Chapter 1: Part 1
A huge thank you to ceceliasheplin for being such an awesome beta, and spacewafflehouse for the incredible moodboard! 💖
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"No! No, please, don't take him away! Please, don't—!"
He jerks awake with a gasp, the panicked sound of his name floating on the fleeting images of a bad dream as they bounce around in his mind, searching for a way to escape. Wrapping his arms around his front, he squeezes his eyes closed, huffing out a sharp breath as the visions finally fade back into nothingness, like a puff of smoke dispersing into the thick, humid air.
Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he lets out a hard shiver before flopping back against his thin pillow, his arms bracketing his head as he tries to breathe in without choking. It was the usual one this time, the same dream that's tormented Ben since he was old enough to understand what dreams even were. Sometimes it's a bit different, the events occurring in a slightly different order or featuring slightly different people, but the end result is always the same.
And just as horrible.
Shuddering, he rolls onto his front, folding his pillow in half under his head as he tries to push the offensive images from his mind. The sun still hasn't risen, and his limbs are so heavy they feel like they've been filled with peat. It's not quite time to get up yet.
Surprisingly, he's able to doze off again rather quickly, only to be roused again by a gentle but insistent knock on his door. He grimaces as he attempts to blink open his eyes, his mouth like wet cotton as the door creaks open to reveal the kind but grim face of his mother. She's already dressed, wearing one of the nice dresses that Ben's father bought for her shortly before his arrest, with her hair done up in the elaborate braid that she usually reserves for important events.
"It's time to get up, honey," she says.
Ben lets out a soft groan, tucking his freezing-cold feet back under his thin, ratty blanket as he pulls it up over his head. The standard-issue Empire mattresses apparently don't account for boys who shoot right past the average height of 1.7 metres and keep on going. Especially when said boy was only thirteen years when he did so.
"Ben," Mom says as she sits down on the edge of the bed, gently shaking his shoulder. "You still have your work to get done before the reaping."
Ben huffs, his breath hot and damp under the cover of his blanket. He can still hear his name as it echoes inside his head, still hear the panic-laden voice just before it was snatched away from him forever.
"Ben," Mom urges a couple heartbeats later. "Honey, it'd be best for you to get done early today so you can have time for a bath."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," he mutters, rolling his eyes. "Can't have any potential tributes that smell anything like an actual tribute, right? Might offend some high-level Empire official's sensitive nasal passages."
Thanks to the blanket Ben can't see Mom's expression, but he can guess it anyway. Her tight lips, her downtrodden eyes, and the slight sag to her shoulders that she still tries to hold proudly squared whenever they're out in public, despite everything.
"Sorry," he says as he peels the blanket from his face. "I'll get going now."
Mom nods, her thin, weathered fingers curling around his shoulder.
The rough floorboards of their tiny home creak as Ben swings his long legs over the side of the bed and gets to his feet, cringing at the sticky, slightly damp sensation as he makes his way over to the mirror. Scowling at his reflection, he dips his hands into the water basin and splashes some on his face, running his damp fingers through the tousled hair hanging down over his eyes. Mom will have to trim it back a bit after he gets dressed later. Can't have his longish hair offending any of the Empire officials' sensitive eyes.
It is all about control, after all. And while Ben can't exactly control how tall he grows, he can at least keep his hair to within some semblance of the Empire's regulations.
But only some semblance. Even if his father is gone, Ben is still his father's son, and Han Solo was anything but a blind conformer.
Tossing on one of his father's old shirts, which is barely long enough to cover his torso, Ben rolls up the sleeves and shoves his feet into his boots, wincing as his sore toes slam up against the inside of the stiff, worn leather. He's needed a new pair of shoes for at least six months now, as his ingrown toenails are really starting to get out of control, but saving up enough credits for them is especially difficult when his feet are bigger than the Empire's regulation size range. Mom only managed to find his current pair at the secondhand store because they once belonged to a Stormtrooper, a fact that she failed to pass on to Ben until he just happened to notice the stamped Empire insignia still barely-visible on the inside of the left heel.
"Remember that you need to be back by noon, okay?" Mom says from her ancient desk in the corner as Ben quickly grabs his work gloves, pail, and scrub brush, shoving a chunk of stale dark bread into his mouth. "I'll have the tub ready to go."
Ben nods as he swallows the bread, stepping over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.
It's mostly quiet as Ben makes his way across the damp, spongy jungle, the songs and chirps of the various singing and hissing creatures filling his ears as he passes the cannery, the cobbler, the apothecary, and the school where his mother teaches history. The Justice Hall, a large, stately building adorned with the large pennants of the Galactic Empire and flanked by the smaller pennants embossed the crest of with Ajan Kloss, their moon home, stands in the very centre of what everyone refers to as the Square, a constant reminder to the people of who's in charge. Normally on a weekday morning the Square would be bustling with people as they went about their business. Merchants setting up their stands, various squadrons of Stormtroopers marching through, their blaster rifles clutched firmly in their gloved hands, and the long lines of workers as they make their way over to the various state farms, spending yet another twelve-hour day ankle-deep in muck as they struggle to tend the crops that just don't seem to appreciate having to grow under such conditions.
Reaping Day though, is always different. On Reaping Day the farms are closed and the merchant stalls sit vacant, with an air of tension interspersed amongst the thick humidity that clings to everything, just like the stubborn moss that Ben scrubs daily from the outside walls of the Justice Hall at half a credit an hour.
After checking in with the supervising Stormtrooper, Ben fills his pail with water and lye soap powder and gets to work. Sweat quickly beads along his forehead and the back of his neck as he scrubs, removing the unsightly, pale green fungus that attaches itself to pretty much every rigid structure it can find. Ben's entire home is covered with the stuff, eating holes into the walls and roof faster than he can keep them patched. Just yesterday, in fact, he was sitting at his mother's desk attempting to practice his handwriting when a drip of fungus-infused moisture landed right in the middle of his page, sending splotches of ink spraying in all directions.
It was all Ben could do to keep from swearing, biting down on his tongue so hard that he could still feel the indents of his teeth along its surface. His beloved ink, quills, and papers are his most cherished possessions, more valuable to him than even food, and he'll be damned if he'll allow them to become ruined by the very same shit that he's forced to spend most of his days pretty much covered in.
"Hey, you there!" one of the supervising Stormtroopers suddenly says, followed quickly by the high-pitched squawk of a young child. "No breaks allowed!"
"He's thirsty!" a girl's voice protests, and Ben's hand holding the scrub brush freezes in place as he slowly peeks around the corner. He would know that voice anywhere.
It's the voice of an angel. His angel. His only light in the neverending jungle of darkness and pain.
"I was just giving him a drink of water," she adds, just before the Stormtrooper connects the back of his hand with her cheek. Ben flinches, his heart giving a painful lurch as she stumbles backwards with a soft whimper, her hand covering a reddened area that'll likely transform into a lovely shade of bluish purple in an hour or so.
"There'll be plenty of time for that once your work is done," snaps the Stormtrooper. "Before the reaping."
"Yeah, and if he doesn't get enough to drink now he might not even make it to the reaping," the girl mutters once the trooper's back is turned. It's thankfully quiet enough for the trooper to not notice, but it still causes Ben to cringe in fear. It's not the first time he's heard her say something out of line, and knowing her, it likely won't be the last.
Ben can still remember what she said on that day seven years ago like it was yesterday, her sweet, kind words the only thing strong enough to penetrate the storm cloud of grief threatening to suffocate him. With Mom stuck at the school finishing up a conference or something, Ben had walked home by himself, arriving at the house to find a package from the Headquarters of the Galactic Empire sitting on the front steps. Since it was addressed to both Leia Solo and Ben Solo, Ben concluded that it would be okay for him to open, thinking it likely contained information about registering him for the reaping since as he recently turned ten, it was his first eligible year.
But instead of the Empire registration paperwork he was expecting, Ben was horrified to find a simple grey cloth bag filled with ashes, along with a pre-printed card stating that Han Solo, the father that he hadn't seen since his arrest when Ben was only five years old, had been terminated for treason.
At first Ben was too shocked to even breathe, clutching the card with trembling fingers as he reread it over and over, each time hoping desperately that it somehow would say something else. Han Solo had worked as a transport pilot before he was arrested by Empire officials on suspicion of sedition and treason, and was then held in a prison on some Empire prison planet without trial for over five years, likely on the hope that he would eventually give up his co-conspirators.
It wasn't until Ben had reread the card at least a dozen times that it finally hit him. His father was dead. Gone. Burned down into nothing but ashes.
He would never be coming home again.
The tears started then, first just one or two that slowly trailed their way down Ben's cheeks, until the floodgates suddenly opened and Ben began to sob in earnest, rocking back and forth on the cracked front steps as he hugged the small cloth bag to his chest.
His daddy was dead, and Ben didn't even get to say goodbye.
He wasn't sure how long he'd been sitting there, sniffing and sobbing as his tears dripped all over his lap, when he suddenly heard a voice, the sweetest, kindest voice that Ben had ever heard in his entire life.
The voice of an angel.
"Are you okay?" the girl asked as she appeared as if out of nowhere, approaching him from the direction of the orchards. "Why're you crying?"
Dumbfounded, Ben could only stare at her, swiping the tears from his cheeks as he attempted to find his voice.
"My—my daddy… he's—he's," Ben sputtered, squeezing his eyes closed against the fresh tears threatening to fall. "My daddy… he's—he's dead. They—they—he's dead."
They killed him.
Only he didn't dare say that part out loud.
The girl bit down on her bottom lip as she reached forward, gently patting Ben on the shoulder.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered sadly. "My daddy's dead too."
Her words caused Ben to start, and he narrowed his eyes as he studied her face. She was familiar, in the sense that Ben had seen her a few times in the hallways at school or across the schoolyard. He knew she hadn't been living on Ajan Kloss long, only for a few months or so, but he was almost certain that he had seen her walking towards the fruit fields with a group of kids who Ben knew lived in the Community Home.
Only orphans lived in the Community Home, which probably meant that the girl's mommy was dead too.
But the thing that really caused Ben to do a double-take was that she looked like she'd been crying too, with faint tear tracks lining her dirt-smeared cheeks.
"R-really?" Ben asked, still sniffling so hard he could barely speak.
"Yeah," said the girl, wide-eyed as she nodded. "And my mummy too."
"Oh," said Ben. "I'm—I'm really sorry."
The girl shrugged. "Eh, it's okay. They weren't very nice people anyway. Not like your daddy."
Ben's eyebrows scrunched together as he cradled the cloth bag. "Um… how—how do you know that my daddy was nice?"
"Well, I know your mummy from school, and she's nice," she responded. "And you seem pretty nice, so I guess I just assumed that your daddy was nice too."
"Oh. Okay," Ben said. That made perfect sense to him. "Um… yeah. He was—he was nice. Thanks."
"You're welcome." And then, after she looked back and forth to make sure there weren't any Stormtroopers around, she reached into the patch-like pocket of her dress and pulled out a single large strawberry, holding it out for Ben to take.
"Here. I got this for you," she said as she dropped the strawberry into his palm. "Maybe it'll help you feel a bit better."
Ben's breath hitched as he looked down at the strawberry, completely struck speechless. With her sweet voice and her tiny act of kindness, the angelic girl standing before him had managed to defy every single thing that the Empire stood for, seemingly without thought of either risk or return. Punishments on Ajan Kloss were severe for stealing food, and Ben had seen many a field hand whipped in the Square for attempting to do so. Even one as young as her.
"You—you picked this… for me?"
"Well… yeah," she said, like it should've been obvious. "Just don't tell anyone, okay? Otherwise we'll get in trouble."
"Yeah. Okay," Ben said with a nod, cradling the strawberry in his palm as though it was the most precious thing in the entire world. The girl returned his nod, flashing him a quick smile before turning around and heading towards the Community Home.
"Wait!" he called after her as he got to his feet. "I don't—I don't even know your name!"
The girl turned around, her head tilting as she regarded Ben.
"I'm Rey, with an 'e'," she stated. "Rey Sands. And you're Ben, right?"
"Uhh, yeah," Ben said. Sands was the surname given to all orphans who came from desert planets. "Yeah, I'm—I am Ben. Ben Solo."
"Hi, Ben Solo," Rey said. Then she smiled at him again, an absolutely beautiful smile that lit up her entire face as she glanced down at the strawberry resting in Ben's palm. "Don't forget to eat that before it melts."
"I won't," Ben replied. "I—I… thanks."
And in the seven years since that day, Ben still hasn't tasted anything as sweet as that single red strawberry, given to him by the most beautiful girl on the entire moon on one of the worst days of his entire life.
He's kept an eye on her over the years. Growing up in the Community Home isn't easy, and has broken many a child on Ajan Kloss thanks to the bully of a man who runs it, Unkar Plutt. But despite everything that's stacked up against her, the lack of sufficient food and water and the too-crowded conditions, Rey still manages to survive.
It hasn't been easy for her, or her two close friends that Ben's heard her call Finn and Rose. There's been many days where she's shown up at school with bruises around her eyes or along her cheekbones, and he suspects that a lack of proper food has stunted her growth, as at age sixteen she barely comes up to his collarbones, but still, she goes on.
She's a survivor, and so has inspired Ben to keep on surviving, hoping against hope that somehow, someday things might be different. Because if Rey can survive in such deplorable conditions as Unkar Plutt's Community Home, then surely Ben can as well.
Fuming, but also a bit relieved, Ben dips his brush into the pail, scowling as he scrubs at a particularly stubborn spot of fungus and hating himself for not having the courage to speak up as Rey walks around towards the opposite side of the Justice Hall, her arm curled around the shoulders of the little boy she was trying to help, who was obviously crying.
She's so brave, he thinks. It takes a lot of guts to stand up to a Stormtrooper, and Ben has seen plenty of people who've tried and then suddenly disappeared. He's grateful that Rey only got a backhand for her trouble, and not a whipping or a trip to the stocks for the day.
Of course, it is Reaping Day. Maybe the Stormtrooper just assumes that'll be punishment enough.
He's just about worked the stubborn spot free when a sharp whistle sounds across the Square. Almost immediately Ben's heart starts to thud, and he chances one final peek around the corner to find Rey guiding the young boy back towards the Community Home, presumably to start getting ready.
The reaping will commence in exactly one hour.
With a soft groan, Ben stands to his feet, rolling the aches from his shoulders before dumping his pail out onto the floor of the jungle. A large tin tub of hot water awaits him when he returns to the house, with Mom pouring in the last remaining drops from a steaming kettle.
"Just in time," she says as she hands him a lump of soap and a threadbare towel. "And don't forget to wash your hair."
"I won't," Ben says as he takes the soap and the towel, dropping it into a heap on the floor. He waits until Mom has retreated into her room before undressing and stepping into the tub, barely able to fold his long, lanky body enough to fit inside it. Tipping his head back, he lets out a soft groan as the hot water laps against his sore shoulders and back, trying to ignore the prickly sting from his arms and the back of his neck that are splotched pink from the unrelenting Ajan Kloss sun. Mom often reminds Ben that he should be happy to have a job where he can work outside, where there's the chance of a breeze to occasionally cool him. His friend, Tai, works inside the stuffy schoolhouse and constantly complains about how hot it is during the summer months, but Ben's not quite sure if dealing with the almost-constant sunburn is as much of a trade-off as Mom believes.
Once the sting gets to be a bit much, Ben grabs the soap, scrubbing the sweat and grime from his skin and hair until the water is no longer clear. Then he unfolds his body and steps out, patting himself dry before dressing in the clothes Mom left out for him. Like his work clothes, the pants and shirt that once belonged to his father are too short in the sleeves and pant legs and a bit too tight in the waistband. But, like most everything else, Ben manages to make do.
"I'm ready, Mom," he calls towards Mom's closed door, dragging one of their two chairs over to the tub. A few seconds later Mom emerges, her ancient sewing sheers clutched in her hand.
"There you go, honey," Mom says after she finishes trimming the scraggly ends of his hair, neatly combing the rest into place. She bites down on her bottom lip, smoothing back a wayward strand as she looks him over, her pretty brown eyes filling with tears.
"Mom? What's wrong?" he asks as he stands to his feet, brushing a tickly piece of hair from the bridge of his nose. Mom doesn't cry very often. In fact, Ben's pretty sure the last time he saw her do so was the day his father's ashes arrived.
"You're just… so handsome, Ben. And so grown up," Mom answers. She sniffs as she fiddles with his shirt collar, trying to flatten out a stubborn wrinkle. "Just… all of a sudden, it seems."
"Well, it is my last year," Ben says with a shrug. "I'd hate to still look like it's my first." It's bad enough that ten-year-olds are eligible for the reaping in the first place, and that some of them even end up getting reaped. Just in the last three years, in fact, out of the twelve eligible planets there's been at least one ten-year-old reaped, with two being chosen two years ago.
And not a single one of them made it longer than fifteen seconds or so. As soon as the shield was lowered and the battle droids were unleashed, that was it. The battle droids always seem to go after whoever they presume are the weakest amongst the tributes, likely programmed that way by the Gamemakers. It's apparently a lot more fun for the Empire Citizens to watch the stronger tributes battle it out against the droidekas and other mid-level attack droids as they scramble to pick up as many weapons as possible, knowing that the Sarlaccs, Banthas, and other monsters are already scattered across the arena, lying in wait.
There just aren't very many people in the galaxy who are like Rey, willing to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves.
"Yes, and thank the Maker for that," says Mom. She sighs as she finishes messing with his collar, placing her palms on his chest. "You have so much of your father's heart in you, honey. Don't ever forget that."
Ben solemnly nods. Mom says that to him a lot. Especially on Reaping Day.
Ben has just slid his feet back inside his too-small boots when he hears the loud honk of a horn, indicating for the tributes to assemble inside the Square.
"I do despise that sound," Mom says as she cups Ben's cheeks, tugging his head down so she can kiss his forehead. "Be brave, my boy. Be brave like your father. I'll join you when it's time."
A knot rises in Ben's throat that he attempts to swallow down. His father was brave, one of the bravest people Ben's ever known. And look where it got him.
Sucking in a deep breath, Ben squares his shoulders and steps outside, joining the herd of boys and girls as they make their way towards the Square. No one speaks, the usually leaden jungle air even heavier with fear and anticipation as everyone's thoughts broadcast the exact same thing.
Please don't pick me. Please don't pick me. Please don't pick me.
Falling into the queue for the seventeen-year-old boys, Ben follows the crowd through the check-in stations and over to the assembly area, turning to face the Justice Hall just as a rather sharp elbow proceeds to jab him right in the ribs.
"Ow!" Ben exclaims, scowling as Tai's head suddenly appears from behind him. He rubs at his side, his frown deepening as Tai starts to laugh. "Damnit, Tai, that hurt!"
"Ah, you're just a wuss, Solo," Tai playfully retorts, giving Ben another elbow jab for good measure. "Big guy like you should be able to handle something as tame as that. That's nothing like what you'd face in the arena."
"Yeah, I know, but it's not like I'm itching to find that out either," mutters Ben. "Are you?"
Tai eyebrows knit together. "Uhh, not exactly. But you do know that statistically we're more likely to get picked than the younger kids, right?"
"Never tell me the odds, okay?" Ben says, tugging on the tight collar of his shirt. Of course Tai, a certified whiz with numbers, would be able to calculate that kind of stuff without using a computer, but Ben really wasn't interested in exacts at the moment. "I don't need to know the actual numbers to know that the odds are definitely not in our favour."
"Fine, fine, have it your way." Tai crosses his arms, stepping back to allow a few younger kids to move in front of him, some of which are barely half Ben's size. "It's still rotten as hell that these tiny things are even here in the first place. At least someone like me or you would have a fighting chance."
"Shh," Ben says, jerking his head in the direction of one of the Stormtroopers. He's already starting to sweat under the unrelenting sun, and his nervousness isn't helping matters. "Don't want them to hear you."
Tai wrinkles his nose, but thankfully stops talking as more and more kids file into the empty spaces, shuffling in until everyone's standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The Empire banners flap in the light breeze as Ben shifts from foot to foot, scanning the area for Rey, his heart giving a flutter when he finally sees her. She's even more beautiful than usual in her pretty ivory-coloured tunic dress and her brown hair loose around her shoulders, standing arm-in-arm with her friends Finn and Rose. Ben remembers that Rose's older sister, Paige, was chosen as a tribute three years ago, making it all the way to the final four survivors before she was killed.
Finally, just when Ben thinks that there's no possible way to fit any more potential tributes into the space, Maz Kanata, the Empire escort for Ajan Kloss, steps up onto the temporary stage, followed by Fein Arekson, the Regional Governor for Ajan Kloss, and the planet's only living Empire Games victor, Luke Skywalker.
"Ole Skywalker looks a bit worse for the wear today, don't you think?" Tai whispers as Governor Arekson steps forward, holding up his hands to silence the crowd.
"Doesn't he always?" Ben responds. As far as he's concerned, he's never seen Luke Skywalker looking anything other than wishing he was somewhere else.
Which, Ben supposes, he really can't blame him. He sure as hell didn't want to be where he was either.
Just as the clock strikes 1400 hours, Governor Arekson clears his throat and begins to recite from the Treaty of Treason, reminding everyone why they're here. Ben's mind wanders as he rambles on, having heard it all so many times that he practically has it memorised. The myth of the Jedi, the supposed galactic peacemakers that instead chose to lead an uprising against the Empire that fed, clothed, and protected the galaxy's citizens. How the Emperor was eventually forced to use overwhelming force to finally eliminate these Jedi and their followers, costing the lives of millions of people, both Empire and Rebel alike.
And then, following the Jedi's defeat and as a reminder that something so awful as the Rebellion can never be repeated, the Emperor and his regional governors came up with the Empire Games. Designed as both punishment and amusement, the rules of the Games are simple. Two tributes from each of the twelve planets are imprisoned in a vast planetary arena that could be anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several days, and sometimes even stretching into weeks, the tributes are hunted by various droids, monsters, and anything else the Gamemakers see fit to throw at them, as well as their fellow tributes, while the entire conglomeration of planets is forced to watch. The last tribute standing, the one who manages to out-wit or out-fight everything they come up against, is then crowned the victor.
Emperor Palpatine really is one sick bastard.
In the forty-one years since the Jedi were wiped out, Luke Skywalker has been the only victor from Ajan Kloss. And judging from how he's fared since his games, Ben is positive that he wants absolutely no part of any of it.
Finally, the governor steps back, indicating for Maz Kanata to step forward. A short, rather amphibious-looking humanoid, Maz stands out as one of the few non-humans remaining in the galaxy, after Emperor Palpatine's armies effectively wiped most of them out.
"Welcome, welcome," says Maz, her eyes behind her freakishly large glasses peering across the mass of children. "Happy Empire Games, and may the odds be ever in your favour." She pauses, folding her hands in front of her as Stormtroopers carry out two big glass bowls, each filled about halfway with slips of paper, on which the names of every single child age ten and older living on Ajan Kloss are written. Ben's name is written on thirty-six of the slips, as is Tai's, and every other seventeen-year-old on the moon. It's only a small comfort to him that Rey only has twenty-eight slips, since she's almost a year younger.
A year younger, but much more brave, he thinks as the Stormtroopers step back.
"Now," Maz continues. "The time has come for us to select one courageous young man and woman for the honour of representing Ajan Kloss in the fortieth annual Empire Games." She flashes a toothy smile before stepping over to the bowl on the left side of the stage. "As usual, ladies first."
Ben's belly swoops in fear as Maz sticks her long arm inside the bowl, rummaging around until she pulls out one single slip, holding it up for the governor to acknowledge. The crowd, already quiet, goes even more silent, holding its collective breath as Maz opens the slip and prepares to read the written name.
Please, not her, he thinks. Anyone but her.
"Rey Sands," she says, and it's as though someone's just dropped a bucket of icy water down Ben's shirt. He gasps, clapping his hand over his mouth as he hears the girl Rose cry out in despair, throwing her arms around Rey's shoulders as she begins to sob.
"Oh, shit," says Tai, low and tight as he glances up at Ben. He's the only person Ben's ever told about the strawberry, and knows exactly how badly Ben's been mesmerised by Rey ever since. His eyes go wide, his cheeks draining of colour as he swallows. "Ben, what're you—don't tell me that you're thinking of—"
"There's no way she'll ever survive in there!" Ben snaps, his eyes already stinging with tears. Why? Why'd it have to be her? "She's just too… good. She'll try and help everyone else, and they'll just kill her for it!"
"Okay, maybe, but that doesn't mean that you can do anything about it," Tai says firmly. He nudges Ben hard in the side. "Right?"
Ben breathes in, blinking as he watches Rey square her shoulders and march proudly up the rickety stairs to the stage, turning to face the crowd with her chin held high.
"Right?" Tai repeats through clenched teeth as Maz Kanata calls for applause. "Ben, are you hearing me?"
"Yes, I hear you," Ben says. "And I know exactly what I have to do."
Just give me the strength to do it.
New chapters will post weekly every Monday until the story concludes 😊. The POV will alternate between Ben and Rey with each chapter.
I can’t wait to see what you think! Please don’t hesitate to hit that kudos button and leave me a comment!
Chapter 2: Part 2
Thank you so much for all of the kudos and kind comments on the first chapter! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the story! 💖
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rey's still shaking as she arrives on the stage, her limbs so stiff they feel like they've been petrified as Maz Kanata calls for the people of Ajan Kloss to applaud their newest female tribute. A few people do, at least from what she can see, but Rey can't hear any of it through the blood rushing past her ears. All she can hear at the moment are Rose's bumbling attempts to keep her sobs contained, and the thudding of her own heart.
She should've known that her defiance was going to catch up to her sooner or later. All those times she's back-talked to the Stormtroopers in the fields or demanded more food for the smallest kids from Unkar Plutt, and then giving them her own when she was refused, it's no wonder that someone's been keeping score the whole time, just waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.
Of course, the very thought that her being reaped is the result of anything besides pure, unprejudiced chance would be considered seditious as well, but as far as Rey knows the Empire doesn't currently have any mind-reading technology, so at least her thoughts can still be considered secret.
For the time being, at least. It's certainly not something she would put past the Emperor to attempt.
At the opposite end of the stage stands Luke Skywalker, the only living victor from Ajan Kloss. Rey knows he won his Games at age seventeen, and in a rather unconventional way that didn't exactly please the Emperor, but that's the extent of her knowledge of him. At the moment he doesn't appear very inspiring, with his shoulders all curled inwards and his lined face drawn into a deep frown, one that transforms into a sort of curiousness when he briefly glances in Rey's direction.
No wonder none of the kids from Ajan Kloss ever win, she thinks. How're we supposed to be inspired to do our best when our own mentor even doesn't think we stand a chance.
Well, she's going to show him. Rey Sands is not anyone's pushover, and she's not about to go down in that arena without a fight. She owes it to all the other orphan nobodies scattered across the galaxy to at least try and prove some of the stereotypes wrong.
Just because someone doesn't have a family name doesn't mean that they're nothing.
As the scattered applause dies down, Rey looks out across the vast assembly of people, reading the various expressions of relief mixed with trepidation on their sweaty, flushed faces.
At least I don't have any parents to mourn me if I don't make it back, she thinks as her eyes drift to the clumps of mothers and fathers standing towards the back of the crowd. Rose and Finn will mourn her, as will the other children living in the Community Home, but that'll likely be it. Unkar Plutt surely won't miss her. Most likely, he's already deciding on how to divvy up her few meagre possessions if she dies, which means she had better tell Rose and Finn to get in there and grab everything before Plutt does.
