Actions

Work Header

variations on a theme of you

Chapter Text

"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?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"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.

 

"Fine."

 

"Fine."

 

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.

 

 

Chapter Text

A series of shrill, insistent beeps pierced through the myriad layers of sleep clouding Rey's brain, nudging her into a state of half-consciousness that served only to tell her that this was the best, most restful slumber she'd had in ages and she should maximize it. Everything felt soft and warm and safe. Part of her was already dozing off again, chasing a dream of oceans, but the beeping persisted. She whined in protest, pressing her face into the pillow, and the solid heat enveloping her body shifted as someone's arm reached out and did something that put a stop to the disturbance, ushering in blessed silence once more.

 

"Thanks," she murmured, and the person— whoever they were— grunted in response, nuzzling at her hair. She hummed in pleasure; as if encouraged, warm lips began trailing slow, sleepy kisses down the bare skin of her neck. Oh, that was nice. She rolled over onto her back to grant better access, arching when a large hand crept up her stomach in a languid exploration that kept time with the neck kisses and her gradually soaring heartbeat. The hand drifted upwards and, moments later, so did the lips, teeth nibbling at the spot where her ear met her jawline while long fingers curved over her right breast. Rey luxuriated in the sensations, calm yet electric all at once, the coil of heat in her abdomen tightening with every lazy caress. Her eyes fluttered open, taking in the morning light that streamed through the windows and tangled in Ben's dark hair...

 

She screamed. And kneed him in the solar plexus.

 

Ben jerked back, his cry of pain followed by another one when he slammed against the wall. "What the..." He blinked at her groggily as she sat upright, crossing her arms over her chest. Realization set in, the color draining from his face, and he hastily drew the blanket up his hips but it was too late, she'd seen it, the arousal straining at the seams of his baggy pants.

 

"Y— you pervert!" Rey sputtered. She yanked the pillow out from under his head and hit him with it. Once, twice for good measure. " Groping me— the nerve—"

 

"You weren't exactly complaining," he huffed, shielding his head with his arms.

 

"I was asleep!"

 

"So was I!"

 

She bounced the pillow off the side of his head again. His flustered expression giving way to annoyance, he lunged, wolf-quick, and had her pinned to the mattress before she knew it, his fingers clamped around her wrists and the pillow slipping from her grasp. Danger, danger, warned her common sense, alarms blaring as his lips hovered above hers, his hips fitting snugly between her thighs—

 

wait, those were actual alarms—

 

Rey's gaze swept to the chronometer on the nightstand, which was emitting the same beeping sound that had woken her up. It all came crashing back— where they were, what they should be doing, who they were supposed to be. She pushed Ben off of her, and the next few minutes were spent throwing on their disguises and determinedly not acknowledging what had just occurred. She almost sighed in relief once he'd shoved his hair under the blond wig— if anything was going to dampen her wayward urges, it would be that.

 

"You forgot something," Ben called just as she was about to open the door. He held her glasses out to her, the temple tips pinched between forefinger and thumb, and observed with a curiously unreadable look on his face as she put them on.

 

"What?" She resisted the urge to fiddle with the ends of her loose hair. She was always so self-conscious around him.

 

"It doesn't matter," he said tersely.

 

She quirked an eyebrow at him but did not press the subject, belatedly remembering something else that was more critical to their circumstances. "Before we go..."

 

"Right." Was it her imagination or did he blanch? The nod that he offered was uncertain. Reluctant. And, if truth be told, mildly insulting. After Snoke, after the desiccated phantom of Darth Vader, she couldn't possibly be the worst thing to have in his head.

 

She took a deep breath and opened herself up to the Force, all the while watching him do the same. They lowered their mental shields with care— gradually, gradually, that was the trick, like dipping your toes into a pool of cold water. One by one the barriers fell; hers was the bolder mind, it was the first to move forward, wrapping around his tight enough that he couldn't recoil as he invariably did at the start. A shuddering breath coursed through his body and touched off inner chords within her, and the bond unfurled between them like a burst of silvery vines opening at the height of summer sun, gilded petals trailing goosebumps along her skin. Back in the early days it had felt awful and parasitic on both their ends, the two of them inwardly screaming at each other to get out, get out, I never asked for this as emotions and memories bled into a suffocating muddle. Now, after training and working together for so long, it's harder to describe. Rey likened it to slicing— a foreign yet compatible string of code patched through her system that could override if she wasn't careful but stayed benign for the most part and always worked both ways. A sort of— looking at the world through each other's eyes. This past year, however, Ben had been more reticent about opening the connection, which was hardly fair considering that he had started it on Starkiller Base.

 

Rey hoisted the strap of her travel bag further up her shoulder as she turned back to the door. "Let's get this show on the road, Matt."

 

Ben exhaled a long-suffering sigh. "After you, Kira."

 

*

 

The shipyard where the First Order was conducting its recruitment interviews was located at the edge of the ecumenopolis, tinted in waxy rays of feeble sunshine that did little to dispel the perennial smog. Long queues of shabbily-dressed men and women radiated from the tents in which the officers were interrogating prospective crew while stormtroopers marched up and down the rows, barking reprimands at the more disruptive applicants. What struck Rey about this organized chaos was that— contrary to the lines at the Resistance headquarters' mess hall or Unkar Plutt's blockhouse in Niima Outpost— everyone was human. Not a single Rodian or Sluissi or Duros in sight, and those were the species that most commonly plied their skills in starship maintenance and repair throughout the galaxy.

 

You are surprised by the First Order's lack of affirmative action? Ben's voice in her head was in full lecture mode, and so, so patronizing. It is a remnant of the Empire, the policies of which were inherently humanocentric—

 

Okay, look, Rey interrupted, if this is ever going to work, you need to fit in with these people. And that means you have to stop talking like that.

 

Like what? he sniffed, visibly offended.

 

Like— like you. Take the pretentiousness down a notch. Otherwise everyone's going to start wondering why a damn scholar is consigning himself to menial labor in the Unknown Regions— She stopped, cursing as she evaluated that sentence. "Consigning"? She'd been spending way too much time with him. Just speak like a normal person, Ben.

 

He glared down at her but nodded after a while, his Force signature crackling like it did whenever he had to admit that she had a point. Very well. I shall endeavor to simplify—

 

She elbowed him in the ribs.

 

To speak like a normal person, he sulkily corrected. To... have real talk with real folks.

 

He transmitted the words to her with such a serious, pained expression that Rey burst into peals of laughter. Ben's jaw tightened but his end of their mental link turned— soft, somehow. It took a few seconds to register and, when it did, her mirth shifted to confusion, the laughter fading from her lips. She tried to snatch the feeling, hold it up to scrutiny, but then she noticed the odd stares from several other people standing in line. Kriff. While the conversations that she had with Ben through the bond were as real to her as if they were spoken out loud, to the rest of the world it appeared as though they were communicating entirely in gestures and looks. If the Resistance found it unsettling, so would these strangers here on Fondor.

 

Rey turned around to face the tents. The queue moved forward and she moved with it, retreating a step to dodge the massive, bulging rucksack that the woman in front of her swung onto her back. Ben didn't budge, however, and that was why Rey ended up walking backwards into him. His hands flew to her hips to steady her and the bond flared at the sudden touch, like a fire that had been fed more kindling. This was what Rey herself hated about being tethered to him— how every little sensation was amplified and echoed until she was made only of it, the feeling. Her common sense yelled at her to wriggle out of his grasp, put distance between them once more, but she... didn't. As they drew nearer to the entrance of the recruitment tent that they were queued at, his hands remained on her hips, stationary and chaste but there, keeping her pressed against him. He didn't even appear to be conscious of what he was doing, focused entirely on the warm, soothing pulse that threaded through the bond like a song.

 

And, the thing was, Rey understood. Leia had reminisced about how affectionate her only son had been as a baby— for a child like that to be incorporated into the monastic Jedi lifestyle and then, years later, to be covered in armor from head to toe and to rarely know someone else's touch on his bare skin, one of the exceptions being the day his father's hand cradled his cheek on a bridge of smoke and metal and red light—

 

There were very few instances when Rey felt well-disposed towards Ben. This was one of those times. She patted the hand that was on her right hip, which, in hindsight, was a rather awkward gesture but you wouldn't have known it from the way he pulled her just the slightest bit closer, his thumb idly tracing a circle along the waistband of her pants.

 

It seemed that her turn to be interviewed came in no time at all, although they must have been standing in line for hours. "Next!" boomed a deep, forbidding voice from inside the tent, and an abrupt shockwave of panic surged through Rey's system. Could she really do this?

 

Ben nudged her in the direction of the tent flaps. He squeezed her right hip once, in gentle reassurance, and then he let her go.

 

*

 

The recruitment officer was a barrel-chested, middle-aged man with a rather impressive salt-and-pepper mustache. He scanned Rey's falsified birth records and previous employment history— at obscure, now-defunct Outer Rim corporations— with a stern look on his face, asking her the occasional question here and there. She answered with the efficient calm of someone who had actually lived that life— or, to be more accurate, someone who had been rehearsing her cover story for days. And, finally, she reached out with the Force to implant a suggestion in the officer's mind— a suggestion that soon bloomed into a directive, nurtured by her capable replies and years of supposed experience. She let it take root— of course she was the perfect person for this job, they would be lucky to have her— all the while careful not to get swept up in the strange thrill of bending another living soul to her own desires.

 

"I believe this is sufficient," the man said at last, tapping at the datapad in front of him before offering her a cool, civil nod, his gray eyes glossed with the mind trick's effect. "Welcome to the First Order."

 

*

 

They shipped out of Fondor in the late afternoon on a black, grebe-shaped vessel resembling the old Imperial cargo ships that littered the sands of Jakku. It was a four-day voyage from the Colonies to the Unknown Regions, and Rey suspected that she wasn't in for a pleasant trip. The stormtroopers made her antsy and most of the new hires fell at opposite ends of the spectrum of adjusting to an unfamiliar environment— either sharp and hostile or overly friendly and too talkative. She and Ben kept to themselves, sitting together at mealtimes, playing Dejarik when the lone board in the barracks was available, and mentally reviewing mission protocols and agreeing on code words in the event that they, for some reason, could not use the Force to communicate.

 

The accommodations were cramped but, overall, not the worst that she had been subjected to in her twenty-two years of existence. At least she had a mattress, even if that mattress was on the bottom bunk of a triple-decker bed surrounded by dozens of others. Ben's was on the far end of the hall, right next to the viewport, and on the second night she made him keep his eyes open long after lights out so that she could watch the starlines stream past like minnows in the blue-black river of hyperspace.

 

How have you not tired of this yet? he demanded after half an hour had come and gone. It's all the same.

 

No, it isn't, she retorted. Did you see that mass shadow just now? It looked like what's left of Starlyte Station, meaning we're somewhere around Tshindral III.

 

Meaning we're in the Mid Rim, he grumped. This is taking forever. I shall be old and gray by the time we reach Lehon.

 

You're already old. But— and here she grinned in the darkness, at the wall that she was physically facing even if stars were unfurling behind her eyes through the bond— you're definitely not gray.

 

I'm burning this wig once we're done.

 

Might be for the best.

 

And you need to learn to respect your elders.

 

She snorted out loud at that, hastily disguising the sound as a cough. The occupant of the bottom bunk next to hers stirred but thankfully did not wake. She relaxed into the mattress once more, curled up on her side while, at the opposite end of the hall, Ben lay on his back with his head turned towards the shimmering viewport.

 

Just a little while longer, she requested when his drowsiness started to creep through the bond. She wasn't ready to give up the stars yet.

 

Leave it to you to find a way to sightsee on this mission. It wasn't a complaint, not quite. He sounded exasperated, yes, but also sleepy, also oddly fond of her. You're always in love with everything.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, she should have known that the companionable truce was too good to last.

 

On the third night of the voyage, as the First Order cargo ship raced up the Outer Rim leg of the Rimma Trade Route and she stargazed through his eyes, Ben's nose started bleeding. Rey felt it as if it were her own, the warm liquid that trickled down his philtrum, the salty, metallic taste that dotted his tongue. People peered out crankily from beneath their blankets as she bolted out of bed and scrambled to his side all the way across the vast dormitory room, hauling him to the medbay despite his protests that he was fine, that it was nothing.

 

It was very clearly not nothing— aside from the blood that had spilled onto the front of his shirt and the sleeve of hers, his brow was spiked with sweat and his pupils were dilated in the sterile light that shone from overhead as he was examined by an FX-series medical assistant droid.

 

"Rapture," the Fixit pronounced after a while in its whirring, mechanical voice. "It most commonly presents as neurological, but epistaxis is not unheard of—"

 

"What the hell is 'rapture'?" Rey demanded.

 

"Madness." The yellow light in the droid's eyes blinked as it pulled up the necessary information from its databanks. "Specifically, the madness acquired from staring into hyperspace for a prolonged period of time." Its head swiveled towards Ben. "The recommended treatment is a cold compress to the ocular area, bedrest, and overnight observation. You may return to your barracks in the morning."

