her sister and brother-in-law earlier as they watched their new nanny droid attend to their children.

 

This was… a really good idea, Poe had conceded, gazing at his wife with something akin to admiration.

 

Gozetta had only been able to maintain the facade of offended pride for about a half a second before she’d broken out into a grin. You really think so?

 

He’d taken her hand in his. Let’s go for a walk, he’d said, by way of response. Down on the beach.

 

“They’re… having a nice day,” Rey says, diplomatically. “Thought I’d leave them to it for a while.”

 

Brixie just chuckles. “Yeah, those are truly rarer than snow on Tatooine… what a good big sister you are.” Her face clouds over for just a moment, maybe at a memory of her own sister, before she inhales deeply and says in a confidential tone: “I can’t wait to see Captain Solo again. Is it too obvious if I arrange our seats so that we’re next to each other?”

 

Swallowing back her misery, Rey chokes out, “Just obvious enough, I think.”

 

“Ha! Well, then.”

 

Brixie’s smirk brings too many memories to the fore— times when Rey herself had smirked at having him close, at finding some flimsy excuse to touch him, at reveling in his excuses to touch her. She turns to the path in the woods, wishing ardently for Poe and Gozetta to appear and serve as a buffer.

 

“I’ll just…” she trails off, moving in its direction. “We’re just about ready here, I’d better go fetch them.”

 

“Make sure to knock first, if they’re in the bedroom!” she hears, laughingly hollered after her.

 

She doesn’t reply. She can’t. It’s enough that she continues to draw breath; to ask any more of herself would be beyond cruel.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Brixie is as good as her word.

 

The Captain arrives, bearing a surprise visitor: Lando, outfitted in another regal cape and matching garments made from gold-threaded auropyle and black velvoid.

 

Upon exiting his airpeeder, a sleek silvery model so new Rey doesn’t recognize it, Lando greets them all with handshakes and hugs. He does the same, except to Rey. She receives the curtest of nods from him, and after that, he seemingly does his best to ignore her very existence.

 

But Rey is prepared now. She’d spent a vigorous half hour in the ‘fresher, scrubbing her skin raw, her hair is braided in a flattering crown around her head by Gozetta, she’s wearing the leggings and soft sage tunic she meant for him to see her in the other night. After she returns his nod politely, she keeps her stolen glimpses of him to a surreptitious minimum.

 

And she does not cry.

 

They are seated around the table, with Brixie at the Captain’s right elbow, and Lando at his left.

 

It is, Rey supposes, just a coincidence that she is directed to the other end on the opposite side, next to Gozetta. As far away as possible from him, not that anyone besides Rey would notice.

 

As is customary at the Great House, there is koyo wine and conversation before dinner is served. The sky darkens as the sun sinks behind the forest, but the glow lanterns and candles throw a flickering, golden light over everything. The air holds onto its warmth, the ambience is pleasant, and if Rey notices how many times Brixie casually touches his shoulder to get his attention, she makes no indication, instead focusing her attention on an involved story Lando is telling Shara about some good-old-days adventure with Han on Kessel.

 

He speaks of Han’s loose-limbed waggishness in the past tense, and although Rey is not exactly surprised to discover he’s no longer alive, she is stricken all the same.

 

She hadn’t imagined she would be. In the years that have passed since they sat together in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, where he’d offered her a place on his ship, his acceptance of her and Ben’s relationship, and the love of a father, she has always imagined that he finally settled down and lived out his life somewhere pastoral, somewhere beautiful. And that if he had died, it was in his sleep. She had made her peace with that scenario.

 

(In her imaginings, he always had him, at least, by his side. His son, strong and sturdy and steadfast, there to provide a shoulder to lean on as Han inched towards old age and death. That had given her some small comfort.)

 

But observing the melancholy way Lando fiddles with his fork, and Shara’s sad sighing laugh at their mutual friend’s youthful temerity… she has to wonder. The possibility of his death being anything other than painless makes her heart ache, so she sets it aside for the time being. She cannot take any more of that, not right now.

 

“I disagree completely.” Gozetta’s voice rings out, strident even around a mouthful of lavender treebread; at once, the smaller muted conversations happening around the table come to a halt.

 

The Captain leans forward and rests his elbows on the table. “Why?” he all but barks at her.

 

Rey darts her gaze back-and-forth between her sister and her former lover, fingers nervously clutching the seat of her wicker chair.

 

“Oh, the victors always write the history books, don’t they?” Gozetta drawls, arms crossed. “And the New Republic—whatever you might think of it—has done its damnedest to make sure no one ever knows about the Empire’s good deeds.”

 

Captain Solo’s jaw tics. “Those are… ?”

 

“Unification of the galaxy?”

 

He scoffs. “At what cost?”

 

“And—an end to the Clone Wars,” she rebuts, faltering slightly.

 

“Which were engineered by the Emperor.”

 

Gozetta frowns. “Well, the Empire was very good to my family! My father was raised to the rank of—”

 

“By all means,” he seethes, running roughshod across her, “if your father benefitted from the tyranny of Palpatine’s rule over quadrillions of innocents—including my parents, the shipyards of Corellia and the ashes of Alderaan—then… please, continue lying to yourself.”

 

Gozetta blinks at him, tongue-tied, her face drained of color. Sighing, Poe brings a hand up to rest between her trembling shoulder blades, a tentative gesture of support. Brixie seems to be able to do no more than grimace; even Shara and Kes have nothing to say. The tension in the air pulls tauter than a seven-string hallikset: one wrong note plucked at this moment may very well send the remainder of the evening spiraling into cacophony.

 

Rey picks up her glass and drinks deeply of her wine.

 

“Ah, the priprak!” cries Shara, a bit manic, as the kitchen droids file out onto the lawn carrying plates of roasted bird and side dishes of various vegetables.

 

“How—wonderful! Look, everyone, at this beautiful feast Beex and his fellows have prepared for us! You’ve all truly outdone yourselves this time!” She rambles loudly, gesturing with a broad sweep of her arm towards BX-778 and the others, allowing no room for a continuation of the argument. “Now, please—let’s all—just enjoy the priprak. Okay?”

 

A few minutes of silent eating follow. And normally, Rey would give herself over to the meal, but now she can think of nothing but his scathing reproach, and the food is like flavorless dust in her mouth.

 

He hates her. He must. With an opinion like that of her father, and probably one not much better of her sister, how could he not? Her sin, as it must seem in his eyes— of choosing them over him— becomes all the more egregious when seen in this light: her disgraceful Empire-loving family.

 

Overcome with shame, she cannot even lift her eyes from her plate; her entire body burns with it, for herself and for her relations.

 

It’s Lando who finally breaks the awkward spell. With a sharp huff, he chides, “Now let’s not forget, Benny boy—there was a time when you weren’t quite so patriotic towards the New Republic, either.”

 

He grins at the Captain, who receives his remark with a cool stare. His head is in profile to Rey, his strong break of a nose and heavy brow delineated by the hazy glow lanterns behind him. And she finally has a moment to really study his scar: a deep wound, but well-healed, the ruptured skin on his cheek and jaw knitted so tightly back together that it is no more than a shallow red line.

 

(She wonders if it hurts. She’d like to press her palm to it, and soothe his pain, if it does.)

 

“And?” he snaps.

 

“I recall you being a chip off the old block, like a young Han Solo, right up until you and your old man landed on Jakku.”

 

The Captain gives a slight nod then tilts his head, waiting for Lando to reach his point.

 

Stroking his mustache, Lando muses, like it is only the two men at the table, “Things changed there for you, didn’t they? Just like things changed for Han… somewhere around Tatooine.”

 

“Yes,” the Captain admits. “There were…”

 

He hesitates, just long enough to sneak a peek at Rey; it lasts a fraction of a second, but it still makes her heart seize in her throat.

 

“Yes,” he repeats, simply, cutting off whatever he might’ve been about to say. He shrugs. “They did.”

 

Is he thinking of their time together? How he was affected by it? Was he affected by it? Of course he was, she tells herself. I remember that much. He cannot have forgotten it or her, not with how he’s been treating her. No. No, he remembers. She knows he does. But does it wound him like it does her? The very idea of him still caring about those memories, about her, turns every muscle in her body to stone. A lump of chewed pripak sits on her tongue, but Rey can no more swallow than she can breathe.

 

And she can’t look away from him.

 

Gozetta attacks her meal in glum silence, and Poe looks even less cheerful than Gozetta. Even Brixie’s eyes flit nervously between the Captain and Lando in expectation of another outburst.

 

And maybe Rey could say something to lighten the mood, ease the awkwardness, if she weren’t so completely captivated by what he has left unspoken. She doesn’t, though. For one thing, she still has a disintegrating mouthful of pripak she can’t bring herself to swallow.

 

“How? How’d they change?” Lando presses. He leans back in his chair, waiting to be enlightened, then quirks a brow at Rey. “Say, that’s where you’re from, isn’t it? Didn’t you two meet, on Jakku?”

 

A beat. All eyes shift to her.

 

The Captain saves her from having to answer, though his reply is barbed. “Only in passing.”

 

Another glance stolen her way, their eyes meet; Rey just barely manages to suppress her anguished squeak. How cruel. What a cruel thing for him to say. And yet, she has to wonder, would it have been crueler for him to dredge up their history, to expose her weaknesses to the people at this table? She can’t decide.

 

“Anyway… things changed, is all,” he mutters, turning to the plate of cooling food in front of him. “Han died—not long after. And I became who I was needed to be.”

 

Rey supposes from Lando’s crestfallen expression, a reaction to the casual mention of his old friend’s death, that he’s going to let the matter drop.

 

And he does.

 

Which means the conversation has died, again. No one looks at anyone; the only sounds that break the awful silence are cricketsong and forks scraping against plates.

 

Now, she thinks. Say something now. Fix this, isn’t that what you do, fix things? Fix this, Rey.

 

“This priprak is the best thing I’ve ever eaten!” she blurts out.

 

Do his eyes soften, infinitesimally, as his gaze sweeps past her on its way to Shara? Maybe she’s only imagining it; maybe it’s only wishful thinking.

 

(Like an echo of the past, she remembers telling him, with a shy glance from beneath her eyelashes: “It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten in my whole life, to be honest.”

 

How he’d preened, how he’d cared for her. How it had made her cheeks flush and her heart race to see him preen, to let him take care of her.

 

How happy and young they’d been. Rey wants to sob out an apology, at the memory.)

 

“Yes,” he agrees, his tone mild, the sentiment directed towards the head of the table. “Just like I remembered it.”

 

Shara nods gratefully.

 

Does he remember that day? He doesn’t look at her again, merely resumes his eating as though it requires all his concentration.

 

The silence lingers; in one swallow, Rey finishes her wine. Thoughtfully, Shara reaches for a bottle and refills it.

 

“Oh, Dad!” Brixie exclaims, upbeat, doing for all of them what Rey could not, “You will never believe what happened at Chandriltech the other day!”

 

“I suspect not, but… tell me anyway,” Kes jokes.

 

Everyone chuckles, and just like that, the night is saved.

 

 

. . .

 

 

By the time Brixie retrieves a datapad from the house to look up the ships that the Captain has commanded, the candles are halfway melted down to the table, the food has long since been eaten and several bottles of wine have been emptied.

 

But— perhaps in the interest of avoiding another confrontation— Kes continues directing the droids to bring out more bottles. And so everyone is half in their cups, a sort of lazy joviality reigning over the flame-lit scene, when Brixie taps the screen a few times and says, “Alright, let’s see, the… Naberrie? Ah, here it is!”

 

She beams over at him, and he gives a soft, amused huff. (Rey remembers when he used to huff like at her that.)

 

“That was a Starhawk-class battleship, wasn’t it?” Lando asks.

 

Poe snorts. “Bucket of bolts, those things. Total junk.”

 

“Ungrateful whippersnapper!” Lando retorts, laughing. “The Starhawks were beauties! A little ugly, maybe, scraped together from old Imperial ships, sure, but you couldn’t ask for a better ship, in a fight. That is… they were no Millennium Falcon, sure… but then, what ship ever was?”

 

Again, Ben’s gaze slips over to Rey. And again she is caught in the act, because of course she has been watching him.

 

When their eyes meet, they hold, just for a moment; it is as electrifying, as stultifying, as heart-stopping as it was the very first time, back at Niima Outpost. She gasps softly, so softly that no one sees or hears but him.

 

Hastily, he looks away: first down at his plate, then over at Brixie, to whom he gives a tight smile.

 

“Tell us about the Naberrie, Ben?” she implores, placing a hand on his. “Please? Your stories are so fascinating!”

 

“What are my stories, bantha fodder?” Poe’s tone makes it clear he’s joking; he’s got an arm slung across the back of Gozetta’s chair, and his face is flush from the glass of wine in his hand. He smirks at himself sardonically, even as Brixie sends back:

 

“Bantha fodder is light years ahead of your tired old yarns, pal.”

 

She gets an earnest laugh out of him for that, and she joins him, the two of them sharing that peculiar kind of delight that can only be derived from affectionately torturing a sibling.

 

When they quiet down, the Captain says, “I don’t think I told you before, how I came to be at the helm of the Naberrie.”

 

“Oh, yes please,” Shara throws in, leaning on one elbow, cheek on her knuckles. “I’d love to hear this! That was—after my time, I believe.”

 

A respectful nod. “It was… long after Jakku.” He doesn’t look her way when he says it, yet Rey wonders if maybe he’s fighting the urge to do so. It seems as though he looks around the table at everyone but her, willfully, like he won’t allow himself that for whatever reason.

 

More wishful thinking, no doubt.

 

“And Han’s death,” he continues. “I’d been flying at the rank of Lieutenant when a distress call came in from the Atterra system—planet Bravo.

 

“Caught between pirates and the First Order, they said, and quickly running out of options. My commanding officer at the time, Captain Hestu—” He looks to Poe. “You remember him, don’t you?”

 

“Stick in the mud,” Poe grouses. “An ornery old goat.”

 

The Captain nods. One silver-black lock of his hair breaks free from the pack, tumbling down over his brow, and Rey bites the inside of her cheek.

 

“He denied my request to answer the call. Insisted it was a trap.”

 

Brixie’s eyes are wide; she’s enraptured, her hand still resting on his. “So what’d you do?”

 

He shrugs. “I went anyway. Took a few captured Brights, snuck onto the planet, got the lay of the land. Then I reported back… to Admiral Holdo.”

 

“Oh-ho!” Shara cheers, laughing. “I’m sure Hestu didn’t appreciate that.”

 

“Didn’t matter,” he says. A smile attempts to break free, but he stifles it; his full lips twitch with the effort. “By the time he found out, I’d already gotten the go-ahead from Holdo to mount a full-scale liberation of the planet. We had it freed in under a week.”

 

“And you were made Captain?” asks Gozetta. It’s the first she’s spoken since his rebuke.

 

“I was,” he answers. “And assigned the Naberrie, with a new set of parameters. Never reported to that… old goat… again.”

 

Poe grins at that, and Brixie breaks out into applause. “Bra-vo ! What a hero,” she sighs.

 

“More like a dissident,” he counters. “If I’d been wrong, about the distress signal?” He shakes his head at himself. “I might’ve spent the rest of the war in a brig somewhere.”

 

“Ah, but you weren’t and you didn’t,” Kes reminds him. “Lucky for you.”

 

Brixie blows a raspberry, dismissing her father’s insinuation. “Anyway… after the Naberrie was shot to Kingdom-come near Hays Minor, it looks like…” she picks up the datapad again, and scrolls down before continuing, “Then you were given the Corellian Hound.”

 

Shara’s heavy sigh rolls across the table. “That must be where you met Terena, of course.”

 

“That was my sister,” Brixie supplies, confusing the Captain’s pained expression for one of incomprehension. “Lieutenant Terena Dameron.”

 

Rey clasps Shara’s hand, offering her a sympathetic smile; the older woman squeezes it.

 

The Captain clears his throat. Tosses back the errant lock of hair. Looks down at his glass of wine.

 

Then he stands, picks up his chair, and carries it over to Shara. He sets it down in the grass at the corner of the table, between her and Lando.

 

“You know what I remember about Lieutenant Dameron?” he asks, quietly.

 

Shara’s breathing has gone rapid and shallow, her hand squeezing Rey’s to the point of pain.

 

“Her bravery.” He takes Shara’s free hand in his. “There wasn’t a pilot on the Corellian Hound braver than Terena Dameron.”

 

“Oh!” Shara murmurs, overcome. A few tears fall, heedless of her blinking. A hush has fallen over the rest of the table.

 

For one fleeting second, the Captain and Rey’s eyes meet again— each of them holding a hand of the grieving woman, each of them offering what solace they can— and Rey refuses to look away, though his gaze is searing. It kills her, just a tiny bit, to look into his eyes and find them exactly as she remembers: full of empathy, rendered dark by the candlelight, deep and complex, and intelligent, so intelligent. Probing. Always noticing far more than she had meant to show him.

 

She blinks and it’s passed; he’s looking at Shara. “Would you like to hear about her?” he asks.

 

“I would love that,” Shara gasps.

 

In a low rumble, he begins to speak of Terena Dameron. The conversations around them resume, everyone giving them the privacy demanded by such a moment. With charity and grace, he shares tales of the Lieutenant’s bravery, and in doing so he gives some piece of the daughter, enfolded in memory, back to the mother.

 

And all the while, Rey’s heart sinks, because the more she hears him speaks, the more she becomes unshakably certain of one thing:

 

He remains every bit the man she fell in love with, eight years ago.

 

 

. . .

 

 

In passing, the Captain mentions that his mother will be off-world for quite some time.

 

Living on her diplomatic barge during negotiations in Galactic City, he says.

 

As the days pass, each one colder than the last until Rey can see her breath in the air at night and the ground is white with delicate hoarfrost in the mornings, he seems all too happy to have a makeshift family with whom he can pass his evenings.

 

Luke and Mara Jade come to stay with him. Renovations and construction on the bar, they explain. They too become regulars at the Great House dinners.

 

More evenings follow. They are not as eventful as Rey’s first— Gozetta manages to keep her unpopular opinions on galactic politics to herself, and somehow, they never again broach the topic of his time on Jakku— and after a week or so, Rey almost becomes inured to the pain of seeing him, of receiving his cold courtesy.

 

Almost.

 

And even if she weren’t, the Damerons are more than happy to have him over, as often as he is willing to accept their invitation.

 

So whether she likes it or not, this becomes her new normal.

 

 

. . .

 

 

A hothouse, all shimmering mists and swirling mystery, greets the party when they cut down into the atmosphere of Gatalenta.

 

Another evening, another dinner, but this one: on a neighboring planet in the Inner Rim. The audacity, the extravagance, the thrill of being included in such a thing, of traveling across the galaxy for a meal, keeps Rey silent for most of the journey there.

 

Lando provides transport on his Personal Luxury Yacht 3000, the Lady Luck. They swoop down through from clouds into fog, and he brings them low, swerving between bright green hills as he follows a wide river upstream. Rey, seated on a sumptuous pouf couch in the ship’s lounge, envisions the river as an artery that carries the planet’s lifeblood to its hidden heart. She sits at an angle on the couch, one leg folded under her and an arm propped against its back, to better enable her ogling of the scenery.

 

She’d thought Chandrila was full of wonders.

 

The soil, so dark it is almost black, contrasts sharply with the river’s tumbling waters, a chalky blue so light they remind Rey of bantha milk. The surrounding terrain is lush; low-lying ferns and moss cling to the willowy trees of its lowland forests. Everything is so bright, so green. Greener than Chandrila, even.

 

And the hills that rise up from these forests, she observes, are unusual; there is a curious stair-like shape to their sloping sides, as though they’ve been carved with a climbing giant in mind.

 

“Terracing,” she hears Gozetta, perched beside her, say in an undertone. Rey glances her way, but her sister’s eyes remain on Poe, who is serving as co-pilot on the bridge. “Gatalenta produces very fine entheogenic tea. It’s grown there, on the terraces. Supposedly Senator Organa drinks it.”

 

A bout of feminine laughter catches her attention; across the lounge, on an identical pouf couch, Brixie and Captain Solo are talking quietly. His posture is stiff as ever; these days, he always he sits as though he’s new to the act, big hands clenched atop his knees. But Brixie has adapted a casual lean against his arm, giggling her way through some story. And each time she pauses, he gives an encouraging nod.

 

Rey has to look away.

 

A little further down the couch: Luke and Mara Jade, honorary members of their little Chandrila group. Luke has relaxed back into the body-conforming cushions, his arm wrapped around Mara’s shoulders. Her hand rests on his thigh as she listens to his shambling story, but then… her eyes flick over to meet Rey’s. Her smile is knowing.

 

Cheeks aflame, Rey spins back to face the viewport. Caught in the act of staring again; she should know better by now. Especially with Mara.

 

Homes begin to dot the hills, and there again, she is struck by their singularity. They are geodesic domes, each of their panels clear— glass, she speculates, or transparisteel or perhaps crystalplex— half-buried in the earth, almost as if they themselves have been cultivated from its rich soil.

 

“Lovely,” she murmurs, wonderstruck. “What a lovely place to live.”

 

“I suppose it’s nice enough.” Gozetta glances out the viewport only for a moment before resuming her jealous surveillance of her husband. “But the people are so austere! Not a single city on the entire rock. Just farmers and philosophers and tea and forests, blech.”

 

Rey tilts forward until her forehead rests against the cool transparisteel pane, and continues drinking in the scenery.

 

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” she sighs.

 

 

. . .

 

 

A tall, willowy woman with hair the color of the lilacs that grow in Gozetta’s garden stands outside her half-dome, situated at the peak of a particularly high hill, when Lando and Poe finally set the yacht down. Rey had been under the impression they were coming for dinner, because it had been late afternoon when they’d all climbed aboard, yet now she’s not exactly sure what time of day it is here; Gatalenta’s five suns sit high in the sky, their light made diffuse by the planet’s thick vapors.

 

And indeed, the lilac-haired woman greets them with a warm smile, calling out, “Good morning!”

 

An interplanetary breakfast-dinner party, then.

 

She introduces herself as the retired Admiral Amilyn Holdo. From the dome emerge two handsome women and a very attractive man, all as statuesque and stately and dressed in the same kind of simple yet tasteful robes as Amilyn; they are local friends of hers, introduced in a lively round of ‘hello’s’ and ‘how do you do’s’ and hand-shaking, but Rey doesn’t catch a single name beside Amilyn’s.

 

The air is so wet, so completely saturated, that she cannot get over the novelty of breathing it into her lungs. It feels as though the clouds have descended from the sky to crawl among the hills. She has a sudden urge to really explore this place, to wiggle her toes down into its dark damp soil and drag her fingers through its cloudy waters and loll around on the moss-covered floor of its forests. But there’s no time; Amilyn is already extending a long, bracelet-laden arm in the direction of the dome’s door, and everyone is making their way inside.

 

Another woman, dressed in olive-hued khakis and sporting a grey-blonde head of curls, greets them from the kitchen area of the dome.

 

“Commander Larma D’Acy,” Amilyn says, to those who don’t already know her.

 

Larma waves as she stirs a pot of something viscous and pink. “Hope you all came hungry—I’ve made far too much Warlenttan beet stew!”

 

Appreciative murmurs abound. Rey takes stock of the Admiral’s home in awe; most of the dome is one large room, airy, flooded with the light pouring in from the glass. A dark earthen wall, on which several colorful tapestries hang, separates the living area from what she assumes to be a subterranean bedroom and refresher, built into the hillside. There’s not a single chair or sofa in sight, just deep-pile carpets overlapping across every bit of floorspace and large, soft-looking pillows arranged in a ring, all in tones of ochre and the darkest red that Rey has ever seen, darker even than the Damerons’ koyo wine.

 

All of this, the planet and the new people and the fascinating architecture, is almost enough to distract Rey from the way Brixie’s arm hangs loosely in the crook of the Captain’s elbow.

 

Almost.

 

“Shoes off, please.” Amilyn smiles at them. It’s an order, but one given so lightly that it doesn’t quite feel like it.

 

Just like that, Rey understands how this woman came to be Admiral; she can’t help but think she’d probably follow someone into war if they commanded her in Amilyn’s calm, kind manner. A little kindness, she reflects, can mean everything to a person. It can be the difference between advice heeded and discounted.

 

Once their boots lie in a heap by the glass door, they all meander towards the pillows. Amilyn fusses with something in the kitchen area for a moment before carrying over a tray weighed down by simple ceramic cups and a teapot. In the center of the room there is a low table, crafted from warm golden wood; she sets the tray down on it, then kneels while she pours and distributes the teacups. After pouring one final cup for herself, she takes a seat on a free pillow.

 

“So,” she says, lifting up her cup in a toast, “Welcome.”

 

Poe, seated on the pillow next to hers, taps Rey’s arm to get her attention. “Go easy on the tea,” he advises. “It’s not dangerous or anything, just… potent. Kinda’ mind altering.”

 

She sniffs it, and is immediately convinced of the truth in his words; its scent is both menthol and alcoholic, like it’s going to burn on the way down. But when she takes a sip, it merely warms her, and leaves a tingling trail in its wake. Within a few minutes of that sip, she finds her muscles loosening. Her mind floats away, full of air and light. She titters softly, to herself.

 

It’s obvious now why these people would reshape their hills to grow this tea: this is nice.

 

When she looks up, it’s into the scarred face of Captain Solo, seated directly across the ring of pillows. Her laughter has drawn his attention. Rey wants to believe there is something wistful in his air, in the way he’s half-turned his head away yet allowed his eyes to linger, drooping down to her lips then snapping back up, but she suspects it’s only the tea playing with her perception.

 

Is that his melancholy she feels? Or her own?

 

Upon noticing her noticing him, he looks down into his own cup. He doesn’t meet her eyes again.

 

“Oh, trust me,” Amilyn is saying to one of the beautiful Gatalentans, with a rueful laugh, “there were quite a few senators clamoring for disarmament after Endor.”

 

Mara grimaces. “Ugh. Don’t remind me.”

 

“Who knows what might have happened if Mon Mothma hadn’t been dissuaded from it by your mother?” Amilyn wonders aloud, tipping her chin towards Ben. “We’re lucky that’s a fight she won.”

 

The Captain buries what might be a smile in his tea.

 

Amilyn continues. “I’m disappointed she couldn't make it today.” She rests her cup on the carpet, then leans back on her hands. “Something tells me if I want to snag Senator Leia Organa-Solo for a dinner, I’m going to have to get on a ship and track her down myself on Coruscant.”

 

At that, he gives a bland: “Or Hosnian Prime.”

 

“Ah, yes.”

 

Rey is momentarily distracted by the way the three native Gatalentans— whose names she still does not know— have taken an obvious liking to the Captain. Though Brixie clings to his left arm, they sit clumped together on his right, murmuring amongst themselves and sending coy smiles his way.

 

The dome is warm, but not as warm as she thought it might be, when she’d stepped out of the yacht. “Phototropic shielding in the crystalplex,” she hears Amilyn tell someone. “And air conditioning. Most of the dome’s panels can be opened, too.”

 

Time goes a little wobbly. It’s not the same sort of alteration Rey feels when she drinks the Damerons’ koyo wine or the occasional beer with her sister and Poe. (It reminds her more of the way they used to lose track of time together, wrapped up in the ecstasy of each other and their fumbling explorations.)

 

Rey is… relaxed. Her thoughts mosey away from her; she becomes entranced by the way a bit of sun has broken through the cloud and fog, and a single beam of light shines across the back of his head. Like he has a halo. It’s a challenging task, watching that sunbeam sputter and dance over his dark hair, making the silver strands shine, all the while not actually looking at him. It requires her complete attention.

 

Somehow, the conversation turns to couples in the military.

 

“I’ve avoided stationing them together whenever possible,” she hears Larma declare. “Too distracting.”

 

Luke scoffs, unconvinced. “Ridiculous. It wasn’t for Mara and me!”

 

Where has Gozetta gone? she ponders. She leans this way and that, only to discover that her sister is exactly where she last saw her, on a pillow to the other side of Poe. She’s busy picking at her cuticles, completely uninterested in anything happening around her.

 

“But how many times did you two get yourselves into terrible scrapes, because you were afraid for the other?”

 

Rey isn’t sure who’s asked that; Lando, perhaps. He’s sitting beside Amilyn, grey mustache twitching and eyes twinkling with amusement.

 

“My parents always did just fine,” Poe pipes up.

 

“Where are Shara and Kes today?” someone asks.

 

“Little tuckered out on all the partying,” comes Poe’s reply, faint, as though from far away.

 

Someone is petting her hair. Rey shifts to investigate; Mara is seated very close to her now, on the same pillow, combing through the chestnut brown strands with her fingers.

 

“How are you feeling, Rey?” she asks, gently.

 

Rey regards her for a moment, enjoying the slight tugging on her scalp. “Oh, you know…” she says at last, then waves her hand at nothing. She blows out a deep breath; although she hasn’t really answered the question, her mind has already moved on to another topic. “The things you must have seen, out there with Luke, running missions—the two of you, like a binary star.”

 

There’s a pang of sorrow, then one of envy, then one of guilt, but they’re more subdued than normal; a perpetual hammer striking her chest, but for now, it is wrapped in thick cotton.

 

“The galaxy is incomprehensibly vast,” murmurs Mara, in response. “And full of wonder.”

 

Her mind explodes with images, at Mara’s words. Rapidfire: twinkling nebulae, eclipses, planets ringed in glittering ice, humid jungle moons rich with steam, stars slowly being born and dying in awe-inspiring displays of their tremendous gravity, asteroid belts, gravity wells, battle stations the size of planets. It’s all so vivid, she can’t be sure if it’s her own imagination at work or Mara’s memory. Everything is so calm, so soft and so quiet and so calm, and maybe she is accidentally dipping into an energy field that for so long, she has left abandoned within herself.

 

Mara nods, when Rey looks to her for answers. “Huh,” she says, marveling.

 

It doesn’t bother her, seeing what Mara has seen. It’s nice, really. Her mind wanders on.

 

What might it have been like, if that had been her? Rey steals a quick peek at him; though he’s sitting cross-legged, his spine is completely straight, his hands balled into fists in his lap. Brixie sways closer to him as she speaks to the Gatalentans gathered on his left; all of them appear to be completely captivated with the Captain.

 

She might’ve been his partner. She can almost see it, how it all would’ve been.

 

Maybe they would’ve gone to war together, maybe not. Maybe they would have just supported the war efforts, as civilians often do. But she has no doubt in her mind that they would have flown together, side by side, in the cockpit of the Falcon or some other ship.

 

And he would have held her every night, would have whispered soft things as they were falling asleep, would have cooked dinner for them and given her all his sleepy, grateful smiles when she learned how to use the caf machine and woke him up every morning with a mug of it, just the way he liked it, strong and black but tooth-rottingly sweet. All those days, all those moments, shared, two lives weaved together like one strand in the tapestry of the galaxy, and none of this interminable loneliness…

 

The tiniest whimper sounds out; it takes a moment before Rey realizes it’s come from her. Thankfully, it seems only Mara has noticed it, and before Rey can insist she’s fine, the Jedi has her arm around Rey.

 

“Shh,” she soothes. “You’re alright.”

 

And she is, in time. Or at least, she rolls her face into Mara’s shoulder, and hides it there until the urge to cry has passed.

 

“You know,” Amilyn’s voice drifts over, sounding both tranquil and speculative, “We Gatalentans do have some traditional dances, but…” a pause, as if she is looking about the room, “we need someone to play the touchboard.”

 

“Ah, I believe that is my cue to check on the stew,” Larma says, laughing.

 

“Dancing?”

 

Gozetta’s voice. Rey unearths her face from Mara’s shoulder to check and sure enough, it’s as though her sister’s switch has been turned back on; her eyes shine, her face is alight.

 

“I love dancing!” she cries. “Is it difficult, the touchboard? Let Rey do it! She hates dancing anyway.”

 

Rey frowns. That’s not true. She’s never said she hates dancing, has she? She doesn’t.

 

(Another unwelcome echo: his big warm hand clasping hers, the other on her waist, their bodies close, his warmth seeping through their clothes, warming her as he spun her around the confined crew quarters of the Falcon, hushing her when she giggled at a misstep, pressing his lips to hers…)

 

She can almost feel the weight of his eyes on her. Is he remembering, too?

 

Poe has observed whatever emotions have passed across Rey’s face; he shakes his head, ready to refuse on her behalf. “Goz—”

 

“It’s alright, Poe,” Rey interjects. And it is. The thought of dancing, let alone dancing in front of him, makes her heart rate spike with panic. No. She can’t do that. Gozetta has unknowingly given her an excuse to avoid that calamity, and she is grateful. “I’d… be happy to try?”

 

Amilyn nods at her, then gracefully rises to her feet. She disappears into the dark earthen half of her home; a moment later she returns with a square metallic box in her hands. As she settles herself between Rey and Poe, her Gatalentan friends move the table to the side of the room, then begin clearing the pillows from the rug.

 

“Now,” she says. “It’s very simple. Just wave your hand over it.” Resting the touchboard in the palm of her left hand, Amilyn demonstrates with her right, and a hauntingly delicate melody is produced. She continues, lowering her hand then raising it, rolling and wiggling her fingers, making a fist then opening again. “See how the rhythm and pitch changes depending on the movement of your hand? Simple as can be. It’s actually very difficult to make bad music on the touchboard.”

 

From somewhere on the rug, where the Gatalentans have begun to teach a dance to the other members of the party— Lando, the most eager participant, but also Luke and Mara, Poe and Gozetta, Brixie and him— Rey catches a snippet of something:

 

In an undertone, the Captain is asking Brixie, “Doesn’t… Rey want to dance?”

 

Frozen, ears pricked, Rey waits. He’s just being polite, she’s sure of it, and yet…

 

“Oh please,” Gozetta barges in, having also overheard, “she’s far too much of a mope for dancing. Trust me, she’s happier over there.”

 

Rey looks up from the touchboard then, right into the eyes of Captain Ben Solo. Again. Utter mortification consumes her; is that pity she detects in the slight downturn of his mouth? He looks somewhat dubious, like maybe he is unconvinced by Gozetta’s claim.

 

She’s so tempted to reach out. Maybe, after all this time, she’ll still be able to feel him in the Force. For a half a second, she considers it. But… what if she’s right? What if he pities her?

 

Never mind. She focuses again on Amilyn’s face, listening to her suggestions for the touchboard. When the Admiral passes the instrument over, Rey takes it, and begins to experiment.

 

“Look at that!” says Amilyn, kindly. “You’re a natural!”

 

With that, she rejoins the Gatalentans and begins assisting in their dancing tutorial. A few minutes later, the group is ready.

 

There’s a slow, purposeful cadence to the dance, so Rey undulates her fingers over the touchboard at an equally slow pace, a hairsbreadth above it, and is rewarded with something dulcet and lilting. She figures it must be appropriate because Amilyn, holding Lando’s hand firmly as she guides him through the steps, gives her an appreciative nod.

 

He does not so much as peep her way again, and though he dances with each of the Gatalentans in turn, he always returns to Brixie, who could not possibly look more delighted.

 

Rey forces herself not to watch. Instead she focuses on her fingers: thin, bony, calloused, but if she really thinks about it, beautiful in their own right: muscle and bone and veins and flesh. Along with this magical little box, all that is needed to produce enchanting music. How wonderful. How safe, how painless.

 

She focuses on that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, after they’ve eaten Larma’s stew with some freshly baked flatbread, Rey overhears Amilyn lamenting to Luke: “I’ve been meaning to get that fixed forever.”

 

A ray of light shines through the mental fog. “Get what fixed?” she asks, not even stopping to ponder the etiquette of posing such a question to her host; something is broken, and Rey is good with her hands.

 

Amilyn turns to her. “No, it’s nothing, only… my hydro-reclamation processor. It must be fifty years old at this point, and it’s been causing more problems than it’s worth lately.”

 

“Let me look at it,” she says.

 

“You really don’t—”

 

“Please?” Rey entreats. “I’d…”

 

She hesitates, contemplating the room full of people, still sipping tea and snacking on a platter full of crisp, colorful vegetables.

 

“I could use a little break from all this, I think.”

 

Luke’s eyebrows jump sympathetically, and he gives a thoughtful stroke of his beard before shrugging at Amilyn. “You know, Rey had an ancient moisture vaporator on Jakku that she somehow maintained for ages.” To her, he adds, “I still can’t believe you were able to keep that thing alive for as long as you did. It broke almost the second I laid a hand on it.”

 

“Oh no,” she gasps. Luke shrugs again, with a detached chuckle.

 

“Hmm.” Amilyn’s blue eyes narrow, considering her. When she breaks into a smile, there is something secretive about it, but Rey does her best to return it anyway. “Alright. Come with me.”

 

Outside, in front of the dome, there is a wide wooden deck that extends out over the hill. Amilyn leads her to the far end of the deck, where the ungainly machine sits.

 

“You really don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to,” she says, as Rey pulls off the plasti-shield cover and begins to inspect its innards. “You’re supposed to be having fun!”

 

Rey smiles shyly back at her. “This is fun, for me.”

 

“Well, do want some company, at least?” Amilyn offers, leaning against the crystalplex balustrade.

 

“Would you be offended if I told you I didn’t?”

 

Amilyn shakes her head, bemused. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

 

“Thank you, Admiral Holdo.”

 

“Please,” she says, “Call me Amilyn. And… thank you, Rey.”

 

Rey gets to tinkering. One part dreamy haze and one part laser focus, she makes no note of how much time is passing; she simply works. At one point, she feels someone watching her, and turns just in time to catch sight of the Captain’s broad shoulders as he retreats back into the dome.

 

Her mind reels for a moment, at that. Was he outside with her? For how long? Was he watching her?

 

But as quickly as it's come, the worry passes, like a wind-blown cloud. She shrugs to herself, and resumes her inspection and repairs. Really, the processor is not in that bad of shape; it only requires a few wires to be connected more securely, a few bolts to be tightened. When she is at last satisfied with the state of its inner workings, she gives the thing an experimental boot-up, and is gratified to hear it run with only a slight purr, like a sleepy loth-kitten.

 

“There,” she sighs, pleased, granting herself a second of self-congratulation. “All better.”

 

She’s covered in a sheen of perspiration, from her labor and the hot, humid air, when she returns to the dome. The abrupt chill of its air-conditioning makes her flesh pimple, and hastily, she wipes her face dry with the tail of her tunic. Then she makes for the seat she’d formerly occupied… but she finds, once she’s circumvented the ring of pillows, that the Captain is occupying it, his hands tightly clasped around his knees. He’s deep in conversation with Poe.

 

Maybe… she can be brave. Just a little bit. The pillow next to him is free. Maybe she can sit beside him for a little while, and remember. Maybe some polite words can pass between them. She treads closer.

 

“Ah!” he says, when he sees her. He surges to his feet, and steps away from the pillow.

 

“No!”

 

It comes out more desperate and breathless than Rey intended, but he’s looking at her, really looking at her, even as he backs away, and she wants him to come back, damn it all, she wants to sit beside him. Is that so much to ask?

 

“No,” she tries again. “It’s fine!” She gestures to the two empty pillows. “There’s another one right—”

 

“It’s your seat.” His voice is flat, completely devoid of feeling. “My mistake.”

 

And then before she can object, he re-settles himself next to one of the very pretty Gatalentan women on a large pillow meant for two.

 

Biting the inside of her cheek, Rey drops down onto the abandoned pillow. It’s still warm from him.

 

Perhaps her chin does wobble. Perhaps her heart does clench painfully in her chest.

 

But she does not cry.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Somewhere, over the course of a couple weeks’ worth of dinners and get-togethers, two things happen: Brixie and the Captain grow closer, and he and Poe Dameron strike up something of a friendship. Or maybe they just rekindle a childhood acquaintance.

 

In any case, they begin doing flight exercises together on days when they’re both free. Which means not only is the Captain present at dinners in the Great House most evenings, but he also occasionally shows up at the bungalow during the day, looking either for Poe or for Brixie.

 

He never does more than nod at Rey and although he is always civil with her sister, Rey strongly suspects that he holds a lingering resentment against Gozetta, for her loyalties.

 

(And maybe for other things too, her treasonous heart taunts, hoping against hope. Because it’s possible that his resentment also stems from Rey’s choosing Gozetta and the rest of her family over him… isn’t it? For sending him away, for staying behind without him? What she wouldn’t give, for the opportunity to ask him. About that, and about everything that has passed.)

 

There is always a split second of shock, just like she felt in that alley of Old Hannatown, when he suddenly materializes in all his handsomeness and composure, without Rey having been given time to prepare.

 

But she acclimates.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Most nights, exhausted from the amount of socializing that living with the Damerons requires of her, Rey is asleep the moment her head hits the pillow.

 

More and more in her dreams, she meets him. Night after night, dream after dream, they find each other under the bare, twisted branches of the Dameron’s uneti tree. And when she sees him, everything is how it once was: they are young and in love, they have not hurt each other, the future holds only possibility. Tenderly, he divests her of her clothing, and she of his.

 

Only Chandrila’s two moons bear witness to their love. All of the galaxy grinds to a halt; like they are its last two souls, and everything depends on this.

 

She never remembers anything in the morning, except for the wispy, evanescent sense that for a time, she knew complete and utter happiness.

 

 

. . .

 

 

One afternoon, while Rey is in the main room of the bungalow, reading and spending time with her nephews, Brixie shows up.

 

“Gozetta around?” she asks, with a kind of faux casualness that’s unusual for her. “She said she’d help me with my makeup, if I ever wanted.”

 

Rey smiles to cover her confusion; Brixie rarely does much to enhance her appearance, and she has to wonder what has brought on this sudden interest in a makeover, when she’s always seemed so content with her natural beauty.

