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The Sith Temple collapsed around Rey in large chunks of mortar and stone, raising clouds of dust and small bits of debris that settled on her skin, making her itch, but she barely felt it. It was a distant feeling, a distant discomfort she hardly noticed at all.

She watched all of this, a slight smile on her parted lips, turning in a slow circle to take in the destruction of the power that had plagued the galaxy for so long: heavy stones crushed large groups of the Sith Order that stood, no longer chanting, in the risers that surroundedthe amphitheater of what had once been the Sith Throne.

Her tired gaze turned to the skies far above her where the bulk of the war was being fought.

The rebels were succeeding. The star destroyers were crumbling down to Exegol’s surface as surely as the temple was crumbling around her.

Finn was safe.

Poe was safe.

Rose was safe.

Rey let out a heavy breath of relief, closing her eyes briefly. The lightsabers, Luke’s and Leia’s, fell from her weak fingers, clattering to the stone beneath her feet. Her knees buckled and she fell, all her strength leaving her as she felt her life slowly draining from her, returning to the Force.

She had done her part. Her friends were safe.

The world slowly darkened around her.

She could, finally at long last, rest.

* * *

Ben’s first thought when he’d been flung into darkness by Palpatine was that it was all for nothing: the vision of his father, the last strength of his mother, his journey to Exegol, finding Rey there, destroying the Knights of Ren...all of it. It had been for nothing. Because now he was going to die down here in the dark, half his life force gone, all alone, in pain, unwanted and deeply unloved.

The world had faded around him, sending him into the black oblivion from which he truly believed he would never again wake.

Perhaps he would find Rey there, waiting for him with her hand outstretched.

Perhaps this time he would take it.

But not as the tyrant, Kylo Ren.

As the boy, Ben Solo.

Everything would be different. He would fix it all in the darkness of his dreams and with the steady, silent will of the Force to help him. He would turn back time itself if need be and change it all. He would never form the Knights of Ren. He would never betray Luke. He would never become a part of the devastating First Order regime.

He would never listen to the whispering voices of Palpatine and Snoke in his head.

He would instead travel to Jakku and find a young girl there and befriend her and show her the ways of the Force, but from the side of the light instead the dark.

And everything would be different.

Most of all everything would be different.

But then he’d awoken, his body aching, lights flashing far above him, through the mist that shrouded the bottom of the pit he’d been tossed so carelessly into like some discarded ragdoll.

He felt for Rey, desperately trying to sense her above him, needing to know she was alright. And he found her, burning bright and strong.

But nothing could burn like that for long without disintegrating into dust. Even he knew that.

Not candles or firecrackers. Not the moon or the sun.

Not even Jedi.

Not even stars.

He had to get to her, had to find her before he lost her to the Force forever.

He couldn’t survive the torment of this galaxy without her.

His entire body screaming, Ben forced himself, first, into a sitting position. He cried out in pain, gritting his teeth afterwards and shaking violently, trying desperately to assess the extent of the damage: his left side burned beneath the skin, touching any part of it made white hot lightning shoot through his body. His right leg was damaged...how he wasn’t sure, but walking on it was going to be difficult if not impossible. There were various other cuts and bruises littering his body, but they were all superficial. Even when standing, bent halfway over to minimize the pain in his midsection and limping badly. It was painful, yes, but easily dealt with.

His gaze turned to the craggy rock face, rising to impossible heights above him. Already he was wondering how he’d managed to survive falling from such a height. But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now except getting to Rey, convincing her to stop whatever it was she was doing before it killed her. He could consider everything else after that was done.

The climb was excruciating. Every quick movement reignited the shooting lightning in his side. Every time he used his left leg to push himself up to the next handhold, he grunted in pain. It seemed to take endless agonizing hours to pull himself up the broken cliffs.

Halfway up, his connection to Rey was brutally severed.

He let out a cry of shock and terror, and he nearly fell back down the way he had come.

He paused, sending out feelers with his mind, trying to find her again, trying desperately to convince himself that this was a mistake, that she was only hard to find because Palpatine was trying to shield her from him.

That she wasn’t gone.

But there was nothing. Just endless silence and a deep feeling of loneliness that he’d never felt before in his life. Not when he was a friendless child, not when his parents sent him away to be trained by Luke. Not even after the death of his father that he’d caused nor the death of his mother whom he was the indirect cause of as well.

Not even when Rey had refused to join him in Snoke’s ravaged throne room.

“No,” he begged, his voice a quiet whimper. His entire body shook from the effort of holding himself up against the jagged rocks. “No, please...don’t take her from me.”

But he knew begging and pleading wouldn’t help. Nothing would help. Nothing except getting to her and finding out what had happened. Perhaps she wasn’t even dead. Perhaps she was alive if only just. Perhaps everything was alright and something had just gone wrong.

He could endure a world where their connection was broken, but she was still alive.

He could live through that.

It was anything else that he couldn’t survive.