"Congratulations, Miss Sands," says Maz, so sincerely that Rey nearly chokes. "And now, for the boys." She waddles over to the second glass bowl and stands up on her tiptoes to reach inside it, fumbling around the hundreds of neatly-folded scraps of paper before pulling one out. The crowd holds its collective breath as she returns to the centre of the stage and smooths out the paper.
"Dre Mamam," she says, her strong voice echoing across the Square. The announcement is directly followed by an absolutely heart wrenching cry from who Rey assumes must be the boy's mother, causing Rey to gasp. Dre Maman is only ten years old, which means his chances of survival once the Games begin are pretty much zero.
How can anyone believe that watching such a tiny child be torn apart by battle droid blaster fire is entertaining?
Certainly not anyone with any sense of morality. Unfortunately, it seems as though that in the years since former Republican Chancellor Palpatine abandoned any further charades of democracy after his final Clone Wars victory and declared himself Emperor, most of the people that have since come under his thumb have either misplaced or completely lost their compassion.
It's not easy to think of others when you're suffering just as badly, Rey knows this. Being born on a nowhere planet like Jakku, to parents who literally tried to sell her for drinking money right before being killed in a drunken speeder race taught her that lesson very well. But Rey also believes that these are the times when compassion means the most, and can have the most impact.
Stamping down her welling panic, Rey breathes in. She's already determined to do her best to get out of the arena alive, so now she'll just have to figure out how to keep the little boy alive as well.
The fact that it's impossible for two tributes to exit the arena alive is currently beside the point.
With the crowd still murmuring unhappily, as they always do whenever a ten-year-old is reaped, Rey watches as little Dre clenches his hands into fists, purses his lips, and proceeds to take one step towards the stage before another voice suddenly rings out, halting him in his tracks.
"I volunteer as tribute!"
Out of the corner of her eye, Rey sees Luke Skywalker's head snap up as a chorus of shocked gasps erupts from the crowd, all craning their necks to find the source of the voice. Rey has to blink back tears as Dre's mother cries out again, this time in relief as her little boy turns on his heel and races towards her, disappearing into her protective arms as the rest of the mothers quickly form a human shield around him. Volunteers are very rare on the outlying planets, and Rey is fairly certain that Ajan Kloss has never before had one.
"Ben, have you gone completely mad?" Rey hears from somewhere within the surprise volunteer's scuffling group, penetrating like a spear through the dense fog filling her mind just as her eyes finally land on the volunteer himself, and her stomach drops to her knees.
Oh no! she thinks. Not him!
Why's it have to be him?
"Well, well, well, it seems that we have a volunteer, Mr Governor," Maz says as Rey watches the boy she's admired from afar ever since she was nine years old disentangle himself from his friend's grip and begin walking towards the stage.
She's tried hard in the years since their single encounter to decipher exactly why she felt so drawn to him on that day, and she still hasn't been able to come up with an explanation that makes any sense. Assigned to work out in the orchards and fruit fields since she arrived from Jakku, Rey was dangling precariously from a branch near the very top of a large peach tree when she suddenly became overwhelmed with such unimaginable sorrow and anguish that she nearly lost her balance, barely managing to keep from falling. The weight of it was so strong that by the time she climbed down and emptied her bag of the collected peaches, tears were flowing freely down her cheeks and her legs were so shaky she could barely stand. Leaning against the trunk of the tree, Rey closed her eyes, trying to figure out what was going on when her mind's eye suddenly focused in on a boy with dark hair, sitting all alone on the front steps to his house and crying as he hugged a brown-wrapped package to his chest.
It was only a flash, coming and going so quickly that Rey barely had time to notice it was there, but it was still long enough for her to see who it was. And then, without even thinking, she proceeded to reach down and pick up a nearby strawberry that had fallen from another worker's bucket, quickly stuffing it into her pocket. She had been told numerous times about the punishments for stealing food, and had even witnessed them a couple of times in the month or so since she arrived. But even so, she just somehow knew that the single strawberry would help the sad boy to feel a little bit better.
And it did. Even though he was still crying when she left him, Rey could sense that she managed to lighten his heart, to show him that he wasn't alone.
And ever since then she's kept her eye on him, on the boy who kept on growing long after all the other boys stopped, the boy who always sits in the back of the classroom because he can barely fit his legs under the desks, and whose handwriting is by far the very best in their entire school. The boy who never opens his mouth unless he's specifically spoken to.
The boy whose father was executed for treason without a trial.
Rey's not exactly sure how she knows that either. Ben explained that his father was dead during their encounter with no accompanying details, and yet, she still knows it's the truth as much as she knows her own name.
And now, for some unfathomable reason, that boy, Ben Solo, has just volunteered to go into the arena.
Apparently the odds are not in her favour today.
Rey watches as he makes his way towards the stage, his rolled shirtsleeves straining against his forearms and the bright sun glinting off the slightly lighter strands in his wavy, almost-black hair. Rey knows his mother from school, a kind, loving woman who Rey believes cares deeply for her students. Mrs Solo is neither tall nor has very dark hair, so while Rey has noticed a few of her mannerisms and tendencies in Ben, she imagines that he more closely resembles his father in looks.
"Well, what an amazing turn of events here on Ajan Kloss today," Maz says as Ben reaches the stage, turning to face the crowd. His back is straight and his head's held high, his slightly trembling chin the only indication of any nervousness.
And yet, it's though Rey can somehow feel the trepidation rolling off of him in waves. Ben Solo is scared. Determined, but pretty much scared out of his wits.
Just like her.
Along with a massive dose of confusion. Rey's been in awe of Ben Solo ever since that horrible day when she sensed his deep pain and anger, with not a day passing by where she hasn't at least caught sight of him, and now…
It's not like the boy he volunteered for was a younger brother or something, which she could at least understand. But as far as she can tell, the boy Dre was a perfect stranger to Ben.
It just doesn't make any sense.
Why, Ben? Why? she helplessly wonders. Why are you forcing me to watch you get killed?
Because she knows. She knows without a doubt that there's no way she could ever kill Ben herself, but in order for her to win, he's going to have to die.
There can only be one victor.
The governor steps forward, thanking the crowd for its attention—as if we had a choice?—before indicating for Rey and Ben to shake hands. Rey's heart jumps into her throat as she slowly turns to find Ben already facing her, holding out his large hand, his warm brown eyes shiny as he takes her much smaller hand in his and gives it what feels like a reassuring squeeze. Reassuring for what, Rey has no idea, but the look that flashes across Ben's face and the burst of warmth that travels up Rey's arm just before he releases her, one so fast that it's there and gone again less than a heartbeat later, only serves to deepen her confusion.
It's almost as though he can read what she's feeling, sense her anger and fear. And she can sense his right back.
Rey gives her head a quick shake. It's ridiculous, really, for her to be so worked up about this. She and Ben aren't friends. They haven't even really spoken more than a polite word or two since that fateful day so long ago. Since Ben's mother is a teacher, he tends to hang out with the other kids whose parents work in the school or the other shops lining the Square, and as an orphan and field hand, Rey doesn't exactly fit in with the rest of Ben's crowd.
Once the governor is done speaking, Rey feels Maz's hand on her back, indicating for her to turn around. Her touch is gentle, almost motherly in a way, which is yet another thing that manages to pluck at the frayed threads of Rey's current fragile emotional state.
"All right, children, in you go," she says as she guides Rey and Ben towards the Justice Hall entrance, followed by four Stormtroopers. As soon as they cross the threshold two of the Stormtroopers take Rey's arms, leading her down a short hallway and shoving her inside a large room, taking up guard positions as the door closes behind her. Rey's eyes widen as she takes in her elegant surroundings, the stately dark blue walls that match the thick carpet, and the solid wood furniture covered in such plush cushions and pillows that it makes her tiny bed pallet back at the Community Home look like nothing more than the thinnest of blankets.
Which really isn't far off from the truth, but she supposes that doesn't matter now.
After turning in a circle a couple of times, Rey sits down on the edge of the couch, fighting against the strong urge to relax into it. She knows the reaped tributes are allowed a few minutes to say goodbye to their loved ones, which means she'll have to face both a sobbing Rose and a trying-to-not-sob-but-failing-miserably Finn within the next thirty minutes or so, but she can't afford to let her guard down too much, to appear weak in any way. Already she can imagine the Coruscant oddsmakers trying to calculate a small, orphan girl's chances of winning the Games, and she needs to prove them wrong.
Rey hasn't even had a chance to get situated before the door swings open again and Rose rushes inside, her face streaked with tears as she throws her arms around Rey's neck and squeezes.
"Oh, Rey!" she sobs into her shoulder. "Why did this have to happen? It's just not fair!"
"Shh," Rey whispers, her throat tight as she pats Rose's back. She was Rose's main support system three years ago when her sister was reaped, blotting her tears dry after Paige was chosen and holding her hand through all of the sleepless nights that followed, until the afternoon where Paige fell straight down into a Sarlacc pit that'd been partially hidden by brush, and that was it.
Paige Tico managed to make it all the way to the final four tributes before she was killed, the closest any Ajan Kloss tribute has come to winning since Luke Skywalker.
"Just… try to win, okay?" Rose says between snuffles. "You can—you can do it, Rey. You're fast, and strong, and brave, and—and, you know, maybe—maybe you can—maybe somehow both of you can—"
She cuts off, squeezing Rey so tightly that it's hard for her to breathe. Rose is the only person Rey's ever confided in about Ben, so she at least has an inkling of how conflicted Rey's feelings are.
"I don't think that matters now," Rey says. She unwinds Rose's arms from her shoulders, clasping her hands. "I need you to promise me that you'll look after the younger kids. Especially Jadon, you know how much Unkar loves to bully him. Make sure he gets enough to eat, and that he has his little soft toy when it's time to sleep."
Rose gives an emphatic nod. "I will, Rey. I'll take care of him, I promise." She sniffs again, swiping at her eyes as she digs underneath the neckline of her tunic, pulling out a silver-coloured medallion in the shape of a crescent moon. Rey recognises it immediately as the medallion that Paige gave her before she was taken away.
"Paige gave me this before she went into the arena," Rose cuts in as she draws the chain up over her head. "So I was thinking that—"
"No, Rose," Rey says firmly. "I know what you're trying to do, but… this is the only thing you have of your sister's, and I'm not going to take it from you. Family… it's just too important." She shakes her head, closing Rose's fingers around it. "You need to keep this."
More tears spill down Rose's cheeks, dripping onto the shiny medallion. "I just… I just feel so helpless."
Rey sighs, pulling her into another tight hug. "Me too." Which is exactly what the Emperor wants.
Rose sucks in a shuddering breath as she pulls away, replacing the medallion around her neck. "Just… be careful in there, okay?" She leans forward, lowering her voice. "Those people, those Gamemakers, you know they probably get in trouble if there's not enough booby traps in their arenas or something, so please, just be careful."
"I will," Rey says, swallowing hard. She's seen plenty of hidden trap and ambush designs over the years, but she's smart enough to know that seeing isn't the same thing as experiencing. "I promise, Rose. I'm gonna come back."
Rose gasps, her teary eyes laced with fear. "Paige promised me that too, Rey, and look where it got her," she says. "Don't be making too many promises that you can't keep."
"All right," Rey says softly. "Then how about, I promise to try to come back."
"Yeah, I like that better," says Rose. She pulls Rey into a final hug just as the door swings open again.
"Time's up," barks the Stormtrooper, his glove-covered fingers curling around Rose's arm. Rose's eyes go wide as he yanks her out of the room, calling out one final 'be careful!' before the door slams closed in Rey's face, almost hitting her in the nose. She jumps back, intending to bury her teary face into one of the squashy couch pillows when the door opens again and Finn's shoved inside.
"You get five minutes," the Stormtrooper barks before closing the door. Without a thought Rey crosses the room, practically falling into Finn's open arms.
"I'm okay," she says in a wobbly voice as Finn squeezes her close. It's not convincing in the slightest, so she tries again. "Finn, I'm okay."
"I know you are," he says, just as wobbly. He pulls back, his hands gripping Rey's shoulders. "Rey, listen to me. You're stronger than they are, okay? I've never seen anyone who's tougher than you, so you just need to make sure that you don't forget it and you should be okay."
Rey shakes her head. She knew it was going to be much harder with Finn. "Finn, I—"
"No!" he yelps, his eyes wide. He licks his lips, his fingertips digging painfully into Rey's skin. "You have to come back, okay? You just have to, so… don't you be worrying about anyone else while you're in there. For once in your life, Rey, please, just look out for yourself."
"But—but, I—" Rey starts, then stops, her heart thudding madly against her ribcage. Finn doesn't know about Ben. For some reason that Rey could never quite quantify, she's never felt comfortable telling Finn about him.
"I don't—I don't think I can do that. It's not—I'm not—"
Finn huffs, rolling his eyes. "Look, I know it's pretty much impossible for you to not be a sucker for worthless causes, but Rey, you've just gotta listen to me. As soon as you get dropped into that arena, you're gonna have to be selfish, okay? 'Cause there's no way you're gonna make it out again if you're not, there's just no way. And I—I just can't—I can't lose—"
He pauses to suck in a deep breath, his iron grip loosening slightly. "You've just gotta, okay? Let's just leave it at that."
There seems to be something more to it, though. Finn knows Rey better than almost anyone, so he knows that her protective instincts aren't something that she can just simply turn off. There's something else going on here, something Finn's not telling her, but there's not really any time to get into anything too deep at the moment.
"But I don't really know how to fight. I'm not a fighter, I'm just…" She trails off, dropping her gaze to her skinny arms and legs peeking out of her tunic, which isn't much more than a strategically folded length of fabric. New clothes are expensive, even from the discount store, but the bolts of fabric sold by the seamstress for curtains and sheets have always worked just fine for Rey.
Had it really been only an hour or so since she and Rose helped each other get ready? Doing each other's hair like they were preparing for a date or something, instead of the reaping?
"I'm just… Rey." Rey the orphan. Rey from Jakku.
"Yes, you're Rey," says Finn. "And you're also the most amazing, wonderful girl that I've ever met, and I'm telling you that you can win this. You're smart, and strong, maybe not so much in the conventional way, but there's still so much that you can do. You can climb trees better than anyone I've ever seen, you're damn good with a tree branch, and—"
"But, what if the arena's in a desert, with no trees?" she demands. "Then what?"
"Then you get your hands on as many weapons as you can, and you run and hide until you can't hide any more," says Finn. "And then you come up with a plan, and fight."
Rey bites her lip, blinking back tears. She knows her friend is only trying to encourage her, but so far he's not helping at all.
And if by some chance she's forced to go up against Ben, then—
"Twenty-four of us go into that arena, Finn," she says grimly. "Twenty-four. And only one comes out."
"Yeah, I know," Finn says firmly. "And it's gonna be you."
Before Rey can say anything else, the door swings open and the Stormtrooper steps inside.
"Time's up," he says as he reaches for Finn's arm. Finn instinctively flinches away from him, causing the trooper to knock him between the shoulders with the butt end of his blaster rifle. "I said, time's up!"
"Okay, but just—Rey, you know how to look out for others, so you've just gotta look out for yourself now!" he cries as the trooper pulls him out of the room. "Just look out for yourself!"
"Finn, help Rose watch over them!" Rey calls after him. "Promise me that you'll watch over the little ones!"
She hears some kind of muffled response that sounds a bit like, "I will!" before the door is slammed shut yet again. This time Rey wastes no time in slumping down onto the couch, allowing herself just a few seconds to wallow in self-pity before she reapplies the mask of cold indifference she'll be forced to wear for the next few weeks.
It's no surprise that no one else comes in to say goodbye. Rey surely didn't expect Unkar Plutt to poke in his nose, and any of the smaller children that might've wanted to see her again would've been herded back to the Community Home as soon as the crowd was dismissed.
Which is fine, as far as she's concerned. It was hard enough seeing Rose and Finn. Having to hug and comfort little Jadon or any of the others might've really caused her to break down.
She's just buried her face into one of the throw pillows when she hears the door open again. She slowly looks up, blinking in surprise when a petite, slender woman enters the room.
It's Mrs Solo. Ben's mother.
Rey's always admired Mrs Solo. If she didn't know any better, Rey would think Mrs Solo was somehow descended from nobility, the way she carries herself. She's a natural leader, one who listens to all arguments before making decisions, and apart from being able to command the respect and obedience from her students that she deserves, she's also one of the kindest people that Rey's ever seen.
"Hello, Rey," she says, in the same kind, no-nonsense voice that she uses when she's teaching. There are tear tracks lining her cheeks and her hands are clasped tightly against her body, but her back and shoulders are just as straight and proud as they always are as she gives Rey a gentle smile.
Just like Ben's were as he stood on the stage, facing down the stunned but grateful crowd. He's so much like her. Probably even more than he realises.
"Hello," Rey says, or rather croaks. Clearing her throat, she tries again. "Hello, Mrs Solo. Can I help you with something?"
"Help me?" asks Mrs Solo, aghast. "Oh, my sweet girl, no. I'm here to see if I can help you with anything."
"Oh," Rey says. Her brow furrows, trying to figure out how in the world that Ben's mother, Rey's potential enemy in the arena, could possibly help her.
"I should've seen it coming," Mrs Solo blurts out, tears welling in her brown eyes that are shaped just like Ben's. "As soon as your name was announced, I should've known that he'd do it."
Rey's head snaps back in shock, her eyes narrowing. Could she possibly mean—?
"I'm not sure that I understand what you're talking about—"
"My son," Mrs Solo says softly. She reaches for Rey, placing her hand on her upper arm. "He's—he's… well… he's always been so captivated by you, and—"
"He, what?" Rey exclaims, cringing as soon as the words leave her mouth. No, no, no! This isn't supposed to be happening! "I—I mean… I'm not quite sure what you mean."
Mrs Solo's smile widens slightly. "I think you do, dear," she murmurs. "I know what you did for him, and how much it changed him. It's been hard for him, growing up without a father, and—well, I know I don't have to explain that to you, but… he took his father's death so hard, and he still does, but… even though it was so long ago, I know you're still helping him survive. He sees you, and he wants to be better. In this world of ugly darkness, you're his light."
Rey's throat is so tight she can barely breathe, let alone attempt to speak. How is it that she's gone all these years believing Ben could've forgotten that day?
Is it just so she could keep the mask in place over her heart?
She swallows, trying to think of what she could possibly say in response. "I'm—I'm not sure why you're telling me this," she finally says. "I'm not—I don't know what you're asking of me."
And does Ben know that you're in here, now? Right after you told him goodbye?
"I'm not asking anything of you, Rey," Mrs Solo says. "I only wanted to give you this." She takes Rey's hand, pressing something metal into her palm. "This belonged to my father, he called it a good luck charm. I've never understood exactly what he meant by that, but maybe if it is, it'll help you get through the arena."
Stunned, Rey glances down at her hand, gasping in awe at what she sees. It's another medallion, but this one's made out of gold—or at least gold-coloured metal—and features a sort of starbird shape encased in a circle and suspended on a fine gold chain. Aside from the fact that Rey's completely dumbfounded as to why she didn't offer it to her own son, it's definitely too valuable for Mrs Solo to just be giving it away. Even if it's not real gold, it would still fetch a pretty nice price at the secondhand store.
But wouldn't a mother want to give her son the good luck charm that belonged to his grandfather, instead of just some random girl tribute?
"Um… it's—it's beautiful, Mrs Solo," Rey whispers. "But I—" She looks up, fully intending to decline it like she declined Rose's gift when she meets Mrs Solo's eyes, and for the briefest of moments, a strange sensation prickles the back of her neck.
"Thank you," she says instead. "I—I wish I could say something better than that, but… thank you."
"You're very welcome, my dear." Then she pulls Rey into a tight full-body hug, one that Rey practically melts into. How long has it been since she's felt a motherly hug?
Too long ago for her to remember.
"It's okay to be frightened, dear girl," adds Mrs Solo. "A certain amount of fear is healthy, so long as you don't allow it to control you."
Um… what does that mean?
"Yes, okay," Rey says as Mrs Solo releases her, swiping at the tears pooled in her eyes. So much for that mask of indifference. "I—um… thank you, Mrs Solo. Thank you very much."
"You're welcome, my dear," Mrs Solo murmurs. She cups Rey's cheek in her palm. "I'll make sure and look in on the little ones, make sure they're eating okay and not being mistreated."
"Oh—" Rey says on a gasp, squeezing her eyes closed. Apparently Ben's told his mother quite a bit about Rey for her to bring that up unprompted. "Thank you so much!"
"Of course." She brushes her thumb across Rey's cheekbone, the soft touch bringing even more tears to Rey's eyes as she leans forward to whisper in Rey's ear. "Just remember this: once they put you in that arena, don't forget who you are. Don't let them change you. You're not just another piece in their game, Rey. Don't ever forget that."
Rey slowly nods, even though she's not quite sure what the rather cryptic words mean. Is Mrs Solo trying to imply that Rey shouldn't try and defend herself? Or even kill another tribute, if it comes down to that?
And did she tell Ben the same thing, or is it just a special message for Rey?
Before she's worked up the courage to ask, the Stormtrooper reappears, this time with Maz Kanata in tow.
"It's time, Rey," Maz says. "Mr Skywalker and your fellow tribute are already waiting on the transport."
"All right," Rey says. She drapes the gold medallion over her head, tucking it underneath her tunic before giving Mrs Solo as much of a smile as she can. "Thank you again."
Mrs Solo nods. "Just remember what I said, dear, and you'll do just fine."
"I will." Don't forget who I am. Don't let them change me.
I'm not just another piece in their game.
Rey quickly swipes her tears away as Maz leads her down a hallway lined with Stormtroopers towards the back of the Justice Hall, where a mass of Coruscant reporters have assembled.
"Keep your head down, child," Maz whispers as two Stormtroopers open the doors. "Keeps 'em from getting a decent picture."
"What?" asks Rey, just before one of the insect-like cameras flashes right in her eyes. She jumps back, grunting in pain as another camera flashes off to her left. Maz apparently wasn't kidding. Dropping her head, she allows Maz to guide her over to the parked transport ship, racing up the ramp as quickly as Maz's short legs can carry her to find Luke Skywalker and Ben Solo already buckled into their seats. Rey's heart gives a painful lurch as she notices Ben's shaking chin and reddened eyes. He must've been crying too.
She wonders what his mother told him during their goodbyes.
"Hello, Rey," Luke says, low and gravelly as she plops down onto her seat, fastening her safety belt. "Am I correct in that you've been on one of these transports before?"
Rey swallows, her eyes flicking briefly over to Ben, who's now clutching the edge of his seat with white knuckles.
"Yes," she squeaks, clearing her throat. "Yes. When I was brought here from Jakku."
"That's what I thought," says Luke. He glances over at Ben, who so far has done everything possible to avoid meeting Rey's eyes. "We'll be flying for a bit more than a day to reach Coruscant. Once we've entered hyperspace you'll be free to roam around. Dinner will be served in about two hours, and breakfast once you wake up in the morning. I recommend that you indulge in both meals slowly. Exiting hyperspace can be a little bumpy, and I don't need to be cleaning up puke right before we arrive. Got it?"
Well. Isn't he just charming.
"Got it," Rey says. Then she tips her head back, just closing her eyes to try and rest a bit when a blast of strong emotion hits her like a punch to the gut, a combination of anguish, fear, and anger, and one other sentiment that she can't quite identify. Her eyes fly open to find Ben staring pointedly at her, his expression impassive save for the shininess of his eyes and the clench of his strong jaw. At first she's stunned, almost paralysed by his intensity, finally forcing her shoulders to relax until she's able to draw in a deep breath. It's like she can feel the words reverberating inside Ben's head.
You're not alone, Rey. I am with you.
I can’t wait to see what you think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 😊
Ben sighs as he flops onto the bed in his assigned quarters, regretting the abrupt action a second later as the huge dinner he just consumed swirls around in his stomach, threatening to make a reappearance. Luke reminded both he and Rey several times during the two-hour, five-course meal to pace themselves, but that turned out to be pretty much impossible. Ben's never seen so much food all in one place before, and he's almost positive that Rey hasn't either. As soon as the first course was set in front of them, Rey's eyes went as wide as the dinner plates, her initial disgust at the gluttonous display of plenty quickly smothered by her bone-deep hunger.
Despite his indulgence, the fact that the amount of food that wasn't eaten during their meal could've easily fed the entire Community Home for at least a month wasn't lost on Ben, and he senses it wasn't lost on Rey either.
He wonders if that kind of stuff still bothers Luke, or if he's used to it by now. Ben doesn't know much about Luke, just that he grew up as an orphan on a desert planet living with distant relatives until they died, and that he was transferred to Ajan Kloss shortly before his final eligible reaping.
Oh, and that he won his Games in a rather unconventional manner, one that apparently isn't talked about much in the proper circles, whatever that means. Ben's never heard anyone really speak ill of him, since aside from mentoring tributes he's not really seen all that much. There's mainly just a lot of grumbling around reaping time about the fact that since Luke's victory, the closest Ajan Kloss has come to having another victor was Paige Tico, who made the final four.
Oh. And that he's the son of Anakin Skywalker. Can't forget that.
Ben supposes it's not all that great of a look for a mentor to not have any victorious tributes, but, given Luke's apparent disinterest in discussing any kind of Games strategy during their extended dinner despite Rey's rather insistent prodding, Ben highly doubts that he cares what anyone thinks of him.
Which only makes Ben's plan even more vital. This year, Ajan Kloss is going to have a victor.
No matter what.
Propping himself up on his elbows, Ben glances out the large window across the room, and the bluish stream of colour streaming past it as the ship zooms through hyperspace. Ben's father told him a bit about hyperspace when he was little, back before he was arrested, but this is the first time Ben's ever been on a ship, and he's honestly not so sure that he likes it.
Of course, that might have something to do with why he's on the ship in the first place. Just a guess.
After a few more seconds, Ben's stomach has settled enough for him to take a closer look around the room. It's massive, easily the size of his entire house back on Ajan Kloss, with a huge closet running the entire length of the room that's filled with more clothing than the entire secondhand store. The opposite side boasts a huge fresher, the first real one Ben's ever seen, and so far his favourite place on the ship. Standing under a faucet even taller than him as a constant stream of hot running water rains down across his neck and shoulders is something that Ben's never even dared to dream about, and likely won't ever be able to forget.
With a light groan, Ben pushes himself up to a sitting position, contemplating another visit to the fresher before attempting to sleep, but not really wanting to move. The bed, aside from being actually long enough for him to stretch out on, is the most comfortable sleeping surface he's ever felt in his life, and since his life is about to be cut markedly short, he figures he may as well enjoy it while he can.
Eventually he does decide to use the fresher again, afterwards dressing in a set of pyjamas that fit him so perfectly that for a moment Ben wonders if they're custom-made. Sleep, though, doesn't come quite as easily, with thoughts of his mother and Tai back home and the bed's extreme comfort making it difficult for Ben to settle in and give in to his fatigue. Finally, just as he's ready to give up for the night and start pacing the hallways of the ship, he's able to drop off into a light sleep, one filled with dreams of strange whirring sounds, flashing red and blue lights, and of Rey yelling his name over and over, just like his father did as they took him away.
He wakes with a start, gasping and panting and his hair plastered to his head with sweat. Once he's able to catch his breath, he hoists himself up from the plushy mattress and heads straight for the fresher, playing with a few more of the settings as he stands beneath the glorious hot water. There's an innumerable amount of settings, with practically every scent in the galaxy—including sand, which Ben can't quite understand—programmed into the complicated panel. After fiddling with the buttons for at least fifteen minutes, Ben finally chooses a shampoo and soap that smells like a combination of cedarwood and freshly cleaned linens, reminding him of home.