 

But it doesn’t take more than a moment’s study of Brixie to figure it out. She recognizes the flush of the younger woman’s cheeks, the jittery way she moves through the room, hugging her nephews.

 

She’s excited. She’s in love, or at the very least, infatuated. Rey would bet her life on it.

 

“She’s in the ‘fresher, dying her roots,” Rey tells her. “You can just go on in, she won’t mind.”

 

“Thanks!”

 

Brixie has already turned and left the room; the floral and citrus notes of her perfume linger in the air behind her.

 

Having dutifully swallowed her daily dose of pain, since tonight is a rare instance when the Damerons won’t be entertaining guests as both Shara and Kes have come down with a head cold, Rey thinks that will be it. As usual, she prides herself on this: she does not cry.

 

Except that the next time she looks up from the dining table, where she’s rested her borrowed datapad, in order to issue a firm reminder to Weir that hitting Little Poe is not allowed, she is stunned to see Captain Solo standing beside the sofa, casually dressed, looking unmoored and uncertain.

 

“…Hello,” he says, while surveying the room for another second, like an assassin might be lying in wait somewhere.

 

Rey swallows, hard. He’s speaking to her. They’re speaking. It’s been eight years of nothing, then two weeks or so of brusque nods and indirect jabs, and now… just like that, out of the blue, there is a reprieve.

 

“H—hi.”

 

“Dameron told me…” he falters, then swallows, the sharp jut of his throat bobbing anxiously, before he continues, “his sister wanted to see me.”

 

“Oh, she’s—”

 

“Is she here?”

 

Rey nods. “Yes, she’s… er, just helping Gozetta with something. She’ll be out in a moment, I think.”

 

“…Good.” He does a slight shuffle, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

 

Her only consolation is that he looks every bit as uncomfortable as she feels. It’s not much, but it’s something. For a moment, they gawk at each other. Then one of the boys lets out a deafening screech, and Rey must break the eye contact to check on them.

 

They’re fine, of course. It hasn’t gotten any easier for her to discern the happy shrieks from the angry ones since she’s arrived, but this one, at least, seems to be of the delighted variety.

 

“Right,” she gasps, when she meets his eyes again. He’s still hovering by the sofa. “Want to… sit down?”

 

Wordlessly, he does so, choosing a chair at the other end of the table. Another moment passes, he clears his throat.

 

“Would you like some caf?” she asks, just as he mutters: “She wants me to see her bee hives.”

 

“Okay.” Rey cannot think of a single better response; all she can muster is that one word, a hoarse whisper.

 

“No… thank you,” he replies, belatedly.

 

Now there is nothing left to do but wait, because neither seems to know what should come next. The air becomes suffocating, loaded with their deadened silence, each second more awkward than the last. It takes every ounce of Rey’s self-control not to fidget or jump up and leave, abandoning the Captain to her nephews, who have momentarily gone quiet.

 

And then:

 

“Give it ba-a-a-a-ck, Poe!”

 

Weir’s scream again interrupts the moment, but the interruption is welcome this time. The problem is immediately evident: Little Poe has snatched up his brother’s model starfighter and begun to run around the room with it, emulating the sound of firing laser cannons.

 

“Aunt Rey!”

 

“Poe, give it back,” she mutters, shooting a leery glance at the Captain. He is eyeballing Little Poe as the older boy scampers about, taking no notice of Rey’s order. He looks concerned, or maybe vaguely nauseated.

 

Weir races over to Rey’s chair, his face beet red and bearing all the warning signs of an impending temper tantrum. “Aunt Rey!” he wails, stomping his feet. “Aunt Re-e-ey!”

 

“Poe!” she shouts, with slightly more vehemence. “Give the toy back!”

 

Still, she is ignored.

 

Not a second later, she feels Weir’s small hands digging into her shoulders, and hears his irate whine from behind her: “Make him give it ba-a-ack!”

 

Little Poe climbs up onto the sofa, where he swoops the starfighter through the air and barks out, “Gold Leader, do you copy? Come in, Gold Leader!”

 

Weir’s fingers are like talons, scrabbling for purchase in the tender flesh above her collarbones. In an attempt to dislodge him, Rey rises from the chair, but he holds on tight. Forced to bear his own weight, hanging onto her as his feet leave the floor, his fingers dig in deeper. Rey yelps, in alarm and pain:

 

“Oi! That hurts—let go!”

 

“It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine! Make him give it—”

 

The demand is cut short and just as abruptly, the agonizing pressure of his fingers is gone. She whirls around in a sweat, terrified that he has fallen and hurt himself again.

 

But he hasn’t. He’s dangling in the air, each of his flanks grasped securely by two big hands. Captain Solo holds him at a remove from his body, his arms locked, like Weir is a bomb that might detonate at any moment. And indeed, Weir kicks back at him fiercely, trying to free himself. The attack is futile, however. He cannot reach the Captain with his short legs.

 

“Apologize to your Aunt,” he grits out. “For hurting her.”

 

“Let me down!”

 

“Apologize.”

 

There’s another second of thrashing before Weir recognizes that he’s been bested, at which point the fight goes out of him; he simply hangs there in the Captain’s hands, bewildered.

 

Then his large brown eyes fill with tears. “I’m s-sorry,” he blubs, the very picture of contrition.

 

“It’s…” she can barely speak, she is so overcome by the Captain’s gesture. He continues to hold Weir in outstretched hands; she knows the boy’s weight all too well, and cannot help but be impressed that does so without straining himself.

 

His dark eyes are blazing with something, some unspoken emotion, when she finally brings herself to look at him. He seems furious, and the thought— he is angry? On her behalf?— has her sputtering uselessly a few more seconds before she finally manages, “It’s fine, it’s fine. Only… please don’t climb on me, Weir. I’m not a gazebo.”

 

Weir sniffles out a little huff at that, and the Captain carefully returns him to his feet. Before the boy can make a move towards his brother, the Captain pivots in the older boy’s direction.

 

“Poe,” he thunders, his deep voice full of command. Little Poe’s head snaps up, eyes wide, the proverbial thissermount caught in the headlights.

 

“Give that back to your brother.”

 

Begrudgingly, Little Poe clambers down from the sofa, trudges over to Weir, and hands back the starfighter.

 

“And… say you’re sorry,” Rey adds, finally getting her bearings again.

 

“Sorry,” he mutters. Weir shrugs, holding no grudges now that he has his toy back.

 

Rey nods haltingly at them both. “Right… good. Now, uh, play… nice.”

 

The boys settle down once more on the carpet, their altercation seemingly already forgotten. Meanwhile, the adults are left standing by the table, eyes locked and motionless, as though they’re both frozen in carbonite. He blinks at her, wary. His mouth opens, then shuts again.

 

Desperate to use this chance to say something, anything, Rey takes a deep breath; she has no idea where the sentence will end if she begins it, but she knows she must try. Maybe, she decides, now is the time for apologies, the time for forgiveness. Maybe she can ask him about the scar and the war and Han and his mother and Luke, and he can ask her… anything. Anything he wants. Maybe now is their time to begin again.

 

“I—”

 

“Why, hello,” a voice says flirtatiously. Brixie’s, she realizes, tearing her eyes away from his and glancing towards the hallway. “There you are, Captain Solo!”

 

Brixie is leaning against a wall, dressed all in black and draped in a cloak made from soft burgundy velvoid. Her face is painted beautifully, courtesy of Gozetta; a dark lip sets off her large brown eyes, with subtle eyelash paint and rouge to complete the look.

 

Rey suddenly feels very plain, standing there in her simple tunic and leggings and bare feet, hair a mess, face the same as it ever was, only older. It shouldn’t matter, she reminds herself. It doesn’t matter.

 

“Here I am,” he says, summoning up an almost-smile. Brixie reaches a hand out to him, wiggling her fingers. Without looking over at Rey, he strides forward to take it.

 

And like that, they are gone.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

In the heart of Lake Sah’ot— a massive body of water in the Chandrilan countryside so pristinely clear that on a sunny day a person can sail a boat along its glassy surface and observe the swaying green rockweed that grows on its bed, many meters below— there sits a jatz club. A very upscale, very exclusive jatz club.

 

The club is constructed entirely from clari-crystalline, transparent walls and roof and floor, so that while patrons dine inside, they may watch fauna gather on the shores and fish swim beneath their feet. Every night, the house band sets up on a revolving stage in the middle of the club, and their smooth, sophisticated musical stylings serve as backdrop to the political finaglings, business deals, and general revelry of Chandrila’s high society.

 

At sunset, regardless of the season, it is the most popular spot onworld for cocktails and dinner, rendering it almost impossible for most citizens to get a reservation. But somehow, with a little help from Senator Organa, the Dameron family manages to snag a round table for ten on the forty-third anniversary of Shara Bey and Kes’s wedding. And right by the windowed wall too, so they can watch the sky stitch itself into a wispy patchwork of honey and peach and orchid as they sip Bespin Breezes and whet their appetites with fresh skor-fin cured in jun-lime juice.

 

To fully honor the occasion, the Dameron boys are cajoled into bathing and donning their best dress clothes; the Dameron women pull out their finest frocks, the Dameron men dust off their gaberwool tuxedo coats. Gozetta, after much vacillation, settles once again on her black gemweb silk gown, dressed up with a set of Lothalian fire ruby earrings and necklace.

 

As for Rey, she also dithers for a while. That afternoon, standing in the guest bedroom wrapped in only a towel, she scrutinizes the two gowns she now owns, unable to decide.

 

First, there is the emerald Fleuréline weave, modest in the front with a high collar but dipping so low in the back that it exposes the dimples to either side of her spine. She tries it on. Its thin material clings to her arms, hips, bust, and thighs, then flares at the knee, flowing into a short train behind her. The illusion it creates is one of curves, but also of grace. The color brings out the green in her eyes, and the buttery soft weave feels, to Rey, like being swathed in warm water.

 

It’s certainly a contender.

 

Carefully, she disrobes and places the gown on the sleeper. Then she tries on the other. It’s much heavier and shinier, layers of shimmersilk in a shade of silver so light it’s almost white, hemmed with jet-black synthfur. The gown’s neckline swoops low, displaying a chest that is just slightly fuller than it was a few weeks ago; then it cinches in an empire waist and sweeps down to the floor, where its synthfur hemline gently brushes the heated carpet. The points of its long bell-shaped sleeves hang almost to her knees. The fur is soft, even if it adds weight to the gown which renders it less sultry, more regal.

 

The fabric lives up to its name; as she turns this way and that in the mirror, the gown shimmers in the lamplight like the Silver Sea on a sunny day. If Rey were to flatter herself, she’d say the green gown is more seductive holostar, while the silver is more dignified sovereign. But maybe the latter is what she wants, if she’s going to meet the Princess of Alderaan.

 

Rey smooths her calloused hands down the front of the gown, enjoying its luster. She feels safe, and warm, and protected. It’s a more prudent choice, now that the nights have turned sharp with cold. And the dress is like armor, isn’t it? Maybe it will shield her from whatever acrimony the evening has in store. Gozetta has offered to braid her hair in a crown again, and “fix up her face”; by the time she steps out the door, she’ll be ready for anything. For battle, even.

 

She takes one final look at herself, and sighs. Shimmersilk and synthfur it is, then.

 

(There is also a notion that occurs to her, quickly suppressed, but nevertheless true: the emerald gown evokes a sense of glamour. Romance. Maybe she’s hoping that someday, something romantic might happen to her— something so romantic that it would necessitate wearing that gown. Maybe some part of her is still holding out for that day.)

 

 

. . .

 

 

The jatz club’s seaskimmer ferries the group away from the lakeside landing pad, over the water, chill winds nipping at their faces and ruining Gozetta’s carefully styled curls, before depositing them on the clari-crystalline dock of the club. After they disembark, they make their way inside. It’s easy to spot Captain Solo and the woman whom Rey recognizes to be Senator Organa. They’re sharing a cocktail at the bar, flanked on either side by fashionable people who are doing their best not to gawk at the duo.

 

Like Poe and Kes, he is wearing a gaberwool tuxedo coat. And she is regal in a dark metallic wool gown, over which she wears a long, heavy cape. She looks almost the same as she did eight years ago, when Rey watched her in a holoprojection of a news bulletin, standing before the Senate while her deepest, darkest secret was revealed. Only… maybe a bit harder, around the eyes. Maybe her spine is a bit stiffer. In any case, the two of them look like they belong here. The Damerons do too, she thinks, casting her gaze across her party.

 

Everyone does but her. Even in all her new finery, with a bit of Gozetta’s makeup and hair-styling, she knows herself to be a desert rat and a fraud; glancing around at the lavishly dressed patrons, the tasteful table settings and the beautiful female singer crooning on stage with her band, Rey half expects one of the tuxedoed waiters to approach her at any second and insist she vacate the premises.

 

“Kes!” cries the senator, her voice a warm throaty rasp. “Shara!”

 

The group starts towards the bar but she’s faster; drink in hand, she’s already barreling at them.

 

“Leia,” Shara returns, readily accepting the senator’s embrace. “It’s been too long.”

 

“Truly. Can you believe Yavin was over forty years ago? Feels like yesterday.”

 

“So does our wedding,” Kes quips.

 

She smiles at them before tilting her head at the members of the party with whom she’s less familiar. The Captain lumbers up behind her, sipping from a tumbler of something amber on ice. His eyes flick over everyone… even Rey. Do they linger a moment longer than she would’ve expected? Is that a hint of surprise in the quick rise of his brows, only visible for an instant, before he reigns it in?

 

But then, surprise is natural she supposes, considering how she must have appeared to him back on Jakku, compared to how she must seem now. Then, she was sweaty and grubby and still wild with youth and her first love. And now? Staid, maybe. Matronly? A shade, surely— a faded morose shadow.

 

She can see he’s about to speak; in anticipation, wondering if he might address her, she holds completely still.

 

“Leia,” he says, resting one hand on his mother’s shoulder, a familiar gesture that causes Rey to feel as though there is a heavy stone in the pit of her stomach, “You remember Brixie.”

 

“Of course I do. How are you, dear?”

 

Brixie beams at her, they exchange pleasantries for a moment, and then Leia turns to Poe. “And you, Commander Dameron. How’s retired life treating you?”

 

“It’s… yeah,” he huffs. “Interesting. Busy. But good.”

 

“You sure about that?” she teases, but Poe just grimaces, then half-turns, wrapping an arm around Gozetta’s waist.

 

“This is my wife, Gozetta, and our boys, Poe Junior and Weir.”

 

Another round of pleasantries. Gozetta at least manages to get through the interaction without saying something hopelessly blunt or tactless, and the boys— having been warned earlier that any mischief while at the club would lead to many sugar-less days as penance— are well-behaved.

 

But Rey’s hands have begun to sweat, because there is only one person left to be introduced to Leia. This is her moment, at last. Who will do it? Will he?

 

“And, uh,” it is Poe who takes up the mantle, “this is my sister-in-law. Rey.”

 

In an unimpeachably polite tone that lacks even a hint of recognition, Leia says, “Hello Rey. Very nice to meet you.” She offers a hand, which Rey numbly clasps. They shake.

 

Her stomach sinks to her feet, weighted down by the stone.

 

For a moment, the dark eyes of both mother and son bore into her; their faces are not exact duplicates but the intense scrutiny of being beheld by the two of them is identical. And in neither face can she detect a single trace of their emotion. Their looks are different, but the practiced stoicism undoubtedly runs in the family.

 

And before Rey can mount some sort of equally politic response— in which she pretends she hasn’t longed to meet his mother for years, as if she doesn’t have a hundred questions for the woman— the hostess appears before them, informing them with a toothy smile that their table is ready.

 

The party turns, following the hostess; the time for introductions has passed. Rey brings up the rear, and is glad for it, since she trips on the hem of her dress no less than three times on the way to the table. It also gives her a chance to take a deep shuddering breath, and ask herself: does Leia really not know about her?

 

Her tone suggested that she does not.

 

That hurts. Maybe more than breaking things off with him, more than seeing him in that alley, more than every single time Brixie has casually touched his arm while laughing— combined.

 

Did their time together mean so little? Or so much? Is she his secret, as he is hers? There are so many questions, all tangled up in mind and body and soul. Once again she feels the hot flush of fever, a bittersweet tincture of hope and despair coursing through her veins. But there is no recourse; there is no respite. She can’t exactly run screaming from the club and throw herself into the lake, although she’d like to. Instead, wordlessly, she takes her seat at the table, and keeps her eyes trained on the fine white tablecloth.

 

The battle, as it turns out, is an internal one. One for which there is neither armor nor shield.

 

And it has begun early this evening.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Of course,” Captain Solo is replying to Poe, halfway through the meal— the sky outside has blackened, stars are visible through the glass ceiling, the reflection of the club’s lights skitter across the lake’s dark waters— “I remember the battles most of all. Pressy’s Tumble, Ovanis, Takodana, D’Qar, Akiva, the Inamorata—”

 

“Ah, Ovanis,” Poe interjects. “Where Finn defected.”

 

The Captain’s expression turns thoughtful, and he looks to his mother. “How is Finn, these days?”

 

Leia scoffs. “Quickly outgrowing my mentorship, if we’re being honest. I’m not sure he ever even needed it in the first place—he’s a born politician. Trustworthy. Sincere. Honest. Handsome.”

 

“Why, Leia, does someone have a crush?” Shara asks, laughing along with her old friend.

 

“Oh please, I’m a million years old.” Leia’s laughter dissolves into an impish grin. “…But I’m not dead.”

 

Faintly, with eyes that have gone distant, Poe says, “He must’ve saved my life three or four times over during the war.” He sounds adrift in his memories. “My fighter was practically vaped during the show at Ovanis. And there I was, sitting in the brig of the Ravenous, thinking to myself: well, Dameron, you’ve done it now. This is how you die.” Gozetta makes an indignant squawk, so he clutches her hand in his. “Obviously I didn’t, honey. ‘Cause outta nowhere, the blast doors of my cell open. And there’s Finn, a regular bucket head, rambling at me through his helmet. Thought he was my executioner for a half a second.”

 

Brixie rolls her eyes. “I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard this one at least a hundred times.”

 

“I haven’t,” Rey ventures. She gives Poe what she hopes is a supportive smile. “And I’d like to.”

 

“As would I,” Leia agrees. “I read your report later, but there never seemed to be time for you to tell me the whole story, personally.”

 

Brixie huffs at Poe's smirk, but goes quiet.

 

“Not back then, there wasn’t.” He barks out a rough laugh. “Nope. Not much time for anything. Yeah. So—yeah. Finn. FN-2187 at the time. He takes me to one of the docking bays, right? And I ask him, ‘Hey pal, what’s the idea here?’ And he goes on and on about realizing he needs to do the right thing, about how he’s not a soldier, about how he’s seen the light and realizes the evils of the First Order.” Poe leans back, amused with the memory. “So I cut through the bantha fodder. ‘You need a pilot,’ I said. And he goes: ‘Yeah, I need a pilot. You wanna get out of here or not?’”

 

“How brave.” Rey could not keep the words from escaping if she wanted to; she feels them too keenly. To have the courage to leave it all behind… she wishes she could meet this Finn person, and ask him how he did it.

 

Leia’s mouth flattens to a thin line, her eyes go even steelier. “Especially considering what we now know about the First Order’s conscription program,” she fumes. “Barbaric—taking children, raising them for war without a family or a name or a life of their own.”

 

“Torture,” Kes declares, outrage like a dark cloud passing over his features.

 

No one at the table disagrees.

 

It’s Poe who breaks through his anger to say, “Finn has more guts than most, although he’d be the first to deny it. Pretends like he doesn’t, pretends like he has no skin in the fight. But you know what? He stayed with us. He didn’t fight and we never woulda asked him to, but he gave us valuable intel for years. Saved a lot of New Republic lives. Saved a lot of stormtrooper lives, too.”  

 

“A hero,” sighs Brixie.

 

Poe nods. “Part of it was that thing he had going with my head mechanic Rose for a while—like a—ah, what’s that thing, Goz, when the baby bird follows around the thing it thinks is its mother?”

 

Looking up from Little Poe’s plate, where she has been trying to persuade him to eat his scalefish fillets, she supplies: “Imprinting.”

 

“Yeah. He imprinted on her, for a while there. But mostly—that was just him. The kid had heart.”

 

“Has,” the Captain corrects. “Something Batuu appreciates.”

 

“Are the results in already?” Poe rests his elbow on the table, inquisitive. “Last I checked, he was in the lead—but the thing hadn’t been called yet.”

 

“One of the benefits of being a fellow senator,” Leia says. “I get the inside scoop on these things, ahead of time.” Her grin is rakish as she winks at Poe. It makes Rey’s heart hurt, for how much it reminds her of Han Solo.

 

“Well, whaddya know.” Poe lets out a gusty whoop, then raises his glass of green champagne. Everyone else follows suit. “To Finn,” he crows, “the young senator of Batuu. May he help clean up that mess in the Outer Rim.”

 

“To Finn,” they all intone, before sipping at their drinks.

 

A thoughtful lull follows, with some eating, and some quiet side conversations; to Rey’s right, Shara and Kes steal furtive glances at their daughter as Brixie, on Rey’s left, and beside Brixie, the Captain, lean their heads together to chat. Kes turns to murmur something to Leia, his chin tucked down, directing the thought only to Leia’s ear. She laughs, then shrugs and nods.

 

“You know, I’ll be honest… I wasn’t so sure at first,” Poe admits to the table, at length. “Finn’s a good guy. But he’s nice. Even after everything he went through—he’s still a nice guy. Too nice for politics, I thought. But then I managed to catch a couple of his speeches live on the HoloNet.”

 

“And?” Leia gloats, looking for all the world like a proud parent.

 

Poe throws his hands up in surrender. “Hey, when I’m wrong, I’m wrong! Maker knows Holdo taught me that. The guy’s a natural—Batuu is lucky to have him.”

 

“I do think it’s important to him—the cause, that is,” Leia notes. One eyebrow raises. “Perhaps a certain… mechanic… encouraged that need he has to help others. And to make sure what happened to him doesn’t happen again.”

 

The Captain nods, wearing a lopsided smirk almost identical to his mother’s. “Perhaps she did.”

 

“It’s admirable.” Brixie shakes her head appreciatively. “Really.”

 

Her hand rests on the Captain’s forearm, Rey notices. He either has not taken notice of it, or knows that it’s there, and does not mind. She swallows thickly at the thought of the latter, as Brixie goes on: “You could understand if the guy just wanted to run away and hide, forever. Can you imagine, being forced into the army as a child?” She screws her face up. “Kriffing grim.”

 

“Language,” scolds Shara, but her tone is mild, more reflex than actual censure.

 

“Could we talk about less grim things, perhaps?” Gozetta suggests tartly. She glances at Weir and groans, licks her thumb, then reaches across Little Poe’s plate to wipe a dark smudge from her younger son’s forehead. “There are children present.”

 

Poe chuckles darkly. “You don’t think they want to hear their old man’s war stories?”

 

“Let’s give it a few years,” she says, with a roll of her eyes. Her flippant reply earns another laugh from Poe, who leans over, pressing an apologetic kiss to her cheek.

 

Brixie bobs her head in agreement. “Yes, lighter is good. Ben, tell the boys about Cloud City,” she directs, cheerily. “I’ve never been on a gas giant—I’d love to see it someday.”

 

Weir glances up from the fish sticks he has been mashing into a paste. “What’s a Cloud City?”

 

“What it sounds like,” the Captain replies. “A disk-shaped city in the clouds of Bespin. It floats there, thanks to repulsorlifts and tractor beam generators.”

 

Rey remembers the faded postcard of Cloud City back in her room, on the back of which is sketched a profile of his face. She bites the inside of her cheek, and trains her eyes on her plate.

 

“Whoa,” comes Weir’s dazzled response, his eyes round as saucers, the way they get when Shara hands him a fizzer-sweet. “What do they eat?”

 

“Food. Normal food. Same as anybody.” His deep voice is tinged with amusement.

 

“Does anybody ever fall off the edge?”

 

“If they’re bad, they do,” Gozetta warns him. “If they eat too many sweets or don’t mind their parents.”

 

An audible gulp, from both boys, sets the table off in a bout of laughter.

 

“Whenever I wasn’t fighting or flying during the war, I was on Cloud City, or other ports like it,” the Captain recounts, more seriously, once everyone has quieted. “That wasn’t often, though. There wasn’t much time to appreciate the scenery.”

 

Kes and Shara nod, in harmony. “I remember that,” she sighs, and with equal wistfulness, Kes says:

 

“Me too.”

 

“That’s the thing about war, isn’t it?” muses Poe. “It takes you places you never thought you’d see. But… it steals the wonder of being there. Hard to appreciate the majesty of the Vulpinus Nebula or the splendor of Hapes or anything, really, when there’s an SSD on your six.”

 

Leia lets out a soft, sad sigh of her own. “Too true. Here’s hoping the Second Concordance will last longer than the First.”

 

“Is it signed and done with?” Kes asks.

 

“Just about.”

 

I’ve been trying to convince this one that he should travel for a while,” Brixie pipes up. She pushes her shoulder against the Captain’s bicep, eliciting a tiny, rueful smile from him. “Live a little, see the galaxy.”

 

“Did plenty of that before the war,” he mutters.

 

He does not look at Rey when he says it, and yet she still feels the weight of those words, of the history behind them.

 

Are you talking about me? she wants to shout. Was what we did living? I felt truly alive then, did you? Do you miss it? Do you miss me like I miss you?

 

All those questions, right there on the tip of her tongue. She still says nothing.

 

Brixie tsks him then laughs, and he loosens, coughing out a small laugh along with her.

 

The conversation carries on to happier times— things that can be discussed in front of two impressionable young boys.

 

At some point, Shara leans over, and asks Rey in a low voice, “What do you think of them?”

 

“Hm?” Taken aback by the question, she peers up from her plate of half-eaten fish cakes.

 

Shara smiles beatifically. “Brixie and Ben? It would be fitting—and they make a lovely couple. What do you think?”

 

“Oh, I…”

 

Her voice evaporates into a gasp, but Shara is waiting for a reply, still smiling. Everyone seated at the table is laughing, is relaxed, is happy. Everyone but her. And it’s the woman’s anniversary— a special day. To speak the truth would be to unburden herself on Shara, to complicate a situation that must be, from her perspective, uncomplicated and joyful.

 

She can’t do it.

 

“Yes, they seem—very happy,” she confirms, her voice strained. Shara nods, on the verge of saying something, when Kes taps her arm, diverting her attention back to him once again.

 

Rey forces herself to swallow around the lump that has formed in her throat. She looks down at the fish cakes, her appetite gone. She lifts her gaze, only intending a quick scan of the table, but something draws her eyes: Gozetta is staring at her, lips pursed and brow furrowed, like she is puzzling through a riddle.

 

When the sisters’ eyes meet, Gozetta cocks her head. An unspoken question.

 

Rey merely shakes hers, then re-trains her eyes on her rapidly congealing meal. The fish cakes are delicious, and she wants so badly to devour them, to have the satisfaction of a full belly; everything in her revolts at the idea of wasting food. But the leaden stone in her gut has grown larger, too large for her to even entertain the thought of eating. She’s not sure she could get any food down past the ache in her throat, anyway.

 

On one side of her, Shara, Kes, and Leia speak in low voices about marriage and babies. To the other, Brixie and the Captain carry on softly, no doubt flirting. Across the table, Poe and Gozetta are busy trying to convince their sons to eat their dinner.

 

For some time, no one speaks to Rey, and she speaks to no one.

 

But she does not cry.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The next morning is quiet. The boys are still asleep in their beds when Rey rises from hers, an unusual but welcome occurrence. On tiptoe, she creeps past their doors and into the main room, intent on procuring a cup of caf to bring back to bed with her.

 

Maybe it is because she is groggy, with only one eye properly open yet; maybe it is because she is preoccupied with not making any loud noises while she starts the caf machine’s brewing process; maybe it is because her sister is sitting in such unprecedented silence at the dining table. Whatever the reason, Rey doesn’t even notice Gozetta is in the room with her until she says, in a sullen mumble:

 

“Good morning to you too, I suppose.”

 

“Goz!” she meeps, startled. “I didn’t see you.”

 

Her sister doesn’t look up from the datapad set on the table before her, clearly in a sulk.

 

Through the windows, Rey can see that it will be a beautiful day; the sun sets the sea ablaze in silver and cerulean, the trees bow forward in a whistling breeze. A few shreds of white cloud are strewn across an otherwise clear sky. She sighs.

 

Eventually, the caf machine trills a notice of its accomplishments, and Rey turns to pour two mugs. Then she shuffles over to the table.

 

“Anything good?” she asks, nodding at the datapad. She sets one mug on the table next to it.

 

Gozetta frowns, continuing to read. “You’ll only make fun of me.”

 

“I wouldn’t dare,” she vows. “What is it?”

 

“I’ve started a remote course from University of Coruscant.” Now she glances her way hesitantly. “On—intergalactic history and political relations.”

 

Rey beams down at her. As sometimes happens with Gozetta, she feels a sudden surge of fondness and protectiveness.

 

“How could I make fun of you for that?” She also hesitates, but only for a second. Gozetta is trying; she can too. “I’m proud of you,” she says.

 

A harrumph is the only response.

 

“Is it…” Rey worries her lip for a moment, unsure if this will topple the delicate balance they’ve reached, “because of what…”

 

“Captain Solo said to me, that night?”

 

“Yes,” she sighs. “Is it?”

 

Gozetta sucks in a sharp breath. “I didn’t care for that, no. That was very unpleasant.” She picks up the caf Rey has given her, staring into its dark depths for a while, before meeting Rey’s eyes. “Do you agree with him? With what he said, about the Empire? About my being… deluded?”

 

“I… think he’s right about the Empire, in any case.” She tries to gentle her answer by placing her hand on Gozetta’s.

 

“If he’s right, then Pa has been wrong all this time.”

 

What can Rey say to that? It’s something she accepted long ago. She shrugs a wordless assent.

 

Another sharp inhale. For one terrible second, Gozetta’s shoulders rise and fall, her brows knit together; she seems on the verge of tears. Then she gives a toss of her hair and like that, all signs of her distress are gone— a wrinkle ironed from a shirt. With a kind of steely calmness that Rey recognizes from Ergel and Verla, she asks, “Do you… want to hear something interesting I learned? From my course?”

 

“Yes. I do.” Taking a seat, Rey hides her relieved smile in a sip of caf.

 

“Contispex the First was aided in his rise to power by a secret society, then-unknown, now-notorious—the Malkite Poisoners,” she recites straight from the datapad. She looks up at Rey. “They targeted his political opponents, and were associated with the leaders of the Pius Dea cult—a nasty bunch. Who were supporters, obviously, of Contispex.”

 

“Huh. Imagine that,” Rey deadpans, one brow quirked. “Wonder if Pa knows?”

 

“Like he’d even care,” Gozetta grumbles, although there isn’t any resentment to it. Acceptance, maybe. Rey thinks she knows her sister well enough, after these weeks they’ve spent together, to detect that. And something else: a hint of what might be resignation.

 

They pass an ironic smile between them.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Gloves, gloves, I need my gloves!”

 

Brixie’s chipper voice rings out through the hallway a half second before she bursts into the main room, dressed in a heavily padded coat and thick swooshing pants, eyes roving desperately over the furnishings.

 

“Have you seen them?” she asks, circumventing the sofa where Rey and Gozetta have been lounging for most of the morning. It’s been a quiet couple days since their outing on Lake Sah’ot; bitter cold rain has kept everyone indoors, entertaining themselves with holos and hand after hand of sabacc.

 

“Not sure…” Rey replies, watching her in bemusement. Even as she speaks, Brixie has opened a closet door on the far side of the room, and begun to scrounge through its contents.

 

“I have the day off,” she explains from within, her voice muffled. “And I’ve talked the Skywalkers into coming with Ben and me to Rhinnal! I mentioned it to them the other day—how much I’ve always loved it there—and they said they’d never been, can you believe that? I thought those two had been everywhere!”

 

She re-emerges from the closet empty-handed and frowning. “I’m almost positive I left my good winter gloves here yesterday…”

 

Casually, very casually, so casually that Rey hopes neither Brixie nor Gozetta will hear the hurt coloring her voice, she asks, “What’s on Rhinnal?”

 

Brixie’s smile is bright enough to light up the gloomy world outside. “The Zirfan Glacier! I love hiking up it. It’s gorgeous!” She passes over to the dining table and begins searching through the toys and various detritus covering its surface. As she searches, she smiles sheepishly at Gozetta and Rey, who remain seated, watching her. “‘Course, I would’ve asked if you two wanted to go, but I know how much Goz dislikes the cold. And hiking.”

 

Gozetta’s eyes narrow. “I’m very fond of both, actually,” she sneers, “and I’d love to go. When do we leave? I’ll just get changed.”

 

Almost at once, Brixie realizes her mistake. Her face blanches of all color as she stammers, “Oh, I don’t think—uh, I mean…”

 

But her feeble protest goes unheard; Gozetta has already risen from the sofa, nose in the air. Like she hasn’t a care in the world, she saunters towards her bedroom.

 

“Goz,” Rey calls after her. “We should just stay here with the boys, I think.”

 

Said boys are currently in their bedroom, ostensibly watching a holotoon, although Rey is almost certain— from the lack of laughing or shouting— that they’ve both gone down for a late-morning nap.

 

Gozetta shakes her head at Rey. “No, I want to go! Poe will be back any minute from the cellars. He’ll want to go too, I’m sure. And the nanny droid can handle them for one rainy afternoon.”

 

Next, she turns to her sister-in-law. “I’m very excited for this, Brixie,” she says, eyes still narrowed, head cocked, “I haven’t been hiking in ages. And I’d love the exercise.”

 

“Are you sure?” Brixie counters. “It’s gonna be a really long hike, at least three hours up the glacier. And the surface weather readings for Rhinnal aren’t exactly—”

 

Gozetta silences her with an accusatory finger wagged in her face. “Don’t leave without me!” she snaps. Before Brixie can get another word in, she flounces out of the room.

 

Ugh,” Brixie groans, with such pique that Rey wonders if she’s forgotten she’s not alone. Angrily, she throws her hands in the air. “Okay then? I guess?”

 

When she pivots towards the sofa, their eyes meet. Rey offers up an apologetic smile.

 

She sighs. “Well Rey, you should come along too!” Rey immediately begins drumming up a reason why she shouldn’t, but Brixie blurts out, “Please? You have that nice new wool coat now, and boots—we’ll lend you some ice cleats and walking poles and gloves and all that.”

 

Brixie forces a rictus smile; it’s a strange sight, compared to her usual happy-go-lucky mien.

 

“It’ll be fun! There’s a fantastic lodge in the mountains near the glacier. We always stop there to get hot chocolate. We’ll all—make a day of it.” Under her breath, she mutters, “I guess.”

 

Rey’s mind races. “Uh…”

 

“Please.” Brixie shoots her a pointed look. “Come with us.”

 

Nothing. Not a single excuse occurs to her. “Oh—I suppose,” she says, conceding defeat. “Sure.”

 

“Fine. Good.” She must notice something near the underside of the sofa, because Brixie drops to her knees behind its back. When she pops back up, she’s clutching a pair of red gloves triumphantly. Mustering another half-hearted smile, she says, “Meet us up at the Great House when you’re ready?”

 

“Right…”

 

With that, she spins on her heel and leaves— much less cheerfully and light-footed than she’d entered.

 

After the front door hisses shut, Gozetta shouts from her bedroom, “Is she gone?”

 

Her head pops out into the dim hallway, a thick-knit winter cap pulled down low on her brow.

 

“Can you believe she’d say that, that I hate hiking? I do not. The nerve! And of course, if I’d said no, I didn’t want to go hiking, it would’ve been, ‘Oh that Gozetta, such a stick in the mud! Ha ha, everyone knows she hates fun!’” She scowls. “Well I’m not! I'm fun. I am, I'm fun!”

 

Still rooted to the sofa, Rey shrugs absently at her. She’s too lost in her contemplation to bother with Gozetta right now. Brixie and him, Luke and Mara. Her heart sinks; it was meant to be a double date. Of course. Before Gozetta had butted in, that is.

 

Her sister marches across the main room and is swallowed up by the closet that Brixie was just searching. A second later she picks up again, her voice similarly muffled:

 

“Anyway, we’re stuck going now. I have to find my balaclava although I have absolutely no idea where I left it!” She too returns from the closet without success, and makes for her bedroom again. “Gah! But where can it be? I’ll freeze to death without it…” her voice fades away as she disappears once more. Rey can hear the sounds of her rummaging through her room.

 

“Better dress warmly!” she advises, voice raised enough to carry out to the main room. “You’ll want it on Rhinnal. Trust me.”

 

At last— resigned to this disaster of an outing, pulling herself free from her spiraling misery at the thought of the two of them on a date— Rey shudders and forces herself up off the sofa. She follows Gozetta’s path to her bedroom then lingers on its threshold, one shoulder wedged against the door jamb.

 

“Hey, Goz?”

 

“Yeah?” Her sister is already bundled up, and still in the process of pulling on layers. She pauses, eying Rey warily. “What? No cancelling on me.”

 

Rey closes her eyes, fights back her embarrassment, then opens them. In a small voice, she asks: “Er, what’s a glacier?”

 

 

. . .

 

 

A glacier, Rey learns, is a dense body of ice that is moving ever so slowly, driven by its own weight and gravity. The Zirfan Glacier is classified as a tidewater glacier, because it is making a slow, inexorable journey down into Rhinnal’s northern polar sea. At its summit, it is nestled into the lower half of one of the Sennes Mountains, which heave like a craggy black fortress all along the coast.

 

Not that she remembers a scrap of this information, once Mara Jade has landed the Skywalkers’ shuttle on a bit of icy shoreline near where the glacier’s edge meets the sea, and the boarding ramp lowers with a hiss and twin clouds of steam; the blast of air that gusts through the main hold is so frigid, cutting through Rey’s borrowed layers so sharply, that she almost gives up then and there. Volunteers to stay behind, guard the shuttle.

 

But everyone is already ambling down onto the ice, and Mara and Luke, seated in the small two-person snowskimmer they have brought with them, are staring at Rey expectantly, waiting for her to join the others so they can maneuver the skimmer out of the hold.

 

Down she goes.

 

Nothing could be enough to counteract Rhinnal’s cold. Within seconds, it feels as though it has burrowed under her skin, down deep into her bones. Her jaw aches, her eyes begin to water. She shivers.

 

The ice crunches under the spiked soles of her cleats, and they weigh her feet down. Even with her quarterstaff— more comfortable and familiar in her hand than the flimsy hiking pole Brixie had offered— she feels ungainly, like a stumbling newborn thissermount foal. As she gets her footing, she begins to take it all in. The whoosh and shurr of the sea, rushing up against the chipping glacier. The occasional splash as a piece breaks off and crashes into the water, off to join its floating icy brethren. The walking fish— fireheads, Brixie told her they are called— that dot the glacier, visible for only a moment as they skitter around before burning their way back down into the ice.

 

Heavy clouds sit low and heavy and dark; flurries of snow tumble lackadaisically down from the sky. Snow! How strange, how miraculous. She catches it on her mitten and then her tongue, in an attempt to taste it. It tastes like nothing. But a fresh kind of nothing, a clean nothing.

 

The western side of the glacier, farthest from them, is pierced by aquamarine-colored spikes of ice that rise up like imperious, jagged columns. As she lets her eyes follow the ice-cleat carved footpath up the eastern side, she marvels at how the glacier undulates in rolling hills, how the fissures run through it, deadly and gaping.

 

The Captain and Brixie joke quietly about something as they all adjust to the ice. He looks unfairly handsome, she thinks, in the same dark coat, boots, and gloves he was wearing that day she saw him in alley, his already burly form made bulkier by the clothes underneath and accessorized now with a heavy dark hood that hides his ears and hair from sight.

 

“We’ll meet you up at the lodge,” Luke tells them, as he runs through a systems check on the rickety old skimmer.

 

Poe smirks. “You sure you don’t want to hoof it with us?”

 

“We’ve done our fair share of hiking in our day. I think we’ll just enjoy the view from the speeder and the lodge, if it’s all the same to you,” is Mara’s airy reply. And then they’re off.

 

They stand around for a moment, watching the snowskimmer grow smaller, then disappear when they reach a distant fjord.

 

Gozetta snorts. “I can’t believe Mara is riding around on that old thing with him.”

 

“Why not?” Brixie shoots back. She turns, leading the group towards the footprint-marked trail. Over her shoulder, she adds, “Where Luke Skywalker goes, Mara Jade goes. And vice versa. Everyone knows that.”

 

Rey catches a quirk at the corner of the Captain’s mouth, though there’s a hint of something forlorn in his downcast face. “My uncle loves her for that—her fearlessness,” he says.

 

“They’re my role models,” Brixie croons. “For love, I mean. My parents, too. I’ll have that someday, I know it.” She sends a coquettish smile in his direction, then directs her voice back towards Gozetta. “And If I loved someone, nothing would ever separate us. I know I’d rather be flung from a snowskimmer with them than driven around safely by anything or anyone else.”

 

Gozetta rolls her eyes and continues marching, oblivious to the longing in Poe’s eyes when he looks over at her.

 

“Noble,” is the Captain’s staid reply.

 

The hike, Rey discovers as they embark upon it, is not a steep one. But it is long; the glacier seems to stretch up and away from the sea in a gradual ascent for kilometers before it finally meets the steep rockface wall of the mountainside.

 

For a few minutes, all of them— Poe, Gozetta, Brixie, the Captain, and Rey— are clumped together, tromping over snow and ice. But after a while, they begin to drift apart. Her sister and brother-in-law, tangled in a surprisingly flirtatious discussion of the koyo harvest yields, take the lead. Rey senses that the Captain, with his long muscled legs, could probably outpace them all, but he seems content to hike at Brixie’s side.