Again he began to scale the rugged cliffs, his jaw set, his brows narrowed, determined to reach the top alive, if pained, and finally, his hand reached out to clutch the lip of the pit, his fingers digging into the dust covered rock as he hoisted himself up into the eerily quiet remains of the ruined temple, his hair, covered in a cold sweat, falling limply across his face, obscuring his vision.

Ben’s eyes searched the temple, with wide anxious eyes, trying to see through the dust that was still settling all around him. At first he saw nothing, the temple appeared empty, and at first, he felt relief. Empty meant Rey was gone, that she’d gotten away, that their connection was severed and she was hiding herself from him in the Force, but she was alright.

And then he saw it, a small figure lying prone some twenty yards away from him.

His heartbeat quickened, his breaths coming in quick nervous gasps as he hoisted himself out of the pit, barely feeling the pain now, even as he got to his feet, still limping, still bent nearly double. Not even a quarter of the way to the limp figure, he collapsed, his legs giving out beneath him, a cry of shock and pain rising from him like a startled gasp as they did. He began shaking again, and for a long moment, he remained where he was, crouched on the ground, his entire body seeming to throb as he seriously considered lying down and dying right there.

You can’t leave her, a voice reminded him very softly. Dead or alive, you can’t leave her.

No. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. He would rather die as well than fail her so.

He grit his teeth, set his jaw, and pushed himself up. First onto his good knee, his eyes locked across the room on the small wilted figure in the dust. Then, his gaze returning to the dusty floor, his chest heaving, he sucked in a breath, forced his good leg under him, and thrust himself to his feet.

He didn’t even cry out this time.

He would make it to her if killed him, if it were the last thing he did in this shattered universe.

And he was close enough now to see that it was her. It was indeed Rey lying prone on the dust covered rock. Not moving. Her skin rendered a deathly pale hue even in the blue lights that shone down on them from the battle above.

As he reached her, Ben fell again to his knees, but this time it was from grief.

Seeing her now, it was unmistakable. Her eyes were open, unseeing, staring across the rubble at nothing at all. There was a slight smile on her lips, the relief she had felt from saving them all now frozen on her face for eternity.

Ben stared at her, watching her for any sign of life, however small. But there was nothing to see.

Rey was in the Force now, far beyond his reach.

It was hopeless, he knew, to reach for her now and yet still he did, one arm wrapping around her back, the shaking fingers of his other hand clutching at her arm as he scooped her limp body into his trembling arms. It was difficult due to his injuries and the throbbing pain in his side, but he managed to do it, one hand going up to cradle her neck, needing to look into her eyes, convinced that once he did she would smile, laugh even, and tell him she’d just been joking, tell him she was alright. And then they would leave Exegol together and everything would be as it had never been and perhaps for the first time in his life he would feel that difference too and be granted what he’d been told since childhood he did not deserve: peace.

Rey’s head fell back on her lax neck, her sightless eyes now staring up at the faraway sky. There was no smile, no laughter. Ben saw the truth of it in her unseeing gaze: she was dead. He was too late.

Ben grimaced, his chest heaving as he let out a horrid half sob, the weight of his failure settling on his shoulders all at once. There was no one in the destroyed temple, he knew, that could fix this, nor anyone in the entire galaxy that could, but he searched for the nonexistence help anyway, flicking his hair out of his eyes, gasping out incoherent whispered sentences, trying to convince himself that this wasn’t happening, that this was a nightmare, that he would wake up again at the bottom of that pit, ten minutes earlier, five minutes earlier, and make it up here in time to save her.

His gaze returned to her, going up at down her broken body, searching again for those signs of life, signs she would never display again.

Another half sob left him and he pulled her to him, rocking her back and forth, tears filling his eyes as his mind raced: She’s dead. She’s gone. You’re alone. You’re all alone. You failed her.

Tears fell from his eyes, though he did not make a sound. His already fractured psyche crumbled even further. Everything he’d ever hoped for...lost in an instant because he was too weak to fight against Palpatine, because he was too late coming to her rescue. It was the curse of his being.

Always too weak.

Always too late.

Then an image came to him.

High waves. Metal ruins. Red light through his gut. Agonizing pain, too thick to breathe through. And a gentle hand, resting on his stomach, taking it away, making breathing easy again.

Rey had healed him, had transferred some of her life into him to make him whole.

Was it possible for him to transfer some of his life into her to bring her back?

It’s possible, a voice whispered within him. But it will come at a cost. Either your life. Or half of a life. For both of you. Never healthy. Always sick. And death without hope of resurrection long before your time. Or hers.

It was a high price.

But the other option was to die and leave her alone and that would be sheer cruelty. He knew her well enough by now to know she felt the same way he did.

A half life together was better than a full one apart.

Pulling back, Ben once again cradled her in his arms and placed a sure hand on her stomach, closing his eyes as he did so. He swallowed hard, clenching his jaw, breathing steadily as he thought over and over again, just as she had only not very long ago, Be with me. Be with me. Find me again. Feel me. Be with me.