Finally tearing himself away from the luxurious hot water, Ben notices once he's dried off that his bed has been made and that the clothes he wore to dinner last night have disappeared from where he draped them over the back of a chair, forcing him to select another shirt and pair of pants from the closet. And while Ben's still not sure exactly how the Empire fitters managed to get his size so spot on, he's definitely not complaining about having pants that he can easily button and shoes that don't pinch his toes.
He's just finished tying his second shoelace when he hears a knock on his door.
To Ben's surprise, instead of the Empire attendant he's expecting, the door slides open to reveal Luke Skywalker.
"Hello, Ben," he says, in the same quiet, rather monotone voice he's used ever since the reaping.
"Um… hi?" Ben replies, his eyebrows knitting together. "Am I late for breakfast or something? I didn't think that—"
"No, you're not late," Luke cuts in. "In fact, Rey's not even awake yet, so they tell me." He pauses, tilting his head as he regards Ben. He's at least a good fifteen centimetres shorter than Ben, but somehow, this close up, he's actually a bit intimidating.
"Can I have a word?"
"Um… sure?" Ben steps back to allow Luke inside, grateful now for whoever it was that tidied his quarters while he was in the fresher. He watches as Luke walks right over to the bed, sits down on the edge of it, and folds his hands expectantly.
"Have a seat, Ben," he says, indicating the nearby chair. Ben gulps, his stomach dropping as he guesses what Luke's about to ask him.
He probably should've expected this.
Sinking down into the chair, which he finds is just as comfortable as the bed, Ben waits expectantly as the silence stretches out for several heartbeats.
"Uhh… so—?" he finally says, only to be cut off by Luke's raised hand.
"I only have one question for you," Luke says. "Well, at least for starters. Any further questions that I ask will depend on your answer to the first."
"Um… o-kay," Ben stammers. "What's the question?"
Ben's heart skips a beat. "Uhh… why what—?"
"No, no, don't try and play stupid with me now. You know exactly what I'm asking," snaps Luke. He leans forward, the deep scowl on his face blending in with his age lines. "Why? Why did you volunteer? You were in the clear since this was your last eligible year, so the way I see it is that you have absolutely nothing to gain from this supposed act of nobility, and everything to lose. So, I will ask you one more time, Ben Solo. Why?"
Dropping his gaze to his knees, Ben refuses to answer, hoping against hope that Luke will just take the hint and leave him alone. It's the very same question that he refused to answer when Mom asked it, the moment she took him into her arms during their goodbyes.
Not that it mattered, since Mom already knew anyway. It's the reason Ben insisted that she give her father's beloved medallion to Rey instead of him. If anyone needed extra good luck in the arena, it was Rey.
But apparently, the old victor has all the patience in the galaxy because he just sits there, waiting for Ben to speak as if he has nothing better to do.
Which, Ben again realises, he probably doesn't.
"Because," Ben finally answers, so softly he's surprised that Luke even hears him.
"You're going to have to do a lot better than that, kid," Luke says, not quite as softly. "Because, why?"
Ben bites down hard on his bottom lip, shaking his head. He supposes that bringing Luke in on the secret might actually be helpful. One of the duties for the mentors during the Games is to campaign the various sponsors to help supply their tributes with certain necessities after the Games begin. Items like matches, drinking water, and blankets aren't always readily available inside the arena, so a gift of one or more of those items can often mean the difference between life and death.
And the higher the chance that a tribute has to win, based on their scores during training and their overall likability, the more likely they are to get sponsors to help ensure their victory.
Well, Ben thinks. May as well just get it over with.
He clears his throat, looking directly at Luke. "Because she needs to win."
Luke's expression doesn't change in the slightest. "Why?"
"Um… I just told you why—"
"No, you didn't," Luke says. "You only told me that 'she' needs to win, which isn't really an answer to my question. Now, I'm assuming the 'she' you're referring to is Rey, your fellow tribute. Is that correct?"
Ben huffs, his fingers tapping madly on his knees. "Yes."
"All right, at least we've managed to establish that," says Luke. He shifts slightly on the bed, eyeing Ben with the stern look of a disgruntled teacher. "Now, let's try this again, shell we, Ben Solo? Why did you volunteer as tribute?"
"Because Rey needs to win."
"Okay," Luke says, heavy with skepticism. "And that leaves you… where, exactly?"
"I need to make sure that she does," Ben replies. "I have a lot better chance of protecting her than the tiny kid that was reaped, so…"
"Protecting her, hmm?" asks Luke, rather sarcastically. "So… what, your plan is to just go into that arena and pretend that you're Rey's own personal bodyguard until everyone else is dead?"
Ben purses his lips. "If I have to, yes."
"Oh, really? And then what?" demands Luke. "What happens once everyone else is dead and it's just the two of you left, hmm? You're just going to allow her to kill you?"
Anger flashes through Ben. The odds of both he and Rey surviving that long in the arena are already slim enough, he doesn't need Luke reminding him of it. It's no surprise that Ajan Kloss has only ever had one Empire Games victor when it's one of the smallest and poorest planets—moons in the sector. When nearly every child on the planet over the age of five is expected to work for an hour every morning before school and then for another three hours afterwards, it doesn't leave all that much time for combat or defence training. And while training for the Games isn't technically allowed, it is a very poorly-kept secret that the tributes from the planets with the best relationships with Coruscant usually end up winning because they allow their potential tributes to train in those disciplines while their Stormtroopers look the other way.
In the forty years since the Empire Games began, a tribute from either Hosnian Prime, Cantonica, or Scarif, the so-called "Career" planets, has won eight times out of ten.
No. The odds have never been in Ajan Kloss's favour.
"If—if that's what it takes for Rey to get home, then… yes," Ben murmurs. "It's more important for her to win."
Luke is quiet for a long moment, his fingers fiddling with the hem of his flowing beige tunic. Finally, he raises his head, his blue eyes boring so intently into Ben's that for a fleeting moment, Ben feels like he can almost feel the older man's thoughts poking around like fingertips inside his mind.
"You have feelings for her," he finally says, and it's not a question. "Don't you."
"Yes," Ben says before he can stop himself. He immediately gasps, his eyes going wide as he realises what he's just admitted.
Guess it's all out in the open now.
"Yes," echoes Luke. "That's what I thought." He shoots Ben a harsh look, as if he's just made his job about a million times harder. "You do realise that as your mentor, I technically can't choose one of you over the other, correct? That as ridiculous as it sounds, I'm supposed to keep both of you alive for as long as possible?"
"Uhh," Ben stammers. It absolutely does sound ridiculous, especially since it's highly unusual for both Ajan Kloss tributes to make it past the initial bloodbath.
"Then I guess you're just gonna have to figure out a way to keep me alive long enough to help her," Ben says. "I've seen Rey in action before, so as long as she can make it past the bloodbath with enough weapons to defend herself, she should be fine for awhile."
Luke's eyes narrow as he leans forward. "What do you mean, you've seen Rey in action before? What kind of action?"
"Wow, you really don't venture outside of that mansion of yours much, do you?" Ben asks without thinking. As far as he knows, just about everyone on Ajan Kloss knows who Rey is, and knows what she's capable of. The fact that nerf herders like Unkar Plutt and the Stormtroopers only choose to mess with her when she's busy defending a smaller kid is very telling.
"What I do with my personal life is none of your business, tribute!" Luke snaps. "Now, explain to me what you mean about Rey."
"I mean that she's one of the only people I've seen who can give hope to the hopeless," Ben explains. "She's an orphan, so she's had to grow up in the Community Home, which even you should know is a horrible, horrible place, and from what I've heard her parents weren't all that great either. And yet, somehow she's still like a beacon of light in the darkness, looking out for anyone who can't look out for themselves." He pauses to take a breath, his heart thudding against his ribcage. "She gives hope to those who otherwise wouldn't have any, and… someone like that should not be allowed to be murdered for the sake of someone else's entertainment."
Once again Luke is silent, this time for so long that Ben wonders if he's slipped into some sort of trance or something. Even his eyes eventually roll back into his head before he's finally able to snap out of it.
"So, what you're saying is, you want Rey to win so she can continue to give people hope?" Luke asks, clearing his throat. He suddenly looks like he's been spooked, with his face all pale and his hands shaking slightly, almost like he saw something inside Ben's mind that scared him.
"Yes," Ben answers firmly.
"And not because you're in love with her?"
Ben's cheeks immediately flush hot. "Uhh…"
"Okay, so that's a good part of it too," says Luke. "I thought so."
"You did?" demands Ben, more out of embarrassment than agitation. "How?"
The slightest of smiles stretches across Luke's lips. "You're not as sly as you think, kid. Especially when you look at her."
Ben groans, wishing he could disappear into the plushy chair cushions. "It's that obvious, huh?"
To his surprise, Luke only shrugs, the amused look that's replaced his scowl making him look at least ten years younger.
"I can't say I have a lot of experience with this kind of stuff, Ben," he says. "But, yeah. In your case, anyone paying attention can see it."
A sudden bolt of pain shoots across Ben's knuckles, and he looks down, realising that his hands are clenched into such tight fists that his fingernails have dug into his palms. He sucks in a deep breath, deliberately unfolding his fingers and splaying them over his knees.
"Okay, so… does that mean you'll help me?" Ben asks.
"I haven't decided yet," answers Luke. "I'll have to see how the two of you do in training first."
"That's all I'm going to say about it now, Ben," Luke interrupts. "Now, we'll be arriving on Coruscant shortly after lunch today. As soon as the ship lands at the Tribute Centre, both you and Rey will be taken to your respective grooming teams to prepare for the Tribute Parade this evening. The parade will be your initial chance to show the people that you and Rey mean business, that you're not just any old tributes from Ajan Kloss, so I highly suggest that you try and put a lid on the rest of this until we see how the parade goes."
"All right," Ben says reluctantly. As much as he would like to argue, his plan will work a whole lot better if Luke's on board with it, so he figures he may as well listen to him.
"Good," Luke says as he gets to his feet. "I'm pretty sure breakfast is ready, if you're hungry."
"Um, yeah. I'll be out in a minute," replies Ben. "Thanks."
As soon as the door to his quarters slides closed, Ben slumps back against the chair, raking his hands through his hair. He can almost picture his father's face, and the goofy way his left eyebrow used to twitch when he was trying not to laugh at something Ben did that Mom hadn't particularly enjoyed.
Those kinds of things tended to happen quite often when Ben was little. Despite his rather scholarly tendencies now, as a small child Ben desperately wanted to be like his daddy, happy—or at least as happy as someone living under the Empire's control could be—and well-liked by pretty much everyone. Like Mom, only in a less quiet, more ostentatious way.
And the way Mom's face would light up when Dad came home from one of his transport runs, well… Ben would give just about anything for Rey to look at him like that.
Is it too much to hope that she might? Just once, before he gives his life to protect her?
With a hard shake of his head, Ben gets to his feet and exits his quarters, following the mouth-watering scents of frying meat to find Luke, Rey, and Maz already sitting at the long dining table.
"Well, it's about time," Luke says as he pops a bite of sausage into his mouth. "We were starting to think that you weren't hungry."
Biting his lip to keep from glaring at him, Ben accepts the platter of scrambled Scarifian duck eggs that Maz passes him, helping himself to a hearty serving. It's odd that he's so hungry again after nearly gorging himself the night before, but he figures that the stronger he can get before the Games, the better he'll be able to fight off any potential threats against Rey.
His plate filled, he shoves a bite of eggs into his mouth, sneaking a glance over at Rey as he chews. She looks amazingly beautiful, with her hair loose around her shoulders and dressed in a flowing tunic of ivory and pale lavender, which accents her pretty hazel eyes just perfectly. Her breakfast plate is already empty and shoved off to the side, a large cup of steaming brown liquid sitting in its place that smells almost as sweet as the strawberry she gave him all those years ago.
"What's that?" Ben asks, very grateful that his voice didn't crack or something. "It smells good."
"Mmm," Rey moans as she takes another sip of the drink, closing her eyes as she holds the liquid inside her mouth before swallowing. "They call it hot chocolate."
"Hot… chocolate?" Ben asks. He's heard of chocolate, and even got to taste a tiny piece when his father snuck a small bar of it home once for his mother. But he's never heard of people drinking it before.
"It's melted chocolate mixed with steamed milk," says Maz. She slides another cup over to Ben, her huge eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiles. "Try it, dear. It's almost to die for."
"That's an interesting choice of words," Ben mutters as he accepts the cup. He leans over to inhale some of the rising steam before bringing it tentatively to his lips, fully aware that Rey is intently watching his every move.
"Oh, wow," he says after he swallows his first sip, the sweet, thick chocolate bursting across his tongue like a shattered bottle of ink. "Yeah, that's… that's amazing."
The rest of the meal passes in a haze of small talk as Ben downs two full plates of food and three cups of the hot chocolate. By the time he pushes back from the table, he's nearly swaying on his feet from all the sugary sweetness. How people in Coruscant can drink stuff like that all the time and still function is beyond him.
And the fact that Rey keeps looking at him kind of funny isn't helping either. All through the meal he felt her eyes on him, glancing his way when she thought Luke and Maz wouldn't notice.
At one point he even thought he heard her speaking to him, and was just about to respond when he realised that she hadn't said a word, and that he'd only imagined it.
Because… how else would he be able to hear her voice inside his head?
I think I need to get some more sleep.
I'm… gonna head back to my quarters, try and get a bit more sleep," Ben mumbles, nearly pitching forward when he hears Rey's voice again.
"Ben," it says, because once again Rey's not actually speaking, her eyes staring intently into her cup. "I'm here. We're in this together."
Hurrying to his quarters, Ben collapses onto the bed before the door even has a chance to slide shut, gripping his hair so tightly that he grunts in pain.
"How is this happening?" he asks aloud, hoping like hell that nobody decides to answer him. He's heard silly stories about people who were so in love with their significant others that they could practically read each other's minds, but this… this is something different.
For one thing, as far as he knows, his affection for Rey is one-sided. And another, reading minds isn't actually a thing.
Ben grimaces as he recalls the way Luke seemed to touch his mind earlier, reading his thoughts about Rey as if he had written them out on one of his papers. And what makes that whole thing even weirder is that Luke seemed just as unnerved about it as Ben.
Ben's heard all of the old folk tales that get passed around the jungle day after day, stories about how in the centuries leading up to the war, there was something that the Jedi called the Force, and that the Jedi were somehow able to manipulate this Force to aid in their mission to help maintain peace throughout the galaxy.
And apparently, the Force didn't even require the Jedi to throw twenty-four children into an arena every single year to help maintain the peace.
Hmph, Ben thinks bitterly. Now there's a concept.
But, as Ben's mother so aptly teaches as part of her History classes at school, around fifty years ago a few bad apples in the Jedi ranks decided to try and take matters into their own hands and attempted to overthrow the duly-elected Republic government, led by then-Chancellor Palpatine. The resulting war, known throughout the galaxy as the Clone Wars, lasted for years, decimating both sides to the point that by the time Chancellor Palpatine managed to emerge victorious, billions of lives had been lost.
And now, all twelve planets that initially sided with the Jedi are forced to send two tributes to participate in the Empire Games every year. Just to remind them where they fit in the grand scheme of things.
It's not exactly what Ben would call peace, but then no one's ever asked him for his opinion.
The rest of the trip passes without incident, and soon enough Maz is escorting Ben and Rey off the ship past a gauntlet of Stormtroopers and into the Tribute Centre, a towering building located about three kilometres or so from the Emperor's palace. Ben nearly trips over his feet at least three times as he tries to catch glimpses of the hundreds of speeders zooming by the transparent tunnel that leads inside, slightly relieved when he notices that Rey is just as awed by them as he is.
"Once you're finished with your grooming droids, Luke and I will meet you for dinner," Maz explains once they're all inside the elevator. "Then it'll be time to dress for the parade, which will last approximately an hour, and then once that's over, we'll show you to your rooms."
Ben nods. 'Show you to your rooms' almost makes it sound like he and Rey are just on a visit to Coruscant, with Maz as their tour guide or something.
It must be nice for Maz to be able to completely separate herself from the actual horrors of her work. Ben doesn't know all that much about her, other than that she's been the Empire escort for Ajan Kloss since a couple of years after Luke's victory and that she's a non-human, one of the few he's ever seen.
He wonders how she's managed to stay alive all this time, given that the Emperor doesn't seem to like non-humans.
As the elevator comes to a stop, Luke taps Ben on the shoulder, indicating for him to follow him as they step out into a long hallway lined with doors in both directions. Maz takes Rey off to the right, while Ben follows Luke into a large, metal-walled room off to the left, where three droids are waiting.
"These are your grooming droids," Luke explains. He pauses to look Ben up and down. "Their jobs are to prepare you for the parade tonight, so just try not to think too hard about what they're doing and it'll be a lot easier. I'll come back and retrieve you once they're done."
"Try not to think about what they're doing?" Ben asks. "What does that mean?"
"Oh, you'll see," says Luke. He pats Ben twice on the shoulder. "Like I said, just try and think about something else."
Ben gulps as Luke exits the room, fighting the urge to back into the corner as the three droids descend on him. First, they instruct him to strip naked and lay down on a hard metal table, spending at least twenty minutes or so just staring down at him as one of the droids makes a sort of odd clucking noise, as if he can't believe what he's been given to work with. The next three or so hours pass in a blur, as they instruct Ben to soak in three separate tubs filled with a smelly, bubbly soap that feels like it's sloughing off the top layers of his skin, then proceed to wax most of the hair from his body—they at least let him keep his eyebrows, although one of the droids does yank a few of the hairs out with some kind of instrument. Once that's done, they apply a solution to his cheeks and chin to keep him from growing whiskers—can't have any adult-looking kids in the Games, apparently—and otherwise poke and prod and buff and polish him in places that he barely knew he had. By the time he's given a paper robe to put on so he can go and eat dinner, Ben's appetite has all but vanished.
"See, I told you," Luke says as he walks Ben across the hall, where Maz and Rey are already sitting at the table. Although Rey has somehow managed to become even more beautiful since he last saw her, she looks about as mortified as Ben feels, which is at least a slight comfort as he takes his seat.
"Once we're done here, Maz and I will take you to your dressing room to help you into your parade costumes," Luke says once the soup course has been taken away. "Now, even though the parade itself is over fairly quickly, it's very important that you take this seriously. This is the first time that you will be seen by the general Coruscant public, and—"
"And the sponsors," Rey cuts in. "Yes, I'm pretty sure Ben and I both know that we're supposed to be on our best behaviour."
"It's not only that, dear," Maz says patiently. "It's also a chance for you to make a good first impression on the sponsors, which, as you know, could become very important once you're in the arena."
Rey drops her head, fiddling with her soup spoon. "Fine. But I still don't understand how my lack of underarm hair or the shape of my eyebrows will dictate how I'll fare once I'm in the arena."
Luke's eyebrows shoot up at Rey's words, causing Ben to chuckle into his water glass. That's the fiery Rey that I know.
"You do have a point, Rey," Luke says. "But suffice it to say that a good first impression never hurts anyone, hmm?"
Rey gives a reluctant nod, her eyes flicking briefly towards Ben.
"No, I suppose not."
"That's right," says Maz. "There's nothing wrong with trying to impress the sponsors, especially since the two of you are already the buzz of the party."
"We are?" Ben asks, his fork paused in mid-air. "Why? Is that usual for the tributes from Ajan Kloss?"
Maz bursts out laughing, only intensifying Ben's feelings of general uneasiness.
"Oh, no, my dear," she says, still cackling. "That's why it's even more important for you both to impress everyone tonight." She leans forward, smiling almost conspiratorially. "And based on what Luke and I have put together for your parade costumes, you will."
Ben frowns, chancing a glance over at Rey, who gives him a shrug in response. Ajan Kloss tributes never impress anyone during the parade because they always seem to wind up dressed in costumes that make them look like fruit trees or farmers, neither of which tend to strike fear in the hearts of their opponents.
"Um… okay," Ben says warily. "If you say so."
But only a couple of hours later, Ben's skepticism has slowly started to transform into something he might call a tentative optimism when he sees the costume that Luke and Maz have put together for him. It consists of a loose undertunic in a bright ivory colour that falls to just past Ben's hips, with matching ivory trousers that tuck into tall, dark brown boots. Then there's another tunic in a light purple colour that goes over the ivory one, which is then topped by a slightly darker purple long outer robe sporting a deep hood and extra-wide sleeves. Ben stares pointedly at himself in the mirror as Luke makes various adjustments to the fit, calling one of the grooming droids in to redo the length of the robe when he decides that it's just a touch too short.
"There, I think that will do," Luke finally says once the hairdresser droid has finished tying back the sides of Ben's hair. Then he hands Ben a long staff and steps back, his hands clasped together. "What do you think?"
Ben breathes in as he looks his reflection up and down. While he's not exactly sure what point Luke and Maz are trying to get across with their choice of costume, or his hairdo, or the staff—am I supposed to be an animal herder of some kind?—it's at least better than being dressed as a peach tree.
"It's… nice," Ben replies, turning this way and that to see all of the ways the robes drape over his frame. "I… um… is it supposed to mean something though?"
Luke's expression clouds over, just enough for Ben to notice. "That's up to you and Rey, Ben. Just remember that these first impressions are very important."
"Yeah, I know," Ben mutters. You've only reminded us about a million times.
Satisfied that he's ready, Luke leads Ben down to the subterranean floor of the Tribute Centre where a line of twelve speeders await, one for each planet's tributes. Since Ajan Kloss is always last, Ben gets to pass all of the other tributes as he and Luke make their way to the end of the line. From the brief glances he sneaks as he walks past them, it seems as though the tributes from Scarif and Cantonica are going to be their toughest competition. Scarif has won the last two years, and at least one tribute from Cantonica is always in the final four.
It also seems that Luke was right about his costume, as more than a few people do double-takes as Ben walks by.
"Keep your chin up," Luke hisses as they pass the tributes from Hosnian Prime. "Don't let them think they can intimidate you."
Reaching the speeder, Ben crosses his arms, the wide sleeves of his outer robe draping perfectly across his front as he bounces lightly on his feet, waiting for Maz and Rey.
"Ah, here they come," Luke says about a minute later, jerking his head towards the beginning of the line. Ben immediately looks up, his heart nearly stopping when he sees her.
Rey is dressed in a nearly identical costume, and carrying a shorter but otherwise identical staff, with her hair tied back just like Ben's. And if Ben thought that she couldn't get more beautiful than she was at breakfast that morning, he was absolutely wrong.
No, beautiful isn't even enough to describe how angelic she looks. Rey isn't just beautiful, she's as radiant as the sun.
"Hey," she says breathlessly as she sees him, her small fingers curled tightly around her staff. She leans closer, so close that Ben can smell the lavender shampoo her droids used on her hair. "So… did Luke tell you anything about what these costumes mean?"
"Uhh, no," Ben says, hoping that Rey can't hear how loud his heart is pounding. "Just that he's hoping we make a good first impression."
Rey nods, her gorgeous hazel eyes flicking across the line of speeders. "Well, if the stares I got as we were walking back here are any indication, I'd say it's working so far."
"Yeah, I'd say that too," Ben murmurs. He trails off as an Empire official announces for the tributes to mount their speeders.
"All right, you two," Luke says once they're situated inside the speeder. "Remember, you're in this together."
The Empire anthem suddenly begins to play, echoing against the concrete building and startling Rey enough that she grabs onto Ben's hand to steady herself. Heat flashes up Ben's arm at her touch, blooming across his chest just as Luke calls out, "That's excellent, Rey! Great idea!"
Oh, stars! Ben thinks as Rey shoots him a sort of sheepish smile, her already lightly-rouged cheeks flushing a darker pink. In his own rather large hand, Rey's feels delicate and small, but also steady, as if she somehow knows exactly how to help him keep his nerves at bay.
"Bet they've never seen anything like this before," she says as the speeder for Scarif lurches forward, heading out onto the vast avenue. Huge screens set up on either side of the Emperor's palace show video of the two tributes in their glittery costumes, waving at the applauding crowd. Next are the tributes from Cantonica, dressed in costumes of deep charcoal grey, and so on and so on until finally, it's their turn. Ben's fingers instinctively tighten around Rey's as their speeder begins to move, the crowd erupting into even louder cheers as they suddenly appear on the screens.
"Keep your heads held high!" Ben hears Luke yell as they emerge onto the avenue. Ben lifts his chin, trying to keep his eyes firmly on the screens as he attempts to smile, fully aware that Rey's fingers are now clutching his so tightly that he no longer can feel them.
"It seems like they like us," Ben says as shouts of his and Rey's names begin to intersperse with the thundering beats of the anthem.
"Yes, it does," answers Rey. "Just… don't let go of me. Please."
"I won't, Rey," Ben says. "I promise."
What should've been an incredibly intimidating ride up the main Coruscant avenue passes rather quickly, and soon enough all of the speeders have taken their places in line, waiting for Emperor Palpatine to give his opening speech. Ben watches as he emerges from the shadows, dressed in sparkly black robes with his white hair perfectly arranged, holding up his arms to silence the crowd.
"Welcome! Tributes, we welcome you!" he says. "We salute your courage and your sacrifice, and may the odds be ever in your favour!"
Once again, the crowd bursts into applause. Ben watches as the Emperor looks down at each set of tributes, his heart skipping a beat or three when his gaze seems to linger on Ben and Rey for a bit longer than the others, his expression just on the curious side of neutral.
"Wow," Rey says as the Emperor turns and heads back into his palace, and the speeders begin to make their way back towards the tunnel. "I think that's the shortest speech I've ever heard him give."
"Yeah, I think you're right," agrees Ben. And that's just fine with him. Now that they've made it through the parade, Ben is utterly exhausted, and very much looking forward to going to sleep.
Unfortunately, that would mean he'd have to let go of Rey's hand, which, despite his fatigue, he's in absolutely no rush to do.
In fact, if he could have his way, he'd far prefer to never let go of her at all.
Not until he gives his life for her.
Because Rey has to win, she simply has to. And if the response they managed to pull from the crowd tonight is any indication, he and Rey are already far more popular than any other Ajan Kloss tribute has ever been before, and Ben absolutely has to use that to his advantage.
"That was amazing!" Maz exclaims as Ben and Rey climb down from the speeder. "We're all anyone's going to be talking about!"
"Is that a good thing?" Ben asks, grateful when his voice doesn't wobble. Apparently Rey still hasn't seen the need to let go of his hand.
"Let's… head on upstairs, shall we?" Luke says, tossing a suspicious glance behind them. Ben turns to find the male tribute from Scarif staring at him and Rey, his eyes shooting proverbial blaster bolts in their direction just as he hears what sounds like Rey's voice inside his mind.
"Be with me, Ben," she says. "Don't let go of me."
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"And, here we are, children," Maz says as the transport tube doors open into the top floor of the Tribute Centre. Rey's eyes are wide as she steps out, her jaw dropping at the sheer splendour of the massive main room, which is easily the size of the entire Community Home.
"Is this… all for us?" she asks as she leans her staff against the doorway, her right hand twitching in Ben's. She's vaguely aware that she hasn't bothered to let go of Ben since the parade, but since he hasn't seemed to mind—she's sensed the exact opposite from him, actually—she's seen no need to try. He's been the only thing keeping her upright since she climbed into the parade speeder. Facing that enormous crowd was one of the most nerve-wracking things she's ever done, and there's no way she would've been able to handle herself as well as she did without Ben by her side.
"Oh, yes, all of this is for your indulgence," Luke says, laced with heavy sarcasm. "The tributes from Ajan Kloss always get the penthouse."