 

"Why didn't you say anything?" Rey yelled at Ben, her hands balling into fists at her sides.

 

"I thought I had it under control," he muttered, not meeting her gaze.

 

"Well, obviously, you didn't," she snapped. "So what happens now? Have you gone mad? Am I going to have to explain to your mother that her son went mad because he was a cocky idiot—" She realized her mistake the moment the words left her mouth. Without missing a beat, she swept a hand in front of the Fixit, using that ancient Sith skill to wipe the past several seconds from its memory. She hadn't mentioned any names but the less that could be used to implicate them, the better.

 

Ben's eyes had narrowed. While the intimidating effect was dampened by the fact that he was holding a wad of tissue to his left nostril, there was no mistaking the anger that emanated from his tense, sinewy frame. You had better hope to the Force that there are no surveillance feeds here or, at the very least, that there is no audio pickup, he snarled into their mental link. Now, are you quite finished jeopardizing this mission with your guilt-induced temper tantrum?

 

You're one to talk about temper tantrums, Rey seethed. She waited only until the Fixit had guided Ben to an infirmary bed and placed a cold compress over his eyes before she stormed out of the medbay.

 

*

 

Two of the women on the triple-decker beside Rey's were awake when she returned. "Is your boyfriend all right?" asked the black-haired, olive-skinned one named Elysia.

 

"He's not my boyfriend," Rey growled.

 

They seemed surprised. The one named Inure blinked at her with wide green eyes. "Are you sure?"

 

"Positive." Rey lay down, pulling the blanket up to her chin and squeezing her eyes shut.

 

Unfortunately, the women didn't get the hint. "It was the rapture, wasn't it?" Elysia sounded sympathetic. "I see it all on the time on long hauls. They really should opaque these viewports— hyperspace makes amazing patterns but, in the end, it's all emptiness, yeah? No wonder people go insane."

 

Inure laughed. "Happened to me while I was working the Namadii Corridor. Nearly opened the cabin doors and sucked all of us into the vacuum. I was fine after I threw up, though."

 

Rey had never gotten the hang of small talk. Since she and Finn were sort of a package deal, she'd assimilated into the camaraderie of Poe's Black Squadron well enough, but it was still strange to her how people who had just met could spin conversations out of air and nothing. It didn't help that she currently had Ben in her head, his antisocial tendencies heightening hers. So she didn't respond, and eventually Elysia and Inure drifted off to sleep.

 

Rey found it difficult to follow suit. The guilt ate at her like a toothache. Wasn't it just like him, to suffer in silence even though something was heinously wrong? She punched her pillow in frustration. Men!

 

*

 

Nothing in Rey's life could have prepared her for the sight of the Star Forge. It loomed out of the dark celestial wastes of the Lehon system, a sphere the size of a planet encased in massive, elongated fins above the fiery star of Abo, from which it drew the power needed to mass produce the fighter craft that were streaming out of its hangars and swarming around it as wasps would a hive.

 

Inside the cargo ship, people flocked to the viewports, gazes full of wonder and the air spiked with awed gasps as they inched towards the gigantic structure. Rey had her nose pressed to the cold transparisteel when she registered Ben's presence— he stood behind her, his vague reflection in the viewport mingling with the swirl of nebulae and the glimmer of distant comets.

 

Note the energy field, he told her through the bond, the first mildly civil thing either of them had said to the other since the rapture incident.

 

She concentrated and, yes, there it was, the invisible shield being projected from a planet beneath the sun. That is Lehon, Ben supplied. The Rakatan homeworld. In the days of the Infinite Empire, the shield was generated from their Temple of the Ancients. I suppose it is the same case now.

 

The energy field shifted to let them through without incident; had they been marked as hostile, their ship would have been disabled and captured by Lehon's gravity well, sending them spiraling down to the planet below. Rey was all nerves by the time they eased into a dock located at one of the fins, her stomach twisting anxiously as she and Ben, along with the other new recruits, were herded out of the ship and down a gloomy connecting tunnel and, finally, into the vast, cavernous darkness of the Star Forge. There were machines everywhere, hidden behind the walls or submerged in smoke beneath the narrow bridges they crossed on their way to wherever the stormtroopers and officers were leading them. Pumps gurgled and cogs whirred and engines droned on and on amidst the sibilant hiss of steam, thousands upon thousands of clockwork hearts beating a ceaseless mechanical rhythm in the haze of shadows and deeply arterial light.

 

"This place gives me the creeps," Elysia complained in an undertone as she marched behind Rey, who found herself fervently agreeing. The Rakatans had channeled the Dark Side to construct this enormous shipyard; remnants of such energy lingered in the metal, snagging at Rey's veins like stray threads. Jidai? they hissed, and she did not answer, afraid of what might happen otherwise.

 

Beside her, Ben was struggling with each step that he took. The Dark clung more readily to him, almost as if it were welcoming a lord long gone. She could sometimes forget that he had once been Kylo Ren but there was no denying it here, where she could hear echoes of the ancient Sith calling out to him in the connection that they shared. They were only echoes but they wrapped around him, isolating him from the rest of the world, offering false comfort to a child who'd had nothing, no one...

 

Before she could second-guess herself, Rey reached across the space between her and Ben to tangle their fingers together, tugging gently to mimic the sensation of an anchor. Finn had taught her this, the importance of touch, the simplest of ways to let somebody know that they were not alone. She half-expected Ben to pull away, the fight still fresh on both their minds, but he didn't. He gripped her hand tightly, like it was something he had waited a very long time for.

 

*

 

The Star Forge was large enough that every crew member could have their own room. Tiny rooms the size of prison cells, yes, but privacy was a luxury Rey had not known on D'Qar. She studied herself in the mirror with a grimace; while there had been no chance to learn the finer points of vanity growing up on Jakku, First Order technician uniforms were severely unflattering— drab gray overalls that sagged and wrinkled in the most inconvenient places, a bulky and hideously orange vest. It was terrible, and unfair, considering the sleek, sophisticated tailoring of the officers' getups.

 

They weren't even being given time to acclimatize; she had to report to her station in an hour. Rey slipped on her glasses, briefly contemplating starting a workers' union.

 

I would not be averse to that, Ben said.

 

Rey smirked at her reflection. I'm off to production in the east wing. You?

 

Upper deck. On the north axis, he replied with evident distaste. I'll see you at dinner.

 

There was a hint of a question there, striking her as odd because of course they had to meet up in order to figure out the next stage of the plan. She realized he was still thinking about their argument in the medbay— and the thing was, enough time had passed since then for Rey to admit that she shouldn't have gone off on him like that. Guilt had made her defensive, had caused her to lose sight of the fact that he, for whatever reason, had been trying to do something nice for her. It was harder than she'd expected, learning how to become a person, learning how she could affect other people, and perhaps he was more annoying than most but that didn't mean she should stop trying.

 

See you, she assured him.

 

*

 

Her first day on the job went smoothly enough. As a junior mechanic, she was assigned to one of the assembly lines where she spent a good portion of her time oiling gears and tightening screws. It was simple, repetitive labor, the boredom barely alleviated by how she kept her eyes and ears peeled for opportunities for sabotage. Soon the perpetual hum of machines faded to mere aural wallpaper, monotony lulling her brain into that same robotic compliance with which she'd scrubbed salvage free of grime in exchange for rations. Ben's voice exploded in her head— Rey— and she jerked up, startled, the wrench that she'd been holding clattering to the floor and her skull cracking against the durasteel ledge that she was crouched under.

 

"Kriff!" she burst out, rubbing the back of her head.

 

That hurt, he accused. Pain could be transmitted through the bond when it was open and unfettered— they'd discovered that the hard way, in battle.

 

"Everything all right, Kira?" Inure asked from the next booth.

 

"Yes, I'm fine," Rey called back, picking up her wrench and returning to the task at hand. What do you want? she snapped at Ben.

 

What does a calcinator look like?

 

How can you not know what a calcinator looks like?

 

Rey. Some woman is yelling at me. I have politely requested that she stop, but— He was clearly frustrated, his Force signature thorny and coiled in on itself like a serpent under threat. Ben was not good at being yelled at. Luke had once hypothesized that it dated back to his childhood, when Han and Leia's blazing quarrels would have surely unnerved the quiet, hypersensitive boy that Ben had been.

 

Rey sent him a mental image of a calcinator. How do I rewire it? he continued, and she sighed and hauled herself deeper into their link. She saw his hands first, buried to the wrists in the innards of an open circuitry panel on the upper deck, a cacophony of footsteps and voices rattling past. Shutting out all other stimuli, she focused on his hands and the wires and coached him through the process, watching his long, thick fingers move in tandem with her words. He really did have nice hands— elegantly sculpted yet strong. A swordsman's hands, or an artist's. She got so caught up looking at them that she missed it when he inserted one wire into the wrong slot, prompting a tiny conflagration of sparks and an indignant shriek— "What's the matter with you?"— from his supervisor.

 

Sorry! Rey yelped as Ben hurriedly removed the wire, coughing out the smoke that poured into his lungs. I was... distracted...

 

You could have picked a better time to be, he sniffed.

 

Don't you dare take that tone, I'm doing you a favor, she retorted, her cheeks flushing pink. You're not exactly on your way to winning any Employee of the Month awards here.

 

Even if I were, he grunted, you appear to have vastly lowered my chances.

 

*

 

When Rey saw Ben in his technician uniform for the first time, she almost died of laughter on the spot. The way the gray overalls hung off his frame made him look positively skinny and the orange vest washed out his already pale complexion, joining forces with the oversized spectacles and the ratty yellow hair to form a picture of a complete and utter dweeb. Stars, she wished she had a camera.

 

"How's it hanging, Matt?" She grinned up at him after elbowing through the crowd spilling into the mess hall.

 

He scowled at her, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. Which, of course, only made her laugh harder.

 

The mess hall was too noisy and crowded for conversations of an illicit, shipyard-obliterating nature so, after wolfing down a rather bland but filling meal, Rey dragged Ben away from his quarter-full plate and led him to a small break room around the corner. As the doors hissed shut behind them, she did a quick mental scan for surveillance cameras, relaxing only once she had satisfied herself that there were none.

 

"I wasn't finished eating," Ben said, leaning one shoulder against the wall and gazing at her with mildly reproachful eyes that, in this bright, bluish light, were the color of warm brandy, as if that ridiculous blond wig made them appear lighter than they actually were.

 

"If I'd waited for you to finish, we would have sat there until the next Ice Age," Rey quipped. It was one of many longstanding points of contention between them, how slowly he ate in comparison to her. Manners, Ben called it. Wasting time, Rey would invariably correct. "I was stuck in production all day— were you able to look around?"

 

Not so loud, he warned. You never know. He beckoned her closer and leaned down to murmur in her ear. "We won't be able to inflict much damage by tampering with decks or assembly lines. They're all too far from the nerve center of the Forge. Our best bet is the engine room."

 

And it was the single most horrible, most mortifying thing in the galaxy, but Rey could not for the life of her understand what Ben was saying on account of the goosebumps that broke out everywhere his warm breath fanned across her skin and sent shivers down her spine. She was so burningly conscious of how close his lips were to her ear, could only think about how those same lips had kissed her neck in the inn on Fondor. It was an ardent sense of self-preservation that had her hightailing it out of the bond but he latched on at the last possible second, the sensation akin to a hand underwater grasping her ankle as she fought to swim up to the surface.

 

"What's wrong?" he inquired with a pensive frown.

 

"N— nothing." Rey hated her voice in that moment, how squeaky it sounded. "I'm just tired, that's all. The engine room, you were saying?"

 

Ben nodded. "We need to find out where it is and how to gain access. We shall probably have to do an initial survey of the area to determine where best to plant the bombs—"

 

"Have we decided on bombs, then? I wasn't aware."

 

"It is the most efficient method. You're better situated to acquire them than I am."

 

"They have me in droid production right now but we rotate every week."

 

"A week's time should be enough to locate the engine room. Get yourself assigned to explosives as soon as possible."

 

"How am I supposed to do that?"

 

He shot her a look of disbelief. "Forgive me, I was under the impression that you were a proficient Force user."

 

"You're a riot," Rey deadpanned. She had, in fact, forgotten. Her powers had blossomed late, they weren't as second nature to her as to Ben, who used the Force like breathing. "I suppose our escape strategy is to commandeer one of the ships. We'll also have to figure out how to do that before putting the plan in motion."

 

"You read my mind."

 

She clamped her lips shut on the giggle that threatened to emerge, choosing to wrinkle her nose at him instead. "Oh, so now you have a sense of humor—"

 

*

 

Trudging back to the women's dorms, Rey was accosted by Elysia and Inure. There was no other word for it— they popped up as if from nowhere to flank her, wide, knowing grins on their faces.

 

"Hey," said Elysia. "Did you have a nice dinner?"

 

"I guess it was all right," Rey said warily. Did they know? Kriff, had they overheard? According to Ben, the First Order wasn't above planting spies within their own ranks. Her mind raced a mile a minute, plotting ways to get the two women alone so that she could perform a memory wipe.

