Valkyrie had a pack of cards on her which they used to pass the time. Graves even moved to their corner to join in, a distraction from his leg. He’d refused pain medication because he wanted to stay sharp.
Rude remained by Nalti, even though there wasn’t much else he could do for her. He just sat there and stared helplessly at her breathing.
Rey knew Nalti might die. She’d seen burns on Jakku, scavengers who’d gotten hold of an unstable piece of equipment. She’d heard about those too stupid or too poor to seek proper medical treatment, how rot set into the wound and ate their life away in agonizing inches.
Rey felt Ben the moment he made landfall, his turmoil churning the Force into a whirlwind. His presence was so huge, so tumultuous, she doubted she would have been able to miss it, and it only grew closer.
“Where the fuck are you?”
Rey jumped, cards falling from her hand as her bond slammed open. The others stared, and she told them to continue without her as she rose and moved to another corner of the room, behind some crates.
Rey kept her voice down so it wouldn’t carry. She knew he’d hear her no matter the noise level of his surroundings. “Underground. We went downhill for a while.”
“I found your shuttle,” he said, darkness pulsing through him so thickly she could almost see it.
Rey winced. She hadn’t seen the wreckage herself, but it couldn’t have been pretty. She wondered if he’d thought she was trapped inside. “Someone hired Castellian pirates to attack us. I can’t prove it, but I think that same someone sabotaged my shuttle.” She flicked her gaze up to meet his. “We have two wounded, and Nalti needs a surgeon. Her arm is…” Rey swallowed her emotions back, “it’s bad, Ben.”
“You think it’s the person we’re hunting?”
Rey nodded firmly. “Too much coincidence for it not to be.”
They looked at each other in perfect understanding. Whoever this mysterious enemy was, he or she had attacked the wrong fucking people. They’d almost killed Nalti, and they were still trying to kill Rey.
Neither she nor Ben would forgive them.
“You’ll probably need a local guide,” she added. “The twists and turns of this place… I couldn’t keep track, but we’re in a small storage room a ways down. Not many civilians in this area.” In case they had to fight again. She didn’t need to say the words, he’d understand.
His dark eyes dragged over her, taking in every bruise and cut, every grimy patch of dust or blood, as if storing them away. “I’ll find you,” he promised, and he was gone.
Rey rejoined the card game, trying not to think about time ticking away on Nalti’s injuries.
“You’re a good fighter,” said Flash suddenly. The sniper didn’t take her gaze off her cards.
Flash set a card down as deliberately and carefully as her next words. “The Supreme Leader likes you.”
Rey saw the others tense. Did they expect Rey to be angry? She supposed Flash was stepping wildly out of bounds for First Order protocol and briefly imagined how Watt or Hux or any of the officers who’d briefed her on Abednedo would react to a stormtrooper talking to them like this.
Probably not well.
Rey shrugged and waited as Ash set down a card. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t all seen the kiss in the shuttle. “Yes.”
“You said something about his scar,” Flash probed further. “Before the fight.”
Rey nodded, eyes on her cards as she casually set one down. Hers wasn’t a strong hand, but she didn’t mind. They weren’t playing for stakes. “I gave it to him. On Starkiller base.”
They all looked at her. Even Rowdy and Ash hadn’t known she’d been on Starkiller.
“Right before my friends blew it up.” For good measure, because she’d already damned herself, she added, “It was an abomination. Just like the creature that made it.”
“You’re Resistance,” breathed Graves, sounding stricken.
Rey considered and felt… sad. “I’m not sure what I am anymore.”
“You aren’t First Order?” asked Flash.
“If I am, then I’m very bad at it.” Rey watched Valkyrie set down a card. No one seemed to be paying much attention to the game anymore, only going through the motions to keep from having to look at each other.
Flash’s turn. She played her hand and lost. Valkyrie collected everyone’s cards and shuffled to deal again.
“Is he marrying you because you’re strong?” Flash asked.
“He offered to teach me because I’m strong. I turned him down.”
Flash’s helmet turned sharply in Rey’s direction, and Rey realized she’d just admitted to being Force sensitive. “Really.”
“I went to study with a Jedi, instead.” She shrugged. “It didn’t work out.”
