There are two sets of battlefields for Kylo Ren and Rey to compete on.
The first are the ever-changing fighting grounds where they just keep meeting.
It’s power plays and clashing laser beams. Learning his moves becomes second nature and when he does something unforeseen, Rey tugs at the Force to anticipate his actions. He is usually trying to gain ground on her using Ataru but fails again and again because he adamantly ignores that the control of his over-long limbs is severely lacking. He falls into Niman, but he doesn’t use force blasts, not unless absolutely necessary. It somewhat escapes her why, but when she searches the borders of his mind, she can taste a sour defiance. He thinks she thinks using forced-based attacks is cheating. She does, but it puzzles her why he would care.
The second is much more dangerous duelling ground, and it’s far more exhausting because it never really ends. There is no definitive starting point where someone gives a signal and two swarms of opposing allegiances clash and try to tear each other limb from limb, and neither is there a clear-cut defeat or retreat. Their minds are at war and as long as they live, they’re on equal ground, powers evened out by equal resilience and rigorous stubbornness. They cannot best each other, only test and test and test patience and endurance.
Sometimes it seems like she cannot get a second’s respite of this mind-bending war. As if he is always lurking around the edges of her mind, waiting to disrupt and to disturb and throw her off whatever she is doing. Half the time, she wonders if he has nothing better to do and the other half she wonders if he maybe can’t help himself at all. There is of course another possibility, which is that she is merely imagining his presence but that is too disconcerting a thought to linger on.
Physical proximity is a factor in their mind games. When they are further apart from each other, their bond becomes less defined. It never quite snaps entirely but from lightyears and lightyears away, she feels only the strongest of emotions and can’t make out his location precisely. If they are on the same planet, though — or in the same system alone — she can feel his presence as if he was standing right beside her. A consequence of this is that they can’t hide from each other once they’re close enough.
At times he finds her, at times she finds him. Their endless tug-of-war is played with many a scar on bodies and minds to show for it. And out in the field wounds and bruises are straight-forward things, in the truest sense of the word, clear-cut. He lands a blow or she does, one of them or both shedding some blood. They fight toe to toe, attack to parry and then some, until something always tears them apart. It was an endless promenade of re-matches and hells to be paid next time. And the next and the next. It was reliable. Unchanging as the sea.
Within their other realm of conflict, however, nothing at all is ever straight-forward. And that makes all the difference.
Rey could’ve gone on despising Kylo Ren for as long as she lived for all the horrible, despicable things he’d done. She would probably have killed him several times over if it weren’t for everything she’s come to learn about the human behind his unflinching mask thanks to their connection. Hells and heavens, she probably would have pushed through to killing him eventually anyway. Things being what they are though, no matter what that says about her, she can’t kill Ben Solo. And no matter how hard he's tried to, even Kylo Ren can not kill him. And thus the problem persists.
In her involuntary learning of who her brooding nemesis is, she has come to know one from the other and also know the most unstable, most unpredictable hybrid of the both of them. She knows when Kylo speaks to her and she knows when it’s Ben. When she catches glimpses of the world through his eyes, she knows which of them is looking through the visor.
Rey knows the various and very many things that strain Kylo’s patience to the point of dissolving. She can even tell which of the two souls eternally at odds in his body throws a tantrum.
Kylo lashing out is weirdly systematic. When he extends his fury by use of his lightsaber, his gashes and cuts into any given surface are precise and almost geometric. The destruction he causes is a tool to calm his nerves and each slash brings a bit of his composure back.
Ben is a whirlwind of excess, blindly thrashing at everything remotely in reach. When it’s really bad, he can spiral into minutes of mindless violence. But that’s when he’s upset with something someone else did. When Ben is upset with Ben, or worse, when Kylo is upset with Ben, he lashes out inward and turns his pain and anger on himself. That’s maybe the worst of it and Rey gets headaches from it. Because he runs his head against walls. Literally.
Sometimes she tries to will him from doing it and it works but once. As it happens, she offers a wall of her own, force-fueled and made of thoughts. He runs and runs against it until he is spent and breathless and the hate and confusion in his head ebbs. It leaves an emotion bordering on gratitude and this in itself is enough to make Rey break the connection, if not for long.
Ben, she finds, is strongest and most prominent when Kylo Ren sleeps. She even catches glimpses of memories sometimes.
