"Miss? I do believe it is time to begin preparations for the ball," the droid says, breaking into Rey's perfectly good daydream. Rey huffs as she opens her eyes, ignoring the water droplets dripping from her eyelashes as she reaches for the off button.
"I'll be out in a moment, thank you," she says, rather resignedly. She waits until she hears the droid's heavy footsteps retreating before reaching for one of the fluffy towels, wrapping it around her soaking wet body. The many bruises she's accumulated during the last three days of training have already faded, thanks to the Bacta patches the medical droids applied a couple hours ago. Can't have any tributes dining in the midst of the Gamemakers and the Emperor himself sporting black eyes or broken fingers, as if they'd already been in battle.
Oh no. That just wouldn't do.
Better to pretend that all of the luxurious accommodations, fancy food, and formal ball is all out of the goodness of the Emperor's heart, right? And that all the combat and survival skills training is just for fun?
Rey has wondered on occasion if the Emperor does it this way because it helps ease his conscience about sending twenty-three children to their deaths every single year. But that would first imply that the Emperor actually possesses a conscience, which Rey is convinced that he does not, and also that he personally cares about the tributes, which again, he does not.
The tributes are nothing more than pieces in a game to Emperor Palpatine, a game that Rey is flat-out refusing to play. Oh, she'll put on a good show, so as to not embarrass Luke and Maz—and yes, she's very much looking forward to seeing Ben in his formal suit as well—but she will not be the shy, coquettish girl that the Emperor has likely come to expect from the smallest planet participating in the Games.
No. If anything, whether she ends up victorious or not, Rey is going to ensure that she is never forgotten.
Emerging from the fresher, Rey reluctantly surrenders to the trio of prep droids as they proceed to remake her into the Coruscant version of Rey Sands, the one with no dirt caked underneath her broken fingernails and who doesn't reek of sweat and fertiliser. The one whose hair isn't constantly sprinkled with drops of fungus-laden dew and whose clothing probably cost more than the entire Ajan Kloss Justice Hall.
It takes nearly three hours for the droids to finish all of their prepping, waxing, tweezing, trimming, and polishing Rey until her skin and hair shine brighter than a star. She wills away most of the time trying to avoid thinking about Ben undergoing a similar process, and manages to think of nothing but, no doubt naturally enhancing the cosmetic blush colouring the apples of her cheeks. As a boy, Rey knows that Ben's prep only takes about half as much time as hers, but if the mortification she saw on his face after their first intensive prep session—and also gleaned from his thoughts, but she's trying not to think about that either—is any indication, he doesn't enjoy it any more than she does.
"And there we are, my dear," the lead droid finally says as she steps back, the large makeup brush still clutched in her metal fingers. "Oh, and I do believe that you look lovely. Simply lovely!"
"Thank you," Rey says curtly, almost afraid to move out of fear that she'll somehow mess something up. While the droids have thankfully gone a bit lighter on her makeup than they did for the parade, Rey's still struggling against the strong urge to bite down on her lipstick-coated lips and wipe at least half of the thick layer of powder from her nose, which suddenly starts to itch almost uncontrollably.
Her dress is brought out next, a floor-length, bright blue gown that's cinched in at the waist and swoops across her chest in what the lead droid calls a sweetheart neckline, designed to enhance what little she has in the way of breasts while also showing off her well-toned shoulders and arms. Rey stands rigidly still while the droids slip the gown over her head, careful not to disturb her elaborate hairdo or her impeccably applied makeup as they zip it up the back, tucking her gold starbird medallion down beneath the neckline. Next are the shoes, which are covered in the same fabric as the dress and feature heels that are four inches tall, the height that Maz decided would work best for her to wear while walking in on Ben's arm.
"Oh, you're simply delightful, my dear!" the droid exclaims as Rey gives the shoes a few practise steps, thankfully managing not to slip or stumble. Spraining an ankle the night before the Games are due to begin would definitely not tip the odds in her favour.
A sharp knock on her door halts Rey's third circular trip around the room. "Come in?"
"We're just about ready to go, my dear," Maz says as she enters the room, her eyes wide behind her thick spectacles. "Oh, dear child, don't you just look lovely!" She waddles up to Rey, curling her long fingers around her forearm as she leans closer. "Your boy's not going to know what hit him."
Her simple words hit Rey like a punch to the gut, and she drops her gaze to the floor, nodding.
Because despite every single effort on Rey's part to mask her inner feelings for her tall, dark-haired, and shy co-tribute, she's now well aware that it's all been for naught. While Ben ended up faring far better than he feared during their difficult physical training, it came with the price of quite a few cuts and bruises, and it took nearly all of Rey's strength to not cry out at the sight of the ugly blue and purple blotches marring his beautiful pale skin when they gathered for dinner every evening. Rey was accustomed to being slapped around, as both Unkar Plutt and the various Stormtroopers in charge of overseeing the field hands were always plenty free with their backhands. But Ben… Rey has a strong feeling that Mrs Solo would rather throw herself off the top of the Justice Building than ever raise a hand to her son, who Rey can tell she loves dearly.