It took time, finding her soul in the Force and leading it back to her body, but he did it, using all of the patience and strength within him to do it, feeling his life force drain into her as he did. He could feel sickness enter his body, could feel everything that was wrong with him as it surfaced: the tumors that appeared in his stomach, the swelling that began in his brain, the fluid that filled up his lungs. None of it immediately lethal, all of it eventually leading to his death in time.

But not before I get to have a life with her, he thought, pausing only in his mantra for that one moment. Not before I get some measure of peace.

And then it happened. Rey lifted her hand and placed it over his, feeling the warmth of him as he felt warmth flood back into her. He opened his eyes and turned to her, his lips parting in silent shock and hope that what he’d done had worked. He watched her beautiful face, saw the moment her sightless eyes started to see again, the confusion in them as she struggled to remember where she was and what had just happened, and then the realization at what must have happened and the happiness that filled her face as a smile crossed her lips and, for all that was wrong within her, she managed to push herself upright, searching his eyes. He stared right back at her, his hand still resting on the back of her neck, unable to smile, unable to do anything except stare, certain that somehow something would go wrong and he wouldn’t feel her presence – both physical and mental – next to him any longer and he would lose her all over again and, with it, his last bit of hope.

“Ben...” Rey said his name like a silent benediction and her face broke out into a dazzling smile. Her hand came up, lightly touching his face with the tips of her fingers, and for the first time in what must have been years upon years, Ben smiled. It was small and it was fragile, little more than a tentative quirking of his lips and crinkling of his eyes, but it was there all the same. And it was something only Rey’s final and true acceptance could bring out of him.

And then something even more miraculous happened: she surged forward, her hand pressed against his cheek, and kissed him.

Ben, even as he responded, even as he wrapped an arm around her back, pulling her closer, was sure this couldn’t be real. He died in that pit. He had to. There was no way, not even with Rey dying, not even with him bringing her back, not even with her accepting him at long long last, that she would ever ever want to kiss him, that she could ever love him.

And yet he could feel it, radiating off her in waves.

It was like nothing he’d ever felt before.

Not from his mother or father.

Not from Luke or his Knights.

Certainly not from Snoke or Hux.

And yet here it was from Rey. Beautiful, gentle Rey.

The same Rey he had tried to torture, the same Rey he had tried to turn. She forgave him for all of that now, saw past that to who he truly was.

Not Kylo Ren, the vicious boy who had done those things, but the desperate man Ben Solo, who regretted them all, who would spend every waking moment of the rest of his life making up for them.

And when Rey pulled away, her hand still on his face, Ben’s face split into a smile, a breath of a laugh escaping him as he did. For so long, he’d been convinced he would never find love, he would never be happy. It was something Snoke, then Hux, then Palpatine had drilled into him saying to him over and over again until his smiles dried up and his laughs disappeared.

But they were wrong. They were all wrong.

And here was the proof, sitting before him, touching his face, watching him smile, smiling back and loving him. Loving him like he was more than some damaged boy, ruined by years of endless hate and little love. It was too good to be true and yet somehow...somehow it was true.

It was true. He could feel it.

Then Rey pulled back, her whole body shuddering as she began to cough. Ben’s smile vanished almost immediately, his hand going to her face, fear filling him as he saw blood fleck her lips and then trickle out of the corner of her mouth. The price of her life, of their life together, showing itself succinctly and all at once.

“Ben?” Rey asked, her voice now alarmed as she looked up at him, her shaking palm, covered in blood, held before her like something infectious and diseased.

She didn’t know how right she was. And Ben could feel the illness inside her: her weakened heart, her rotting lungs, her damaged spine. All incurable. It was all so very much worse than what was inside him, something he felt he should’ve known all along: the one coming back from the dead would be more sick, more interminably ill, more greatly affected than the one doing the bringing. Thinking it now, it seemed only logical. How he hadn’t realized it before was beyond his comprehension.

You were only concerned with bringing her back, a dark voice whispered to his thoughts. About not enduring this life alone. You were not concerned about anything that came after.

He hated how right it was.

“What’s happening to me?” Rey asked, searching his eyes again, though she had to know. Her soft, frightened voice brought him his thoughts and back into the present moment.

Ben swallowed hard. “It’s the price,” he said quietly. “For bringing you back.”

“The price?” she asked, sounding more terrified than before.

“I could either bring back all of you and die or part of you and live,” he replied, his voice just as soft as before. “I couldn’t...I couldn’t leave you here alone, Rey. I couldn’t. So I chose the latter. But...that choice comes with a price. For both of us.”

Rey was quiet, staring at him, understanding all at once. “Sickness,” she said so silently that for a moment he almost wasn’t sure she’d spoken at all. “Sickness that can’t ever quite be healed. Our bodies will reject medicine because of...the nature of the illness.” She sucked in a breath. “And young death. Only a few years...before our bodies give out entirely.”

He took a deep breath and nodded, finding that already he felt unable to get enough air. “Yes,” he replied, his voice still soft. “Yes, that’s exactly right.”