 

And why shouldn’t he be? This was meant to be a date, after all.

 

So Rey slows her own pace, letting herself fall a few meters behind. To cede space to them or herself, she couldn’t say.

 

They hike on.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Rey is freezing by the time they reach the first crevasse. They’ve been hiking for maybe a half an hour; it feels like longer, and like they haven’t made that much progress, until she looks back at the sweeping field of white ice that slopes down into the ocean behind them. There’ve been a few fissures along the way, but nothing so deep as this one.

 

And it is deep. Not wide, but terrifyingly deep. When she peers over the side— Gozetta grabbing onto the back of her coat with a hissed “Careful!”— she notes how the light reaches down into the narrow space: flooding the first meter or so, then grasping more tenuously, then relinquishing its hold to the deep navy shadows.

 

She shudders, and when Gozetta yanks on her coat, hard, she’s more than willing to stumble back against her.

 

It’s not that the crevasse will be difficult to traverse. It won’t be. And yet— maybe set off by Brixie’s earlier ruminations on love, maybe just in a chivalrous mood— when Poe passes over it, he turns back to help Gozetta. He smiles at his wife so wolfishly that Rey is reminded of a different Poe, a Poe of many years ago who landed on Jakku, full of charm and swagger and purpose. His gloved hand is extended to her sister. Happily, Gozetta takes it and steps across.

 

Even once she’s safely on the other side, she does not let go.

 

Brixie advances next, and the Captain, his lips twitching, reaches his hand out for her to grasp. She accepts with a laugh and a dramatic dancer’s leap.

 

Positioned at the Captain’s back, Rey waits, mortified by how desperately she wants him to turn around and offer his aid, to repress a smug little smile for her as he helps her over what amounts to not much more than a crack. Please, she’s tempted to beg. Just a scrap of kindness. I’ve survived my whole life on less.

 

But he doesn’t offer. Without fanfare, never once looking back at her, he joins Brixie. The group resumes hiking, leaving her to cross the crevasse on her own.

 

Which she can do, obviously. She’s perfectly capable of doing that. She is Rey of Jakku, she can walk across a crack in the ice without the help of some man, even if the man is Captain Solo.

 

But, she can't help but muse, as she does just that: wouldn’t it have been kind, if he’d offered?

 

 

. . .

 

 

Far ahead, Poe and Gozetta are still holding hands. Gozetta is laughing at something he’s said, and Poe looks… content. Shockingly content. It cheers Rey’s heart, to see them look so happy together.

 

She allows for the possibility that she is doing something right, when it comes to her sister. That she is succeeding there. Or at least making headway.

 

Brixie and the Captain are similarly preoccupied. Not wanting to interrupt or intercede— and unsure if she could even sustain a dialogue, half-frozen as she already is despite her layers— Rey hangs back. But the arctic wind shifts abruptly, blowing their words down to her.

 

“… and this friend of mine, O-Iris, she’s liked this co-worker of ours, Shiri, forever, right? And it’s obvious why—Shiri is a beautiful Twi’lek. I mean… really beautiful. Big amber eyes and a really amazing, uh, figure,” Brixie is telling him.

 

Her voice goes breathless when she repeats, “Really.”

 

She gesticulates as she speaks; her features are so expressive, gone a little dreamy, even in profile. His face is downturned as they tromp along; he is listening, glancing often at Brixie with those eyes that see too much.

 

“And with a brilliant mind for mechanics! And she makes amazing Gruuvan shaal. And she sings, and plays the siren whistle beautifully, something I didn’t even know was possible. She’s… she’s a total a catch, right?”

 

“Hm,” he says.

 

“And every day O-Iris finds a million excuses to walk past her cubicle, and stare at her in the break room during lunch, and all this other silly stuff. She just keeps hemming and hawing, without ever asking her out! It’s insane!” Brixie laughs, shaking her hooded head.

 

“I see.”

 

“So the other day I sat her down and I said, O-Iris, this is ridiculous. You’re cute, she’s cute, you like her, I’m almost positive she likes you. So just… take a chance! Be firm, be decisive! Be bold!

 

“Good qualities,” he replies.

 

Her laugh jingles in the wind. “I agree. And then I told her, you know, she shouldn’t let me be the reason she asks Shiri out. A person shouldn’t just let themselves be talked into anything. But if I liked someone? Well, when I make up my mind, then… I.” Here she claps her gloved hands, a soft dull noise.

 

“Make.” Clap. “Up.” Clap. “My.” Clap. “Mind.”

 

Rey can’t make out if the Captain replies or not, although she does spy a dip of his head. Just a nod, then. In agreement, in support, in appreciation of Brixie and her made-up mind.

 

Something inside her cracks, like a fissure in the ice. Rey cannot not cry, at that; even without being meant for her, it stings. She bites her chapped bottom lip, swiping at her tears with her mitten.

 

“You know what I mean?”

 

“I do. Your friend is lucky to have someone like you in her life. And you are lucky—to know your own mind, at your age.”

 

Brixie giggles, sounding delighted. “Is she? Am I?” She cants her head, and Rey can make out that her smile is teasing. She flutters her eyelashes theatrically until he huffs out an abrupt laugh too.

 

“Yes,” he replies, earnestly. “She is. You are.”

 

The wind changes directions for a few minutes, leaving Rey to her thoughts and her numb limbs, her cold-burnt face, her watering eyes. Her wool coat presses the cooled sweat on her neck and back against her body, sending a chill through her. She yearns for something like the balaclava that Gozetta— so far ahead of her now, a distant speck halfway up the glacier— has donned. She yearns to be warm again, to be sheltered.

 

Rey decides, then and there, that she doesn’t much care for glacier hiking.

 

Again, the wind shifts.

 

“You know, I like Gozetta… fine… but… just between you and me?”

 

Brixie’s voice, lower now, is conspiratorial in tone. He bows his head. She glances cagily back at Rey, who gives a reassuring wave; she returns it, before turning again to the Captain and rounding her shoulders, as if to trap the words between them.

 

It doesn’t work; they still drift back to Rey. “I’m pretty sure my parents wish Rey had accepted Poe’s proposal,” she confides in him. “I know I certainly do.”

 

After a moment’s pause, the Captain clears his throat. “Poe… proposed to her? Marriage?”

 

“Mmhmm.”

 

“When?”

 

“Oh, years back. Six or so? Whenever it was that he landed on Jakku, during the war. He told me once he was, and I quote, ‘in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her.’ Then, when she turned him down… that old friend of their family… hm, what was her name?”

 

“Mashra,” he bites out.

 

“That’s it! Supposedly she pointed Poe in Goz’s direction. They hit it off, and the rest is history.”

 

A few seconds of silent hiking follows. Brixie, seemingly struck by guilt about the aspersions she has cast, backtracks a bit: “I’m not saying my brother doesn’t love his wife. He does.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“It’s just—” she snorts, at herself maybe, or Gozetta or Poe, “I prefer the company of his wife’s sister. She’s so genuine—such a sincerely good person. Know what I mean?”

 

Softly, so softly Rey almost doesn’t hear it, he replies, “… I do.”

 

Those two words send a new chill through her, entirely unrelated to the cold. Lost in thought, she tunes out the rest of the conversation. Mindlessly, she advances, step by step, her quarterstaff and her ice cleats keeping her from falling prey to her distraction.

 

But how can she take notice of the world around her, at a time like this?

 

I do, he’d said. Again and again, she turns the words over in her mind, until she can barely even remember the sound of his deep voice uttering them. But her heart remembers; her heart is seared by them. There they remain, burned into the muscle like a brand.

 

And now, as that muscle gallops in her chest, she hears it in its thundering rhythm: I do, I do, I do.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Jakku is a desert planet, but Rey had still known cold while living there. The nights, with their raging winds and uninterrupted darkness, could be terrible. In the mornings, she’d sometimes spot the bodies of beasts who’d been left exposed to the night, littered across the sands. Death by exhaustion, death by thirst, death by hypothermia and exposure.

 

Rey knows cold. But she has never known cold like the air that blasts across the Zirfan Glacier as the sun begins to sink and the dark clouds pack down lower in the sky.

 

She is freezing. Maybe to death.

 

This planet, this place— the towering columns of ice, the vast sheets of it that float across the dark rolling ocean, the snow-dusted fjords that cut into the distant shoreline, an entire landscape barely populated save for the lodge up on the mountain, and all of it such austere shades of white and blue and black— it is undeniably beautiful. And severe in a way that does remind her of Jakku. She can appreciate that.

 

But she can’t feel her feet, or her legs. For almost an hour now, she’s been shaking so hard her teeth rattle; snot streams from her nostrils, tears from her eyes. Both are absorbed by her mittens, which have become disgusting.

 

“I’m fine,” she’s been telling herself, under her breath. “This is fine.”

 

She’s not. But she’s determined to get through this, on her own. This was meant to be a fun date; everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves. Rey can get through this. She will get through this. And besides, she has those two words to warm her— in spirit, if not in flesh.

 

This is all she’s thinking about, fixated on survival and a fake smile and I do, until Luke and Mara whiz up the slope past them in their snowskimmer. The Captain waves at them as they pass, flagging them down. The skimmer slows then turns back, coming to a hovering halt alongside him and Brixie.

 

As Rey approaches, she sees him incline his head towards his uncle. The two of them speak, a rapid, almost perfunctory-looking exchange, before he straightens and nods, apparently satisfied.

 

“Rey!” Mara cries, when Rey shambles up beside the transport. “You look half-frozen! Your lips have gone completely blue.”

 

“No,” she gasps. “I’m f-f-fine, really…”

 

“I think you should get in the skimmer with us,” Luke tells her.

 

She glances at Brixie and the Captain, who nod in agreement. In the distance, she can see that Poe and Gozetta have paused their ascent to turn and watch the proceedings.

 

Mara smiles at her. “You’re tiny, you’ll fit next to me! Come on, it's nice and warm in here.”

 

But she is Rey of Jakku. She can do this climb. If anyone in the galaxy can climb this glacier, it is her.

 

“No, I—”

 

Mara, blithely ignoring her objections, has already squeezed over on the skimmer’s bench seat, making room for her.

 

“I’m—” she tries again.

 

And then there is a big hand clasping hers. She turns, alarmed, and finds her face level with the coat-covered chest of Captain Solo. Barely daring to breathe, she lets her gaze drift up, until she meets his sharp eyes. It’s obvious that he has missed nothing, that he has noticed her distress.

 

“Your lips are blue,” he says, not unkindly. He steps forward, herding her closer to the skimmer. “And you’re pale as death. Get in.”

 

Before she can protest, his arm wraps around her, like a steel bar supporting and gingerly lifting her up into the skimmer. For a moment, all the world is chaos. He is touching her, they’re touching, her hand clutches his and his arm is around her waist and how easily he lifts her up, takes her weight… then she is settled on the seat beside Mara. Gently, he pulls his hands free of her, then takes a step back.

 

There is a split second wherein their eyes lock again; in his gaze she finds not anger, not resentment, not the empty coldness of indifference, but feeling. Compassion. Worry.

 

Mara pats her back then loops an arm through hers to bring her closer. Rey swallows, and the Captain does too; she spies his throat bob. Averting his gaze, he works his jaw, just like she remembers.

 

She doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

 

“We’ll be up at the lodge with you in no time!” Brixie consoles her. From afar, Gozetta gives a glum wave, Poe a joking salute.

 

He will not look at her.

 

The skimmer’s engine revs, Luke shifts the gears, and away they go.

 

 

. . .

 

 

So.

 

So, then.

 

Captain Solo may not have forgiven her for everything that happened on Jakku eight years ago, but there is no denying this: he is still a person capable of empathy, of understanding. He might not want to help her over a crevasse, but he has not hardened his heart so completely against her that he would let her suffer in the cold. He doesn’t want her dead by frostbite.

 

Rey doesn’t know what to make of that.

 

He cares about her. It might be an insubstantial amount of feeling, but he does care.

 

Luke takes them out over the water, still joy-riding. She peers at the glacier’s edge as they zoom along. Glimpses of smooth turquoise ice are revealed when the waves roll away from its edges; shards of shattered ice rise up when the waves push back.

 

This glacier is ice. Only ice. Just water locked in time and cold. And yet it is moving forward, creeping toward the sea, changing; it is a thing alive.

 

Could Rey dare to dream of such a fate? Could she find her way forward, could she break free from stasis?

 

Could she be brought to the sea, at long last?

 

Could she be the one to bring herself there?

 

“They’re really hitting it off, aren’t they?” Luke muses. He glances over at Mara and Rey.

 

“Hm?” Rey asks.

 

He grins. “Brixie and Ben.”

 

“Oh.” If only she hadn’t replied; she could’ve pretended that she hadn’t heard him. “I… I think so.”

 

Mara squints, staring forward through the transparisteel windshield. “She’s lovely,” she says, in the bland sort of tone people sometimes use when they don’t want to offend anyone. “A clever, nice, pretty young woman.”

 

Rey nods. “Yes.”

 

Her shivering has not abated; the cold is so deep in her bones that not even the heated air blowing from the vents can reach it. And maybe something else makes her shiver too: Mara isn’t wrong, Brixie is all those things. Clever, nice, and pretty. She scrunches her nose, trying to push away her envy, just as the Jedi swings a bundled arm around her shoulders to bring her in closer.

 

“If he’d fallen for her during the war,” Luke says, “they probably would’ve been like you and me, Mara.” He smirks, not looking away from the horizon. “Or Shara and Kes.”

 

She should not ask, she should not encourage Luke. If she keeps her mouth shut, keeps her head turned and her eyes on glacier’s edge, this conversation won’t continue. Or it can continue without her, and she can return to her reverie.

 

But now she’s curious. So: “How’s that?”

 

“Oh, you know. Get together quick, get married quick—if that’s something that matters to you—make it official before you get sent back out into battle. Grab whatever life you can, in whatever free time you have. Just in case.”

 

Mara scoffs. “I knew who you were long before you ever met me, Luke Skywalker, and don’t you forget it. I came into this marriage with my eyes wide open, thank you very much—nothing rushed about it.”

 

“Thank the stars for that,” he says, sounding half amused, half sincere.

 

Mara nods. “And of course, we had the Force.” Her green eyes slide towards Rey, a hint of something sly in her curved lips. “I’m not saying a Jedi should abuse their abilities, or use them as a shortcut to get to know someone—that is, intimately, but…”

 

Grinning, Luke affirms: “It happens.” One grizzled eyebrow pops up. “And it certainly helps.”

 

Luke!” Mara’s voice is all playful warning, a bit of teasing. He smiles, reaching for her gloved hand and bringing it to his lips.

 

“I’d heard about you too, Mara Jade. You were a legend long before I ever set eyes on you.”

 

Mara nods again, pleased. “Damn right I was.” She frowns down at the controls for a beat, then over at Luke. “Now,” she directs, “scoot over and let me navigate—you’re definitely going to overturn us if you keep on like this.”

 

“Whatever you say, Mara Jade,” he drawls, completely at ease. When she pushes herself up onto his lap, he shifts, sliding towards Rey so as to allow her to drop behind the controls of the skimmer.

 

That could’ve been us, Rey thinks, watching them with a pang of the old familiar sorrow.

 

Does he ever think that, when he sees people in love? People who are happy? People who have grown together, into something more than the sum of their parts? He is not insensate to her pain. Has he been insensate to his? Has she? What are you feeling, Ben?

 

Rey thinks again of the bell that cannot be unrung. Eight years ago, it was struck. At times, its tolling has grown faint, at times louder, but it has never ceased. Not really. Even now, she can hear its reverberations on the biting Rhinnalian winds, just as she could on Jakku.

 

She curls her fingers into a fist inside her mitten, bites the inside of her cheek. When Luke bumps her shoulder, a worried crease puckering his brow, she gives him a wan smile, the best she can do.

 

Love like this could’ve been ours.

 

What are you thinking, Ben? Can you hear the bell? Does it still ring for you, too?

 

 

. . .

 

 

Bzzt. Bzzt.

 

After hitting the buzzer beside the apartment door in the diplomatic residency complex a second time, Rey rocks back on her heels, forced to wait. She taps one foot softly on the welcome mat, trying not to think about the fact that he is probably living somewhere nearby.

 

She hasn’t heard much about him from the Damerons in the days that have passed since their Rhinnal outing, except an offhand comment about some planned visit with his senator friend on Hosnian Prime. What was his name?

 

Finn, she recalls, just as the door whooshes open.

 

“So,” exclaims Mashra, “you’ve been busy, from what I hear!”

 

“Uh—”

 

“Well, come on in, child, no need to stand outside all day!” Mashra is grinning, the edges of her snout upturned. “I am so glad you have come to see me, I’ve missed you something awful. Caf?”

 

“Yes, please,” she murmurs, seating herself in the simple but comfortable living room. As she listens to Mashra pouring the caf in the kitchen, she watches the Abednedo’s broad back through a gap in the wall that divides the rooms. After a moment, she calls out, “Er, what have you heard, exactly?”

 

“Oh, you know.” Mugs in hand, Mashra pass into the living room. She offers one to Rey, who takes a sip as she goes on, “That you’ve been welcomed into the Dameron family social circle—you were even seen at the Lake Sah’ot Jatz Club with them and Senator Organa and… him.”

 

A blush heats her cheeks, and a murmured, “Yes,” is all she can muster.

 

“Hmph.”

 

“This is… a very nice place,” she demurs, looking around. The furniture is good quality, the home seems fully equipped with the kind of conveniences she’s becoming accustomed to in the Damerons’ bungalow. “How’s your cousin?”

 

“Some days are better than others for Brasmon,” Mashra admits. “The prosthesis vexes him. But he’s done very well for himself.”

 

“Right.” She nods. “Please give him my congratulations, by the way.”

 

Mashra’s smile widens. “Ah, you saw then? On the HoloNet, probably. Senator Brasmon Kee of Abednedo has a nice ring to it, I think.”

 

“Sure,” she says, listlessly. Rey is finding it hard to focus. Her mind wanders: where exactly might Senator Organa’s apartment be in the complex? And has he already left, or is he still inside it? Is it in this building? One nearby? Above her? Below?

 

Have he and Mashra met, in passing? She remembers how he spit out the name while talking with Brixie on Rhinnal. The idea that he resents Mashra— for what? For what happened with them?— has gnawed at her for days.

 

She hopes they haven’t met; she can’t imagine it going well.

 

Inattentively, she takes a sip of her caf, unsurprised to find it bitter and scalding— just how Mashra prefers it. She smiles at the memory of many cups of caf drunk together, back in the bunker on Jakku. A glance at the Abednedo’s own mug reveals it is already half-drank. Her smiles fades as she remembers another shared cup— not of caf, but tea.

 

A holoprojector, a news bulletin, a devastating epiphany.

 

An afternoon spent crying out her anguish on the soft bunker floor. A red sunset. Stagnant air.

 

That look in his eyes. Confusion and then disgust and then heartbreak, and then… acceptance. Then nothing.

 

So much nothing.

 

“… setting up his office on Hosnian Prime, which he prefers to Coruscant,” she catches, starting at the realization that Mashra has continued speaking while she’s been ruminating. “Although he’ll commute back and forth, depending on where the next session is held. There’s talk they might convene on Hevurion for a cycle or two.”

 

“That’s… very exciting.” Rey hopes that’s a polite response.

 

“Yes, that’ll be in about two weeks. First he’s gone to Abednedo, to give some forum-style discussions with his constituents.”

 

“Ah. I… see.”

 

Mashra nods, as if it’s all very simple and clearcut. And perhaps it would be, had Rey been paying attention. “So that’s where I’ll be,” she concludes.

 

“Ah—wait, sorry? What?”

 

“Are you alright, Rey?” Her wide brow crinkles in bafflement. “You seem very distracted today.”

 

“Yes, I’m—yes,” she manages. “Sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night.”

 

“Is it your sister’s home? Must be strange, staying with her and her children. Gozetta, a mother! Hmph.” Mashra pauses long enough to let out a weary sigh. “You know, I really thought she would’ve come to see me… her and Poe. After all I did for them—”

 

Rey cuts across her. “Gozetta sends her love. She’s just—well, you know how her health is.”

 

“Problems again?”

 

Lips pressed together, she simply hums an affirmation.

 

“Perhaps I should go visit,” Mashra says, as much to herself as to Rey.

 

“I’m—sure once she’s feeling better she’ll be happy to come see you on… Hevurion, did you say?”

 

That’s a lie. Rey knows it’s a lie, knows that Gozetta will never visit, knows that her sister considers herself above Mashra— too good to be seen in the presence of a Jakku scavenger, only tolerating the indignity of being seen with Rey around Chandrila because they are family. But she has to say something.

 

“No, I’m going straight to Hosnian Prime,” Mashra corrects, with a frown. “Weren’t you listening?” She tilts her head, perplexed. “But I just told you! I’ll be Brasmon’s senatorial assistant.”

 

“Ah." She has no idea what requirements there are to be a senatorial assistant, but she wonders if Mashra— who, to her knowledge, has spent most of her life like Rey, a salvager on Jakku— really possesses the skills. Still, she holds her tongue, saying only, “Double congratulations, in that case.”

 

“Thank you,” the Abednedo murmurs. “I do feel I’ve landed on my feet—I’ve done pretty well for myself.”

 

“Oh. Yes. I—”

 

“Anyway,” Mashra interrupts. From the glint in her eyes, Rey suspects that there’s something she’s far more interested in talking about, and sure enough, her next words are: “Captain Solo?”

 

How could she know? Is it obvious that he has consumed her thoughts and dreams for the past several weeks? That the image of him— perpetually tense these days, composed and self-assured but so tense, poised like a rancor in the moments before it strikes, with his silver-streaked hair and the tired creases around his eyes, with his clipped, enigmatic answers to every question, with those words, those blistering words, I do, having re-rung the bell— that it is there every time she closes her eyes, haunting her? Can Mashra sense that?

 

No. She couldn’t. Mashra isn’t sensitive to the Force, she’s just known Rey since she was a small child. She just knows her too well.

 

Rey sighs. “Yes?” she prompts, not willing to give away anything she doesn’t have to.

 

“You’ve been seen with him. Together with the Damerons and the Skywalkers.”

 

“Yes,” she confirms, then hastens to sip at her coffee, offering no more details.

 

Mashra shakes her head, her disapproval evident. “Oh, Rey. Is that a good idea? I hope you’re being careful.”

 

Rey blinks in shock. “What—what do you mean?”

 

“I mean…” Mashra falters for only a moment, before forging on, “you two have a past, don’t you? I can see it, Rey—you’re distracted, you have a… glow about you. Just as you did back then. And, well, I don’t want to see you hurt again. Be reasonable. All that is behind you now—shouldn’t you keep it that way?”

 

It’s difficult for Rey to parse the immediate and intense emotion provoked by those words. Be reasonable, she recalls. It's not the first time she's received that counsel. Mashra is someone to whom she has always felt gratitude. The Abednedo kept her alive on Jakku, helped her when times were lean and life veered a little too close to that precipice, beyond which lies only death. And she gave her hope, didn’t she?

 

Hope that smothered you, something inside her snarls. Hope that buried you, that froze you in your tracks and kept you standing there—a statue, eroded by the elements, stone within and stone without. Hope that chained you to a family that does not love you.

 

She flinches; if Mashra notices, she says nothing. “I…” she tries, then flounders.

 

He loved you, she thinks. That love was real and it was yours.

 

She could scream, for all the rage she suddenly feels. It fills her, scorching her from the inside out. Where is this coming from? she wonders. Why now, after all these years?

 

Is it because of him— because he spoke those two words, and breathed fiery hope back into her?

 

Rey is sorely tempted to throw the caf to the floor, to strike at Mashra. She hasn’t brought her quarterstaff, but she still has her fists. She wants to scream and gnash her teeth and rave at her supposed guardian, who should have had her best interests at heart.

 

You knew Ergel, she wants to say. You knew who he was—what he was. And you let me turn away from love… for him. For them.

 

You led me astray.

 

But it would change nothing. Her regret, her sorrow, her rage, it’s all the same; it cannot turn back the chrono, it cannot allow her another chance to make different choices. There is no amending the past. There is no killing it.

 

A wave of exhaustion washes over her, as though she has climbed the Zirfan Glacier all over again.

 

Depleted, heart racing, she pulls in a long breath through her nose, then lets it out slowly.

 

“Let’s talk about something else,” she says at last, through clenched teeth. “I don’t want… to discuss… this. With you.”

 

Mashra looks hurt by that, large dark eyes blinking furiously. She opens her snout, then closes it, then does the same twice more. Finally, she composes herself, nods, and in a monotone voice, begins to detail the responsibilities of a senator’s assistant.

 

Rey’s hand, resting in her lap, is balled into a fist. Even as Mashra speaks, even as the equilibrium in the room is restored and both females find their footing once more, returning to something civil if slightly less amicable than before… her nails dig sharp painful purple-white crescents into the flesh her palm.

 

They stay that way long after she’s left.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

A week passes, and Rey’s anger returns to a low simmer, quieted but not extinguished.

 

(It is not the actions of the Dameron family nor her sister that rankle her, so when she’d returned to the bungalow that afternoon after visiting Mashra, she’d taken several deep, bracing breaths and fixed a wan smile on her face before entering. It has remained there ever since.)

 

The absence of Captain Solo at the Great House has been accompanied with a decline in dinner parties. She is of two minds about that development: there is some relief, she has discovered, in not seeing him so often— not being reminded so frequently of their fraught history— and yet…

 

She misses him all over again. But this time it's not her young love, the rash son of a smuggler— twenty-nine and full of fear— whom she misses. Now it is the seasoned veteran, a quiet, serious man who chooses his words carefully, who visibly wears the weight of his thirty-seven years, that she longs to see.

 

With each day he is gone, she is given more space to reflect on all that has passed, and finds herself wishing more and more ardently that they could begin again. That they could be friends, if nothing else. She wants to speak to him as she once did, without reserve. Wants him to speak to her, in that lovely deep rumble of his. Wants to know where he has been, what he has seen, what he is thinking.

 

And maybe all this wanting might’ve threatened to drown her once, like her tears that day she returned to the Ravager, but two months on from being thrown back into his path, Rey has become skilled at treading water in her desires. She still wants. Desperately, she wants. But the wanting has become familiar, and Rey has inured herself to it; she can now manage some rational contemplation of all that has passed between them on Chandrila.

 

Captain Solo has shown a capacity for mercy, for kindness, for wisdom, for generosity. Resentful as he may be of her, Rey’s thoughts return time and time again to his arm around her, holding her tightly as he lifted her into the snowskimmer.

 

If she got nothing else from that Rhinnal expedition, she has at least learned this: he is not so hard-hearted towards her, after all.

 

She thinks frequently of the ways he has changed, the weariness that she has spied in his movements, that she has heard in his tone. He has not exhibited a shred of that barely-stifled fear that she remembers so well. Instead, he seems to have fully grown into himself, in confidence and competence.

 

Confident, and competent, and yet still alone. Is that strange? She worries at this idea incessantly. And moreover: could there be room in his life for her? Could they bridge the chasm between themselves, could they build over their history?

 

Ultimately, she has realized, her longing to see him, to truly know him again, is much stronger than any small relief at not seeing him.

 

Brixie on the other hand, from all outward appearances, has not suffered in the wake of his departure to Hosnian Prime. Maybe this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to Rey, considering Brixie’s nature. From Rey’s observations, Brixie has carried on with her life without concern or dismay. She goes to work, she tends her bees, she spends time with her coworkers and time with her family. She helps Poe with the maintenance of the koyo wine production, she comes over to play with her nephews. She laughs and rambles and smiles as winningly as she ever has.

 

She still talks of him often in an admiring, breathless tone though, and mentions communications with him by holo. And she seems no worse for the wear.

 

But then, Rey has mused repeatedly in the past week, don’t we all have hidden depths?

 

Hasn’t she hidden so much of her own pain from those whom she purports to love? Who can know, besides Brixie, if the younger woman has done the same?

 

As for Rey, she has fallen into her own daily routine. Each morning she wakes overheated and swamped with arousal by dreams she cannot remember. She quietly takes care of that herself in her sleeper before rising and joining her sister and brother-in-law for breakfast. Then she excuses herself for a long, long walk along the beach. The cold season has truly settled upon the seaside, Hanna City and the surrounding forests now, and the days are raw and frigid, often rainy. Yet she walks anyway, every day, without fail. Though the chill seeps through her layers and her cheeks burn from the sea air, there’s still something about this part of the routine that she’s come to crave.

 

Maybe it’s that Chandrila’s winds do not leave her feeling eroded, but invigorated.

 

Maybe it’s just a return to what she knows best: solitude.

 

Maybe it’s that there is so much to think about. In regards to her past, in regards to her future, in regards to him.

 

On some mornings, her silent ministrations having failed to dampen the aching twinge in her core, she strips down and throws herself into the frigid waves until she is cool and numb and her mind is empty.

 

On others, she allows the fever to overtake her. She allows herself to dream, to hope. To plan even, in some small measure.

 

When she returns to the bungalow, she spends time with Gozetta, her nephews, Brixie, Poe. The remainder of the days pass uneventfully. Sometimes they all eat at the Great House, mostly they don’t. Rey usually retires early, touching herself again before she drifts off to sleep.

 

She cannot be sure what will come next, what will interrupt this lulling rhythm. She has only the unshakable certainty that something is coming.

 

And the tentative hope that she and the Captain have not seen the last of each other.

 

 

. . .

 

 

It is on one such blustery morning, a week and a day after the Captain has left, that Rey returns to the bungalow to find Gozetta departed with the boys to Hanna City, and Poe seated at the dining table of the main room, where he is speaking with a stranger.

 

“Nah, the harvest is all finished now,” Poe is saying when Rey emerges from the hallway, hair still wet from the sea and cheeks flushed from exercise and cold. He gives an absent wave to her, which she returns as she heads towards the caf maker. On the table, a holoprojector is displaying a flickering blue-tinted face.

 

Features can be a little difficult to make out in a hologram, but as far as she can tell, the figure on the other end of the transmission is a handsome man with a rich brown complexion, eyes that crinkle with amusement, and dark hair, markedly less silver-streaked than Poe’s and the Captain’s.

 

“So what’re you doing with your time then, huh?” he teases, chuckling.

 

Poe smirks. “Family man.”

 

“You and that family of yours should come see me on Batuu,” says the hologram. “I’ll be here for another week or so before I head back to Hosnian Prime.”

 

“Solo come all the way out there with you?”

 

A distorted scoff. “Yeah, but—just between you and me—he’s such a mope these days. Rose is a little bit better, but she’s still struggling too. Has been, since—y’know. Paige. Us. Everything. Anyway, I could use some help cheering the two of them up.”

 

“Well…”

 

Poe’s eyes slide over to Rey. Mug clutched tightly in her hands, she stands frozen in carbonite, having been stilled by the mention of him. And his… mopiness.

 

What does that mean? What could be bothering him?

 

She’s been caught eavesdropping, even if Poe is conducting this conversation out in the common room of the bungalow. His smile is not unkind, but bemused; he’s clearly puzzled as to why she’s listening. Her face warm with what she’s sure is a visible blush, she offers an apologetic shrug and pivots on her heel, then hightails it out of the room.

 

“Let me think about it,” she hears him concede, as the guest bedroom door hisses closed behind her.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“So what d'ya say?” prompts Poe, that evening. The two families are gathered around the Great House dining table, absent any guests. The beeswax candles in its center flicker, burned low, and the plates have long since been cleared away. Little Poe and Weir are fast asleep on a sofa in another room; their holotoon’s cheery jingle drifts across the house on a draft.

 

“We can afford to spare you for a week or two,” Kes says generously. “You worked hard this harvest—you deserve the vacation.”

 

“You said Ben is out there with him, right?”

 

There’s an excited glint in Brixie’s eyes as she asks; one dark brow is quirked up high. At Poe’s nod, she taps her chin, and declares with faux-seriousness, “You know… I’m pretty sure I have some unused vacation days from Chandriltech. And I think I have to use them before the end of the year, or they go to waste.”

 

“Well,” laughs Shara, “Sounds like all my kids are going on vacation.”

 

“And me?”

 

Gozetta’s mouth is set in a thin, tight line. She’s glaring at her husband, her face a menacing storm cloud.

 

“Shall I just stay home and sit around with our children then, while you gallivant across the galaxy with your friends?”

 

“I’ll be with you,” Rey reminds her, under her breath.

 

“That’s not the point!” she snaps. “Why should Poe get to have all the fun! You think what I do isn’t work? You think I’m lazy, is that it?”

 

“You haven’t been to the Outer Rim in a long time,” he argues, temper flaring to meet hers. “You haven’t seen what it’s like out there! If you think I’m taking my sons, who are only five and three, might I remind you—”

 

Gozetta’s lips curl back in anger. “Don’t you tell me how old they are! Like I didn’t carry them for nine months, like it hasn’t been me who—”

 

“I have an idea,” Shara cuts in, hands raised in a conciliatory gesture. “The boys can stay here with Kes and I for a couple weeks, and all the young people can go have a nice adventure. How’s that?” She turns to Rey, eyes wide and beseeching. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you Rey? See a little more of the galaxy?”

 

Gozetta scoffs. After a few seconds’ worth of anxious glancing between her and Poe, Rey looks to the elder Damerons, who nod at her encouragingly.

 

“That’s—an excellent plan, I think.” She forces a weak smile. Two weeks spent in his presence? Who can say what might happen? Will he be cold to her, as he has been in the past, or will his thaw continue? A glimpse of Brixie’s face reveals what she is hoping will happen; she practically vibrates with excitement.

 

Rey feels a pang of guilt at that.

 

She should leave well enough alone, shouldn’t she? She had her chance. If it’s Brixie the Captain wants, then it’s Brixie he should be with. Rey renews her resolve then and there not to get in their way, especially on this trip, should that be the case.

 

“I’d love to see—uh, Batuu,” she says at last. “What do you think, Goz?”

 

“Yes,” is all that Gozetta deigns to say.

 

Brixie gives a roll of her eyes so subtle that Rey almost misses it.

 

“Guess that’s settled,” she drawls.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Rey thinks that perhaps the argument will set back her machinations to improve her sister’s marriage. She does her best to set things right on the walk back from the Great House, murmuring an appeal to Poe to see Gozetta’s point of view, to appreciate the steps she has made to improve her situation, and herself.

 

All she gets from him in response is a series of unimpressed grunts.

 

But later that night, while performing her nightly ablutions in the refresher, she hears them talking in low, sober voices, out in the main room.

 

And by the next morning they both seem, to Rey, to be in the best spirits she’s seen them in since she’s arrived.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The journey to Batuu, even using the Hydian Way Hyperlane— one of the fastest in the galaxy— still takes them about four standard galactic days. Poe, Gozetta, Brixie, and Rey all find their own ways to pass the time while cooped up aboard the Dameron family’s creaky old YZ-775 light freighter, Pathfinder. Poe does the majority of the actual flying and navigating, although Brixie and Rey spot him intermittently. Much of Rey’s remaining time is spent sniffing out components on the ship that could use tweaking or repairs, and happily whiling away the hours administering those tweaks and repairs.

 

Perhaps the only notable detail of their time is the unexpected rapport that develops between Gozetta and Brixie.

 

Sabacc.

 

It starts with a game of sabacc.

 

Rey is in the lower-level cargo hold within hours of their leaving Chandrila, already tinkering with a malfunctioning illuminator bar. Down here, the sweet smell of past koyo fruit shipments still hangs heavy in the recycled air. She’s nestled comfortably in a large heap of unused cargo netting at the bottom of a ladder that leads up to the crew quarters, where her sister and sister-in-law are seated at the small booth and table that serves as ship lounge. Their voices boom down through the hatch, and without really meaning to, she listens as she works.

 

“You brat, you cheated!” shouts Brixie, laughing, when Gozetta reveals her third winning hand in a row.

 

“I am certainly not a brat,” Gozetta huffs; this non-denial is followed by the sound of her scraping her winnings across the table.

 

Brixie snorts. “You certainly are, Gozetta of Jakku.”

 

“Oh yeah? Well… it takes one to know one!”

 

“Maybe so, but I’m not actually hearing a defense in there. You did cheat, didn’t you?”

 

There’s a moment of indignant sputtering, before Gozetta snaps, “Well, what if I did? Is it my fault you’re too poor a sabacc player to have caught it?”

 

“My sister taught me to play, not to cheat or catch cheaters!”

 

“Well, mine taught me all three. What of it?”

 

A weighted pause. Finally, her tone calculating yet playful, Brixie says, “Okay, fair enough. It’s not your fault I didn’t catch you. But it is your fault you haven’t taught me your tricks before now.”

 

“Before now, hm? You think I’m just going to show you? Verla would kill me if she found out!”

 

“Oh, c’mon,” Brixie wheedles, “Us babies of the family haveta stick together, Goz. Imagine it: the next time I play a hand against Poe, he makes that dumb smirk when he inevitably pulls together a Pure Sabbac. Then, out of nowhere, I bust out an Idiot’s Array. Just think of the look on his face!”

 

Another pause. This one feels, to Rey, more contemplative.

 

“…One. I’ll show you one trick.”

 

Rey smiles to herself.

 

And that’s how it goes: any spare moment when Brixie isn’t flying and Gozetta isn’t napping or studying, they’re glued to that table, playing hand after hand of sabacc. Even Rey gets sucked in, joining for a hand here or there— although she’s not very good at the game, and she never wins.

 

Mostly, she just enjoys how the tone of their bickering has shifted from adversarial to conspiratorial. She enjoys the company, the good-natured teasing that passes between the three women. For the first time in ages, Rey experiences something like camaraderie.

 

She’d nearly forgotten how dearly she loves it, the feeling of belonging.

 

 

. . .

 

 

They’ve almost reached Batuu when she awakens with a start in the pod-like berth of her private cabin, drenched in sweat and shaky from the faint wisp of a dream that taunts her as it dissipates.

 

She rolls over, looking out the bedside viewport at the blur of passing blue-white stars and fathomless black space. Closing her eyes, she tries to snatch at that wisp.

 

There was a tree. A big one, with not a single leaf on its twisting branches. And he was there, underneath it, waiting for her. Their bodies, bare, were pressed so closely together; their minds, touching, were communing so deeply it was as though they were one.

 

He was inside her. Or was she inside him? There was no place where she ended and he began, only a feeling of melting into one another, only molten need and love flowing between them, amplified with each revolution, until it eclipsed everything else.

 

Until all the suns in all the systems were blotted out, and he and her were all that remained.

 

Rey sighs.

 

It was so real. It’s disappearing now, but it felt realer than any dream. It felt like he was there with her. His true self, and hers too.

 

Another inhale, another exhale, and it’s gone completely.

 

Well, not completely. She presses her thighs together, trying to alleviate that old familiar twinge in her core, but it’s too late; she’s already barreling towards full-blown arousal. Rey recalls how most mornings since this has started happening, she’s taken care of it herself, and followed up her ministrations with her long walk on the beach, sometimes even taking a dive into the frigid wintry sea.

 

There’s no sea now, though, and she cannot be sure that the walls of her cabin are soundproof.

 

So it is with the knuckles of one fist shoved between her teeth that she slides her free hand under her bedding and leggings, over the soft skin of her belly, slightly less concave than it was when she left Jakku, and past the wiry hair of her mons, opening herself up. She’s slick there, and warm, and so sensitive that she shudders on contact.

 

Rey is no longer a naive nineteen year-old just learning the terrain of her body. She has, in the years that have passed since she began exploring this part of herself, learned the correct names for her clitoris, her labia, her vulva, and she has learned exactly how to touch each. She knows the full spectrum of orgasms of which she’s capable— rushed and perfunctory, slow and exorbitant— and knows what she needs to achieve them.

 

Right now she’s going for efficiency.

 

(The first time she touched herself after he left, she couldn’t bear the thought of him. Nor the time after. Not for a long time.

 

But eventually, without consciously allowing herself to or intending to, and only under the cover of night, lying in her hammock, she did think of him. She conjured up the way he smelled, how he’d looked at her, how it had felt when his mouth was on her. And hers on him. That low, desperate sound she’d torn from him when she’d taken him down to the root, and swallowed his spend. How his big hands had held her, made her feel precious, made her feel wanted.

 

She thought about him so much in those heated moments that the memories became faded and threadbare, like a garment that has been washed a thousand times or more. And in the sticky aftermath of each orgasm, she would promise herself: never again.

 

Always the same promise. Always to be broken, the next time she was in need of relief or some small measure of pleasure or even just sleep.)

 

Still, she muses, closing her eyes, rubbing a circle around her clit, tracing a path down through her folds then around them…

 

Threadbare is better than nothing. Most of her existence is threadbare these days.

 

Threadbare suffices.

 

 

. . .

 

 

It’s a rainy afternoon that they dip down into when they enter Batuu’s atmosphere, not far from the Black Spire Outpost. Strapped into a cockpit chair behind the pilots, it’s hard to see much: a streaky, silvery veil of rain partially obscures the world beyond the viewport. It hammers furiously on the freighter hull, too, drowning out the thready pounding of her heartbeat in her ears.

 

But even in the mire, Rey understands at once how the settlement got its name.

 

Petrified trees rise up from the earth like jagged spurs of dark fossilized bone, as if the surface of Batuu is the back of some long-deceased quilled beast. As they approach the Outpost, she can see that in the shadows and safety of a particularly thick cluster of these osseous spires, muddy dome-topped buildings have been constructed. Everything, manmade and organic, is overgrown with lush green vines, and the surrounding land itself is a riotous eruption of verdant forest and wildflower blooms. The Pathfinder swoops over it all, Poe and Brixie carefully maintaining an altitude just above the spires’ sharply pointed peaks.