"Probably 'cause we're the least likely to have ever seen anything like this," mutters Ben, his strong jaw tight enough to cut marble. And he's right. Being the smallest and poorest planet of the twelve Empire Games participants, there's very little chance that any of Ajan Kloss's tributes have ever seen anything remotely close to the splendour and grandeur of Coruscant, and its rich, stately buildings.
And not a single peach tree or bit of fungus to be seen. Or really much of anything besides buildings that nearly reach the sky, and lots and lots of speeders.
"Your rooms are down there," Maz says, gesturing down a long, wide hallway off to the left. "You'll each need to press your right palm against the panel next to the door to unlock them. Your wardrobes and accoutrements that you'll be needing for the rest of the week have already been prepared, so feel free to relax for a bit. Dinner will be served in one hour."
Rey nods, chancing a glance up at Ben. Their fingers have been intertwined for so long that they feel like they've frozen together, but it would probably look a bit odd if he were to follow her into her room.
Warmth blooms across Rey's chest at the thought, her cheeks flushing hot as Ben looks down to meet her eyes, his pale cheeks just as pink as she imagines hers are.
Something's going on here that neither Rey nor Ben understand, something aside from their shared fear and nervousness about going into the arena. If Rey didn't know any better, she'd suspect that it had something to do with the fact that Ben volunteered to take that little boy's place, a fact that Luke apparently felt the need to interrogate her regarding shortly before the start of the parade.
"And you are absolutely sure that you've never interacted with him aside from that one time?" Luke asked, his lined face drawn and his blue eyes puzzled. "You're absolutely sure?"
"Yes, I'm absolutely sure," Rey told him. "Unless you count the occasional polite pleasantry at school or something, then that's really the only time we've spoken." She paused, thinking back to that day, and the overwhelming anguish she'd sensed from Ben as he sobbed on the front steps of his house, the very same anguish that she'd felt when her parents were killed and she was taken from Jakku.
"And you still have no idea how you knew that you needed to help him in that moment?" Luke asked. "Or how exactly to help him?"
"No!" said Rey, throwing up her hands in frustration. She very much disliked having to repeat herself. "I told you, it was just a really strong feeling combined with a sort of compulsion to discover its source. It was almost like I felt trapped, like the feeling had me trapped inside it, and I couldn't escape from it until I found out where it was coming from."
Luke merely nodded, crossing his arms in contemplation. Rey has noticed that he does that a lot, his eyebrows knitted tightly together as he watches her and Ben, almost like he's studying them.
It's a bit unnerving, actually.
"Dinner's in an hour," Luke repeats, rather dismissively as he waves towards the hallway. Rey can feel Luke's eyes practically boring a hole in the back of her skull as she and Ben shuffle down the hallway to their rooms. It must be time for the adults to discuss something. Hopefully their strategy for the Games.
"Um…" Rey mumbles once they reach the door to her room, which is right across the hall from Ben's. She forces her fingers to flex so she can release Ben's hand, the warmth she felt earlier peaking inside her chest as they finally pop free, causing her to softly gasp. She immediately curls her other hand around them, as though she's trying to hold on to the remnants of Ben's touch for as long as possible.
"See you at dinner?" she asks. Another spike of warmth races down her spine at the nod Ben gives her, his full lips twitching as he attempts to smile.
"Yes," he says. "See you then."
As soon as she unlocks her door and steps inside her room, Rey stops short, unable to take everything in at first glance. She thought her room on the transport ship was over-indulgent, especially for how little time she actually spent in it, but apparently she was absolutely wrong because not even those luxurious accommodations can hold a candle to what lies before her. The bedroom, if one could call such a massive room such a quaint name, seems fit for an Empress, filled with plush furnishings and covered in carpet so thick that Rey's feet sink down into it as she walks towards the centre. The fabrics covering the couches and bed are a variety of brilliant blues and purples, accented by the same rich burgundy fabric that covers the walls. Golden threads that lace through the fabric on the walls form designs, which Rey recognises a moment later as images from various Clone Wars battles.
Only the battles where the Empire emerged victorious, that is. There's even one entire wall displaying the infamous Order 66, with the clone troopers studying their tiny holographic images of Emperor Palpatine as they ready their blasters to kill their unsuspecting Jedi commanders. A knot rises in Rey's throat as she studies it. History teaches that the Jedi never once held the upper hand during the years-long war, and that it only stretched on because Chancellor Palpatine wanted to exhaust all avenues of diplomacy with the Jedi aggressors first, but Rey doesn't believe it. If that were indeed the case, then why would such an order have been necessary? Why not simply arrest all the Jedi and be done with it?
Tears spring to Rey's eyes, and she forcibly tears her gaze away. She cannot imagine how betrayed the Jedi must've felt as the clone troopers they had come to trust with their lives suddenly turned on them.
It also brings up the question of how the Chancellor managed to coordinate such an order in the first place. Strangely enough, Mrs Solo has never mentioned how Order 66 came about during her history lectures. Only that the order happened, and that was pretty much it.
Probably because it would be less than flattering to Emperor Palpatine, and we can't have that, can we?
Once again, Rey is relieved that the Empire possesses no mind-reading technology, because the answer to that question seems far too obvious to simply be ignored. Somehow, Palpatine managed to manipulate the clone troopers, either during their development on Kamino or in some other way, in order to gain control of them. There's really no other explanation that makes sense.
Swiping at her eyes, Rey turns towards the huge, walk-in closet to find yet another, even larger pictograph, one that she would have no choice but to see unless she decides to forgo clothing.
This one depicts Anakin Skywalker, known throughout the galaxy as the most powerful Jedi who's ever lived, just as he's captured by Palpatine's personal forces on Coruscant. The exact fate of Anakin Skywalker after his arrest has never been revealed to the masses, with only rumours circulating that he died horribly at Palpatine's hands after it was discovered that he had been secretly married, and that his wife had given birth to a son before she too was arrested and executed.
A son who, once discovered twenty-five years ago, was taken from the desert planet where he'd been living with relatives and moved to Ajan Kloss, where he then went on to win the Empire Games. The moon's first and only victor.
Somehow, Luke Skywalker managed to turn the odds in his favour just enough to ensure his own victory, but hasn't managed to do so a single time since then.
Until now, Rey thinks, ignoring the sharp stab of anguish that follows. For how close she and Ben seem to be all of a sudden, she still hasn't been able to figure out why Ben volunteered as tribute. She even suspects that Luke has spoken with him about it, but he hasn't seen fit to mention anything about it to her.
Which, he probably shouldn't. All odd things aside, once they're thrown into the arena, Ben will technically be Rey's enemy, just as the tributes from the Career planets will be her enemies. And as long as Rey can remember that, she should be fine.
There can only be one victor.
Rey gives her head a hard shake as she looks away from the face of Anakin Skywalker, and his stunned but determined expression as he's captured. It's likely that Emperor Palpatine views it and the other sequences as a warning, but Rey doesn't take it that way.
Instead, she sees it as inspiration.
Determined, Rey strips out of her long outer robe and her tall boots and flops down onto the bed, letting out an appreciative groan almost against her will as the squashy surface moulds to her exhausted body. She may think it unlikely for a tribute to forget why they're there in Coruscant, but the Emperor sure seems to try his hardest to placate the tributes before the Games begin, as if he's trying to make their deaths feel more noble.
Either that, or all of this luxury is just another way to rub the tributes noses in it, which, after a moment or two of thought, seems a lot more likely. The odds of any of them returning home to brag about their treatment while staying on the Emperor's capital planet are so slim that there's really no downside.
There is only ever one victor. And if Luke Skywalker is anything to go by, unless they're a Career, they don't seem to do a lot of bragging.
Rey remains there on the bed, dozing in and out of sleep until the delicious smell of baking bread wafts into her nostrils, instantly prompting her stomach to growl. She pushes herself up onto her elbows, breathing in slowly so as to allow the scent to invade her. It's obscene how much food there is available on Coruscant, and Rey wishes that she could be a bit more discerning when it comes to their mealtimes because it's truly ridiculous how much of it ends up going to waste.
But she just can't, and from what she's seen, neither can Ben.
A lifetime spent only one or two steps away from starvation will do that to a person. When food is as scarce as it was on Jakku, and in the Community Home, it becomes the one thing a person thinks about the most. The when, where, and how Rey would acquire her next meal would often consume her thoughts to the point of obsession, and as such, Rey finds it impossible not to indulge now, while she can. She knows very well that food will once again become scarce as soon as she's thrown into the arena. Nearly every year there's always at least one tribute who dies from either thirst or hunger, usually one of the smaller kids, and at least one or two more who die while fighting over food and water.
Yet another advantage someone like Ben Solo will have. As a larger-than-average boy, he'll be less likely to waste away than many of the smaller tributes.
Rey shakes her head as she gets to her feet and begins to strip off the rest of her elaborate costume. She really needs to stop thinking about Ben. It's not doing her any favours to be so focused on him when she should be trying to formulate some sort of strategy for herself.
Deliberately ignoring the pictograph of Anakin Skywalker, Rey chooses a simple ivory and pale green flowing tunic with matching leggings from the dozens of options in the closet before padding into the fresher. Like her room, the fresher is even larger and more elaborate than the one on the transport ship, and Rey spends several minutes playing with the various settings until she finally lands on one that she likes. Pine and cedar, with a bit of lavender thrown in for good measure. The liquid soap dispensed from the fancy box on the wall is both moisturising and healing, filling in all the little tiny cracks in Rey's fingers and palms from constantly scaling the peach trees back home, and the various sores on her feet from her ill-fitting shoes. Once her hair is washed and dried, instead of automatically tying it back like she usually does, Rey brushes it down so it lies across her shoulders, with the ends curling slightly under.
She looks nice, she has to admit as she checks her reflection in the mirror. Maybe even something resembling pretty.
Emerging from her room, she finds Maz, Luke, and Ben already seated at the huge dining table, which is covered in various bowls and platters filled with foods from several different planets. As soon as Ben catches sight of her, he pushes back from the table and shoots up to his feet, waiting until she's seated across from him to resume his position. Rey's eyebrows knit together as she places her embroidered napkin across her lap, her mouth already watering at the vast array of available choices.
"Ben and I have been practicing how to be a gentleman," Luke explains, correctly interpreting Rey's look of confusion. "On the final evening before the Games, all the tributes will dine with the Gamemakers, and that kind of behaviour will be expected."
"And I'm sure our behaviour will no doubt be added in to our scores," Rey mutters. She reaches for the basket of bread, fighting the strong urge to immediately tear into the steaming round roll. She has absolutely no interest in attempting to impress the people who are busy planning the most entertaining ways to try and kill her.
"Well, yes, that too," admits Luke. "But I will admit, there's very little wrong with treating our fellow beings politely. You never know when it might inspire them to do the same."
"Mmm," mutters Rey. "That sounds like something that the Jedi would've said. And look where it got them."
Luke visibly flinches, his eyebrows knitting together into a frown, and suddenly Rey has to swallow a gasp. Because in that moment, with his harsh, defiant glare and narrowed eyes, Luke bears an incredibly striking resemblance to the pictograph of Anakin Skywalker that's lining the wall of her room.
"That's an interesting statement, Rey," he says pointedly. "Especially coming from someone such as yourself, who's known across Ajan Kloss for defending those who can't defend themselves."
Rey opens her mouth to protest, then snaps it right closed. She's never thought about it in quite that way, but Luke is absolutely right.
Maybe that's why Emperor Palpatine kept glancing at her and Ben during the parade, not even making an effort to conceal his apparent interest.
"You and I will begin our etiquette lessons tomorrow, dear," Maz says, breaking the awkward silence. She smiles as she smears a thick layer of clotted cream across her own roll. "And then the day after that, you and Ben will have your first official training session."
Rey nods, realising that Ben has yet to utter a single word since she's arrived at the table. It's not unlike him to be quiet; in all the years she's known him, he's only ever spoken when absolutely necessary, but she can't help but feel a bit… odd about it. Almost like he's just hanging back and studying her in the same contemplative way that Luke's been studying them both.
"Is that when we'll learn how to use weapons?" Rey asks as one of the serving droids picks up a stemmed goblet from next to her plate, filling it with a sparkling, pale pink liquid. She reaches for it, closing her eyes as she inhales the sweet, fruity smell of strawberries, the pop pop pop of the bubbles tickling her nose as she takes her first sip.
"Oohh," she murmurs as the bubbles explode across her tongue and down her throat, leaving a warm, fuzzy sensation in their wake. "Oh, I like that!"
"It's good, isn't it?" Ben asks, so sincerely that Rey nearly drops the goblet. He reaches for his own, a soft smile playing on his full lips. "Luke says it's special, made just for us."
"It is?" Rey asks, far too quickly. No, no, he didn't mean us-us, as in just Ben and I, he meant—! "I—I mean—"
"It's made just for the tributes from Ajan Kloss, yes," says Luke. He reaches for his own goblet, already half empty. "Because where do you think Coruscant gets the strawberries to make this drink, hmm?"
"From Ajan Kloss," Rey says with a nod. "Yes, that makes sense." She sets down her goblet, and is reaching for her roll when a vision pops into her mind's eye, one of a little boy with dark hair, crying as he clutches a brown cloth bag to his chest, and a little girl pulling a single strawberry from her pocket, believing that it will help him feel better.
Because it did, she suddenly hears inside her mind, startling her so that she almost drops her roll. It did, Rey.
"What did?" she says aloud, her breath hitching when Maz and Luke both turn to look at her.
"What did, what, Rey?" Luke asks, his brow furrowed in confusion. "What are you talking about?"
Rey clears her throat, shaking her head. "Uhh, nothing. Nothing at all." She forces a smile onto her face as she reaches for the platter of sliced meat. "So, you said tomorrow we'll be getting lessons on etiquette?"
"Yes, that's right," Luke says slowly. His blue eyes briefly flick over to Ben, who's staring so intently at his plate that Rey wonders if he's afraid it might suddenly sprout wings and fly away. "You'll both also have your first fitting for the formalwear you'll wear to the dinner."
"You'll have to learn how to walk in heeled shoes, dear," Maz says as she picks up her goblet. She shoots Ben a rather amused glance. "And since you'll be walking in on Ben's arm, they're going to have to be pretty high."
"Oh," Rey croaks as Ben's head snaps up, his brown eyes wide at Maz's pronouncement. It seems very odd that the Emperor's essentially holding a formal ball for the very same tributes he'll be sending to their deaths the following day, but then again, Rey's never heard anyone speak about the Emperor's great wisdom.
Only his ruthlessness, to which Rey would add arrogance. It's awfully presumptuous to assume that no one will ever decide that they've had enough of all the terror and killing and attempt to put a stop to it.
Then again, that was the original intent of the Clone Wars, and… well… look how those turned out.
"But don't you worry, child," Maz says. "In all my years as the Ajan Kloss escort, I've never had a single tribute stumble even once."
"And if by some odd chance that you do stumble, I'm sure Ben here will be able to catch you," adds Luke. His statement, made in the same soft, semi-monotonous tone that he always uses, still brings a flush of pink to Ben's cheeks, and, Rey assumes, to hers as well.
Luke seems to be trying to hint at something, something different about her and Ben, and it's almost driving Rey mad trying to figure it out.
Thankfully, the awkward moment is broken by the serving droid as he refills their goblets, and Maz wisely shifts the conversation to lighter topics as they continue on with the meal. The last couple of days have at least taught Rey that she doesn't have to eat so fast out of fear that the food will suddenly disappear, and she's pleased to see that Ben seems to have learned this lesson as well. Bonus points for when they'll be eating in front of all the Gamemakers and Emperor Palpatine.
At least two hours pass while they eat, during which Rey manages to try a bit of everything on the table, including a large piece of an absolutely scrumptious cake sprinkled with bits of real chocolate for dessert. Once all of her food is gone, she swallows the final sip of her sparkling strawberry drink and sets down the goblet, raising her hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, when her pinky finger snags on the chain of the medallion tucked underneath her tunic and yanks it out. Luke looks up as the golden starbird bounces against her chest, his eyes nearly bulging out of his head.
"What's that?" he asks, or more like, demands.
"What's what?" Rey responds as she shakes the chain loose. "You mean, this?"
"Yes, that," Luke says as he points an impatient finger. "The medallion. Where did you get it?"
"Uhh…" Rey stammers. She doesn't exactly feel like announcing to the entire table that Ben's mother just happened to visit her after the reaping to give her a priceless heirloom that she should've given to her own son.
"Someone gave it to me during the goodbye time after the reaping," she says. "Said it was a good luck charm."
Luke's lips are drawn into a tight line as he glances over at Ben, whose cheeks have turned a ghastly greyish colour. "Really," he says as he leans in for a closer look. "May I see it?"
"Um… sure," Rey says. She slips the chain off over her head, handing the medallion over to Luke as Maz shifts up onto her knees on her chair, craning to get a closer look.
"Starbird symbol," Luke mutters, almost to himself as he turns the shiny gold medallion over in his hands, examining it like it's some kind of ancient relic. "Do either of you know the myth of the starbird?"
Both Rey and Ben shake their heads in unison.
"No, I'm not surprised that you don't," says Luke. "Legend says that the starbird lives inside the heart of every star in the galaxy. When a star goes out, either from natural causes or some other phenomenon, the bird dies a fiery death, and its wings stretch out across the dark abyss of space, transforming into stardust. And that stardust spreads out, over all the galaxy. And then, after a time, anything from years to millennia, it reforms, and the starbird is reborn. And then…"
He trails off, staring so intently at the medallion that Rey wonders if he's waiting for it to start speaking to him. Finally, after at least three minutes have passed, he suddenly jerks, like he's just returned back to himself.
"And who did you say gave this to you?" he asks, rather knowingly.
Rey gulps, chancing a quick glance at Ben, who gives her an almost imperceptible shake of his head, trepidation rolling from him in waves.
Please, Rey, she hears inside her mind. Please, don't.
"Um… one—one of my teachers from school," Rey finally says. Of course, it hits her a second later that Maz saw Mrs Solo in the goodbye room with Rey right before she led her to the transport, but since Maz doesn't actually live on Ajan Kloss, there's at least a small chance that she wouldn't know that Mrs Solo is a teacher.
Then again, the impression Rey's gotten from Maz is that she pretty much knows everything that goes on, even more so than Luke, so it's highly likely that Maz would at least be familiar with the mother of one of her tributes.
But, strangely enough, Maz doesn't say anything as Luke hands the medallion back to Rey.
"It's a very nice gift, Rey, from your teacher," he says. "I'll have to have it cleared through the Gamemakers in order for you to be allowed to wear it in the arena."
"I understand," says Rey. She slips the chain over her head, very much aware of Ben watching her every single move.
"Thank you, Rey," she suddenly hears inside her head.
"For what?" she instinctively responds.
There's a short pause as she meets Ben's eyes, his beautiful brown eyes with the tiny flecks of green and gold.
"You know," he says firmly.
She shakes her head, briefly squeezing her eyes closed. How is this, whatever this is, even possible?
"No, I'm afraid that I don't—"
She's cut off by Maz clapping her hands. "Well, I think it's past the time for our tributes to be getting to bed," she says. "We have a very big, big, big day tomorrow."
"Maz is absolutely right," says Luke. He still has that weird, faraway look on his face, but at least his eyes have returned to a more natural state. "Breakfast will be served at 0800 tomorrow, so be sure to get plenty of rest tonight. You both have earned it."
Likely in concert with his etiquette training, Ben shoots to his feet as soon as Rey rises from the table, hanging back to allow her to walk down the hallway ahead of him. Her mind is racing with so many questions as she arrives at the door to her room that she feels slightly dizzy, a sensation no doubt enhanced by the bubbly strawberry drink.
"Ben," she blurts out, just before he turns towards his own bedroom door. Her heart does a flip as he whips around, the expression on his face almost tortured as he takes her in.
"Yes?" he answers, so softly that Rey barely hears him, his chin quivering slightly. Rey blinks as she suddenly senses the intense apprehension he's attempting to hide, almost as though he's ashamed of it.
"Um…" she stammers, unsure what prompted her to even say his name in the first place. "Well… I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes," he says again, his full lips curling into a slight smile. "Sleep well, Rey."
"Thanks. You too."
After pressing her palm against the scanner, Rey enters her room and immediately begins stripping out of her tunic and leggings, crawling under the puffy bed coverings once she's done. She had intended to spend some more time in the fresher after dinner, but those plans have been abandoned thanks to her confusion regarding Luke's odd reaction to her medallion, and her addled mind from the bubbly strawberry drink.
And as she drifts off, Rey supposes that it's a bit funny how she associates Ben Solo with strawberries, which just happen to be one of Rey's very favourite foods.
Thankfully, Rey's mind is clearer once the morning dawns. Emerging from her room, she finds Maz sitting alone at the dining table, explaining once Rey takes her seat that Luke's already taken Ben down to get fitted for his formalwear. The all-too-familiar flush creeps up Rey's cheeks as she immediately conjures up an image of Ben dressed in a formal suit, standing next to her in all of his tall and handsome glory, graciously offering her his arm before they step inside the snake pit—er, ballroom.
And, right on its heels, how badly she wishes that they could truly be a united pair, instead of just two tributes who happen to hail from the same moon.
But we can't, she thinks bitterly. So it's really not even worth thinking about.
There can only be one victor.
As if she can sense Rey's inner disquietness, Maz keeps a nearly-constant running commentary of polite small talk while they eat, finally escorting her to a room a few floors down from the penthouse. Rey nearly laughs when she steps inside to find the entire front of it laid out like an actual classroom, complete with student desks and an instructor's writing board that Maz proceeds to utilise to its fullest extent over the next several hours. For someone who's never even dreamed of the possibility of ever participating in any formal function, Rey is fascinated—in a kind of amused way—by all of the different aspects required for the simple attendance of such an event. From learning how to smile without showing too much of her teeth and the proper way to greet the Emperor and Gamemakers to drinking hot tea from a small, porcelain cup without using her pinky finger, over the course of about eight hours or so, Rey crams as much information into her mind as she possibly can.
And, she manages to keep from gritting her teeth whilst doing so. For the most part, at least.
She's even able to master walking in the pair of ridiculously high-heeled shoes that Maz gives her to practise in, despite the pain they cause in her feet and shins. Why anyone would ever voluntarily choose to wear such contraptions on their feet is beyond her, but that's probably why no one felt the need to ask her.
She's just a tribute, after all. And not even a Career tribute at that.
Finally, after Maz declares Rey ready and tells her that she can remove the horrible shoes from her feet, they exit the classroom and head towards the transport tubes. Practically exhausted to the bone, Rey averts her eyes when a tall, rather elegantly-dressed man with dark brown hair approaches from the opposite direction, smiling as he catches Maz's attention.
"Maz!" the man exclaims as he bends down to kiss Maz's offered hand. "How wonderful to see you again!"
"Always a pleasure, Lando," Maz says, her huge eyes bright behind the thick lenses of her spectacles as her fingers curl around Rey's forearm. "Allow me to introduce one of my tributes, Rey Sands."
"Ah, yes!" the man—Lando, apparently—says. His rather creepy smile deepens as he reaches for Rey's hand, giving it a firm shake. "How could I forget the splash you and your fellow tribute made at the parade, hmm? Quite an impressive showing from Ajan Kloss!"
A hot flash of pride shoots through Rey, forcing her to bite down hard on her tongue just as her eyes land on the elegantly embroidered marks lining the shoulder of the man's perfectly tailored suit. He's a Gamemaker, and based on the number of stripes that he's sporting, he's pretty high up in the ranks.
"Yes," Rey says as she deliberately relaxes her shoulders, forcing herself to smile. "Thank you, mister…"
"Calrissian," the man says as he gives a short bow. "Mr Lando Calrissian, at your service."
Maz beams, obviously pleased with Rey's performance. "Yes. I have a feeling that both of our tributes are going to draw plenty of attention this year."
"With your expert guidance, Maz, I have absolutely no doubt," Mr Calrissian says as the doors to the penthouse transport tube open. He steps back, gesturing for Maz and Rey to enter. "I guess I'll be seeing you in the morning again, hmm, Rey? First day of training?"
"Yes, sir," answers Rey. "I'll be there."
"That's the spirit," says Mr Calrissian, followed by a sinister laugh that nearly curdles Rey's blood. Her fingers curl into fists as the transport tube's doors slide closed, her fingernails digging into her palms.
That's the spirit, she thinks bitterly as the tube begins its climb back up to the penthouse. Well, I'll show him some spirit. Him and all the rest of them.
Rey may be just an orphan girl from the smallest moon in the Games, but that doesn't mean she's going to fight like one.
She's more than just another piece in their game. And starting tomorrow, she's going to prove it.
I can’t wait to see what you think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 💖
Ben lets out a soft groan as the palest flickers of dawn begin to stretch across the landscape, filtering between the surrounding skyscrapers. He flops onto his stomach, burying his face into his soft, plushy pillows as the light grows slowly but steadily brighter, trying to block it out. His sleep during the night was troubled, filled with disturbing dreams of Rey diving into a deep, black pool of water, only to emerge with yellowish eyes and her teeth sharpened into fangs. And of his father, the day the Empire officials came to take him away, screaming his name.
Jerking awake, Ben snaps his head up, gulping in a lungful of air before smashing his sweat-drenched face back into the pillows. He wishes so badly that he could somehow just skip right to the end of the day, not at all looking forward to the tribute training session that awaits him later that morning.
Despite what Luke and Maz told him and Rey after their etiquette training the day before, that they currently have an advantage over the rest of the tributes based on their generated responses from the parade, Ben's still not quite convinced that it's the case. From what he's seen, crowds can be very easily influenced, and who's to say that the mere fact that their costumes were unusual for Ajan Kloss wasn't the reason behind the crowd's positive reaction?
The fact that Luke still hasn't seen fit to explain the reasoning behind their rather odd costumes rankles him as well. While Ben is grateful for the fact that he wasn't dressed like a peach tree, the memory of the Emperor's piercing eyes as they swept across him and Rey still haunts him, and is the main culprit behind the shitty sleep he's had since then.
And then there's the combat and weapons training, which is required for all tributes. Seeing the other tributes at the parade is one thing, but having to learn survival skills and how to use weapons all while under their very noses is another. Ben is not someone who enjoys the spotlight, and, his impressive height notwithstanding, usually tries very hard to blend in with his surroundings as much as possible, so as to avoid it.
He's also never even held a weapon, unless you can count tossing a couple of tiny rocks at a tree with his father a few times, and he's worried that the so-called Careers will be able to figure out that he's all height and no bite with only one quick look, marking him as a quick and easy target.
Unfortunately, against Ben's will, the sun persists in rising. With another groan, Ben props himself up on his elbows, attempting to blink his eyes open just as sunbeam emerges from behind a neighbouring building, causing him to cry out as he twists to the side.
Even the sunlight is brighter on Coruscant, with no tall jungle canopy or haze of humidity to soften it.
Guess I may as well get up now.
Frowning, Ben swings his long legs over the side of the bed, raising his arms up over his head to stretch as a yawn suddenly overtakes him, one so wide and drawn out that he's left teary-eyed by the time he recovers. Shaking his head, he pushes himself up to his feet and shuffles over to the fresher, stripping his sweaty pyjamas off as quickly as he can. If nothing else, at least he can enjoy the feel of the hot water raining down across his body for a few minutes before he's once again thrown into the snake pit.
Once he's sufficiently clean and dried—even the towels are some of the softest pieces of fabric he's ever felt in his life—he emerges from the fresher to find that his pyjamas have been picked up, his bed has been made up with fresh sheets and pillows, and a pair of dark grey pants and a slightly lighter grey shirt have been laid neatly across the brightly-coloured bedcover, with a pair of matching dark grey shoes on the floor at the foot of the bed.