For several agonizing moments, Rey was silent, frozen, staring at him, her expression one of shock and horror, and, for those moments, Ben was afraid he’d made the wrong choice. Perhaps Rey would be happier with him dead or happier to remain dead herself. It had been selfish of him to bring her back, selfish of him to give her only half of a life instead of a full one.

But then her head dropped and she spoke, quiet, shaking, her hand reaching out to rest against the side of his neck: “Thank god you didn’t give me all your life. Thank god you’re still here too.”

Ben could feel the relief coming off her, just as strong as the love was. And yet, somehow, he found himself doubting it. So much so that he asked, “You mean that?”

Rey looked up again. “Yes,” she said without hesitation. “Yes, Ben. Of course, I mean that. For all that we’ve been through together, for all that we’ve each done wrong to the other...a life without you isn’t a life I want to live.” She looked away, shaking her head, swallowing. “You were right from the beginning, just wrong about the circumstance: we’re not meant to be apart.”

Her unspoken words rang clearly between them.

We’re meant to be together in the light.

It turned out she was right all along.

The thought made him smile again.

“I want to go to Tatooine...to the home of your uncle.”

Rey said this, staring up at the sky, at the star destroyers falling in flames to the surface of Exegol, at the rebel ships demolishing the last of the Final Order’s army.

Her words were not what he’d expected. “Why?”

She blinked, her stare turning back to him. “Because...I want...I want some measure of peace. And I know...I know neither one of us will ever find that in the ranks of the rebellion. Not now. It’ll be...too loud, too many expectations, too...much.”

Some measure of peace.

Had he not been thinking the same thing only moments ago?

“No one will think to find us there,” Rey told him, leaning forward, her eyes closed as she pressed her forehead to his. His eyes closed as their skin touched, electrifying him even after all this time. “We’ll be safe there...we’ll be safe.”

Safe from what he didn’t know. He had a feeling that neither did she, but safe all the same. Safe from whatever was to come from the destruction of the First and Final Order. And there would be something. Good or bad there would be something. Better to be safe than sorry. Better to hide themselves where no one would find them.

“Alright,” Ben said softly, nodding as he had when he’d come for her, when she’d passed his mother’s lightsaber to him, trusting him completely. He trusted her completely now. “Alright, that’s where we’ll go.” He reached up to touch her face again. “I’ll keep you safe, Rey. I promise. I swear it.” He hadn’t done a good job so far, but he would make it up to her now. Along with everything else.

Forgetting about the state of his leg and midsection, Ben scooped Rey back into his arms and began to stand before crying out in pain, his eyes snapping shut at the sudden white hot agony as he fell to one knee, nearly dropping Rey in the process.

“Ben!” she cried out in alarm.

“I’m alright,” he said quickly. “I’m alright, Rey.”

But she was already shaking her head. “No,” she said, “no, you’re not.”

She pressed one hand to his left side and another hand to his right thigh. Her eyes closed, her breathing evened and Ben realized what she meant to do right before she was about to do it.

“Rey, no!” he shouted, grabbing her hands, holding them tight in both of his own.

Rey jumped, startled by this. “Why not?”

Ben grit his teeth and looked away, his face a set grimace. “Because...every time you use the Force...a little more of you will die. You need time to recover from using so much of it before trying to use it again. Use too much at once and...” He gulped, trembling at the thought. He turned his eyes back to her. “And I’ll lose you and this time...I won’t be able to bring you back. It will be final death.”

Like before, Rey searched his eyes, staring at him, frozen. And for a moment, Ben relaxed, thinking she agreed, thinking she understood.

But then she blinked and said softly, “But Ben...your ribs...they’re broken..and your leg is fractured. Without my help… you won’t even be able to make it to your star cruiser. Not if you carry me. Not if you don’t let me at least heal your ribs.”

Ben wanted to say no, wanted to reiterate all he’d just said and tell her he was not going to let her hurt herself to help him, but looking into her eyes he knew it would be futile to do so. Her jaw was set, her eyes were narrowed. Her mind was already made up.

“Fine,” he said, though he wanted to take it back the moment he said it. “Just swear to me...you’ll be careful.” Another futile request, but still she nodded as though she would and he let go of one of her hands, allowing her to place it on his midsection once more.

Rey once again closed her eyes, once again allowed her breathing to even, and this time Ben felt the difference almost immediately. His shattered ribs found their way back together, breathing became a little easier, his agony subsided, and he was overcome with relief that none of the shards of his broken bones had pierced his already damaged lungs.

His relief was short lived.

Already Rey was slumping forward, her strength leaving her, her eyelids fluttering as she struggled to stay conscious, and Ben chastised himself just as quickly, catching her in his arms. She was much weaker than he’d thought. He never should’ve let her heal him. It was too much of a risk to her already faint and fading health.

Never again, he swore to himself, holding her against him, shaking with nerves as a hiss escaped from between his teeth. I will not have her dying for me. Not again. Never again.