The happier ones are a deep crimson, tarnished with regret and a sense of loss that brings tears to her eyes. She can see the world through the eyes of a little boy who believes he will never be good enough. Not for his father who thinks he is wimpy, hysterical and squeamish and not for his mother who, as time passes and he grows stronger, is downright afraid of him. Her unwavering love for him is what hurts most because he cannot seem to stop disappointing her.
Ben, growing leaner, more lanky and taller by the day, wants nothing more than to disappear if he can not seem to change one bit and Rey does not have to see it to know that this was where Snoke had him in his crushing, alien grasp. He’d offered just that; to make Ben Solo disappear, replace him with something else entirely. He’d failed in this, if not in little else. Ben is still there, unrelenting, a little voice in the back of Kylo’s head he’s trying his hardest to subdue.
Sometimes when they sleep and irrevocably dream together, Rey feels overwhelmed with compassion, with pity for him. He is so broken and deems himself so beyond repair. It’s worse when, in very weak moments, Ben — always Ben — reaches back for her.
Kylo only tugs at his side of the bond when he wants something; to confuse her or learn her moves and attacks before she makes them. Sometimes he taunts her and sometimes he tries to tempt her. When he is especially tapped into the Dark Side and feels a seemingly endless pool of power to feed from, he tries to make her feel the sensation. That’s when she usually shuts him out. Ironically, she can do that precisely because his drawn strength fuels her own.
But oh, when Ben reaches for her, it’s a different thing entirely. He is craving contact and the way his mind softly edges in on hers is almost tender. Underneath, he is demanding like a child but prominently, it’s just a pathetic grasp for sympathy, for just something other than hate from her. Weak in sleep, sometimes she gives him what he wants.
If she is honest, Rey feels completely out of her depth to put a name or a concept to their bond. She resents Kylo and she pities Ben and it’s difficult to keep the two of them apart. It’s easiest when he is actually there. In front of her. There’s just one of her and one of him and she can handle that.
When they face-off, Kylo Ren usually starts out with feet apart, the left one behind the other so it can push him forward into an attack, his lightsaber burning and sizzling in front of his face, ready to pounce. It drenches the pink, pale flesh of the scar she gave him in hues of red and he sees her as a target, trying to foresee her moves. That always does the job of letting her forget all he is when he isn’t this. It’s simpler, in a lot of ways. Out in the open, with sharp edges and a distinct black and white, when otherwise it’s all greys with him.
The first time she kisses Poe is when the already jumbled mess that is her link to Kylo Ren becomes laced with an even more disconcerting layer of unforeseeable depth.
Poe Dameron is, much like Finn, a most startling opposite to Kylo and even to Ben. But unlike Finn, who feels decidedly brotherly to Rey, Poe is anything but. He's so steadfast and confident, while disarmingly charming and enticing. Under his gaze, she never feels like the scrawny desert-rat she’d been as far back as she remembered. She feels like she’s never been one in the first place.
When it happens, they’re stuffed in a tiny, stolen First Order shuttle and Poe has just, once again, saved them both in a piloting manoeuvre that was both daring and reckless. But Rey isn’t scared anymore — too many brushes with death do that to a person — instead, she is just exhilarated and grateful and what was meant to be a hug, becomes a kiss in an imperceptible change of trajectory.
The first couple of seconds are all hers. Poe is startled for an instant and then embraces it with a fire she only suspected he had and everything is easy and weightless for a while. Poe catches her lips and it’s the first time since she’s known him that his sure grip on the craft he is piloting falters.
But then Kylo rears his head inside her, a raging beast, and the fierceness of his anger makes her jump away from Poe in a painful jolt. She is hit against her seat and feels the knuckles of her right hand burn and throb where Kylo has undoubtedly just punched a hole in whatever wall was closest to him.
Poe looks at her, puzzled but satisfied, thinking her startled expression comes from what a gifted kisser he is. And he is. But Rey can’t even see him behind the red curtain Kylo has drawn over both their eyes. He is furious and what’s worse; hurt. It’s also not just Ben there, it’s Kylo, as certain as she’s ever been of anything. It rattles her to the core to find possessiveness in his outburst and, irrevocable and immeasurable in its consequences, jealousy.