 

A large patchwork of building tops connected by swathes of canvas comes into view, at the northern end of the settlement. Before she can inquire as to what it is— a marketplace, Rey imagines— they’ve passed it, as well as a massive heap of ancient ruins and a few outlying homesteads. The spires grow denser here and thinner there as they fly on, all of them towering and immovable and ancient, but Rey sees no other signs of civilization.

 

Then the sea appears on the horizon— churning, writhing, its fearsome waves tipped in white froth, it waters storm-black— and a few seconds after, the land falls away in steep cliffs. They continue on, out over the dark sea, the rain intensifying. An occasional bolt of lightning strikes down at the water; each time, it makes Rey grip the arms of her chair ever tighter. From the seat beside her, an arm stretches out, and Gozetta clutches at her hand.

 

“Where is it that we’re going, exactly?” she asks, sounding nervous.

 

“An island.” Poe’s answer is distracted, focused as he is on piloting.

 

Brixie shoots a quick a smile back at them. “Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”

 

Sure enough, after a few more minutes of roiling sea and perilous cracks of lightning, a large incurvate island takes shape in the distance. The closer they fly to it, the larger it seems to loom in the cockpit viewport. Its mountainous edges rise up higher on one end than the other, like a bowl that is in mid-spin.

 

Poe and Brixie take them up, up, up into the clouds so that they may pass over the snow-tipped peaks. When they pitch down into the island’s interior, Rey begins to understand the shape of it; it is a great bowl. If the seas of Batuu pitched up this massive hunk of land, some primordial giant took a massive spoon and scooped out its middle, so that a valley— almost perfectly spherical in shape and the size of three Starship Graveyards, rich with grass and trees and life— is hidden within its high rim.

 

“Volcanic crater,” Gozetta notes. Her face is pallid and dotted with sweat.

 

“Hm?” Rey hums, leaning forward to take it all in, as they descend deeper and deeper into the valley.

 

Her sister’s voice wobbles precariously as she imparts another one of her incongruous tidbits of knowledge. “Volcanic activity. Pushes the land up, then it collapses.”

 

“You alright?”

 

“I don’t—like storms. They…” Gozetta is panting, clearly shaken, but she manages to get out, “They remind me of Jakku. The sandstorms.”

 

“Oh, Goz,” murmurs Rey. She gives Gozetta’s hand, damp and cold and still clutching hers, a gentle squeeze.

 

Towards one end of the valley, tucked in beneath the high parapets of the crater edges, is a small building. Even in the storm, it’s visible: its bronze and glass surface gleams in reflection of the periodic lightning flashes as they approach.

 

The Dameron siblings bring them down as close as they can to the building, and a small, poncho-clad person rushes out, waving at them.

 

Gozetta squints. “Who’s that?”

 

“That is Rose Tico,” Poe informs them, finally relaxing enough to look back while Brixie commences shutdown of the engines and navicomputer.

 

“And this,” he adds, a rakish grin tugging at his lips, “is her island.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“It’s not that I own the whole thing—I don’t have that kind of money,” Rose says with a diffident chuckle, after she’s helped them get in from the rain and introductions have been made.

 

Most of the group already knows of each other— Poe and Finn and Rose are friends from the war of course, Brixie and the group are familiar with each other from her brother’s stories, Gozetta is known by name and Poe’s frequent eye-rolling if nothing else— but still, this is the first actual meeting for most of them. Rey, in particular, is eager to make the acquaintance of the young senator who walked away from the First Order, and of the woman who has carved out a place for herself and her fathiers on this island.

 

She’d expected handshakes and civility, and had been moved by the warm, welcoming hugs she received from both.

 

Now their luggage is piled in a sodden heap by the front door; everyone is bundled up in blankets around an antiquated fireplace in the living room, where a real fire crackles merrily. Mugs of hot chocolate warm their rain-chilled hands.

 

“It’s just that most people coming to Batuu are looking for the Black Spire Outpost. They don’t care about some uninhabited crater island in the middle of the sea. So I guess by default, it belongs to me. And the fathiers and the banthas, and a few other harmless creatures that have made their home here.”

 

They’re seated on an array of worn but comfortable sofas and loungers. Brixie’s face had fallen, after introductions were finished, when Finn mentioned that the Captain was taking a holocall from his mother in the spare bedroom, and may not be out for a while. But since then she’s seemed too engrossed in conversation with Rose to bemoan his absence.

 

Rey wishes it were so easy for her not to worry about him: where exactly is he in the house, what are he and his mother discussing, why has he been so… mopey... lately?

 

“I was hoping to give you a tour of the island when you arrived, but obviously… that’s not happening today.”

 

Rose shakes her head at the rain still pelting the large windows that stretch from floor to ceiling, interrupting the exposed copper-plated walls every meter or so. The light is fading quickly outside; the storm is bringing an early evening to the island.

 

The architecture of the home is fascinating to Rey; the rooms have a modular, hodgepodge feel that is very different from the places she has been on Chandrila or Gatalenta. It does remind her a bit of Jakku, though.

 

Old shipping storage containers I got for a song, Rose had explained, when they’d first come inside. Broke them down and soldered them back together all by myself.

 

With a little help from me, Finn had added.

 

She’d smiled, an expression at once sad and fond. He was mostly in charge of keeping the fathiers away.

 

Rey glances around the room, a combination of living room and kitchen made by what appears to be four storage containers stripped of their interior walls and fused together. Despite the harsh rust-hued metal of the walls, floor, and ceiling, the place is very comfortable, made so by bantha wool rugs, steel vases full of dainty yellow flowers, and an assortment of art crafted from wiring, stone, wool, wood, glass, and bits of metal.

 

Again, she is reminded of her AT-AT days; it’s no wonder she feels at home here.

 

“My parents were miners,” she hears Rose say, clearly having noticed Rey’s wandering gaze. Rose picks up an ornament from a nearby end table— various pieces of colorful glass twisted into wire to make a fruit tree— and passes it to Rey. “But in the little spare time they had, they were artists. Metalwork, mostly, but they used other materials when they could. They made things like this…”

 

Rey runs her finger across a wire branch— an echo of a dream rippling through her— before looking back to Rose. She’s pulling a necklace free from the neckline of her heavy wool sweater; at the end of its leather cord hangs a medallion, burnished gold and fashioned in the shape of a crescent moon.

 

“Haysian smelt,” Rose tells her.

 

Rey smiles. “Beautiful.”

 

“My sister had the other half.” Rose stares forlornly down at the medallion.

 

“Th—these are so pretty!” Brixie exclaims, gesturing to a vase bursting with tiny yellow flowers that sits on a coffee table. “What are they?”

 

“Delia pavorum,” Finn answers. “They grow all over the island.”

 

He has moved himself from a reclining lounger chair to the sofa where Rose and Brixie are seated, and one of his arms has wound its way around Rose’s shoulders. Rose sighs, leaning into him.

 

“Very beautiful,” Rey whispers.

 

This is a comfortable place, and capable of withstanding the raging elements outside; it is a testament to the fortitude of the woman who built it. And yet her melancholy seems to be ingrained in everything. The tree, Rey now wonders: is it from her home planet? And the statue carved from black petrified wood that stands by the window— is that meant to be a tall, lean woman? It could be; Rey can see it. Does the face resemble Rose’s, ever so slightly? Is it her sister?

 

Is this home a memorial, or a mausoleum? (Is that why it reminds her of Jakku? Is that what her AT-AT seemed like, to him ?)

 

Whether from curiosity or an uncharacteristic empathy towards their host, it is Gozetta who steers them back towards safer waters. “What I don’t understand,” she begins, “is why bring the fathiers and banthas to this island? Why not just set them free somewhere—their homeworld or something?”

 

Rose nods gratefully. “Oh! Yeah. That’s, uh—a good question. So, the fathiers have spent their whole life racing, and being cooped up in tiny pens in between races and during transit—ever since they were born, and were taken from their mothers. They had no chance to learn how to survive in the wild. So I can’t just release them into their natural habitat—they’d be picked off by predators. But this island doesn’t have those predators.”

 

“They’ve got a second chance at life here,” Rey says, peering into the fire. “They’re safe and cared for, but they can be free.”

 

Brixie hums in agreement. “Free but safe and cared for—sounds like my bees.”

 

“Exactly!” Rose cracks a smile at that, wiping her eyes. “You keep bees? I’d love to have some here. But—yeah. Free and safe and cared for—that’s the idea, I guess. And the banthas—well, to be honest, they’re for wool and milk. Some of it, I use myself. But most of it, I sell at the Outpost. I grow most of my own food here too, but some things you just can’t grow, you gotta buy.”

 

“That’s an awful lot of work,” Gozetta says, sounding doubtful.

 

Rose shakes her head. “I don’t mind work.”

 

Brixie perks up. “Poe's told me that about you—you’re a mechanic and an engineer, aren’t you?”

 

Though Rey would normally find the discussion captivating— Brixie and Rose’s stories from their respective careers in droidcraft and shipcraft— right now her mind wanders.

 

She’s still thinking about him.

 

She hears the topics shifting as if listening through a closed door. They move on from engineering, to beekeeping, to sabacc, to fathier herd social structure— they organize themselves in clans around the mothers, she catches Rose saying— to Poe, who has crashed out in his chair, exhausted from days of flying. But she’s only half-aware.

 

He’s in this house. Somewhere, past these metal walls, down one of those metal corridors that lead to other converted storage containers and fuel tanks, he is talking to his mother. At any moment, he might appear.

 

Rey had thought herself inured, yet now she waits on tenterhooks with bated breath, willing him to materialize.

 

She can’t feel his presence, of course. She can’t feel anything, she can’t allow that. But she wishes, not for the first time since he’s come back into her life, that she had the courage to open herself back up to the Force, and seek him out.

 

Another flash of the dream. Their bodies, free from barriers, moving together under the Chandrilan moonlight. It forces a shiver down her spine; she’d forgotten until just this moment. Has she dreamed that before?

 

Has he?

 

Questions, questions, questions. That’s all she ever has anymore, and nary an answer in sight.

 

“Rose, you should tell ‘em about Cantonica,” Finn says, grinning. “There’s a heroic tale for you.”

 

“Oh, I dunno—that was—”

 

“Uh-uh.” Brixie wags a finger at them in mock-seriousness. “Nope. You can’t just tease us with a mention of some heroic tale, and Cantonica, a place I have always wanted to see, and then not spill.”

 

Rose giggles. “Okay, it’s a long story, but the short version is this: during the war, Finn and I found ourselves in Canto Bight looking for a master codebreaker. Except… we parked illegally. And… kiiind of got thrown in jail.”

 

“Rose! You scoundrel!” cries Brixie, clearly delighted.

 

“We didn’t know any better!” Rose reasons, still giggling, “And we were in a bind. Who has time for docking bays, anyway?”

 

“What happened next?”

 

“Well, we met an actual scoundrel in our cell—a slicer who busted us out then disappeared—only the guards heard us, so we had to jet. Through the sewer pipes.” Rose grimaces at the memory. “And when we climbed out, we were in the racing fathiers’ kennel.”

 

Finn cuts in, chuckling, “Next thing I know, we’re galloping through the town—and when I say through, I mean through, as in, we rode a fathier through two casinos, did edge-only-knows how much damage—and finally shook the police outside of town. Some friends of ours picked us up there, thankfully, but…”

 

“It was a close one,” Rose finishes for him. “We freed those fathiers that day, maybe only temporarily, but I promised myself that I would come back for them.”

 

“And you did.” Brixie sighs, her eyes wide, her face glowing with wonder. She beams at Rose. “Now that’s a hero.”

 

Rose blushes prettily, her cheeks and ears a shade of pink that matches her name. “It’s—I never thought of myself that way. I always thought of my sister as the hero…”

 

Rey has been passively half-listening to this, but at Rose’s demurral, she snaps out of her daze. “I would say what you’ve done here qualifies, Rose.”

 

More blushing. “Thank you,” Rose mumbles.

 

“What about the codebreaker and the slicer?” Gozetta questions, ever the stickler.

 

Finn shrugs. “We, uh—we figured it out on our own, without the codebreaker. And the slicer? Never saw him again.”

 

A break in the conversation extends into a long silence, everyone lost in their thoughts.

 

"At the edge of the galaxy so far away, black was the spire that called me to stay,” Rose recites.

 

“What’s that?” Rey asks. “It’s nice.”

 

“Poem we learned the first time we ever came here—funnily enough, also on a mission during the war,” she explains.

 

“A beacon for drifters forgotten and lost, the spire summoned those broken and tossed—come stay here forever or just pass on through, the spirit of the black spire will forever change you,” says Finn, completing the verse.

 

A deep sigh resounds through the room, made by several people simultaneously. But whereas Finn and Rose’s seem imbued with sad resignation, Brixie’s is breathy. Dreamy.

 

“Wow,” she says, still beaming at Rose. “I… I love that.”

 

Just then, the Captain steps out from one of the shadowy corridors that lead to other parts of the house. The first thing Rey notices about him, as he installs himself on a lounger chair near the fire, rubbing his hands then holding them aloft near the flames in an attempt to get warm, is that he looks tired. He is dressed casually, in what might very well be sleeping attire— a pair of loose dark trousers, and a warm-looking sweater, both black— and his feet are bare. No one else seems to take any note of that detail, and maybe it shouldn’t be such a shock to Rey, to see that part of him. After all, hasn’t she seen him completely undressed? Hasn’t she lain with him, their bare bodies entangled?

 

But all that was a long time ago, and now… now even seeing his bare feet evokes a strange sense of nostalgia and a flutter of bashfulness.

 

Tearing her eyes away from the tendons in the top of his feet, which flex when he fidgets slightly, she studies the rest of him. There are shadows beneath his eyes, and his hair, which has been neatly combed since he reappeared in her life, hangs lank around his face, which is paler than usual.

 

“Everything okay, Solo?” asks Finn, his features pinched with concern.

 

Do his eyes flash with something, some unspoken emotion? Do they cut towards her before rushing back to the fire?

 

No, she decides. Just a trick of the light.

 

“Fine,” he grunts. It’s all that he says for the remainder of the evening.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Before long, everyone is trying and failing to stifle their yawns.

 

“It’ll be a little tight with all of us here, we might have to bunk up,” Rose warns them merrily, as she stands and stretches her arms high above her head. Her long hair flows down her back, a gleaming river of obsidian in which the firelight picks up sparks of red highlights; her bangs curl wispily away from her face, a charming frame.

 

Rey stands as well, nearly a full head taller than her. Yet Brixie and Gozetta are taller still. And Brixie, Rey observes, has also not failed to miss this. She nods eagerly down at Rose.

 

“Finn and Ben can stay out here on the sofas,” Rose continues.

 

That snaps Rey’s attention back. They’re… not sharing a bed? Neither Brixie and the Captain, nor Finn and Rose? The Captain still hasn’t looked away from the fire; she’s not even sure if he’s heard. And Finn is nodding agreeably. Rey can feel the furrow forming between her brows, but does her best to smooth it out. Maintain a placid, neutral expression.

 

But this is definitely something to be puzzled over, later.

 

“Poe and Gozetta can take my room,” Rose goes on, “I’ll sleep out in the barn—”

 

Brixie frowns. “But—”

 

“No, it’s okay, really! I do it all the time, in the summer. It’s nice out there, very warm. Warmer than in here, to be honest, because of all the hay and blankets.” With that, Rose waves away Brixie’s concerns, before concluding, “And that means you and Rey, you’ll share the second bedroom.”

 

With a shrug, Brixie turns to her. Rey expects disappointment, and is surprised not to find it— only Brixie’s usual happy-go-lucky grin.

 

“Slumber party!” she cheers, doing a little dance.

 

Rey is dubious of both the ‘party’ and the ‘slumber’ aspect of that declaration— she’s utterly consumed with Rose’s deliberate management of the sleeping arrangements, and what they might mean, and what is bothering Captain Solo, and if what is bothering him includes her, and a thousand other wishes and worries— but when Brixie takes her hand and spins her, she smiles and laughs and allows it, not wanting to dampen the mood.

 

There might not be slumber, and there might not be a party, but there is certainly a lot for Rey to think about, as Brixie shivers off to sleep that night beside her.

 

What’s wrong with him? she wonders. Isn’t he sleeping well? If not, why?

 

And some small voice inside herself whispers a question she’d never thought she’d ask, just as she is on the verge of sleep: Is it me?

 

 

. . .

 

 

The morning arrives, glittering from the last of the evening’s rain, all blue skies and fresh breeze and two warm suns holding court at opposite ends of the crater’s rim.

 

“Now this is the sort of day I was hoping we’d have to welcome you,” Rose says ruefully, as they sit around her kitchen table eating breakfast. “But better late than never, right?”

 

At that, the Captain darts a sharp glance at Rey, the first time he has looked up since stumbling into the kitchen.

 

It’s as if a bucket of ice has been poured over her head. He still has those shadows under his eyes, his skin is still pale. He looks so tired.

 

Why aren’t you sleeping, Ben? she wants to ask. What’s haunting you?

 

The thought from last night comes back to her, like the faint ringing of a distant bell: might it be Rey herself who is haunting him? As he has haunted her, all these years? She had assumed, upon learning of his rank as Captain, upon seeing him looking so handsome and noble and living a life that seemed so important in comparison to her own, that he had not just survived their separation, but prospered after it. Was she wrong?

 

But of course, she cannot reach across the divide between them to ascertain his thoughts, either through the Force or by simply asking.

 

So she must content herself with speculation. And the thorny, creeping vines of hope.

 

Later, with breakfast cleared away and dishes washed, Rose leads them out into the valley. Drops of rain water still cling to everything and bright birdsong emanates from the copses of low leafy trees that dot the landscape. The breeze is gentle on their faces, the suns warm them.

 

Now Rey has a chance to better get a feel for the valley. It really is shaped like a deep bowl, the rim rising in all directions around them. Again, she notices that one side soars higher than the other, and is dotted with snow at its peaks. Three great rivers snake down from those peaks; they trisect the plains and branch off here and there into smaller brooks and streams, even a few small lakes.

 

“There,” Rose breathes, pointing to a distant clump of huge, long-legged beasts. They might be comical, for their large jutting ears that extend from their small heads like wings, or for their tiny slitted noses and mouths beneath large, cervine eyes. But they are too powerful, too tall and too densely muscled to be truly laughable. And they move with too much grace on their long, elegantly tapered legs. “There they are.”

 

“Is that all of them?” Brixie wonders.

 

“Nope. Just one herd. They’re matriarchal, and matrilineal—all the adults you see are females and mothers. The males are around somewhere. Some of them follow the herds—there are three altogether, about forty fathiers in total although it’s calving season so there’ll be more soon—and some of them live off in the eastern forest.” Rose nods towards a particularly dense cluster of trees on one side of the valley, near the larger of the two rising suns.

 

“Bees are the same,” Brixie tells her. “Matriarchal, I mean. The hive is organized around the queen.”

 

The look Rose shoots Brixie is so appreciative and full of fascination that it makes Rey blush.

 

“As it should be,” Gozetta sniffs.

 

“Hmph,” is Poe’s droll response, from somewhere in the back of the group. Gozetta shushes him.

 

They’ve come close enough to the herd to be able to spot previously indistinguishable details on the fathiers: the dark stripe of fur that grows down their flat noses, the wispy tufts of white at the edges of their ears. The tawny luster of their coats. Their long switching tails, which mostly serve to swat away flies.

 

“See the one with the scar? She’s the boss,” Finn informs them. He points towards the biggest fathier in the herd, whose head reaches just slightly higher than the other adults. A series of deep, painful-looking scars ring her neck and shoulders, even branching up and across her dainty snout.

 

Rey winces at the sight. “What happened to her?”

 

“A lifetime of racing,” Rose answers, a hardened angry edge to her voice. “That’s how they were all treated—she just endured it for the longest.”

 

“Horrific,” murmurs the Captain, at last breaking his silence. He and Brixie are not walking together, she notices. Brixie has flocked to Rose’s side, maybe a little fascinated herself.

 

Rey turns to him, studying the jagged healed scar that traverses his own face. She doesn’t mean for her eyes to linger, so she is more than a little embarrassed when he catches her staring. His brows furrow, and she whirls back towards the fathiers.

 

She wants to reach out and touch it, touch him, but she does not dare; she shoves her hands deep in the pocket of her wool coat, just in case she loses all sense and considers giving in to that urge.

 

Rose lets out a long sigh. When she finally speaks, it is cheerfully, and on a different topic.

 

“I need to make a run to the Outpost today and stock up on supplies, just some foodstuffs. And sell the wool we’ve sheared, now that summer is here. And buy some beer—much as I love the koyo wine you brought, thank you very much Commander Dameron,” here she winks at Poe, who performs a silly little bow, “I’m more of a beer girl myself. Oh! And James needs some supplies.”

 

“James?” asks Gozetta, frowning.

 

“The vet droid,” Finn explains. “He’s off tagging a couple of the new males Rose got last week.”

 

Poe pipes up, addressing Rose: “Hey, why don’t we all go to the Outpost? I, for one, would like to finally see Oga Garra's cantina up close.”

 

There is a general murmur of agreement; Poe offers up Pathfinder, and within twenty minutes of returning to Rose’s homestead, Rey finds herself once more strapped into a seat aboard the Dameron family's light freighter, hurtling back over the sea, over the towering black spires— gleaming today, still wet from yesterday’s rainfall— back towards civilization.

 

For one wild second, she hopes that she can steal a moment with the Captain aboard the ship. She’d like to speak to him, maybe. She might be ready, or very nearly ready, to say some of the things that have been on her mind.

 

But he assumes the position of Poe’s co-pilot, and does not speak to anyone but Poe for the duration of the flight.

 

 

. . .

 

 

After receiving clearance from the Outpost’s traffic controllers, Poe puts them down on Docking Bay Nine. They descend in the turbolift from the elevated platform, and step out directly into a labyrinth of shaded streets paved with broken pieces of the same rough black timber-turned-stone that looms high above their heads.

 

If the marketplace at Niima Outpost was rough and tumble but familiar, and the air conditioned environs of the Hanna City Mall or the bright neon bustle of the Old Hannatown Market were intimidating, the Merchant Row of Black Spire Outpost is some combination of them all.

 

The alleys are shady, protected from both rain and Batuu’s two suns by the stretched canvas that covers them. The population is clearly comprised of denizens of the rougher trades— pirates and smugglers and bounty hunters strut the narrow lanes without subterfuge— but the merchandise available is endless, ranging from the innocuous to the obviously illegal. Toys, weapons, food, pleasure, gambling, spice, alcohol, ship parts, entire ships… it seems to Rey, as the group moseys up one alley and down another, that there is nothing that cannot be bought on Batuu for the right price.

 

She is exiting a toy store, of all places— in whose window Gozetta spied a new model of starfighter toy that she insisted her sons must have— arm-in-arm and chatting with her sister, when it happens.

 

Across the passageway there is a rolling cart operated by an elderly Human woman, who is barking out a promotion of her wares. As Rey steps out onto the uneven rock-hewn road, she spots a man standing by that cart, holding a metal thermos. His posture is ramrod straight, one arm tucked behind his back, as he tips his head back and drinks. He is sharply dressed in a black wool trench coat and boots, his hands gloved in black leather.

 

After he has drank his fill, his eyes, blue-green like the sea, gravitate towards Rey. And on her they remain, long past the point of politeness.

 

Rey returns his gaze, at first because she does not realize she is the subject, then once she does, because she cannot comprehend the reason for it. There is something familiar in his tall, lanky build, in his rigid posture, and in the sneering smile that teases at his mouth. He is unmistakably alert to his surroundings, head turning this way and that to watch the passersby. Even the devastatingly sharp side part of his coppery hair speaks to Rey of a personality both inflexible and exacting.

 

He looks to be a man who is very arrogant, and at the same time, is always on his guard against ambush. Ready to bite at any moment, regardless of the severity of the threat of being bitten.

 

But his eyes glow with interest, as he rakes them up and down Rey’s body.

 

Rey is the one to look away first; she finds her face strangely heated. Who is he to look at her, a stranger, like that? And why does he look so familiar to her?

 

Something nags at her, a memory long since set aside, but she cannot quite grasp it.

 

“Armitage Hux,” Rose says in her ear, voice pitched low. “He’s an executive at Jinata Security, a private security firm that does a lot of business here in the Outer Rim. A real big deal, supposedly, although he still spends plenty of time down here in the grime with the rest of us commoners, doing who knows what.”

 

The group moves onwards up the alley, but her curiosity gets the better of her, so Rey spares one more backwards glance at this Armitage Hux character. His eyes still follow her, and his lip is curled— in distaste or attraction, she cannot be sure.

 

When she turns forward once more, she discovers that Captain Solo has silently been watching all of this unfold. Brows knitted, mouth downturned, his gaze flicks back to Armitage, then returns to her. He nods his head, ever so slightly. Slightly enough that perhaps the nod is not meant for Rey, but only for himself.

 

And though he continues walking without comment, it is obvious that he has missed nothing.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Oga Garra's cantina puts Ergel’s bar to shame. It’s a windowless establishment built in a hollowed-out chamber within one of the countless spires around the Outpost, accessible only by a spiraling set of stairs that rise within its tall, narrow confines. The place is warm, probably halfway to full occupancy; many of Batuu’s residents and visitors are taking advantage of its dark cool refuge on this sunny afternoon.

 

A large circular bar in the center of the cantina, decorated with the same neon glowpanels as those that illuminate the cantina from the ceiling, is manned by three bartenders. The clientele is as varied in species as the bar is in the hundreds of bottles that sit on the many, many shelves behind the bartenders.

 

But there is no menu to be seen. As Rose informs them, one simply walks up to the bar and orders. Whatever they request, Oga Garra is sure to have on hand.

 

Poe, Brixie, and the Captain do just that while the others make their way around the bar, seeking an open table. They luck upon one, nestled in the wall at the other end of the cantina, and quickly snag it for their group.

 

Within a minute of sitting, Finn and Gozetta become involved in a debate over centrist versus populist government— a new favorite point of contention for her, since she began the Modes of Democracy module in her course— and, hopelessly lost in the sea of planets and systems they’re discussing, Rey turns to offer Rose a hopeful smile.

 

It’s as much of an opening as Rose needs. “Hey, uh—what’s Brixie’s—deal?” she asks lightly.

 

“Deal?” Rey shakes her head, not following.

 

“Her and Ben…?”

 

“Oh, I—I don’t know. You’d have to ask her,” she demurs.

 

Rose narrows her eyes, staring across the cantina. “Well, she’s Poe’s little sister, so I trust that she’s a good person. It’s just…”

 

“She is,” Rey assures her. “She’s a good person.”

 

“But is she a good person for Ben?” Rose presses, with an arched brow.

 

Panicked at the thought of revealing too much, Rey clutches the edge of the booth's cushion. Sputtering, she manages, “I—er, I can’t—can’t be the judge of that, I don’t think.”

 

“Well, I’ve known him through Finn for years, and I think I can safely say—I don’t see it.” Rose shrugs. “He’s so… look, I really like Brixie. I mean, trust me, I really like her. But she’s so… I dunno. Their dynamic confuses me.”

 

“Why is that?” Rey ventures, breathless from the vines of hope tightening around her lungs.

 

But she doesn’t get an answer; the rest of their party has joined them, pushing into the semi-circular booth with drinks procured, and Rose merely shakes her head, abandoning the subject. Because Rey was the last to sit in the booth, beside Rose and across from Finn and Gozetta, it is she who is now pushed inward by the Captain. Across the round table, Poe and Brixie shove in next to her sister. Once everyone has a frosty mug of Batuu Brew in hand, there is a toast, and a lull while they all take a few swigs.

 

He is sitting next to her. Their thighs are touching.

 

Her mouth has gone dry. Her heart is beating so loudly she wonders if he can hear it over the lively jizz-wail tunes being pumped out of the cantina’s countless speakers. Her breaths are labored, short, and shallow.

 

His arm brushes hers when he brings his brew to his lips and drinks deeply. She does the same, though her nervousness makes it difficult to swallow properly, and some spills down her chin. She is so close to him, nearly cuddling like they used to in the booth of the Falcon, and yet they are so far, not speaking, not looking at one another.

 

But maybe they could.

 

After wiping her chin dry, she sneaks a sidelong peek at him, and finds him once again watching her, as he was in earlier the alley. Unprepared for that, she jerks her head in the other direction and pretends to be utterly fascinated in a swoop race unfurling on one of the many holoscreens adorning the walls.

 

“What do you mean, you don’t come here often?” Brixie bursts out, looking appalled. “Cute thing like you? I’d be in here all the time, just for the fun of it. I bet you could find anything you were looking for… if you know what I mean.” She winks theatrically for effect.

 

“Who, me?” Rose titters.

 

“Yeah, you, crumblebun,” Brixie volleys back, also giggling, her brew already half-finished. “You’re cute as a button.”

 

Rose lets out a delighted, shrieking cackle. “Oh stop!” She pauses long enough to smirk and flutter her lashes. “Okay, go on.”

 

“This does seem to be the most interesting place onworld,” Gozetta remarks haughtily, interrupting the exchange.

 

Rey stifles her own laugh at that, at her sister’s ingrained snobbiness, and across the table, she sees Poe do the same. Again she feels his eyes cut towards her, and remain there, but she keeps hers trained on Rose and Brixie as they begin tossing out increasingly salacious evening plans.

 

The oddest thing happens, however, when she does finally dare to look his way again. He’s staring down into the dark golden depths of his brew, quietly spinning the mug in slow revolutions, and there is a faint, fond smile quirking up one side of his lush mouth.

 

He doesn’t seem perturbed by Rose’s and Brixie’s flirtations, not in the least. Taking advantage of his distraction, she gapes at his scar, once again struck by the need to reach out and touch it. Suddenly, as if it is he who has felt her eyes on him, he looks up, directly into her eyes. Screwing up her courage, Rey does her best to smile at him.

 

To her utter shock, he returns it, before turning to scan the crowded cantina.

 

“We saw that man at the market, didn’t we?” he interjects, over the table’s giggling rehash of past dates gone awry. The question is directed to everyone, yet Rey cannot help feeling that it’s really only meant for her. When their eyes meet once more, he cants his head in the direction of said man.

 

There, standing stiffly with one elbow propped on the bar in an awkward attempt at a lean, is the tall redhead who was staring at her in the Merchant Row. Armitage Hux. He’s staring now as well, again without subtlety. And again, Rey is surprised— maybe she should not be, but she finds that she is— that when he locks eyes with her, he bends forward in what is unmistakably a bow.

 

Shocked, Rey spins back around in her seat, blushing.

 

It’s hard to say why the gesture has shocked her. It could be the courtesy of it. Or it could be that Rey remembers now— remembers why he looks familiar.

 

Here is what comes back to her: a bunker half-buried in a dune, in which there lives an Abednedo named Mashra. Her mother, or the closest thing she could remember having to one in her nineteen years of life. A scalding cup of herbal tea, an argument, a shocking truth revealed. A holoprojection of a news bulletin. And at the tail end of it, when her world had been shattered and she was watching in numb horror, a quick clip of a funeral procession. Six men carrying a coffin out of a temple, down an austerely clean road on a distant planet called Arkanis.

 

Brendol Hux’s funeral.

 

Armitage had been there. She remembers now, seeing his pinched face among the pallbearers.

 

Hadn’t he been in formal military dress at the time, in clean bright New Republic whites?

 

Rey licks her lips, mind racing frantically to work through this. Could she be misremembering? Surely not. They share a last name, and there’d been a picture of the deceased First Order officer— they’d practically shared the same face. No, this is not coincidence and she has not mistaken his identity. He must have left the military at some point between then and now. And… he joined the private sector?

 

Stranger things have happened, she supposes.

 

Everyone around her erupts into laughter at some joke she has not heard. Rey looks again to the bar. Still he is eying her. He grins, when he sees her doing the same to him. If pressed, she would be torn between describing his countenance as lecherous, scornful, or teasing. It is all three, and maybe that’s why it unsettles her.

 

And yet, she dips her head belatedly in response to his bow.

 

And yet, when he raises that same metal thermos to her— filled with who knows what— then tips it back, she does the same.

 

And yet, maybe against her instincts, she is flattered by his attention, long after he has turned and swept out of the cantina, thermos in hand.

 

It’s not that she found him particularly handsome or enthralling, only… she’s received so little of that kind of attention in her life.

 

When she wrangles her thoughts, tuning back in to her party, they are arguing over the performance of one holostar versus another in some holofilm she has not seen. She knows the Captain is watching her again, can feel his eyes boring into her. A deep breath, and she meets them. They are unwavering, riveted to her face.

 

As in the alley, he has missed none of what has occurred.

 

And what’s more, there is something in his searching gaze, his pursed lips, his raised brows, that suggests that he might, in fact, be in complete agreement with the redheaded stranger’s high opinion of her.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“I just… I miss her so much,” Rose warbles.

 

Brixie, slumped over with her cheek in her palm, nods blearily. “It’s the same for me and Terena.”

 

She and Brixie and Rey are sitting around the kitchen table many hours later, the only ones still awake beside Finn and the Captain, who are have disappeared. Gone for a walk, the three of them surmise.

 

They’re a little inebriated. Just a little. Just enough to lower their defenses, just enough to invoke a confessional, intimate atmosphere around the rough-hewn wooden table.

 

Rose continues, “Pae-pae was always my hero. I looked to her for so many things, and without her, I’ve just felt so…”

 

“Lost,” Rey offers.

 

“Yeah. This—break up, I guess you’d call it—with Finn, it hasn’t made things easier.”

 

“What happened?” asks Brixie, also speaking softly. Maybe the most softly Rey has ever heard. She lays one sun-kissed hand on Rose’s paler one, which elicits a sad smile from their host.

 

“He’s not—you know where he came from, right? How he was—raised, if you can call it that? He’s not someone who can sit around caring for fathiers.” Rose shakes her head. “I’m tired, guys. I’m tired of war. I’m tired of the politics of the galaxy. Finn isn’t. I just want to protect something, I want to do this one good thing. I think—he’d never agree with this, so just between us—but I think fighting is the only thing he thinks he’s any good at. Not being a soldier, but… fighting for others, I guess. Protecting something, but… in his own way?”  

 

Brixie huffs. “But can’t you—”

 

“It’s just… the distance. The reconstruction effort is going to be in full-swing for a long time. And Finn wants to be a part of that. I get that, I do, but I just…”

 

Rey winces, understanding all too well.

 

“Sometimes making the choice we think is best…” she starts, before the words seem to choke her. She takes a deep breath, and grits out, “Whether or not the ones we love agree… can be…” Another fraught pause. “…Very painful,” she finally manages.

 

Rose face crumples. “Did you—”

 

“Yes,” she cuts across, not wanting to belabor the point, “a—a long time ago.”

 

“I’m so sorry,” Rose says mournfully.

 

Brixie frowns. “I didn’t know that, Rey.” She lays her free hand atop Rey’s. “Is it someone we know?”

 

She’s not very good at lying. Her face usually gives her away. It’s easier for her to demur, and distract, than it is to out-and-out dissemble. It always has been. But the thought of admitting that the great lost love of her life is the same man with whom Brixie has spent weeks flirting will do no favors to anyone at this table. It would hurt her to admit as much as it would hurt Brixie to hear, she thinks.

 

And she bears no resentment towards the younger woman, for being unaware of her feelings, for chasing her own happiness.

 

So Rey does something she rarely does: she lies.

 

“No,” she says, with as straight a face as she can. Brixie nods sympathetically.

 

With a click of her tongue, Rose declares, “Whoever they were, they were an idiot to give you up.” Before she can sputter out a denial to that, Rose prompts, “What did you do, after? I mean—this is my first—big break up, I guess. What comes next?”  

 

“I just… kept going. I worked, I slept, I ate. I was—I was on Jakku then, waiting for my family. And eventually, they—well, they returned.”

 

Rey looks down at Brixie’s hand on hers, swallowing heavily. Brixie gives it a squeeze and mutters, “Lucky you.”

 

She cannot be sure if Brixie is referring sarcastically to Rey's family, or mournfully to her own. Maybe the response is double-edged.

“Hey, be nice,” Rose chides gently. “Gozetta’s not so bad. She and Poe are kinda cute together. When they're not squabbling.”

 

Rey looks up, curious as to Brixie’s thoughts. The younger woman gives a beleaguered groan, then laughs at herself. “Ugh… okay, maybe… Gozetta is okay. I just wish she had told me years ago that she was such a killer sabacc player! I guess she can stay. The rest of ‘em, though—”

 

“I drew a lot too,” Rey blurts out, not wanting to get any deeper into the subject of her family.

 

“Hm?” both women ask, in harmony.

 

“After…” she wavers, but only for a second. “After everything. I would sketch for hours.”

 

The mood swings back towards serious.

 

“Me too,” Rose admits. “I do that. Mechanical drawings mostly, ideas I have for machines here on the island. And—” she pauses to swing her arm out at the artwork around her home, “all of this stuff. But some days it’s hard—some days the ideas don’t come. And I just sit in front of a blank piece of paper, or a bunch of materials I found, and I can’t think of a single thing I feel like creating.”

 

Rey nods. “I like to sketch natural things. It’s… less demanding, more room for messiness and mistakes.” Another second of hesitation follows, in which she recalls how honest the other two have been; guilt strikes at her, for lying to them. So she confesses, “It feels like… a communion, between me and the world around me. It helps, on those days when I feel disconnected. Which can be… often.”

 

“I’ll give it a shot,” Rose replies, her expression turned thoughtful. “It's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels that way.”

 

“Me three.” Brixie’s smile is slightly brittle. “Ever since—Terena. I just—smile, and laugh, and keep going. What else can I do? My parents need that from me.”

 

“You’re a good sister.” Rey’s voice is fainter than she’d like, but full of conviction. “And a good daughter.”

 

“Not half as good as you, Rey.”

 

She shakes her head, mumbling a protest.

 

Rose huffs out a laugh. “It’s okay! You’re allowed to take the compliment.”

 

“I’m a little rusty at that, but… thank you,” Rey manages, lips wobbling. “Let’s just—we have all done our best, as sisters.”

 

It’s not clear who is the first to whimper. But it is Brixie who hiccups, voice unsteady, “Rose Tico, by the eternal core, if you cry—I’m going to cry.”

 

“I don’t think I can help it,” Rose mutters, eyes welling.

 

Brixie lets out a soft, sad sob. “All right that’s it! Group hug. Both of you get in here, now.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, much later, when they have dried their eyes and scrounged up some protato-based junk food, then relocated from the table to the rumpled sofas, Rey notices something. One of the living room’s large windows has been left slightly ajar, letting in the mild night air. And sitting right outside that open window, in two fibergrown lounge chairs, are Finn and the Captain.

 

It’s so dark outside, she almost misses them. They might have gotten away with hiding out there indefinitely, if not for the light from the lanterns in the house spilling out over them.

 

She doesn’t hear them speaking. And as she steals glimpses of them while they carry on inside, she becomes more and more convinced that this is because they have been listening in on Rey, Brixie, and Rose’s conversation.

 

Of the two, it’s the Captain’s face that Rey’s eyes keep drifting towards. Even half cast in shadow, she can tell his normally plush lips are pressed together tightly. His dark eyes are troubled, or so she thinks, when he gives one quick look back through the window at her, before resuming his apparently enthralled perusal of the starry sky.

 

She thinks about that look, a lot. For a long time after.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The next afternoon, when everyone else seems to be have wandered off in pursuit of their own entertainment, Rey takes her old sketchbook and heads out into the valley, with the idea of drawing some of the fathiers. She doesn’t get far before she stumbles upon Finn, who— with the assistance of the vet droid, J8-MS— is gently tagging the ears of a pair newborn fathier calves.

 

Its mother looks on nervously, stamping its hooved feet. So huge is the beast, standing about three meters high at the shoulder and densely muscled, that Rey thinks she can feel slight reverberations in the ground each time its hoof makes contact.

 

It’s a delicate balance on this island, as in all things. Fathiers and banthas, neither domestic nor wild, attempting to live in peace with a Human and her droids. Yet Rose seems to handle it with ease.

 

Finn looks up as she nears. “Rey, hi!”

 

“Hullo,” she murmurs, watching as the now-tagged calves lunge up onto their thin wobbly legs. They bleat for their mother until she swoops in to do a sniffing inspection of them. After handing off the supplies to J8-MS, who trills out a few directives before retreating back to the homestead, Finn turns his attention to Rey.

 

“Cute, aren’t they? Wish I could be around more for this kind of thing. This is the fun part of keeping a fathier sanctuary.”

 

For a moment, Rey watches. The matriarch turns, leading them back towards some safer, less exposed part of the plains, and prancing, craning their tiny heads up to receive her snuffled affections, they follow.

 

Rey wonders if she was cared for like that, when she was small. Did she ever feel safe enough to play, as children are meant to? Ergel had showed her holos of her with her sisters when he returned, but she has only the vaguest memory of those times.

 

“You okay?”

 

“I was just—” She shifts from foot to foot, clutching her sketchbook to her chest. “Going for a walk, if you’d like to join me.”

 

He smiles, wide and bright. “I’d love to. Where’re we walking?”

 

“I should ask you that, I think.”

 

“There’s a small lake over that way,” he says, tipping his head towards the eastern side of the valley. “The fathiers like to gather there in the afternoon. Some of the banthas, too.” He eyes the sketchbook, then smirks. “Good subjects, maybe?”

 

“Right then, sounds perfect.” She returns his smile, cheered by the prospect of an afternoon well-spent.

 

 

. . .