Again Ben found himself cradling Rey against him, rocking back and forth, this time murmuring in her ear, “It’s alright, Rey, it’s alright. I’ll keep you safe. I’ll take us home.”

Already he was thinking of Tatooine as home.

But anyplace he was with her was home.

Again Ben tried to pull himself to his feet, Rey cradled in his arms, nearly unconscious and unable to help him to his star cruiser as she’d promised. This time he was successful.

He limped, just as badly as before, all the way to the large stone chain-links that he’d climbed down to get into the amphitheater. He stared up at it, swallowing hard as he realized how far above him the entrance was.

He’d forgotten all about this.

Getting up there while carrying Rey...it would be nearly impossible.

But there was a way. And he had to do it.

He couldn’t ask her to heal him again.

Setting Rey down, Ben unwrapped one of the bandages she always had tied around her arms and set about fastening a crude harness that would tie her to his back. Halfway through this, her eyelids fluttered and she mumbled, “Are we there yet?”

She sounded so young, like the small girl he’d never known. It made Ben smile again.

It seemed he was doing a lot of that lately.

He hadn’t smiled in years and now he couldn’t seem to stop.

And all because Rey loved him.

How queer it all seemed to be.

He reached out, touching her face. “Yes,” he said softly, leaning forward, kissing her forehead. “We’re almost there.”

She gave a weak smile of her own and then she was gone again, lost in whatever sickly oblivion the use of the Force put her in.

Ben’s smile vanished almost immediately.

The first thing he had to do when they reached Tatooine was fine a medcenter, however useless a notion it was. She needed medical attention. Frankly, so did he.

With more difficulty than he cared to admit, Ben hoisted her onto his back, tying the makeshift harness securely around his middle before staring again at the nearly sheer face of the chain-link statute that had been his way into this place. It would now be his way out. His and Rey’s. Together.

Climbing the chain-link statue wasn’t anywhere near as painful as climbing out of the pit, but it was damn near close and having Rey tied to his back didn’t make it any easier. More than once, he paused, gasping for air, clinging to the stone, his fingers grappling for purchase as he did. More than once he nearly fell, which would have surely killed Rey if not both of them.

Finally, he reached the entrance. There was no easy way to get to it and he would have to use the Force to jump to it, something that would be less dangerous to him than to her. He was stronger, not yet weakened by all that was wrong with him. His head spun from lack of oxygen, but he didn’t need to breathe well to jump from here to there.

Steadying himself, Ben gauged the distance and then launched himself off the statue.

For a moment, there was the feeling of weightlessness, the sensation of being propelled through the air and not falling as he used the Force to make him fly higher and farther than he might have otherwise. Then he crashed to the ground, only barely managing to stop himself from rolling over and hurting Rey by forcing her to feel his full weight by throwing out an arm and half skidding to a stop.

Once the dust settled, he let out a huff of a breath, relief coursing through him.

His leg was throbbing. He could barely see from the black dots dancing across his vision due to being unable to breathe. But they were alright. They made it. Everything was going to be alright.

He could see his cruiser from here.

But first things first.

Ben undid the knot around his middle, reaching around him to cradle Rey as best he could as he undid the harness and replaced the bandage on her arm, kissing the skin before he did.

Her skin was so soft. He marveled at it.

Rey held tight against his chest in his arms once more, he forced himself upright and limped to his cruiser, his teeth grit against not only the pain of his throbbing leg, but the straining of his lungs. He was only managing to stay conscious and seeing through sheer willpower.

He opened his cruiser by kicking at the button with his bad leg. It took several tries and made him stagger and cry out in pain more than once, but finally the doors opened and he climbed aboard.

There was a crude medbay in the cruiser. Enough for a bed, some readout machines, and simple medications. Nothing like what he needed, but he could only pray that it would be enough until they reached Tatooine. It would have to be.

Ben laid Rey down here before going into the cockpit. Sitting down at the control panel, he plugged in the coordinates for Tatootine.

A robotic female voice said, “Destination: Tatooine. Classification: desert planet. Location: outer reaches of the galaxy. Population: 4, 539, 643. Press green button to confirm.”

He did.

“Destination confirmed. Time to destination: three hours and seven minutes.”

Ben nodded once, satisfied with this, and left the cockpit.

When he returned, he knelt next to the bed, brushing Rey’s hair back from her face, kissing her forehead. He pressed his to hers for a moment, his eyes closed.

I’ll keep you safe, he swore again. I’ll take us home. I’ll keep you safe.

It was all he was now: Rey’s guardian, her lover, her protector. It was all he ever needed to be.

The star cruiser sped off away from the battle away from the war, and into the stars.

Chapter Text

Ben spent the vast majority of the journey to Tatooine in the medbay, knelt in front of the one bed. His fingers were curled around Rey’s, pressing them to his cheek, while his free hand, gently, repeatedly, brushed her hair out of her eyes, his gaze never once leaving her face, watching the labored rise and fall of her chest, her breathing an awfulrasping wheeze. He, too, struggled to breathe, coughing wetly every so often and spitting up mucus. But he barely noticed this with how anxiously fast his heart beat.