Apparently he has a uniform for training.
His stomach gives an uneasy flutter at the thought that some droid or servant was somehow watching him in his room, just waiting until he went into the fresher so he could enter and tidy up his things. Ben's never enjoyed the feeling of being watched. Even back at home, his mother knew better than to peek over his shoulder while he was practicing his lettering, and he always did his best scrubbing work while the Stormtroopers were occupied somewhere else.
And he likes it even less so now.
Scowling, Ben grabs the shirt and pants and retreats into the closet. Like the rest of the vast bedroom, the lights in the closet are set to motion detectors, so Ben folds himself down between the hanging racks of shirts, taking just a bit of privacy for himself as he gets dressed.
His clothes finally on, Ben sits down on the chair to tie his shoes, then leans back, raking his fingers through his hair. Judging by the density of the speeder traffic outside his floor-to-ceiling window, it's still pretty early, and he's doubtful that any of the other penthouse occupants are even awake yet.
Then again, he supposes it really doesn't matter. Company or not, there'll probably still be food available in the dining room, so there's really no point in him trying to ignore his growling stomach. With a final glance at his reflection, Ben exits the room and heads down the hall, following his nose to find a serving droid setting out the last of the steaming breakfast dishes.
"Good morning, sir," the droid says as it backs away, taking its place by the wall, where it will keep a close eye on the various bowls and plates and goblets, refilling them as necessary.
"Um… hi," Ben says, rather awkwardly as he grabs a plate and begins filling it with a little of everything. Eggs—this time from a specific Dulathian bird, if he remembers his mother's culinary lessons correctly—sausages, some type of rolls that smell a bit like peaches—yet another reminder of home—as well as some other things that Ben's never seen before, presumably foods from other planets. Sitting down at the end of the long table, Ben digs in, and becomes so engrossed in his meal that he doesn't even realise that Rey has entered the room until she speaks.
"Good morning, Ben," she says, softly so as not to scare him. He manages to startle anyway, shooting up to his feet with his mouth stuffed with roll as Rey jumps back in surprise.
"No, no, you don't have to do all that stuff when they're not around, okay?" she insists. "It's just me, there's no need—"
"Don't say it like that," Ben says once he's swallowed. "I mean—I mean, yes, of course I should. Luke and Maz said we should be practising as much as possible, so… that's what I'm doing."
Rey blinks, her beautiful hazel eyes skeptical. "Okay, so… what if I tell you that I don't want you to do that stuff when they're not around. Would that help?"
"Uhh…" Ben stammers. He notices then that Rey's dressed in exactly the same outfit as he is, even down to the shoes. "Do all of the tributes wear the same thing to the training sessions?"
"Oh, um…" Rey says as she looks down, as if she's just realised what she's wearing. "Since the Ajan Kloss crest is sewn onto the sleeve, I'm gonna go with yes."
"Oh, yeah," Ben says as yet another blush creeps up his neck to his cheeks. He's been blushing so often lately that he sometimes wonders how he still has any blood left in his feet. "That—that makes sense." He doesn't add that even in head-to-toe grey, a dull colour likely meant to remind the tributes that they're nothing more than throwaways, Rey still looks amazingly beautiful.
To Ben's shock, no sooner has the thought crossed his mind when he hears Rey clear her throat, a light pink flush blooming across her cheeks, almost as though she heard him.
But… that's impossible. Isn't it?
"Thank you," she whispers, so softly that Ben's not even sure if she actually said something or if he only just imagined it. But before he can ask her to repeat herself, or will the floor to swallow him whole, whichever would be easier, Luke comes striding into the room, dressed in a set of robes made in the same grey colours as their training uniforms.
"Ah, good morning, tributes," he says, so lively that Ben and Rey immediately turn to each other, shrugging their confusion in unison. Luke pauses near his seat at the table, glancing down at Ben's nearly full plate, then at Rey's empty place, finally clearing his throat.
"Am I… interrupting something here?" he asks.
"No," Ben and Rey both say, again in unison. "I mean, I just got here, and Ben greeted me, just as you taught him," Rey adds. "He seems to have taken to his etiquette training rather well."
Luke raises his eyebrows, nodding in Ben's direction. "I see. Well, that's something to be proud of, Ben. Hopefully you'll do the same with your combat training."
"Mmm," Ben grumbles as Luke turns his attention to the food table, inviting Rey to step in front of him.
"Ladies first." He tosses Ben a rather odd glance as Rey fills her plate and sits down, with Luke taking his place next to her.
"Now then," Luke says as he breaks off a piece of one of the peachy rolls, dipping it into a cup of hot chocolate. "As you already know, today you'll begin your combat training for the arena. The training area will be set up with various stations that you'll rotate through under the guidance of instructors appointed by the Gamemakers. It is imperative that you both become at least somewhat proficient in all of these stations before the three days of training are over, or your chances for survival in the arena beyond the first few hours will be greatly reduced."
Ben's stomach gives a flip at Luke's words, and he pauses mid-chew, setting down his fork. For some unfathomable reason, it's just now occurred to him that he possesses absolutely no combat skills. Oh, he knows how to light a fire, if he has the proper kindling and a usable flint, and if he were somehow able to find a sharp stick he supposes he could attempt to poke someone with it, given how many times he's poked himself with his own quills over the years. But as far as real defensive or offensive skills, unless the Emperor counts being able to scrub the side of a building until his arms are ready to fall off a combat skill, Ben is pretty much doomed.
What the hell was I thinking?
"Ben?" Luke says, looking at him curiously. "Is something wrong?"
"Um… I don't—I don't know if—" he starts, halting when Luke raises a hand.
"You're thinking that three days isn't long enough to learn these important skills?" he asks. "Well, unfortunately, you're right. It's not. But you still have to try anyway."
"Okay, but then there's the question of us learning these things under the eye of all the other tributes," Rey says, and once again, it's like she's read Ben's mind. "Which in and of itself could be dangerous."
"Yes, that is true," agrees Luke. "But that same risk applies to all of the tributes, not just the two of you."
"That may be, but wouldn't it be better for Ben and I to not show off our skills in front of them?" Rey asks. "That would give us another advantage in the arena."
Us? Ben thinks, taken aback. Where's this 'us' coming from?
"Okay, but in order for you to show off a skill, you still need to learn it first," says Luke. He leans closer to Rey. "Or, is this your way of explaining how you've garnered your reputation as a defender of the weak?"
"Yes, it is," Ben blurts out, ignoring Rey's look of surprise. "I've seen it."
"Ben—!" Rey starts, cut off by Luke's sharp look.
"No, no, it's okay," Luke says. "Please, Ben. Continue."
Ben huffs, wishing he'd just kept his mouth shut, like he usually does. "I've seen Rey fight off other field hands who were trying to pick on her or some of the younger kids a bunch of times," he says quietly. "And from what I've seen, I'd say that even some of the Stormtroopers are afraid of her now."
"Oh, you think so, do you?" Rey demands. "And when exactly did you see me do any of—?"
"Oh, really?" Luke cuts in, raising an eyebrow. "And how exactly did you fight off these bullying field hands, Rey?"
"Oh, um…" Rey shoots Ben a rather harsh look, swallowing hard. "With a stick."
"Actually, it was more like a branch," Ben says. "A thick one, and longer than she is tall. I've seen her kick the ass of people almost twice her size and barely break a sweat."
"Hmm," Luke says, nodding. "That is impressive. All right, I would agree that I'd rather you keep that particular skill a secret for as long as possible. But learning how to start a fire or how to distinguish edible plants from their poisonous counterparts could end up saving your lives, so during these training sessions you should both make every possible effort to master those skills."
"Okay, but Ben's making it sound like he's going to be useless in there, which is absolutely not the truth," Rey says firmly. "He's a lot stronger than most of those other tributes, and I know he's loads smarter too. He's one of the smartest people in our school."
"Yeah, but somehow I highly doubt there's going to be a lot of books in the arena," Ben snaps back. "And even if there were, I'm sure most of the tributes would either use them as kindling or try to launch them at other tributes' heads, so—"
"Rey is correct, Ben," Luke says, rather pointedly. "You should never underestimate strength or smarts in the arena. Being able to out-think an opponent could very well become crucial as the Games wear on."
"Yeah, but—" Ben clamps down on his bottom lip, slumping against the back of his chair as he curses himself for almost giving the whole damn thing away.
Not very smart, now, is it?
"But?" Luke asks as he leans forward, his piercing blue eyes boring into Ben's. "You disagree, Ben?"
"No, I don't," Ben says quickly. He resumes his straight-backed position, reaching for his fork, when a thought suddenly appears inside his mind, one so strong that he flinches.
"I know what you're trying to do, Ben. And it won't work."
"What won't?" he asks before he can stop himself. Thankfully, Maz chooses that very moment to appear in the dining room, drawing both Luke and Rey's attention enough that they don't catch his supposedly unprompted question. Both Ben and Luke rise to their feet, waiting until Maz is seated before resuming their meals.
But once Maz has settled in to her chair next to Ben, and she and Luke have launched into yet another discussion regarding the tributes from Yavin 4—which, for some strange reason, Luke brought up quite a bit during their etiquette training the day before—Ben looks up from his half-finished plate to see Rey staring right at him, her pretty eyes blazing with determination.
"You know what I mean, Ben, I know you do," he hears inside his head. "And I am not going to let you do it."
Since he was up at basically the crack of dawn, Ben excuses himself once he's finished eating, slumping into the armchair in his room with his head between his hands. It's utter madness, thinking he can hear Rey's voice inside his head. It just has to be. Because it's impossible.
"Of course it is," he says, squeezing his head even tighter when he realises that he's just acknowledged his own ridiculous question with an actual answer. The fact that he's resorted to talking to himself only reinforces just how mad he's become.
But, then again… those times where he's been convinced that Rey was hearing his thoughts, and how confused and frightened she was by them… maybe—just maybe—he's not the only one who's confused here.
He can't ask her about it, though. To do so would then lead to questions that he's not at all prepared to answer. All he needs to do at the moment is focus on learning how to keep himself alive in the arena long enough to keep Rey alive.
It's ten minutes to ten by the time Luke raps on Ben's door. "It's almost time to head downstairs."
With a solemn nod, Ben stands to his feet, following Luke across the huge living and dining rooms to the transport tube, where Rey is waiting.
"No mentors or escorts are allowed in the training area, so you two are on your own for the day," Luke says. "Just remember what we talked about and you should be fine. I'll see you both at dinner."
"Got it," says Rey as the transport tube arrives. Ben steps back, allowing her to enter first, his heart fluttering as the tube begins its descent. The training area is located on the very bottom level of the Tribute Centre, and although it's not quite ten, Ben and Rey are still the last to arrive. All the rest of the tributes are already there, standing in a kind of formation as they face a uniformed Empire official.
"We'll have to inform Luke that he apparently got the time wrong," Rey grumbles as they step off the tube, immediately drawing the attention of the other tributes, many of whom give them dark looks as they take their places in the formation.
"Or maybe he didn't," Ben whispers back. With how much Luke seems to be hyping the two of them up, Ben wouldn't put it past him to deliberately make them show up last, so as to draw more attention to them.
Attention. The absolute last thing that Ben wants.
He's starting to regret revealing his plans to Luke more and more with every passing moment.
"Very well. Now that our final tributes are here, we can begin," says the official. He pauses for a moment to drag his eyes across both Ben and Rey, sending an eerie shiver down Ben's spine, one that Rey mirrors a second later. "In a matter of weeks, twenty-three of you will be dead, and only one of you will be alive. Who that is depends on how well you pay attention during the next three days."
"Well, isn't that inspiring," mutters the petite blonde-haired girl standing directly in front of Ben, who he recognises as the female tribute from Dulathia. "Why don't they tell us something we don't know."
"Shut it, Kaydel!" hisses her fellow tribute, a tall, skinny kid, who despite his height looks like he could get knocked over by a single gust of wind. "You're gonna get us in trouble!"
"Oh, like we're not already?" she snaps back. "Pretty sure this is the closest thing we can get to being in trouble!"
"How well you pay attention to what I'm about to say," the official repeats, looking directly at the girl—Kaydel, apparently. "The rules here are simple. Firstly, I will tolerate absolutely no fighting with the other tributes. There will be plenty of time for that in the arena. Secondly, there are four stations designed for weapons training. One each for firearms, knives and other stabbing weapons, traditional weaponry, bows and arrows and the like, and the fourth for defence against the above mentioned three. Those stations are interspersed along with the survival skills, fire-starting, edible plant identification, and so on. My advice to you is simple: while most of you will think you should go straight for the weapons, do not ignore the survival skills. In any given year, at least one-third to one-half of the tributes die from natural causes rather than in combat, so learning to identify that edible berry versus its poisonous doppelgänger just might save your life."
The official continues his rambling, basically repeating himself using different words, so Ben takes a moment to glance around the room, taking note of everything. The various stations are staffed by more officials, which he finds rather odd. Isn't it a sort of strange conflict of interest to have Empire officials teaching the tributes survival skills?
"Those must be the Gamemakers," Rey whispers from next to him. She jerks her head in the direction of a balcony overlooking the training area that's protected by a thick layer of glass, behind which stands a group of well-dressed men and women. "See? Up there?"
"Yes," Ben replies, his heart thudding madly. Rey is standing very close to him, so close that he can smell remnants of the lavender soap she must've used that morning. He frowns as he notices the lavish spread of food and drink set out for the twenty or so people, one of whom, a tall, rather stern-looking redheaded man, appears to be particularly disgruntled.
"Oh, I've seen that man before!" Rey suddenly exclaims, thankfully not so loud as to draw the attention of the official, who's now launched into the third—or is it the fourth?—rendition of his instructions. "That man up there, see? The tall one with the dark blue cape?"
"Yes, I see him," Ben says. He watches as the tall, brown-haired man jovially laughs at something one of the other Gamemakers says to him as he takes a goblet of some sparkling drink from the tray of a passing droid. "Where'd you see him?"
"Yesterday, when I was with Maz," Rey says. "We'd just finished with our etiquette training when he saw us by the doors to the transport tube." Her eyebrows knit together into a frown. "It was a bit odd, actually."
"Oh?" Ben asks. "How so?"
"Well, it was like he just appeared out of nowhere," she says with a shrug. "Either that, or he deliberately sought us out, which doesn't make any sense either. He did seem to know Maz pretty well though, and she, him. She even called him by his first name."
"Mmm," Ben grumbles. "So what the hell is Maz doing talking with a scumbag Gamemaker?"
"Well, Maz is technically from Coruscant, isn't she?" Rey says. "And she's been an escort for years, longer than we've been alive, so I guess it's not too surprising that she'd know all the Gamemakers." Rey purses her lips. "He still was far more polite to me than I would've expected."
"Well, that part isn't quite as surprising," Ben says, cringing as his mind has a chance to catch up with his mouth. "I mean… I can't—I can't imagine how—"
"Ben," Rey says gently as her slender fingers curl around his forearm. "It's okay."
Ben gulps, fighting the urge to clear his throat as the official finally wraps up his speech.
"Very well then, tributes," he says as he claps his hands together three times. "Off you go."
"So… what do you think we should try first?" Ben asks, watching as the rest of the tributes begin to file away. "Fire starting? Plant identifying? Sword fighting?"
Rey's face falls, her eyes trained on Ben's chest as she shifts awkwardly on her feet. "Um… well… it would probably be best if we didn't go together, don't you think? I mean…" She trails off, glancing around at the various stations as Ben's heart gives a painful lurch.
She's right, of course. There's no sense in them sticking together during the training.
There can be only one victor.
But before one of them can manage to break themselves away, the male tribute from Yavin 4 that Luke couldn't seem to shut up about the day before suddenly appears in front of Ben.
"Hello," he says, offering his hand towards Ben. Ben instinctively steps back, eyeing him suspiciously as he lets out a sort of weird chuckle.
"Look, I promise I'm not gonna try to flip you over my shoulder or something. I'm just trying to be polite," he says. "My name's Poe. Poe Dameron."
"Uhh, hi," Ben says as he slowly takes Poe's offered hand. Poe's grip is firm, but not so firm as to be challenging. Regardless, Ben's still relieved when he releases him.
"And your name's Ben, right?" he asks a few heartbeats later.
"Yeah," Ben replies. "Ben Solo, from Ajan Kloss. And this is—"
"Rey Sands, also from Ajan Kloss," Poe says. He holds out his hand towards Rey, holding her gaze as he proceeds to kiss the back of it. Jealousy flares up in Ben like a white-hot flame, his hands clenching into fists at his sides as he fights against the almost overwhelming urge to punch Poe Dameron right in the nose.
"It's nice to meet you, Poe," Rey says, and maybe it's only in Ben's imagination, but he could swear she steps even closer to him as she says it. "Ben and I were just about to start with—"
"Oh, yes, my apologies for keeping you from the stations," he says, and again Ben has to nearly bite his tongue in half trying to keep his mouth shut.
What the hell is going on here?
"Good luck!" Rey calls to Poe's retreating back, turning to Ben as soon as he's out of earshot. "What do you think that was all about?"
"I have no idea," Ben says. "All I know is that Luke mentioned the guy from Yavin 4 about ten times over the course of our lessons yesterday."
"He did?" Rey asks, the crinkle between her eyebrows almost too adorable for words. "I wonder why?"
"Who knows," mutters Ben. "All I know is that for a good part of yesterday, it was like he'd forgotten that I was his actual tribute."
"Hmm," says Rey. "First Maz making nice with a Gamemaker, and now Luke talking up a rival tribute who goes out of his way to introduce himself to us?"
"Something doesn't make sense," agrees Ben. He's still fully aware that they're standing in full view of pretty much everyone in the room, including the Gamemakers, and that Rey has yet to remove her hand from his arm. He clears his throat, giving his arm a light shake. "Um…"
"Oh, yes. Sorry," Rey says, rather sheepishly. "Um… I guess I'll see you at lunch then."
"Sounds good," Ben says. He sucks in a slow, deep breath as Rey steps away, aiming for the edible plants station—which is thankfully in the opposite direction from Poe Dameron—while he heads towards the fire pit, arriving just as the blonde-haired girl who spoke up earlier manages to produce a spark.
"Ah, yes, very good, Kaydel," says the official in charge of the station as the girl beams with pride. "Now, don't forget to lightly blow, all right? We want to encourage the fragile flames, not snuff them out."
"Okay," Kaydel says as she leans down, blowing gently on the tiny spark to encourage its spread across the kindling. She leaps back as a bright orange flame suddenly bursts up from the pile of wood and leaves, letting out a whoop of joy at her achievement.
"Excellent!" exclaims the official, seemingly just as proud of Kaydel as she is of herself. He turns to Ben, gesturing for him to sit down. "Ah, and here comes my next pupil, hoping against hope that he can prove himself equal to your prowess."
"Hello," Kaydel says once Ben's settled in next to her. She holds out her hand, smiling in encouragement when Ben's eyebrows shoot up in surprise. "I'm Kaydel, from Dulathia."
"Ah, hi. I'm Ben, from Ajan Kloss," Ben says, once again very confused as to why in the hell these tributes seem to think this is just some sort of social gathering.
"Oh, yeah," says Kaydel. "No way anyone could've missed you and Rey at the parade. Those sure were nice costumes you guys had."
"Yep, they sure were," Ben says as the station official—whose name is Antilles, based on the patch sewn onto his uniform shirt—snuffs out Kaydel's fire with some sort of device that resembles a long-handled iron spoon. While Antilles swaps out the burnt kindling for fresh branches, Ben chances a glance over at Rey, who's deeply engrossed in a sparring lesson with another official as nearly every single Gamemaker standing on the balcony watches with interest. Protectiveness wells up inside him, even stronger than the jealousy he felt earlier. He can only imagine the horrors those awful people are dreaming up to try and torture Rey.
But they're not going to succeed, not if he has anything to say about it. No matter how many battle droids, monsters, or forced acts of nature that they try and throw at him, Ben is determined to do whatever it takes to keep Rey alive.
He can't allow her to be snuffed out, like Kaydel's fire. The hope that Rey could bring to the galaxy simply has to be allowed to burn freely across it.
And it's up to him to ensure it.
I can’t wait to see what you think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 💖
Chapter 6: Part 6 - End of Book One
A huge thank-you to my wonderful beta ceciliasheplin 💖.
Please be aware that this chapter contains Hunger Games-typical violence and gore.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"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
With this chapter marking the end of a section, I will be taking next week off from posting so I can once again get a bit ahead. I far prefer to have at least one chapter in waiting while posting, and at the moment I don’t have that, so I’ll be taking the next couple of weeks to hopefully get that accomplished. The next chapter will post on Monday, October 5, with new chapters after that posting every Thursday.
As always, I can’t wait to see what you think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 💖
Chapter 7: Part 7 - Interlude
Thank you so much to my awesome beta ceceliasheplin! This story wouldn’t be the same without her! 💖
This part is in Luke’s POV, and serves as a sort of interlude between sections. The next chapter will return to Ben’s POV.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Luke slumps back in his chair, trailing his fingers through the unkempt whiskers sprouting from his chin as he attempts to get his heart to stop racing. Other mentors mill about behind him, some availing themselves of the plentiful food and drink inside the Mentor's Room, while others speak in low voices, offering comfort for tributes killed off all too quickly.
Pretty much par for the course.
Tipping his head back, Luke briefly closes his eyes, drawing in a slow, deep breath. The bloodbath was by far the worst he's ever seen, the battle droids absolutely ruthless as they blasted away tribute after screaming tribute, resulting in more of them being killed—fourteen in all, including Poe and Kaydel's co-tributes—in the opening minutes of the Games than ever before.
He can't help but wonder if it was done on purpose, or if Gamemaker Hux was simply in a particularly bad mood that morning. Luke knows the redheaded Gamemaker is being closely watched, based on Lando's reports, and so must be feeling the pressure to deliver a spectacular show. And while killing off more tributes in the beginning can shorten the overall length of the Games, it also often increases the drama, concentrating the focus on a few specific players rather than those who likely don't have much of a chance of survival.
Anything to prevent a repeat of Luke's Games, considered the least exciting in the entire history of the Empire Games, and the only Games which is not shown during the months leading up to each year's reaping.
Although, 'least exciting' isn't exactly the terminology that Luke would use to describe his Games. More like 'most manipulated'.
The odds were definitely not in Luke's favour when he entered that arena twenty-five years ago as a skinny, scared, sixteen-year-old kid. In fact, following all of his training sessions and the Emperor's ball, he was ranked near the bottom of the twenty-four tribute class, and not even expected to make it past the battle droid bloodbath.
And he would not have if he hadn't raised his hand in a desperate attempt to shield himself from the battle droid preparing to blast him to pieces, and then watched in shock as it suddenly flew backwards.
The broadcast feed was cut about three seconds later, replaced after several hours with doctored footage in which Luke barely appears until it becomes obvious that he is going to win.
Luke wonders how long the Head Gamemaker survived after he was declared victor. He also wonders how often Palpatine reminds Gamemaker Hux that he had better avoid a similar catastrophe, or else.
Honestly, given what happened, Luke is surprised that he's even still alive. His only explanation is that Palpatine must either have a great deal of faith in his ability to manipulate facts, or a complete lack of ability to admit that his supposedly foolproof plan might not have been as foolproof as he thought.
Because if Luke was able to somehow overcome the Emperor's best efforts to suppress any potential Force-sensitivity across the galaxy, who's to say that others couldn't do the same?
Including the two tributes from Ajan Kloss, who for the first time in the history of the Games, both of whom made it past the initial bloodbath and into the arena proper.
And, if everything proceeds as planned, those two tributes just might become the sparks Luke needs to light the fire of rebellion.
Of course, that's a pretty big if, one that Luke knows is way too soon to formally acknowledge. Especially since at the moment, despite the fact that he saved her life from the battle droids, Rey seems to trust Poe Dameron about as far as she could throw him.
Or even less, considering that Luke has already witnessed her tossing people twice her size several times during the training sessions. The boy was right when he said that Rey's not someone most people would want to mess with.
In fact, it's likely the very reason why she was reaped in the first place. Luke has suspected that the reapings have been rigged for some time now, and Adi Coven has made no secret of her belief that Kaydel was reaped because she was known as a troublemaker on Dulathia. Even Kyrick has mentioned similar observations about Poe multiple times, that he was constantly getting into skirmishes with the Stormtroopers on Yavin 4 over their treatment of who they deemed to be the weaker citizens.
But, like most of his suspicions, Luke keeps them to himself, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to himself or his tributes. They're already under too many watchful eyes for Luke's comfort, and at the moment, he would rather focus only on keeping them both alive long enough to actually set the plan into motion.
Unfortunately, too much of that plan now rests on how quickly Poe and Kaydel are able to convince Ben and Rey to trust them. Rey wasn't given much of a choice, seeing as she was only seconds away from being blasted before Poe managed to drag her to safety, but Ben took a bit more convincing, forcing Kaydel to have to reveal more information to him than Luke would have preferred.
"It's an alliance, Solo!" Kaydel said as she dragged Ben out of range of the battle droids' blasters. "I know that might be a foreign concept to you, but you do at least know what it means, don't you?"
It's a testament to Kaydel's determination to see the plan through that she was even able to drag Ben, who's easily twice her size, away in the first place, promising him the entire time that she would help him find Rey as soon as it was possible.
It should be okay. Alliances are common enough in the early days of the Games, especially amongst the Career tributes, and Kaydel knows enough to not say too much out in the open. And with Ben wearing his heart on his sleeve for all to see, it's no surprise that he'll do just about anything to ensure that Rey remains as safe as possible.
Ben's obvious infatuation with Rey—and hers for him—has made them very popular with the citizens of Coruscant. The Games haven't been going for more than thirty minutes or so, and already Luke has been swamped with sponsorship offers, offers he would've had to beg, borrow, and steal for in previous years.
He's also well aware that Palpatine knows that keeping his citizens happy is key to maintaining his control over them, which means the Emperor has likely already informed Hux to leave them alone for as long as possible.
An advantage that Luke will accept, of course, just as he'll accept the gifts from sponsors as the needs arise. He has absolutely no intention of allowing his tributes to fall victim to the horrors he knows are awaiting them. Luke has already watched Ben snatch Kaydel back from a well-hidden Sarlacc pit at the very last second, the confusion in his dark eyes evidence that he has no idea as to how he knew it was there, he just did. And Rey has already shown off her skills with a tree branch, managing to fight off a small herd of Gundarks back-to-back with Poe, the hilt she picked up from the weapons area still attached to her belt, unused.
That's okay. She'll figure out what it is soon enough.
At least, Luke hopes that she will. And Ben as well. With Ben so worried for Rey during the bloodbath, he missed his chance at collecting the silver-coloured hilt sitting a few metres away, forcing Kaydel to take a detour to retrieve it for him before sprinting him off into the woods.
It's ironic that Kaydel's odds of victory immediately dropped afterwards, seeing that most people don't count a hilt as an actual weapon.
Which is just fine, as far as Luke is concerned. Better for their enemies to believe them to be unarmed than for Ben and Rey to reveal themselves too soon.
Patience, he thinks. All will be revealed in its own time.
Sucking in another deep breath, Luke returns his gaze to the viewscreen. Poe and Rey are currently heading diagonally away from the sphere while sticking close to the treeline, which is good. The treeline will offer a good amount of protection as long as they keep aware of their surroundings. Which, given what he's seen of Rey, shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Ben, however, has been a bit more difficult to keep on the course Kaydel has him on, insisting that he's waited long enough and needs to find Rey as soon as possible. Luke supposes he can't be too surprised, given what he's seen of Ben's stubborn streak, and heard from Maz about his father. Maz has told Luke several stories of Han Solo, the smuggler masquerading as a transport pilot, and how he managed to stay alive for years in some deep, hidden Empire prison until the Emperor got tired of waiting for him to give up his contacts. Luke still isn't sure if that meant Han was a part of the fledgling underground Rebellion or not, but he's impressed with his tenacity nonetheless.