 

 

They’ve been traipsing through the high grass for about a half an hour, exchanging bland bits of their personal histories, getting to know each other, when Rey finally finds the tenacity to blurt:

 

“How did you do it, Finn? How did you just… leave it all behind?”

 

He sighs, not needing any clarification to know exactly what she means. “It was during Ovanis, my first real battle. Poe’s probably told you, that’s where we intercepted him. And where I broke him out, later. When I defected.”

 

Rey nods.

 

“All around me, my brothers-in-arms were killing Resistance soldiers. Killing innocents, too—the Crèche, and Ottegans and Trandoshans. Even killing these giant glowy flying creatures—I don’t know the name for them, but I know they definitely weren’t fighting us, they were just trying to get the Humans to safety. Protecting their own.”

 

“Oh,” she gasps. Finn’s face is creased in consternation at the memory. She doesn’t want to interrupt, but she regrets asking him now, and wishes she could tell him to forget it.

 

“I knew right then I wasn’t a soldier,” he goes on. “Didn’t matter that I was raised that way, I just… knew that wasn’t me. And it was never gonna be me.”

 

“I had a chance, once,” she confesses, pushing the words out before she can second guess herself. “To leave everything behind, and move towards something good. A happy life. Or—I’m convinced it would’ve been. At the time, I wasn’t so sure.”

 

She turns her head to hide her furious blinking— an attempt to stave off her tears. It feels good, to say that out loud to someone impartial who wasn’t there. It’s painful, but a good kind of painful. A relieved kind of painful.

 

In a subdued tone, he remarks, “I’m guessing you didn’t take it.”

 

For a moment, it hurts too much to reply. Finally, she manages:

 

“No, I… didn’t.”

 

Even just those three words are enough to make her voice crack. It all comes rushing back: the jogan fruit, the nights spent in her hammock, the way they touched each other, the way his father smiled approvingly at them, all the unspoken promise of those heady days they shared together. The promise of belonging, dangled in front of her face. And that undercurrent of fear, wretched fear, that spun her head around, that confused her.

 

That dissuaded her.

 

“Oh, Finn,” she sobs. “I didn’t. I stayed. I was… I was young. I was so young. And my decision was—a trusted family friend—an Abednedo who—she was like my mother, I barely remembered my real mother, and I—I thought—I just—” Her words come to a sputtering, faltering end. She’s crying too hard to go on.

 

Relief and pain. She’s swamped by both, after gritting out this confession to a man who barely knows her. Who, she hopes, will keep this secret for her.

 

A pair of solid arms wrap around her, and then she is being pulled into his embrace. “C’mere,” he murmurs. “You’re okay. No judgement, okay? I never really had a family either, besides my fellow ‘troopers. But that was… it was different, I can’t explain it. I didn’t really feel like I belonged until Rose.”

 

“I belonged. I belonged with them.” She’s shaking, from adrenaline and regret and relief. “I chose wrong, Finn. I let myself be… I didn’t…”

 

She presses her face against his chest, letting the tears wrack her body. It hurts, a bitter ache in her throat and her chest and her gut, to say these things aloud. And yet the relief is there, too.

 

Speaking into his shirt, she goes on. “I thought I was doing the right thing—I thought I was protecting someone. From becoming something they—they—they hated, and feared, and—”

 

“It’s okay, Rey,” he repeats. His hand gently runs up and down her back. “Who knows? Maybe that other choice would’ve led to more pain, huh? Listen. Listen to me, Rey.” He tilts back far enough to catch Rey’s eyes. “You’re good, okay? You’re a good person. I know we haven’t known each other very long, but… I’m confident that you are. You’re good.”

 

“I can’t forgive myself,” she mumbles wetly. “I’ve tried to, and I can’t.” She knows she must look a mess, but Finn only seems concerned with comforting her. For that, she is grateful. “But I want to. I want to move forward.”

 

“That’s the first step, isn’t it? You gotta want to move forward before you can.”

 

He offers her a sympathetic smile, his own eyes wet. She sniffles right as another sob bursts free, and his arms tighten around her. Acquiescing to the unspoken invitation, she drops her face back onto his chest, and allows the sorrow to overtake her. He continues rubbing her back and murmuring hushed, consoling words as she weeps.

 

For a while, that is how they remain.

 

 

. . .

 

 

When Rey’s tears have subsided and she has collected herself, and they’ve made their way to the lake’s edge, settling in side-by-side on its grassy banks, she puts forth one more personal question.

 

“Why are you and Rose… taking a break?”

 

He sighs and swats at a bothersome fly with a reed he’s plucked. Rey sticks hers between her teeth, gnawing idly on it while she waits for him to answer.

 

“It’s something we agreed on,” he says at length. “For both our sakes. My life is about to get crazy. I’ll be on Hosnian Prime for the foreseeable future. And she’ll be here.”

 

Rey squints against the lake’s bright reflection of Batuu’s suns. There is a stream that feeds into it, and its burbling serves as soundtrack to the hot afternoon. A few adult fathiers and their young are indeed gathered at the lake’s shores, drinking. Not far from Rey and Finn, a bantha has plodded close to do the same. A flutter of magenta butterflies drifts past before landing in a nearby tree. Beyond it, she can see their trampled path through the grass. And in the distance, she can just make out Rose’s home, under the shadow of the crater’s peaks.

 

A tall figure, she notices, is setting out alone from the house; painstakingly, they pick their way along a trail that ascends the grassy foothills of the crater’s peaks.

 

It’s the Captain. She recognizes the broad span of his shoulders, his solid build, his long legs, his dark hair. But why is he alone?

 

Nevermind. For the time being, she sets that concern to the side.

 

“I think she’s still hurt, though,” she comments to Finn, gently as she can.

 

He swallows, then nods. “I can’t tell you how it hurts me, to add to her pain like that. After Paige… well, we’ve depended on each other a lot, over the years. But Rose has a life for herself here! A good one—one she’s always wanted. And for the next few years—five, at least—I’ll be stuck between Hosnian Prime and Chandrila and Coruscant, with only brief visits out to Batuu. We talked about it. It was tough, but… the distance, our obligations. It’s just too much.”

 

Now it is Finn who is blinking, looking down at the reed he twirls between his fingers. She rests a questioning hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, we don’t have to—are you alright?”

 

“I’m sad,” he replies, without hesitation. Rey frowns, but he only shrugs. “I’ll be honest, I am. But this is important to me. She knows that. And if we find our way back to each other some day, then… it was meant to be.”

 

“And… if you don’t?” she wonders.

 

He coughs out a dry, joyless laugh. “You see the way she was looking at Brixie? She’ll be okay. She’s resilient like that. Nobody’s tougher than my Rose.”

 

“The galaxy is so tough on lovers, and on love.” Rey transfers the reed to her hands, where she rolls it between her palms. Its green taste clings to her tongue, bitter and bright. “It seems like too often, love gets ground away into nothing.”

 

“Hey, not all the time, right?” counters Finn. “Not for the Skywalkers, not for the Damerons. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes… it’s about endurance. And patience.”

 

Rey gives a weary shrug and lets her head droop down to rest atop her bent knees.

 

Having climbed about a hundred meters, the Captain has stopped. She watches silently for a moment; he lowers himself down to a crouch on the mountainside, looking out into the valley. He’s just a speck, and yet, it’s almost as if she can feel his ragged breathlessness, the perspiration beading his brow and back. Can he see her and Finn? Is he watching them? Does he know what they’re discussing? Does he suspect?

 

She allows herself a ludicrous notion, just for a moment: is he jealous?

 

“Sometimes it feels like all I have left is my patience,” she says at last, tearing her eyes away from his distant figure.

 

“Yeah,” sighs Finn, with an understanding nod. “I know exactly what you mean.”

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

“He was the one who told me about Paige,” Rose tells Rey, out of the blue— in a way that seems to be both confession and declaration— when they are laying outside on a blanket that night, after Rey and Finn have returned to the house and the whole group has eaten a late dinner.

 

She and Rose are sprawled out side by side. The high grasses cordon them off from the others like a swaying curtain.

 

They have been speaking thoughtfully for a while in low voices, as nights of stargazing compel people to do, although the exchange had trailed off minutes earlier. Somewhere not too far off, Rey can hear the burbling of one of the valley’s smaller rivers passing them by. The night is cool, but not cold. She’s never had any of this before; laying under a ponderous night sky with friends, small and insignificant yet utterly secure. Dressed in a thick wool sweater and leggings, and wrapped in one of the many bantha wool blankets Rose distributed before they all trooped out here, she feels comfortable. At peace.

 

She hears Brixie let out a giggle in the distance, and the Captain’s low voice rumbles something in reply. That peacefulness ebbs, ever so slightly.

 

“Who?” she asks Rose.

 

The sky is framed by the jagged brow of the crater that rings its way around them. A buttery yellow sliver of moon sits low in the east, but otherwise above them there is only the glittering vault of the cosmos— a cosmos very different from the one she used to peer up at from the top of her AT-AT on Jakku.

 

The sugared fragrance of the delia pavorum blossoms— Rose had mentioned that they bloom only twice a summer, once at its start and once at its end, and the first blooming is already fading— mingles with the scent of herbaceous grass. Rey breathes them both in deeply. She wiggles her bare toes, delighting in the tickle of the cool blades against them.

 

“Four years ago, or just about. I was working aboard the Corellian Hound,” Rose answers, on a sigh. “The battle of D’Qar had been won, or at least, we’d successfully driven the First Order fleet away from the planet, but Paige had been… lost, in the final bombing run. She’d been on the Raddus, with Finn and Poe, which had already called back all its fighters and made the jump out of there. I had other friends of course, but… it was Ben—I still knew him as Captain Solo back then—he found me, and broke the news about Paige. He didn’t have to. Edge knows he probably had more important things to be doing.”

 

Rey doesn’t know what to say to that, so she hums, faint and sympathetic.

 

“He was so considerate, so much kinder than he had to be, as my commanding officer.” She can hear Rose’s sad sniffle. “That meant… so much to me.”

 

“Of course,” she says.

 

“It still does.”

 

She nods, only to remember that Rose cannot see her. “Yes,” she sighs. “I understand.”

 

“I just wish…” Rose pauses, then dips from a hushed tone to a whisper, not much louder than the breeze rustling the grass. “I wish I could return the favor. He’s a very private person. Very serious, not really a joker. Not one to laugh, you know? Always has been. But… I think there’s something else going on these days. Finn and I have talked about it. Maybe it’s Brixie? Maybe he just doesn’t know what to do with himself, now that the war is over? I dunno.”

 

“Has he,” she swallows, willing her voice not to shake, “really changed so much, since you saw him last?”

 

“Dramatically,” is Rose’s simple response. Simple, but effective. It leaves Rey breathless, as if she’s taken a hit directly to the solar plexus.

 

The bell, screams her heart. She digs her nails into her palm, trying to calm herself. It’s Brixie. He’s changed because of Brixie, because of their burgeoning relationship. Or the war. Or something else— she doesn’t know the minutiae of his life. It’s nothing.

 

“Oh,” she musters, proud of getting even that much out.

 

Her mind races on ahead, and they lapse back into comfortable silence. Not long after, she hears a snuffling wheeze from Rose; when she props herself up on one elbow to check on her, Rey discovers that she has fallen asleep. She rolls onto her back once more, and sinks deeper into contemplation.

 

Above them, the stars slink across the sky and the moon begins to climb.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Rey, James is going to show me how to milk the banthas today,” Brixie declares the next morning, after they are all gathered around the kitchen table. She shoots her a pointed look, loaded with meaning. “Wanna help?”

 

Rey pauses mid-bite of her toast, the cup of caf in her hand frozen halfway between the table and her lips.

 

“…Sure?” she replies, not yet fully awake. She shrugs and smiles sleepily at the younger woman, to which Brixie nods, looking satisfied.

 

So it happens that an hour later, she strides off through the swaying grass with Brixie, following the wheeled vet droid, who leads them back toward the lake where she and Finn sat the day before.

 

“What do you think of Rose?” asks Brixie abruptly, when they’ve roamed what she must deem a safe distance from the house.

 

“She’s lovely,” Rey says.

 

To this, Brixie huffs her agreement. “Yes, she is.”

 

There’s a meditative breathiness to her words that gives Rey pause. “Are you… having second thoughts, about—about—”

 

“Hm?” Brixie glances over, and frowns at the sight of Rey’s struggle. “About?”

 

Rey grits her teeth. “The Captain?” she makes herself ask.

 

“Oh, I don’t… know. Is that bad? Maybe I like both of them. That’s probably bad, isn’t it?”

 

“No!” It comes out louder than she’d meant, like a frantic yelp. Rey sucks in a calming breath then adds, “I don’t—I don’t think so, Brixie. I don’t know if you can have both, but… there’s nothing wrong with liking both.”

 

“Ben’s brave. And handsome. And a hero,” Brixie reflects, brow furrowing as she speaks, “but sometimes I feel like… he’s distracted? Or something. And Rose is brave and handsome and a hero, too. Well—maybe not handsome.” She gives a dismissive wave of her hand. “But you know what I mean.”

 

“Cute?” prompts Rey.

 

“Adorable,” she sighs. “And we get along, really well.”

 

“Yes, you do,” Rey says, stifling a chuckle. She looks down at her booted feet, minding her steps lest she end up in a pile of bantha dung.

 

“Brixie,” she starts, a moment later, “You have… time. You’re young. You don’t have to make some final decision right this minute. You can just—” Rey just about chokes on the words, but she must say them, she must be better to Brixie than life was to her, she must not let the younger woman make her mistakes…

 

“You’re allowed to just enjoy yourself right now.”

 

Brixie pouts. “But that’s not me. I want love, real love, the kind that keeps you up at night and puts butterflies in your stomach and makes you do all sorts of crazy things. And commitment. Like the Skywalkers! I want to know where I stand—I don’t want to dither along, not knowing how I feel or how somebody feels about me.” She shakes her head, repeating, “That’s not me!”

 

“I know,” says Rey, in a neutral tone, wearing a bland smile. And she does; she can see how badly Brixie wants the kind of love she herself once had. It makes her worry for the younger woman, but she holds her tongue, and remarks instead, “I doubt you’ll want for suitors—suitors who’d be more than happy to offer you that sort of thing.”

 

“Oh, you.” Brixie titters, threading her arm through Rey’s.

 

And then the time for talk of love has ended, because J8-MS has led them to the small herd of recently-shorn banthas, who shuffle anxiously from side to side in anticipation of being milked, and there is work to be done, and only novices to do it— so their full concentration is required.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The week passes, as all weeks must.

 

Finn is gone as often as he is around, zooming off in his diplomatic shuttle early most mornings, spending long days at the Outpost where he meets with his constituents and prepares himself to step into his position as their senator.

 

Brixie and Rose quickly become thick as thieves, and usually pull Rey and Gozetta into some game or competition or debate they’ve cooked up. Rey is happy to be included, though she never knows whether Gozetta will roll her eyes and sequester herself in her borrowed bedroom with her datapad and the claim that she needs to study, or join in the fun as well. It seems to be about an even split.

 

He mostly keeps his distance. When he speaks, it is always in that low, serious way of his, and it is always with Poe or Finn or Brixie or Rose— or even Gozetta, on the one occasion they manage some kind of civil exchange of ideas, and he seems impressed, perhaps chastened, to hear she is taking steps to educate herself— but never with Rey.

 

And yet she feels his eyes on her. And yet his handsome face maintains that thoughtful, troubled air, whenever she catches him in the act of watching her. Or vice versa.

 

But he is not fully to blame for his reticence, is he? Rey can no more procure the words to bridge the divide between than he can.

 

Sometimes it seems narrower, sometimes wider, sometimes deeper, sometimes so shallow and small that it would take no more than one step to overcome it, if only one of them could just work up the nerve to do so.

 

But they do not, in the days that pass.

 

And no matter what their separate or shared perception of the divide’s severity may be, it is always undeniably there.

 

 

. . .

 

 

One afternoon, when Rose and Brixie have taken themselves on a ramble through the valley's small forest, an excursion from which she has begged off with a vague excuse about a migraine, Rey wanders instead towards the assortment of starships that sit parked near Rose's home.

 

There’s Pathfinder, of course, and the depression in the grass where Finn’s staid, stately shuttle usually rests. And alongside them is his craft, the sleek silvery ship the Captain had arrived in with Lando for that first dinner at the Great House.

 

Furtively, Rey glances around. Seeing no one, she draws closer, curious about its make and model.

 

A yacht, she thinks, guessing purely by the size and pleasing aesthetic. Entranced in her study of the hull, doing her best to ignore the distorted reflection of her face in its mirror-like surface, she makes a complete circuit around the ship, in search of a chink or crevice where she might pull it open and inspect its guts a little.

 

She can’t find a single one. It’s seamless, as if a single bead of mercury has been stretched into the shape of a starship, pointy nose and wings and all.

 

Nightbloomer. X-type Nubian yacht,” rumbles a deep voice, his voice, startling her. “Reinforced hull with chromium plating. A gift, from the Naberrie side of the family.”

 

And then he is there by her side, so close. Close enough she can count the moles that dot his pale drawn face, close enough she can see the stubble roughening his jaw, close enough that can see it shifting, like he’s gnawing on his thoughts.

 

He’s dressed simply today, in a thin white cotton shirt, damp with sweat, and tight black trousers that bear crimson stripes down their sides, tucked into high leather boots and held up by a thick belt. He looks like old times. Better times. When he crosses his arms, it makes his biceps flex, their definition visible even beneath his clothes.

 

He shouldn’t look as good as he does. He shouldn’t smell as good as he does. None of this is fair.

 

A lock of hair, black shot through with silver, has tumbled over his scarred cheek; Rey is transfixed by it. She feels her own cheeks heat when his eyes glide over her simple tunic and leggings, her bare feet. Whether the blushing is a result of being caught snooping around his ship, of being caught staring at him yet again, at the heated look in his eyes, or at being alone together… she couldn’t say. But it’s there, all the same.

 

Belatedly, the significance of the ship’s name registers with her. Nightbloomer, he said.

 

She can think of only one origin for such a name, and it sets off another wild fever within her, to allow for that possibility.

 

In a wistful tone, she replies: “She’s incredible.”

 

He nods, tilting his head back and squinting against the sun’s glare reflected off the silver hull. One side of his mouth ticks up. “Were you looking for a way in?”

 

She gives a sheepish twitch of her shoulders.

 

“You always did like that sort of thing, didn’t you?” he muses.

 

It’s the most he’s spoken to her in almost a decade, and it sounds like it might be meant in jest, but Rey bristles at the implication.

 

“It was my livelihood,” she replies tartly.

 

The hint of a smile fades to a frown, and his posture stiffens.

 

“…I know that,” he states, all solemnity. He turns, his dark gaze pinning her where she stands. “Rey, I remember—”

 

Rey!” someone hollers.

 

They both flinch at the intrusion. When Rey turns in the direction of the voice, she spots Gozetta standing in the front doorway of the house, frantically waving her arms.

 

“Something’s wrong with the laundering unit and it’s spewing water and soap everywhere!” she shouts. “Get in here, quick, it’s flooding the damn house!”

 

Rey glances at him, biting back her disappointment. “I—I’ve got to—” she flounders, torn between what she should do and what she wants to do. “The—laundering unit—”

 

“Yeah.” He shrugs, then angles himself towards the ship. The profile of his face— strong nose and brow, full lips set in a stern line— is cast in shadow by the sunlight. “‘Course.” Kicking at the grass, he hunches in on himself, like he’s trying to disappear.

 

From the house, she hears Gozetta shriek, “Rey! Come on, let’s go!”

 

“I’ll just—I just—only—” she tries again.

 

A bitter laugh interrupts her. “It’s fine, Rey,” he husks out, shrugging again. “Don’t worry about it.”

 

With that, he gives her his back, the broad line of his shoulders rising and falling in a deep sigh before he marches away, out into the valley.

 

Don’t worry, he’d bid her. It had sounded like an order, and it’d been issued like one, but it’s not an order she can obey. Rey does worry about it, as she sets herself to the task of fixing the laundering unit.

 

What might he have been about to say? What might she have said, in response? How can she not worry about it? She does. A lot. For the rest of the afternoon, the duration of which he remains out of sight, despite her thinly-disguised attempts to look for him once she’s repaired the machine.

 

But he stays away until dinnertime, and when he finally saunters into the house, he bears no visible shred of emotion over their aborted conversation, except that he seems to have renewed his vow of silence, and that he situates himself between Finn and Poe, making it so that Rey cannot catch him alone at any point for the remainder of the evening.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She tosses and turns that night. When she finally falls into a fitful sleep, it is only for for a handful of hours. And then she finds herself undeniably, irrecoverably awake, just as the filtered grey light of pre-dawn fills up her and Brixie’s shipping container bedroom. Gingerly, trying not to disturb her friend’s slumber, she slips from the sleeper and pads barefoot through the corrugated steel corridor towards the main room.

 

Caf, she’s decided, is the order of the day. If she cannot have sleep, then she will have true wakefulness.

 

Finn and Captain Solo are still passed out cold on the sofas at the far end of the main room, both breathing evenly and just barely visible under their mounds of blankets. So it is with painstaking care to keep quiet that she sets up Rose’s antiquated caf distiller and begins the brewing sequence.

 

And yet when she turns, perfectly content to stare off into space and daydream while she waits, she gasps, surprised by the sight of the Captain seated upright, covers tossed aside. His elbows are planted atop his knees and his hair is a dark tangle. Heaving a deep sigh, he rubs his hands over his cheeks.

 

She almost resents how good he looks to her, at that moment. How attractive he is, sleep-rumpled and relaxed, his big bare feet planted on the cold metal floor, muscled back visible through his thin sleep shirt.

 

He lifts a dark brow at her in puzzlement, one eye not yet open.

 

As though she’s been reprimanded, she whirls back towards the kitchen counter, just in time to turn off the caf distiller before it beeps. After filling two mugs— one loaded with sugar, just how he likes it— she tiptoes toward the front door, setting the sweetened one on the table closest to his sofa as she passes without meeting his eyes. Then she steps out into the fog-damp morning.

 

It’s not exactly pleasant, but she settles herself in one of the fibergrown chairs anyway, intent on watching the suns rise over the mist-shrouded valley, and feeling too raw to return inside, too on edge to navigate the saturnine temperament of the Captain.

 

And yet when, less than a minute later, he wordlessly drops down into the chair next to her, she makes no move to leave.

 

This should be peaceful, sitting together as Batuu’s suns crest the rim of the crater, sipping their caf.

 

(It should remind her of that brief sliver of happiness they shared, during those days when they woke up together and shared quiet, contented breakfasts in the main hold of the Millennium Falcon.)

 

It’s not. Rey is a mess; she jiggles one leg, fruitlessly trying to expend her nervous energy, as her mind supplies and dismisses various entry points for conversation. Should she comment on the weather? Ask him how he slept? Inquire as to how his mother is faring? Or Chewbacca’s whereabouts? Or how his father died? Or how he got that scar?

 

Or: does he miss her?

 

Or: does he dream of her like she does of him?

 

She steals a glimpse his way. He’s staring out into the fog abstractedly, looking pensive. His jaw tics, his free hand is clenched into a tight fist, and his posture is ramrod straight as ever.

 

He’s no more relaxed than she is.

 

“Yesterday,” she finally starts, her voice still gravelly with sleep, and immediately, he shoots to his feet.

 

“I’m sorry about that,” he bites out, shoving his hand into his hair, a nervous tell she remembers from years past. “I shouldn’t have—I’ll just…”

 

“Please,” she gasps. A moment ago she was panicked in one way, now her panic twists in a new direction. “Please stay. We can just sit here without speaking—I won’t say a word, I promise.”

 

“Rey…” he tries, then falters. “I…” again his words seem to die on his lips. He shakes his head. His free hand is still balled into a fist.

 

“Please,” she entreats, peering up at him. “Sit.”

 

With a sigh, he does.

 

Rey takes a nervous sip of her caf, and as if in recrimination of that choice, her stomach sours. Her nerves thrum. She can almost feel him, feel his anxiety, even as he takes his own sip, even as his eyes fix themselves once more on a distant, fog-shrouded point.

 

In profile like this, she can watch the way his throat bobs when he swallows thickly.

 

But… he doesn’t seem angry. Whatever this is between them, it doesn’t feel like resentment. They’re sitting together— maybe not in perfect harmony, maybe not in that love-drunk daze from their younger days— but they’re here.

 

The tears sneak up on her before she can will them back. She blinks, surprised to feel her cheeks becoming hot and wet. Flustered, she looks away, and attempts to surreptitiously wipe her face dry. She hears a harsh choking sound, and chances a look in his direction, only to discover he is watching her.

 

His eyes are slightly bloodshot, and brimming with tears of his own.

 

“Rey,” he chokes out, and nothing more. What more is there? He opens his hand and extends it towards her. Without speaking, she takes it.

 

He has crossed the divide, he has come for her, he is holding her hand. She feels safe, and cared for. They say nothing, and Rey knows that the time will come when much will need to be said, but two months ago she thought he was gone from her life forever, and that he would never forgive her, and now he is holding her hand. And that is not nothing.

 

He has said something, and Rey has heard it.

 

There is nothing threadbare about this moment. Everything smells stronger, shines more brightly and with more color— once the fog burns off, after the suns have peeked over the mountaintops— and the chipper birdsong resounds within her, like a melody set to accompany the rat-a-tat rhythm of her heartbeat.

 

Rey pulls in a deep breath and holds it for as long as she can, then lets it out again. She looks down at his hand and hers, still clasped together. He doesn't look at her, but he squeezes, very gently.

 

Sounds begin to emanate from within the house, raspy morning voices and chairs being moved around. When Finn calls out to them to ask if they want more caf, the Captain drops her hand before rising and responding with an offer to make some breakfast for all of them.

 

He's dropped her hand, but he fixes her with something like a smile before he goes. It doesn’t reach his eyes. She lets him drop it, though she returns that smile with a weak attempt of her own.

 

He heads inside. Rey does not.

 

And what she is utterly amazed to realize is: she’s okay. He dropped her hand, but it’s okay. The feel of him holding it, like a phantom warmth, like a spectral embrace, remains.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Quiet and peaceful and nature and whatever is all well and good,” Gozetta grouses, after breakfast. They are all seated out on the grass in front of the house, enjoying the early morning warmth now that the suns have dried up the valley. “But I am bored witless. Isn’t there anything to do on this damned island?”

 

“Tell us how you really feel, Goz!” exclaims Finn, with a shocked cough.

 

Rey cringes, hazarding a glance at the Captain; he is, unsurprisingly, scowling at her sister.

 

“We could always go back to Oga Garru’s cantina, see if we can’t find that Mister Armitage who was giving Rey the eye the other day…” Brixie says, sing-song. Rey looks down at her lap, her face aflame.

 

Gozetta clicks her tongue. “Ugh, so provincial. What else is there to do?”

 

“Goz!”

 

Poe gives an embarrassed shake of his head to Rose. Rey sneaks another peek at the Captain; he is still scowling, but now it seems to be directed not at her sister, but at his hands, which are balled into fists in his lap.

 

“She doesn’t mean that,” Poe adds, by way of apology, even as Gozetta huffs out a “Yes I do” under her breath. “She’s just—”

 

“It’s fine,” Rose cuts across him, with an unbothered laugh. “It’s slow out here. Trust me, I know it is. That’s why I chose this place. But…”

 

From beside her, Brixie’s shapely lips curve into a smirk, and she leans into Rose, one brow arched. “Buuut?”  

 

“Well…” an impish smirk of her own tugs at Rose’s lips. “There is one thing we could do. Y’know, for fun.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

With a great metallic groan, Rose pulls the first of the ancient swoop bikes out of an unused stall in the ramshackle wooden barn.

 

“I have three of these Flare-S swoops,” she says, passing the bike to Finn and reaching for the next. “It takes a few hours to get where we’re headed, on foot. But only about fifteen minutes on these bad boys.”

 

“Maker, these are so old I wouldn’t be surprised if they belonged to Darth Vader back when he was still Anakin Skywalker,” Brixie jokes, before letting out a “Whoops!” Cringing, she turns to the Captain, who is inspecting the bike in Finn’s hands. “Sorry, Ben, that was—”

 

He just snorts to himself, without looking up. “It’s fine,” he says, and continues his inspection.

 

“The vendor threw ‘em in with the storage containers ‘cause they didn’t run anymore,” Rose goes on, in a lilting, amused, tone. “Joke’s on him, for not realizing he was dealing with a mechanic.”

 

Rey can see why someone would want to get rid of them. All three are rusted over and spindly, with mismatched parts. The central repulsor pods of each bike, which project out in front at the end of long stabilizer bars and control shafts, are so outdated Rey only vaguely recognizes them from archival schematics she’d flipped through years ago on old Imperial ships.

 

They look dangerous. And fast. Her stomach does a somersault in anticipation.

 

“I’m pretty sure we can fit three to a bike,” Poe says slowly, eying the seats. “If we put Tico, Brixie, and Rey on one—they’re all small enough. Then Goz and me, and Finn and Solo.”

 

If she feels a pang of disappointment not to be riding with him, Rey makes sure not to let it show on her face. She plasters on a placid smile and nods.

 

“Should work,” Finn agrees. “But you’re riding passenger, Solo.”

 

(She doesn’t invite the sudden deluge of memories, but the sensations, phantom, like the feel of his big warm hand in hers from this morning, come back anyway: riding on her speeder together through the dunes of Jakku, his arms around her waist, hands flat against her empty, hungry belly, his face buried in the fabric of her cowl, right at her neck. How he curled himself around her, how it thrilled her and made her feel safe. Belonging, and lust, and affection, all ensnared in a knot so dense it will never be untangled.)

 

Rey wants him to be riding passenger on her swoop bike, wants more excuses to touch him, wants the privacy of the open air around them so that she can speak to him with the nerve of the things she could not say earlier, but she can think of no possible reason for that, and he’s not looking at her right now, anyway. So she says nothing, and gingerly perches herself on the very end of the bike seat, behind Brixie and Rose.

 

There are a few revs of the old repulsorlift engines, a few sputtering coughs of the turbothrusters, and a few taunting challenges about what happens to the last one there tossed back and forth, and then they're on their way.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Away, across the valley, they ride. In a loose formation, the bikes rattling threateningly as they are pushed to their limits, Brixie and Finn and Poe jockey for position at the head of the pack, crossing back and forth over rivers and high grass and past a herd of fathiers who simply stare at them, heads cocked and ears raised in alarm.

 

She notices, with a stolen glance to her right, that the Captain does not hold onto Finn as he once did with her. His hands rest on his thighs, his own heavy mass and tensed muscles seemingly keeping him fixed to the seat.

 

An errant notion presents itself to Rey, then refuses to be shaken off: if they’d rode together, she and him, would it have been the same?

 

Would he have held onto her, as he once did?

 

 

. . .

 

 

Under the high snowy peaks at the valley’s far end, there are places where millenia of melting runoff has eroded its sloping sides into sharp, steep walls of grey basalt.

 

Among those walls, there are also places where the melting snow becomes a series of descending rivers, which fall over these walls in thunderous, propulsive cascades of frothing white water. And beneath these cascades, there are places where the water has pooled, before it falls again.

 

Pool, then fall. Pool, then fall. Like stairs. Around the pools, boughs of trees hang lush and green-leafed; the bright damp moss on the massive boulders that line the pools is soft and springy. The air is cool and slightly wet from the mist that rises off the falls, and it is filled with their roaring song.

 

This is what greets the group, when they arrive at their destination, only about fifteen minutes after setting out.

 

“Well,” Gozetta says primly, taking in the scenery, “This will suffice, I suppose.”

 

“Now you can see why I told you to wear your bathing togs,” Rose replies, once again seemingly unruffled by Gozetta.

 

Rey looks down at her tunic and leggings, underneath which she is wearing black kelpcotton underwear. She has no swimming garments in her wardrobe, but at the first glimpse of the clear water placidly eddying around the largest pool, she resolves to strip down to her underwear if need be. She’ll be damned if she’s not going in.

 

When she looks up, without meaning to, it’s at the shirtless back of the Captain. He has turned from her, chatting nonchalantly with Poe while he makes quick work of his belt.

 

The moles that pepper his broad, muscled back are exactly as she remembered them. He is as she’d remembered him: just as solid, just as strong. Just as pale. Still not sculpted, nor lithe, but powerful. Strapping, even at thirty-seven. Fine dark hair coats his forearms and when he half-turns, she can spy that fuzzy trail of hair that travels from his navel down beneath the waistline of his brief-style swimming togs.

 

(She remembers nuzzling that hair with her nose, his cock rooted in her throat; a guttural, helpless groan escaping from him as she…)

 

A livid blush storms her cheeks, and Rey spins away from the group, abashed, then throws herself into the task of unbuckling the leather belt at her waist.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The water is cold. Rocks make up the bed of the pool; they are slippery, covered in algae, but sharp-edged. The group must proceed gingerly, keeping one hand on the boulders as they inch out into the lazy swirling current.

 

Waiting to adjust to the frigid temperature, Rey stands in the shallows and studies her underwear-clad body; it’s not in so sorry a state as she was expecting. She’s filled out a bit, during her time on Chandrila. Her bones are less visible now, her muscles no longer the striated, stringy cords that have always made her feel like a creature of the desert. Her hips have a slight flare to them, the swell of her breasts is more visible under the simple kelpcotton bralette that keeps them in place. A poke to her stomach leaves her pleased; her index finger finds some softness to push against.

 

She feels sort of… lush. Like this place. Supple. Which is odd, she thinks, considering her mileage, and how far she feels from young, most days.

 

“Checking yourself out, Rey?” teases Rose, from the pool. Rey glances up to see that almost everyone is treading water out near the falls, submerged to their shoulders, their hair wet, dark, and plastered to their heads. She’s the only one still clinging to a boulder, shivering at the sensation of frigid water lapping at her shins.

 

“Hey, not judging, you look hot! But you really should come on in. The water’s fine!” Rose smiles at her, then yawps when Brixie turns and splashes a handful of water directly into her face. “Oh, you’re gonna pay for that, you brat!” she hollers, laughing, before swimming off in Brixie’s direction.

 

Still, Rey hesitates in the shallows. She scans the pool, checking that everyone is alright. Gozetta is, perhaps surprisingly, the strongest swimmer of them all, and has already made her way under the falls. She can just make out the shape of her sister, sitting on the rocks that lie hidden behind the veil of falling water. Poe sits beside her. Are their faces touching? Are they kissing?

 

An amazed laugh bubbles up, and she hides it in her hand. Finn, she discovers when she continues her survey, has been pulled into some sort of splashing standoff with Brixie and Rose, out in the center of the pool.

 

And the Captain is still treading water, only a meter or so away. He stares unblinkingly at Rey.

 

His nostrils flare when their eyes meet, then his gaze skitters away. Is he abashed, like she has been so often in days prior, to have been caught staring?

 

“It’s safe,” he says, in that low, quiet way of his. Low enough that only she can hear.

 

“I know that,” she bites back, a defensive reflex.

 

“Okay.”

 

His voice is tinged with disbelief, and it provokes a frustrated huff from her.

 

“It’s just—cold.”

 

“Not so cold as Rhinnal,” he says, still calm, still low.

 

Their eyes lock, and there’s something like amusement glinting there, in his expression. His thick arms wave to and fro just below the surface; his shoulders bob up, muscles bunched, and then disappear again.

 

His ears stick out between strands of dark damp hair.

 

“No.” She gives a slight, bemused shake of her head. “Not so cold as that.”

 

“You—” he breaks off, pulling in a deep breath and turning his head to glance over at their friends. No one is paying them any mind. He turns back to her. “You want some help?”

 

Chagrined, she grits out, “No! I can—I’m perfectly capable of swimming.”

 

He at least has the grace to look ashamed. “I’m—I know. I’m… sorry. I didn’t mean—”

 

In defiance of his concern, she lets go of the boulder, and takes two shaky steps forward. The rocks fall away quickly, and after taking a few more steps, she’s submerged almost as deeply as the Captain. With a light kick, she pushes off, now out in water too deep for standing.

 

He watches, hovering, like he’s ready to shoot forward and grab her at a moment’s notice.

 

“Okay?” he asks, drawing closer.

 

“Fine!”

 

She’s panting slightly from the effort of keeping herself afloat; scrabbling against nothing, her style of swimming could be described somewhere between flailing and floundering.

 

“Just kick your legs—”

 

“I said I’m fine!” she snaps. “I know how to swim!”

 

“I wouldn’t call what you’re doing swimming,” drawls Gozetta, who has emerged with Poe from behind the waterfall. Both her sister’s and her brother-in-law’s lips are bright, almost bruised, as though they’ve been chewed on, and their faces are flushed.

 

“Oh hush, she’s doing great,” Brixie chimes in. “It doesn’t have to look pretty, it just has to keep her head above water!”

 

Rey ignores them both. She resolves to do one clumsy lap around the pool’s edge, before returning to the safety and dignity of the rocks. She even hesitantly dips her head beneath the rushing water for a moment, much to the amusement of Gozetta and the others. Finn and Poe cheer for her as she paddles along, the two of them clapping and whistling, and Brixie sidles up alongside Rey, offering quiet words of encouragement.

 

When she makes it back to her starting point, she lurches up onto the boulder she’d clung to earlier, and sends a smug smirk in his direction before taking a bow to the others, accepting their round of applause.

 

He looks away, then sinks below the water. Maybe he’s trying to hide his reaction, but Rey catches sight of it anyway when he reappears, dripping and shiny-wet; even with his face half-turned away from her, she can spy the flush making its way up from the back of his neck to the tip of his ear, and the easy smile dimpling his scarred cheek.

 

 

. . .

 

 

They spend hours on those warm boulders, lounging like sun-baked lizards in the bright afternoon.

 

“I think the thing that gets me,” Rose says to her, in an aside not meant to be heard by the others over the roar of the falls, “is that I wish I could ask for advice, sometimes. Like I used to.”

 

“From your sister?” asks Rey, her voice an equally low-pitched murmur.

 

“Or my parents.” Rose’s mouth twists a bit, a pained smile she directs at Rey.

 

“Yes, I—I understand that wish.”

 

Rose nods pensively. “I guess you do,” she reflects, “Your mother…?”

 

“She wasn’t in my life for very long, all told.” Rey shrugs, artfully careless. “A handful of years I don’t remember well, when I was very young. And a few months, once my family returned. That was all the time we had.”

 

“Don’t you ever feel… I don’t know, angry with them?”

 

Rey looks around, and sees that the others are occupied in conversation of their own, except for the Captain. He’s lying on his back not far from Rey and Rose. Though one leg is propped up, his foot flat on the warm rock and his knee bent in the air, his eyes are closed. He appears to be asleep.

 

“Not with Gozetta or Verla. They were so young when they left—it wasn’t their decision.”

 

“Your parents?”

 

For a long time, Rey does not reply. The words— and the feelings behind them— are hard to face in the bald light of day, especially on an afternoon so cheerful and relaxed as this one. She listens to the others’ idle chit-chat, some sort of teasing debate about starfighter maneuvers.

 

“…Yes,” she admits, at last. “I wasn’t, at first. For a long time, I was just… so happy, to have a family again. I was grateful. But lately, I’ve…”

 

Rose takes her hand when she trails off, voice breaking up into nothingness. The support, the warm sympathy in her new friend’s eyes, gives her what she needs to blink back her tears, push past the ache in her throat, and carry on.

 

“I’ve found myself becoming very angry with them. And with… the Abednedo who sort of—served as my guardian in their stead. She—she was like my mother, and sometimes I think—”

 

“It’s okay,” Rose says, picking up on Rey’s distress. “We don’t have to talk about it, if you’re not ready.”

 

“I want to be ready,” she croaks, then pauses at the sound of a sharp, angry inhalation. When she peeks over at their friends, they’re still chatting. The Captain still lies supine off to one side, eyes closed. Except, now his nostrils are flared, and his jaw is clenched tight.

 

He is listening. She recognizes the tension in his long, heavy limbs, the heavy way he swallows. His eyes are closed, but he is attuned to her.

 

“I have regrets,” she admits, raising her voice a hair. “I regret choices I’ve made, on Mashra’s advice—that was my guardian—which, I don’t know, I thought was doing the right thing at the time. Those choices brought me to my family, and for that I suppose I must be grateful, but what I lost…”

 

Rose quirks an eyebrow at the change in volume, then tracks Rey’s stolen glance over to its target, the Captain. Suddenly, she smiles.

 

“We’re all guilty of making the wrong choice under duress,” she remarks. “You can’t spend the rest of your life torturing yourself with what-if’s.”

 

“Can’t I?” asks Rey, with a sad laugh— attempting a detached air. But it doesn’t work, she just sounds depressed.

 

“Well look, this is the pot preaching to the kettle, because for years, I’ve gone to sleep every kriffing night asking myself, ‘What if I had been the pilot in the Cobalt Hammer with Paige? I know how to fly, sometimes she brought me along with her. Maybe I could’ve insisted on doing that run with her. Maybe I should’ve. Could I have kept her alive, if I’d been there?’”

 

Rey shakes her head. “You can’t—”

 

“You’re damned right I can’t!” Rose insists, cutting across her. “I can’t and I shouldn't. I still do, but I know I shouldn’t. And neither should you.” She sighs. “We both have to quit it with that.”

 

A long, thoughtful moment passes between them, filled with only the clamor of the falls and their friends’ laughter. Rey breathes in the air, drenched with the cool, crisp scents of wet rock and moss.

 

She chances another look in his direction, and finds that he has opened his eyes. He’s staring up at the cloudless sky. Waiting.

 

“Maybe you’re right,” she says, loud enough that she knows he’ll hear it.