As the star cruiser had sped off into space, heading at the speed of light for Tatooine, Ben had attached the sensors hanging from the wall monitor in the medbay to Rey’s chest. At first it was out of genuine morbid curiosity, wanting to know how she was doing and what he could expect the results of her half resurrection to be. Then he’d seen the readouts of the machine and the morbid curiosity morphed into full blown panic.

Her health was deteriorating more rapidly than he’d originally thought.

Her heart condition was a dangerous arrhythmia. Her rotting lungs were caused by a rare form of tuberculosis. And her damaged spine came from having been badly hurt in childhood, only now it was worsened by the severity of everything else, causing her what could be excruciating back pain. And more than that, she only getting steadily worse, something he was convinced was a direct result of her using the Force to heal him.

Again he grimaced, his hands curling into fists, his nails digging deep into his palms, so deep they nearly drew blood. This is your fault. You brought her back and now your carelessness is going to cause her to die even sooner than she already will.

His fists trembled.

Ben turned on his heel and left the medbay, limping away he reached what was meant to be the cargo hold. He opened the door with trembling fingers, shut it again just as quickly and screamed. Screamed until everything around him rattled, until his voice went hoarse. Until he fell to his knees from the black spots that danced across his field of vision from lack of oxygen.

He could not lose her again.

He would not survive it this time.

When she died, he would follow her into the Force.

He refused to live without her.

Never again, he swore once more as he left the cargo hold, his body shaking with fear. She will not heal you again. She will use the Force as little as possible.

She will stay alive.

But even as he thought it, another voice rose within him, mocking him, Are you going to try to control her even now? Become again Kylo Ren, convince her to hate you, and drive her away?

The words stopped him short and he let out a heavy gasp as he staggered backwards several steps from the force of the realization of what he’d been thinking. The voice was right. He could not control Rey. Not just because he literally could not, but because it was wrong. And that was thinking of Kylo Ren, the savage within him that he’d killed, not the boy Ben Solo, who was trying so very hard to be so much more than that.

But he wanted desperately to ask her not to use the Force. Not for any other reason than to keep her safe, to keep her with him as long as possible.

Which he supposed was another form of control, of selfishness.

Ben grimaced and turned his head, his eyes shut tight.

He didn’t know what was right and what was wrong in this situation.

What he did know was that he was more frightened than he cared to admit of Kylo Ren and the possibility, however slim, that he could come back.

He staggered back to the medbay and slumped next to Rey’s prone form. He noticed for the first time the thick, winding scar on her upper left arm, something he only vaguely remembered creating himself. Absently, his fingers lifted to trace the thin scar that went across his face, images of a darkened, snow covered forest flashing through his mind.

Each was marked by the other, a constant reminder of what they shared, what neither one could survive without.

Ben reached out, taking Rey’s fingers in his own, holding them against his face. His other hand reached out to brush her hair back from her eyes.

I’ll keep you safe, he thought again. I swear it. I’ll keep you safe.

Rey began to stir weakly, shifting on the bed and Ben paused in his movements, sitting up straighter, watching her throat work as she swallowed.

“Ben...” The word came out as more breath than voice.

Ben moved closer to her, pressing his forehead against her temple, his eyes closing. “I’m here.”

Her head turned automatically towards his. “I thought it was just a dream.”

He didn’t need to ask what she meant. He still felt like he was in a dream.

“I promise this is real.”

Rey let out a soft gentle sigh. “Thank you...”

For a long while they were silent. Ben’s forehead pressed to Rey’s temple, Rey’s cheek pressed against the crown of his head, both of their eyes closed.

For the first time in his life, Ben felt calm. Peaceful.

Some measure of peace.

He had it. Here. With her.

Finally, Rey half whispered, “Ben...what are you thinking?”

Just as he had back in the ruined Sith Temple, Ben smiled and a breath of a laugh, a laugh that made his chest bounce with the force of it and went on much longer than it had in the Temple. When his laughter at last broke, he said, still smiling, “It’s quiet in here. Finally.”

There were no more voices, no more torments, no more dark urgings.

Just his own voice. As it was meant to be.

“Quiet,” Rey repeated softly. “You mean...because of Snoke? And Palpatine?”

Ben pulled back then, looking at her surprised. “How do you know about that?”

“Everyone knows about that, Ben,” she replied quietly, a hand reaching up to touch his face. “Why do you think your mother and father tried so hard to get you to come home? Why do you think I came for you? We knew what was happening. We wanted to help you.”

Ben stared at Rey, stunned for a moment, though, even as she said it, he knew this was true. He’d only denied it because he couldn’t understand why they would care. And he’d believed the voices muttering in his mind. He’d believed everything they were saying. And when Luke came to try to kill him when he’d been training with him, it had only confirmed what the voices were already telling him.