Ben's bruises—and his attempts to hide them from her—also served to reinforce Rey's anger, both at the Emperor for the simple existence of the Games in the first place, and for the denial of the miraculous Bacta patches and gel outside of Coruscant. The amount of people that die every year on Ajan Kloss from preventable illnesses and injuries could probably fill one of the skyscraper housing buildings that surrounded the Tribute Centre, and Rey has a feeling that on the other, more populated planets, it's even worse.
"Thank you, Maz," Rey whispers. "I—"
"And just wait till you see him too, hmm?" Maz interrupts. "That boy's temperament may be more like his mother, but he is definitely still his father's son."
Since Rey's mind immediately conjured up an image of Ben all dressed up as soon as Maz mentioned his name, it takes a couple of heartbeats for Maz's words to permeate past her fog of longing.
He is definitely still his father's son.
"Hold on," Rey says. "You knew Ben's father?"
But Maz only smiles as she releases Rey's arm. "I've been around for awhile, dear, as you've probably guessed," she says. "And over the years, I've met quite a few people."
"Yes, but—" Rey breaks off, stopping herself just before she chomps down on her lower lip. It seems very odd that Maz would toss out a mention of Ben's father in such an offhand way now, when she's never mentioned either of Ben's parents before. And especially if she's sensed that Rey has feelings for him.
That being said, if it wasn't just an offhand remark, then why—?
No, Rey thinks, giving her head a firm shake. I am not going there.
"But, what, dear?" Maz asks.
"Oh, nothing," answers Rey. She plasters a wide smile onto her face, hoping she can get through the evening without her cheeks getting sore. "I am ready."
"Yes, you are," Maz says proudly. She heads for the door, with Rey following behind her in her careful, practised steps, her heart already thudding in anticipation of seeing Ben.
"Ohh…" Rey says on a gasp as she emerges from the hallway just as Ben turns on his polished heel, his hands clasped nervously behind his back. He's even more handsome than she imagined, tall and graceful in his formal suit, with his hair as shiny as the glossy onyx stones Rey often saw traded back in Niima Outpost on Jakku. Rey's barely taken one more step before Ben halts mid-pace, whipping around and snapping his heels together as he raises his chin, almost like a Stormtrooper standing at attention. Heat blooms across Rey's chest like a flower petal as she's suddenly hit with a deluge of Ben's thoughts, as clearly as if he were announcing them with a fanfare from the top of the Tribute Centre.
Rey… you—you're just… Maker, Rey, you just look—I can't even describe—
"Try and keep walking until you reach him, dear." Maz tosses the whispered instructions out of the corner of her mouth, but Rey's so transfixed that she barely hears them. She finally remembers to snap her jaw closed once she's within an arm's length of Ben, her back as straight as a bo staff as he reaches for her hand.
"My lady," Ben says, his slightly quavering voice only adding to his overall beauty as he presses his full lips to the back of her hand, just as Poe Dameron did on their first day of training. "May I be so bold as to tell you that you look incredibly beautiful this evening?"
"Yes," Rey says, or rather squeaks. She quickly clears her throat, trying again. "Yes, sir, you may. And I thank you."
"Well, now that we've established how admirable you both are of each other, how about we head down to the ballroom?" Luke says from his spot over by the dining room table, causing Rey to jump. She was so engrossed with Ben that she didn't even realise Luke was there.
And for some reason, she's just now noticing how tired he looks. Almost like he's the one who's been going through the Games training the last three days instead of her and Ben.
But all thoughts of their quirky mentor are quickly forgotten as Ben's lips curl into a smile, and he places Rey's hand in the crook of his elbow, covering it with his own before turning to Luke.
"We're ready," he says.
The walk to the transport tube, and its corresponding descent into the ballroom, passes in a kind of a haze as Rey once again clings to Ben as if he's the only thing keeping her upright.
Because he is. For all intents and purposes, all of her carefully applied masks are now completely gone, leaving her bare.
They arrive in the ballroom to find it already bustling with people, as once again Luke seems to have arranged for Rey and Ben to be amongst the last tributes to arrive. Rey's eyes go wide as she and Ben exit the transport tube, completely overwhelmed by the ostentatious display of luxury and wealth. Even before she takes another step she's inundated by the sights and sounds of the massive space, from the musicians who appear to be floating on clouds as they perform, to the long formal tables covered in the finest linens, dishes, and flatware, even more expensive-looking than those in their penthouse. The exotic smell of the food hits Rey about a second later, causing her stomach to rumble despite her nervousness.