Kylo and Ben both, wherever they are, have thumbed their lightsaber to life and are slashing a corridor into bits and pieces. Their force connection flares up like a jolt and she can hear him hissing, as if multiplied by the ripples of their brains.
Mine, he thinks, sharp like a knife, you’re mine. And Rey is livid.
How dare he? She is no one's. And least of all his. Her own fury fuels enough of what she’s always tapped into of the force to shut him out with a bang. The void he leaves inside her mind is at first almost crushing in its blankness but then quickly filled with rage all her own. He can’t be serious. He can’t honestly think that this was ever, ever a possibility. He is insane, completely over the edge. If he hadn’t been before, now he has completely lost it. She, his? In what world? In what universe?
They are foes, opposed for eternity. Until, and she only realises now that this has always been a given, one of them kills the other. It was always going to be this way. Their story only ends one way. One would be the other’s demise. It's as certain as death. It is certain death.
And she loathes him, hates him and can feel the echo of Ben that had nestled into her brain cringe under her scrutiny. Out, she thinks, angry at herself for having her own set of Kylo and Ben that exist within her without him even being around. That she would have beings to contend with, within her, conjured up in her own mind to take into consideration. Out! You mean nothing to me!
“Sweetheart,” Poe says and it barely makes it through, “are you okay? It’s fine, you know, heat of the moment, I get it.”
He is still on about the kiss. Rey resists the urge to roll her eyes. It isn’t about this now. And then the anger is back when she looks at Poe for the first time since Kylo Ren has blown her brain apart. Because Poe is perfect. Mature and brave, capable and good. And now Kylo has tainted even that for her with his selfish, petty, inconsiderate longing.
I’m going to kill you, she thinks. And she’s never meant it more. And she’s never meant it less.
Day and night circles past as she maintains hold of her own head. She is a fortress armed with disgust and reproach and whenever she feels him tug at her barriers, she makes him flinch back. He is getting nothing from her. Poe and Finn hover, sensing a darkness gnawing at her neither of them fully understand but know has something to do with Kylo Ren. Yet, they don’t pry and maybe that’s worse. Rey feels like she can’t take a step or put a cup of caf down on a counter without the two of them measuring it for force. As if they want to will her to lose her patience.
On a rainy day, the Falcon wedged between huge trees for another useless observation of one or the other planet-based First Order operations, Rey has enough of Finn’s sideway glances and Poe’s attempts to diffuse her tension by flirting with her.
“I’m going to meditate,” she declares and heads into the jungle.
The air around her is sickeningly humid and she walks and walks until she spots a ceiba tree with enough dents to climb and then she works her way to the branches until she finds one to hold her weight.
The tree-crowns are still a ways above her, so she sees only greenery. It should be calming, especially along with the soft breeze that hits her cheeks up there. But it does nothing to quench her restlessness. In her mind, she plays back the kiss with Poe, willing it to be a memory in and of itself but Kylo Ren’s voice rings in her head defiantly. Mine, mine, mine, it says, all hollering intensity and she can feel him there, at the edge of her consciousness, knowing that she is thinking about him. When his voice rises to a deafening crescendo that makes her throat close up, she screams in frustration and opens the floodgates to him.
Get. Out. Of. My. Head. She orders him, a strange drawback to the first time he tried to creep into her.
I can’t, he provides but there is a disgusting triumph in his entrance, his return to her mind. As if he knew the separation wouldn’t last.
Well then get this stupid idea out of yours at least. She pushes him. He pushes back.
Do you think I like this? He sounds incredulous and weirdly condescending, which is enough alone to put her on edge.
Seems like you have to deal with it, she thinks defiantly. I thought you were so kriffing superior with all your training. Can’t you just turn it off?
Oh, believe me, scavenger, I’ve tried.
How long has this been going on? She barks at him after a moment, trying to dial down her anger. He’ll get the better of her if she’s unraveling like this.
A while, he admits freely, but he sort of likes it, provoking her. It is so like Kylo Ren to turn his own twisted desires into a way to torment her. I had it under control, as best as I could but you had to go around kissing inconsequential scum. He’s not half worthy of you.
Poe is not inconsequential, she shoots back, ignoring his last words and could slap herself for how childish it sounds, even in her own head. He snickers, the bastard. And he’s worthy enough. At least he isn’t some sad excuse for a man who thinks repeatedly trying to slash someone into pieces counts as courtship.