Luke’s attempt on his life had been the last straw, the last thing to take all that was left of the Light in him and push him to the side of the Dark.

“I thought you were all like him,” he said, still thinking of Luke, “I thought you all would pretend to care about me and then...kill me...want me dead.”

“No,” Rey said, pressing her palm against his cheek, shaking her head. She coughed weakly. Ben’s lips twisted as he saw the blood that came up. “No, Ben. I wanted to help you. I...still do.”

Ben thought of his parents, the people who had claimed to love him and sent him away to Luke, thinking the man could fix him. But Luke had tried to kill him. And then Ben and his Knights of Ren had burned down the Temple and left the island to join the First Order. Would that happen again? Would Rey send him away and would he again be lost?

Would Kylo Ren come back?

“I won’t let that happen,” Rey said quietly, shaking her head again. She turned towards him, taking his face in her hands and leaning forward to press their foreheads together. “I’ll keep you safe, Ben. From all that would wish to hurt you. Even yourself.”

Ben closed his eyes at the contact, swallowing hard.

She knew a lot. Too much perhaps, but not everything.

He sucked in a shuddering breath.

No one knew everything.

“Then what is everything?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.

He clenched his jaw, turning away from her, but not breaking the contact. “Rey, stop. Please. Stop listening to my thoughts. Stop asking these questions.”

“Ben” she said, her voice still just as quiet as before, though her grasp was more desperate, “it will never stop hurting if you don’t talk about it.” And there was something about the way she said it, about the way she spoke to him that made Ben realize in all the time he’d spoken to her, though about her, tried to get to know her, he’d failed to notice one one very important thing.

He didn’t know everything either.

Again he pulled back and this time, he searched her eyes, asking, “What are you hiding from me, Rey? What aren’t you telling me?”

Rey balked and swallowed hard. “I asked you first.” She was trying to play with him, trying to make fun and put his eyes, but she didn’t smile and the words came out in a monotone.

It only served to make Ben more afraid of whatever it was she wasn’t telling him. And there was something. That much he could feel for sure. It was what it was that remained a mystery.

“Please, Rey,” he said softly. “Tell me.”

“I asked you first,” she said again, her voice firm this time, almost angry.

This time Ben balked. What was so bad that she couldn’t tell him? That she would get angry at the mere suggestion of telling? Either way, he didn’t want to press her. They’d spent enough time fighting each other. The last thing he wanted to do was waste what little time they had left together doing the exact same thing they’d always done.

But that meant telling everything she didn’t know.

And he wasn’t sure he wanted to do that either.

There was too much grief, too much anger, too much shame in his past.

Too much about him he didn’t want Rey to know.

Too much that made him doubt she would love him anymore if she found it out.

“Ben?”

His eyes returned to her face. “Rey, please,” he said again. “I’m begging you. There are things you’re better off not knowing.”

“Ben.” Her voice was soft, gentle, matching her eyes and again she repeated what she’d said before, “It will never stop hurting if you don’t talk about it.”

Ben swallowed hard. She knew what she was talking about. He felt the truth of it in her voice and her thoughts. But at the same time, he felt the hypocrisy of her words. Whatever it was she wasn’t telling him was tearing her apart as surely as his secrets were tearing apart him.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, the words coming out strained. “But I feel the agony in you as well, Rey. I feel it as surely as I feel your skin against mine. Swear to me you’ll tell me what’s hurting you.” His hand went to her face, stroking her cheek. “I don’t want that agony to tear you apart. And it is tearing you apart. I can feel it.”

Rey swallowed hard. She didn’t want to talk about it just as much as he didn’t want to talk about his past, so it surprised him when she nodded once and said quietly, “Alright.”

Ben nodded back, opening his mouth to speak, but Rey cut him off.

“It was Snoke and Hux, wasn’t it,” she said gently, stroking his cheek with her thumb. “They’re the ones that hurt you. Palpatine...he tortured your thoughts, but...they hurt you with more than that.”

Again Ben swallowed and again he nodded. “Yes,” he managed to gasp out. “But Rey...you must understand: all I wanted was their love. I...had no love from my father. And my mother, for all her love, she sent me away. To Luke. Who tried to kill me. And I got their love. I got love from Hux and Snoke. It was violent love. But it was love all the same. And I allowed it. I allowed them to beat me when they got angry. And...use my body for their pleasure. Hux, especially. He was...insatiable. But it was love, Rey. You must understand that. It hurts me now because I’m weak...and worthless. It was love.” He looked away, swallowing hard yet again. “There’s no reason for it to hurt me...and no reason for me to fear it now.”

For a long time, Rey was silent, staring at him, taking in everything he had just said. And in that time, Ben felt his pulse quicken and fear fill him as he wondered if his worst fears were true: she no longer loved him; she saw him only now for the vile, dirty thing he was, worth nothing at all and deserving of only pain and hatred.

Then she whispered, “It wasn’t your fault, Ben. And it wasn’t love. It was violence. Pure and evil and nothing else.”