And then there's Ben's mother, whom Luke has seen around Ajan Kloss on the few occasions that he's emerged from his house during daylight hours. She reminds him a lot of Rey, with her petite stature and slight figure that masks a determined, fiery spirit, one that Luke would not want to find himself on the wrong side of.
"Why can't you tell me when we'll be able to find Rey?" Luke hears Ben ask as he and Kaydel reach the bank of a small ravine. "We've waited too long, we should've already found her by now!"
"I told you," Kaydel responds, with a lot more patience than Luke expects given how many times Ben's asked the same question. She sits down on the edge of the ravine, refilling the water bottle she managed to find during the bloodbath. "It's not quite time to meet up with them yet. You'll just have to trust me."
"But what if she's hurt!" Ben exclaims, raking his long fingers through his hair. "She could be lying injured anywhere in this forest right now, and we wouldn't know!"
"I highly doubt that Rey's hurt," says Kaydel. She offers the water bottle to Ben, who accepts it reluctantly. "She kicked everyone's ass during the training sessions, right?"
"Well… yeah," Ben admits. "But what we're facing out here isn't exactly the same kind of thing as we faced in training."
No," Kaydel says. "And that's kinda the point, don't you think?"
Ben shoots her a sharp look, which she ignores as she gets back to her feet. "We should—" she starts, pausing as she notices Ben freeze in place and his eyes roll upwards, as if he's listening to something.
"Okay, but are you sure!" he asks a few seconds later, and he's certainly not speaking to Kaydel, who glances up at the sky—ceiling in confusion. "Cause I don't like you being out here without—all right, all right. I can wait. Just… be careful. Please?"
Upon hearing an answer that manages to placate him for the time being, Ben turns back to Kaydel, narrowing his eyes at her.
"What?" he asks, rather petulantly.
"Oh, I'm just wondering if you're finally done with your conversation with the treetops," Kaydel says. "So we can keep moving."
Ben scowls, his eyes narrowing ominously. "I wasn't talking to the treetops, I was just—" He cuts off just in time, and Luke releases the breath he's been holding. Luke's not ready for their bond to be common knowledge yet. He tried to indirectly explain that to Ben while he was getting ready before the Games, warning him that most of the galaxy would be able to see his every move and hear his every word, but he's not surprised that Ben didn't quite get the hint. His singular focus on Rey has left him little room for thoughts of self-preservation.
It doesn't help that Luke's not entirely sure if their bond is what he believes it to be, which is something so rare that he's only heard echoes of whispers of it, or simply just a strong connection between two lovers.
Regardless of the nature of their bond, Luke's never before seen such a love, one so intense that he can feel it, deep inside his very bones. The boy's feelings were obvious from the moment he stepped onto the stage, his mind broadcasting anger, fear, and intense devotion so loudly that Luke feared even the Governor would sense it. And while Rey may be better at outwardly shielding her feelings, no doubt a skill she learned while living in the Community Home, from what Luke has seen and felt, hers are just as intense as Ben's.
In a way, their feelings for each other complicates things, making it more difficult for Luke to decipher what's what. For one, Luke's still not used to his own ability to manipulate the Force, especially when it's supposed to be impossible for anyone to do so. And two, given the apparent strength of Ben and Rey's abilities, bond or not, Luke highly doubts that the Emperor hasn't already sensed traces from them.
Which means they are going to have to tread very, very carefully if they're going to have any chance of pulling this off. They've done well with accumulating the various players, with some embedded deep within the Emperor's own ranks. But there still remains so much unpredictability, and so many things that have to fall into line, and it makes Luke very, very nervous.
In spite of his vow to never grow attached to his tributes, Ben and Rey have both managed to slog their way across the vast moat guarding his heart, and burrowed their way deep inside. And now, he's honestly not sure what he'll do if one of them doesn't make it out.
Attachment seems to be the curse of the Skywalkers. It's what led to his father's arrest and eventual death, following years of unimaginable torture. Anakin Skywalker was one of the strongest Force-sensitive people the galaxy had ever seen, and as such, the perfect target for Palpatine's schemes. But while Anakin was strong in the Force, he also possessed a singular weakness, one that would eventually prove to be not only his undoing, but that of the entire Jedi Order and all of the potentially Force-sensitive beings yet to come.
Despite the Jedi Code that expressly forbid attachment, Anakin fell in love and was secretly married. His wife, Padme, first a Queen and then a Senator from Naboo, eventually became pregnant, forcing Anakin to seek ways to ensure his wife and unborn child's safety during the bitter Clone Wars conflict. As the conflict raged on with no end in sight, Anakin grew more and more desperate, to the point where Palpatine was able to sense the truth about him.
And then, despite the growing mountain of evidence that Palpatine could not be trusted, Anakin turned to him for help, begging him for a way to ensure that his beloved wife would survive her impending childbirth.
Little did Anakin realise that through that single act of desperation, he had presented Palpatine with the very opportunity he needed to wipe out the Jedi completely.
The details are still a bit sketchy in Luke's mind, as it's not been easy to source out records of what happened following his father's arrest. All that Luke knows for certain is that by the time Palpatine was done poisoning Anakin with the X-C33 truth serum, he barely resembled the tall, strong man he had once been, and that Palpatine had in his possession the ability to prevent any potentially Force-sensitive person from expressing that sensitivity.
Palpatine started with the younglings first, using a holocron he acquired from the destroyed Jedi Temple to read a crystal that listed the whereabouts of every Force-sensitive child in the galaxy. Once they were all located and destroyed, he began the distribution of a vaccine, designed to suppress a person's ability to sense the Force.
It should have been a foolproof plan, and it would have been if not for two very important details. One, the crystal halted its gathering of data the very moment it came into Palpatine's possession, allowing Luke, who had only been born only a couple weeks prior and immediately whisked into hiding following his mother's death, to slip right through the Emperor's fingers.
And two, either the vaccine has developed flaws in the years since its initial production, or its effects eventually wear off. Ben and Rey are both proof of this, and Luke suspects that they aren't the only ones.
In fact, he hopes they aren't the only ones.
The viewscreen shifts then, displaying Poe and Rey as they continue on their path. So far they've managed to find some edible berries, stuffing a few handfuls into the pockets of their tunics after eating their fill, and passed by a small river where they were able to quench their thirst. Without possessing a container to carry water, Luke suspects they will follow the river for a while, until the time comes for them to meet up with Ben and Kaydel.
It's what he would do.
"So, how're they looking so far?" Kyrick Celise suddenly asks, startling Luke as he returns from a meeting with a potential sponsor. He looms over Luke's shoulder, giving an appreciative nod as he sees Poe and Rey's location. "Seems like they're doing okay?"
"Yes, so far," Luke answers. "They're actually working pretty well together."
Kyrick shrugs as he takes his seat next to Luke, crossing his legs, the left of which sports a prosthesis from the knee down, courtesy of a particularly brutal bite from a Gundark during the twenty-eighth Games. "Well, I did warn you that Poe can be a bit of a charmer."
"Yes, you did," Luke says with a hint of a smile. "I only wish he'd been charming enough for both of yours."
Kyrick's face falls, and he takes a large sip from his glass of the sparkling strawberry drink, smacking his lips. It's a rare occasion during the Games when Kyrick doesn't have a glass in his hand, and he's not the only one.
All victors have their coping mechanisms, it's often the only way they're able to sleep at night. If one can call the nightmare-filled dozing that tends to fill Luke's nights—or days, rather, since he far prefers to sleep during the day—actual sleep.
"No," Kyrick agrees. "Unfortunately, not quite charming enough. It's so sad how much fear is able to permeate into our very being, and how easily it can control us."
"Yes, it is," Luke says, nodding in agreement. Kyrick was devastated when he found out that Poe's attempts to convince his co-tribute to agree to their plan had fallen short, and that she refused out of fear. Luke can understand it. Going into the Games is terrifying, which is why he, Kyrick, Adi, and the rest of their conspirators are currently risking everything to ensure that it won't happen again. They've had the skeleton plans in place for years, ever since Luke came to realise that his Force-sensitivity wasn't just an odd fluke, and that somewhere, somehow, the Emperor had made a mistake.
He just hopes that the odds remain in their favour. Because if they don't, if things don't go as planned and Ben and Rey are killed, or even worse, if their bond is discovered, Luke shudders to think about the possible ramifications that await them.
"Try not to think about it too much, Luke," Kyrick says softly. "Otherwise, it'll just eat you alive."
Luke gives a nod, tossing Kyrick a sympathetic look. "Yes, I know. It's just… not fair."
"No, it's not," agrees Kyrick. "But unfortunately, they're all that we've got. It's now or never."
"Yes," Luke murmurs. "Yes, I know."
It isn't fair to place the weight of the entire galaxy on the shoulders of such young people.
But at the moment, Ben and Rey are the galaxy's only hope, and hope, no matter how young or how fragile, must be allowed to survive.
I appreciate your patience with the delay in posting this chapter! From now on, I will be posting new chapters on Thursdays, beginning on Thursday, October 15th 😊.
I’m always eager to hear what you think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 💖
Chapter 8: Part 8
Thank you so much to the Reylo Hidden Gems twitter account for featuring my fic! The moodboard you guys created for me is just beautiful!
And also a huge thank-you to ceceliasheplin for being such an incredible beta! 💖
It’s also my birthday today, woohoo! 🎉
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ben rakes his fingers through his hair as he follows Kaydel through the dense forest, ducking to avoid yet another low-lying tree branch and trying to concentrate on his foot placement so as to keep from slipping on the damp leaves. Having grown up on a jungle planet, or rather, moon, Ben's not used to the somewhat sturdier ground of a forest, and that combined with the heavy load of berries, edible leaves and roots, and the weird silver-coloured hilt that Kaydel insisted he keep stuffed in his pockets, the arches of his feet and his shins are already screaming for mercy despite his fancy Empire footwear.
But since Kaydel seems to be okay so far, Ben says nothing as they continue on. The last thing he wants is to appear even weaker in front of her than he already has, just in case she ends up trying to stab him in the back with the fancy dagger currently hooked to her belt. It's bad enough that he can't seem to go five minutes without asking her when they're going to find Rey, something that Kaydel has pointed out on multiple occasions.
He's also wondered more than once about why she chose him, of all people, as an ally, and why she's insisted that he hold onto the seemingly useless hilt when he wanted to toss it aside. The thing's supposed to be one of the retractable staff weapons that they practised with during their training days, but it's either broken or it requires some other unusual way of activating it, because so far Ben hasn't been able to figure out how to get the dumb thing to work.
He at least knows that Rey is still alive, and relatively unharmed, based on what she's told him. Having given up on trying to figure out exactly how he and Rey are able to communicate so easily across such vast distances, Ben is only grateful for it now. With how worried he is about her, he can't imagine how mad with fear he would be if she wasn't able to constantly reassure him that she's okay.
What he can't seem to avoid projecting, however, is his raging, abject jealousy that Rey is currently paired up with Mr Slick himself, Poe Dameron, and not him.
"Ben," he suddenly hears inside his mind. "We've already discussed this."
"Well, I don't care. I don't want him with you. I should be with you, not him."
"He saved my life during the battle droids, remember?"
Ben huffs, shaking his head. "That's because you didn't run away, like I asked you to do."
"I wasn't going to run away like a frightened little girl, Ben. How would that have looked?"
"I know that. I just…" Ben rolls his eyes, gritting his teeth as he tries to figure out how to respond. Rey's stubbornness and tenacity are two of the traits that he absolutely adores about her. But he's also realised in the half-day or so that they've been in the arena that those very same traits are also quite annoying when they're directed at him.
"I should be protecting you. That's why I'm—" He breaks off with a choked gasp, one loud enough to cause Kaydel to glance back at him in concern.
"You okay?" she asks. "Need some more water or something?"
"No," Ben says shortly, mentally kicking himself for being so transparent. "No, just… clearing my throat."
"Ah huh," Kaydel says warily. She doesn't press the matter, though, and quickly turns her attention back to their path, which, if Ben is reading the terrain correctly, is leading them due east of the sphere, a direction that should have them meeting up with Rey and Poe hopefully within the next few hours.
"Ben?" he hears a few moments later, gentle and tentative. "You never finished your sentence."
"What?" he asks, trying to play dumb. "What're you talking about?"
"I think you know what I mean," Rey says. A short pause follows, one that causes Ben's heart to skip a beat or three. "Did you volunteer as tribute because of me?"
Without warning, Ben's eyes fill with tears, clouding his vision enough to cause him to walk directly into a vine dangling down between two trees, one that suddenly leaps forward as if his touch somehow brought it to life. Before he even realises what is happening, the vine wraps itself around his neck and yanks him backwards, his heels dragging in the dirt.
"Blast it!" he gasps as he slaps at the vine, trying to curl his fingers around it without success. His belly swoops in fear as he's suddenly lifted from the ground, the vine pressing further into the soft flesh of his neck as he instinctively kicks his legs, trying to keep the worst of the pressure off of his throat.
"Help!" he squawks as the vine carries him higher and higher until he's at least three metres up from the ground. Peeling one hand away from his throat, he fumbles with the pockets of his tunic, trying to find the stupid staff hilt. Berries and leaves sprinkle to the ground beneath him as he digs his hand inside, letting out a muffled curse when he realises that he's not even searching the correct pocket.
"Kaydel, help!" he attempts to yell, his words nothing more than a sort of creepy-sounding hiss as the vine tightens even more, pressing directly against his windpipe. His lungs are so tight they feel like they're going to burst out of his chest, and his vision is already starting to fade, with shiny little dots replacing the outline of the trees and the false sky. "Please, don't let me—!"
Don't let me die now! Not like this!
Not without saying goodbye to her first!
He's only vaguely aware of Rey's panicked voice screaming inside his head as his eyelids flutter closed, slamming back open again as he hears a strange thunk noise and suddenly drops like a rock, landing awkwardly onto the not-so-spongy ground. He immediately hisses in pain, grabbing onto his left ankle as he crumples into a heap, choking and coughing as he tries to catch his breath.
"Ben!" he hears Rey cry. "Ben, are you all right?"
"Yes," Ben wheezes, still curled into a tight ball. "Yes, I think—I think so."
"Oh, thank the Maker! That was—don't scare me like that!"
"I'm sorry, sweetheart," Ben whispers. "I didn't mean to."
"Well," Kaydel says once he's finally able to raise his head, swiping the tears from his eyes and cheeks. "I'm sure everyone on Coruscant enjoyed that little spectacle."
"Oh, shut up!" Ben snaps, turning away as fresh tears well in his eyes. Despite what he's told Rey, his ankle is throbbing with every rapid beat of his heart, and he's certain that his cheeks are as red as the blood-red rose centrepieces at the Emperor's ball. Not exactly the picture of a mighty protector.
"How was I supposed to know that that vine wasn't real?"
"Well, you probably weren't," answers Kaydel, so matter-of-factly that Ben hand curls into a fist. "But if you would've been paying attention to your surroundings instead of mumbling to yourself, again, then maybe you would've seen that it was a slightly different colour than the rest of the tree, and therefore yet another Empire trap."
"Mmm," Ben grumbles. "I wasn't mumbling to myself."
"Okay, so you were mumbling to the dirt, or the trees, or to your fucking boots for all I care," says Kaydel. "You still were not paying attention to your surroundings."
Ben sucks in a deep breath, cringing at the burning pain in his throat as he shoots Kaydel a scowl. For someone who looks like she could be some kind of fairy princess with her blonde hair and petite frame, Kaydel has already proven multiple times that she is not someone you would ever want as an enemy.
"Point made," he says.
"Good," Kaydel replies as she hands Ben their water bottle. "And you're welcome, by the way."
Ben gives a nod as he takes a tentative sip of the water, fighting the strong urge to choke it right back up again. "Now we're even."
Kaydel narrows her eyes as she reaches for the water bottle, stowing it back into her pocket. "Yeah. I guess we are." She glances up at the tree off to Ben's left, where the blade of her knife is embedded into the trunk about five metres up, directly through the vine that was trying its best to kill Ben.
"Don't suppose you could reach that for me, hmm?" she asks.
Grunting, Ben pulls himself up to his feet, immediately crying out in pain as his left ankle adamantly refuses to accept any of his weight.
"Shit!" he yells as he tries again, nearly face planting into a pile of leaves. "I don't—I don't think I can. My ankle… I think I must've landed on it weird when I fell."
"Yeah, I thought I heard a pretty loud popping noise when you came down," Kaydel says, not without a hint of sympathy. She bites down on her bottom lip as she rummages around the roots of another tree, pulling out two smaller sticks and a short length of vine. "Let's see if this helps, hmm? I don't think we should stick around here for too much longer."
"Yeah, okay," Ben says. Clenching his jaw, he straightens out his left leg, pursing his lips to keep from crying out as Kaydel arranges the two sticks on either side of his boot and ties them tightly with the vine.
"There," she says once she's done. "That'll hopefully stabilise it enough for you to be able to move."
"Yeah," Ben agrees. "Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Kaydel says as she stands back up, brushing dirt from her knees. She glances up at the sky, squinting as she studies the position of the sun. "I think it's gonna be dark in the next hour or so, so we should probably find a good place to camp for the night."
Ben's head snaps up in surprise, only aggravating the burning in his throat. "What?" he croaks. "But I thought you said we'd be able to meet up with Rey soon!"
"Well, that was before you managed to mess up your ankle and get yourself nearly hanged," Kaydel retorts. "And since I have no control over the days and nights in this place, I'm telling you now that we should find a good place to settle in for the night, and then hopefully tomorrow you'll be well enough to continue on. We do not want to be out here wandering around in the dark. It's too dangerous."
She has a point. The Games are required viewing in Coruscant and on the twelve participating planets, but even the Emperor knows that the citizens have to sleep every now and then if they're to keep on working. Nights during the Games can range anywhere from ninety minutes or so to six or eight hours, depending on the type of arena and how many tributes are left. Given the fact that there's only nine tributes remaining—ten went down during the bloodbath, with the eleventh death, the male tribute from Scarif, occurring only a couple of hours later—it's likely that there will be a slightly longer initial break time.
Can't kill off all the tributes too fast. That wouldn't be nearly enough entertainment for the Emperor's loyal citizens.
"All right," Ben reluctantly says. "But we probably shouldn't both sleep at the same time, just in case."
Kaydel's eyebrows knit together. "Well… duh," she says, offering her hand towards Ben. He takes it, gritting his teeth as she pulls him slowly up to his feet. Gingerly, he tests his ankle. It's still throbbing, sending bolts of searing pain up his calf with the slightest movement, but the makeshift split seems to have stabilised it enough for it to at least tolerate a small amount of his weight.
"Here," Kaydel says as she hands him a thick stick that comes up to his shoulders. "Use this for balance, okay? And watch my feet. Step only where I step. Got it?"
"Got it," Ben says with a nod. His throat still feels like he's just guzzled a bucketful of sand, but at least he can breathe normally again.
After retrieving Kaydel's knife, they continue on, managing to reach a small, slightly elevated clearing by the time the last of the sunlight has disappeared. Kaydel arranges a pile of leaves for Ben to prop up his leg, then hands him the dagger, eyeing him warily.
"I'm gonna go see if I can find something for us to eat, so why don't you see if you can get a fire going," she says. "We can't let it burn too long or we might attract someone, or something, but I know I'll sleep better if I can eat something hot first."
"Yeah, okay," Ben says. He feels like an idiot, unable to help with much of anything, and once again wonders why Kaydel is insisting on teaming up with him when she's stuck doing most of the work.
It doesn't make any sense, but he doesn't dare question it. Not out loud, at least. Luke's final warning to him right before he entered the transport tube into the arena was to never forget that he's constantly being watched.
"The entire galaxy will be able to see and hear everything that you do and say, Ben," Luke said. "So you have to be very, very careful."
And then, the very last thing, right before he disappeared from Ben's view.
"Remember who the real enemy is."
Six words, repeated by Poe Dameron, the Gamemaker Lando Calrissian, and his very own mentor.
Like Rey said, it can't be just a coincidence. It just can't.
But what it means, exactly, Ben still has no idea. All he knows for certain is that Rey is not his enemy—which makes sense—and apparently neither is Kaydel—which doesn't, but since no one asked Ben for his opinion, at the moment he's just going to have to leave it at that.
And now, all he can do is wait. Wait and curse his own stupidity at allowing himself to become so distracted that he nearly got himself killed.
Some protector I am.
Thankfully, the area Kaydel chose for their camp is surrounded by dry sticks and leaves, and it doesn't take long for Ben to get a small fire going. After warming up his hands for a few minutes, he tips his head back against the tree trunk, his eyes fluttering closed as Rey's sweet voice once again fills his mind.
"Have you two stopped for the night?" she asks.
"Yes. Kaydel said it wouldn't be a good idea to try to navigate while it's dark."
"Poe said the same thing," Rey says. "That's good. It'll give you some time to heal."
Ben scowls, eyeing his splinted ankle like it has personally insulted him. Which it has, to a point.
"So… did you volunteer as tribute because of me?" she asks after a short pause, her tone insinuating that she already knows the answer.
"Yes," Ben responds reluctantly. There's really no point in him denying her the truth. It's not like it's going to change anything.
"Why?" she asks.
Ben huffs out a sharp breath, fiddling with the end of his walking stick. "You know why."
A sharp stab of pain hits him directly in the heart, causing him to gasp.
"Rey, are you—?"
"It almost broke my heart, Ben," she cuts in. "For a moment, I feared I was going to have to kill you, and I couldn't imagine how I could do that. And I tried—I tried to push those feelings away, but then I couldn't, and now… I don't know how—I don't—"
"Sweetheart, it's okay," Ben says. "The only thing that matters is that you get out of here alive."
"No it's not okay," Rey says firmly. "And I don't want to hear anymore talk like that. We're going to figure something out."
"How?" demands Ben. "Rey, there's no point in trying to figure anything out. There can only be one victor, and it's going to be you."
"Well, we're just going to have to see about that," she snaps back. "But it doesn't do any good to argue about it right now. You need to save your strength."
"Oh, and the how you don't?" Ben asks. "You're the one who had to fight off an entire herd of Gundarks!" Ben lets out a frustrated sigh, wincing as another blast of pain shoots up his leg. "Look, this isn't getting us anywhere. Just try and get some rest now, okay? Promise me?"
"Only if you promise the same," Rey says. "And I mean it."
"All right," he says. "I promise. I just wish that I could hold you again."
"Me too. Goodnight, Ben."
The warmth of the fire combined with the knowledge that Rey is relatively safe for the moment is able to relax Ben enough that by the time Kaydel returns with two young womprats hanging from her belt, he's nearly dozed off. The thought of something to eat that's not berries or leaves rouses him quickly, though, and soon enough the smell of roasting meat fills the air, making Ben's stomach growl and his mouth water. He and Kaydel make polite small talk as they both eat their fill, burying the bones afterwards to avoid attracting predators.
"I can take first watch, if you want," Kaydel says once she's extinguished their fire, still licking grease from her fingers. "I'm feeling pretty good now, all things considering."
"Yeah, okay," Ben says. He's feeling a lot better after eating as well, but more rest can't hurt. It would be nice if he were able to leave behind his walking stick in the morning.
"I'll wake you in three hours, okay?" Kaydel says as Ben curls onto his side, covering his upper body with a thick layer of leaves.
"Sounds good." And surprisingly, almost as soon as his head touches the ground, he's out. His sleep is hard, almost as peaceful as when he and Rey spent the night together, and he's still deeply asleep when Kaydel shakes him awake.
"My turn," she says as Ben rubs his eyes, stifling a yawn. He grunts out a response, shifting so he's leaning up against the tree as Kaydel lies down. She, too, is able to fall asleep quickly, leaving him alone in the darkness with his thoughts.
Digging into his tunic pocket, Ben nibbles on a few berries as his eyes adjust, trying to get used to the various shadows and sounds here in the forest. Growing up in a jungle, Ben is used to almost-constant noise. Between the chirps and hisses of the various animals and insects and the swoosh of the dangling tree branches whenever the breeze decides to blow, there's never a completely silent moment on Ajan Kloss, and especially at night.
Nor is there here. But seeing as the sounds are just different enough to be unnerving, Ben finds himself starting to tense up. A shiver races down his spine as he hears a soft rustling noise off to his right, followed quickly by another similar sound to his left. Nothing more comes from them, at least not that Ben can see, but it's still enough for him to sit up a bit straighter so he can pay closer attention to his surroundings.
Popping another berry into his mouth, Ben scans the area again, finding nothing of concern as the sounds fade into oblivion. He sucks in a deep breath, trying to relax his shoulders as his thoughts quickly turn to Rey. Based on what he can sense of her, she's sleeping peacefully, or at least as peacefully as she can given their circumstances. She and Poe are camping by a river that they discovered earlier, one they've been following since they don't currently have a bottle or any other way to carry water with them. Ben briefly wonders why Luke can't simply send them a container, but quickly tries to push those thoughts away. Luke may be a bit distant and cold, but Ben has no doubt that he's fond of Rey, and wouldn't allow her to suffer for too long without offering assistance.
Just like he hopes that Luke wouldn't allow Ben to suffer with his twisted ankle if he felt there was something more he could do for him. That alone is enough to reassure him that his ankle isn't as badly damaged as he initially thought.
The minutes pass slowly, but thankfully remain uneventful, and after an hour or so Ben finds himself starting to doze off. He snaps his head up, shifting slightly so that a pointy root he's been trying to avoid starts to poke him in his lower back, hoping the constant irritation will be enough to keep him awake. Three hours of sleep on the dirt floor of a forest can't possibly compare to his luxurious bed back in the Tribute Centre penthouse, and even less so to the night that he and Rey spent in her bed, wrapped in each other's arms.
If he closes his eyes and breathes in slowly enough, Ben can still feel Rey's breath on his neck, still feel her small hand on his chest, and smell the hint of lavender in her beautiful, silky hair.
And what he wouldn't give to experience it again.
Despite his best efforts, Ben's eyelids eventually grow too heavy for him to keep open, and he finds himself in a kind of a semi-doze. Images fill his mind, that of a sharp edged room painted in black and dark grey, with floor-to-ceiling windows filled with blinking stars and long, flashing lights of blue, gold, and red. The lights make a sort of odd thrumming sound as they move through the air, a sound that crackles like electricity whenever they clash together, the blue and gold fighting together against the red.
"Interesting. Very, very interesting," a voice suddenly says, stretching the words out so they almost sound sinister. It's a male voice, one that sounds eerily familiar, but not quite familiar enough for Ben to place.
"What's interesting?" Ben hears himself say. "Who are you?"
"Someone who's very curious about you, my boy. Very curious indeed."
"Why?" Ben demands. "What's so special about me?"
"Oh, you have no idea," the man says, followed by a throaty, cackling laugh that causes goosebumps to pebble down Ben's arms. He jerks awake with a gasp, panting for breath and shivering from the cold sweat that's broken across his forehead. The faintest hints of light are starting to appear through the distant tree trunks, and about a metre away Kaydel is just starting to stir. Ben purses his lips, pressing his hands over his ears as he draws in a slowly, shaky breath.
That laugh… it was like a live wire scraping across Ben's skin, igniting every single one of his nerve endings. Why can't he place it?