Kylo is angry, Ben flinches at the ridicule.
You’re a petulant child, he wants it to be a dagger but she can feel the hurt, making it spiteful at best.
And you don’t know how to take no for an answer. And she shuts him out again.
Deep breaths, she thinks, focus. He isn’t trying to get back inside.
That night, she fights sleep for as long as she can but eventually, without really noticing, she slips and they find each other. Her rage has tired her and when he materialises in her mind’s eye, he seems equally exhausted.
She tries to get enough self-control to keep up a minimum level of hostility but finds nothing in him to latch onto. He is hollow. Ben is strong in him and he is somber. She thinks he wants to see her about as much as she wants to see him.
So she sits down, finding that they’re back in a quiet meadow they once fought on, when lines had still been somewhat drawn. Easier times.
She folds herself into a cross-legged meditation pose and tries to breathe evenly. Maybe he’ll just go away.
Instead, he sits down as well, trying to mirror her pose. This is the part where she would close her eyes but she doesn’t. He reluctantly locks eyes with her.
“Why?” she asks and, despite herself, attempts some humour, “I thought we had a good thing going here.”
He is not laughing. “I don’t know.”
She thinks this is more Ben than Kylo, but she could be wrong, there is enough resignation for the first and enough self-loathing for the latter.
“Is fighting to near death every other week not a clear enough sign that whatever you feel for me is a tad misplaced?” She doesn’t mean for it to sound cutting but she feels the ripple of a stifled wince — Ben’s, decidedly — wading over from his mind to hers.
“If I could do anything about it, I’d have done it already,” he says, without a discernible cadence, “And I'm not in love with you. It’s just…”
“You just don’t want me to kiss anyone,” she jumps in and can’t help but wonder at the absurdity of this conversation. They’re being so civil. Chalk it up to exhaustion. If anything, it’s very unlike them.
“You can kiss the whole entire galaxy for all I care,” Kylo says but Ben adds a moment later, “I’d just like to not have to see it.”
“It’s never gonna happen,” she says, almost all the way sure of it.
“Don’t you think I know that?” Ben’s exasperated and so utterly defeated.
“We hate each other,” she goes on, more for his benefit than hers, “I’ve tried to kill you a dozen times.”
“And you’re the only friend I have,” he says, “whatever that says about me. You’re the only one who...matters. The only one who cares.”
Friend. Huh, now that’s a new word in the mostly unflattering vocabulary he uses to describe her. This is bordering on ridiculous but she can’t find anything remotely funny about it.
Rey tries to read in his face what she can’t make out from too many welling emotions. His filters are off, it all ebbs and flows from him and she has to tap out before she drowns in it.
He is so lonely. He’s like she’d been, back on Jakku. Only where she was surrounded by rubble and sand, he is surrounded by people. Underlings even, that follow his every order. Minions, both afraid of him and in awe of his powers. And yet. Nobody cares. Of course. There’s no love lost on the Dark Side. She wonders when someone last gave him a hug. He sure looks like he could use one. And then, something hits her, square in the chest like a blaster bolt. She can see it in his head, as he follows her train of thought. He can’t even remember.
He can remember the last time a human had touched him though, skin on skin. Han Solo. It seems a lifetime ago but Rey still winces at the thought. Ben flinches with her.
“You thought that’d be the end of it,” she blurts into the silence between them, “I could feel it. You thought if you could do it and kill him, you’d be so far gone that it would keep you tethered to the Dark Side. You wanted to throw Ben right after him. But after, you just felt ten times worse than before.”
He doesn’t argue with her, only his brow furrows as he looks away. A moment passes that could as well have been an eternity.
“I’m sorry,” Rey doesn’t know why she keeps talking, “for what happened to you. You know, you would’ve been enough.”
Her words, which were meant to be some sort of consolation, have exactly the opposite effect and she jumps like a kid that accidentally set something on fire. Kylo, Ben, whoever he is, coughs up a heart-wrenching sob that breaks from his mouth and nose and just like that he is crying.
Rey is suddenly lost. Her arms twitch uselessly at her side and she tumbles out of her lotus seat into a half crouch. Her body has twisted itself into a kneeling-like position and she can feel her arms burn with the desire to reach out. But how can she? He is a monster. He has done so many horrendous things, more than she can count. But he’s right there and he is crying, with his head in his hands, for kriff’s sake, and she doesn’t know what to do.