Sucking in a deep breath, Rey's fingers instinctively tighten on Ben's arm as he guides them away from the transport tube and over to the reception line, where the tall, redheaded Gamemaker she noticed during their training sessions stands next to the Emperor himself, laughing politely at something he said. Queuing in behind the two tributes from Scarif, both of whom toss rather harsh glances over their shoulders, Rey chances a look up at the ceiling. It's easily ten metres high, and painted or otherwise treated to resemble the perfect clear nighttime sky, complete with the occasional streaking star that reminds Rey so much of home that tears suddenly spring to her eyes. On Coruscant it's almost impossible to see any stars at night since there's so much light everywhere, and Rey hasn't realised just how much she's missed them until now.
"Rey? Are you all right?" Ben suddenly whispers, his brown eyes filled with concern as he looks down at her. Even with her four-inch heels, Rey still only comes up to Ben's chin.
Rey gives a rather unconvincing nod. "Yes, I'm all right. Just… it's been awhile since I've seen the stars, so I was just—"
"You were thinking about home," Ben says as he pats her hand. "I could tell."
"Yes," Rey whispers, attempting a smile. "Yes, that's right." She doesn't add that it's also just hit her that this ball, or at least the beginning where the tributes are formally introduced to the Emperor, is being both televised and judged, with each tribute's score being added to their overall odds of success in the arena.
Which means that not only is Rey being graded on how well she performs, Finn and Rose are likely watching her at this very moment, and the thought is enough to bring even more colour to her already flushed cheeks.
There were many a night back at the Community Home where once Unkar Plutt had collapsed into his usual drunken stupor and the younger children were all tucked into their pallets, Rey, Finn, and Rose would sneak out of their broken upstairs window so they could lay down on the roof and watch the stars. Rose would talk about her dream to work on ships, repairing engines and creating more efficient ways to fly, while Finn often spoke of simply trying to get away from Ajan Kloss, maybe even search out some of the family members he was convinced he still had. Rey never contributed much to the conversations, preferring to simply listen instead, but even she sometimes wondered what it would be like to fly up there amongst the stars, and maybe even visit some of the other planets.
There just had to be more to life than dangling from peach trees and protecting kids from bullying Stormtroopers.
Well, apparently not, Rey thinks bitterly.
"Are you sure you're all right, Rey?" Ben asks. "You seem… troubled."
"Yes, I'm sure," Rey says. She plasters her fake smile onto her face. "Just a bit nervous is all."
"Yeah, me too," says Ben. "Don't worry, though. You're gonna be just fine." He doesn't say the next part of his sentence out loud, but his thoughts broadcast it so loudly that for a moment, Rey's worried that the entire room picked up on it.
"I'll make sure of it."
"But, how?" she demands, a bit too late as the tributes from Scarif conclude their introductions with the Emperor and are led away to the next group of Gamemakers, where Lando Calrissian is standing at the forefront. Rey gulps as Ben guides her forward, stopping directly in front of Emperor Palpatine.
"Your Highness, may I present the two tributes from Ajan Kloss," says the tall, redheaded Gamemaker. Armitage Hux is his name, according to Luke, and he's been the Head Gamemaker for the last three years.
"Ben Solo, and Rey Sands," Hux continues, nodding appreciatively as Ben releases Rey's hand just long enough to bow, while Rey offers as perfect a curtsy as possible given her nervousness, one which draws a wide smile from the Emperor.
"Yes, yes, of course I am familiar with these amazing tributes from Ajan Kloss," says the Emperor. "You two have had quite the showing so far this year, haven't you?" He pauses, leaning in so closely that Rey can smell the strong cologne he's wearing. "I'm sure you both will be the ones to watch once we get underway, hmm?"
"I do believe so, Your Highness," Rey says, just firmly enough to still be polite. The Emperor lets out a chuckle, glancing up at Ben.
"And you, young man," he says. "Why, I'm not sure how you'll be able to tear yourself away from this lovely young lady at the end of the evening, hmm? I do say, the two of you make just the most perfect pair. Don't you agree, Mr Hux?"
"Yes, I do indeed, Your Highness," says Hux, and Rey is fascinated by how he's able to speak while keeping his jaw almost perfectly still. "The most perfect pair."
"Ah, yes," says the Emperor. "And such an interesting story as well. You know, Mr Solo, I don't believe Ajan Kloss has ever had a volunteer before you. Such a brave boy you are. I'm sure we'll all be watching you with great interest come tomorrow."
Ben's arm flinches in Rey's grip, but he manages to recover himself just in time. "Thank you, Your Highness," he says. "You are most kind."
Again, the Emperor chuckles, tossing Hux a sort of conspiratorial look. "Ah, if we only had more time," he says. "But let's not worry ourselves with all of that now, hmm? This evening is meant for you to enjoy yourselves. Tomorrow, I'm afraid, will arrive soon enough."