 

"Dessert was nicer, then?" Inure pressed in a tone dripping false innocence. "You were in such a hurry for it, after all. You didn't even let poor Matt finish his food."

 

Rey's brow creased. "What are you—"

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

Elysia was the first to take pity on her as she floundered and sputtered and had no idea what to say. "It's okay if you're not comfortable opening up to us, but don't feel like you have to keep your relationship a secret or anything like that. They usually turn a blind eye to fraternizing on huge gigs like this as long as you have the implant, which medical checks all new hires for, anyway."

 

Rey absently rubbed the inside of her upper arm, where such a device had been inserted as part of standard Resistance procedure two years ago. One afternoon, as they watched Ben spar with Luke, Leia had casually asked her if she was feeling any side effects from the implant— upon hearing that, Ben had stumbled in the middle of a complicated maneuver, almost falling flat on his face.

 

"Besides," Inure chimed in, "you were already a couple when you signed up, so it's not a big deal."

 

"Um." Rey had a brief flashback to that day on Fondor when Ben had been holding her hips as they waited in queue. "That wasn't really..."

 

"I'm not a creep, I swear," Inure hastened to say. "I was in the next row and Matt sort of sticks out in a crowd, doesn't he, he's so tall—"

 

"We're not together," Rey managed to protest at last. "Matt and I— we're just friends."

 

A matronly older woman walking in front of them glanced around with a skeptical look. "Whatever you say, dear."

 

*

 

Rey spent the next couple of days in a state of awkward self-consciousness, taking great care to put as much distance between her and Ben as possible; it helped that she only saw him at mealtimes. One morning, she could barely look at him as they faced each other across the end of one long table. She ate in silence, tearing off hunks of bread and chewing with single-minded viciousness. Picking up on her mood, Ben stared morosely down at his plate, fork prodding at heaps of scrambled egg and wilted vegetables without much enthusiasm.

 

Finally, he asked, point-blank, "What did I do now?"

 

"What do you mean?" she hedged.

 

He shrugged. "You're usually unbearably chatty in the morning."

 

"Unbearably, is it?" she humphed.

 

"That was not my point."

 

Before she could respond, a stockily-built man with curly russet hair wandered over to them, bearing a tray. "Hello, lovebirds. Mind if I join you? Everywhere else is full."

 

Ben blinked up at the newcomer through his glasses while Rey cringed. "He's not my boyfriend," she said a little too loudly, a little too defensively. Ben's gaze swerved to her and she felt something inside him sort of— shut down. As if he'd hastily erected a barrier over some sudden splinter of... hurt? No, that was ridiculous, why would he be hurt?

 

"My mistake," said the newcomer, sounding unconvinced. "I assumed— what with the two of you always sitting together and all— anyway, can I...?"

 

"Feel free," Rey said before Ben could correct the other man's grammar. He was just about to, she could see the beginnings of "May you" form on his lips. The man sat beside Ben, who automatically inched further away so that their shoulders wouldn't touch.

 

"Name's Tremblai. I'm in engine repair."

 

"I'm Kira, assembly line. This is Matt— radar." Rey poked at Ben through the bond. He's in engine repair!

 

I heard. I'm right here.

 

Make friends with him, she ordered, before flashing Tremblai what she hoped was a charming smile. It was so very unlike her that Ben snickered in her head and she kicked him under the table. "Engine room, huh? Must be a long walk from the barracks every day."

 

"I don't mind the exercise," Tremblai cheerfully replied as he dug into his breakfast. "It's not that far, in any case. You take the lower south deck's turbolift down ten levels and you're golden. The real hassle is getting cleared by security."

 

"Are they very strict down there?" Rey asked.

 

"Well, you know droids. Sticklers for protocol."

 

"Yeah," she said slowly, reflecting on R2-D2 and BB-8, who wouldn't know what protocol was if it hit them on their round little heads. Ben's thoughts ran along the same lines— the tiniest of smirks played at the corners of his lips.

 

"The droids don't seem to enjoy searching me, which, I gotta say, is a foreign experience." Tremblai winked at Rey, and—

 

And—

 

The truth was, Rey had been a stranger to flirting for the first nineteen years of her life so, now, whenever anyone aimed it her way, her brain tended to short-circuit. She looked down, shoulders hunched in on herself and caught between laughing it off or playing along, her smile shy.

 

Chair legs scraped across the tiles as Ben stood up. "I'm going to get more caf," he curtly announced before storming off in the direction of the beverage counter.

 

"Okay, I have to ask," said Tremblai, "are you and Matt sort of like— I mean— did your folks arrange it or something? I know they do that on some worlds..."

 

Rey's eyebrows nearly shot into her hairline. "Not on Coruscant where I'm from, or Corellia where he's from."

 

Tremblai had the grace to look embarrassed. "Sorry. It's just that, you know, you're..." He swept an appreciative hand in the air to indicate her face. "And he's kind of..." The hand flopped limply, a universal gesture for unimpressed.

 

Rey was offended beyond belief. Ben was handsome. True, his hair was one of his most arresting features and it was covered up by the wig, but even the Matt disguise couldn't hide that he had the loveliest, darkest eyes that said so much, that could convey a war's worth of emotions in a single look. His rare smile was crooked and boyish, lighting up his entire face, which sported the most wonderful constellation of moles and freckles. Who the hell did Tremblai think he was?

 

"Don't be mad," the redhead begged. "The other guys and I were just wondering about it. About what you see in him."

 

"I think I'd be lucky to have him," Rey said coldly. "He's a good man." Which wasn't exactly true but— he was trying. And, for her, that was what counted.

 

Tremblai seemed to have fixated on the first part of her declaration. "So you're really not seeing him? Or anyone?"

 

There was the sound of breaking porcelain. Ben had returned to the table but the cup of caf must have slipped out of his hand because it was now shattered on the floor. "Careful!" Rey cried, leaping to her feet as she motioned one of the patrolling Ran-D housekeeper droids over. She grabbed Ben's hand, scrutinizing it for any wayward shards, but he pulled away with a brusqueness that surprised her. She reached out to nudge at his mind— it was walled off. Unreadable.

 

"I have to go," he mumbled, not meeting her eyes as he left the mess hall.

 

*

 

It took nearly the entire workday for Ben to unseal his end of the bond. Rey was welding a broken pipe— and admittedly fantasizing that it was his skull she was driving the torch into— when she felt his presence, like someone hovering just outside a door that she had left open.

 

I have more information from Tremblai, he announced without preamble. The security droids power down for a few hours after lights out. We will check the engine room tonight. Meet me at the turbolift in the lower south deck.

 

Gotcha, Your Worshipness, she drawled with such sarcasm that it brought him up short. She could feel him tense at his station, gauging her mood.

 

He made the mental equivalent of clearing his throat. I apologize for earlier, he said stiffly, formally. I was— not feeling well.

 

There was more to it than that, she knew. But Ben was just as proud as she was, if not more so, and this concession was the equivalent of a mountain being moved. It occurred to her that maybe he was still learning how to be a person, too.

 

*

 

The Star Forge at night was eerily quiet. Rey snuck out of the dorms and crept her way to the lower south deck, using the Force to blank her presence from the surveillance cameras nestled along the walls. Ben was already waiting for her at the turbolift, stepping aside to let her enter first.

 

"Hello, grumpy," she whispered.

 

He didn't say anything but he pressed a large, warm hand to the small of her lower back, guiding her inside. His hand stayed where it was as they made the slow descent, an apology woven out of touch, and she was tired enough from the long day, relieved enough at having surmounted this latest hiccup between them, that she thought nothing of leaning her head against his shoulder. It took a while but the turbolift moved at a snail's pace; they still had about seven floors to go when he bent down to rest his cheek on the crown of her head.

 

"You're heavy," Rey complained more out of habit than anything else.

 

"Am I?" Ben hummed, turning slightly so that he spoke the words into her hair, every syllable like a little kiss that melted away the stress of the last few days. He didn't move away and neither did she. It should have been weird but, somehow, it wasn't. They stayed like that until the turbolift ground to a stop and the doors hissed open.

Chapter Text

The engine room was vast and roaring and thousands of years old. Molten scarlet light emanated from the fission chambers, casting into sharp relief the intricate assemblage of gears varying in size from dinner plates to satellite dishes that spun up into a ceiling stretching on forever, their mechanical clank interlaced with the tense creak of struts as tall as tree trunks and the guttural chug of pipes wound along the walls like gargantuan serpents.

 

Rey stood in the midst of the labyrinth, eyes wide and head tipped back in an effort to gain at least some measure of the sheer expanse of the place. "We're going to need a lot of bombs."

 

Ben snorted. "I find it charming that your gut reaction to every sprawling feat of ancient architecture is to find a way to dismantle it."

 

"Seeing as how dismantling it is the reason we get sent off to sprawling feats of ancient architecture in the first place, I can hardly be blamed—" She stopped as something in the currents of the bond rose to the surface and shimmered, demanding her attention. "You do," she breathed in surprise. "You really do find it charming."

 

He scowled, snatching his thoughts out of her reach— not totally, as that would mean severing their link, but just enough that she would have to make a concentrated effort to scrutinize them once more. Still mystified, she trailed after him as he stalked down a narrow walkway lined with ion coils.

 

It took an hour of wandering and sussing out the best spots to plant explosives before Rey could admit that they had a problem. "We need at least fifty charges. I can nick a little at a time from the production line and fudge the tallies, but—" She pointed at a wing-like structure overhead, one of several dozen others that were scattered at regular intervals throughout the maze of machinery. "If I have to guess, these are upgraded, high-capacity power surge vents, designed to shut down the engine in case of an emergency. They're outfitted with a carbon/halon extinguisher system that automatically reacts to sudden spikes in temperature and pressure."

 

"Can't we disable them?" Ben snapped.

 

She wrinkled her nose at his tone. "Not without setting off the alarms. I propose we come up with a new plan, instead."

 

"Fantastic. I'm so glad that this excursion was a complete waste of time." He grumpily kicked an arc welder aside, the tool bouncing off a nearby cog with a loud clang that reverberated throughout the room.

 

"Ben!" Rey hissed. "What part of sneaking around don't you understand—"

 

The main doors slid open. Her life flashing before her eyes, she grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him into the crawlspace beneath one roof-sized cylinder block. Her back hit the floor and he fell on top of her, wedged between crank shafts and oil sumps; they stared at each other, frozen, faces mere inches apart, her fingers still knotted in the fabric of his shirt, as six pairs of footsteps clattered into the room. Too many to neutralize with the mind trick.

 

"You couldn't've come down here for your kriffing arc welder by yourself?" The voice was unfamiliar to Rey but Ben nudged the owner's name into her mind. Caran, who worked with him in radar tech.

 

"You know this place gives me the creeps at night." It was Tremblai. "What're friends for, huh?"

 

"Apparently, for dragging out of bed at one in the morning," a third masculine voice complained.

 

"It's for the common good, Verbeke," said a diplomatic fourth speaker. "If the droids find any stray tools laying about on their morning rounds, we all get written up."

 

"Correction, Sindal— you bozos in engine repair get written up," said Caran. "Dajo, Rayf, and I just got roped along 'cause you're scared of ghosts."

 

"And you're not?" Tremblai retorted. "What was that sound we heard right before coming in?"

 

Caran made a dismissive noise in the back of his throat. "These old machines settle, son. It's what they do."

 

Rey's gaze darted to the arc welder that Ben had kicked. She levitated it with the Force, positioning it further up the walkway so that the men wouldn't have to approach the cylinder block that she and Ben were squished under. "Could've sworn I left it by the vents," she heard Tremblai mutter as he picked it up, and then there was the receding of footsteps, the relief that left her body in a slow exhale...

 

Ben, it seemed, could not tolerate being pressed against her for a second longer than necessary. He scrambled out from the crawlspace, one hand adjusting his glasses while the other helped her to her feet. As soon as Rey had straightened up, however—

 

Tremblai was stepping back onto the path, walking towards them—

 

"I didn't like that sound from earlier, could be a loose strut. Might as well check while we're here," he told the people behind him, his head already turning in Ben and Rey's direction—

 

There was no time to hide. There was no time to do anything except try to come up with a plausible reason for Kira from the assembly line and Matt the radar technician to be skulking about in the engine room at this ungodly hour.

 

Ben backed Rey up against the wall, caging her between his arms. His eyes were dark in the arterial light of the Star Forge before he closed them and pressed his forehead to hers for the briefest of moments, the question Do you trust me? skittering through the bond.

 

Yes, she replied.

 

And he kissed her.

 

It was the kind of kiss that made her see stars even though her own eyes had reflexively screwed shut. It was a dirty, devouring kiss that overwhelmed her senses, turned her knees to jelly. She wound her arms around his neck for support as his tongue swept through her mouth in a rhythm that stole the breath from her lungs and, yes, it was only an act, she knew that, but the bond crowed in triumph as if it were real, as if it were something coveted that had long been denied.

 

"Matt? Kira?"

