"I'm not doing it." Rey contemplated whether she could get away with stomping her foot for good measure, then decided that would be pushing her luck. She wasn't a brat, unlike certain other people currently taking up space in Leia's private office. "I'm not going undercover behind enemy lines with— with him."
"I have a name, you know," Ben said tersely, looking his long nose down at her.
"Yeah? Which one?" she spat, watching his brown eyes narrow beneath waves of thick, dark hair.
"Matt, actually." The wry voice interrupted their standoff, both their gazes swiveling to Luke as he perused a datasheet of concocted personal files. "That's Ben's alias for this mission."
"His solo mission," Rey stressed. The pun was unfortunate but unavoidable— what else were you supposed to call it? She turned to Leia, who had so far been observing the scene with that expression of hers that suggested she was seconds away from a blinding migraine. It was a very Ben expression, come to think of it. "General, you can't possibly think this is a good idea. We'll kill each other."
Leia sighed. "Unfortunately, Rey, we are all out of good ideas. Even as we speak, the Star Forge continues to churn out ships, droids, and other war material by the dozen. It must be eliminated if we are to have any hope of defeating the First Order."
"With enough bombers and X-wings—" Rey started to suggest, but was cut off by the older woman raising her hand in a forestalling gesture that brooked no argument.
"Even if the Resistance fleet could somehow break through the blockade of the Lehon system, we lack the manpower and ordnance for an assault of this scale," explained Leia. "It needs to be an inside job."
"And how exactly would you propose the girl and I obliterate an entire shipyard?" Ben demanded. "No, not just any shipyard— the Rakatan Star Forge."
"That's what you're going undercover to find out." Despite Luke's impassive facade, Rey couldn't shake the suspicion that he was enjoying this perhaps a little too much. The more his nephew's energy signature crackled with annoyance, the more Luke's glowed with contentment. "Posing as crew members, you'll glean enough knowledge of the system to sabotage it. Rey, your mechanical aptitude will certainly be invaluable. The same goes for Ben's... familiarity with First Order protocol and skill with mind techniques."
"We've noticed that, despite your differences, the two of you work very well together when push comes to shove, and there's also the fact that you're capable of an instantaneous, foolproof method of secret communication," Leia added. "Yes, Ben, shields down for this one. I must insist."
"Who knows?" Luke darted a faint smile at the two Force-sensitives standing before him as they stewed in silence and disbelief. "You might even learn to get along. Right, Leia?"
"Like a house on fire," the General deadpanned. "Complete with screams, flames, and people running for safety."
"Indeed." Luke's blue eyes twinkled. "There may be no survivors."
Ben arched a brow. "Considering what you're tasking us to accomplish, that's rather morbid humor, is it not?"
"At least they have a sense of humor," Rey muttered under her breath. "Just goes to show that taking yourself too seriously skips a generation."
"Perhaps if you were to speak a little louder I would be able to hear whatever it is you're saying without having to bend down," he sneered.
She clenched her fists. "I am of above average height for a human female, you overgrown tree—"
Leia turned away, shaking her head. "I have a bad feeling about this."
Perched on the edge of Rey's mattress, Finn studied the mousy, bespectacled apparition that had stepped out of the 'fresher. "You know, with your hair down, you look like a completely different person."
"That's the whole point, I believe." Rey patted a self-conscious hand over the curtain of chestnut hair that flowed just past her shoulders, already feeling like a stranger in her own skin. "Hi, my name is Kira and I'm from Coruscant."
"Hello, Kira from Coruscant," Finn gamely replied. "How's the Osarian-Rhommamool conflict looking? Think the Republic— or what's left of it, anyway— will intervene?"
"One thing I've noticed about Resistance members who grew up on Coruscant, they talk politics a lot," Finn explained. "They're Coreworlders, aren't they? It's the heart of the government. They get really passionate about it. I've had to break up a few debates before they could turn into outright brawls."
Rey groaned. "I don't know anything about politics."
"Well, you have R— Ben. He can feed you information through that, um—" Finn gestured from the side of his head to Rey's— "that thing."
"It's called a Force bond," she automatically supplied. "And it's all his fault."
Finn nodded, supportive as always. "Yeah, totally. It's going to come in handy during this operation, though."
"Why can't I go undercover with you, instead?" she lamented.
"Because they need me to shore up the defenses on the northern line." He patted her arm. It had been three years since the destruction of the Hosnian system and they were more or less blase about each other going on dangerous missions. You got used to it after a while— you had to, or the constant worrying would drive you mad. "It'll be over before you know it."
Rey snorted. "Doubtful."