Rey's heart gives a painful lurch at the Emperor's words. Somehow through the last three days of training, she's managed to push her thoughts about the actual arena to the back of her mind, refusing to deal with them. But that will have to end as soon as she wakes up in the morning.
That's even if she's able to fall asleep, which she is not counting on.
"Now, then," says the Emperor. "I'm sure there are many people who are eager to meet the two of you, so please, do try to enjoy yourselves this evening, and the best of luck to the both of you tomorrow."
"Thank you," Ben says, clear and true.
"Yes, thank you," adds Rey. She tugs slightly on Ben's arm, wanting to get away from the Emperor as soon as possible, and the overwhelming scent of his cologne that's already giving Rey a slight headache.
"Are you hungry?" Ben asks, making no attempt to release Rey's hand from his arm as they walk to their assigned table. He's even once again covered her hand with his own, as if he's trying to blanket her in as much protection as possible.
"Yes," Rey says. If this is the final evening where she's allowed to eat whatever and however she wants, then she's going to indulge herself.
Ben smiles as he releases her to pull out her chair, sliding it underneath her as though he'd been doing so his entire life before taking his seat to her right. He's barely settled before Poe Dameron suddenly appears across from Rey, accompanied by his co-tribute, Ereen Sim, who's fifteen years old. Poe is seventeen, the same age as Ben, and, based on what Rey's observed of him during training, likely going to be one of her biggest competitors in the arena.
He also seems very full of himself, outgoing and arrogant, which Rey does not find amusing in the slightest.
"Well, well, well, isn't it the two show-stealing tributes from Ajan Kloss," Poe says as he pulls out Ereen's chair. "Fancy us getting to sit with you two for dinner, hmm?"
"Yes, isn't it wonderful?" Rey says shortly. She steals a quick glance at Ben, whose jaw is already starting to twitch. "What a coincidence."
Poe grins, so widely that his teeth show. "Oh, I don't believe in coincidences, sunshine, so—"
"Sunshine?" Rey snaps, noticing that Ben is now on the very edge of his chair. "Who do you think you are—?"
She's cut off by the arrival of the serving droids carrying the first course of their meal, a delectable cold soup with bits of nuts and seeds, followed by a salad made from plate-sized green, blue, and purple leaves and sprinkled with slices of the smallest oranges Rey has ever seen. The Emperor gives another speech before the main course is served, something about how all the tributes should consider themselves heroes on their home planets or something, but Rey barely listens, too engrossed in the food and in Ben right next to her. He's sitting so closely that every now and then, if she moves her legs just right, their knees brush together under the table, sending bursts of warm fuzzies racing through her body, which are no doubt aided by the glass of the sparkling strawberry drink that's served with the main course.
Poe Dameron, unfortunately, feels the need to keep a constant running commentary during the entire three-hour meal. He talks mainly about his life on Yavin 4, what he was studying in school and the work he did repairing speeders and other Imperial vehicles. Rey attempts to ignore him at first, but then remembers that even though they're no longer being broadcast her behaviour is still being scored, so she forces herself to listen, hoping that none of the Gamemakers who are watching her can tell that her smile is fake.
Poe's rambling does manage to tug on Rey's heartstrings though, as he speaks like he actually believes he's going to see his home again, something that even she hasn't allowed herself to believe just yet. He's even an orphan just like her, although judging by his stories, whoever's in charge of Yavin 4's Community Home isn't nearly as awful as Unkar Plutt.
Not too surprisingly, Ben remains silent during the meal, practically glowering at Poe the entire time. As does Ereen Sim, who bolts up from their table as soon as she finishes her dessert, refusing Poe's offer to accompany her back to their apartment as she stomps away.
Apparently Mr Flirtatious isn't as popular as he'd like to believe.
"Well," Poe says once the last of the dishes have been cleared away. He stands to his feet, offering both Rey and Ben a polite bow. "Sir, my lady, thank you for the pleasure of your company this evening. I guess I'll be seeing you both tomorrow."
And then, he does something that shocks Rey. Placing both palms onto the table, Poe leans forward, whispering, "Before you go into the arena tomorrow, just remember who the real enemy is."
Rey's jaw drops open as he shoots her a goofy smile and walks away, pausing by the Emperor and Head Gamemaker's table to thank them for the lovely evening.
"What do you suppose he meant by that?" she asks Ben, who's still eyeing Poe like he'd very much enjoy punching him in the nose. She can sense several strong emotions emanating from him, with jealousy right there at the forefront.
"I have no idea," Ben says as his frown grows even deeper. "He was probably just trying to rattle you."
"Us," Rey says quickly. "He was probably trying to rattle the both of us."
"Oh, yes. Us," Ben says. "I'm sure that's it."
With the dinner portion of the evening now concluded, the band's music increases in volume, with several tributes rising from their chairs to take to the dance floor set up on the opposite side of the room. Rey watches them in confusion, unable to understand how so many of them can act like they aren't being sent to their deaths in the morning.