“You’re a Jedi?” said Rowdy, entering the conversation for the first time. He tilted his head to one side as if to examine her. “And you’re marrying the Jedi Killer?”
Rey didn’t know exactly what to say to that, so she addressed the flawed assumption. “I’m not a real Jedi. Not a proper one, at any rate.”
Flash hadn’t turned away from examining Rey, even though Valkyrie had dealt everyone a new hand. As Rey picked up her cards, the sniper spoke. It wasn’t an accusation or even idle curiosity – it seemed as if Flash was trying to puzzle Rey out, and Rey found that she didn’t mind someone trying to understand her better.
“Are you marrying him for power?”
Rey laughed. She couldn’t help herself. Of all the things Ben had offered her, power had been the least tempting. “No.” She grinned and wiped a nonexistant tear from her eye. “I mean, he did offer me the galaxy on a silver platter, and I suppose that would work very well on most girls, but no. I don’t want the galaxy or even the First Order. I spent fifteen years on a desert planet, on my own, by choice. I stayed and I endured because I thought–” Rey stopped and shook her head. They didn’t need to know why. “No. I’m marrying him because I love him. I’d rather have him without the galactic domination part, but…” She let the sentence trail off.
But. That was the part that hurt, that kept her from fully enjoying her new life. Galactic domination was part of the package. Maybe it wouldn’t be some day, but Rey couldn’t count on that, couldn’t give into the delusion that things would change if she only pressed hard enough.
She had to accept the possibility that he would continue as Supreme Leader for the rest of their lives and that she would endure at his side, only ever almost happy.
Maybe she should have said no when he asked her to join him in Snoke’s body-strewn throne room. Refused to bargain, held her ground, and returned to the shattered Resistance to keep fighting. But she hadn’t. Had she given up? Compromised her principles? Did every breath on the Dominance constitute a betrayal of everything she was?
Rey… wasn’t sure.
“You’re very odd,” said Flash, pulling Rey out of her thoughts. It didn’t sound like an insult. Rey supposed that stormtroopers didn’t meet many people whose aspirations had to do with personal happiness, and so they had no framework by which to measure her. In their world, she would rate as odd, a statistical outlier.
Rey smiled wryly. “That’s not always a bad thing.”
Flash shrugged noncommittally.
“You shouldn’t be asking her ladyship so many questions,” Stone muttered to Flash.
“It’s okay,” said Rey gently. “You can ask. If there’s something I don’t want to answer, I’ll let you know.”
Stone didn’t reply, and she felt as if he still disapproved.
Rey glanced toward Nalti, the one who usually told her when she’d said too much. “I do ask that you keep anything I say to yourselves, though. And anything you see. You have more access than most, and I… can’t always tell when I’ve said something stupid.”
“We know how to keep our mouths closed,” said Graves, shifting his injured leg with a grunt.
Rey smiled at him. “If you didn’t, Ben wouldn’t have recommended you.” Then she sighed at herself for opening her big mouth yet again. “Right. Ben is his real name. That’s another ‘keep it to yourself’ thing.”
Graves nodded without comment.
“We’re not the ones you should worry about, anyhow,” said Valkyrie. “Desomma is privy to everyone’s gossip.”
Rey’s brows rose.
“She tailors for everyone. The officers, visiting dignitaries, the Supreme Leader, everyone. And she hears everything. Anyone who knows gossip knows that she has the juiciest tidbits, and certain people know how to get things out of her – especially things that don’t seem important.”
“We’ll call it the second rule of working for you,” said Rowdy amiably. “Keep our fucking mouths shut.”
The others nodded.
He chuckled. “And the third is, ‘Don’t call the Supreme Leader by his real name.’”
Rey snorted, relieved to have the tension broken and thankful for Rowdy’s complete disregard of propriety.
After that, they focused on the card game. Rey wished they would take their helmets off so she could see their faces, not least because it was damned hard to read their reactions to the cards, but they preferred to remain battle-ready and Rey couldn’t argue with that.
Within the next hour, the weight of Ben’s presence moved closer, a storm of fury and worry and poorly sated bloodlust. The knowledge that he was there, that he would cut through their enemies to reach her, provided her with a twisted sort of comfort.
And then everything went to shit.