"You okay?" Kaydel suddenly says, startling Ben enough that she bolts upright. "Ben? Are you okay?"
"What?" Ben says as he swipes his sleeve across his forehead and nose, willing his heart to stop pounding. "Yeah. I'm fine. Why?"
"Maybe 'cause you look like you've seen a ghost?" says Kaydel. Her eyebrows knit together as she tilts her head. "And 'cause you're even paler than a ghost? Which for you isn't really all that difficult, but—"
"Oh, like you're so much better?" Ben snaps. "You're just as pale as I am."
Kaydel smirks, reaching into her pocket for the water bottle. "Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure I've never been the colour of melted candle wax, but hey, what do I know?" She glances down at Ben's wrapped ankle, quirking an eyebrow. "Have you tried taking any steps yet?"
"No, not yet," Ben says. "I was just about to."
"Well, go on then," Kaydel says as she practically jumps to her feet, digging into another pocket for one of her leaves. She shoves one into her mouth as Ben slowly pulls himself up to his feet, gingerly placing his left boot flat on the ground. He grits his teeth as he shifts his weight into his ankle, breathing out a small sigh of relief. The pain is still there, but it's significantly less than the night before, so at least he'll be able to walk somewhat normally.
"Seems better," he says. "Good enough to walk on, at least."
"Well, good," says Kaydel. "'Cause as much as I'd like to stick around here, we probably can't."
"We need to find Rey," Ben says firmly. "As soon as possible."
"Yeah, yeah, so I've heard," Kaydel grumbles as she pops another leaf into her mouth. "Should be soon, okay?"
Despite Kaydel's initial grumpiness, they fall into a rather easy conversation as they hike. Their pace is a bit slower than the day before due to Ben's ankle, but still steady enough to keep his anxiousness down to a dull roar. Kaydel tells him all about Dulathia, and her work as a teacher's assistant for the preschool-aged children, a job that required her to complete her own studies before and after the regular school hours. She lived there with her father, a lumberjack, after her mother was killed in a chainsaw accident at the woodworking factory where she worked. Kaydel was only three when her mother died, the same age as Ben when they took his father away.
Kaydel also tells him about her co-tribute, a boy named Tym Keteris. He was fourteen, and only lasted about fifteen seconds during the bloodbath before being torn apart by the battle droid blaster fire. Ben feels a sharp twinge of guilt as she talks about how he always dreamed of becoming a music teacher, a profession not sanctioned to regular citizens under Emperor Palpatine's rule. Kaydel made a beeline for Ben almost as soon as the horn sounded, shielding him from the blaster fire and shoving the hilt into his hand before he even knew what was happening, and he still doesn't understand why she chose to do that for him when she could've used that energy to save her own co-tribute instead.
It also helps to explain how Kaydel is so comfortable in the forest arena, since it's so similar to her own planet.
They've hiked for at least a couple of hours when a sudden blast of pure fear hits Ben so hard in the chest that he stumbles backwards, barely able to catch himself before he tips over.
"Rey!" he gasps as he presses his palm to his chest. His breath gets stuck in his throat as Rey's terror washes over him like a wave, stealing all the air from his lungs.
"Rey!" he tries again. "Sweetheart, are you all right?"
But before he can even finish his sentence, he hears Rey scream, both in his mind and from some distance away. Barely a second later he hears the voice of Poe Dameron, yelling for Rey to get behind him just before the forest is shook with the sound of a massive impact, followed immediately by blaster fire.
"It's Rey!" he cries as Kaydel comes to a halt in front of him, attempting to discern the direction the screams are coming from. "Do you hear that? We've got to help her!"
"I'm pretty sure you'd have to be deaf not to hear it!" retorts Kaydel. "Just give me a second!"
"Ah!" Ben cries as another stab of fear pierces his heart, nearly causing him to double over just as the blaster fire ramps up its intensity. Rey is absolutely terrified, and he's nowhere near her.
"Rey!" he yells inside his head. "Sweetheart, where are you? Tell me where you are!"
"Ben, no! Please, don't—!"
But Ben has absolutely no intention of just standing by while Rey's in trouble. "Please! We need to help Rey now!" he yells at Kaydel. "We can't let her die!"
"Yes, I know that!" Kaydel says. She points off to their southeast, cringing as Poe cries out in pain. "C'mon, they're this way!"
Ben's heart is in his throat as they scramble their way over the uneven terrain of the forest, with every single one of Rey's terrified shrieks stabbing him like a knife.
"Hang on, sweetheart! I'm on my way!"
"Ben! Please—this is—they're everywhere—I can't—"
"Rey, it's okay! We're almost there, just—"
He cuts off as yet another sound reaches his ears just as he and Kaydel arrive on the top of a small incline. Rey and Poe are about twenty or so metres away, fighting against what appears to be an entire squadron of Destroyers. Ben's heart plummets to his knees as he sees Poe attempting to fire his blaster at the lead droid, his shots bouncing harmlessly off the Destroyer's force shield.
"This isn't working!" Poe yells, ducking to avoid a too-close shot from another Destroyer. "Rey, use your sword!"
"What?" Rey asks as she rolls to the side, just in time for another droid's shot to singe the edge of her tunic. "What sword?"
"The sword!" Poe cries, gesturing in her direction. "On your belt! Use it!"
She has a sword? Ben thinks as he takes a step towards her, startled when Kaydel's fingers close around his arm just as Rey begins fumbling with something attached to the belt of her tunic.
"Wait!" Kaydel says, her eyes wide with fear. "Ben, those are Destroyers! We don't stand a chance if we—"
Suddenly, Rey pulls out a silver-coloured hilt, one that looks so similar to the thing that Ben's been lugging around since the bloodbath that his mouth drops open. She presses a button near the top, jumping back in shock as a shimmery golden blade suddenly erupts from the hilt, the sound of it the exact same as he heard in his dream.
"What—what is that?" he rasps to Kaydel.
"That's the Starbird's weapon," Kaydel says, her jaw tightly clenched as she looks back at him. "And you've got one too."
"What?" Ben says as he pulls the hilt from his pocket, turning it over in his hands as Rey swings her blade, taking out a Destroyer just as it reaches her side. "This?"
"Yes, that," Kaydel shoots back. "Now, get down there and use it."
I can’t wait to see what you guys think! Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! 💖
Chapter 9: Part 9
A huge shout-out to my awesome beta ceceliasheplin. This story wouldn’t be the same without her! 💖
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Rey!" Poe screams as she twirls around, taking out a Destroyer with her shimmering sword just as it attempts to roll closer to her. Sparks fly from its metallic body as it tips to the side, which then ignites the force shield around the droid right next to it. The second the shield flickers off, Poe jabs it with a long stick, letting out a loud whoop of delight as it too explodes into a shower of sparks.
"They're still coming!" Rey yells as she alters her grip on the sword, stabbing a third Destroyer right through its shield and slicing off its front legs. Behind her, Poe leaps from his slightly elevated position just in time to avoid yet another blaster shot, landing directly in front of her.
"Ya think? We've gotta get out of here!" cries Poe as he frantically whips his head around, looking for any possible escape route. Rey nods, swinging her sword at another of the lethal droids just in time to block its blaster shot, smiling briefly in satisfaction as the shot ricochets back into the droids own force shield, causing it to deactivate. Rey's upper lip curls into a smirk as the Destroyer whirrs in discontent, tipping over onto the forest floor.
While she's still very confused as to what exactly her sword-like weapon is, and how it works, Rey can't deny that she feels very comfortable wielding it. Her jabs and parries have come so naturally that it almost feels like the weapon is an extension of her arm, obeying her every command in its desperation to keep her alive.
"Rey!" she hears Ben call inside her mind as the killer droids continue to advance, as frightened as she's ever heard him. "Rey, sweetheart, tell me where you are?"
"I don't—I don't know!" Rey mutters under her breath as she blocks a series of blasts from yet another Destroyer. "This entire place looks nearly the same, and I can't—I can't—"
Just then she senses that Ben is near, watching down at her. She chances a glance up to her right, her heart giving a flutter as she notices him and the girl from Dulathia, Kaydel, at the top of a nearby incline.
"Ben!" she cries. "We're—we're trying, but there's so many of them—there's just too many—"
"It's all right, sweetheart. I'm here," Ben says into her mind as Kaydel gestures madly towards Ben's tunic pockets. He reaches inside, pulling out a hilt that looks remarkably similar to the sword Rey is wielding. "How do you turn these things on—?"
He jumps slightly as his sword ignites, the light blue blade shimmering as he waves it around, making the same warbling noise as her own golden blade.
"I guess just like that," Ben says as he rushes towards her, his sword swinging wildly. Rey sucks in a deep breath once he's next to her, planting her feet onto the ground as she and Ben turn back-to-back, preparing to take on the rest of the Destroyers.
Because they can't just keep coming forever. Right? Surely the Gamemakers wouldn't do something like that.
Besides. Rey has a strong feeling that she and Ben are currently making Empire Games history at the moment, and she highly doubts that the Emperor would dare deprive his loyal citizens the opportunity to witness history as it unfolds.
"Stay right there, sweetheart," Ben says firmly, gripping his sword with white knuckles. Rey nods, raising her sword as Ben swings his blade at an oncoming Destroyer, slicing the top of its domed body clean off. Rey's not at all surprised that Ben seems to have mastered his odd sword with just a couple of swings, but what does surprise her is what she's sensing from him. There's pain, likely from his fall earlier, which she can understand. But the pure, abject rage that's emanating from him like a broadcast beacon is so powerful that it causes her to gasp as she feels its full force hit her. While she certainly doesn't consider herself to be an expert on Ben's inner feelings, in all of their recent time together she's never known him to be capable of such intense anger, and for a moment, it startles her enough that she's thrown off her aim.
"Ben!" she says, her heart jumping as he takes out another Destroyer. "Ben, are you all right?"
"You're kidding, right?" Ben says through clenched teeth as he stabs another droid right through its centre. "I think we have more important things to worry about at the moment!"
"Yes, that's true, but…" Rey trails off as she jumps to avoid another droid blast, twisting sideways. It has to be the pain. Ben isn't the type to like to admit when he's in pain, she noticed that during their training sessions, and he was nearly choked to death yesterday. While he didn't explain all of the circumstances surrounding that incident to Rey, she was able to discern enough for herself that Ben was quite embarrassed by it because he felt like it made him look weak.
Or at least, it made him look weak in front of her.
"Ben, look out!" she hears Poe cry, managing to alert Ben just before he would've taken a blaster shot right through his shoulder. Rey gasps as Ben twirls the sword once around his hand before shoving it clear through the droid's dome, his lips curling into a snarl of satisfaction as he withdraws it.
"We're almost there, Rey," he says as she takes out another Destroyer's legs. "There's only a few left."
"Yes, only a few," she replies. Ducking below another blaster shot, Rey sweeps her leg, managing to catch one of the Destroyers as it attempts to roll forwards and chops it in half with her sword. Ben pauses for a split-second as she stands back to her feet, holding his sword in a defensive stance just as the final Destroyer launches a blaster shot aimed directly at his head.
It happens as if in slow motion. With her eyes wide and a silent scream on her lips, Rey watches as Ben turns his head just in time to see the blaster shot approaching. A solid wall of fear slams into her body as she attempts to call out to him, to warn him that he's about to die, when suddenly, he bends backwards, his knees bent and his palms hovering just above the spongy forest floor, as if they're somehow suspended in the air.
"Ben!" Rey chokes as the fiery blaster shot skims off the right side of Ben's face, skipping along his skin like a bouncing rock. Ben cries out as the shot finally finds its mark in the trunk of a tree about five metres away, landing onto the forest floor in a heap of flailing arms and legs as Rey jams the blade of her sword right into the Destroyer's dome, pulling it back with a sharp cry as the killer droid falls to the side.
"Ben!" Rey cries as she races to where he lies on the ground, writhing and groaning in pain. She drops to her knees next to him, managing to untangle him just enough to get a better look at his wound.
"Oh no," she gasps as she gently presses along the jaggedly split and bleeding skin, her heart nearly tearing in two as Ben lets out an agonising cry. "Ben, I'm—I'm so sorry, darling, I'm—I'm so sorry that I couldn't—!" She attempts to cover the massive gash on his face with her hand, a choked sob bursting from her throat as she sees that her palm barely covers half of the cut. It's massive, running nearly the entire length of his face, from his forehead down his cheek to his jaw. Even his eyelid is bleeding.
"Rey!" Ben cries as his entire body starts to violently shake. "Rey, are you—are you—"
"Are you all right?" he asks inside her mind. "You aren't hurt, are you?"
"Are you seriously asking me if I'm hurt right now?" Rey snaps. She hastily swipes the tears from her cheeks, sucking in a shaky breath as she tries to make Ben more comfortable. "Just… don't try to talk right now, okay? We're gonna figure out how to fix this, and—"
"Oh wow," Poe says as he skids to a halt behind Rey, immediately stumbling backwards. "Shit, that's a lot of blood!"
"You think?" Rey cries, high-pitched enough to send a flock of birds scattering from a nearby tree. "Poe, please, do something! We need—he needs—!"
We can't let him die!
"Ben!" the blonde girl suddenly says as she comes up behind Poe, stopping short as she takes in the grisly state of Ben's face. "Oh no! Um…"
"Rey!" Ben says again, his hands desperately scrabbling at her arm. His usually pale face has become the positively ghastly colour of spoilt cream, with his lips the colour of blueberries when they're not quite ripe. "Are you sure—are you sure you're—?"
"Will you please just stay quiet for a moment!" Rey begs as more tears track down her cheeks. In the very back of her mind she can recall the training sessions on first-aid, and the instructor listing off several plants that have basic anti-infective properties. But in her panic she can't recall if the instructor ever mentioned anything that would be useful for halting bleeding.
Especially this much bleeding. It's only been a few seconds, and not only is Rey's hand completely covered, but her leggings and the entire right side of her tunic are already soaked through as well.
Head wounds always bleed heavily, she thinks, attempting to reassure herself. They always bleed worse than they really are.
The fact that it's odd that Ben's even bleeding at all also briefly crosses her mind. Not that Rey would consider herself an expert on Empire weaponry, but everything she's seen before in the Games has suggested that the blasters used by both battle droids and Destroyers are designed to cauterise wounds as they cause them, which is the exact opposite of what is currently happening.
She and Poe even came across another tribute shortly before they made camp yesterday, the male tribute from Jedha, who had lost his encounter with a single Destroyer. He was shot in the chest, with only scorch marks remaining behind on his tunic.
It's almost as if the Destroyers that attacked them were built differently, or programmed to fire differently if they encountered Rey and Ben.
Rey gives her head a hard shake. There's no time to worry about that now. "Please!" she begs Kaydel. Ben mentioned once that she was particularly good at identifying edible plants and roots, and she’s hoping that knowledge extends to medicinal plants as well. "Please, do you know how to help him?"
Kaydel nods, audibly gulping. "Yes. Yes, I—I think so."
"Kaydel, go!" commands Poe. "You know what to do, so trust yourself to do it!"
But Kaydel has barely taken three steps when Ben's fingers clamp down around Rey's wrist, his good eye wide with shock and pain.
"Rey, listen to me!" he gasps. "If she—if Kaydel can't, then I just want you to know that I—that I—!"
"Ben Solo, I swear if you don't stay quiet right now, I'll—!" Rey cuts off as a sudden burning sensation spreads across her palm, right where it's pressed against Ben's bleeding flesh. She instinctively pulls it back, her jaw dropping when she notices that most of the bleeding has halted and that the cut no longer appears to be quite as deep. It's still nasty, and will probably require repair by a medical droid if—when—they are able to leave the arena, but from what she can tell, he's at least no longer in danger of dying right there in her arms.
"Ben?" she tentatively asks. "Are you—are you all right? Are you—?"
Ben's throat bobs as he swallows, giving her a single nod. "I'm okay, sweetheart," he whispers as he squeezes her wrist. "I don't think you're rid of me yet."
"Oh, thank the Maker!" Rey exclaims. She leans forward, pressing a hard kiss to the uninjured part of Ben's forehead. It's not until she's sat back up again that she realises that she's just given their entire viewing audience solid proof of her and Ben's relationship, which to the outside eye had only existed in rumours.
Rey ponders this for a few heartbeats, then decides that she doesn't care. There are far more important things to be concerned with at the moment.
Things like Maz's final words, which have been hovering inside the back of Rey's mind ever since she was raised into the arena. Words that suddenly come roaring back to the forefront.
"Remember who the real enemy is."
And while she's still not quite sure what Maz meant, it hasn't taken Rey long to realise that whoever her real enemy is, it's obviously not Poe Dameron or Kaydel Ko Connix. And having allies can only help in Rey's quest to keep herself and Ben alive for as long as she possibly can.
What she'll do if it comes down to having to kill one or both of them to accomplish that, Rey isn't quite sure. All she knows at the moment is that if they had wanted to, Poe and Kaydel could have taken them both her and Ben out with one fell swoop, and yet, they didn't.
A few moments later Kaydel returns bearing handfuls of narrow yellowish leaves. Kneeling down next to Ben, she pops one of them into her mouth and begins to chew.
"What're you—? Rey starts, halting when Kaydel pulls the wad of chewed-up leaves out of her mouth and places it over the cut on Ben's forehead. Ben jerks as she presses it in, groaning in pain.
"You're hurting him!" exclaims Rey. "Please, try and be careful!"
"It's okay, Rey," Ben says as Kaydel shoves another leaf into her mouth. "It doesn't hurt that much."
"Yes, and you know you don't have to put on this brave show for me, right?" Rey retorts. "You know I can just read your—"
She manages to stop herself just in time. "Anyway," she says, her belly swooping as she pats Ben's shoulder. "Once Kaydel is done doing… whatever it is she's doing, we're going to find someplace for you to rest for awhile."
"I think that's a good idea," says Poe. "Ben will need some time to regain his strength, and I'm sure the cameras will have focused elsewhere by now."
"Oh, I doubt that," says Kaydel as she presses more chewed-up leaves into Ben's cheek. "You know how popular these two are."
"What?" asks Rey. She's not too surprised by what Kaydel said, more by the fact that she said it without the slightest hint of envy or insult. "What does that mean?"
But Kaydel shrugs, not looking up. "You know what I mean," she says as she presses the final leaf near Ben's jaw. "You. And him. The whole star-crossed lovers thing."
"The star-crossed, what?" Rey says, her next question jamming in her throat as the sun suddenly shifts in the sky, shining on something Kaydel's wearing around her wrist. Rey blinks as she looks closer, her heart fluttering as she notices what it is.
It's a bracelet, silver in colour. And stamped right there on the middle of it is the same symbol that Rey's currently wearing around her neck. The Starbird.
Rey's jaw clamps closed, her eyes narrowing as she studies Kaydel's face. It can't be a coincidence, just like Poe's ominous "remember who the real enemy is" statement at the ball barely five minutes before the Gamemaker, Lando Calrissian, said the very same thing.
Poe, Lando Calrissian, and Maz. A tribute, a Gamemaker, and an escort, all saying the exact same thing.
Oh, and Luke too, according to Ben. So, a tribute, a Gamemaker, an escort, and a mentor. Four people who have no business agreeing on much of anything, all using the exact same catchphrase.
And the Starbird has to mean something too. Rey could brush off Luke's curiosity about her medallion as simple surprise that a tribute from such a poor planet would have in her possession something so expensive. But for the Gamemaker Lando to have the exact same symbol carved onto his watch, and now Kaydel having it as well? Like many other things during these Games, Rey refuses to believe it's just a coincidence.
Something strange is going on. Something… big. And while a part of Rey is angry that it still seems as though she and Ben are being used as pawns in someone else's game, another part, a bigger part, is relieved.
Because depending on what exactly is going on, the chances that both she and Ben could escape the arena alive are a lot higher now than they would have been.
"All right, that's all I can do at the moment," Kaydel says as she leans back onto her feet. "We'll have to change out the leaves every hour for the first six or so, then every two for a while after that."
"Then I suggest we fill up on some water and find a place to lay low for the next few hours," says Poe. "Kaydel, you guys got a water container?"
"Yep," answers Kaydel. She digs into her pocket, pulling out a medium-sized bottle. The movement causes the sleeve of her tunic to ride up, giving Rey an even better look at the bracelet around her wrist.
"That's really nice," she says, jerking her head towards it. "Your bracelet."
"Oh, thanks," Kaydel replies as she twirls the bracelet around her wrist. "It was my mother's."
"Ah," says Rey. Kaydel's mother died when she was very young, if Rey is remembering what Ben told her correctly. Some kind of accident.
"All right," says Poe as he returns, bearing a full water bottle and a pocketful of berries that he found down by the river. "Ben, do you think you can move yet?"
"Yes," Ben says quickly, even though Rey can still sense that he's in a lot of pain, and more than a bit embarrassed because of it. "Let's get out of here."
Slowly, Rey and Poe help Ben to his feet. As soon as he's upright, Rey wraps her arm around his waist and drapes his arm across her shoulders.
"Put some of your weight on me," she says. "You've lost a lot of blood, and I don't want you to—"
"Rey, I'm fine," Ben snaps. "You don't need to be worrying about me."
"Well, I'm afraid that you don't have any choice in the matter," she snaps back. "Now, since I really don't want to have to remind you about how much blood you lost, why don't you choose to save your breath so we can get where we're going without you falling flat on your face. All right?"
"Whoa there, Rey," Poe says, holding up his hands. "Remind me never to piss you off, hmm?"
"No, I don't recommend it," Rey says. "Now, shall we be off?"
"Sounds good to me," says Kaydel. "I'll take the rear."
They decide to stick close to the river, assuming that since they were recently able to stave off a major attack that they should be relatively safe there. Their pace is slow, with Ben's sore ankle only making his unsteadiness from his loss of blood that much worse. Ben stays mostly silent as they walk, but Rey can hear his thoughts continue to swirl, turning more and more dark as his frustration with his injuries mounts. She tries to reassure him, reminding him over and over that it was his quick reaction that saved him from being killed by that blast, but it does little to improve his mood.
And the frequent leaf changes for his wound only make things worse, serving as a constant reminder to Ben that he almost failed in his prime directive, to protect Rey until she was declared victor.
Or at least, that's what she senses, over and over, for the entirety of the afternoon.
Finally, just as the sun is starting to set and Rey's shoulder and back are about to give out, they come upon a clump of trees that have grown together, forming an enclave of sorts.
"Why don't we stop here?" Rey asks. "We can take turns tucking inside to sleep, and the treeline should help hide any smoke from a fire."
"Seems as good of a place as any," says Poe. He takes a sip from the water bottle before handing it to Rey. "Why don't the two of you get a fire going while Kaydel and I go find some food."
"Sounds good," Rey agrees. She hands the water bottle to Ben, glowering as she notices the huge bloodstain covering her tunic and leggings. Clomping through the forest smelling like blood probably wasn't the smartest idea, now that she thinks about it, and with night approaching it might be even less so.
"I think I'm going to try washing my tunic off in the river," she says once she's helped Ben get settled. While he's not quite as sickly looking as he was when he first got hurt, his skin still isn't quite back to its usual colour and he has to be hungry, if Rey's own growling stomach is anything to go by.
"As long as you're careful," Ben says. He reaches for her hand, squeezing it gently. "Please, be careful."
"I will," Rey says, attempting a smile.
"So, do you want to tell me what's bothering you now?" she says inside her mind as soon as she's reached the riverbank. She's hoping that if Ben doesn't have to look at her face that he might be more willing to open up to her.
Plus, it prevents the entire galaxy from overhearing a conversation that Rey would far prefer to keep private.
"No. Not really," comes the reply, and Rey's shoulders sag.
"Please?" she asks as she removes her tunic, wrinkling her nose at its disgusting appearance. If she didn't know better, it would seem as though she'd killed an animal or something in it. Picking up a flat rock, Rey soaks the tunic in the flowing water and starts beating it with the rock. In her current mood it is extremely satisfying, and for a moment she contemplates trying to clean her leggings as well. But the last thing she wants is to disrobe completely in front of all the cameras, so she settles for just soaking them instead, hoping the water will be enough to cover the scent.
"You know you don't have to hide anything from me, right?" she tries again. "Nothing you say is going to change how I feel."
There's a short pause before Ben replies. "I know. I'm just—"
"You're just… what? Embarrassed? I've told you there's no reason for you to be."
"I know you have," Ben says, and Rey can just picture the pout on his full lips. "I just didn't think I'd be so completely useless in here."
"Ben Solo!" Rey says aloud, immediately clapping her hand over her mouth. She shakes her head, pursing her lips as she shoots a glare in his direction. "Ben Solo. You are many things, but useless is not one of them. And I don't want to hear you say anything like that again, is that understood?"
When no reply comes, she tries again. "I'd like it if you could answer me."
"Yes," Ben finally says.
"Good." Rey sucks in a deep breath as she wrings the excess water from her tunic. While the stain is still there, both the caked-on blood and the scent are now gone.
Which is just fine with Rey. Working in the orchards on Ajan Kloss usually saw her clothing stained with both peach juice and dirt by the end of the day, and since fruit stains are so remarkably difficult to remove from fabric, she quickly got used to living with them.
"Okay, so," she continues as she gives her leggings a few once-overs with the rock. "Can you tell me what happened while you were sleeping last night? Did you have a bad dream?"
Again, there's a short pause, and Rey smiles as she imagines the disgruntled look on Ben's face. It's not something she would admit to him directly, but he's awfully cute when he's grumpy.
He's even cuter when he's happy, though, and Rey would very much prefer him to be happy than grumpy.
"Ben?" she gently prods. "Can't you tell me?"
"It's nothing, Rey," he says. "I'm just not used to the noises out here in the woods is all."
Rey frowns. She knows there's more to it than that, especially since she can sense how uneasy he is, a great deal of fear mixed with annoyance, but decides that she's already pestered him enough for one day.
"All right," she says. "I'm almost done here."
Slinging her damp tunic over her arm, Rey returns to their campsite to find Ben sitting next to a roaring fire. Kaydel left behind a supply of the healing leaves, so after positioning Ben's head in her lap, Rey gets to work. Peeling the old leaves away, Rey's relieved to see that the cut is looking better, with the beginnings of a scab already forming along its narrower edges. He's going to have a scar, there's no doubt about that, but Rey will take that over losing him anytime.
"It's looking a bit better," she says as she sprinkles a bit of water over the cut, washing away the remaining leaf remnants. She gasps as a blast of pain suddenly hits her, her hands freezing in place over Ben's face.
"I'm sorry," she whispers as she trails the pad of her thumb down his healthy cheekbone. If she's in agony just sensing his pain, she can only imagine how Ben is feeling. "Darling, I'm so sorry."
"Don't be," Ben says through clenched teeth. "Just… do it quickly, please."
Rey nods, popping one of the leaves into her mouth. "It's a good thing Kaydel found these," she says as she carefully presses the slobbery leaf mess into his cut.
"Yes," Ben says in a quavering voice. "Lucky me."
Rey's reaching for another leaf when she hears a rustle in the trees behind her. Grabbing her sword, she whirls around, a second away from igniting it when Poe appears from behind one of the trunks, a nice-sized womprat in one hand and an odd sort of package in his other.
"Looks like your mentor came through for you, Ben," Poe says as hands Rey the package. Rey tears open the wrapping, a smile stretching across her lips as she pulls out three Bacta patches, enough to cover the entire length of Ben's cut.
"Ben!" she says on a gasp. "Look what Luke sent you!"
"Whoa!" Kaydel exclaims. "You got Bacta patches! Those things are more valuable than gold on Dulathia!"