She made her way to Ben's room, the doors parting with a wave of her hand. He had a passcode installed but she'd recently discovered how to manipulate electronic systems with the Force and was taking every opportunity to practice.
"You do realize that is a Dark Side ability?" Ben's voice drifted from the 'fresher. "Mechu-deru. It was invented by the Sith in the early days of the Old Republic."
"It's what I'm good at," Rey said stubbornly. "Come on, let's see your disguise." If she had to do this, then she might as well get a kick out of it.
His energy signature wavered. "Perhaps another time."
"We're shipping out in five hours."
When no reply seemed to be forthcoming, she headed to the 'fresher with every intention of simply barging in. However, Ben chose that precise moment to emerge and, just like that, they were all up in each other's personal space, her face inches away from his chest.
Rey blinked. Like her, he wore baggy workmen's clothing and comically oversized glasses, but— on his narrow features, the squared silver frames weren't as terrible as they should have been. They emphasized the pensive countenace of his eyes and pulled all his odd angles together. The right side of his face was conspicuously unmarred.
"Synthskin," Ben mumbled in response to what Rey was staring at. "It was such a very noticeable scar, after all. It would have drawn more attention than necessary."
"I know. Yeah. That was a smart move." She would not, would not feel strangely bereft, as if she were mourning the loss of something that had been important.
"It was not my choice. The intelligence division ordered it."
Kriff, he sounded like he was apologizing, and that only made the uncertain, hollow sensation in the pit of her stomach grow roots. She hastily tore her gaze from his smooth cheek, looked upwards, and—
"I know it's a horrid wig," Ben snarled, glaring at her as she doubled over, shoulders shaking. "Stop laughing—"
It was dusk, muggy and halogen-tinted, when they made planetfall on the extensively industrialized world of Fondor, their nondescript light cruiser easing past the massive shipyards and drydocks that hovered over the ecumenopolis like orbital rings of durasteel and cable. The humid air was thick with soot, and Rey covered the lower half of her face with the scarf around her neck to keep the pollution from pouring into her lungs. Ben walked slightly ahead of her, his broad frame cutting a path through narrow streets teeming with construction workers and labor droids. He was having more trouble than usual, with no one scrambling to get out of his way. Either the inhabitants of Fondor were made from sterner stuff, or the blond wig was really just that ridiculous— enough to cancel out six feet of intimidating muscle. They hadn't lowered their mental shields yet but Rey could sense his annoyance prickling the currents of the Force; by the time they managed to find an inn with vacancies, his energy signature was as sullen and curdled as sour milk.
"What do you mean 'there's only one room'?" Ben's fists clenched at his sides like he was seconds from strangling the diminutive, gray-feathered Mrlssi stationed at the front desk.
The innkeeper was unfazed. "I meant exactly what I said, outworlder," he replied in grating tones that reminded Rey of carrion birds. "Take it or leave it."
Rey stepped forward, shouldering Ben aside. "We'll take it," she announced as she plunked the necessary credits down on the countertop. It had been a long voyage through the Hydian Way and out the Shipwrights' Trace, and she wanted nothing more than to sleep until morning. At this point, she didn't much care who was in the room with her while she did so.
"Last door to your left, upstairs." The Mrlssi slid a key card towards them on long, curved talons. "If you folks are looking for a hot meal, we serve the best Xachibik broth outside of the southwestern quadrant."
"I'll be the judge of that," Ben snapped, stalking off in the direction of the dining area.
"Charming, that one," the innkeeper commented dryly. "Don't know what you see in him."
"Let's just say I have a thing for blonds," Rey groused. She pocketed the key card and trailed after Ben to the sound of the Mrlssi's raucous, guttural laughter.
It was a small, rundown inn, catering mostly to smugglers, spacers, and people who— like Kira from Coruscant and Matt from Corellia— were hoping to be recruited by the First Order tomorrow, to work onboard the legendary Star Forge. Once Armitage Hux had decimated the Republic fleet, Fondor and the rest of the Tapani sector had been quick to revive their Imperial sympathies, brazenly allowing Snoke's forces to come and go at will. It kept Leia on perpetual edge, considering that Fondor's location was strategic enough to serve as a staging point for an assault on the Core worlds.
Ben and Rey squeezed themselves into a corner table, taking care to keep their heads lowered as they ate. The Xachibik broth that the service droid brought over was fragrant, meaty, and spicy, and Rey attacked it with gusto, shoveling piping hot spoonfuls down her throat. It wasn't long before she noticed that Ben was staring at her, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose.