 

His eyes slip closed, and he sighs. Rose’s expression gentles, and she says something in response that Rey does not hear; she cannot look away from the Captain, whose face is now free of tension, whose limbs are once more loosely sprawled.

 

Without needing to ask, she knows. He has heard her, too.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Oh yeah?” shouts Brixie to Poe, some time later, “Well, watch this!”

 

Poe has been entertaining them with increasingly theatrical dives off of a boulder that juts out over the water on one side of the pool, while they sip on bottles of Batuu brew and pass around a bag of cracknuts.

 

Rey turns to watch as Brixie climbs up out of the water onto the jagged rocks that frame both sides of the falls. She clambers up about a meter or so before turning back and, upon discerning that she has everyone’s attention, unceremoniously hurls herself into the water. There is a great splash, and then all goes still.

 

Their chatter dies, forgotten, all of them waiting for her head to pop up out of the water. When it finally does— Brixie tossing her hair back as she lets out a triumphant whoop— Rey releases a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.

 

“Bravo!” Rose calls out, “But you really need to be careful! There’s a ton of sharp rocks on the bottom—”

 

Brixie interrupts. “Are you kidding? I’m doing that again!”

 

“Brixe, please be careful!” warns Rey, her voice strained, but Brixie is already swimming back towards the falls.

 

“Yeah, c’mon kiddo, don’t do anything stupid,” Poe says, from across the pool.

 

She scoffs as she lifts herself up onto the lowest rock.

 

“Brixie,” is all the Captain says, but the warning in his tone is unmistakable.

 

“What?” she shouts back. “You think I can’t do it? I’m jumping again Ben Solo—my mind’s made up!”

 

“I believe you, but you should be—”

 

“Hey, if Rey can swim around this pond, I think I—who grew up next to an ocean, by the way—can handle a little jump!” She continues climbing, but once she reaches the rock from which she jumped last time, she does not stop.

 

“That’s high enough!” Poe snaps.

 

She laughs, clambering up onto the next rock, and then the one above that. “Says you!”

 

“Brixie, don’t jump from there!” Rey calls, agitated, her pulse beginning to race. “It’s too high!”

 

“Brixie!” shouts the Captain, but her back is turned to them, and she seems to be ignoring their warnings. “Brixie, be careful! Come down—”

 

“Oh, relax, you guys! This is nothing!”

 

“Brixie!” Gozetta this time— even her sister has sat up straight now, face pinched with worry. “Brixie, that’s too high!”

 

“You’re just jealous, Goz!” With that she turns, a solid four meters above the water. “Alright everybody, now watch this!”

 

“Brixie, no!” the Captain bellows, but it’s too late.

 

She’s already leapt.

 

For one terrible moment that spans several eternities, they all watch in helpless horror as she plunges down towards the pool. It becomes obvious almost immediately— almost from the moment her feet leave the rock— that she hasn’t jumped out far enough. She has a split second of freefall before Brixie herself realizes it as well, and her expression contorts from joy to terror. But it’s too late to do anything.

 

And sure enough, there is a sickening thud when she lands feet first in the shallows, where the water is barely deep enough to reach her knees. Her legs buckle on impact, then another dull thud sounds out when the back of her head meets rock, before she ricochets forward into the water.

 

Blood, stark red and diffused, begins to flow out into the pool. No one moves. It is as if they cannot believe what has happened, cannot quite make sense of the sight of Brixie’s unmoving body floating prostrate, face-down. Her right leg is bent at an unnatural angle, her face hidden by dark blood-matted curls.

 

Gozetta’s piercing scream shatters the spell, and all at once, they jump to action.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Oh god, she’s dead!” Gozetta is moaning, by the time the Captain reaches Brixie. “She’s dead, isn’t she? Oh kriff, oh stars—she’s kriffing dead!”

 

“Gozetta! Get a grip!” Rey spits back at her, paddling desperately to keep up with his longer strokes.

 

“What do we do?” cries Rose. She’s leaping from rock to rock, making her way around the pool.

 

“Get her face out of the water,” Rey orders. Without speaking, the Captain grabs Brixie by the shoulders and does as she’s said.

 

“Careful!” Poe, face drained of color, swims up behind her. “Be careful with her!”

 

“I am!” snaps the Captain.

 

“Everyone stay calm!” Rey barks. Then, having finally caught up with the Captain, she carefully turns Brixie’s head in an attempt to inspect her wound. It’s difficult to discern through her hair how bad the fracture is, but it’s obvious there is one.

 

“Shara Bey is going to kill me!” wails Gozetta.

 

“Enough, Gozetta!”

 

It’s Finn who scolds her this time, his rough bark of an order silencing her immediately. He leans forward on his knees, peering over from his position on the rocks beside Rose.

 

With Brixie’s unmoving body secured in his arms, the Captain begins to swim back towards the boulders closest to their bikes. Rey follows him, and upon noticing her sister’s panicked sobbing, she directs:

 

“Somebody get Goz out of here!”

 

“Hey!” Gozetta bleats through her tears, offended.

 

“We’re gonna need a doctor,” Finn says, as he and Rose watch the Captain swim. He darts back around the pool to assist him when he reaches the other side, carefully taking Brixie from his arms so the Captain can climb out of the water. Poe helps him set her down on a wide, flat boulder nearby.

 

“Ugh, I don’t have a medidroid out here,” laments Rose. “Maybe at the Outpost?”

 

“The vet droid!” Rey mutters to herself, then turns to Rose. “Can’t James look at her?”

 

“He’ll do,” she agrees.

 

The Captain’s head snaps up. “I’ll get him!”

 

“No, send Rose and Finn… and Gozetta,” Rey interjects. “They’ll know where to find him—won’t you?”

 

A muffled “Yes!” and “We’re on it!” is all she hears, for they’ve already turned— Rose clutching Gozetta’s bicep to drag her along, still wailing— and rushed off towards the parked swoop bikes.

 

“Now what?” huffs Poe. He leans in to study his sister’s serene face. “Maker, what am I going to tell my parents?”

 

“Don’t panic, Dameron, she’ll be alright,” the Captain says, in a calm commanding tone. “She’s still breathing.”

 

“Right. Now, we—” At a loss, Rey looks around in search of ideas. “Uh, let’s get her head elevated!” She reaches for Poe’s discarded shirt, then hands it to him. “Put that on the wound, and lift her head up onto your lap.”

 

Poe does so, with shaking hands. The Captain, after prodding Brixie’s legs then wincing at whatever he finds, nods to himself, and leans back on his haunches.

 

“There’s something off in her right ankle. Broken, maybe.” He peers up at Rey, squinting against the late afternoon sun.

 

“Okay,” she says, and pulls in a deep breath. “Okay, now we know. But we’re just going to leave it alone, for the time being. We’re just—just going to stay here, and wait for James.” She directs a meaningful look Poe’s way.

 

“Calmly,” she adds, for good measure.

 

He gives an unsteady nod.

 

 

. . .

 

 

About a half hour later, Finn’s diplomatic shuttle sets down in a clearing not far from the falls.

 

Rose and Finn rush out, J8-MS in tow, and Gozetta brings up the rear. It’s clear that J8-MS has already been apprised of the situation by the medpac he carries, and as he rolls up onto the boulder where Rey, Poe, and the Captain are seated, Rey shuffles out of the way to make room for him.

 

In anxious silence, they all watch the vet droid get to work. He does some preliminary visual assessments, then cracks open his medpac to pull out a medisensor, which he uses to do a scan of Brixie’s chest and head. After, he reaches for a tool Rey recognizes— from Weir’s fall, what feels like a lifetime ago— to be an encephaloscanner. A few scans are done of Brixie’s skull, and in short order, with the help of Poe, Brixie is rolled onto her stomach, at which point the droid begins to administer micro-sutures to the still sluggishly-bleeding gash in her scalp. Once finished, he dabs a salve on the stitched together flesh, then places a thin bacta patch over the entire wound.

 

Needle and thread passed off to Rose, who silently clutches at them like an anchor— all of them still watching, still waiting— the droid picks up the medisensor once more, and performs an inspection of her ankles and feet.

 

At last finished, he turns to Rose. In binary, he beeps and trills: “Broken ankle. Bacta tank or bactade dosage, twenty-five milliliters, required. Antishock dosage, two-thousand milligrams, necessary to counteract concussive symptoms. Patient requires one week of bed rest for recuperative purposes.”

 

Rose nods curtly, her mouth settled in a grim, thin frown. “Bed rest we can do. Bacta tank—that’s going to be tougher. Antishock too—I’m almost certain we don't have that here on the island.”

 

“As far as I know, there isn’t a medcenter on Batuu,” Finn says regretfully. “Though there should be. And I can’t think of anybody who owns a bacta tank. But… there’s a pharmacy and some spice dens, in Smugglers’ Alley.”

 

“Let’s get her back to the house first, and then we can figure out the rest,” Rey suggests.

 

“Good plan,” says Poe. “Solo, Finn—help me get her into the shuttle?”

 

And just like that, their visit to the waterfalls is officially over.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Should I… call my parents?” Poe wonders rhetorically, grimacing, once they’ve settled Brixie on a sofa in Rose’s home.

 

Rey wordlessly gestures her approval of that idea, and Poe heads back outside, comlink in hand, just as the Captain announces, “Nightbloomer is the fastest ship we have right now. I’ll go to the Outpost, track down the bactade and antishock.”

 

“I’ll come with you. Smugglers’ Alley can be tricky to navigate if you haven’t been there before,” Rose mutters. She brushes the backs of her fingers over Brixie’s cheek, then shakes herself, pulling in a deep breath. “Let’s go?”

 

He nods. Rose disappears into her bedroom, and the Captain turns to Rey. “You’ll—stay? Watch over her?”

 

“Of course,” she whispers.

 

“Good,” he huffs. “That’s—good.”

 

It seems like it takes a great deal of effort for him to look at Brixie, something he hasn’t done since he checked her ankle. And the expression that washes over his face when he does— guilt, horror, shame, castigation— makes Rey want to fling her arms around him, and offer her reassurances.

 

“I—” he begins, then darts his eyes towards Rey. “I can’t—”

 

“It’s okay,” she says, just as a comlink on the kitchen table lights up and begins beeping. Finn crosses the room to pick it up, and at the name flashing on its display, utters a few choice curses under his breath.

 

“I need to take this,” he tells them, a sharp edge to his voice. “It’s your mother, Solo. Everyone gonna be okay for a few minutes?”

 

“We’re fine,” she assures Finn, just as Rose re-emerges from her bedroom, dressed in an old jumpsuit.

 

“Ready, Tico?” asks the Captain, all business now. She nods. “Alright, let’s roll out.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Is she going to die?” Gozetta asks Rey in a childlike whimper, once they are alone in the room with Brixie.

 

“No,” answers Rey. “Once we have the meds we need, she’ll be fine.”

 

“I’m not good under pressure.” Gozetta sniffs, ego bruised from her earlier histrionics.

 

“We know that, Goz. And we love you anyway,” she replies gently. She takes Goz’s hand in hers.

 

“You do?”

 

She smiles. “Of course we do.”

 

Just then, Finn reappears in the main room. Gozetta and Rey watch as he drops down into one of the lounger chairs, exhaustion evident on his face. He lets out a heavy sigh.

 

Tentatively, she asks, “Everything… okay?”

 

He shakes his head. “Senator Organa is putting together an emergency council, just for a few trusted individuals. I gotta…” He groans, frustrated. “I have to leave, today. As soon as possible, really.”

 

“What’s going on?” Gozetta frowns at him.

 

“Wish I could say—Leia kept the details sparse, she’s worried about our communications getting intercepted. But from her tone… well, if she’s as worried as she sounds, it’s probably serious.”

 

“Kriff,” mutters Rey.

 

Again, he groans wearily. “She’s also requested that Commander Dameron and Captain Solo be present. Looks like as soon as Solo’s back from the Outpost, our little vacation is getting cut short.”

 

Gozetta pouts. “Double kriff.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

By the time Rose and the Captain return with the antishock and bactade, Finn, Poe, and Gozetta have just about finished packing up their belongings. It doesn’t take the Captain long to do the same, once they inform him of the situation. Some discussion follows about who will stay and who will leave.

 

“Rey should stay,” says the Captain, without a second thought. “She can see Brixie through this, then help her make the trip back to Chandrila.”

 

“What? No! I should stay as well!” is Gozetta’s indignant assertion. “After all, I’m her sister!” She huffs. “And a mother—I know how to nurse someone back to health, more than Rey.”

 

The Captains levels an unimpressed glower at her sister. Then he repeats, “Rey should stay.”

 

Rey has to bury her chuckle at the memory of Gozetta’s bedside manner; she addresses Gozetta in her calmest, mildest manner, saying: “Goz, don’t you think Little Poe and Weir are missing you?” and then, when Gozetta seems unmoved, she adds, “Remember how difficult Weir’s injuries were for you? It might be better if I stayed, don't you think?”

 

And although Gozetta stomps her foot and scoffs and rambles on about how underappreciated she is, in the end, she agrees with Rey, and concedes to going with Poe.

 

“I’ll leave Nightbloomer and my astromech here with you,” says the Captain to Rey, after that has been settled. “You can fly it, can’t you? When Brixie is well enough to travel?”

 

Nodding, she issues a soft, “Thank you.”

 

Their eyes meet, and it seems to Rey that there is more he wants to say— his mouth opens then shuts in preparation— but he glances around the room at everyone embracing and exchanging hasty goodbyes, and instead merely nods, then picks up his bag.

 

While he’s carrying it out to Finn’s shuttle, Rey sees her sister and Poe off.

 

“Chandrila will be quite dull without you,” Gozetta tells her, in an undertone, as they walk through the grass towards the Damerons’ freighter. “So please don’t stay away too long. For—the boys’ sake. They’ll… miss you. Terribly.”

 

Rey grins. “Right. For the boys.”

 

With a sigh and a roll of her eyes, Gozetta admits, “… And for me.”

 

Before Gozetta can protest, Rey pulls her into a hug. “I love you,” she tells her sister. “Safe journey.”

 

After a beat, she feels Gozetta’s arms come up around her. “… I love you too,” she says, hushed, like she’s sharing confidential information.

 

Rey lets her go, giving a sloppy salute to Poe, who has already seated himself in the cockpit. Gozetta ascends the boarding ramp then turns, waving to Rey until it is raised and she has disappeared from view. The ion engine blazes brilliant blue, Pathfinder raises up, and a second later, they are gone.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Brixie remains laid out on the sofa, unconscious, when Rey returns inside. She settles herself next to Rose, who is sitting vigil by Brixie’s side, and watches as Finn passes in and out of the house with the last armfuls of luggage and supplies.

 

All of a sudden, it occurs to Rey: this might be her last and only chance to speak privately with the Captain, for some time.

 

She waits, inhaling and exhaling five deep breaths. Then she rises to her feet from her crouch beside Rose, murmurs some flimsy excuse, and makes towards the front door. Rose smirks and bows her head, a knowing nod, right before Rey darts outside.

 

The boarding ramp of Finn’s diplomatic shuttle is down, and the Captain is nowhere in sight. Without hesitation, she climbs up into the ship, and strides in what she supposes must be the direction of the cockpit. When she reaches it, she finds the Captain seated at the controls, programming coordinates into the navicomputer. Finn’s astromech— a squat round BB unit— warbles out a diagnostic, and after bemusedly acknowledging it, he issues an order for it to go check on the warp vortex stabilizer. As it rolls past her, Rey clears her throat.

 

He whirls around in the pilot’s seat, startled by her presence.

 

“Rey,” he gasps. “I’m, uh…” his throat bobs, “preparing us for flight.”

 

“I see that,” she says, then takes a step closer.

 

From aftward in the shuttle, she hears Finn’s footfalls as he ascends the ramp, then a loud ‘clang’ as he deposits what sounds to be a heavy crate in the main hold.

 

“Solo?” he calls out. “We almost ready?”

 

“Just about,” the Captain hollers back.

 

“Good. I’m just gonna say goodbye to Rose, then we need to jet.”

 

“Copy that.”

 

At the thought of him leaving, again, a crack forms in Rey’s chest. Misery and doubt and longing pours in, filling up her lungs. Clogging her airway, suffocating her.

 

He’s leaving her, again.

 

“Ben,” she says, in a small plaintive voice. She hasn’t said that name in eight years. It rasps strangely in her throat, and leaves her mouth sere as the Jakku desert. He blinks at the sound of it.

 

“Ben, I—”

 

“I know—” he starts, then falters at the realization he’s spoken over her.

 

“Yes?” she prompts, taking another step into the cockpit. Closer to him. She could reach out and muss his hair, if she wanted to.

 

He swallows. “I know Brixie’s in good hands, with you. And Rose.”

 

“She is, I—I promise. She’ll be fine, in a day or two.” She does her best attempt at a reassuring smile, but she can feel it wobbling.

 

His gaze ticks down, taking in that wobble, and he rakes his hand through his hair, a frenzied motion. When his eyes seek hers out again, they are wide and wild. Panicked.

 

“Did I do this, Rey?” he asks her, beseeching. “Was it my fault? She’s… a sweet girl. Young, maybe. Impressionable. Headstrong, when she decides on something. Would she have jumped, if I hadn’t… if we weren’t…”

 

“I… I don’t know. I don’t know if we can know the answer to that,” she answers.

 

“I didn’t—I never meant—it wasn’t—”  he growls.

 

“Solo, you ready?” Finn’s voice, closer now— right behind her. Rey spins, offering him her wobbly smile. He shrugs apologetically. When she turns back to the Captain, something like a look of desperation passes between them.

 

Finn’s sigh rings out in the heavy, weighted silence. “Look, I’m really sorry to interrupt guys, but it’s going to take us days to get to Hosnian Prime, and we needed to be there… yesterday. So whatever you have to say or do, it just has to wait ‘til later, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Rey breathes, not taking her eyes off the Captain, who stares back at her, looking wrecked.

 

Finn waits a beat, then turns and tromps off in the direction of the BB unit.

 

“… Ben,” she tries one last time, her voice breaking on the name.

 

But she can’t do it, she can’t seem to speak. Her eyes are welling with tears, her breathing hitched and difficult. She wants to be selfish, just this once; she wants to say damn Senator Organa and her secret meeting, damn her responsibility to her sister-in-law.

 

Just stay, she wants to beg, stay, please, this time stay, stay with me, let’s start again—

 

He lets his eyes sink down to the controls, giving an almost imperceptible shake of his head and Rey knows… the moment has passed.

 

“Have a safe journey,” she manages to get out, barely audible.

 

“Thank you,” he replies, just as muted, without looking at her.

 

She pivots on her heel and hurries back through the ship, down the ramp, onto the grass— all the while feeling angry and dizzy and sick with hunger for him all over again. She bids a brief goodbye to Finn with a hug and a promise to talk soon, then hurries back into the house, keeping her back to the windows as she passes into the kitchen with the intention of preparing some tea.

 

Even when she hears the shuttle rise up, hears its ion engine roar, hears Finn and him zoom off into the ether, she cannot make herself look outside. This probably isn’t the end, she knows that. They’ll meet again… maybe. This is not Ben storming off, heartsick and disgusted; this is not Rey falling apart at the seams, left behind again with only her regret to keep her company.

 

But she sucks in a ragged breath anyway, and does not avert her gaze from the kettle.

 

She cannot watch him leave her. Not after this morning. Not after today. Not after this week.

 

Not now.

 

Not ever again.

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

Under a canopy of leaf-dotted uneti tree branches, in a liminal light that belongs to neither night nor day, Rey sits astride his lap, and languidly, he whispers to her, “Stay. Let me stay.”

 

In response, she rocks closer to him, luxuriating in the feel of satiny soft skin, scarred and downy with hair in some places, stretched over long limbs knotted with burls of muscle. His body, a resting place for hers.

 

Chandrila’s moons are doing a slow dance together, overhead.

 

She can hear the ocean waves. Whoosh, swish, shurr.

 

But… that’s not right. She’s sat under this tree before, and she knows she could never really hear the ocean like that, not from this distance.

 

“Not in here,” she mumbles, seeing the dream for what it is. Still, she is hypnotized by the jut of his full lower lip, and the dark prickly stubble growing beneath it.

 

His hands, wide and warm, trace a path up and down her bare back, to either side of her spine. If she were a winged creature, the path would be the roots of her wings.

 

She feels weightless, airborne. She might be winged, for how it feels as though they are flying together.

 

Is that him, hard and hot and prodding against her naked belly? She uses his knees as leverage to push herself just a bit higher up his thighs, a loth-cat slinking towards her target.

 

“Not in here,” he echoes. “I want it out there.”

 

“Me too.”

 

She drapes herself over his body, both of them resting against the tree trunk. The moonlight is rose and gold, and everything is slightly soft, slightly blurred around the edges. This too, the feeling of their bodies together, is blurred. Unreal.

 

Not enough.

 

She says as much, and he grunts his agreement.

 

“You still trust me,” she sighs into his ear, a secret within this secret place. Even her sigh is rose-gold, blooming relief and gilded adoration.

 

“More than anyone,” is the soft yearning response she hears, right before she awakens.

 

She blinks, clutching onto the dream for a few moments longer than usual, but eventually it dissipates in the muted morning light of Rose’s spare bedroom, same as all the others.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“How are you feeling today?” Rey gently queries, when she enters the main room to find Brixie gingerly pushing herself up to a seated position on the sofa, the same on which she was deposited yesterday.

 

“Stupid,” Brixie answers, her voice a withered croak from sleep. She doesn’t meet Rey’s eyes, glaring instead at the vase of drooping delia pavorum blossoms on the table before her. After clearing her throat, she adds, “And embarrassed. And achy.”

 

Rey winces. “I’m afraid I can’t help with the first two.” She draws near to the sofa and lays a hand on Brixie’s shoulder. “For what it’s worth, we’ve—all done foolish things before. You’re only Human.”

 

“A stupid Human,” Brixie retorts.

 

“How about some toast and tea, to go with your meds?” suggests Rey. “The achy situation, at least, we can fix.”

 

Brixie dips her head in a sullen nod, and says nothing.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Later, when Rose has arisen, and the three of them are lolling around on the sofas, chatting, Brixie repeats those sentiments. “I just feel… like an idiot. I was trying…” she trails off, casting an apprehensive glance in Rose’s direction. “Maker, I don't even know what I was trying to do.”

 

Rey munches on her toast, then sips at her coffee, unsure what she can offer in the way of wisdom or assurances; they all know that Brixie’s choice to jump was foolish, Brixie included. She wonders: would she have done the same, for the Captain, back when he was still Ben, her Ben? She ponders it, as long minutes of silent contemplation pass. Maybe she would have. Maybe she was even ready to risk more for him— ready to give up the thing that was most important to her.

 

For one moment, she is tempted to tell Brixie of her own foolish youthful choices, but something stays her tongue. Instead, she glances out the window, where dark clouds are gathering low in the sky, making the bowl of the valley feel as though a lid has been placed atop it. Then she lets out a heavy, tired sigh.

 

“When we were still back on Hays Minor,” Rose begins, her tone thoughtful, “I got into speedercraft. Building, modding, repairing. I told you, didn’t I Brixie? About that old FC-20?”

 

Brixie nods slowly; she opens her mouth then shuts it, opting to wait for Rose to elaborate.

 

“It was a lot of trial and error, getting it to run. And when I did get it to run, you know what happened?”

 

A pause, the hush of both women’s anticipation making the air heavy. Rose lets out a rueful laugh.

 

“I called for Paige to come see, because I wanted to impress her—so badly. And she was always doing daring stuff like that, so I thought it would. I started up the FC-20—its repulsorlift purred like a Kushiban by the way, ran like a dream—then I got in… and immediately crashed it. I was lucky, to be honest. Thrown from the speeder, landed in the dirt. Got some bruises and cuts, but nothing serious. No permanent damage—except maybe to my pride.”

 

Looking grateful, Brixie nods. “I know something about that,” she quips.

 

But Rose isn’t finished. “After that, I said to myself: lesson learned. No operating a transport unless you know what you’re getting yourself into. And I started doing just that. It was… so much reading. Hours and hours of reading. You know how they put Paige and me on the Raddus, when they rescued us from…” she swallows thickly, faltering for a second, “from the First Order?”

 

“Uh-huh,” answers Brixie, softly.

 

“I started reading everything I could get my hands on—maintenance logs, shipyard datasheets, some of which were in Mon Cal by the way, whatever I could find on the HoloNet about the MC85 Star Cruiser—and when I felt ready, I reported for duty down in the maintenance bay. There was this guy, Laszlo, who used to tease me. He called me lazy. Said I never worked, ‘cause I spent so long just reading up about how the Raddus worked. How she flew.”

 

Rey feels a slow smile creeping up on her as Rose speaks. “But?” she prompts.

 

“But when the First Order showed up unannounced and the main docking bay doors jammed, with Captain Poe Dameron stuck on the outside, it was this lazy reader who figured out that the issue was in the security keypad’s wiring and fixed it in time to get Dameron inside before we made the jump outta there!”

 

Brixie makes a soft, appreciative nose. “Oh. I… oh.”

 

“Well done,” Rey says on an exhale.

 

For a brief instant, she recalls the Captain and Brixie’s conversation on Rhinnal, in which they’d discussed the importance of sticking to one’s convictions. The importance of the firmness of character. Idly, she wonders if he’d say the same now. Or if Brixie would.

 

After all, it occurs to her, conviction— or bravery— to the point of obstinance can cause just as much damage as being swayed by the opinions of others. There is value and consequences, she thinks, in both.

 

In her mind, she goes back over the contents of Rose’s story, and the events of yesterday, plus those that lead to it. She thinks about Poe and Terena, and how revered they are for their heroics, and what that might mean to Brixie. She thinks about her own family, and the influence they have held over her, both in absence and presence.

 

She thinks about Mashra, and a conversation over tea in a bunker that still lays half-buried in the sands of Jakku.

 

A decision made, and the conviction she’d clung to until it was all finished.

 

Until they were finished.

 

Then she thinks about regret, and growth. What it is to lose, and learn, and try again. But in trying again, to steer clear of those terrible mistakes that were made the first time. To be wiser, and older.

 

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing, after all.

 

“Well,” Brixie declares, with theatrical seriousness, “I suppose the lesson here is that I just need to read up on cliff-jumping before trying to impress someone else!”

 

Rose chuckles— part amusement, part exasperation. “Oh, you!”

 

“No, you.” Brixie moves closer to her on the sofa, and begins to gently toy with the ends of Rose’s long black hair. In a voice so small and sweet Rey knows it is not meant for her, she murmurs, “Thank you, Rosie.”

 

Rey rises from her own sofa, moving to the kitchen to pour herself some more caf and give them some space. She still catches, very faintly, Rose’s reply: “Anytime, crumblebun.”

 

By the time she returns to the sofa, the moment has passed. Rose narrows her eyes at Rey even as Brixie continues to play with her hair; after a long moment of scrutiny, she throws out, “You look like you’re a million miles away, Rey.”

 

“Was thinking about my own speeder. Built it myself, from Imperial ship scraps. I loved that thing. It held… a lot of memories for me.” She thinks that over for a second, then amends, “Jakku holds a lot of memories for me. I took my own risks there—made plenty of mistakes, too.”

 

Rose hums pensively. “Even a place where we've suffered, where we've seen evil, can still be important to us.”

 

She knows that to be true. How she suffered on Jakku: the long years spent waiting for her family, the even longer ones endured after their return, and the sliver of one where she lived a life close to the one she truly wanted. The one she gave up. She is among friends, she realizes. Women who have loved and erred, women who are flawed as she is, and who will not condemn her.

 

“I found the Force there,” she says, a painful shivering gasp, a confession she has waited so long to make. “I fell in love and I found the Force, inside myself. And all around me. I was only just beginning to understand it when… it all fell apart. I couldn’t jump,” here she nods at Brixie, “or maybe I did, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it once I landed,” here she nods at Rose, “I—I lost so much time, to my mistakes.” For a moment, she is overcome, tears hot and angry pricking at her eyes. Rose reaches over to take her hand; the pressure is comforting, and familiar, and heartening. Finally, she manages to get out, “But… I think I learned my lesson, all the same.”

 

With a huff, Rose gives her hand one last squeeze, then surmises, “It all comes out in the wash, as Gram used to say.”

 

“Are you a… Jedi?” Brixie asks quietly, clearly perplexed and stuck on that one point of Rey’s narrative.

 

“To tell the truth, I don't really know,” Rey admits. “They weren't allowed to love, were they? I did. I think… I still might.”

 

Rose lips twitch; her smile is once-again knowing. “Do you? Hmm.”

 

“I think I do,” she mutters. “But I'm not sure if he… that is, I thought I'd lost a chance with… but now, there is… oh, there are…” an anguished groan slips out before she can temper her frustration or finish any one thought, and she drops her head into her hands. “I don't know anymore. I've always thought our past was too… painful. To get over, I mean.”

 

“For him or for you?” Brixie wonders aloud, and though her tone is not sharp, nor the question pointed, still it sets Rey to wondering if Brixie has put two and two together, and seen through her attempts at stoicism. If the maelstrom of unspoken sentiments raging between Rey and the Captain has gone less unnoticed than she’d previously assumed.

 

But Brixie looks so unperturbed, so innocent in her questioning, that Rey dismisses the notion.

 

“Both?” she replies wearily.

 

After a beat, she looks up. Brixie has begun braiding Rose’s hair into a simple plait that drops down over one shoulder. Both women are frowning at her.

 

“You should try again,” Rose asserts, at last. “With him, with someone else, whoever. I know it's scary, but—I dunno, I think it's worth it.”

 

Rey is not certain if Rose notices Brixie's widening eyes or subtle nodding from her vantage point. But Rey sees it: Brixie has taken those words to heart.

 

And not a second later, she asks of Rose, “And you?”

 

“Hm?”

 

Gently, Brixie turns Rose to face her. “Would you be willing to try again? After… everything with Finn?”

 

In a deceptively casual tone, her eyes boring a hole into Brixie's, Rose answers:

 

“For the right person? Of course I would.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

A trilling ring disturbs the lazy serenity of that afternoon; all three women lounge in the main room, absorbed in their own pursuits. Outside, a heavy rain batters the windows. The day is dark and tinged ever so faintly with melancholy, but there is comfort to be found, here in the quiet company the three of them have found.

 

Rey sits at the kitchen table, fiddling with the laundering unit's engine; Brixie and Rose lay curled up on the sofa together, Brixie watching an old holodrama, Rose reading the manual of a hydro-glycolic fuel cell she’s considering purchasing.

 

“Oh, hm,” Rose remarks, puzzled, as she rises and pads over to the table. Rey pays no mind; whoever it is, they are almost certainly not calling for her.

 

“Whuh?” Brixie asks, groggy, stirring from a light drowse.

 

“Well, I’m getting a hologram transmission. It’s… Ben?” Rose brow quirks. “Weird. There's no way they're on Hosnian Prime yet.”

 

“Answer it!” comes the command, from the sofa.

 

With an amused little snort, Rose does. “Well hello, Captain Solo!” she cries, to the flickering blue face that appears above the table. “Fancy seeing you here!”

 

Rey steals a glance long enough to catch his lips twitch, then trains her eyes back on her work.

 

All he says is, “Can I talk to Brixie? Alone?”

 

Rose's eyes cut to Rey— she can feel them on her— but still, she studiously avoids looking up.

 

A grunt issues from across the room as Brixie unearths herself from her mountain of blankets, then hobbles towards them. Rey tries not to make any indication that she cares, but it's no use; her curiosity wins out. So she tilts her head at Brixie in unspoken question, but Brixie gives a guileless shrug, her brows knitting together. When Rose offers the holoprojector, she accepts it then wordlessly limps out of the room.

 

“Any idea what that's about?” Rey whispers, as she listens for the clang of the heavy guest bedroom door swinging shut.

 

“Not a clue.”

 

After a moment of straining to hear the conversation— without success— they shrug at each other. Rose returns to the sofa and her manual, Rey to the engine.

 

Brixie comes out smiling ten minutes later, looking much closer to her usual chipper self. She returns the holoprojector to the table, and Rey catches a strain of something she's humming under her breath.

 

It's a cheerful, jaunty tune.

 

“Everything okay?” she asks after her, as Brixie re-buries herself in blankets beside Rose.

 

“Better than okay,” she declares earnestly. “Everything’s great.”

 

And then she focuses all of her attention on the holofilm, and as far as Rey can tell, for the time being anyway, the conversation is over.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The skies clear in the early evening; the dying light of Batuu's suns is golden-orange as it stretches in long rays across the valley; the air holds the scent of ozone and the sound of birdsong with equal freshness.

 

Rose and Brixie have long since fallen asleep on the sofa, so Rey resolves to go alone on a hike part of the way up the crater's side— the same hike she watched the Captain do, just a few days prior.

 

She brings her quarterstaff with her, as an assistance for some of the more difficult parts. But she finds herself missing its original purpose, and when she reaches a point along the trail where the mountainside levels off briefly into a flat rock outcropping, like a ledge, she turns and raises her staff in challenge to the great valley sprawling out before her.

 

Lunge forward, jab. Upward strike, twirl, downward strike. One step back, staff resting against her wrist and back, then swing around, at the place where her opponent’s ankles or waist might be. Another swing, this time at the head. Jab again.

 

Smoothly, she slides from stance to stance. Now her staff is behind her, now it is swinging through the air, now it hits the ground, now an imaginary opponent. Each move is precise, without hesitation.

 

In her heart, in her mind, in her soul, Rey may have forgotten what it is to use this weapon. What it is to have this bit of scrap metal be the difference between life and death, between portions and hunger. What it is to fight.

 

But her body has not.

 

Her body remembers.

 

Her body remembers all of it.

 

On and on she trains, even as her muscles grow tired and sore, her face flushed and drenched with sweat.

 

Something that has been withered and inert within her is re-awakening. A sapling appears, on the brink of shooting out leaves, of blooming.

 

By the time she finally tires, an hour has passed. The valley has descended into the violet shadows of twilight. She can barely lift her arms; the muscles in her legs are screaming.

 

Rey is exhausted. Not content, not at peace— there are too many memories connected to that quarterstaff, too many years of pain associated with the wielding of it— but… empty.

 

Expectant, somehow. Waiting for something. Her body remembers this, after all; why does she feel as though there is something else it is trying to remember, too?

 

 

. . .

 

 

Once she climbs back down to the house, she eats a quiet dinner with her friends, heartened and envious all at once by Rose and Brixie's ever-bolder flirtation. Then she excuses herself early, citing the need for sleep. She hurtles without effort into a deep, deep slumber, and if she dreams of anything, she does not remember.

 

Brixie's side of the sleeper is still empty in the morning. As are the sofas.

 

Rey finds she is not that surprised, when she reviews the events and conversations of the past week. But when they stumble out of Rose's bedroom sometime around eleven, darting furtive looks her way, there is a second where she wonders if everything will be very different, and very awkward now.

 

And something else: a pang of concern, for the Captain, and his attachment to Brixie. Will he be hurt by this development?

 

Surely, the right thing for Brixie to do is to tell him. She’s on the brink of saying so, when Rose breaks the ice, cheeks flushed and laughing sheepishly:

 

“…Turns out the right person came along sooner rather than later.”

 

“For both of us,” Brixie adds, her fingers threaded in Rose's. She gives the shorter woman's arm a gentle swing.

 

It can wait, she decides. “When you know, you know,” is what she replies. Beaming at them both, she gestures to the kitchen. “Caf?”

 

They nod eagerly.

 

And that, as they say, is that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

On a walk that afternoon, Rose and Rey reach a long, flat plateau atop one of the valley’s many rolling hills. They’ve already completed Rose’s daily check-in with J8-MS, and are now simply rambling for pleasure. Rey carries her old sketchbook in hand, with the vague idea of seeking out a new subject.

 

They stride towards the far end of the plateau. Beyond the hill they’ve just climbed is a valley that dips low, lower than the others, encircling the hill on all visible sides. The undulating grasses that grow everywhere on the island fill it as a moat does a river. Mixed in with the grass is a pricklier-looking plant whose leaves Rey thinks she recognizes.

 

“Rose,” she begins, hesitant, glancing at her friend. Rose looks calm, unbothered, completely at ease with the world and her place in it. She smiles at Rey, eyebrows raised. “Rose, you and Brixie…”

 

Rose smirks. “Yeah?”

 

Haltingly, she asks, “What—what about—”

 

“C’mon, Rey, just ask about him.” Rose’s tone is teasing and gentle. “I promise I’ll tell you anything I can.”

 

She looks down at the grass, half-bent beneath her feet. “Aren’t you worried he’ll be hurt? About… Brixie?”

 

“Not one bit,” answers Rose. “He’ll be just fine, I promise.”

 

Rey can't stop her brow from furrowing in her confusion. “But—”

 

“The holocall, Rey.” A quirked eyebrow, a knowing smile. Of course: Brixie must have broken it off with him, when he contacted them. Was he hurt? she wonders. Did he mourn what he and Brixie could’ve had? At least he had Finn to talk to, but…

 

How she wishes it could have been her.

 

“Oh,” she says, numb, feeling foolish. Rose smiles kindly, in response. A long lull rushes in and stagnates between them, as they stand there, gazing at the sunny day. The breeze brushes the grasses against their legs.

 

It could be you, she thinks. Surely… surely there is a space for her, somewhere between the wild leaps of youth and the weary forfeiture her life had become, before she left Jakku.

 

It's a struggle to keep the smile on her face; her lip trembles, threatening a frown.

 

She wants to believe in second chances so badly.

 

When Rose at last speaks, she sounds subdued. “This is one of my favorite places to go at the beginning and end of summer—when the delia pavorums are in bloom.”

 

“Maybe I’ll stay a while, and draw it.” Rey brings a hand up to shield her eyes from the sunlight, and shakes her wind-mussed hair free from her face.

 

“You want company?”

 

“Only if you want,” she says, turning to look at Rose. Her friend’s eyes slide towards home, where Brixie lies napping.

 

“I can stay,” she offers reluctantly.

 

“Go!” Rey shoos her away with a laugh. “Go check on her.”

 

Rose laughs along with her, already backing away. “You sure?”

 

“I’ll be fine. I think I can handle myself.”

 

With another chuckle and a wave, Rose turns and ambles back down the way they've just climbed.

 

Alone now, Rey drags in a deep breath, taking in all the wild, verdant scents of the afternoon. She lets her eyes drift closed, and collapses to the ground, settling herself in the grass in a cross-legged position.

 

She’s seen and smelled and tasted more green and more life in the past two and a half months than she had her whole life on Jakku. And she’s still not tired of any of it. She’s pretty sure she never will be.

 

There is such a feeling of serenity and safety, here at the top of this small hill. She is small, but not insignificant. And it’s almost as if something is awakening within her… the sapling again, she realizes.

 

Second chances. A new beginning, a promise she’d long forgotten.

 

For the first time in years, Rey does not banish that promise. She turns towards it, pictures the sapling in her mind, and reaches for it with her senses.

 

The more she reaches, the more she sees. The more she sees, the more she feels.

 

Now there is not just the sapling. Now there is grass, everywhere grass. And trees, and moss, and shrubs, and wildflowers, a thousand different kinds. Now there are fathiers and banthas and fish and butterflies and insects and deep in the earth, wriggling blindworms and burrowers and the bones of those creatures who died long ago. Now there are petrified trees, an entire planet spiked with them.

 

Now there are ocean tides shifting at the beckoning of the moon, two suns around which the planet slingshots, again and again, for aeons.

 

All of this, she feels within her.

 

And more: now there are not just all the wildflowers, but delia pavorum— their energy fallen dormant, dry and cold— but Rey feels them, each living root, each taproot and each spindly extension; she breathes in their calm death, breathes out their bright life. Without consciously meaning to, she wills them to come back to her.

 

And then she consciously wills it so.

 

Open, she begs the flowers. Come back. Open again. Show me life, show me rebirth.

 

There is fear, here, with all this life and death. The old fear, just as she remembered it. But it is her own, and it is not unconquerable. Rey stares down that fear, and she does not blink.

 

Calm rushes through her, then settles: a wave filling a tidal pool. She is tranquil, both empty and full. She is a drop of water making its way from the clouds to the tops of the crater’s snowy peaks down to the sea. She is the water and the pool, filling herself. She is a newly born fathier calf stumbling to her hooves in the forest nearby and she is a primordial star collapsing in on herself somewhere across the galaxy.

 

She is alive. Well and truly alive, and connected to it all.

 

Show me, she entreats.

 

There is a change in the air pressure, a sudden drop or rise perhaps, as if the flow of energy in all the cosmos is rearranging itself just for her. A slow turn, but picking up momentum quickly; a boulder rolling down a hill, an idyllic day passing in the blink of an eye. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck rises.

 

It takes Rey’s breath away. She is working so hard, and yet she has not moved since she sat herself down in the grass. Sweat beads across her brow, rolls down her temples; she pants, her limbs trembling from the effort.

 

Awaken.

 

She opens her eyes.

 

Things are not how she left them.

 

The valley is filled with mere grass no longer. Mixed in among the swaying blades are delicate yellow clusters, bright tiny blooms bursting forth like the foaming swells of the ocean’s tides.

 

Delia pavorum, everywhere. As far as the eye can see. Not just the valley, but up over the next hill, and the one beyond that. Not just one wave, but a rolling sea of them— wave after wave of yellow delia pavorum blossoms. It should not be, but Rey called to them, and they came back for her.

 

“By the Force,” she breathes out, astonished by what she is seeing.

 

By what she has done.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“I have a favor to ask,” she says to Rose, once they’ve got a large pot of Alderaan stew simmering on the cooking burner that evening.

 

Rose turns to her, leaning a hip against the edge of the kitchen counter. “Shoot.”