It's enough to cause the massive amount of food she's just eaten to suddenly congeal in her stomach, like a heavy rock.
"I think I'd like to go back upstairs now," she says to Ben. Ben gives her a nod, standing to his feet so quickly it was as if he'd been shot by a blaster. He pulls out Rey's chair, offering his hand to help her to her feet, which she gratefully takes. She's going to miss holding on to Ben Solo's arm, and the feel of his long fingers curled around her own once they part ways in their penthouse. A lot more than she wants to admit.
If only we had more time.
They've barely taken three steps towards the exit when a loud, boisterous voice halts them in their tracks.
"Miss Sands!" exclaims Lando Calrissian, causing Rey to whip around so quickly that she nearly stumbles. Ben's hand quickly moves to cover hers, stabilising her as she forces her smile back onto her face. Like he was when Rey was first introduced to him, Lando is impeccably dressed, with his long, flowing, dark blue cape embroidered with fine golden threads, much like the threads lacing through the wall coverings in Rey's room.
"Hello, Mr Calrissian," Rey says, giving him the same curtsy that she gave him during the receiving line. Ben gives him a bow as well, reaching for Rey's hand as soon as he's upright again.
"So, I take it you both enjoyed the dinner?" Lando asks as he returns Ben's bow.
"Yes, sir. We did," Ben says.
"Very lovely," adds Rey.
"Ah, yes, the Emperor certainly spared no expense tonight," says Lando. He leans in, a mischievous gleam in his eye that's no doubt enhanced by several glasses of sparkling strawberry drink. "And, if I may, Mr Solo, I'd say you've got the prettiest young lady on the entire planet on your arm this evening. Wouldn't you agree?"
Ben's eyebrows twitch. "Yes, sir," he finally says. "I would very much agree."
"Yes, I'm sure you would." Lando glances between Rey and Ben, almost like he's contemplating something scandalous. "I am wondering, though, if I may be so bold as to borrow Miss Sands here for a moment?" He gestures vaguely towards the dance floor. "Just for a quick dance?"
Rey instinctively frowns. She is not anyone's to borrow, or do anything otherwise with, but she's also not about to possibly offend a Gamemaker either. Not on the night before the Games begin.
"Ah, yes, of course. Just so long as you don't get too attached," Ben says, his tone indicating that he's just as surprised as Rey. Lando laughs at his light attempt at humour as he offers Rey his arm, nodding as Ben places Rey's hand on his elbow.
"I promise I won't keep her long," Lando tells Ben as he walks Rey over to the dance floor. Rey shoots Ben a tentative look as Lando's arm goes around her waist, her heart fluttering when she notices Ben's tightly clenched jaw. While she's grown rather comfortable with touching Ben—without even thinking, really—she's not at all comfortable with the thought of one of the Emperor's Gamemakers holding her like she's wished that Ben would.
Thankfully, Lando keeps her at a respectable arm's length as they start to move, as if he's read her mind and is actually afraid of offending Ben. Rey smirks, trying to hide her laugh at the absurdity of the thought, which Lando then interprets as a smile.
"So, I take it you're enjoying the festivities tonight, then?" he asks.
"Oh," Rey says, managing to catch herself just in time. "It's all a bit… overwhelming."
"Oh, yes, I can imagine," Lando replies. "Especially coming from such a tiny planet as Ajan Kloss."
"It's actually a moon," Rey says, almost too sharply. They've only been dancing for thirty seconds at most, but she's already tired of playing this Gamemaker's stupid game.
And anyway, in twelve more hours, is it really going to matter?
To her surprise, instead of chastising her for her harshness, Lando throws his head back and laughs, so loudly that several nearby people turn to look their way.
"Oh, but you are a fiery one, hmm?" Lando says once he's managed to calm himself down. "Just like Maz's told me."
"She has?" Rey asks. She's not sure if she should be flattered or angered that Maz has had conversations about her with someone who is technically Rey's enemy.
"Oh, yeah. Maz and I go way back," says Lando. He spins her around as the music changes, chuckling when Rey wobbles ever-so-slightly on her stiletto heels.
"Well, then," Rey says. "Are there any tips you can give me regarding the arena this year?"
Lando's eyebrows shoot up, and he lets out a kind of strangled-sounding grunt before he recovers enough to start laughing again. "Oh, you just about got me there, didn't you?" he says as he steps back, still holding onto Rey's elbow as he reaches inside his cape and pulls out an old-fashioned gold pocket watch. He flips open the cover, frowning as he checks the time. "But I'm afraid that I must be going now, Miss Sands. There is still much to do before tomorrow arrives."
"Yes, I'm sure—" Rey starts to say. The rest of her sentence dies on her lips, though, as she catches a glimpse of the emblem embossed on the inside of the watch's cover.