"What?" she demanded, cheeks bulging. She had never quite gotten the hang of not talking when her mouth was full; she knew it drove him nuts.
"You cannot possibly think this tastes good."
"I grew up eating veg-meat and polystarch," she reminded him. "Didn't even know what seasoning was until I made it off Jakku. Of course this tastes good to me."
Guilt spasmed across his expressive features. They bickered a lot but the moment his sharp tongue came close to cutting into her old scars, he would invariably retreat, more stricken than she was. "It's just not authentic, that's all," he grumbled to his barely-touched stew.
"Who made you the expert on—"
"Kashyyyk cuisine?" he supplied, an edge to his voice.
That shut her up. Chewbacca was civil but had not yet forgotten and, as time passed, it grew less likely that he ever would. For Rey, the sting had— not dulled, that wasn't the right word for it, but there was far less satisfaction than she'd expected in watching— in feeling— Ben Solo beat himself up for his father's death, day in, day out.
She finished her meal in silence while he listlessly pushed his around in its bowl. He continued to avoid her gaze until they had reached their shared quarters on the second level, the door hissing open to reveal, in all its austere glory, the lone bed shoved up against the far wall. His eyes did flicker to her, then, before he looked away, the tips of his ears turning bright red. "I can take the floor."
"Don't be ridiculous." Rey plopped down on the saggy mattress— it had seen better days, that was for sure— and started unlacing her boots. "It's only for a few hours, and we both need to be well-rested for tomorrow."
"I doubt spending the night fighting each other for space will count as 'well-rested.'"
"More so than you trying to make yourself comfortable on a hard floor. You're an asshole when you don't get enough sleep, you know that?" When he looked like he was about to argue further, she exhaled in frustration. "All right, if you really can't bear to lay next to me for one kriffing night, I'll take the floor—"
"No," he hastened to say. "That wouldn't be—"
"Proper?" she guessed, perhaps a little too snidely. The first time he held a door open for her, she'd been confused until C-3PO remarked how nice it was that Master Ben still remembered his etiquette lessons. My, my, she'd snapped the next time it happened, where were all these manners when you knocked me unconscious and strapped me to an interrogation rack? He'd gone pale— paler than usual, anway— and had never done it again. To this day, it annoyed her that she still felt lingering guilt over that. "Don't worry, Your Princeliness, I've bunked in worse conditions."
He pursed his lips. "You are not sleeping on the floor."
"Well, neither are you!" she retorted, her temper flaring.
And that was how they ended up crammed into a narrow bed that barely held enough room for one person, let alone two. Their glasses and his awful wig were on the nightstand, their boots and outerwear scattered on the tiles. Curled at the edge of the bed in her loose pants and camisole, Rey shut her eyes against the odd intimacy of seeing their things tangled together, Ben's long limbs jostling her every so often as he struggled to arrange them into a comfortable position, the mattress shifting with every movement.
Her patience finally evaporated when his tossing and turning almost dislodged her from her precarious perch. She sat up in a huff. "You were right, we can't sleep like this," she grudgingly admitted. "I'll take the floor and that's final— just toss me a blanket—"
A sinewy arm clamped around her waist, hauling her back down to the bed. She stifled a gasp of surprise as she found herself tucked against Ben's broad chest, her head pillowed on his outstretched arm while the one that was around her waist remained draped there, a foreign yet strangely comforting weight. He was— spooning her, his legs bent behind hers so as not to dangle off the mattress, his heartbeat a staccato rhythm at her spine.
"There." His lips brushed her hair as he spoke, the gruff, uncertain tone rumbling in her ear. "Now can we get some rest?"
This is nothing, Rey told herself. It's a solution to a problem, is all. We're being practical. But why, oh, why was she blushing? The heat stained her cheeks, adding to the general humidity of the night air. While the sensation of being pressed against him was nothing new, it had always been for only the briefest of moments— locked together while sparring or shielding the other in battle or squeezing into dark corners during stealth ops. It had never been like this, in bed on an unfamiliar planet where he was the only thing she knew, in the primary stage of what was quite possibly the most nerve-wracking mission of her life so far. It all made this forced embrace seem— softer, somehow. More fraught with meaning.
After a while, Ben lifted his arm from her waist. She risked a glance over her shoulder— he was covering his profile with his hand but, through the gaps in his fingers, she could see patches of red blossoming on his own cheek. We're so messed up, Rey thought as she telekinetically flicked the wall switch that powered the glow-panels, enveloping the room in darkness. The fact that he was also blushing put her at ease; she fell asleep with her back to him, the wry, amused grin on her face hidden in the lean stretch of his arm.