 

In lieu of a response, Rey gestures for Rose to wait, then heads in the direction of the extra bedroom. She finds what she’s looking for nestled in its box, right where it belongs, then returns to the main room. Passing over the box and its contents to a waiting Rose, she requests, “Could you… make something for me? A chain, to hang this on?”

 

Upon opening the lid and finding the shining silver-black pearl inside, Rose smirks. “I recognize this,” she teases, sing-song, “Naboo night pearl. Bu-u-ut… where'd you get a Naboo night pearl, I wonder?”

 

From across the room, Brixie pipes up, her attention diverted from the HoloNet article about the sweat bees of Scarif she'd been reading aloud to them earlier. “Pretty sure anyone can buy a night pearl, for the right price.”

 

“Doubt it.” Rose shakes her head at Brixie then meets Rey’s eyes, one dark brow arched. “They’re so rare, they’re hardly seen anywhere besides on the crowns of Nabooian royalty.” The smirk returns. “Nope, I’d bet every credit I have that somebody gave you this. And that that somebody has a connection to Naboo.” A pause, long enough for her to tap her chin in faux-contemplation. “Hmmm, perhaps a member of a family associated with the monarchy?”

 

Rey gives a shamefaced shrug, utterly mortified at being so transparent. “I didn’t know how…” she manages.

 

Just like that, Brixie is up out of her chair, drawing closer to the kitchen. “Oh,” she breathes, drawn-out, her mouth the same shape as the sound emitting from it. “Oh, maker! Him? But Rey, you never—”

 

Rey feels her lower lip begin to wobble, her throat seizing up. She’d known that presenting this pearl to Rose— who seems to have caught much more than she’s tried to let on— might lead here. To this conversation. About him.

 

She’s not entirely ready, but she’s ready enough. Especially with Rose, who she knows will understand, and Brixie, who has not mentioned the Captain once since her holocall with him the other day.

 

“We were young. On Jakku,” she tries, and even just that makes something twist painfully in her chest.

 

“Hey, it’s all right,” Rose soothes, coming in for a hug, her arms wrapped around Rey before she has time to object. “Some things are tough to talk about.”

 

After a moment of resistance, Rey lets out a heavy sigh, and leans her head atop of Rose’s.

 

“Does that mean when we were talking about—that breakup you mentioned—but you said—”

 

“I’m sorry, Brixie,” she says.

 

She raises her eyes to meets Brixie’s, and finds confusion there. It eases after a moment into something gentler. “…It’s okay,” she replies, mollified, but clearly still a bit hurt. “You didn’t have to lie, though.”

 

“I know, but I couldn’t—it’s been so long since I spoke about him, and you and him were so—”

 

“I get it,” interjects Rose. “To protect yourself, sometimes you set things aside.”

 

“…Or bury them,” Brixie adds after a second, giving a sad nod.

 

Rey’s shoulders sag with relief. “Exactly.”

 

“Well consider the relationship unburied,” Rose pauses just long enough to glance at Brixie, who nods again, more eagerly now, “And that chain as good as made,” she concludes, eying the pearl.

 

“I can pay you for it—” Rey offers, but Rose cuts her off at the pass:

 

“Nonsense.”

 

“That’s an awful lot for just a gift,” she murmurs.

 

“Okay,” laughs Rose, “How about this? Milk the banthas for the rest of the time you’re here, in exchange. It’s my least favorite chore—and now it can be yours.”

 

“Deal,” she blurts out, some other part of her thawing at the generosity of her friend. Humbled, she sends back a soft, “Thank you, Rose.”

 

“Anytime, friend.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Uh… did anyone else notice all the delia pavorum in the valley this morning?” asks Brixie, as they are sipping caf the next day.

 

Rose frowns. “Wait, what? That’s strange—they shouldn’t do that for a couple months.” She rises from the table, Brixie in tow, and heads for the front door.

 

Panic swipes at Rey, even as she makes to follow. How will she explain this? What will they think?

 

Will they fear her, and the Force, as he once did?

 

Will she be shunned?

 

Rose freezes in the doorway, staring at the world of yellow blossoms outside. Slowly, she turns back to Rey, who stands fidgeting by a sofa. “Did… you… do this?”

 

Brixie turns as well, her eyes wide with surprise. “Wait. Is this something you can… do?” she asks, voice pitched higher than usual.

 

Willing herself not to cry, Rey blinks hard and fast, pushing her nose in the air. She draws on every ounce of her family’s infamous pride.

 

“And if it is?” she rejoins.

 

Rose stares at her for a moment, a sympathetic moue pulling her lips downward. “The ash-rabbits will have you to thank for a fat summer,” she answers soberly. “And a lean autumn.”

 

A tense second passes.

 

Brixie cracks first. Just an escaped hiccup of laughter. But it catches quickly; soon, Rose is giggling along.

 

And before she knows it, Rey herself is laughing too.

 

She takes heart in the realization then that she will not have to leave. That she has been accepted.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Two nights later— Brixie having officially moved all her belongings out, she and Rose having long since bid Rey an amiable goodnight and disappeared into Rose’s room together— Rey sits up late in her sleeper, reading on a borrowed datapad. Each night since the one they arrived, she’s noticed, is warmer than the last, and she doesn’t even need her bedding tonight. She wears only a simple sleeveless shift, and she’s cracked open the room’s lone window.

 

The chatter of crickets, birds, and bilgefrogs has lingered long past sundown, and a mild breeze brushes in, keeping the temperature of the bedroom tolerable and carrying with it all the scents of the outside world.

 

She taps the screen, continuing onto the next page of an old article she is reading, about the strange and unfortunate— but unsurprising, considering his rank and the people with whom he associated— death of Brendol Hux.

 

Poisoning, it would seem.

 

The night smells fresh, and sweet, and clean. Rey breathes deeply as she reads, enjoying the sounds and smells of a living world.

 

She doesn’t even remember falling asleep; one second she is reading, her eyelids growing heavy, and the next, she is under the tree, between his legs. She shifts, settling back against his chest, a smile plucking at her lips when she hears him hum, “Hmmm, there you are.”

 

“Here I am,” she affirms, and reaches back for his hands, which he readily cedes. She brings them around her, wrapping herself up in him as if he were a blanket, and sighs her satisfaction. Chandrila’s ocean waves rumble, sounding both near and far: whoosh, swish, shurr. Its moons are bright as ever, and they cast dark shadows in the Dameron orchard.

 

“Do you remember this?”

 

His hands have begun to roam; one rests on her belly, his big thumb brushing back and forth over the space between her breasts, the other travels lower, fiddling with the hem of her sleep shirt, which has ridden up to her thighs.

 

“I remember everything,” she says.

 

He taps out a melody on her exposed thigh. “Not what happens in here.”

 

“Almost everything,” she amends, nervy, breathless, laying a hand on his to direct it under her shirt.

 

“Can I?” he asks, and she can almost hear the smile in his rich voice. The soft teasing in his tone.

 

“Please.”

 

His hands are warm from touching her. He slides the shirt up, up, up to her waist; she grabs hold of each of his knees, rising on either side of her like sturdy armrests, and tries, as subtly as she can, to thrust up at his teasing fingers.

 

“Shh,” she hears. “I’ve got you.”

 

And then he is rubbing a taunting path around her sex, not quite touching it. Just testing her.

 

She manages to grit out, “Ben,” and like she’s spoken the passcode, he dives in, thumb strumming her clit, the hard pressure on that hot, sensitive bundle of nerves exactly what she needs. His thick fingers slip along her folds, which have quickly become slick and heated. Everything is heated, for that matter: her body, the night air, his breath against her cheek.

 

Hot, slick, throbbing. All these sensations, beyond anything she’s ever dreamed. Waking up within the dream, recognizing the simulacrum, she shudders and cries out, “Ben?

 

“I want you to do something for me,” he rumbles in her ear, low. “At least—I want you to try. Will you?”

 

His free hand strokes over the soft skin of her belly, up towards her breasts. He palms one, gently, then the other.

 

Her legs spasm with the rising pleasure, the old storm, his hands on her just like she remembers. Between ragged breaths, she gets out: “Whu—?”

 

“I’ve got you, I said,” he repeats, pressing a chaste kiss to the side of her neck, right where her racing pulse must be visible.

 

To his reassurance and to his question, she huffs, “O-okay,” as she bucks against his hand. He slips a finger up into her, curling it. Both searching and claiming.

 

She glances down. The inside of her upper thighs are slick-shiny in the moonlight, and she can feel dampness trickling downwards. She can feel him, too; hard against her back, even through his trousers. He moves with her, ever so slightly.

 

It’s beyond good. She was wrong, it’s not how she remembers; it wasn’t ever quite this good when they were young and insatiable. There’s no tentativeness now, so much less fear. There is just this twisting buzz zipping through her, just the bliss and the understanding that this, what they have right here, could never be wrong.

 

Rey is seconds from shattering, a piece of amber hurtling inexorably towards a hard, sharp surface. There’s no telling if she’ll survive the impact. But she keens out her rapture, and rocks against his hand. She’s not afraid anymore; she’s not going to give this up again.

 

“Now focus,” he directs, still working her. “Are you focused?”

 

“Mmhmm.”

 

“Good. Rey—I want you to remember this. Remember.”

 

“Rememb—?” she starts to ask, but it’s too late; the storm has snuck up on her, and she’s coming already, hard. A succession of sweet fluttering pulses starts in her cunt, every muscle in her stomach and legs gone rigid with tension, toes curling from the joy if it, the utter rightness, before everything loosens, she blinks…

 

…And she is awake, in her sleeper in Rose’s extra bedroom, the night dark and its heat oppressive, weighing down on her. She’s soaked, she realizes after a second; not only soaked through in her underwear, but sweat-drenched. The sheets underneath her are sodden.

 

None of that bothers her, because Rey remembers.

 

The dream tries to vanish as it always does but this time she snatches at it and holds fast, and after a moment, the memory of it solidifies in her mind. In her body, too; in her bones and her muscles and in her cunt.

 

She remembers.

 

And she understands: it wasn’t just a dream. It couldn’t have been. It was too vivid, too sensual. Still not enough to sate her yearning for him, but much more than the usual phantasms of sleep. No, no. The colors, the smells, the sensations, the sounds; it may not have been real, but… it certainly wasn’t pure fantasy.

 

Every part of her remembers. Remembers him, his body, remembers other times they met under the tree in that liminal space between sleep and waking, remembers soft whispering exchanges in soft rose-gold light. Soft touches exchanged, soft lips touching places that have not been kissed since he left.

 

“Stars,” she gasps out, blinking up at the darkness with wonderment.

 

Like a jolt of electricity coursing through her, the thought presents itself: she remembers it all, all these dreams-that-could-not-possibly-be-only-dreams… does he?

 

 

Chapter Text

42 ABY.

 

A month passes on Batuu, the weather taking a turn towards sweltering, and when Rey reflects back upon the weeks, she finds she isn’t really able to account for what has filled them. She does know this much: there are long leisurely meals, late nights spent laughing and talking with Rose and Brixie, chores to be done, treks throughout the valley, and a communion with everything around her that demands careful exploring. It is a peaceful month. Of that, she is certain.

 

And something else: she feels herself growing stronger, where once she felt weak. Braver, where she’d felt timidity.

 

Primed to seek out her future, where once she’d been mired in the present.

 

She thinks often of him. How he is, what he’s doing.

 

The speculation is not as fraught as it once was; instead, thoughts of him bring a sense of anticipation. After all, she knows now they will meet again each night, in their dreams. Some days, knowing that drives her to distraction. It causes the hours to slip away unnoticed or slow to a crawl; either way, it is exquisite torture.

 

Lulled as they are by the carnality of stolen time, they rarely ever speak in those dreams besides soft murmured endearments. Under the uneti tree, they are tactile creatures. To ask for cerebral exchanges of one another seems unjust.

 

It’s the Force; it must be. A blatant misuse of it, no doubt. But how can they be blamed for what their unconscious minds do when they are at rest? Or… is it even them, performing such a feat? If they meet in their dreams, maybe it is simply the will of the Force.

 

This idea doesn’t fill her with the old remorse or heartbreak. Again, just anticipation.

 

Just an eagerness that has been missing for far too long.

 

 

. . .

 

 

At first, Brixie makes excuses to Kes and Shara Bey as to why she must stay on Batuu so long after she has healed from her injuries. But when they keep on calling, wondering why she hasn’t returned, she comes clean.

 

Rey can hear her in Rose’s bedroom one afternoon, where she has absconded with the comlink. “I’m happy here, guys,” she assures them. And: “I don’t want to come back. Not yet, anyway.” And: “No, I’m not sure when.” And: “Yes, I’ve told Chandriltech… technically, I’m on sabbatical.” And: “No, you shouldn't be worried.” And: “Yes, you will see me again.” And finally: “Yes, I promise!”

 

Rey backs her up when Shara Bey and Kes ask to speak in a private holocall, assuring them that she trusts Brixie’s judgement.

 

Summer is truly upon them by then, with blistering hot days and nights that aren’t much cooler. Rose has no climate control in her home, so when the metal walls and roof refuse to let go of their residual heat, the women tromp out to the closest copse of trees, from which they hang synthatex hammocks.

 

Rey relishes the chance to once again swing herself to sleep. And though the sensation of sleeping suspended brings with it terrible memories, she allows for the fact that it brings good memories, too.

 

Memories of their brief time together. Memories of his hands on her. Memories of the storm.

 

She sleeps soundly, and meets him each night to revive those memories. The becalmed eye of a spinning storm, him and her. Peace.

 

So the month passes.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Finn calls late one night. The three of them are half in their cups on Batuu brew, counting shooting stars outside. A gentle breeze rustles the grasses and the trees and wicks away their sweat, for which Rey is grateful.

 

After Brixie has accosted him with a riotous peal of giggling and he and Rose have exchanged a few amiable updates about Chandrila and the fathiers and other day-to-day minutiae— minus the contents of Leia’s ongoing meetings, on which he has been sworn to silence— he asks to speak with Rey.

 

“My, my, what an honor,” she teases in greeting, after she takes the holoprojector from Rose. Then she succumbs to her own tipsy giggling. When she finally settles down and brings herself to focus on Finn’s flickering blue face, she catches a hint of amused forbearance that has set his lips to twitching.

 

“You alright there, Rey?” he asks.

 

Playfully she croons, “I am now!”

 

“Hm.” For a moment he grows very stern, brow furrowing, and then the jig is up; he breaks into a wide smile. “Nice to see you having a good time.”

 

“It’s wonderful here, Finn,” she replies. “Paradise. Don’t you ever miss it?”

 

“Yep.”

 

Her mirth dies off at his forlorn tone. “Well… you’ve left for a good cause, at least.”

 

He huffs. “I’d like to think so. Listen Rey, I’m between meetings so I can’t stay on the line for long, but—I’ve gotta make the trip out to Jakku in about a week.”

 

“Jakku?” she busts out, nearly tumbling out of her chair in shock. She glances over and Brixie and Rose; they look just as surprised as her.

 

“Yep. Have to deliver a datachip to Master Luke Skywalker—by hand.”

 

“…Oh.”

 

“So, then I had the thought… maybe you’d wanna go back for a visit? See what they’ve done with your old place? Skywalker asked about you when I spoke to him. Said you’d be welcome any time.”

 

The very idea of it is daunting. Is she ready to return, so soon after leaving? Does she even want to be ready? To see what has become of the building in which she and her mother toiled away their precious time together? To confirm what she’s known all along: that Jakku never really needed her? She peers up at the stars for a moment, hoping they will provide an answer.

 

They remain as beautiful and impassive as ever. Silent. Distant. Without judgement or counsel.

 

Looking back to Finn, she begins to shake her head. “I—”

 

“You don’t have to answer right away,” he hastens to add. “Take a day or two, and think about it.”

 

“Yes, alright.” Rey works to return Finn’s smile, though she can feel it not quite reaching her eyes. “Let me think about it.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

She does. That night— not long after they end the call, she curls up in her hammock, fiddling with the lone black pearl that now hangs from the chain Rose has fashioned for her— she stares up at the leaves above her head. Back and forth she swings. Back. Forth. Slow but steady. The gentle swaying helps her think.

 

So long does she think that the sky is beginning to lighten by the time her eyes finally sink closed. During this lost night, she thinks about so many things. About fear, hers and his. About what she has reclaimed here on Batuu. About the Force, and change. And she wonders: is she free of all that came to pass on Jakku, if she cannot face it again?

 

What would it mean, really, to return? It’s not forever. It’s only a visit.

 

You will not be trapped there, she promises herself. Never again.

 

You are not the same sad, lost soul who stepped off that ship onto Chandrila.

 

She’d like to ask the Skywalkers about the dreams, if she can devise a roundabout way to do so. And maybe… it could be interesting, to see what has become of Ergel’s bar. And Cratertown. And Niima Outpost.

 

On second thought, she reverses. Kriff the outpost, and kriff Unkar Plutt.

 

By the time she falls asleep, Rey is determined to go. She wants to see it with her altered eyes, with the benefit of distance and time. Even in the handful of months that she’s been gone, she has grown in ways she had not for years; she can feel it, she sees it in the mirror, she hears it in the way she speaks.

 

She does want to see Jakku.

 

But what occurs to her is this: even more than she wants to see Jakuu, she wants Jakku to see her. As she is now.

 

Altered, beyond recognition.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“It’s time for me to leave, I fear,” she informs Rose and Brixie later that morning. They’re sitting under the shade of some scrubby trees on the banks of one of the valley’s wider rivers, their feet submerged in its burbling shallows. Brixie’s brows jump at the announcement, but Rose merely gives an understanding nod. Rey explains, “Finn’s invited me to go back to Jakku with him. Visit Master Skywalker.”

 

“Are you—going to become a Jedi now?” Brixie asks.

 

She laughs. “I don’t think so. But… he might have some advice for me. What I am to do next.”

 

“You could always talk to him by comm or holo,” Rose says. “You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to, Rey.”

 

A resolved shake of her head. “I’ve thought it over. I’m ready. To—see Jakku again, I mean. I can’t explain it but it feels—important.”

 

Again, Rose nods.

 

“I’m staying,” Brixie declares.

 

Then she glances at Rose for affirmation. With a toss of her wide-brimmed hat onto the grass behind her, Rose leans in and smacks a kiss on Brixie’s lips. There she lingers for a moment longer than is chaste, the kiss melting from something theatrical to something warmer, more earnest— something heated. Rey averts her gaze until they finally break apart, at which point Rose turns back to her.

 

“She’s staying.”

 

“I’d figured as much,” she remarks, amused.

 

Brixie beams at her. “I’m thinking about developing a series of ranching droids—hardier than just a vet droid, and more complex than the farming ones,” she tells Rey. “More specialized for a place like this.”

 

“I have no doubt you’ll come up with something wonderful,” Rey says. “And should you sell it, that it’ll be the best on the market.”

 

At Brixie’s delighted giggle, Rose gives a happy hum; from the big bag beside her, she pulls out a bottle of Ambrostine, fine sweet liqueur the color of a fiery Chandrilan sunset. She pours three small glasses, also procured from the bag. Upon dispersing them, she raises her glass— Rey and Brixie following suit— then toasts:

 

“To the future. And the past. And all our days in between.”

 

“Here here,” says Brixie.

 

The three drink readily to that.

 

 

. . .

 

 

That afternoon— having run through a systems check on Nightbloomer with the Captain’s astromech, 2BB-2, her sole co-pilot on the journey to Jakku, and having familiarized herself with the overwhelming luxury of his yacht’s beautiful, state-of-the-art interior— Rey sits at the kitchen table, helping where she can while Rose and Brixie cook up a storm for her.

 

During her time on Batuu, she’s ascertained that she’s more or less shit at cooking; having grown up sustaining herself on rations that required no more than a bit of water and some patience, this revelation doesn’t really come as a surprise. But she’s grateful for the lengths to which her friends are going to ensure she doesn’t have to resort to synthetic food during her passage. And she’s been assigned to the duty of chopping vegetables, a task to which she finds herself equal. She’s glad for it, for something to occupy her hands while thoughts of the flight and of him occupy her mind.

 

When the last of the charbote root has been diced and delivered to Brixie’s waiting skillet, Rose disappears into her bedroom and returns with a small black box Rey recognizes at once: a handboard.

 

“Heard you’re quite the prodigy,” she says, nodding towards Brixie as she hands the instrument to Rey.

 

“Can anyone really be a prodigy on this thing?” wonders Rey.

 

“Oh come on, give us some music while we cook for you, Rey,” Brixie cajoles. “Fair’s fair.”

 

Rey waves her hand over the handboard, trying not to remember the pain and melancholy of the last time she held one.

 

A lovely sound issues from it, just like on Gatalenta. No, she won’t dwell on that day right now. Instead, she focuses on creating something cheerful. She wiggles her fingers rapidly over its surface. The tune produced is lively, with a quick tempo and a full, round sound.

 

Celebratory. Perfect, she thinks.

 

There is so much to celebrate here on Batuu, surrounded by the happiness of her friends’ newfound love. It feels like home. Sitting at the table, toodling around on the handboard while they laugh and joke at the counter, she is content. Brixie pulls Rose into an impromptu waltz as she plays, nearly allowing the spiceloaf to burn, which sends them all into another round of giggling.

 

(It feels like the home he'd offered to mold Jakku into for her. Like family and belonging and comfort.)

 

She almost cancels her plans and stays.

 

But she'd decided to go. She’s promised Finn she would. And whatever else changes or evolves about her, Rey is still a woman of her word. And she still wants Jakku to see her.

 

Besides, she thinks to herself as she raises Nightbloomer up into a clear blue sky the next morning, waving one more goodbye out the viewport to a hugging Brixie and Rose, this time should be just for them.

 

After all, you only get that glow of new love once with the person you've chosen, a truth Rey understands all too well. But as she leaves the atmosphere of Batuu, adjusting the phototropic shielding on her viewports to filter out the blinding light of Batuu’s suns and double-checking the course she and 2BB-2 have plotted a final time before they make the jump to lightspeed… that understanding doesn't fill her with the same sorrow it once did.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Many, many hours later, having slumped low in the pilot’s seat to steal a few minutes’ rest, she meets the Captain in an exhausted gasp of a dream. Everything is half-real as always, all sensual touches that are real enough to suffice, but not real enough to truly satisfy.

 

He whispers a word to her right before waking:

 

“Kaliida.”

 

Her eyes open. Outside, the galaxy is flying past in a blur of blue and black and white. Immediately, she leans forward, intent on using the navcomp’s connection to the HoloNet to search for it. She gets a few results that don’t seem pertinent, and then:

 

“Kaliida Nebula, Outer Rim. Several parsecs in width and depth, located along the Balmorra Run.”

 

The Balmorra Run, she recalls having overheard once on Jakku— though she has no recollection where or when, maybe from someone passing through Unkar Plutt’s stand, maybe at Ergel’s bar— is a route through the dangerous nebula, used by smugglers bringing goods in and out of Naboo. To reach it is just a short detour from the route she has planned.

 

Without a second thought, she gives 2BB-2 the order to re-plot their coordinates.

 

 

. . .

 

 

When Nightbloomer drops out of lightspeed, they are on the outer reaches of the Ryndellia system. Its star is no more than a distant beacon, blinking faintly in the void. All she can see from her seat is the bright tunnel of shimmering crimson and fuschia before them; it grows ever fierier, bright yellows and oranges, as it stretches away from the ship.

 

They’re here; Nightbloomer is hovering at the mouth of the Kaliida Nebula.

 

It's massive. If she were to estimate, she’d be inclined to say a dozen Ravager’s could fly through side-by-side and never once would their crew have to worry about hulls touching. The Captain’s yacht is miniscule by comparison; for a moment, Rey shrinks down in her seat, awestruck and intimidated.

 

Then the first creature flies past, coming up on the yacht from behind. Immediately, 2BB-2 cuts the engine and all support systems, so the ship floats inert, dark, and silent. The creature dwarfs Nightbloomer, easily ten times its size. Its monstrous wings— smooth, shining in the crimson light like the slick skin of a waterborne creature— span half the width of the bright tunnel.

 

“Neebray manta,” chirps 2BB-2 in Binary. “Blind. Feeds on helium and dust. Can only sense through heat or vibration.”

 

“Ah,” is her reply, no more than a tight gasp.

 

Another flies past, swooping up the starboard side of the ship then continuing onward. She notes how much larger it is than the first; its wings nearly touch the swirling walls of dust and gas to either side of them. A baby and its parent, perhaps. The smaller doubles back, revealing a round head dotted with dark nodules, a gaping maw and dull red eyes. For as impressive as its wings are, its body is comparatively small, limbless but for three swaying tentacles extending from the underside that seem to help it navigate whatever currents might be found within the nebula.

 

The mantas circle each other, gliding. The smaller cries out, a long high-pitched wail, and the larger answers in a deep bone-rattling bellow.

 

They are terrible. And beautiful. They leave her speechless. And then, with a few flaps of their massive wings, they are gone, flying off towards the light and heat of the star being born, in the heart of the nebula.

 

Rey is all alone.

 

She doesn’t feel that way, though.

 

Almost like a hologram, like a ghostly vision, they appear to her: young Ben, no more than eleven she suspects, and Han, just starting to go grey. There they stand in the cockpit of a beat-up old Corellian light freighter, watching this very same scene unfold before their eyes. Han’s hand rests on Ben’s thin shoulder. The boy already stands as tall as his chest; it won’t be long until he’s taller than his father.

 

Han cracks and for a moment, looks at his son with such tenderness. Such gratitude for the choices the boy has made. For choosing him. Young Ben turns to offer his father a goofy smile. He’s still growing into his outsized features and bares all the gangliness and clumsiness of a dingory pup. Han smiles back.

 

And she is there with them.

 

The tears slip free, hot and stinging; she does not fight them. She allows herself this.

 

She cries for that Han, for that Ben. For the time that has been lost. For the people who have been lost, too.

 

For herself. For what she has lost and what she has permitted to be taken from her.

 

And when she’s quieted, when the tears have dried and the terrible ache in her chest has eased, the Falcon and the Solo boys are gone. But she finds it’s not so painful as she might’ve thought, to occupy this space without him. To know he was here without her. Once at least, in childhood, but maybe other times too.

 

(It could’ve been with her, had things been different. She breathes in the pang of grief that stabs at her, sucks it deep into her lungs, and then exhales, letting it go. Releasing it.)

 

She is grateful that the Force chose to show her that moment between them.

 

Another neebray manta flaps past, close enough that the wind created by its wings buffets the ship, sending it into a sidelong roll and 2BB-2 into a momentary panic. When the neebray has soared further into the nebula, they boot up the systems and engine once more so that the ship can be set to rights.

 

Rey smiles after the mantas. Dangerous beasts, yes. But also: creatures perfectly content to do nothing more than live on cosmic dust and gas, to soar through the depths of space, to be no more or less than what they are. She admires them. She has taken heart at the sight of them. It seems a good sort of life. She can understand why Han chose it for himself, and why Ben did too.

 

There is serenity to be found in the moment, so Rey cozies up to it, embraces it, wraps herself up in it.

 

She exhales again, another deep breath released.

 

Peace. Pain, but peace.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Cratertown is gone.

 

This is what she discovers, when she brings Nightbloomer down into the sere bright atmosphere of Jakku, flying far above the blonde dunes in the Captain’s sleek transport, undoubtedly making quite an impression on any remaining scavengers who happen to see.

 

The bar is gone, the shanties are gone, all of it is gone. (She shouldn’t be as alarmed as she is by the sight; she knows all too well, nothing is forever on Jakku.) In their place is the foundation of a great stone temple, still under construction. Countless species buzz around the structure as Rey lands, then lowers the yacht’s ventral boarding ramp. She tosses back a few instructions to 2BB-2 before heading out into the dazzling sunlight.

 

“Rey!”

 

Finn stands tall and proud upon the sands not far from the ship, looking handsome, dignified in a senator’s sweeping charcoal-hued robes. His dark brow shines with sweat; reflexively, he pulls a handkerchief from somewhere to dab it dry.

 

He’s flanked by a hulking droid who is armed with what amounts to an arsenal, and an Imroosian, dressed in a sleek plasticene suit that is clearly impractical for the desert. Her chalky white scalp glitters in the slanted afternoon light and her pitch-black eyes skitter skeptically over Rey.

 

“Hullo,” Rey greets them, squinting as she clambers down the ramp and into Finn’s waiting embrace.

 

“Man, am I happy to see you again.” He pulls back, holding on by the biceps, and his own eyes do a quick perusal of her form. Then he nods. “You look good. Healthy.”

 

Rey chuckles. “Thanks, Finn. You too. I mean, you look… important.”

 

“That’s me,” he drawls, with a snort. “Big deal.” He lets go of Rey to gesture towards the Imroosian, who has watched this exchange in silence. “This is my personal advisor and assistant, Angmi.” Black lines traverse her pale face; they twist like cracks in ice when she gives a restrained smile and dips her head in a nod. Rey responds in kind.

 

Finn leans in. “She’s very serious.”

 

“Ah,” says Rey.

 

Angmi raises one thin brow, but otherwise does not comment. With a dry laugh, Finn gestures to the droid. “And that’s Gee-Three, my bodyguard.”

 

The droid nods with equal solemnity.

 

Again, Rey mirrors the gesture.

 

“Also very serious.”

 

“I see that,” she chirps. The two figures stand stone still behind Finn, unsmiling and unwavering. She herself lets loose a nervous chuckle.

 

Finn rolls his eyes. “Now that that's out of the way, I can give you a tour of the place. C’mon.”

 

Eying the beginnings of the temple, she gives a tiny shake of her head. “I should—I should help Bee-Too with the systems shutdown—”

 

“Hey,” says Finn, “I know Solo. Trust me, he wouldn’t keep an astromech around who couldn’t handle that stuff on its own.”

 

In the distance, brown-robed figures mill around the temple’s base, along with an assortment of younglings and scrawny scavengers and people who are clearly— from their purposeful strides, and the authoritative snap in their voices— former military. More species than she even recognizes; all hard at work.

 

She swallows, then stammers, “My—my uh, staff—”

 

Angmi finally deigns to speak. “You are among friends here, young Rey of Jakku.” Her ageless voice is rough, like sandpaper scraping across stone, but her tone is kind, and her black eyes lend her an air of omniscience that Rey finds somehow both disconcerting and comforting.

 

“Yeah.” Finn’s expression, when she flits her gaze back across his face, is softened with understanding. “She’s right. But—‘course, if you want your staff, go grab it. No rush.”

 

Withdrawing into the ship so she can strap the quarterstaff across her body and throw a satchel full of her essentials over her shoulder, she steals a few moments’ deep breaths and barks out some last instructions to 2BB-2 before ambling back down the ramp.

 

“Ready,” she tells Finn, with what she hopes sounds like confidence.

 

“Great!” He smiles at her reassuringly. With a robed arm swept out towards the temple, he announces, “In that case… welcome, Rey, to Master Skywalker’s New Jedi Order.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Finn is gregarious. He makes friends with ease, listening carefully to the comments and jokes thrown around by padawans and younglings and adults. It’s obvious people like him because he’s quick on his feet with a joke, a helpful suggestion, an encouraging remark.

 

Even the severe monks of Tuanul, whose sole purpose at the temple seems to be some sort of blessing or ritual involving droning prayer and the somber burning of desert sage, nod amicably to Finn as he leads Rey past them. Angmi never leaves his left side nor G3 his back, so Rey sidles up on his right, and tries to remember names as he points out people he knows. Here a cameloid H’drachi he met during the war, there a horned Devaronian male, crimson flesh marked with tattoos, to whom he was introduced by the Solos at some point. Someone he chatted with a few days ago. Someone he helped out, once. Someone who’s heard of him. He knows more of the people working on the temple than he doesn’t.

 

To herself, Rey wonders if his amiability comes from his years as a soldier living in close quarters with his compatriots. Is that his own form of defense, a residual piece of armor he still carries with him? In the guise of an everyman, after all, he cannot be singled out. She has seen holos of the First Order’s stormtroopers. Their uniforms are all the same, the breathing apparatuses of their masks all contorted into the same bizarre, gleaming grimace, just like those of the Empire before them. Compliance, conformity, and cooperation are key to survival as a footsoldier of the First Order. Or so she imagines.

 

But as Finn continues speaking— discussing some of the reforms he is working to pass, inquiring about her time on Batuu— Rey can see that he is singular.

 

As if she didn’t already know. He is, after all, the ‘trooper who walked away from the First Order and not only survived, but helped to bring them down.

 

She studies him when she breaks the news about Rose and Brixie, wondering if that is anguish she sees in his dark eyes, his sagging shoulders. If it is, it’s gone in an instant. He nods his thanks, then steers them back to talk of the future.

 

To Rey, he seems tired but driven. Focused. Hopeful, even.

 

Around the temple, things are surprisingly cheerful; many stop to wave to her and Finn as they pass. Some sing or hum. There is laughter and conversation, even as they labor.

 

Dark stones, each half the height of Rey and larger than a swoop bike, lay around in organized piles. One or two float disconcertingly through the air; the eyes of those that do the floating glow with power and delight. Others are not yet so seasoned, and simply work with their hands. It takes them a while to make their way around the temple’s base, and the morning sun blazes ever-hotter as it rises in the sky.

 

Eventually, a village of plasto-canvas tents comes into view. They were once white, she supposes, but are now the same desert sand hue as everything else.

 

“And in here,” Finn says, as he leads her to an unremarkable tent, just like all the rest, “are the Skywalkers. They’re excited to see you.”

 

“Me?” she squeaks out, utterly surprised.

 

Again, Finn’s face cracks into a wide smile. “Oh, yeah. Mara Jade’s been talking about you since I got here.”

 

And before she can question him any further, the woman in question has flung back one of the flaps of the tent and stepped forward, arms extended.

 

“Rey,” she says, beaming at her. “Welcome home!”

 

 

. . .

 

 

Of course, it’s not really her home anymore. That much is obvious to Rey, and cannot escape Luke and Mara Jade’s notice nor Finn’s or Angmi’s, for that matter. The entirety of what her life had become in the years since her family returned— Cratertown, the bar— it’s gone.

 

She cries no tears for its passing, and mourns none of it. Not even the home that she and her mother built. What was good about those memories— she realizes as she peers out at the dunes and the stones and the temple and its constituents, before joining Mara and the others inside the Skywalker tent— she has taken with her.

 

What was bad, too.

 

But the buildings themselves? Nothing more than wood and stone and ferrocrete and steelcrete.

 

(This is what she has discovered in leaving Jakku. The memories were associated with the place she had lived all her life, that much is true. But they were not completely tied to it. It does not matter where she travels in the galaxy— Chandrila, Rhinnal, Batuu, Bastatha— the memories both good and bad will accompany her.)

 

Greetings are exchanged with the Skywalkers. Then, after they have settled into soft foldable armchairs arranged in a circle upon the tent’s uneven carpeted floor, news is passed between them. In cryptic half-formed sentences, Finn and Angmi and Luke discuss the meetings Leia has been holding, to which Mara rolls her eyes and bids Luke to pour some iced tea for everyone. Once he’s done as she asked, she unearths a collection of old pulse rifles from somewhere and begins dismantling them for cleaning.

 

When night begins to fall some time later, Mara rises to light a few old-fashioned bloggin-oil lanterns. “You seem… happier, than the last time I saw you,” she says, in a soft aside to Rey, as she sits down again and pulls the intricate parts of her weapon back into her lap.

 

Rey casts a glance in the direction of the others, but they’re busy debating the morality of some knight who fought in the Second Sith War— even Angmi is leaning forward in her chair, hands slapping together as she articulates a point that has Luke groaning— so she turns back to Mara and nods.

 

“I am,” she says.

 

Mara inspects the super-conducting filament she holds pinched between her thumb and forefinger. “More confident too,” she adds. “Centered. In yourself, and—in the Force.” An auburn eyebrow cocks, indicating that this is a question.

 

In a whisper this time, Rey repeats: “I am.”

 

Now their eyes meet. Mara’s eyes shine emerald-green in the light of the lamps. She gives Rey a knowing smile, then takes a pleased sip of her tea.

 

“You’ve seen some more of Luke’s nephew, I might guess.”

 

The blush burns her cheeks, but she holds Mara’s gaze. “I’ve seen a lot of things lately. Old… and new.”

 

“Very good.” She can hear the approval in Mara’s voice. “Batuu is a planet steeped in the Force. A very good place for a vacation—for someone like us.”

 

Once, Rey might have pretended not to understand. She might have demurred, or fallen silent, or changed the topic. Now, she does not.

 

“Mm-hmm,” she hums, an agreeable sound, and buries her own knowing smile in her own tea, relishing the cool herbal parching of her thirst. Mara tosses her head back and laughs heartily. Then she throws a wink Rey’s way and resumes her replacement of dead filaments.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The discussion turns to plans for the academy and the students; there is the question of permanent housing for everyone if they outgrow the temple, locating other Jedi to help teach the padawans, how to feed them, and a thousand other logistical puzzles. Rey follows along, mostly in silence, offering suggestions where she can— based on what she knows of the environs— and gratefully accepts the bowl of rice pilaf with grilled koyo fruit offered to her at some point.

 

Her mind is elsewhere as she eats. When her bowl is empty— working on the suspicions she has had since their first meeting— she turns to Mara and asks softly: “You know, don’t you? About Ben and me.”

 

Mara smiles to herself. “Perhaps,” is her only answer.

 

“Have you… that is, this whole time?” Rey sputters.

 

Mara gives her a look. “Perhaps,” she repeats, at the same time that Luke cries out: “I thought it was all over between you two—what a crock of bantha shit!”

 

The conversation grinds to a halt. Luke’s outburst draws a shocked cough from Finn, who sits stunned into silence beside him, and an inquisitive look from Angmi.

 

“You might’ve said so,” Rey says lightly, choosing to reply to Mara instead of Luke.

 

“My beloved husband thought we should mind our own business,” Mara huffs. “He was convinced that meddling in his nephew’s affairs would end in disaster, and insisted that Ben would figure it out on his own. I have remained… less convinced of that. It’s been a matter of quite some discussion between us, I assure you.”

 

Rey’s gaze pings between the two for a moment. “Was convinced?” she prompts.

 

“These days, just about all I’m convinced of is that poor Ben doesn’t know his ass from his elbow,” Luke grouses. “He came to see us a couple weeks ago—brought some supplies we needed for the construction of the temple—and he spent most of that visit either out moping around those old Imperial ships or in this tent, drinking all my tea and talking endlessly about you.”

 

The flush that heats her entire body is fearsome in its warmth and rapidity; she can only imagine how red she must be. “Saying…?”

 

“Oh, fine things.” Luke gives her a benevolent smile. “Very fine.”

 

“How did you know? About us?” she asks, trying to distract herself from the sound of her own pounding heart and the feel of Finn’s eyes boring into her, seeking answers.

 

“As I told you when we met, he’d dropped a few hints. We put the rest together easily enough,” answers Luke. “Didn’t even need to use the Force. He’s not really a subtle person, that Ben Solo.”

 

“Does that bother you?” Mara wonders. A shadow passes over her delicate features. “That we knew? That we know?”

 

Rey cannot be sure. She clutches at the smooth pearl hanging from her neck, and bites the inside of her cheek.

 

“We did want to help.” Mara sighs. “We’ve always wanted to help Ben. But he’s—stubborn. Like his parents.” She shoots Luke a pointed look. “Like your sister.”

 

“Hey, it’s Han’s genes in there too. And he’s the one who raised the kid!”

 

“I—I know that,” Rey interjects. “That you… meant well. I’ve always known that, I think. I could… sense it?”

 

Mara gives her a satisfied smile. “There really has been a change in you, hasn’t there, Rey?”

 

“Yes,” she gasps. “I think there has.”

 

“I’d say we should celebrate with a toast, but all we have to drink around here is tea.” Luke frowns down at his glass, then raises it anyway. “Well, in any case—cheers!”

 

They all touch glasses with a light clink, and a moment of contemplative sipping ensues. Finn and Rey’s eyes meet and he shakes his head, bewildered. She has no good answers for him, so she merely shrugs. At that, he lets out a disbelieving scoff.

 

Redirecting her attention to Luke, she asks, “Have you heard of people—sharing dreams? With—or, using maybe—the Force? ”

 

Mara’s eyes slide back to her— narrowed, canny, seeing right through her. She smirks again then answers for Luke. “There are ancient texts on that sort of thing—on the Force. I could look through what we have here for dream sharing, if you’d like.”

 

“I’d appreciate it,” she murmurs, accepting that the rest of the evening will probably be spent with her cheeks aflame. She takes another deep swallow of her tea, in an attempt to cool herself off.

 

“Then consider it done,” says Mara.

 

 

. . .

 

 

And later, as they are bidding each other goodnight, Mara leans in towards Rey, her head tilted. Her crisp voice is hushed when she asks: “Are you upset, Rey? That we tore it all down? Cratertown?”

 

“No, no,” Rey rushes to assure her. “Surprised, maybe. At first. But—it makes sense, I suppose.”

 

“I meant what I said before.” Mara’s green eyes peer into hers, not a hint of mirth visible. Earnest. Serious, now. “This will always be your home, and you will always be welcome here. Always.”

 

Rey swallows, studying her hands. “Thank you,” she whispers.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“I’ve gotta jet,” Finn tells her, as he walks her to the tent that will be hers for the night. “Tomorrow, first thing. Headed back to Hosnian Prime—there’s still a lot of work to do.”

 

Rey can feel her brow furrowing, a frown of disappointment tugging her lips down. They stumble silently over the sand together; their path is lit a faint flicking orange by scattered campfires, around which sit Luke’s burgeoning first class of Jedi and the monks. Up above, the stars wink and glister, as is their wont. The moons have just begun to emerge from their refuge beneath the western horizon.