It's a starbird. The very same emblem that adorns the medallion Rey's wearing around her neck.
"Ah, you like my watch, do you?" Lando asks. He turns the crystal face towards her, which Rey notices is the same bright blue as his cape, with the starbird barely visible against the bluish light reflected from it.
"Yes," Rey says, swallowing hard. "It's very pretty."
"Oh, it's more than that," Lando says. "It's one of a kind." He gives Rey another odd smile as he closes the cover, leading her back over to where Ben is standing. "Well, I'm afraid I must be off. Best of luck to you tomorrow, Miss Sands. And to you too, Mr Solo."
"Thank you, sir," Ben says as he reaches for Rey's hand, placing it on his elbow. As soon as Lando is safely out of earshot, he turns to Rey. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Rey says, her eyebrows knitting together. "I'm not really sure what all that was about, actually."
"He was probably just trying to size you up or something," says Ben, his tone indicating that he's not at all pleased. "You're sure you're okay?"
Rey breathes in as she looks into Ben's beautiful brown eyes, blazing with concern. "Yes, Ben, I'm fine," she says softly. "I'd like to go back now, if that's okay."
Ben gives a nod, patting her hand. "Of course it's okay."
With Luke and Maz nowhere to be found since the dancing began, Rey and Ben offer their thanks to Emperor Palpatine and Gamemaker Hux and take their leave. Rey clings to Ben's arm on the way back to the penthouse, already dreading the time when she'll be forced to let go.
"Well," she says once they're finally standing in the hallway, their respective bedroom doors behind each of them. "Thank you for a lovely evening."
"You're welcome, Rey," Ben whispers. He brings his free hand up to her face, tucking a stray hair behind her ear. "I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
Rey nods. She's not ready. Not at all ready to watch her tall, shy boy disappear into that room, only to emerge in the morning as her enemy.
"If only there was someplace we could go," she says, so softly she's surprised when Ben snaps his head up.
"There is," he says. His eyes flick upwards towards the ceiling, then to her bedroom door before landing back on her face. "Meet me up on the roof in five minutes."
"The… roof?" Rey asks, her heart already thudding with excitement. That must be where that strange door at the end of the hallway leads. "Have you—have you been up there before?"
"Yes," Ben says, nodding rapidly. "Hurry, before Luke and Maz come back!"
"Yes, okay." Pressing her palm to the door lock, Rey bursts into her room, launching her hateful shoes at the chair in the corner as she marches towards the closet. She digs through the racks of clothing until she finds a pair of cozy grey leggings and a matching tunic, taking an extra couple minutes to remove the literally dozens of hairpins from her hair and run a makeup remover wipe across her eyes, nose, and cheeks. If she's getting to spend some more time with Ben, she's going to do it as herself.
It also makes perfect sense that Ben, the master of solitude, would find someplace where he could be alone on a planet that seems like it never sleeps.
Raking her fingers through her loosened hair, Rey steps back from the mirror and heads out of the room, turning right instead of left as she exits. The door at the end of the hallway is heavy, groaning with the effort of opening as she slips in behind it.
Making her way up a set of concrete stairs, Rey emerges onto the flat roof to find Ben already there, dressed in a pair of soft black pants and a black tunic and busily arranging a big puffy blanket next to an actual, real-life flower garden. Wind chimes tinkle in the cool breeze as Rey wraps her arms around her front, wishing she had thought to grab a cloak before coming up.
"So, how many times have you been up here?" Rey asks as she and Ben settle in on the blanket. Her heart flutters at the way the muscles in his arms ripple as he folds his long legs off to the side and leans down on one elbow, almost like they're on a real date.
"A few, actually," Ben says as he looks around. "To be honest, I'm surprised that I've never seen anyone else up here. I'm pretty sure it's the only place on the entire planet where you can still find flowers."
"I wouldn't be surprised," Rey agrees. As much as she was in awe of Coruscant when they first arrived, Rey has found over the last few days that she's actually missed seeing colours besides dark blue, grey, and black.
And she honestly can't imagine how anyone would choose to live forever on a planet with no grass or trees to speak of. She supposes one would eventually get used to it, as Jakku was a very monotone planet as well, with very little in the way of vegetation. Rey was shocked when she was first brought to Ajan Kloss, not realising that there could possibly be so much colour in the galaxy. But surely the people who live on Coruscant have the means to travel wherever they wish, right?
They're quiet for awhile, just enjoying listening to the wind chimes, until a particularly cool gust of wind blows across the rooftop, causing Rey to shiver. Ben immediately looks at her, his face etched in concern.
"Are you cold?" he asks as he sits up, rummaging around in a cloth bag by the corner. "'Cause I—I brought an extra blanket up with me, just in case—"
"No!" Rey blurts out as a surge of bravery shoots through her body. She's been lamenting about their lack of time for the entire day when now, here, they have the whole night in front of them. So she puts all thoughts of Emperor Palpatine and the Games and weird starbird-embossed watches out of her mind and reaches for Ben's hand, intertwining their fingers.