The explosion wasn’t as close this time, but it left enough dust in the air that Rey removed her robe and wrapped the belt around her nose and mouth. Ash went to check what had happened, Flash providing backup, and they returned with bad news.
The tunnels they’d used had been collapsed. Rey felt a brief shot of panic and checked for Ben, soothed to feel him still there, fresh rage sending eddies through their bond.
“We can’t stay here any longer,” said Ash. “I don’t know how stable these tunnels are after that blast, and we’re sitting ducks if the enemy finds us.”
Rey nodded and bade Valkyrie to cut the hem from the red undergown – she didn’t want to be encumbered if they had to fight again – which the other woman did after she put her cards away.
Rude hoisted Nalti into his arms, his helmet back on to filter out the dust in the air.
As they all gathered at the exit, Rowdy said, “Let’s find a way out of this hellhole.”
“Let’s,” agreed Rey.
Rey let someone else lead, casting out with her senses for danger and letting those without watering eyes do the navigating. She was grateful that the explosions hadn’t knocked out the power to the underground lights, their yellow glow a comfort. She didn’t know if any of her people had night-vision technology, but she didn’t relish the idea of walking through the tunnels blind.
Not twenty minutes into their trek, they stopped at a major hub to hunker down and discuss which way to go. Rey probed each direction with the Force, checking again on Ben who’d grown further away as her people moved, and found that she only felt armed opposition in one direction.
When she told her people, Rude wanted to go in a different direction, but Graves insisted that through the enemy was probably the fastest way topside.
“I agree,” Rey said. “If we take this batch of bastards out, we can probably find a way out from there.”
“Not we,” said Graves, pulling himself to stand on his damaged leg. “I’ve got this one.”
Rey frowned. “Not a chance. You’re injured.”
He chuckled shortly. “You showed us what you can do, ma’am. Let me show you what I can do.”
Flash, who seemed to know Graves better than the others did, nodded. “Let him try, ma’am.”
Rey looked between the two of them, but she knew that kind of resolve. There was no arguing with it. “If you get yourself killed–“
“–you can kick my corpse,” Graves finished for her. “Just point me in the right direction and give me a decent head start before you follow. I won’t be moving as fast as I usually do.”
Rey obliged, and they watched him limp off, leaning heavily against the wall as he moved. Rey wondered aloud if they should have sent someone with him.
“No,” said Flash. “He works better alone.” She turned her head toward Rey, her rifle held at the ready. “I’ve only heard stories about him, you know? GV-6606. The special ops guys I worked with talked like he was some sort of legend. If the Supreme Leader singled him out, I’m inclined to think the stories are true – some of them, at least.”
“What kinds of stories?” whispered Rowdy, as if speaking at a normal volume would draw the wrong kind of attention.
Flash tilted her head to one side. “Their favorites were how a captain would send him into enemy camps in the dead of night. They wouldn’t hear a sound, not a single scream, but when he comes back, they’re all dead, every last one.”
Rey shivered. Had Ben really placed a killer on her guard roster? She wouldn’t put it past him. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more like him it sounded. Of course he’d arm her with a stone cold killer, someone to cover her when he couldn’t.
They waited quietly, Rey stretching her ears and her Force sense. She felt civilians huddled into their homes, terrified, and she felt Graves as a slow-moving spark working his way upward. She focused on him and the cluster of enemies lying in wait as he closed the gap.
Fifteen minutes passed, then half an hour, her every muscle strung tight, and finally one of those enemy sparks went out. Then a second. A third. The deaths came so fast after that, Rey couldn’t quite comprehend it, but soon she felt only the one familiar presence in their stead.
“Okay,” said Rey quietly. “He’s done.”
The others looked at her but didn’t argue, and Rey relaxed enough to let her bond snap into place. Ben had been trying to establish it since the cave-in, but she hadn’t had any attention to spare.
She glanced at him, flushing with the relief of seeing him whole and unharmed, if dirtier than last time. The explosion had left him covered in a fine layer of debris, showing stark on his black clothing and dulling his pale skin, but his eyes still gleamed dark and intense, unclouded. He used those eyes to check her for injuries, his jaw flexing with either concern or relief, maybe both.