 

She’s thinking about masks, and soldiers, and the journey each of these budding Force-users has embarked upon.

 

The same one Finn is on.

 

The one they all must take.

 

The same one on which she has meandered all her life until recently; it has finally begun to sing to her, guiding her towards a path that feels true.

 

Centered in the Force, Mara had said. The stars are different overhead than they were on Batuu, yet they are familiar. They are the stars of her youth, and she does not feel lost. She feels centered. And found. Very found. She wants that for Finn, too. In a more general sense, she wants that for everyone, including these beings who have wandered their way into Luke’s aegis.

 

“I’m sorry you can’t stay longer,” is what she finally comes up with. “I wish we had more time to catch up.”

 

He twitches his shoulders, a melancholy shrug. “Rey—”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Is she happy?”

 

The question halts her in her tracks, and she turns to find Finn has also stopped. He’s facing her, large eyes limpid and glistening in the distant firelight. He searches her face for a hint of an answer.

 

“She is.” She reaches for his hand. “And loved. I think—no, I know it—Brixie really adores her. They’re going to be very good for each other.”

 

A shaky breath, Finn’s, expelled into the rapidly cooling night air. The winds have died down at the moment, but they will pick up again soon; she can feel it.

 

“I’m glad,” he gasps.

 

She watches him swallow then look off at the tents and the fires and the younglings singing a jaunty little tune along with someone’s poor attempts at strumming the alluta. A moment later, he shifts back to her.

 

“I wish I could’ve been—something else. Someone else. Someone—more peaceful, maybe. When I first defected, maybe we should have run then. I probably would’ve kept running the rest of my life.” He shakes his head. “We… might’ve stayed together. But then—it had to happen how it did, right? Otherwise—who knows, what might have been. Just… I just wish I could’ve been someone better for her. Wish I could’ve stayed.”

 

“I’ve played that game before, Finn,” she says ruefully. “There’s no winning it.”

 

He coughs out a sad, wet laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, I know. Ben Solo, huh?”

 

The sound she makes is somewhere between a sob and a giggle, and it borders on the edge of hysteria. All she can do is shrug; Finn nods in sympathy.

 

With a deep breath, she bids him, “Please take care, in the Senate. And don’t be too hard on yourself.” Now it is Rey who opens her arms in an offered embrace; he accepts it eagerly, bending slightly at the waist to hide his damp cheeks in her shoulder. “Promise?”

 

“I’ll see you again, Rey.” He straightens, sniffling softly. “Won’t I?”

 

“You will. But even so—promise me.”

 

“I’ll promise if you do,” he shoots back.

 

She feels his sadness keenly, but nonetheless musters a weak smile. “I do. That is—I will. Take care of myself. And… try not to be… so hard on myself.”

 

“Me too, then.”

 

And as she stares into his eyes, for one second, then two, she cannot help but think: in another life, it might’ve been you and me against the whole galaxy. The two of us, unable to let go of the ghosts that raised us. It might’ve been a true friendship, truer than any I’ve ever known. Who knows? It might’ve been love.

 

“Try not to be too hard on Solo, either. He’s—he’s a good man,” Finn says.

 

She can feel herself starting to unravel, but she manages to get out: “I know.”

 

He sighs. “Okay. I should go.” He jerks his head back towards his tent, where G3 stands watching them both with laser-bright eyes that shine iridescent in the dim light. “Gee-Three loves harassing me when I don’t get a solid eight hours sleep.”

 

“Wouldn’t want to upset Gee-Three,” she mumbles, feeling raw.

 

“Until we meet again, Rey.” His smile is lopsided, still a little tremulous, but resilient.

 

“Until then.”

 

He turns with a wave. She watches him pitch forward, striding clumsily over the sand until he reaches his tent and disappears inside.

 

For a long time after— as she crawls into her own tent, as she tucks herself into her bedroll, as she rolls the pearl between her fingers, as she listens to the winds pick up— she thinks about Finn, and what is to become of him. Of the Force, she makes a request: Let him find happiness. Please, by the holy stars, let him find his own peace.

 

Like a lazy river, her mind drifts towards other thoughts as it carries her off to sleep. Sacrifice. Choices. What-might-have-beens.

 

Fine things, Luke had said. The words come back to her, on a wave of nostalgia and yearning. The Captain had said fine things about her. What should she make of that?

 

How can she speak to him again, and when? As she tumbles down into dreams, she resolves that she must find a way. She must.

 

 

. . .

 

 

When she finds herself under the green-leafed uneti tree, the Captain holds her and attempts to kiss away her worries. He breathes fine things against soft parts of her naked body, but it is not the same. It is not enough.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Finn is as good as his word. By the time she awakens in the morning, fingertips still tingling with the phantom touches she bestowed upon the Captain’s dream self, he and his retinue are nowhere to be seen.

 

 

. . .

 

 

After a quick breakfast shared with a few high-spirited youngling padawans full of questions for her about the Sinking Fields and the Fallen Teeth, Rey climbs into Nightbloomer with an assurance to them and the Skywalkers that she’ll only be gone a few hours. Though Luke looks intrigued, Mara nods impassively, wishing her safe travels and a quick return.

 

The Captain’s yacht is a fine machine, so the trip out to the abandoned AT-AT— Hellhound Two, her childhood home— takes mere minutes.

 

Unlike Cratertown, the troop transport vehicle remains just as she left it: dilapidated, out in the desert, slowly succumbing to rust and sand and sun. She sets the ship down as close as she can, and leaves its guarding to 2BB-2.

 

There is an impression in the back of her mind, an idea that has been nagging her from the moment her eyes opened this morning. Something she is meant to see here. Something she is meant to do.

 

Her booted feet sift into the fine sand, as difficult to walk as ever. The sun is already relentless, there is barely a breeze. Everything is bright blue sky and glaring hot sand.

 

And then Rey sees her.

 

A small girl is making her way out of the hole in the AT-AT’s hull as Rey approaches. At the sight of her— scrawny yet tall for her age, but not as tall as she might have been had she been raised with steady, proper nutrition, hair the color of caf lightened by a mere drop of cream, heart-shaped freckled face surprisingly pale for a desert-dweller, clothes grubby and ill-fitting— Rey jumps back in alarm, her hand rising to cover her open mouth.

 

It’s Rey.

 

A young Rey. So young. Humming to herself as she dons the old Rebellion starfighter pilot helmet she found in the desert. Curling up in the shade of the AT-AT’s footpad with a tin bowl of polystarch and veg-meat. Eating without thought for manners, sloppily and in great haste, barely pausing to swallow or breathe. When the synthetic foodstuff is gone, she licks out the bowl.

 

Rey watches on, paralyzed by her shock, her sorrow, her memories.

 

Staring out at the dunes once she’s finished, a forlorn look of loneliness and hunger and boredom passes across young Rey’s face.

 

The idea has occurred to her that perhaps she’s cried herself empty a few times over by this point, but now she is once again proven wrong. She does not fight the impulse.

 

She weeps for the girl.

 

Hellhound Two, like the buildings of Cratertown, is just scrap metal. It holds no more or less meaning than what she attributes to it. It will not last forever. But unlike Cratertown, Rey discovers at this very moment that she is willing to give it space in her mind, in her soul. She will mourn this place as she could not Cratertown or Ergel’s bar, just as she will mourn the future of this bright young girl.

 

This is where she was hurt and healed countless times.

 

This is where she learned what it meant to leave childhood behind.

 

This is where she became a woman.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says to the girl. “I’m sorry for what’s to come. I’m sorry for the hurt I caused you.”

 

The girl doesn’t hear her or chooses not to respond. She’s still humming softly to herself, but the sound has become an imitation of the starfighter engine’s drone. Her hands are raised as if she is flying a ship. Suddenly, she clenches one in a fist, and makes a soft ‘Pew! Pew!’ noise, imitating that of a laser cannon.

 

“I’m—I’m going to do better now. I will. For you.” Rey swallows heavily. “This life—it won’t always be like this for us.”

 

The girl continues playing make-believe, flying her imaginary starfighter against an imaginary enemy out somewhere that might as well be imaginary, for how much she knows of it. Vague memories of countless afternoons spent like this drift back to Rey.

 

There is nothing more that she can do for this apparition of the past; she cannot undo what has already happened. There is no weapon strong enough to burn it away, no ocean deep enough to drown it.

 

This, too, she must take with her. All she can do is find a better life, in the here and now.

 

“I promise,” she chokes out, backing away. Leaving the girl to the terrible years that lie ahead. “I promise.”

 

The girl plays on, all alone.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Mashra’s blue face wavers over the flickering connection; for a moment the projection jumps about, unsteady, and Rey stares at the plasto-canvas walls of her tent while she waits. Then it stabilizes and Mashra comes back into view. She’s scowling at Rey, large eyes steely and unamused, fleshy mouth appendages bouncing as she opens and closes her snout several times.

 

With their connection secured once more, she begins anew.

 

“Rey. You’ve had your fun, haven’t you? You’ve seen your sister, you spent an entire kriffing month on Batuu. And now, you mean to tell me, you’re back on Jakku ? Why are you not on Bastatha, with Ergel and Verla, who, might I remind you, have been waiting on your arrival?”

 

“I’m sorry,” mumbles Rey, feeling cowed, unable to meet Mashra’s censorious gaze. “I just… needed some time.”

 

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough of it?”

 

“I suppose.” She chances a peek at Mashra and catches the Abednedo watching her intently. “I’m leaving for Bastatha soon. Really.”

 

Mashra frowns, unconvinced.

 

“Really,” she repeats. “Tomorrow. I will.”

 

“Hmph,” Mashra huffs. “Good. Well, now that I’ve discharged that unpleasant duty—I really don’t want to be hard on you, child, but Ergel has been quite bothered about your absence—tell me… what happened on Batuu, anyway? I’ve been hearing some very interesting things.”

 

Rey blinks. “What have you—”

 

“Brixie Dameron and Captain Ben Solo? If he’s messing around with that girl, you truly did dodge a blaster bolt all those years ago.”

 

“What’s wrong with Brixie Dameron?” she asks, more loudly than she intends.

 

“She’s nowhere near a woman of your caliber, Rey. Flighty headstrong flirt, from what I hear.”

 

And where did you hear that? she wants to unleash. From someone who doesn’t know her? What do you know of Brixie Dameron? Or of caliber? The relative worth of two women?

 

What she says, through clenched teeth, is: “Don’t speak of her that way.”

 

Another “hmph” issued. A beat. Then, chastened, Mashra goes on. “Alright. I’m sure she’s a very… nice girl. But I heard other rumors, too. Rumors involving you.”

 

“Which are?”

 

“Oh, that you were seen getting quite comfortable at the Black Spire Outpost with the senator of Batuu,” replies Mashra, “and that you have in fact journeyed all the way to Jakku to rendezvous with said handsome senator. A romantic assignation, some have said.”

 

“Nonsense.” She shakes her head for emphasis. “Finn and I are simply friends.”

 

“Friends who embraced only moments after you touched down on Jakku.”

 

“Are you spying on me, Mashra?” she demands, eyes narrowing.

 

“Looking out for your well-being,” Mashra corrects. “And not on purpose. I still have many friends on Jakku—friends that care about you, just as I do.”

 

Calmly as she can, she says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Your mother—”

 

“Enough.” Her voice is stony, ice-cold. It throws Mashra into an indignant sulk.

 

Rey has to look away, angry and embarrassed and proud of herself all at once. The light is still bright even inside the tent, its fabric no match for the Jakku sun. Sweat pools at the base of her spine, under her breasts, in the dip between her upper lip and her nose. But she will not show any sign of her discomfort; not to Mashra.

 

The silence grows louder, heavier, inescapable.

 

“Ahem. Well. Well—I, er, well,” stammers Mashra, at length. “Yes. Well. Anyway. The reason I’ve called is actually Bastatha.”

 

Rey sighs. “I am leaving tomorrow, Mashra, I swe—”

 

“Good,” the Abednedo interrupts. “When you get there, keep an eye on Corwin. I’ve been… hearing things about him too.”

 

She blinks, taken aback. The thought of Corwin had completely slipped her mind in the past couple months, in lieu of all that has passed between the Captain and Brixie and Gozetta and Poe and Finn and the Damerons. In lieu of the life she has been living, her own, at last.

 

“What have you heard, exactly?” she asks, then regrets it the second she’s spoken. If Mashra has heard untrue things about her and Brixie and him, why should her rumors about Corwin have any merit?

 

But recollections of Corwin’s shifty-eyed grimace have sprung forth in her mind; the sudden pang of curiosity and anxiety is overpowering. She’s done her best to all but forget the existence of Bastatha, with its underground cities and its cartels; now she is forced to remember. Emotionally, she scrambles for anything that might keep her afloat during her stay there.

 

Even if it is just unfounded gossip.

 

“That he is attaching himself inextricably to your family, while serving as counselor and go-between to your father,” Mashra tells her. “As you well know, I was not excited about the thought of your father joining one of the cartels on Bastatha. But we both understood the importance of him gaining solvency, and fast. To that end, at least, I can say that Corwin has aided him. But now when I speak to Ergel, he shows no interest in ever leaving the dratted place! ‘Thanks to Corwin, I am quite established here.’ He’s said as much to me!”

 

Weariness weighs down on her so heavily it is as if she is once more being pushed under the rolling surface of the Silver Sea. Wave after wave washes over her: of exhaustion, of dismay, of querulousness. So heavy is it, so crushing, that it takes her breath away. Leaves her feeling lifeless and limp.

 

“I see,” she manages. And she does; but she wishes she didn’t. She wants no part in these intrigues. Her regret over even asking deepens.

 

What she wants, desperately, is to take Nightbloomer and fly to Chandrila or Hosnian Prime or wherever the hell the Captain has disappeared to, and speak to him. Ask him about the dreams. Ask him to touch her, in waking life.

 

“You’ll keep an eye on the situation once you’re there, I’m sure,” Mashra says primly. “And report to me if I must intervene? Although really, Ergel has grown so stubborn in his old age, who’s to say if I even can?” Rolling her eyes, she groans. “Still, we must persevere.”

 

“Yes,” she agrees, a reflex more than a sentiment. “Of course, we must.”

 

“Well then, I’ll leave you to your flight preparations.”

 

“Er, Mashra, one more thing.”

 

Furry hand held aloft, Mashra pauses. “Yes?”

 

“Are you familiar with the name Armitage Hux?” asks Rey. “I’ve tried to find more information about him on the HoloNet, but he’s oddly… absent, from most public records.”

 

“Hux… Hux…” Mashra taps her chin, then makes a little harrumphing sound, as she mulls over the name. “Ah! I do remember a Brendol Hux.”

 

“Yes, General for the First Order, died by poisoning suddenly, right around the time that—” she chokes for a moment, unable to finish that thought. Unable to say his name. “Well. You know.”

 

“Ah. I—yes.” Mashra moves past the allusion without comment. “Very strange and suspicious death, I thought, though Plutt assured me that was just an occupational hazard for officers of the First Order.”

 

“Armitage is his son,” explains Rey, trying to jog her memory.

 

Mashra screws her face up. “Pale red-haired Human male, isn’t he?”

 

“That’s the one.”

 

“You know, I have heard of him—in context with Jinata, the private security firm he took over after he left the military. In fact, I believe that Jinata was the reason he left. It was widely believed to be, in any case. That was… oh, I don’t know. Not long after his father’s death, I should think.”

 

“Private security… what does that entail, exactly?” she presses.

 

“A kind of army, run for profit.” Mashra cocks her head. “Why the sudden interest?”

 

“I saw the man—Armitage Hux, that is—on Batuu,” she admits quietly. “He looked at me as if…”

 

A beat passes, in which Rey cannot think of a single word to describe the canny sneer that adorned Hux’s face.

 

“As if?”

 

“He knew me. Like he knew exactly who I was. Like—maybe he was trying to meet me?” She shakes her head. “It sounds like such rubbish. I’m sure it is. Only…”

 

Again she trails off, unable to fully identify the source of her suspicion but unwilling to let it go.

 

Mashra starts, wide round eyes going impossibly wider. “You know…”

 

“What is it?”

 

“A rumor, child. Only a rumor. But… I do remember hearing, around the time the General died, that there were to be no arrests and no charges of murder—because there was a shocking lack of evidence at the crime scene. Only the conjectures of the investigators, but… not enough to go on.”

 

“Oh,” she says, reflectively. “Hm.”

 

‘A master poisoner,’ the lead detective ended up saying. And that, as they say, was more or less that.”

 

“Master poisoner? I had no idea there was such a thing,” she replies. “How strange.”

 

“Indeed,” Mashra agrees. “Since he left the navy, my impression is that young Armitage has kept his life very quiet. Private. No overt declarations of allegiances during the war that I can recall.”

 

She nods. “Thank you anyway, Mashra. I was just curious.”

 

“Rey…” begins Mashra, before hesitating. She snuffles, then shakes her head. “A man who makes a life for himself by profiting off of war is not the sort of man you should be associating yourself with. I cannot speak for his character, but… I believe you would do well to stay clear of him.”

 

Logic and reason tell her that this advice is sound; Mashra has her best interests at heart, surely. And she doesn’t disagree with her maternal figure’s advice. When it comes to Armitage Hux, there is much to be wary of, from the sound of it.

 

But she has been here before, and Mashra has given her this same counsel. The memory of it dredges up pain and resentment; bile churns in her stomach, and she balls her fists against the carpeted floor of the tent, hidden from Mashra’s view.

 

“I’ll do as I please,” she spits out, then swipes at a switch on the holoprojector; the projected image of Mashra’s appalled face fizzles away to nothing. Rey has stolen the last the word.

 

It’s less satisfying than she had imagined it would be.

 

 

. . .

 

 

She tries to keep the farewells succinct that evening. There have been too many goodbyes in recent history, and Rey is already exhausted by the prospect of all that life on Bastatha will entail.

 

Mara and Luke seem to understand. After the three of them have shared a quiet dinner, they promise to send her anything relevant they find in the texts, and remind her again that she can and should come back whenever she feels like it.

 

“I mean it,” chides Mara playfully, as she pulls Rey in for one final hug. “Come back and see us. See the temple. See what is to become of Jakku.”

 

“I will,” she swears, nodding at them both gratefully. “I will, I promise.”

 

 

. . .

 

 

At the heart of the Bastatha system spins a red giant, slow and bloated on helium and hotter than a hundred thousand of Jakku’s meager white dwarves.

 

And red, of course. So red, the furious final blaze of a star, ominous even through the phototropic shielding of Nightbloomer’s viewports. It casts a sickly blood-hued pall over the cockpit, making 2BB-2’s innocent visage and round blue form appear menacing as it beeps out an estimated timeframe for planetfall.

 

Rey sucks in a sharp breath when they swing round the star and catch sight of its lone planet.

 

It’s a dead thing, mottled with grey and white and black like the ashes of a fire that’s burned itself out. Or has been burned away, from the red beast it orbits. Clouds, she assures herself. Just cloud cover.

 

When they break into the atmosphere and hurtle down towards the jagged grey mountains and deep dark valleys, all bathed in red light, she is forced to reconcile herself to the truth: it is not some passing storm that lends this planet its ashen color. It is deadened, plantless and riverless and lifeless on its surface, its air so overheated and according to their sensors, so rife with toxins, that not even an arthropod or arachnid can be detected burrowing within the topsoil.

 

She cannot feel the Force in this place, not like she could on Batuu or Chandrila. Not even like on Jakku. Her connection to it is still there but it’s faint, like one’s access to daylight when being smothered by a wet blanket.

 

Atmosphere inhospitable, all life subterranean,” reports 2BB-2. “Except for some bacteria.”

 

“No kidding,” she grumbles.

 

Voluminous geysers of black gaseous smoke rise up towards heavy, green-grey clouds like unsteady columns. Rey and 2BB-2 fly Nightbloomer through one on their way towards Bastatha’s main docking bay and the tunnels; the smoke is dense enough that they lose all viewport visibility for a full minute, which causes 2BB-2 to let out an unsettled series of chirps and trills. Rey sympathizes; she cannot keep from shuddering uneasily, either.

 

Down they go.

 

 

. . .

 

 

The main access tunnel’s ingress point is a fathomless cave nestled almost entirely under the dead soil; it’s been blackened either by some drifting stream of smoke, or the sludgy air, or the heat, or the toxins. Which, Rey neither knows nor cares. So pitch-dark are its soaring walls, its rocky floor, its high arch of a ceiling— visible only by the glittering stalactites dripping down— that it is not so much entering a docking bay as it is like being swallowed by a monstrous yawning creature.

 

From what she can see of Nightbloomer’s hull from the cockpit, its polished silver has become just as grimy as the cave hangar into which she carefully navigates. It fills her with rage, irrational and impetuous, that his beautiful ship should be so sullied. And for what? For Ergel and Verla? It’s unconscionable.

 

But her family is waiting and she has a promise to keep, so slowly, painstakingly, she flies on. Not a single living being works in the hangar, but there are droids about. They are clunky, clumsy, things— outdated mining droids; some fulfill their original purpose, performing further excavations on the cave, some have been refashioned to assist and monitor incoming traffic.

 

All are soot-black and lumbering.

 

They wield bright red beacons, red like the sun that has ruined this place, and after a comm station buried far below the cave scans Rey’s credentials and approves her entry, they wave her forward, into a narrow carved-out tunnel that gradually begins to slope downward. As she pushes the yacht forward, the slope steepens. Every few meters there is a dim, flickering yellow glowpanel, but the way is otherwise unlit.

 

She presses on; the angle of descent grows sharper.

 

And sharper.

 

They’re flying almost vertically downward— Rey belted into her seat, 2BB-2 using a retractable cable to keep himself stabilized, the tunnel around them so narrow Nightbloomer is just barely able to fit— by the time she reaches the second docking bay, and actual civilization.

 

People dressed in bright yellow mimetic envirosuits and gloves and bulbous protective helmets wave glowrods at her, signaling to the illumigrid on the ground where they want her to land.

 

In short order, they inflate a plasti-shroud tent around Nightbloomer, then comm her with instructions to lower the ventral ramp; the air in the tent has been purified, and she is safe to deboard.

 

No one greets her with any warmth once she’s done so. Nothing more is said to her than what is perfunctory. Her identichip is requested and checked, then an envirosuit is handed to her. She dons it brusquely under the watchful gaze of the docking bay workers, clicking the helmet into place with shaking hands. After she has retrieved her satchel and quarterstaff, and communicated briefly with 2BB-2 her hopes that he’ll find a way to see the ship cleaned while she’s in the city, she follows a envirosuit-clad woman towards an ancient, creaking turbolift.

 

“In,” is the only direction the woman gives her, in a voice distorted by her breathing apparatus.

 

Rey steps into the turbolift, then turns in time to see the doors slam shut behind her. There is no control panel within, no selection of floors from which to choose. She is trapped, for all she knows. Shifting uncomfortably inside the suffocatingly hot suit, she sizes up the durasteel-paneled walls, looking for a way out if needs be.

 

There is none. She tries to swallow down the panic that surges up the back of her throat without much success. Tentatively, she reaches out, seeking the Force.

 

Nothing. She finds only blank, sterile nothing.

 

The turbolift gives a mighty lurch, almost throwing her to the floor. And then, with a terrible grating groan, it begins to move.

 

Down, down. Further down she goes.

 

 

. . .

 

 

Rey is met with a confounding scene when the turbolift finally stops moving and the doors slide open with one last protesting whine.

 

A blast of hot air greets her, hotter than the hottest afternoon on Jakku. Almost at once she feels herself beginning to wilt inside the unventilated versatex envirosuit; sweat is already beading at her temple, her back is half-drenched within moments. She steps out onto what appears to be a bustling main thoroughfare in a narrow, high-roofed cavern that stretches for kilometers in either direction.

 

Another tunnel. But this one, absent any familiar ghosts.

 

The thoroughfare is strange in its mundanity, in its normality. Yes, there is only obsidian rock overhead, and yes, all the light comes from hundreds if-not thousands of illumination banks that line the glittering dark walls, but there is also life. Everywhere, life. And commerce— shops carved out of the black walls, market stalls everywhere, vibrant life hustling to and fro, vendors issuing all manner of barked advertisements, and intriguing scents wafting out from tiny cafes.

 

And transports. Not in the numbers of Hanna City, but still— a steady flow of unhurried repulsorcraft pass overhead in two discrete lanes, mostly hoversleds carrying stacked crates of cargo and lightweight swoop bikes. Foot traffic and a few grounds transports rumble along the road before her; between the feet and wheels and tentacles and paws scurry hordes of beady-eyed mine rats.

 

No one is wearing an envirosuit. Many are actually rather finely dressed in beautifully ornate gowns and garments. But no one gives Rey a second glance, either. Abstractedly, taking all this in, she wonders if everyone must enter and exit Bastatha the same way. If Rey, in her bright yellow envirosuit, is a commonplace sight.

 

The last observation to hit her: Ergel or Verla are not in the crowd. She isn’t surprised; she would be more surprised if she did see them.

 

What does alarm her, however, is her capacity to still be hurt by minor slights such as this. Her family knew she was arriving today; they could have easily come to meet her and guide her to their new subterranean home. They did not. To have expected them to do so was foolishness.

 

But there was a small, secret part of her that did.

 

With a twist of the helmet clockwise and a hissing release of pressurized air, she wrenches it free from the suit and inhales her first breath of Bastatha’s underground air. It is stagnant and fetid down here, smelling of sulfur, and iron, and ash, and ever-so-faintly of artificial ozone.

 

One breath is all she needs to know she hates it and always will. From her satchel she retrieves a coarseweave cowl Gozetta insisted on having made back on Chandrila; after it’s wrapped around her neck and face— not helping the perspiration, but utterly necessary if she is to venture any further into this putrid world— Rey tries to dredge up the memory of scents she has loved.

 

A field of delia pavorum blossoms. A simmering pot of Alderaan stew. The first fresh fruit she ever ate, jogan, like sweetened sunshine. The warm clean musk of a man who lay tangled up in her hammock with her.

 

How she wishes he were here to hold her hand now.

 

Biting the inside of her cheek and blinking back the tears that threaten to embarrass her, Rey takes shallow breaths through her mouth and steps out into the bustling street, resigned to asking the merchants and hurried passersby for directions to her family’s new residence.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Ah, there you are,” says Ergel placidly, without looking up from the datapad he’s holding, when the servant droid leads Rey into the cool, climate-controlled parlor. He’s lounging in an opulent armchair, gnawing his way through a bowl of spiced warra nuts. Reclined in a chaise lounge beside him, Verla does the same.

 

This vaulted chamber is, like all the others she has passed through in her father’s new sepulchral domicile, a space carved out of the planet’s mantle; windowless, its walls, ceiling, and floor have been sanded smooth and straight to resemble those of a standard terranean home. They have also been painted alabaster, perhaps in an attempt to counteract the oppressiveness of living so far underground without natural daylight.

 

Not that the red sun’s light would make things any cheerier, she thinks derisively to herself, as she looks around.

 

The furniture in this chamber is like that in the others, hewn from pale pink body-wood or Kriin-wood the color of midnight, all inlaid with intricate curlicues in buttery golden mythra or silvery beryllius, upholstered with lavish cream-colored velvoid. (All of this the servant droid has informed her in a dry, bored tone as it guided her towards the parlor.)

 

A palpable tension permeates the home, a sharp contrast between the hard mineral environs and the sumptuous furnishings used to camouflage that hardness. It’s off putting. This is not a place meant to welcome, or comfort.

 

It is meant to impress.

 

She has never felt so far from home, so uncentered, so out of place, as she does when she comes to stand in that parlor, staring down Verla, whose only greeting is the quizzical arching of a plucked eyebrow.

 

“Admiring the ambience, no doubt,” her father observes. “We’ve done quite well for ourselves here, as you can see.”

 

“Congratulations,” Rey manages to husk out, wrapping her arms around herself. The room is cold, far too cold. Unnaturally cold.

 

A chromatic chandelier hovers overhead, cycling through a rainbow’s worth of pastel lighting. Arranged tastefully about the room, gilded standing and table lamps add even more light; in addition to the stark walls, they make the room almost painfully bright. Somewhere, a hidden audio device plays a soundtrack of ocean waves.

 

Whoosh, swish, shurr.

 

Artifice, all of it.

 

“I see you made no effort to wash up before you got here,” Verla jeers, her sharp eyes raking over Rey’s sweat-stained tunic and leggings, boots that have clearly tracked Jakku sand onto their pastel tiled floor, her damp face, and finally her hair, limp from several day’s worth of flying without real rest.

 

In contrast, Verla’s ivory satyn gown is pristine. Her icy blonde hair, freshly dyed, is pulled back into an elegant chignon. Her face is painted in that way that is meant to look natural, and subtly enhance her beauty. It’s an effective ploy; she looks much younger than she did on Jakku. Dewy, almost.

 

Rey shrinks in on herself a little further.

 

From across the room, chuckling as he relaxes back into an equally expensive and uncomfortable-looking armchair, Corwin muses, “Now, now, she’s come straight from Jakku, hasn’t she?” His blue eyes spark with malevolence. “She’s a good daughter—good little desert rat, come in out of the sun at last.”

 

“Well, go and get clean, for edge’s sake,” commands Verla, her attention already back on her datapad. “And come back when you’re presentable.”

 

Ergel hums distractedly. “It will be good to have you here, Rey.”

 

“Really?” she asks, startling at that unexpected scrap of kindness.

 

“Oh yes.” He nods, still not looking at her. “Now we’ll have four at the dinner table. Much more agreeable.”

 

Verla scoffs. “Enough chatting. Go shower, Rey—by the eternal core, you smell like a bantha lair!”

 

That is the extent of the welcome she receives. Rey turns back towards the doorway, where the servant droid has lingered, waiting for her. With an obsequious bow, it turns and rolls out of the parlor, leading her down a corridor she has not yet seen, painted just as immaculately white as all the others. At its end is a door. With a hiss, it opens as they approach, revealing a comfortably sized bedroom, furnished with a plush, canopied body-wood sleeper and matching dresser, a loveseat carved entirely from hard green jade, and another door that, upon being opened, leads to a private refresher.

 

“Your lodgings,” the droid informs her tonelessly.

 

The ‘fresher within is entirely dark black stone— walls, floor, counter, sink, the massive bathtub, all of it— gleaming and funereal in the sconced glowrods’ muted light.

 

“Onyx,” explains the droid. “A vein of it runs through the mantle in this part of Bastatha. Increases the property value tremendously.”

 

“I see,” she chokes out.

 

“Will that be all, ma’am?”

 

The best she can do is a strangled sound, which she hopes the droid will take for an affirmative. After an awkward second, it does. With another bow, it turns and retreats back to the corridor, bedroom doors hissing shut behind it.

 

Rey is all alone again. But this time, she feels that way. Acutely.

 

The ‘fresher glistens darkly before her. In a mirror that has been set within the wall over the sink, her face looks back at her, waxen and drawn, like a ghost of herself. She frowns. The ghost frowns back.

 

There are familiar ghosts here as well, it would seem.

 

 

. . .

 

 

“Rinnrivin Di has been such a gracious host and patron to us,” her father regales her at dinner, a few hours later. They’re seated at a long gleaming dining room table in another stark white chamber. One wall shimmers with a constant flow of water, a manufactured effect perhaps meant to add an organic element to the austere surroundings.

 

“We are truly guests of honor, here on Bastatha.”

 

Rey sits beside him, bathed and dressed in one her nicer sets of tunic and leggings, her hair pulled up into her customary buns. Verla had given a begrudging nod of approval when she’d entered the dining room, momentarily appeased by her freshened state. Now, Corwin eyes her appraisingly from across the table as he chews his mouthful of nerf steak with gusto, like it might be his last meal.

 

She can’t stand the sight of it, so she lets her gaze travel, landing eventually on the hyaline veil pouring down the far wall. It makes a pleasant sound, much nicer than the piped in audio of the ocean. The sound is real, even if the waterfall itself is artificial.

 

It reminds her of happier days.

 

(Him and her, basking on a sunbaked boulder in only their swimming togs. Rey, attempting to unburden herself to him via Rose; him, listening intently with his eyes closed. Mist coming off the falls, whose roar mixes with the laughter of her friends. The memory of it makes her ache. How she wishes that day had gone differently.)

 

“Well? Rey? Aren’t you ever happy? You were the one who was so concerned about us coming here, after all.” Verla stares daggers at her from the seat next to Corwin’s, fork and knife clutched in two balled fists. Rey spots all the signs that her sister is spoiling for a fight and cuts her off at the pass.

 

“Very happy,” she answers blandly, with an equally bland smile. “How wonderful for—us.”

 

Corwin leans back, throwing an arm over the back of Verla’s chair. The move earns him an arch smile from Verla. “Rinnrivin will like you,” he tells Rey, sing-song.

 

She can think of nothing to say to that, and elects to resume sawing at her overcooked meat in silence.

 

Sipping from a chalice filled to the brim with wine, her father smirks, then picks up where Corwin left off. “Yes, that’s right! You’ll join us when we visit him tomorrow, of course—we’ve been invited for a dinner party. Many of the high-ranking officers of his cartel will be there, as well as a few other choice politicians and businessman.” He smiles contentedly and nods at Corwin, who raises the piece of steak on his fork in salute. “All very important people. Naturally. They value me quite highly, because of my position in the Empire—as well they should. You wouldn’t believe the number of visitors we’ve had since arriving. And do you know how many people we’ve visited in return?”

 

“No,” Rey mumbles lifelessly.

 

“Not one!” Her father claps his hands together in victory. “We don’t need to do anything so pedestrian. All come to see us. Including—” he pauses, slapping his hand over his mouth, “—well, I probably shouldn’t say anything ‘bout that.”

 

“Oh, go on. You might as well tell her—she’ll meet him soon enough, anyway,” says Verla.

 

“Who?” she forces herself to ask, wondering even as she speaks if there is some excuse she can devise to free herself of this planet and these people.

 

“A mister Armitage Hux,” Ergel crows. “You know who that is? Very important man, girlie.”

 

Rey starts at the name, freed from impending despair by her astonishment. How small the galaxy seems, how full of coincidence. (How strangely the Force moves amongst us, she muses.)

 

Still smirking, Corwin adds, “Formerly a General. I knew him from way back in our academy days. Introduced him to the family. A felicitous connection, to be honest.”

 

“And now he’s the owner of a very lucrative private security firm,” finishes Verla.

 

“He’s taken quite a shine to your sister.” Ergel raises his glass to that, then drinks deeply before continuing: “Visits almost every evening. Such a gentleman.”

 

“I think I know of him,” Rey says. “I think—I think I saw him on Batuu, at the Black Spire Outpost.”

 

Clearly unconvinced, Ergel huffs. “Yes, yes, maybe you thought you did.”

 

“I’m almost certain,” she persists. “Tall? Red hair, pale? Dressed in an expensive suit?”

 

“It might have been,” is Verla’s noncommittal response.

 

“It was! Really, I’m cer—”

 

“We just don’t know, do we?” Verla bites back, with such vehemence that Rey’s mouth snaps shut. “Anyway, it hardly matters. He’s a friend of our family, particularly to me, and you’ll meet him soon enough.”

 

“At the party,” nods Ergel. “You’ll meet all our new friends. And who knows? Perhaps you’ll even meet someone suitable… for… you.”

 

“Someone unpretentious,” says Verla, also smirking. “Maybe someone with… lowered standards.”

 

“Maybe,” Rey echoes faintly, feeling nauseous. She tries to dig deep within herself, searching for the confidence and joy she’d felt that day in the valley on Rose’s island, when she’d made the delia pavorum bloom. All she finds is her sister’s sneering face, the lifeless rock walls, and her father’s condescending tone.

 

Trapped, she is trapped. Trapped with her family, slowly being smothered by a dying toxic planet. She stares down at her steak, unable to eat.

 

“Speaking of lowered standards, how is our sister and that deadbeat pilot of hers?”

 

Corwin chuckles and gives an amused shake of his head while Verla bats her eyes at him, pleased with her own wit.

 

It’s a losing battle to keep her dismay to herself, but Rey does her best, replying neutrally: “She’s doing well. She and Poe are—very comfortably settled on Chandrila. Right on the ocean, and they have a beautiful koyo orch—”

 

“Has she lost the baby weight yet? It’s been—what—three years, now?”

 

Verla’s painted lips curl into a cruel, satisfied smile.

 

“She looks beautiful,” mutters Rey, low and angry. “Healthy. Strong. And—happy. She’s happy. So are her children.”

 

Verla scoffs and rolls her eyes, but Ergel says, “Ah, the Damerons. Poe and his sister, what’s her—”

 

“Brixie. And Terena,” she grits out.

 

“Yes, that’s right, Terena. Flew for the New Republic, didn’t they?” Ergel huffs his displeasure at that before sighing, “Still, not a completely useless connection. They’re quite close with the Organa senator, you know. And… we must all forgive the foibles of youth, I suppose.”

 

She seethes at that, her mouth flattening into an angry line. With a loud clatter, she drops her fork and knife onto her plate.

 

“What about you, Rey? Got any youthful foibles that need forgiving?” Something about Corwin’s gloating tone and knowing smirk seem too purposeful, too pointed. Rey studies him, trying not to physically recoil.

 

“I don’t know what you mean,” she answers carefully.

 

“No secret dalliances with handsome Captains?” he presses.

 

She narrows her eyes, just about to demand he make his meaning clear, when Verla taunts: “Who, Rey? Please. Forget foibles—nothing of note has ever happened to her. Just a plain old desert rat, as you said.”

 

It’s more than enough to tip her back into despair. It’s a step too far. It’s beyond cloying insinuation— it’s out and out cruelty.

 

Really, Rey thinks— as she wipes her dry lips with her napkin, emulating someone who has enjoyed their meal, then rises from her chair— you should know better than to expect more of them, by now. The only one you have to blame is yourself, for entertaining the hope that they had changed too while you were gone.

 

“I’m very tired from my journey,” she declares, in a small broken voice. “I think I’ll excuse myself. Good night.”

 

With that, she turns on her heel and flees the room. She does not wait to see if her family will wish her a good night or sweet dreams; she already knows they will not.

 

 

. . .

 

 

To say that Rey is depressed by her first few hours on Bastatha is an understatement.

 

Bitterly do the tears run, as she lies in her palatial pink sleeper that night, half-sunken into the kesslerite body-conforming mattress. It feels as though the thing is trying to swallow her up, and the appropriateness of that— in light of her feelings on returning to her family and to this stifling underground prison— does not escape her.

 

She wants to call him, wants desperately to speak to him for real, outside of the dream. The dreams are some small measure of solace but she wants more. She wants real life. She wants the vividness of their bodies breathing the same air.

 

It is only when she promises herself that she will call him, that she will not let her family crush her again, that she will do whatever she must in order to leave this place— that she will do it for the young lonely ghost of a girl still haunting that rusting old AT-AT in the Jakku desert— that she is able to relax into sleep.

 

But when she slips into dreams, face still damp with tears, she does not arrive at the tree. There are no soft sweet nothings, there are no stolen touches.

 

She is flying a ship.

 

Not just any ship. A Corellian light freighter; she is flying the Millennium Falcon. And he is beside her, in the co-pilot’s seat, flicking a switch on the subspace radio here, adjusting a setting on the control yoke there.

 

Feeling her eyes on him, he glances up. And then he smiles, a genuine beaming smile that stretches across his face, dimpling his cheeks and crinkling his eyes.

 

A desperate sob breaks loose from her. This is no memory; she never piloted the Falcon with him. His hair is still streaked with grey and when she looks down at herself she discovers not the body of a half-starved nineteen-year-old but of a healthy woman well on her way to thirty. Strong, hale, fit.

 

Outside the cockpit is nothing but the twinkling of faraway stars. They’re drifting through space. And yet there is no sense of panic. Only peace. Only purpose. She can feel him in the Force, a bright warm light, and out there in the void, she can feel billions of other lives, like the soft safe thrumming of the pulse within her veins.

 

“Ben?” she asks.

 

“Ready?” he sends back, pulling her hand into his. He brings it to his lips, laying soft kisses along her bony knuckles.

 

In a breathless gasp, she answers, “Yes,” without even knowing for what. It doesn’t matter anymore, her dream self decides. Whatever it is, whatever is to come… she is ready.

 

“Okay.” He nods. “You want to do the honors?”

 

“What?”

 

He tips his head in the direction of the throttle, hair falling over half his face. “Punch it, sweetheart.”

 

Exhilarated, she reaches out…

 

…And her hand is still outstretched when she awakens, seconds later. It’s raised in the air towards the gauzy chiffon curtains that surround her, grasping at nothing.

 

Her face is wet. Not from the tears she cried before sleeping, she realizes, touching it absentmindedly in the darkness, but from fresh ones she cried while dreaming.

 

They were together, flying, happy. He asked if she was ready, and she was. Is. More than she has ever been in her life. And that is what makes the nothingness of this planet all the more painful. It makes the confinement of this strangely ostentatious home and the rankling company of Ergel and Verla more painful, too.

 

She considers the warnings Mashra issued in their last conversation about Hux and Corwin, and her family’s high opinion of both. Errantly, she regrets not seeking the advice of the Skywalkers about both men before she left Jakku; perhaps she can call them in the morning. But there is one opinion she truly yearns for right now, and one set of arms she wishes was holding her.

 

This place is not right, and she is all alone. Furthermore, Rey is struck by the most terrible impression, as she lies in that overly-soft bed in her lightless bedchamber: in coming to Bastatha, she has moved backwards instead of forwards.

 

Down, instead of up.

 

Trapped, trapped, trapped.

 

And there is no one here she trusts.