 

That was their cue to break apart but, much to Rey's embarrassment, her arms moved as if of their own volition, tightening around Ben's neck when he tried to lift his lips from hers. He huffed a laugh against her jaw— it was shaky, amused, but tinged with a hint of promise and damn if it didn't make her insides go all shivery— before he kissed the corner of her mouth and turned to glare at Tremblai.

 

"Do you mind?" Ben's tone was peevish. In her confused, heightened state, it startled a giggle from Rey that she had to mute by hiding her face in his chest.

 

"Yeah, Tremblai, go away," she called, her cheeks burning.

 

"I knew it." The other men had clustered behind Tremblai and it was Verbeke who spoke. "I knew they were bluffing about not sleeping together. You all owe me fifty credits each."

 

*

 

Given the size of the shipyard, it was amazing how word spread like wildfire throughout the rest of the crew. For the next week, Rey had to endure knowing looks, mischievous smirks, and lots of good-natured yet ribald jokes about revving Matt's engine. It made concentrating on the mission all but impossible— and there, too, was the change in Ben. He was surlier than usual, keeping her at arm's length both physically and in the bond, which had somehow been altered as well. It was fretful. It whined, a low, scraping, unfulfilled neediness that set Rey's teeth on edge.

 

It got worse every time she and Ben were in each other's space— like this afternoon, in the break room, as they pored over a blueprint of the Star Forge that Rey had managed to smuggle out of her supervisor's office. Ben was glumly drawing red X' s over the spots that Rey surmised could be possible shatterpoints, although his gaze kept flickering to the untouched Muja muffin that he'd brought with him from the mess hall. She was well aware by now that he had a sweet tooth and Muja muffins were a particular favorite of his; she'd always found it endearing but today the niggling static of the bond was giving her a migraine and sharpening her annoyance as to just how endearing she found it. These little details about him weren't supposed to make her go all... soft and fond.

 

He stood up to refill his mug of caf from the dispenser in the corner. The bond practically screeched in protest as the distance between them widened, like they were connected by an actual string that was being stretched to its limit. He paused.

 

"I don't know why it's like this," he mumbled, not looking at her. "Perhaps it's reacting to the Dark Side residue in the base."

 

She massaged her aching temples. "Yeah. Maybe."

 

"It might be best to shut it down for now. Until we figure out what's going on. We see each other every day, in any case. A mental link seems extraneous."

 

It was the wooden tone in which he said it, like it didn't matter. It was her memory of how reluctant he'd been to open the connection in the first place. It made her want to cry. "Fine."

 

He nodded, more to himself than at her, and proceeded to get more caf. While his back was turned, Rey's eyes fell on the Muja muffin— and it was vindictiveness, pure and simple, that made her snatch it up from the plate and start taking great big bites.

 

When Ben turned around, he immediately noticed the empty plate. "Where's my—"

 

Rey smirked as best as she could with her mouth full. The muffin was delicious, pillowy and flecked through with succulent pieces of the reddish-orange Muja fruit, but Ben's palpable annoyance was so much sweeter. He set his mug down on the counter and stalked towards her with a dangerous glint in his eyes. "Give me back my muffin."

 

"Come and get it," she challenged blithely.

 

When he moved to grab the muffin from her hand, she sprung from her chair and took another bite to goad him further as she danced out of reach. She wasn't prepared for him to actually tackle her but that was what happened, his arms locking around her waist. She kicked and squirmed as he lifted her off her feet, plunking her none too gently on the edge of the table with an effortlessness that made her head spin. He was so tall that they weren't quite at eye level even though she was sitting on the table and he was slouched in front of her with his hands planted on the metal surface by each of her thighs.

 

"Give me back my muffin," he repeated.

 

Unblinking, Rey bit into the muffin once more and chewed slowly, defiantly, making her cheeks bulge for added effect. She knew she looked ridiculous but she couldn't bring herself to care, spurred on by childish pique. Ben seemed absolutely incensed— there was even a faint pulsating vein on his forehead— as he watched her swallow with exaggerated relish.

 

"Yum," Rey said. "That was—"

 

She never got to finish that sentence. His lips slanted over hers in a hard, punishing kiss that ended too soon. "You—" he growled before she could react, before he kissed her again and pulled away again— "little—" another kiss, punctuated by a savage nip to her bottom lip as he wrenched his mouth from hers— "brat—"

 

The next kiss was slow and deep. It made her toes curl. It made the half-eaten muffin slide from her boneless fingers and fall to the floor, forgotten as she kissed him back, wrapping her legs around his hips. The bond shrieked in fierce, sudden delight, and then its grating, staticky energy subsided as if it were finally at peace. Her migraine was gone but a different sort of ache throbbed between her thighs, alleviated only slightly when he ground against her. She gasped into his mouth and his fingers twisted through her hair, urging her head to the side so that he could trail sloppy kisses down her exposed neck. He must have still been somewhat annoyed with her because he didn't bother to cover his teeth, sucking pleasurably sharp bruises into her skin that he soothed with his tongue before they grew too painful.

 

Rey fell back onto the table, a section of her hair remaining wound around Ben's large hand. "Do you have any idea," he growled in her ear, tightening his grip, "what it does to me, your hair down—" It would have been kind of hot if he hadn't sounded so pissed. "Do you have any idea what it makes me want to do to you—"

 

Okay, maybe it was a little hot, at that.

 

Deciding it was high time to take the lead, she tugged him down so that their lips could collide once more. His hand left her hair to work its way under the horrid First Order vest and palm her breast through the overalls. The fabric, combined with her chest wraps underneath, was too thick to facilitate any kind of relief, and she whined in frustration. She wanted clothes off, now—

 

"For heaven's sake, you two," Caran sighed. "People eat at that table."

 

Rey hadn't even heard the door slide open. She kicked Ben off of her with startling speed, rolling over to crumple the Star Forge blueprints in her fist and shove them into her pocket. Elysia, Tremblai, Caran, Verbeke, and Inure were standing at the threshold of the break room, their expressions ranging from scandalized to disgusted.

 

"I locked that door," was all Ben could say.

 

"Too bad for you that, as senior foreman, I have an override code," Caran pointedly replied. He was a thin man in his early fifties, with nut-brown skin and graying wisps of hair. "Now, Matt, why don't you take your lady somewhere more private, hmm?"

 

*

 

Ben and Rey left the break room in embarrassed silence. It was almost time for her next shift, so she let her feet carry her to production on autopilot, her mind far away and floating in the air, refusing to think about anything— especially about what had just occurred. But a glimmer of surprise did manage to penetrate her shell-shocked haze at the fact that Ben was walking with her. They didn't exchange a single word until they reached the east wing, where the ground trembled slightly with vibrations from the assembly line machines, and Rey paused at the entrance to the starfighter section that she'd been recently assigned to. There'd been no use in finagling her way into explosives yet, not when they were back to square one.

 

After the usual sweep for surveillance, she peered up at Ben unhappily. "So."

 

"So," he echoed, just as unhappily.

 

"Why did it calm down like that?" she asked, referring to the bond. "When we— you know—"

 

"It has been nearly three weeks since we left Fondor. That is the longest you and I have been tethered in... in a while," he said, delicately avoiding mention of those terrible few months after Starkiller Base. "You told me two years ago that it felt like a living thing, and I believe that, in a way. I believe that it adapts to our circumstances— to changes in how you and I view each other. And this—" He gestured between them, stumbling over his next words, "I mean— obviously, there must be some sort of— attraction—" She flushed crimson at that but, honestly, what was the point in denying it after she'd let him shove his tongue down her throat? "It could have shifted to start feeding on physical contact, perhaps with a little influence from— as I previously mentioned— the Dark Side energy that lingers in this place."

 

"Do you..." Rey bit her lip, thinking about his suggestion from earlier. "Do you still want to shut it down?"

 

He shrugged. "Do you?"

 

Force help her, but the answer that immediately sprang to mind was no. He was right; they'd been tethered too long this time. It was like falling back into a bad habit. She couldn't imagine not having the bond, not when she was trapped here with him so far away from the family that she'd found in the Resistance. Until this mission came to an end, he was all she had.

 

"I think," she said at last, carefully, "that we can deal with it. It's only for a little while longer. You just have to— keep touching me, or something—"

 

He quirked an eyebrow. "Must I do all the work, then?"

 

"Well, it's your fault we're bonded in the first place, so—" She broke off, wondering if she'd gone too far by resurrecting old sins.

 

"It's all right," he said quietly. "I deserved that."

 

She wanted to protest, wanted to tell him that, after everything that had happened, after what it had taken to bring him back to the Light, it was no longer about what he or anyone else deserved. Before she could find the words, however, an obnoxious ringing sound blared through the corridor, signaling the start of her shift.

 

"I'll see you later." He slipped his hands into his pockets and bent down, nuzzling his nose against hers. It was a silly gesture that made her giggle, and then he walked away, leaving her staring after him in bemusement.

 

*

 

"Hey, Kira." Inure draped an arm over Rey's shoulders as they traipsed back to the barracks at the end of the day. "Sorry we interrupted you this afternoon. Was Matt able to finish buttering your muffin?"

 

Several of the women nearby burst into laughter. Rey groaned.

Chapter Text

How the hell did I get here? Rey asked herself for quite possibly the hundredth time that night as an empty bottle of Kashyyykan bitter berry spun on the table while seven other women leaned forward in excitement. It was her fifth week on the Star Forge and she had somehow gotten roped into this infernal game that Elysia had suggested after one too many. A senior engineer— Zyras— had just returned from shore leave, managing to smuggle in several cases of alcohol; Rey hadn't touched a drop but neither had she been able to shake off a giggling, tipsy Elysia who dragged her to the common area in the women's dorms after lights out.

 

The game had been in progress for the better part of an hour, with Rey giving the bottle telekinetic little nudges to ascertain that it would absolutely not land on her. However, at that particular moment, she heard Zyras make an offhand comment to another engineer about recalibrating the orbital stabilizers in the morning, and an idea began to dawn...

 

Distracted, Rey failed to manipulate the bottle into an extra spin. She didn't even notice that it had stopped, pointing towards her, until a cheer rose up from the other women.

 

"Finally!" Inure crowed. "All right, Kira— truth or dare?"

 

"Truth," Rey said, being the kind of person who found neither joy nor fellowship in standing on her head or singing "Dance, Dance, Little Ewok" backwards in front of a group of people.

 

"Is Matt good in bed?" asked Celes.

 

"Dare," Rey quickly corrected.

 

Inure grinned like a shark. "That's not how this game works. You have to answer the question."

 

Or you'll what? Rey would have challenged had she not noticed Fane and Nali shifting in their seats with a hint of impatience. She was not here to make friends by any means but her job would go more smoothly if she remained on amiable terms with her coworkers. In this situation, that meant not being a spoilsport.

 

"Well?" Elysia pressed, and the room fell silent as the women waited for Rey to answer.

 

Would Ben be good in bed? A shard of heat coiled in Rey's abdomen as she thought about it. He was a fantastic kisser and his hands awakened nerve endings she never even suspected she possessed. Out of everyone in this room, she alone knew the powerful, muscular frame that lurked beneath those baggy technician's clothes and the way he had growled, eyes like dark embers, as he tangled his fingers in her hair...

 

" That good? Really?" Celes blurted out, provoking an outbreak of giggles from the rest of the women.

 

To her mortification, Rey realized she had been staring into space, mouth slightly parted. She snapped her jaw shut. "He's all right, I guess."

 

Zyras snorted. "Girl, you deserve better than 'all right.' Leave him!"

 

Rey should have joined in the fresh burst of laughter that followed— it was only a joke, after all— but it was sheer defensiveness that made her clench her fists at her side instead. She was offended— just like she'd been with Tremblai in the mess hall— at being told to break up with... her fake boyfriend. Stars, what was wrong with her?

 

She checked in on Ben later that night as she lay in bed. It was the mental equivalent of knocking on someone's door— or perhaps window, perhaps that gentle ease with which his consciousness stirred to accommodate hers was like someone lifting his head from his pillow and gracing her with a drowsy half-smile. Yes?

 

I have another idea, she announced briskly, unsettled by the way her heart skipped a beat in response. The engine room's out for obvious reasons but what about the orbital stabilizers? We could find a way to rig them to blow or deactivate their operating system. Crash the Forge right into Abo.

 

He was unguarded, only half-awake— she felt a flicker of disappointment on his end, gone before she could analyze it too closely, right before he started climbing upwards, out of the nets of sleep. This couldn't have waited until morning?

 

Sorry to interrupt your beauty rest, she said tartly, but I just found out and I thought you should know as soon as possible.

 

Ben chuckled. She could— she could practically hear it in her ear, could feel him stretching beside her as if they were occupying the same bed. You're pretty cranky considering that you woke me up at this ungodly hour.

 

Rey turned on her side, towards where she thought or felt he was. Maybe I learned crankiness from you.

 

I beg to differ. You were always cranky. There was a slight, intermittent pressure on her elbow, as if he had reached out through the darkness and the distance to drum his fingers there in an absentminded, tapping rhythm.