"Well, so are the two tributes from Ajan Kloss, right?" mutters Poe, just loud enough for Rey to hear him. "You'd better get those things on him as soon as possible. They work best when applied early."
"Yes, yes," Rey says as she quickly peels away the protective backing on the first patch, applying it over the cut on Ben's forehead. Ben hisses in pain as she presses it into place, but a few seconds later he visibly relaxes, his fingers finally unclenching from their tight fists as the Bacta begins to work its miracles.
"Better?" Rey says softly as she pats Ben's shoulder.
"Yes," he whispers. "Thank you."
"No, thank Luke," Rey says as she peels the backing off of the second patch. She shudders to think how much these must have cost, but, knowing Luke, he wouldn't have sent them if he thought there was another good option available.
Once the patches are in place, Rey helps Kaydel and Poe prepare the womprat, which is large enough to easily feed all four of them. Ben's mood improves markedly while they eat, as the pain and fear that she's sensed from him the entire day finally begins to wane.
A full belly works quite well as a pain reliever, something that Rey understands all-too-well.
But as she and Ben settle in for the night under the enclave, with Kaydel down at their feet and Poe keeping watch, Rey once again senses Ben's thoughts turning troubled. Exhausted from their fight with the Destroyers and from his wounds, Ben drops off to sleep quickly, with his bad dreams beginning only a few moments later. Frightening images of a small, dark-haired boy, crying as his father is taken away by Empire officials, his hands cuffed tightly behind him. The same boy, a bit older now, wincing as a young girl is backhanded in the face by a Stormtrooper for daring to request a drink of water. And finally, the boy, tall and strong but still innocent, gasping in shock as the girl he loves is chosen as tribute.
"Good. Good," Rey suddenly hears, the unfamiliar voice as slimy as the disgusting green fungus that grows on the walls of the Justice Building. She lets out a hard shiver as her arms pebble with goosebumps. "That's it, my boy. You are learning."
"Learning what?" she hears Ben ask, laced with suspicion. "What am I learning?"
"That your anger can become your greatest weapon, Young Solo. And how I can teach you how best to use it."
Chapter 10: Part 10
Once again, a massive thank-you to my wonderful beta ceceliasheplin, who finished looking over this chapter literally thirty minutes before I posted it! 💖 💖
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ben is very confused. He knows he's asleep. Somehow, he knows this, which means he must be only dreaming the voice that he's hearing.
And if he's only dreaming it, then it can't be real.
But if that's the case, then why does he feel so compelled to respond, as if his very being depends on it?
"Who are you?" he asks. "What do you want with me?"
"You might call me a teacher," replies the man. "One who is in need of a new star pupil."
"What kind of a teacher?" asks Ben.
"Not one as useless as your mother," the man says, and Ben immediately feels his fists clenching.
"Don't talk about my mother that way!" he practically snarls, his fury only increasing when the man resumes his cackling.
"Good, good," he says. "See, you are learning. Feel the anger flowing through you, Young Solo. Allow it to take root deep inside."
"No!" Ben exclaims. "Anger isn't a weapon!" He tries to move, as if to shake the unwelcome voice from his head, but it's as if his limbs are frozen in place, unable to move.
"Anger is only an emotion," he adds, rather petulantly. "And a completely useless one at that."
Whoever it is laughs yet again, the slimy, hair-raising cackle sending a bolt of freezing-cold ice shooting down Ben's spine. He's heard the voice before, he knows he has. It's on the very tip of his brain.
So why the hell can't he place it?
"Oh, my boy," the man finally says, still chuckling. "That is not at all true. Trust me."
"And why should I do that?" Ben demands. "Who are you? Tell me who you are!"
"You're nobody!" Rey's voice suddenly interjects, so determined and forceful that Ben feels himself flinch. "Ben, please, wake up! It's only a dream!"
"Yes, Ben, wake up," the man says. "Wake up and return to the arena, where you will inevitably be forced to fight to the death against the girl who claims to love you. Or, you can join me, and together we can help you fulfill your destiny."
"No!" Rey exclaims. "Whoever you are, leave him alone!"
"What destiny?" Ben asks, unable to help himself. "What is my destiny?"
"You are destined for great things, Kylo Ren. But only if you join me."
"Ben, please, wake up!" Rey cries. Ben feels her smack him on the shoulder, jolting him awake so abruptly that he bolts upright, nearly slamming his head against a low-lying tree branch. He lets out a loud groan, slapping his palm over the Bacta patches covering his facial wound as Rey sits up next to him. His head is throbbing, his breaths coming only in stilted gasps as Rey curls her fingers around his wrist, carefully removing his hand away from his face. Then she cups his uninjured cheek, tilting his face down towards hers.
"Ben," she says softly, as miraculously in all of their scuffling they managed to not disturb Kaydel or even alert Poe, who's sitting about five metres away, poking at a tree root with a stick. "Ben, who was that? Whose voice was that?"
Ben shakes his head, shivering as a cold sweat breaks out across his body. He has half a mind to try and brush the whole thing off, to tell Rey that it was nothing but a stupid nightmare. He's had plenty of them before. Ever since the Empire took his father away, his sleep has been plagued with them.
But he knows Rey is too smart for that, and the last thing he wants to do is insult her intelligence.
He owes her too much. He would be dead if it wasn't for her.
And he loves her, more than anything. More than his own life. And she loves him.
"Ben?" Rey asks as Ben lets out another hard shudder. He bites down on his bottom lip as Rey gathers him close, tucking his head under her chin.
"Shh," she whispers as her lips press against his forehead. "It's all right, darling, I've got you. You're not alone."
"No, I'm not. And neither are you," Ben says on a gasp as his arms wind around Rey's slender waist. He squeezes his eyes closed, trying to purge the horribly sinister cackle from his mind that's still reverberating like a ricocheting blaster shot.
"You are destined for great things, Kylo Ren." Out of everything he said to Ben, that's what's the most unnerving. How would he know that name? Ben's never told anyone about his stupid little childish fantasies of leading an army of knights to rescue his father, so how would he know?
He's only ever told Rey, and she wouldn't—she would never—
She loves him. He's heard her speak the words in her thoughts, he's seen it in her eyes and felt it in her touches and caresses. Rey loves him.
"It's all right, Ben, I've got you," Rey says again as she runs her fingers through his hair. It feels incredible, despite his hair being all tangly and sprinkled with bits of dried leaves and dirt, and soon Ben's shivering begins to subside, the tight tension in his neck and shoulders slowly seeping away.
Rey does love him. There's no way she would pretend if she didn't.
"Do you know who that was?" she softly asks. "That voice? Did you recognise it?"
Sucking in a deep, shaky breath, Ben raises his head, unable to speak. Even if he could explain who the voice belongs to, which he can't, he has to be careful. They're in the arena, and even at night, the cameras are constantly here, and no doubt currently pointed in their direction thanks to all of his flailing about. Luke's final warning right before Ben entered the arena was to be careful about what he said, to not forget that the entire galaxy would be listening in on his every word.
Including, most likely, whoever was just speaking to him.
The last thing Ben wants is to get an even larger target painted on his back. Or worse, on Rey's back.
"Ben?" Rey asks, brushing a stray hair from his face. "Ben, it's all right. You can tell me."
"No," Ben whispers as he meets Rey's eyes, his hand reaching up to cover hers.
"I don't know who it was, sweetheart," he says into her mind. "I can't—I can't place it, but it doesn't matter anyway. Please, try not to worry about it. I'm fine. It was just a dream."
"No, you are not fine," Rey replies, her eyebrows knitting together into a frown. "I could feel your fear, Ben, and I can still feel it now. That man was frightening you, and he was enjoying it. It's almost like he was feeding on it."
"Well, it's all gone now," Ben says aloud. He lowers Rey's hand down to his lap, giving it a quick squeeze. "I'm sorry I woke you."
Rey lets out a frustrated noise, but thankfully doesn't press him again. No doubt Maz gave her the same warning about saying too much out in the open, where everyone can hear.
These Games have already been weird enough, there's no need for Ben to pile on even more weirdness.
Besides, he's not ready to reveal his and Rey's… connection, bond, whatever it is, to anyone else. Even if he can't explain how it's possible, being able to communicate with Rey without speaking out loud is a gift, and not one that he wants to share.
"All right," she whispers. "If you're sure."
"I'm sure." Ben's heart gives a flutter at the depth of emotion he can see in Rey's beautiful hazel eyes. She does love him. There's no way she could fake something like that.
"Then let's try and go back to sleep, all right?" Rey says. "I think we still have some time."
Ben nods, wishing so badly that he could hold her, and maybe even kiss her, away from the prying eyes of the entire galaxy. He can vaguely remember Rey kissing him right after their fight against the Destroyers, but since he was half out of it, he's decided that that one doesn't count.
Even so, they are out in the open, where it's chilly. And he is still shivering, so…
"Is it—would it be okay if I—if I held you?" he tentatively asks. "I think—I think it would help, and—"
"Ben," Rey cuts in, smiling so widely that the fake moonlight glints off her teeth. "Of course it's okay."
"Ohh, thank you," he breathes. His heart thudding, this time for a completely different reason, Ben settles back down onto the forest floor as Rey lays her head down on his chest, directly over his heart. Warmth floods his body as Rey relaxes against him, his arms curling around her as his hand settles perfectly into the curve of her hip.
"Thank you, sweetheart," he says into her mind. "This is so much better."
"Ben, you don't have to thank me," Rey replies. "I only want to make sure you're all right."
"Oh, is that all?" he says, rather cheekily. Maybe if he fakes it enough he can convince himself that he's fine.
He feels Rey smile against his chest. "I'm pretty sure you know the answer to that one, Solo."
Ben's eyelids are already starting to droop when he whispers, "Yes. Yes I do."
She loves him. He knows it. He can feel it with every fibre of his being.
And love is stronger than anger, and fear.
"Rey?" he asks as his arm tightens around her slender waist. "Is it—is it okay if I ask you something?"
"Mmm, sure?" she sleepily responds.
Ben bites his lips, contemplating his next words carefully. He's upset that he even feels the need to ask such a question, but he also knows that he won't be able to rest until he knows the answer.
"Um… your friend, the one from the Community Home, um—"
"Rose?" she asks.
"No, not Rose. Your other friend, the guy." Ben feels his face heating up, very grateful for the cover of darkness.
"You mean, Finn?" asks Rey.
"Yes, him. Did you—I mean, were you… and him… did you—?"
Rey huffs as she props herself up onto her elbow. "No, Ben," she whispers aloud. "Finn and I are only friends. I—I've never looked at anyone else besides you. Not like that, anyway."
"Oh," Ben says as his cheeks flush even hotter. He chances a glance at Rey's face, his heart swooping at the intensity in her eyes. "Oh, that's—that's good. I—um—"
"What you need is to go back to sleep," Rey says as she lays back down, resuming her position half-draped over him. "You're still trying to heal."
"Yes, all right," he whispers. "I'm sor—"
"No," Rey cuts in. "Don't be sorry. Just, rest."
Shifting slightly more towards Rey, Ben closes his eyes again, forcing himself to relax. He's just on the cusp of sleep again when he hears the voice again, still sinister and slimy, but somehow… different.
"Ah, I see," he says, knowingly, almost like a friend. Like something that Tai would say, if he were here.
Ben tries to resist, tries to ignore him. He knows engaging with him won't do anything.
But he can't seem to help it.
"See what?" he asks. "What do you see?"
"The girl," he responds, so low and cackly that all the hair stands up on Ben's arms. "You have compassion for her."
"Yes, I do," Ben says, although compassion isn't quite the word he would have chosen to describe his feelings for Rey. "So?"
"So, Young Solo, your compassion will be your undoing. I have seen it before."
"You have? In who?" asks Ben.
"In a boy, a long, long time ago. He was much like yourself. Strong, and mighty, with the potential to become even stronger and mightier under my tutelage. But in the end he chose… poorly, and it led to his undoing."
"What do you mean, it led to his undoing?" Ben asks.
The man begins to laugh, his cackle growing in volume and pitch until it's all Ben can do to keep from slapping his palms over his ears to try and drown it out.
"Oh, my boy," he finally says. "Why do you think you're in that Arena?"
Despite the fake sunlight beaming through his closed eyes, Ben is convinced that he's only been asleep for a moment or two by the time Rey gently shakes him awake. About a metre or so away lies Poe, still fast asleep, while Kaydel is down by the bank of the river, refilling the water bottle and gathering handfuls of dark purple berries from a bush. Rey is smiling as she helps Ben sit up, her hands and face freshly washed in the river and her teeth slightly stained with berry juice.
"I'm so glad you were able to get some sleep," she says as she checks the Bacta patches on his face. "Is it okay if I peel this top one away a little? I'd like to check on your wound."
Ben gives a stuttered nod. "Yes" he whispers. Rey smiles softly as her fingertips brush across his forehead to the edge of the top patch, carefully peeling the edge away to peek underneath.
"Oh, Ben," she says, so breathy and relieved that Ben instantly decides he'd do just about anything to hear it again. "It's almost completely healed! There's still a scar here, but the edges are clean and there's no sign of infection. I think I'm going to take this one off."
"Whatever you think is fine with me," Ben says. The things were starting to itch anyway.
Peeling the top patch off, Rey examines Ben's skin a bit closer as Poe begins to stir, finally sitting up as Kaydel rejoins their group. She passes a large handful of berries to both Ben and Poe before sitting down close to Poe, eyeing Ben and Rey rather warily.
"So," she asks, turning to Poe. "What's the plan now?"
"Well, we should probably start by figuring out who's still out there," answers Poe.
"There's fourteen dead, last I saw," says Rey.
"Okay, so that leaves only eight tributes left," says Kaydel. "And since four of those eight are sitting right here, that means there's only four left roaming about."
"Yes, and unless I'm mistaken, two of those are the tributes from Hosnian Prime," says Rey. "Which means—"
"Which means they're probably working together," Kaydel finishes.
"Eh, I doubt there's any 'probably' about it," says Poe. "The Careers always ally with each other until they're left with no other choice but to turn on each other."
"And they're usually pretty lethal," Kaydel cuts in.
"Right," agrees Poe. "So I'm thinking that we should probably focus on the other two for the time being while Ben's still healing."
"I'm fine," Ben says quickly. "We don't need to hide or alter any plans because of me."
"But there's still no sense in trying to rush into anything before you're ready, Ben," Rey says, gently but firmly. Her eyes are pensive as they bore into his, pleading with him to be patient. "If we're the only group out here larger than two, then that already gives us an advantage. We can afford to be patient for awhile."
"Yes, but I highly doubt that the Careers are just out there being patient," Ben argues. "And I'm healing just fine, you said so yourself, so—"
"Ben's right," Poe says, and Ben's head snaps up in surprise. "But so is Rey. The Careers probably aren't just out there being patient, which means hanging back might be the best thing for us to do for now."
"But—!" Ben starts.
"You're thinking the Careers might hunt down the other two for us?" Kaydel asks.
"That's exactly what I'm thinking," replies Poe, and, despite Ben's eagerness to get going, he has to admit that it's a good idea. The less danger Rey has to be in, the better.
"Ben, we should listen to them," she says into his mind. "There's no need for us to be in such a hurry."
Ben drops his gaze to his lap, nodding. The unspoken meaning behind Rey's words is making him uncomfortable, but he doesn't dare show it. It's something he's been trying to avoid thinking about ever since Kaydel shoved the sword hilt into his hand and dragged him away from the opening bloodbath.
No matter how well the four of them are working together, their alliance can't last forever.
There can only be one victor, and as much as Ben hates to admit it, it absolutely has to be Rey.
"All right," he says softly. "Do we know exactly who's left?"
Poe opens his mouth to respond, but before he's able to say anything, an ear-splitting roar suddenly sounds from somewhere in the depths of the forest. Ben immediately jumps up and grabs Rey, shoving her behind a tree just as the creature roars again, so loudly that the nearby tree branches start to shake. He instinctively closes his eyes, cursing himself for not thinking to grab his sword first.
"Ben!" Rey gasps, her slender fingers digging painfully into his arms as one of the tributes lets out a bloodcurdling scream, followed directly on its heels by another roar from the creature. "Ben, what is that?"
"I don't—I don't know, sweetheart," he murmurs. He draws Rey closer as thundering footsteps begin to echo up from the forest floor, causing pebbles and dry leaves to jump with each groundbreaking impact. Sucking in a deep breath, Ben chances a peek around the tree trunk. The sword is right there, right next to where he slept during the night. Why the hell didn't he think to grab it?
"Ben, what're you doing?" Rey hisses as he starts to release her. "You're not seriously thinking—!"
"Rey, you need to climb!" he says as he tugs Rey up to her feet and into his arms, boosting her up onto his shoulders. "Climb up the tree right now and get as high as you can!"
"What?" Rey exclaims as she tries to jump down, grunting in frustration when Ben holds her fast. "Ben, no! I'm not just gonna leave you down here alone—!"
"Rey, please!" Ben pleads as he shoves her even higher, giving her no choice but to grab onto one of the tree branches in order to keep her balance. "I need you to climb up there as high as you can, okay? Please!"
"But what about you?" Rey cries as she finally, finally, begins to climb. The creature's so close now that Ben can see smaller trees getting trampled under its feet, and feel his heart thudding in time with its strides. There's only a few seconds left.
"Ben!" Rey screams as Ben crouches down behind the tree trunk, stretching his arm out to try and reach the sword. His heart flutters as the silver hilt wobbles and slightly turns, almost as though it's reaching for him at the same time.
"C'mon, Ben, you can do this!" he says under his breath as he leans impossibly closer, gulping as the hilt's wobbling grows more chaotic. He hears the monster roar again, so loudly that his ears start to ring, drowning out Rey's screams from at least ten metres above him.
"Ben!" she suddenly cries into his mind. "Darling, please! Don't do this!"
But, like the stubborn Solo he is, Ben ignores her. He volunteered as tribute for these Games in order to save Rey's life, and so far all he's managed to prove is that he's nothing more than a burden who gets spooked by a couple of silly bad dreams, and who's nearly gotten himself killed. Twice.
Not exactly the picture of a brave protector.
He needs to be more. He needs to show that cackling asshole in his head that he's more than just pain, anger, and fear. That he can be noble, and brave, even when he's scared out of his wits.
Even if it's the last thing that he does.
Maybe if he can prove to the entire galaxy that he's worthy, that he's more than just his bottled-up anger and fear, the horrible voices will finally leave him alone.
Gritting his teeth, Ben leans forward, straining for the sword, when it suddenly launches itself from the ground directly into his palm. "What the…?" Ben says as he immediately jumps to his feet, igniting the sword just as he creature, the most massive Reek he's ever seen in any Games, barrels through two close-set trees about five metres to Ben's left. His heart in his throat, Ben leans back on his heels, the sword held high above his head as he waits for the perfect moment to attack.
Which happens to arrive exactly three rapid heartbeats later. Just as the Reek lowers its massive head, its curved centre horn preparing to gore Ben right out of the arena, Ben jumps to the side and swings the sword, shearing the Reek's horn clean off, along with a good chunk of its nose. The entire forest seems to shake as the creature roars in pain and indignation, skidding to a halt on its massive front legs and pawing at the ground as it prepares to turn around.
"That's right!" Ben yells as he plants his feet into the spongy forest floor, raising the warbling blue sword above his head. "Come and get me!"
He's only vaguely aware of Rey's panicked screams and calls of his name from above as he grits his teeth, daring the Reek to charge him. A second later the creature lowers its bleeding head, roaring as it begins its charge. Ben's heart jumps into his throat as he stands there, watching the Reek as it approaches and fighting against every urge he has that's telling him to run away. He can only hope that his mother and Tai aren't currently watching.
Which is ridiculous, as the Games are mandatory viewing throughout the galaxy and strongly enforced on the twelve tribute planets. But, he supposes he can always hope.
There's always hope, right? Even if it's just the smallest of specks?
Wasn't that what Mom always used to tell him?
Tightening his grip on the sword's hilt, Ben locks his knees in place, biting down on his shaking lower lip as the Reek thunders towards him. His breaths are sharp and fast as he waits, not taking his eyes off the huge creature as it gets closer and closer, with Rey screaming so loudly inside his head that he can barely hear the crashing impacts.
And then, suddenly, it's just like it was when he was fighting the Destroyers. A sense of something that can only be called calm washes over Ben at the last possible fraction of a second, and, just before the Reek would've launched him out into space, Ben pivots and swings his arm, slicing the blade of the sword right through the Reek's thick neck and shoulder muscles. The blow is enough to send its head careening through the forest, where it thuds against the trunk of a tree with a rather sickening thunk. Its body, which somehow keeps on going for several more steps, finally skids to a halt about three seconds later, taking out a small clump of trees before exploding into a massive, disgusting, and bloody mess, one that the carrion birds in the arena will no doubt greatly enjoy.
For a few moments, it's as if Ben is frozen, his head filled with the sound of blood rushing past his ears and completely and utterly shocked that he actually killed the thing, the massive, lethal creature that would have no doubt gone right after Rey.
"Ben!" he suddenly hears from somewhere high above him, Rey's high-pitched shriek of shock and awe finally breaking through the fog in Ben's mind. He looks up, his shaking hand still clutching the warbling blue sword, to find Rey climbing down from her perch with tears streaming down her cheeks. Before she can reach the ground, she launches herself at him, forcing Ben to drop the sword as he wraps his arms around her, patting her back as she sobs into his shoulder.
"Don't you ever do that again!" she cries, her arms so tight around his neck that it's a bit hard for him to breathe. "Ben! I can't—I can't—I almost lost you!"
"But you didn't, sweetheart," he murmurs into her hair. "I'm fine, see?"
Rey sniffs as she lifts her head, her frightened, tear-stained face nearly cracking Ben's heart right down the middle. "But… why?" she asks. "Why didn't you just climb up the tree with me?"
"Because then that thing would've just plowed right into the tree and taken us both out," Ben says.
"You don't know that!" Rey snaps. "There's no way of knowing that that's what would've—"
"Oh, shit!" Poe exclaims as he and Kaydel rush over, gaping in awe at the exploded remains of the Reek. "Ben, what the hell were you thinking, taking on a full-sized Reek all by yourself? That's just… suicidal!"
"Well, now at least we have one less monster to worry about, right?" Ben says as Rey releases her ironclad grip on his neck just enough to slide down his body. Her legs wobble a bit as she lands on the forest floor, with her arms wrapped tightly around Ben's chest, refusing to let go as Kaydel holds out the water bottle towards Ben.
"Here," she says. "I think you've earned it."
"Thanks," Ben says, giving her a grateful nod as he takes a drink of water, the cool liquid soothing on his parched mouth and throat. "Do we know which tribute it was that the thing got?"
"Ah, yeah," says Kaydel. "It was the girl from Naboo."
"All right," says Ben. "So that leaves—"
"Just the boy from Cato Neimoidia and the two tributes from Hosnian Prime," answers Poe.
"Right," adds Kaydel. "And I'm guessing that since that monster was probably meant to take out more than just one of us, they're probably gonna give us a bit of a break while they come up with something else."
"Yeah, that makes sense," says Poe. "So we should probably start moving again. Those Hosnian Prime tributes have probably figured out where we are by now from all the racket, which means they could be on their way as we speak."
"But they'll still try and pick off the last single tribute first, don't you think?" says Rey.
"It's what I would do," agrees Poe. "It's always better to fight on only one front. But with the Careers, you never know."
"Well, then, yes, I think we should move, but I also think we should try to stay out of as much trouble as possible for as long as we can," Rey says.
"Okay, but isn't that kinda the whole point of winning this thing in the first place?" Kaydel asks. "To last longer than everyone else?"
Rey gulps, her arms tightening around Ben as he wraps his arm around her shoulders. He can sense fear and trepidation emanating from her like wave pulses, mirroring his own feelings. Despite his elation—and pride, there's plenty of that too—at defeating the Reek and saving Rey, it also means he's now come that much closer to when he'll have to say goodbye to her, and he's nowhere near ready to do that just yet.
He's not sure he'll ever be, in fact.
It's just not fair! he screams inside his mind, apparently loud enough for Rey to hear when she looks up at him, her eyes reflecting everything that he's thinking right back at him.
"Not now," she says into his head. "Please, Ben, I don't want to think about that now."
Ben shakes his head, making a very poor attempt at a smile. "Then we won't."
"Okay, so, then we should probably get going now," says Kaydel.
"I agree," says Poe. "We'll stick close to the river like we have been, but make sure to keep your eyes peeled. 'Cause as soon as that last tribute's taken out, the Careers are gonna be heading straight for us."
"Sounds good," Rey says. "Let's go."
The group is quiet as they gather up their meagre supplies from the camp. Ben hooks his sword hilt to his belt and picks up his walking stick, with Rey clinging tightly to his free hand as they follow Poe down towards the river, almost as if she's afraid to let go.
"Please," she says after several moments of silent hiking. "Please, Ben, don't do that again. You don't have to prove anything to anyone. Especially me."
But I do, he thinks, pursing his lips when Rey gives him a harsh frown.
"No, you do not," she insists. "And I very much wish I could convince you of that."
"It's all right, sweetheart. I'm all right," he whispers as he gives her hand a quick squeeze. Apparently they've now both abandoned all pretence of trying to hide their relationship, which is just fine with Ben. He would much rather spend their last days or hours together not having to hide how he feels about her.
All the better to win over the hearts of the viewers for when Rey is finally crowned victor.
They've only walked for an hour or so when suddenly a strange sensation ripples through Ben's chest, causing him to stumble as they make their way over a small incline. The sensation is cold, like someone's poured ice water on his skin, which makes no sense given that the arena is pretty hot during the day. Rey looks up at him in alarm, her hazel eyes clouded with fear as he shakes his head.
"It's nothing, sweetheart," he says. "I'm fine."
"No, you're obviously not," she replies. "Maybe we should stop and rest for a bit—"
"No!" Ben exclaims, thankfully not quite loud enough to alert Poe, who's leading them. Kaydel tosses him a rather odd glance over her shoulder, but quickly turns her attention back to the trail after a few more steps.
"I'm sorry, Rey," he says as he jams the point of his walking stick into the soft, spongy ground. "I just… don't need to stop. I'm fine."
"Hmph, if you say so," Rey mutters under her breath. "You sure are a stubborn one, aren't you?"
Ben grins. His mother has told him the same thing too many times to count.
"Yes, I am."
But no sooner has Ben returned his attention to the trail that he feels the sensation again, this time even more profound, and followed immediately by that horrible cackle that he's come to despise.
"Impressive," the man says, nearly making Ben's skin crawl. "Most impressive, my boy. You're going to make an even better apprentice than I originally thought."
"I will not," Ben says through clenched teeth, thankfully not loud enough for Rey to hear. "So why don't you just leave me alone?"
"Oh, we will see, Young Solo," the man says. "When it all comes down to it, we will see very clearly where your girl's loyalties lie, and then you will regret not turning to me sooner. Just as he did"
"Oh, you think so, do you?" Ben practically growls. "And what if I say no?"
A pause follows, one so long that Ben starts to think that perhaps he's gotten rid of the hair-raising voice.
Unfortunately, it's not to be.
"You can try to refuse, but I would not recommend it," he says. "Refusing me does not end well for most people who make the attempt."
"Well, I'm not most people," Ben says firmly. "So you can just go away and leave me alone now. I'm not afraid of you."
"Oh," comes the reply, said on a laugh. "You will be, Young Solo. You will be."
We’re so close to the end of the arena, and I can’t wait to see what you think? Any theories, ideas on what you guys are expecting next? 😊
Please don’t forget to hit the kudos button and leave me a comment! I’m also on tumblr at geekymoviemom, so stop by and say hi! 💖