"I mean, no," she says, softer this time. "I'd—I'd rather we share the blanket."
Even in the dim light up on the roof, Rey can see Ben's cheeks visibly pale, see his throat bob as he swallows. "Are you—are you sure?" he asks.
Rey nods, squeezing his hand. "Yes. I'm sure."
"All right," Ben whispers. He then arranges himself around her so Rey's back is pressed up against his front, their intertwined hands resting on his knee and the blanket pulled up to her chin. Peaceful warmth floods Rey's body as she tips her head back against Ben's shoulder, closing her eyes as she slowly breathes in. This is what Rey has dreamed of for years. Being held by Ben Solo, the boy she's loved for as long as she's known what love is.
As soon as the thought leaves her mind, she hears Ben gasp behind her, the arm wrapped around her waist tightening, drawing her closer.
"Rey?" she hears inside her mind. "Is this—are you… real?"
"Yes, it is," she replies. There's no point in denying it anymore. "And I am."
Ben lets out a shudder, pulling her impossibly closer as he buries his nose into her hair, whispering, "I didn't—I didn't know that you—that you felt—"
"Shh, it's okay," Rey whispers back. "Let's just enjoy it now, while we can." She shifts a little, tucking her head under Ben's chin. "Tell me a story."
"About you," she says. "Tell me a story about yourself that you've never told anyone else."
Ben's quiet for a moment, his heart beating a staccato rhythm against her back and his arms slightly trembling as they hold her tight. "When I was little, I used to sometimes pretend that my dad was off on a mission instead of in prison," he begins. "The whole time he was away, I pretended that he was off fighting against the bad guys, and that one day, after he finally killed all of them, he would come back home and free Ajan Kloss from the Stormtroopers." He pauses, trailing his thumb across the back of Rey's hand. "And then, after he died, I pretended that I was the great warrior, seeking revenge on the bad guys that killed him." He lets out a rather sad chuckle. "I even made up a different name for myself, since Ben Solo doesn't exactly sound all that scary."
"Oh?" Rey asks. "What was it?"
"Kylo Ren," Ben says with a shrug. "I don't know, I thought it sounded kind of ominous."
"Yes, it does," agrees Rey. "But I like Ben Solo much better."
Ben huffs out a sharp breath, his big hand splayed across her hip. "Maker, Rey, you have no idea—that day, when you gave me the strawberry, I was—I was—"
"Shh," she says as she lifts her head, reaching up to cup his cheek. "I did know. I don't know how I did, but I did. I still do."
Tears are shining in Ben's eyes as he presses his forehead to hers. "I don't—I don't understand any of this, but—but I'm glad—I'm still glad—"
"Yes," Rey murmurs, pressing her fingers to his lips. "I am too."
Ben audibly gulps, his eyes flicking to her lips just for a second before locking with hers in a silent plea, and that's all the encouragement Rey needs to tip her head up just as Ben lowers his, connecting their lips in a kiss. The warmth that's been buzzing around inside her body quickly transforms into a raging flame, sending fiery sparks across her chest and down her arms and legs, a sensation she feels mirrored in Ben. By the time she's out of breath and forced to break away, both she and Ben are panting.
"Will you come to my room with me tonight?" she asks as she strokes his hair. "I don't—I just want you to be with me."
"Yes," Ben rasps as he presses his lips to her forehead. "I'll be with you for as long as you'll let me."
"Then let's go," Rey says. "Now."
Gathering up the blankets, they rush back downstairs, slipping inside Rey's room as quietly as possible. Then they kick off their shoes and crawl under the covers of her bed, cuddling up to each other as closely as their clothes will allow. Rey sighs as she lays her head down on Ben's broad chest, his strong arms around her and his steady heartbeat beneath her ear already lulling her to sleep despite the impending Games looming over their heads.
"Rey," Ben whispers a few minutes later. "Whatever happens tomorrow in the arena, I just want you to know that I—"
But once again, Rey presses her fingers to his lips to silence him. "Please, don't. You don't need to say anything."
"I already know, Ben. And I feel the same."
And then she slips off into sleep, with the words I love you echoing inside her mind, not quite sure if they're Ben's or hers.
The morning dawns all too quickly. Light has barely started to streak across the skyscrapers when a droid pounds on Rey's door, demanding that Ben accompany him immediately. It's not surprising, as each tribute is required to enter the arena alone, but Rey still feels her heart crack right down the middle as the droid practically drags Ben from her room, fear emanating from him in waves. As soon as he's gone another droid appears, informing Rey that she must rise as well. The droid marches her from her room, through the penthouse, and over to the transport tube, which opens onto a landing pad on which a transport ship is waiting. As soon as the ship lifts off, another droid takes Rey's right arm, injecting it with a tracking device so the Gamemakers can keep tabs on the tributes in the arena.