 

The circumstances we always find ourselves in do not particularly inspire me to be cheerful, she sniffed. She sounded like him and he knew it, she could hear his grin with the next thought that he broadcasted to her.

 

Now that you learned from me, he mused. The bond hummed with a dream-dark kind of affection, and Rey suddenly wanted nothing more than for Ben to actually be here, in her room, beside her. After the kisses in the break room, after they had grudgingly admitted to a mutual attraction outside the starfighter assembly line, he'd been— well, nicer. Like something in him had been wound up tight for as long as they'd known each other and had finally relaxed. It left Rey vaguely suspicious but there was no denying that he was definitely easier to deal with now.

 

She inched her head forward; if he were physically present on this bed, her face would be buried in the wide slab of his upper arm. Phantom fingers trailed down her spine. The bond keened.

 

"Ben," she whispered out loud.

 

Rey, he murmured, so tenderly that it frightened her.

 

Good night, she squeaked, darting out of his mind's reach and rolling over onto her back. She stared up at the ceiling, squeezing her thighs together in an effort to relieve the ache that was steadily building between them. She was in trouble. So much trouble.

 

*

 

The next morning found Rey in a horrible mood. She'd woken up hot and swollen, so unbearably sensitive that every scrape of fabric made her want to crawl out of her skin. The feeling had ebbed somewhat after a bracingly cold shower but, when she saw Ben waiting by the doors of the mess hall, it returned in full force. The bond prowled like a restless animal through the corridors of her mind; it calmed down slightly when he kissed her forehead in greeting, eliciting a chorus of awww 's from the women nearby.

 

You're enjoying this, she accused him as they lined up for breakfast.

 

His lips quirked. Perish the thought.

 

She held her peace until the service droids behind the counter had loaded their trays with food. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you actually like being my fake boyfriend, she grumbled, snatching the slice of T'iil seed cake from his tray and transferring it to hers.

 

He let her do it, a long-suffering expression on his face. Why wouldn't I? he deadpanned. You're the sweetest girlfriend anyone could ask for. A truly generous soul.

 

Rey slammed her tray down on the nearest available table harder than was strictly necessary. "Switch off," she said out loud.

 

Ben shot her an odd look as he slid into the seat across from hers. His glasses were slipping down the bridge of his nose and she had to fight the crazy urge to reach over and straighten them. "You are in remarkably fine fettle this morning."

 

She scowled at him. Who said things like that? "And you're being annoying as per usual."

 

That shut him up. They ate in tense, grating silence, and, once it was time to leave for their respective stations, she offered him a curt nod outside the mess hall before storming off—

 

Or trying to storm off, anyway. She was halted by his hands dropping onto her shoulders, by him leaning down to kiss her forehead again. Before she could make some flippant remark about this odd fetish, a skein of images filtered in from his end of the bond— Han Solo kissing Leia Organa's forehead whenever he was apologizing or trying to cheer her up. They were young in these memories, and tall as they would have been through a child's eyes.

 

Rey wasn't used to feeling bad about her temper or her tendency to push people away. She extricated herself from Ben and hurried down the corridor, not daring to look back.

 

*

 

The lingering shards of need and guilt gnawed at her throughout the rest of the day. To make matters worse, the bond was doing that frenetic whining thing again, as if it had picked up on this new strain in her and Ben's dynamic and was displeased. Her head hurt so much that she was appallingly clumsy, dropping tools and electrocuting herself on more than one occasion.

 

No, this couldn't go on. She lifted her chin in resolve, took a deep breath, and severed the bond.

 

Her headache instantly disappeared. She exhaled in relief but somehow, somehow, that rush of air turned into a stuttering sob at the overwhelming sense of loss that leaked out through her mental shields and pervaded her entire being. The truth was that she felt like this every time they closed the bond after missions or skirmishes, but it was so much worse now. They'd kept it going for too long; it had wormed its way into her heart, insidious, treacherous thing that it was. Suddenly she was that girl from the desert again, learning lightsaber forms on Ahch-To's desolate shores while Kylo Ren scrabbled at walls that she'd been taught to construct. Suddenly she was twenty years old again and watching him fall half-dead into his mother's arms from a First Order ship that he had stolen to get away from Snoke, the bond struggling against her best efforts to keep it contained...

 

"Kira?" Inure poked her head into Rey's booth, her safety goggles pushed up like a band on her curly hair. "Why are you crying?"

 

"I'm not crying!" Rey wailed, angry tears dripping down her cheeks.

 

"Oh, sweetie." Inure patted her arm. "Is it Matt? You guys will get through whatever happened. He loves you very much, you know?"

 

No, he doesn't! Rey wanted to scream. It's all an act— none of it is real— And for some reason the thought of that made her cry even harder. She didn't know what to do.

 

"Well, relationships aren't always easy," Inure was saying in a sweet, earnest manner that made Rey feel even worse. "It's a balance between the things that are worth fighting about and the things that are worth fighting for, yeah? You and Matt will fix this. He loves you very much," she repeated. "He looks at you like you're the sun."

 

"What— squinting and with his hand over his eyes?" Rey groused.

 

Inure smirked. "Glad you can still be a sarcastic pain in the ass even when you're crying."

 

"What's going on here?" The assembly line supervisor, a formidable, statuesque brunette named Alshain, loomed at the entrance to Rey's booth, glaring at Inure. "You— get back to your station. And you," she sad to Rey, "come with me. We have a starfighter that needs fixing."

 

*

 

Rey was elbow-deep in the mess of wiring at the Rakatan ship's dashboard when she heard an all too familiar tread of footsteps storm into the cabin.

 

"Caran sent you?" Alshain's bewildered tone was a testament to Matt's reputation of total incompetence.

 

Rey glanced over her shoulder despite her better judgement. Ben looked livid, all narrowed eyes and flushed cheeks and teeth bared in a trace of a snarl, his Force signature a malevolent whirlwind. She highly doubted that Alshain's low opinion was the cause; in fact, he acted like he hadn't even heard the other woman as he shoved past her, sweeping a hand in her direction with all the carelessness of an afterthought.

 

"You will leave the hangar bay and not come back."

 

Rey couldn't help the shiver that ran through her body as Alshain repeated the command in an eerie monotone and disembarked from the starfighter. It was these moments that reminded her just how strong in the Force Ben was, how he could twist into people's minds with little effort. Unlike his wild, reckless combat maneuvers, there was a certain calculated shrewdness to his Force abilities that would always border on sinister no matter which Side he was channeling.

 

He waited for the sound of the hangar doors sliding shut behind Alshain before rounding on Rey. "Explain yourself."

 

"It's pretty simple." Rey turned back to the open dashboard and pulled out a couple of wires. "The transceiver package is jammed so you have to—"

 

Quick as a flash, Ben picked her up from where she was crouched on the floor and deposited her on her feet by the wall, crowding her in. "I'm not in the mood," he warned darkly, hands against the metal on either side of her head. "Why did you shut it down?"

 

"None of your business," Rey snapped. She couldn't think clearly when he was this close, when she was surrounded by him and within reach of those sinful lips.

 

"I assumed something had happened to you." Behind those stupid glasses, his eyes were blazing like shards of night against his pale, mole-dusted complexion. "When I couldn't feel you anymore, I thought you'd been knocked unconscious or that you were—" His voice broke; she watched him swallow, his expression vulnerable and pained. No wonder he'd kept that face under wraps in the First Order— it gave him away all too easily. "So, yes, some form of prior notice would have been appreciated. You are perfectly entitled to kick me out of your head but, after damn near tearing this shipyard apart looking for you and then using the mind trick on Caran when I found out you were the mechanic in the hangar bay so I could reassure myself that you were in one piece, I believe that I deserve an acceptable reason—"

 

She kissed him, tugging him down by the collar so that their lips would meet. It was a collision, heated and furious just like everything else they'd ever done together, and she shoved him away as soon as she needed to come up for air.

 

"There you go!" Rey shouted, past the point of caring. "Was that an acceptable reason enough—"

 

Ben surged forward, his hand cradling the back of her head before it could hit the wall as he retaliated with another blistering kiss. "You could stand to explain it a little more," he mumbled against her lips.

 

And, yes, the bond had been disabled but somehow the need was still there, burning brighter with every caress, with every slide of his tongue along hers. They were alone in this particular hangar but for how much longer was anyone's guess, and it was a sense of urgency that had her shrugging out of her vest and yanking off his wig while trying to keep their lips locked the whole time. She whined in protest when he pulled back to cradle her face in his hands, his dark hair falling across his forehead in disheveled waves. Whatever he saw in her eyes made him frown.

 

"Have you been crying?" The pads of his thumbs softly stroked along her cheekbones. "What happened, cyar'ika?"

 

Rey didn't want this tenderness, this odd, gentle intimacy— or, rather, she didn't want to want it so much, with every molecule of her being. There had been others before but none that progressed beyond a few quick assignations, and she preferred it that way when there was minimal risk of getting hurt or feeling abandoned. A couple of years ago, her roommate at the Resistance barracks had broken up with a long-term partner; Rey had listened to the woman sobbing in bed late at night, all too painfully reminded of when she'd cried like that in her Jakku bolt-hole waiting for a family that hadn't come back. Never again, she'd promised herself. I will always leave first.

 

So she ignored Ben's question, sliding her hands down his chest as she pushed up on her toes to sink her teeth into the lobe of his ear. The fingers of her right hand traced the seam of his crotch, darting away as he instinctively rocked his hips forward. She giggled; oh, it was such a rush, this age-old power that had nothing to do with the Force.

 

Ben was less amused. "Very funny." He sucked a bruise into her neck as punishment, not relenting until he elicited a whimper from her parted lips and swallowed the sound with his own mouth. He grabbed her wrist, coaxing her hand back to his groin in that impatient, pretty please sort of way that even the most respectful of men so often did without thinking. Rey was all too happy to let him grind into her palm as he continued kissing her, but it wasn't long before they both needed more.

 

His vest joined hers on the floor, followed by their glasses and their overalls after a process that involved much fumbling and Ben trying to set his lips to every inch of Rey's skin as it was revealed. When he lingered at the hollow between her clavicles, she moved to tug at his hair and urge him downwards, but somehow her fingers ended up carding affectionately through the dark, silky waves. She'd missed his hair. She was going to torch that wig first thing when they got back to D'Qar.

 

He peeled the cloth wrappings from her chest with an ease that made her scowl. "Aren't you the expert," she huffed before she could think better of it. The idea of him doing this with other women, no matter how far back in the past, was kind of... annoying.

 

He peeked up at her through his long lashes, flashing a crooked, apologetic grin that she reluctantly allowed to melt her heart. He was still smiling when he pressed a light— almost laughably chaste given the circumstances— kiss to the side of her right breast as he weighed the left one in his palm. Rey threw her head back, eyes fluttering shut as she surrendered to the delicious sensations, the strum of fingers and the scrape of teeth and those wicked lips. "Ben," she moaned, flushing at how her voice emerged so needy and so breathless. She couldn't wait anymore. "Ben, come here—"

 

"Come where?" he cheekily shot back as he straightened up. She scrunched her nose at the bad pun and he laughed— he actually laughed, that rusty, boyish sound that could only be startled from him once in a blue moon— and kissed the tip of her nose. Her abdomen clenched in a way that had nothing to do with arousal and everything to do with sweetness and she hated it. This was not how this was supposed to go.

 

Impatient now, she roughly tugged his boxers down his hips and wrapped her fingers around him— albeit with rather more difficulty than she'd expected. She shouldn't have been surprised considering how tall and broad he was, but the thought of this inside her made her toes curl— as did Ben's strangled, husky curse at her touch as he hid his face in the crook of her neck. His hand slid into her underwear, merely teasing and stroking at first, waiting for her to squirm before he finally pushed a thick, blunt finger inside.

 

"Force, sweetheart, you're so wet," he groaned, nibbling at her pulse point, his voice smoky with desire. "So wet for me." He added another finger and she welcomed it shamelessly, gasping and canting her hips as her own hand worked his length. Her orgasm wasn't far off the way he was going, the way she was feeling, so she quickly untangled herself from him to face the wall.

 

He dropped a hand on her bare hip, frowning. "I don't—"

 

She cut him off. "Now's not the time to be picky, Solo." The truth was, she didn't like being face-to-face, didn't like the idea of someone watching as she fell apart. "We do it this way or not at all."

 

"And I'm the picky one?" he grumbled under his breath, but he obediently stood back as she bent at the waist, bracing her arms on the bulkhead of the ship. She glanced at him over her shoulder; he looked hesitant for some reason, and kind of sad. Trust this man to find a way to mope during sex.

 

Rey wasn't much of a seductress but her current state left her with no compunctions. She slipped a hand into her drenched panties, wiggling her hips at him in a way she hoped— she really, really hoped— was inviting and not just outright ridiculous. "Are you going to make me beg for it?" she challenged. "Is that what gets you off, me playing with myself, begging for you—"

 

And, okay, she must have either offended him or hit too close to home, because he stepped forward, one hand clutching at her hip while the other shoved her panties to the side. She cried out, her back arching downwards as he sheathed himself inside her in one long, deep stroke. The stretch was glorious. There was no other way to describe it. Like they were made for each other.