She tries to find the answer in his head, even though a part of her cringes to go there. She is afraid of what she’ll find and she is, on a more subtle level, wary of breaching this very private moment. But what else can she do? Leaving is out of the question. She couldn’t if she tried.
So she pushes against his mind, softly, as softly as she can. It’s an ocean of sadness in him and while she suspected it would’ve been made out of regret, it’s something else. She can hear her own words played back and forth to him. You would’ve been enough.
He is crying for what could’ve been and she can see it so clearly. A dream in a dream. He is imagining himself, wholesome and sane. Grown. A man who feels like a man, not an overgrown boy trapped in a suit of darkness, everything he is hidden by a mask. He dreams he’d believed he was enough, gotten stronger and braver in the light of that certainty. And he dreams of her. He believes she could want him like that. Whole and stable, reliable and good.
There’s an image, fuzzy around the edges, of a life that he can never have. They are a tangled mess of limbs and the feeling of warmth is in such striking contrast to their reality, it makes her chest constrict as it's being decompressed. He traces her faint freckles, all the way across the bridge of her nose, while her fingers comb lazily through his wild black hair and then he smiles. He imagines himself smiling like that, as if it was the height of his fantasies. He looks so at peace, so happy, her stomach churns.
She recoils from the image and leaves his head. She knows why he’s crying now and she wants nothing more than to join him in his weeping. But she can’t. One of them has to keep a grip. He is fighting to stop, trying frantically to reel himself in but he fails and she can’t even help rocking forward, on hands and knees.
She hesitates when he is in arms reach, and again when she extends her hand but then… Did she ever really have a choice? She overcomes the distance and puts a soft hand on his forearm. He doesn’t even seem to register it at first. Then she applies more pressure and she doesn’t know if it’s her tugging, or his sudden pull but he uncoils his long limbs in a snap and wraps himself around her before she can take half a breath.
They sit awkwardly on the ground, both on their knees, though he is so tall he is lifting her kneecaps up so she’s really just on her shins. His hair brushes the entire right side of her face, tickling her nose. Ben and Kylo, both, shudder against her body and he holds her impossibly tight, nose and lips buried in her neck.
This is by far the most bizarre thing he’s ever done. And she’s trying to decipher why she doesn’t have the slightest urge to run. He is so sad, it’s crushing and despite herself, and despite what they are, she wants to make it better. Awkwardly, she finally folds her arms around his broad frame and rubs circles over his shirt, the way you would comfort a crying babe.
There is a sigh beneath all the crying and he becomes less rigid suddenly, and if possible, sinks even more into her. He has been so parched for this, she knows. It kills her. And she resents him because how can she hate him now?
How can she kill him now?
There were times when she lay awake just wanting to know what lay beneath all his cunning rage and those polished features and now that she does, she just wants to un-know it.
Slowly but surely, she can feel his heartbeat calm against her. Though it seems like his heart can’t really decide who’s it is. Kylo’s is always more evenly paced, only racing when severely rattled but then quickly reigned in by stern discipline, while Ben’s is a hummingbird in flight. Now it stutters, neither both nor none of them, but at least it stutters slower. It dawns on her that once this is over, he will be deathly ashamed. And dangerous, because he is still himself and nothing is more dangerous than an ashamed Kylo Ren.
So she does not give him time to calm down entirely and frees herself gently but purposefully from his grip. She thinks he’s stopped crying but she can’t be sure the way he’s looking down at his knees as he sinks back into a kneel, one hand steadying him against the ground.
With nothing else she can think of doing, Rey gets up and resolves to just leave and wake up without another word. But then he grabs her wrist just as she takes the first step away. He doesn’t need to say anything, she knows what he wants now.
“I can’t,” she says, her voice a broken little thing, raspy from tears he’s cried.
“I know,” he replies, it’s barely a whisper, and lets go of her hand.
Rey wills herself to wake but she can’t muster the strength to even lift her head. She stares at the ceiling above her cot and a single tear runs from the corner of her eye into her ear.
Damn him. Damn him and the force and damn this whole entire galaxy.
She wishes she could just crawl back into her AT-AT on Jakku and forget everything. But he is burnt into her and his misery singes a hole into her very soul.