She wonders briefly if any tribute has ever been lost, and what might've happened to the Gamemaker that lost him or her. She can't imagine that the Emperor would look too kindly at such a mistake.
Thankfully, Maz is waiting for her once the transport arrives, her face unreadable as she encourages Rey to eat a light meal before shooing her into the fresher. Her clothes for the arena are fairly nondescript, with a pair of dark grey leggings, a matching pullover shirt, and a lighter grey tunic lined with pockets that's made from some kind of insulated fabric, leading Rey to believe that the arena will be a chilly one.
"You spent the first few years of your life on Jakku, didn't you, child?" Maz asks as Rey pulls the tunic over her head, careful to tuck her medallion down inside it.
"Yes," Rey says. She keeps expecting Maz to mention the fact that Ben spent the night in her room, but she says nothing.
She wonders if Luke is being as discreet with Ben.
It's not like we did anything, Rey thinks. If anything, having Ben there in her bed with her allowed them both to get some much-needed sleep, something she'd thought she'd have to forgo the night before the Games.
"Well, then, you might have an advantage," Maz says. She smooths the tunic's fabric over Rey's shoulders before cupping her face. "Be brave, child. Follow your instincts and be braver than you ever thought you could possibly be, and you will do just fine." Then she steps back as two droids approach, giving Rey a final nod. "And always remember who the real enemy is."
Rey's belly gives a violent swoop at Maz's words. "What?" she says as the droids take her arms, leading her over to a circular pad. It simply cannot be a coincidence that Maz said that just now, it just can't. "What does that mean?"
"Quiet! No more talking!" snaps one of the droids as he presses a button on a keypad. Rey lets out a fearful noise as a clear tube begins to lower over her, enclosing her inside just as the pad she's standing on begins to rise. She pitches forward, her palms pressed against the inside of the tube as the arena slowly appears. It's a forest, or at least as much as Rey can tell. There's a large circular structure surrounded with various weapons located directly in the centre of the circle of tributes, all of which are now emerging from underground. Dozens of battle droids stand elbow to elbow in front of the weapons, just lying in wait for the opportunity to start shooting.
And those are only the ones she can see.
As the pad locks into place, Rey whips her head around, frantically searching for Ben, her knees nearly buckling as she hears his low, soothing voice inside her head.
"I'm here, Rey, but don't worry about me. You just run away from here as fast as you can and I'll come and find you."
"What?" she exclaims, almost crying out as she finally locates Ben, three tributes to her right.
"I'm not going to leave you!" she cries inside her mind. "Ben, there's no way—!"
Rey's cut off as a voice comes over a loudspeaker, that of Gamemaker Hux. "Tributes of the fortieth annual Empire Games, we salute you!" he says, followed by the beat of a drum, indicating a countdown.
"Rey, please, you have to listen to me!" Ben pleads. "I promise I'll come back for you, sweetheart! I promise!"
"But I don't want you to," she says aloud, blinking against the tears threatening to fall. "Ben, I don't want you to have to—"
But then the horn sounds, and before Rey's able to collect her thoughts, the battle droids begin to fire. She screams as she watches the girl on the pad next to her, who can't be any older than twelve, get ripped apart by the blaster shots before she can even take a single step, her charred body falling flat onto the spongy forest floor.
"Rey!" Ben screams from somewhere, Rey can't quite tell where. "Rey, sweetheart, run away! Run away from here!"
"No, Ben! I will not!"
Grunting, Rey takes three quick steps forward, then pivots, dropping to her knees just in time to avoid a blaster shot aimed directly for her head. She scrambles to her feet, twisting to her left to avoid a knife thrown by one of the Career tributes as she frantically searches for Ben, unable to see him through the intensity of the firefight. Taking another step, she trips over something lying on the ground, which turns out to be a silver-coloured handle similar to the retractable bo staffs she used during the training sessions. She quickly reaches for it, blinking as it practically leaps into her hand, stowing it into the pocket of her tunic just as yet another blaster shot flashes across her left elbow. Her ears are already ringing from the relentless blaster shots and the screams of panicked children, when suddenly a hand closes over her shoulder, flipping her onto her back just as an oncoming battle droid is blasted right through its neck, blowing its head clean off. Rey gasps as she attempts to focus in on her rescuer, her eyes going wide when she sees that it isn't Ben who's just saved her life, but Poe Dameron.
"What—what are you doing?" she stammers. "Why—?"
Poe shakes his head, raising the blaster he's somehow managed to acquire just in time to take out another incoming tribute, who had just been about to hit him upside the head with a tree branch. Then he holds out his hand, shaking it impatiently when Rey hesitates.
"We don't have any time to waste, sunshine," Poe says. "If you want to live, come with me."
END OF BOOK ONE