 

She fully expected him to start moving, to start falling into that primal rhythm that would get both of them where they needed to go. Instead, his hips stayed perfectly still as he bent over her, pressing kisses to her nape, her shoulder-blades, the notches in her spine. Each kiss was slow and lingering and fierce, like he was begging her to understand something. Something she couldn't name but knew at once that she wasn't prepared for.

 

She rocked backwards against him, a gasp spilling from her lips at the friction when he began to meet her thrusts. "Yes, like that," she babbled, glad to be on familiar territory again. And whatever darkness she carried in her heart, it built up steadily until it blazed within her like a forest fire. "Harder."

 

Ben complied. Of course he did, they could both sulk and tease each other for all they were worth but he would always give her what she wanted in the end, be it gazing at the stars to the brink of madness or fucking her senseless against the bulkhead of a Rakatan ship. She could have stayed like this forever, could have kept doing this until the galaxy collapsed, but time was against them. They were in the kriffing hangars. "Hurry," she told him, "before we get interrupted—"

 

"Well, whose idea was it to do this here?" he huffed, annoyed.

 

She craned her neck to glare at him. "Excuse me?"

 

"You were the one who kissed me first—"

 

"That was just to get you to switch off. You weren't supposed to kiss me back—" Her sentence dissolved into a rather undignified squeal when he abruptly shifted the angle of his hips, hitting a spot inside her that made her mind go blank.

 

And soon the Dark took him, too, she could feel it in the way he growled in her ear, the way he wrapped her hair around his fingers, the way he sank his teeth into the round of her shoulder and brought her to the edge of that fine blade of pleasure-pain. And yet it wasn't that that brought her to her peak, nor was it the thick length of him inside her or how deftly his hand stroked where their bodies were joined. It was the sound of his voice, telling her how beautiful she was, how tight and wet and perfect, how good she felt on him, how long he'd wanted her. It was the way he said her name, so hoarsely and so reverently, his lips brushing the shell of her ear. When she came, he followed not long after, spilling inside her with a roar that he muffled into the slope of her neck.

 

*

 

They didn't dare luxuriate in the afterglow, having pushed their luck far enough as it was. He finished dressing first and helped her into her overalls; once she was zipped up, he chucked her under the chin, the line of his mouth soft.

 

"So." Rey reached up to Ben's face, finally succumbing to the temptation to straighten his glasses. "We're going to be doing that a lot."

Chapter Text

Rey spent the next couple of standard weeks fishing for information from the engineers and the zero-g mechanics, skulking around the lower decks where the Star Forge's orbital stabilizers were located, dodging as many social overtures from her more gregarious coworkers as was possible without alienating them, and having the best sex of her life. Ben Solo, she was pleasantly surprised to find, was a generous, passionate partner who seemed to understand at the most instinctual level what made her tick— even without the benefit of the bond. She wasn't keen on opening it again and he didn't press the issue; they resorted to code words, body language, and murmurs easily passed off as sweet nothings between lovers.

 

The crew ate it all up— possibly because their daily routines didn't offer much else in the way of entertainment. They cooed whenever Ben had to lean down so that Rey could whisper in his ear— "Both stabilizers are connected to a single mainframe, shouldn't be hard to slice"— and they sighed every time Ben randomly draped an arm over the back of Rey's chair and buried his face in her tresses— "The man beside Sindal, he's in charge of security on the lower decks." It soon became general consensus that Matt and Kira were the cutest couple ever.

 

She was a regular fixture in his room by now, creeping down the dormitory hallway after lights out to spend more time in his bed than her own. One night, after they had collapsed back onto the sheets, breathless and flushed, he wasted no time in propping himself over her and plying her limp, sated body with kisses. She tensed at first— she wasn't much for cuddling after the fact, but it was Ben's thing. She could hardly deny him that after he had just given her three orgasms in a row. Three.

 

She looped her arms around his neck as he crawled back up from lazily nibbling at her hipbones. He wasn't smiling, exactly, but there was a certain restfulness to his features, a kind of contented warmth to his light in the Force.

 

You're happy, she thought with a hint of wonder. It was surreal, being able to make someone feel that way— even if she had no illusions about her worth and she supposed that anyone would be happy right after sex.

 

He playfully bumped his nose against hers but his eyes were already at half-mast. Typical male, Rey scoffed to herself, flipping them over so that he was the one on his back while she lay sprawled across his chest. "Go to sleep," she ordered as she began to clamber off of him with the intention of returning to her quarters.

 

He stilled her with one heavy arm thrown over the small of her back, his other hand giving her rump a fond little pat. "Sleep with me," he countered in husky tones, and damn if a drowsily affectionate, postcoital Ben Solo didn't wreak havoc on a girl's defenses.

 

"I can't." She attempted to pry off his arm but he suddenly rolled over, pinning her to the mattress and—

 

snoring—

 

She poked him in the ribs. "There is no way you fell asleep that quickly."

 

He snored louder in response. She put up a struggle but it might as well have been like trying to get out from under a ton of bricks, and her recent three orgasms— three! In a row!— had quite sapped her energy. Besides, it was warm and comforting, being held down like this...

 

Rey relented. And, eventually, she, too, fell asleep.

 

*

 

She spent the next day on tenterhooks, hoping that he wouldn't make a big deal out of it when they saw each other again after she slipped back to her quarters at dawn to get ready for her shift. It came as a relief when he acted like nothing out of the ordinary had happened, being his usual slightly grumpy, not-a-morning-person self at breakfast.

 

She did, however, make it a point not to go to him that night, or the night after that. Rey might not have a lot of things going for her but at least she knew a thing or two about self-control.

 

*

 

"We have a problem," Ben rumbled, pulling Rey into the break room on the third day of her (their) self-enforced celibacy.

 

"Oh?" Rey said calmly, already preparing to brush him off.

 

What Ben said next made her feel— rather stupid, to be honest. Stupid and petty and immature. "The mainframe programmer, Tanutha, is Force-sensitive," he informed her in what was most decidedly not the dreaded conversation on where this... whatever-it-was between them was going, because of course they had bigger things to worry about. "As we planned, I got her alone earlier and tried looking into her mind to glean the structure of the code that they're running on this base, but— nothing. It was like crashing into a brick wall."

 

"Oh." Rey stepped around him, away from the door he had cornered her up against. Something like exasperation flared in his eyes but he stayed where he was. "How Force-sensitive is she?"

 

"Enough to render her immune to mind tricks."

 

"Even when she's, say, not at her sharpest?"

 

Ben frowned. "What are you implying?"

 

Rey shrugged. "I may have a plan."

 

*

 

It took some convincing but, eventually, Zyras was persuaded to donate her last few cases of Kashyyykan bitter berry to a good cause— namely, Kira's birthday party, held in the women's common area after hours. Matt was invited, of course, and was in some ways treated more like the guest of honor than Rey herself as the twenty or so women in the room flocked to him, teasing him about Kira, asking about the guys he worked with. He seemed ill at ease from the attention, mumbling monosyllabic responses and holding on to his beer for dear life.

 

Tanutha may have been Force-sensitive but she was also, thankfully, a lightweight— it wasn't long before Rey was able to extract the specifics of the mainframe code under the guise of whispering gossip in the pleasantly buzzed woman's ear. It was a rather stilted, archaic-looking code— possibly an offshoot of some Old Republic-era programming language. Rey supposed that anything more modern would have been incompatible with Rakatan tech. Tanutha was none the wiser, glancing around the room with a mystified air as she searched for the source of that feeling of wrongness, that fleeting jab into her mind. Rey excused herself and headed over to Ben.

 

"Let's play Truth or Dare!" Inure cried.

 

Rey then attempted to retreat but it was too late— Celes and Elysia pushed her into the vacant chair beside her fake boyfriend's, and an empty bottle was placed flat on the table and spun.

 

*

 

It took an hour for Rey to grudgingly admit to herself that she was having fun. Perhaps it was the beer talking. She'd lost count of how many bottles she'd imbibed to keep up the charade that it was "my birthday and I want to celebrate, please, Zyras." The alcohol warmed her bloodstream, made her mind float. Ben had one arm draped over the back of her chair; as the game progressed, she leaned closer into his personal space, little by little, inhibitions lowered and senses heightened. He smelled nice. Like woodsy aftershave and warm skin, layered over with the dark, almost wine-like tang of Kashyyykan bitter berry. She idly wondered if he would taste like the beer, too, fruity and sweet.

 

"We good?" he asked under the guise of nuzzling at her temple, his lips brushing her ear. It was code, he wanted to know whether she'd gotten the information from Tanutha yet, but part of her was already pretending that he was just doing the boyfriend thing, just checking in on her. It was the same part that was pretending that she had an actual date of birth to celebrate, and that the women gathered here really were her friends.

 

Tears filled Rey's eyes. Kriff, why couldn't she be an angry drunk, like Jessika? No, she had to get all weepy, like Poe. She hid her face in Ben's shoulder out of instinct, furiously blinking away the tears before they could drip down her cheeks. She heard the bottle stop spinning, heard the shrieks of delight from the assembled crowd.

 

"Truth," Ben said in the resigned, mournful tone of someone who had been too distracted to telekinetically coax the pointer's end of the bottle away from him.

 

It was Madiale, a plump blonde hydraulics expert, who submitted the question. "How did you and Kira meet?"

 

The room fell silent. Rey straightened up, watching the sea of interested faces. She and Ben had rehearsed this story a dozen times, and the arm atop the back of her chair moved slightly, his fingers curling at her bicep.

 

"An Outer Rim gig," he relayed. "Yavin Prime. We were mining for Corusca gems in the atmosphere of the gas giant." And then came the first indication that the alcohol had gone to his head, because he added, with a hint of slyness in his smirk, "She hated me at first."

 

The women laughed. "I wonder why. You're such a people person," Inure snarked.

 

"I was a mess," Ben said bluntly. "I'd gotten mixed up with some shady folk in my previous job and I was still smarting."

 

"Ooh," Elysia cooed in sympathy. "Was it one of the gangs? The Hutts?"

 

Ben nodded. "Something like that." Only Rey could understand the reason for the dark humor in his voice, the twist of self-loathing that would perhaps never go away. "Kira and I had common friends, though, so she was forced to tolerate my presence. And then one day we had to buy parts in Corellia and our boss gave us some shore leave to go along with it, so I asked her out. Just lunch, nothing fancy. We ate at this cantina I loved when I was a kid, where my old man used to take me."

 

Rey was quiet, tense. The cover story they'd agreed on hadn't gone into this much detail, but she knew that the cantina was called the Fel Swoop, a haven for speederbike gang members, and it was located along Treasure Ship Row in Coronet City, and it served a spiced whiskey that had made twelve-year-old Ben Solo cough when he first tried it, much to Han's amusement. She had seen all of this once, in the bond.

 

"It took a solid month of eating together, of having these little conversations in between shifts— some days I'd bring her flowers from the Yavin moon— before she let me kiss her for the first time," Ben continued. "We were in the mining rig, Corusca gems burning below our feet." There was a certain wistfulness to his voice now, as if he were glimpsing another universe, another way that things could have gone. "I didn't even think about it. I just leaned down and kissed her. My heart was in my throat the whole time."

 

His rapt— and admittedly drunk— audience sighed, some wiping tears from their eyes, others dramatically folding their hands over their chests. Rey just sat there, not knowing how to react in a manner that wouldn't give them both away. It's no big deal, she scolded herself, he's just adding details to make it more convincing. However, she couldn't shake the nagging, alcohol-fueled suspicion that Ben was speaking in what-could-have-beens. If she squinted hard enough, it was written all over the melancholy lines on his pale face, that he wished it had really happened like this between them, so sweet and slow and, above all, real.

 

*

 

He walked her to her room at the end of the night, the two of them stumbling down the empty, shadowed hall. You could use the Force to nullify intoxication but Rey wasn't particularly inclined to. There was refuge in being so carefree and being able to blame something other than yourself.

 

When they stopped outside her door, Ben cleared his throat and bade her good night in diction so crisp you could have scratched glass with it. He didn't slur when he was drunk; if anything, he spoke more clearly as he struggled to gain control. The other women had remarked on that, had declared it cute.

 

"Ben." Rey looked up at him, everything that she was feeling too big for her body, a jumble of mixed emotions and half-finished thoughts. "Ben, we have to get all these people out. Before we blow up the Forge."

 

"Yes." He cradled her cheek in one large, rough hand. "We'll find a way to save as many as we can. I may not particularly like any of them, but that does not mean they deserve to die here."

 

How far he had come, how different he was from the broken, furious man she had first met, the one who had looked upon all of the galaxy and sought to bend it to his will. In this moment, Rey wanted, so badly, to kiss him.

 

And so she did.