“Flash takes point,” she said, glancing back to her people. “Ash takes the rear. I want Rude to check Graves for injuries once we get to his location.” Rude nodded, kneeling beside Nalti, ready to lift her the moment they got the order to move. He’d injected her with a second sedative as they waited, in case the first wore off, and her breathing looked peaceful, if not entirely even. “We’re going to go quick and quiet until we find an exit. Hopefully, backup will be waiting topside so we don’t walk into an ambush.”
“Consider it done,” Ben said softly, his deep voice reverberating through the air to her ears.
Rey let out a breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. She closed her eyes and gave herself a moment, just a moment, to enjoy the comfort of her bond, and then she let it slip away.
She fixed the relevant passage with a hard look. “Let’s go.”
Because Rey’s Force sense was so open, she felt something else.
She moved beside Stone and spoke in a low voice. “You’re angry with me.”
He didn’t reply right away. “It’s not my place to have feelings, ma’am.”
“It’s okay. I understand.”
“Do you?” he asked stiffly.
“I made you stay behind after the crash.”
He didn’t deny it.
She glanced up at him, the smooth helmet giving nothing away. “They couldn’t take care of the wounded and protect themselves, and Rude is a terrible shot. He told me so himself.” She pursed her lips. “I needed to know they were safe, and you’re the best at keeping others safe. Or am I wrong?”
His head jerked a little, somewhere between a nod and a shake. “I couldn’t say, ma’am.”
She looked at the dirt path in front of their feet. “Thank you,” she finally said, and his step faltered in surprise. “You did something I couldn’t, and I know it wasn’t what you wanted. So thank you. I’m grateful.”
He cleared his throat. “Just following orders, ma’am.” But she could tell he appreciated the words.
She wondered if he’d ever been thanked before or if it was another thing stormtroopers were denied. She wished she could ask Finn.
The thought of her best friend sent a pang through her. She’d be married soon, and he wouldn’t be there for it, probably didn’t even want to be there, probably thought she was betraying everything they’d fought for, compromising herself by giving her future to Kylo Ren and the First Order.
Rey didn’t quite recognize herself anymore.
The thought depressed her.
Not just the thought that Finn would be disappointed in her, but the realization that she would make Ben a terrible wife. No, not Ben, she corrected. The Supreme Leader of the First Order. She loved Ben, but in the context of the First Order, she was still a former Resistance member. She would cause him no end of headaches.
She was a terrible choice. Possibly the worst choice.
She shook her maudlin thoughts off when they reached Graves, her concern taking priority. Rude checked him and applied fresh bacta to his leg, which had begun to bleed through the bandages. A few minor abrasions on Graves’ face could wait until they reached the surface – Rude wanted to keep as much bacta on hand as possible for further injuries as well as Nalti’s arm. Enough bacta over a long enough period could heal the nerves and burnt flesh, but they didn’t have an unlimited supply with them.
She watched Rude as he re-bandaged Graves’ leg. The door beside Graves had been closed, but she could smell something unpleasant beyond.
“I wouldn’t,” Graves said quickly when she reached for the handle.
She looked at him, into his cold fathomless eyes.
“They killed the family before they set up in there. You don’t want to see that.”
Rey withdrew her hand, feeling it shake, and stepped warily away from the door.
Graves let his head fall back against the wall and closed his eyes.
“You’re a killer,” she said.
He nodded but didn’t open his eyes. “That I am.”
She watched him as Rude finished his wrapping and packed up the medical supplies. When Rude moved away, she asked, “Are you able to work with others?”
One side of his mouth turned up, and his eyes slitted open. “It’s not my strongest suit, but I can be a team player. Why?”
“I’d like everyone to train together. With me. In case something like this happens again. I don’t want to be second-guessing each other, and I’ve neglected my own training.”
He nodded. “Sure. We all had to train with our squads coming up.”
“Good to know.” She glanced at the others. “When you’re able to move, we’ll keep going. I don’t sense any more pirates nearby.”
He shrugged and started to stand. “I’m good now.” Rey grabbed his forearm to keep him from stumbling, though he didn’t seem to need it.
Ash approached and took over, slinging Graves’ arm over her shoulders and her own around his waist so that he could keep his weight off his injured leg. “I’ve got him, ma’am.”
Rey spoke softly, but they all heard her. “Let’s move out.”