 

*

 

They'd never done this in her room before. This new intimacy set off alarm bells in Rey's head, dulled by the alcoholic haze, as she clutched at Ben's shirtfront, walking him backwards, their lips locked, until he hit the edge of her mattress and had to sit down. Her guess had been right— he tasted like berries, boozy and addicting. She pulled off his blond wig with a certain gleeful relish— curse the infernal thing, really— and he blinked at her through his glasses as she stepped back to disrobe. She usually did this as efficiently as possible, with no hint of artifice, but something about the way Ben looked tonight— tousled dark hair, flushed cheeks, melancholy brown eyes— made her want to take her time. Tease him a little.

 

Rey had gathered her hair into a ponytail earlier when the beer made her too warm; now she tugged the elastic loose and ran her fingers through her hair, letting it fall past her shoulders. Ben swallowed, the bob of that smooth white throat bolstering her confidence. She shrugged out of the horrid orange vest, wishing she could have worn something sexier, more conducive to seduction, but— that somehow didn't matter, did it? Not when he was looking at her like she was the only thing left in the world.

 

She returned his gaze as her fingers fiddled with buttons and zipper, the technician overalls soon pooling at her feet. A breath escaped him, then, shaky like his hands as he hurriedly worked his own uniform off. The vest was tossed aside, the overalls shoved past his hips, leaving him in his white undershirt and boxers. Rey took this as her cue to remove her underwear. never feeling quite as reckless and as powerful as she did when she was standing before him stark naked, her hair barely covering her breasts.

 

Ben licked his lips. "Come sit on my lap, cyar'ika."

 

Rey turned positively scarlet. Oh, he was wicked, and she wasn't any better, judging from the way her core throbbed with arousal at the sound of his soft, deep voice. She didn't feel like herself as she walked over to him— she wasn't herself, she was someone else, wanton and drunk on bitter berry and starlight and the hungry worship in a man's eyes. Once she was nestled on his lap, he immediately pressed his lips to her neck, let his large hands roam over her body. He nibbled at her neck as he played with her breasts, gentling his kisses whenever his fingers pinched and squeezed, using his teeth whenever his thumbs circled and stroked. The switching contrast between rough affection and tender sensuality brought an exquisite kind of madness; Rey gyrated and moaned, rubbing herself against the hard tent in Ben's boxers. He cursed at the friction, sliding his index and forefinger into her mouth.

 

Her orgasm took her by surprise— it was a swift and violent stab through the many layers of alcohol. His lashes rustled against her cheek as he blinked. "Did you just—" he started to say, breaking off abruptly when she whimpered around his fingers. His other hand dropped to his lap to quickly free his erection and then shove it up into her. She was wet and pliant enough that she was able to take all of him in one go, her spine arching and her toes curling at the fullness. "Force, how are you so responsive—" he mumbled into the crook of her neck. "How do you make me see fucking stars—"

 

Before long both his hands were on her hips, guiding her movements. It was sloppy, frantic sex, the obscene smack of skin on skin permeating the room. She reached back to bury her fingers in his dark hair, nearly yanking out a few strands by the root when he strummed at the little bundle of nerves between her thighs. "Come on." He sounded like he was praying through gritted teeth. "Please."

 

What was she supposed to do with a man who begged like that? In comparison to that first orgasm, this one spread through Rey like slow wildfire. And, because Ben's lips were so close to hers, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to kiss him as she rode it out. It wasn't the best angle but he returned her kiss eagerly, pulling away only when his body's demand for release became a sharp and grating need. He increased the pace of his thrusts, the lean, powerful muscles of his arms rippling as he lifted her up and slammed her back down his length. Already sated, Rey was content to be used like this, to let him do with her as he pleased— because, even in her drunk state, she trusted him, she realized.

 

Once it was over, once he had spent himself inside her and they had collapsed in a tangle of limbs onto her mattress, Rey was too tired to put up more than the token amount of murmured protest when Ben tightened his arms around her and kissed her on the forehead, as if in apology for having been so rough. She lifted her hand to sort of— bat him away, or something, but she ended up touching his face, instead, brushing his hair out of his eyes and tracing the place where the scar had been.

 

"It marked you as mine," she blurted out, tongue loosened by alcohol and afterglow. "It was something of myself that could stay with you— and I know that doesn't make any sense, but—"

 

"On the contrary." He kissed her again, nibbling at her bottom lip with a languorous playfulness that made her smile. "It makes perfect sense."

 

She fell asleep in his arms that night.

 

*

 

Her hangover was a mild annoyance, not a patch on the head-splitting ones she usually got after cantina crawls with Finn and Poe. Kashyyykan beer was kinder— there was a dryness in her throat and a dull shard of pain behind her eyes, but nothing that couldn't be quickly waved away with the Force. No, what disturbed her most when her alarm went off in the early hours of the morning was the fact that Ben was spooning her, snoring into the junction of her shoulder and her neck.

 

He grumbled under his breath when she elbowed him awake, automatically reaching for her, smoothing the pad of his thumb over her bare hip. Rey was horrified by how comfortable this felt, by how much she wanted to stay like this. She shot out of bed and started pulling on her discarded clothes, the finer details of last night's encounter rushing back to her in the starkness of sobriety.

 

"We'll take out the Forge in three days' time." She kept her tone brisk. Professional. "I'll fiddle with the code a bit, see if I can get the orbital stabilizers to shut down on their own. But I'll also steal some charges from the assembly line just in case."

 

She heard rather than saw him sit up, the sheets rustling and the mattress creaking. Even without the bond, she felt his eyes narrow at her back, knew that his jaw would be clenched tight. It couldn't have been helped, after fighting by his side for so long, but, still. She had never wanted to know anyone this well.

 

"You believe three days will be sufficient time to prepare?" he asked.

 

"I believe," she snapped, "that we've been here too long."

 

Ben fell silent. Rey turned around just in time to catch the shadow of something that looked like hurt on his features, but he was quick to duck his head, retrieving his technician uniform from the floor. They finished dressing without another word, and she started to hope that she could avoid further conversation— but, as he stood awkwardly by the door, he abruptly said, "When we return to D'Qar..." He trailed off, as if struggling to find the right words.

 

Rey cut to the chase. Seamless and fast, like ripping off a medical patch in the absence of bacta. "What happens here stays here."

 

He frowned. "I thought—"

 

"What?" she interrupted, suddenly, blazingly furious even though he had done nothing to deserve it. "What did you think? That we'd keep on doing whatever this is under your mother's nose? That in between training sessions with your uncle I'd nip off to let you feel me up in a storage closet?"

 

"It's not going to be like that!" he shouted back, just as hotly. She raised an eyebrow and he continued, sputtering, "I— I mean, it can be whatever you want it to be, I don't care—"

 

Okay, that stung. "Glad to know it doesn't matter that much to you, after all."

 

"That's not what I— damn it, Rey!" His voice sharpened in frustration. "You're the one who won't even look at me when we fuck, so I fail to understand where this is coming from— this random hangup about whether or not it matters!"

 

"Didn't you hear me? I said I was glad," she hissed. "I'm glad it doesn't matter to either of us, because nothing's going to come out of it, anyway—" She was dangerously close to saying too much, to revealing too much about her secret fears and desires, so she clamped her lips shut.

 

Ben had gone as white as a sheet, but he squared his shoulders like a man making his final stand. "This is not the kind of conversation I was expecting us to have after last night," he said tersely.

 

Pay attention, some part of Rey admonished. The look on his face, the strain in his voice, he is trying to tell you something. This moment is important. But, the thing was, she had lived on what if for too long. There was a girl who had watched a ship sail away, who had scratched out a tally of days as she waited for it to come back. Ben was very, very good at making her feel like that girl again. "I was drunk last night," she told him flippantly. "Doesn't count."

 

"Bullshit."

 

"The only thing that's bullshit is— is this!" She gestured wildly at the space between them. "I mean, what the hell is this, Ben? A month ago, we couldn't even stand each other. Getting you to open your end of the bond was like pulling teeth. I have every right to call you out on your crap now, given that you used to have no qualms about making it perfectly clear how much I irritated you!"

 

"Things changed."

 

She snorted. "The only thing that's changed is that we started having sex—" And that was when she froze, the horror gradually dawning upon her and making her skin crawl. When you put it like that, it was so simple, she had no idea how she could have missed it. She'd seen it a few times on the Resistance base— people acting oh so nicely towards those they were attracted to, all the small gifts and grand gestures, promising the world, only to do a complete turnaround once the attraction faded.

 

Ben clutched her shoulders. "Rey," he said, alarmed, "that's not it. I know what you're thinking and that's definitely not it—"

 

She'd never asked for anyone to know her so well, either. "Then what is it?" she whispered. "What else could it be?"

 

For a second it looked like he was going to help her make sense of this, but he hesitated. And, in that moment of hesitation, another sliver of doubt wormed its way into her mind. She couldn't force him to say something he didn't mean when she didn't even know what she wanted to hear in the first place. She couldn't do that to Ben.

 

"You have to go," she said softly, shrugging out of his grasp. "I'll keep you updated on my progress."

 

*

 

The days passed with the sinister, deliberate slowness of an incoming migraine. Piecing together what she had gleaned from Tanutha's mind, Rey ran simulations of the mainframe code on an old datapad. She was meticulous about checking for surveillance on the device and then wiping its memory clean afterwards, and she managed to figure out that, while there was no way to shut down the orbital stabilizers themselves— the Rakatans had figured on the shipyard running pretty much forever— she could deactivate the cooling system that would otherwise prevent an explosion from getting out of control.

 

"Bombs it is," she told Ben over lunch. "I'll snag some this afternoon."

 

He nodded without glancing up from his plate. "What do you need me to do?"

 

"Get the passcodes to the lower decks from the security officer. And find a way for me to inspect the orbital stabilizers from the outside so I can gauge where best to plant the charges before we actually go through with it. We only have one shot at this and I'd rather not rely on blueprints if that can be avoided."

 

He cocked his head at her. "You wish to go for a spacewalk? Alone?"

 

There it was again, the outpouring of concern that she would probably never get used to— only more cautious, like there was a part of himself that he was consciously reining in. Rey had not expected to hate this new awkwardness between them so much. "Well, obviously, I need a lookout." She speared a fork into her pile of limp vegetables. "You're my mission control."

 

Elysia and Inure came over to join them, the former plunking her tray beside Rey's and the latter sitting next to Ben. "Can you believe we still have one year and ten months left in our contracts?" Elysia groaned. "I feel like I've been here forever."

 

"Count your blessings," Inure chided. "Zyras' brother used to work on Starkiller Base— he made it out in one piece, though, don't worry— and that place was apparently a nightmare with ol' Kylo Ren running around."

 

Ben nearly choked on the food that he'd been in the process of swallowing. Rey, for her part, valiantly maintained a straight face.

 

Elysia leaned forward eagerly. "I've heard about that guy. A horrible boss, by all accounts."

 

"He was always destroying stuff," Inure continued. "They used to call him 'Darth Tantrum' behind his back."

 

Oh, kriff, Rey thought, watching the way Ben's fingers twitched around his knife, someone's going to die—

 

"I believe the reports of property damage were greatly exaggerated," Ben said stiffly.

 

"Yeah?" Inure glanced over at him. "You know him, Matt?"

 

"Not personally," Ben spat out.

 

Rey had to hide her smile behind her hand. How was it possible that he could still make her laugh, even when they were like this—

 

"How about you, Kira?" Elysia asked.

 

"I've heard of him here and there," Rey quipped, wondering if she'd always savored the secret art of the inside joke or if it was a trait she'd picked up from Ben. "Saw him once, in a dream."

Chapter Text

Their last night on the Star Forge was spent in an airlock. It was midnight, an eerie stillness ringing through the shipyard as Rey fed a looped static image into the lone surveillance camera presiding over this little-used wing while Ben retrieved an enviro-suit from storage. It was one of the few suits onboard, since droids carried out the bulk of external maintenance, but it fit Rey well enough.

 

Ben fixed the jetpack to her back, then hooked the safety tether to her belt. He worked quickly and quietly, his hands drifting over her hermetically sealed form, ascertaining that her helmet was in place before he switched on her oxygen tank. She used the Force to speed through the acclimatization process of breathing in pure oxygen, and— because there was no way around it, because they needed to be able to communicate in case of emergencies— they opened the bond.

 

It roared to life, startling and vehement in its intensity, coiling around them both and pushing their bodies together. Or trying to, at least. Rey stayed where she was even though every nerve ending, every instinct, was screaming at her to get closer, to touch, to feel, more, yes, always—

 

Ben gave her a gentle nudge in the direction of the airlock's second door. "It will keep doing that for as long as we're here," he murmured. "It's feeding on the residual Dark energy of the Forge, remember? Passion and all that. Don't worry about it." He sounded sad. "It will be over soon."

 

Just like you wanted. The thought welled up in his mind, spilled over onto hers.

 

*

 

Common sense was this: surveying the wing-shaped orbital stabilizers, identifying their weakest spots, and then hightailing it back to the airlock, minimizing the risk of getting caught by someone glancing out of the viewport at the wrong time. However, Rey's common sense had been on vacation as of late.

 

She marked the shatterpoints easily enough and began the steady float back to the Forge. She couldn't have told anyone why she paused, but she did. The Rakatan shipyard loomed before her in towering, ancient lines, silhouetted against the stars. Far, far below her burned great old Abo, a molten, furious crimson sphere, and further down lay the vague dim curve of the Infinite Empire's homeworld. Rey felt too small all of a sudden, too young, too made of flesh and blood.

 

Are you seeing this? she asked Ben.

 

Instead of replying directly to her question, he pulled her deeper into his mind— just a little bit, enough so that she could feel his own awe at the sight he was gazing at through her eyes. She clung to him, to this one familiar presence that was accompanying her as she hung there in the vacuum. And the more she let him in, the less alone she felt.

 

I felt alone, too. He probably hadn't meant to broadcast this particular thought, but the bond had intensified, somehow, in the face of all this vastness. It could hardly be helped. All my life, I felt alone. And then there was you.

 

A million constellations danced around Rey, filling her eyes with their silver light, flickering like raindrops on endless fields of black. She was entranced, terrified, and utterly exhausted. She couldn't stop herself from thinking, So what does that mean?, regretting the words the instant they leapt from her mind to his.

 

But Ben didn't shut down or crack a sarcastic remark as she had feared he would, as he had tended to do over the years whenever bits of her vulnerability peeked through. Instead, she saw him standing inside the ship, pressing his fingers to the viewport, reaching out to her. She was a mere speck to him, so far away and shining in the glow of the starry wastes, and yet she saw for the first time, as another wall of his came crashing down, how she filled his universe.

 

Come inside, he pleaded. Come back to me, and I'll show you.

 

*

 

They were launching the attack at dawn, when everyone would be trooping to the mess hall, easy to evacuate. Dawn was still a good five hours away but you wouldn't have known it from how they hurried to her room, which was closer. Ben had kissed her the moment she returned to the airlock and took off her helmet, and he kept on stealing kisses as they traversed the silent corridors. Rey felt lightheaded, oddly giddy, the bond sighing every time she was pressed up against the wall and his lips found hers in the dark. Don't hesitate, don't think about it, she told herself, his hand latching on to her sleeve as she led him to her door. This is the last time. Tomorrow we go back to the Resistance and the way things were. One more night, that's all I ask. They stumbled into her room and tore at each other's clothes, the shuddering in her veins amplified by his own adrenaline. I will never have you like this again. She didn't know which of them was thinking that, but it was a true thing, nonetheless.

 

Rey fell back onto the bed, Ben following her down, a warm and solid weight. She had expected this encounter to be as hurried as usual, just as lust-crazed, but, instead—

 

instead—

 

Ben's lips trailed a gentle path from her temple to her cheek, down her neck to the hollow at the base of her throat. Her fingers tentatively played with his hair and traced the shell of his ear as his mouth lingered at her breasts, eliciting hitched gasps from her parted lips before he drifted further down, scattering more kisses along her stomach, her hips, the insides of her thighs. The lights were off, the only illumination coming from a cluster of stars beyond the small viewport high above their heads. She peeked down at him, at the contours of his shoulders cloaked silver-gray, at the inky feather-work of his lashes as he closed his eyes and brought his mouth to where she needed him. An interplay of soft lips and wicked, clever tongue, and she was lost, her hips canting, her spine arching off the mattress. You were made for this, she thought, and she felt him smile against her as he heard it in the bond. For some reason, the mere mental image of Ben smiling sent her skirting precariously close to climax and she fought it off, not wanting this to end just yet. While she knew he would definitely have no trouble building her back up, something was different tonight. She yearned to be in his arms.

 

The good thing about their link was that she didn't need to voice this thought out loud. He crawled up her body, holding her with care even though he looked almost wraith-like above her, beautiful and terrifying all at once. She could taste herself on him when he bent down to slant his lips over hers, such a strange and intimate thing, and she could feel everything that he was feeling, the bond pulsing between them in a shivery feedback loop of desire. I need you, Ben murmured, cradling the side of her face with one large hand, staring down at her with pensive eyes.

 

You have me, Rey told him, wrapping her fingers around the thick, hard length of him that was hot against her thigh. She caught glimpses of his wistful response— not in the way I want, not for as long as I'd like— as he sank down into her, filling all the empty spaces, his body completely covering hers as they moved together, so breathtakingly slow, hips rocking, sighs mingling, the bond crooning silver hymns. Afterwards, Rey would only ever be able to think of it in terms of sound and light— as if the Force were wind blowing through the reeds, or the iridescence of sunlight on the water, or sweet, lilting strains to accompany the stars crashing down from their dark heavens. Safe, she thought, pressing her face into the side of Ben's neck, I feel safe.

 

You are, he promised, tightening his arms around her. You are, I swear it—

 

And she wanted to tell him that people shouldn't say things like that, that the future was nebulous and uncertain, that one day they could wake up and not feel this way anymore. But it was hard to be logical— it was hard to keep all of this in mind— when she was in his head, with all the reverence he had for her, all the dark and secret things she did to him. Fear gripped her, then, a hollow chill raking through the fire of her arousal, and she attempted to twist away, to roll over onto her stomach and let him take her from behind as he'd always done before now. But she was pinned beneath him, and his hands rested at her hips in a request to stay in place. Trust me, please trust me, he whispered into their mental link, and Rey fell back against the pillow hopelessly confused because she did, she did, but—

 

"Harder," she mumbled, increasing the pace of her own thrusts in an effort to get Ben to follow suit. Yes, that was how it had to be, hard and fast and animalistic. Just sex. Just something she could chalk up to physical demands.

 

But Ben shook his head, bending down to nuzzle at her jaw, to capture her lips in a kiss that, for all its fierceness, was so slow and searching and tender that it broke Rey's heart. This wasn't fucking. He was making love to her, speaking in the language of lips and hands and undulating, worshipful movements, the bond blooming a crescendo of light everywhere his skin touched hers.

 

That was another thing that Rey noticed, too. Passion belonged to the Dark Side, but the Light was everywhere in this room. It was in Ben's eyes, in her blood, in the way he murmured her name over and over again, in the way her fingers glided down his spine and dug into his haunches. Her orgasm was a full-body shiver, a wave of pleasure washing over her so smoothly, so easily, a stark contrast to how she'd had to fight for everything else all her life. He lifted his head from the curve of her shoulder so that he could watch her face, and she saw herself the way he saw her in that moment, star-strewn, eyelashes fluttering, mouth slightly parted, neck arched. She felt vulnerable, yes, but also beautiful. He thought that every part of her was beautiful, even the rough edges and the messy ways.

 

It wasn't long before he followed her off the edge, his climax echoing through the bond and amplifying the lingering sensations of her own, dragging it out until the world took on a warm glow. He collapsed on top of her, reaching with one hand to tangle his fingers in the veil of her hair as he panted into her collarbone. He closed his eyes against her skin, already bracing himself for her inevitable retreat behind the boundaries that she'd so carefully constructed even as he tried to draw the moment out, savor it for as long as he could. She saw all of that in the bond, and, at last, she understood the number she'd done on him, how her mixed signals had spun him around these past few weeks, how his hopes only came back stronger every time they were dashed because he was the one person in the galaxy who was as stubborn as she was.

 

Even now, as they lay there together, breathing each other in, the beginnings of an apology were forming in his mind. She frowned, gauging his thoughts— he was afraid that he had forced her to remain in this position when she initially wanted to turn around. He was afraid that he'd made her surrender what she hadn't been ready to give.

 

She ran a soothing hand down his back, reflecting on how she had let him watch her unravel, how she had actually let another person witness her at her most unguarded. "I wanted it to be someone who loved me, the first time," she said out loud, her voice breaking the silence, underlain by the staccato rhythm of his heart beating above hers. "I'm glad it was you."

 

*

 

For such a vast and ancient structure, the Star Forge fell in record time.

 

After sneaking out in the early gray hours of the morning to plant the charges on the orbital stabilizers, Rey sped to the mainframe on the lower decks, using the passcode that Ben had snatched from the security officer's mind. As her fingers hurried to input the commands that would shut down the cooling systems, Ben was several floors above her, pulling the lever on the emergency alarm. Sirens blared throughout the Forge, their piercing wails soon joined by the thunder of hundreds of footsteps as people made for the hangars. Rey held off for as long as she could, waiting until the last possible second to activate the remote detonator— waiting until she could not wait any longer.

 

Explosions rattled throughout the vacuum as the orbital stabilizers disintegrated, the shipyard rocking with every blow. Gradually, the edifice began to tilt on its side, succumbing to the gravitational pull of the sun beneath it. With several resounding groans, with a chorus of creaks and shattering, the Infinite Empire's last great relic tumbled down into the molten abyss, to be consumed by the fury of Abo's red-gold fires.

 

Rey and Ben did not stick around to watch. They were already in the Rakatan corvette that they had stolen amidst the chaos in the hangars, joining the whirlwind of ships spilling out from the Forge and— in a bid to escape the aftershocks of what would certainly be a massive-scale conflagration— racing towards the hyperlanes.

 

*

 

The journey from the Lehon system to the green world of D'Qar would take roughly ninety-six hours, if they made no stops and stayed in the jump. They spent the first of those hours in total silence, looking at anywhere except at each other while the viewport shimmered with starlines.

 

Finally, Rey eased the ship into autopilot and swiveled in her seat to face Ben. He had long since discarded the blond wig and the glasses, and was now tentatively peering at her through golden-brown eyes beneath a shock of dark hair.

 

Rey was in that calm, blank state that she usually experienced right after a mission. While part of her couldn't believe that it was over, her time on the Star Forge was already feeling like it had happened to someone else.

 

"Do you think they all made it out?" she asked. They had seen Elysia, Inure, Caran, and a few others boarding the shuttles, but the rest...

 

Ben leaned forward, spanning the distance between their seats by taking her hand in his. "I think," he said, "that we are one step closer to ending the war. That soon no more lives will be lost."

 

Rey nodded, biting her lip. And then she allowed herself a tiny, reluctant smile. "So I know it was to make him stop freaking out and get into one of the shuttles, but I still can't believe you punched Tremblai."

 

"It could hardly be avoided. I was doing him a favor."

 

"Whatever helps you sleep at night," Rey teased, squeezing his hand. He shot her the ghost of a wry smirk in return, and that gave her the courage to move forward. Now that they had escaped the darkness of the Star Forge, she felt more confident than she'd had in a while. Less muddled. Braver. "Want to play Truth or Dare?"

 

Ben's expression softened. He kissed the inside of her wrist. "Truth."

 

Rey took a deep breath. "During my spacewalk, you told me that I made you feel less alone. But, for so long, you acted like you hated the idea of opening the bond. Why?"

 

"Because I'm in love with you," he solemnly replied. "I have been in love with you for a while now. Our relationship was so antagonistic— I was afraid that, if you caught even just a glimpse of my true feelings, you would be revolted. I could not have endured that. It was never because I hated the idea of the bond, or of you. Quite the opposite, in fact."

 

Rey nodded. "Okay. I'll take truth."

 

"Why are you crying?" Ben immediately fired off.

 

"Shut up, I am not," Rey sniffed, and Ben laughed the rusty, startled-sounding chuckle of one unused to laughter as he plucked her effortlessly from her seat and onto his lap.

 

"Truth," he said, kissing the crown of her head.

 

"So all of it was real?" She buried her face in his chest as she clung to him. "The endearments and the little touches and how you'd let me take your dessert?"

 

"Very real," he confirmed. "I'm not a good strategist, cyar'ika. When you admitted that you were also attracted to me, I threw in the towel right away. I was so— hopeful, for lack of a better word. I thought I could coax you into the idea of us without having to actually ask."

 

"It's not like I could pick up on the hints you were dropping," she grumbled. "No one's ever been in love with me before, Ben. I don't have a precedent for this. I don't know how it's supposed to feel like. That's why I kept pushing you away."

 

He tipped her chin up and pressed his lips to the corner of her mouth. "I've never been in love with anyone before, either," he murmured. "You terrify the hell out of me."

 

She couldn't resist. "My, how the mighty Darth Tantrum has fallen—"

 

He paused. And then, "You little—"

 

Quick as a flash, Rey wriggled out of Ben's lap in an attempt to flee to safety. But he was on his feet in an instant, and there was nowhere to go in the cabin of the small corvette. She was doubled over in giggles by the time he had her cornered against the wall with a wicked gleam in his eye.

 

"I believe it's my turn to ask," he said, trapping her between his arms. "Truth or dare?"

 

Rey blinked up at him. I think this is what love feels like. Maybe. That thought of hers filtered through the bond, Ben's eyes widening slightly as he heard it. He smiled— one of his true, rare smiles. Oh, what a sight. What a precious, wonderful thing.

 

"Dare," Rey breathed.

 

Still smiling, Ben leaned down, his lips barely brushing hers. "I dare you to kiss me."

 

And, laughing, she did. Again and again and again.