“But it was my fault,” he said automatically, turning back to her, his teeth jaw clenched, his teeth grit, and his voice thick with the pain he was now struggling to hold back. His fingers curled into fists and tears he only barely held in filled his eyes. There were tears in his eyes. “And I deserved it. It was only violent when I failed, when I did things wrong, things I sometimes knew were wrong, knew would get me punished and did anyway. How could it possibly have been anything else?”

“It wouldn’t have mattered if you did everything exactly right,” Rey replied, her voice nearly a whisper, just as soft as his. She brushed his hair back from his face. “They still would’ve hurt you. They were evil, Ben. They were evil. Evil people do evil things.”

He turned back to her. “I was evil too once,” he said. “I did horrible things. I killed people. Innocent people. And tortured others. I’m just as bad as them.”

But she was already shaking her head. “No,” she said. “No, you’re not. I’ve felt your heart. And I’ve felt theirs. You’re completely different from them. They became the way they were by choice, Ben. You were tortured into it. And you resisted. For years, you resisted what Snoke and Palpatine had been telling you since birth. And the only reason you ever gave in was because of what Luke threatened.”

Her words stunned him. Not only by the surety of what she said – something he wasn’t even sure of himself – but by how well she knew him. And more than that, he could feel she truly believed what she was saying. She wasn’t just saying it to make him feel better. She was saying it because, to her, it was the absolute truth, and it struck him again just how different she was from anyone else in his life, anyone else he’d ever known.

Different from his father who only saw him as a burden and a mistake.

Different from Luke who tried to kill him for what he thought was true.

Different from his mother who abandoned him to Luke.

Different from Snoke and Palpatine who wanted him only for his power.

Different from Hux who wanted him only for the pleasure he could bring.

Rey cared for him not for what she wanted from him, but for who he was.

It was worth more to him than all the stars in the sky.

He kissed her then, pressing his lips, hard and desperate, against hers. I love you, he said, pouring every inch of it into her through their connection. I love you. I love you, Rey. I love you.

She pulled back sooner than he would’ve liked, so soon, his face followed hers for a moment, his eyes still closed. Then she spoke and his eyes opened.

“You love me?” Her voice was stunned, whisper quiet, her eyes searching his for the answer.

Ben’s brows drew together. “Yes,” he said, reaching out, this time being the one to brush the hair from her eyes. “Don’t you feel it?”

“Yes, but...” she looked away. “No one’s ever loved me before. There’s...nothing here to love.”

“You truly believe that?” he asked, knowing even as he asked it that she did.

Rey blinked, swallowing hard. A single tear fell down the side of her face and her voice came out a whisper: “Yes.”

He reached out towards her again, catching the tear on his finger before placing his hand on the opposite cheek and turning her to face him. “Tell me, Rey,” he said quietly. “Tell me why you think this. Tell me who hurt you so badly you stopped believing you were meant for love.”

Her lower lip trembled and more tears fell from her eyes as she finally whispered, “The Scavengers. The ones my parents sold me to. Palpatine said they were good people...that they hid me to protect me from him, but that wasn’t true. I feel it. I know it. You were right all along: they sold me. For drinking money. To the Scavengers. And the Scavengers hurt me. Beat me. Used my body for my pleasure. Sold me to others to allow them to do the same. I was their slave. And everything they did to me I deserved. I was a rebellious child, always getting into mischief and every time I did, I was caught. And I knew I would be caught. And I knew I would be beat or used or sold once I was. And I still did it. You say you deserved what was done to you, that you brought it on, but you didn’t, Ben. You didn’t. You were tortured and tormented from birth. You never could’ve won. I was given the chance. And every time, every single one, I squandered it.”

Ben felt his heart break for her. He felt her pain, immeasurable pain. He could feel the young girl she was screaming inside of her. He winced then. She could still feel the hands of the Scavengers and all those they’d allowed to use her on her, could still feel them inside her. She ached from it. It was devastatingly horrific, the things he realized had been done to such a young girl. For years. And for what? For ten minutes, twenty minutes of pleasure? It was sadistic, unforgivable. Evil.

He wanted to turn the ship right around and go to Jakku to kill them all.

Not just for Rey. But for all the other children they undoubtedly had hurt. Would hurt.

People like that didn’t stop at just one. It was a pattern with them.

It was the same with Hux and Snoke.

How did anyone think all of the Knights of Ren had turned along with him?

He was surprised, not for the first time, though stronger than ever before, by how similar they were, how similar their feelings towards those who had hurt them were: all they’d ever wanted was to be loved, to be believed.

And they’d been granted neither.

And the direct result of that was a gaping wound, one that never ever healed no matter what was done. One nothing could heal.

The only thing that had ever come close was their connection.

And the love born through it.

He moved closer to her, pressing his forehead to hers, his eyes closing as he said, his hand running down the side of her face, into her hair, his voice barely more than a whisper, “How can you say what you said about me, but believe so differently about yourself?”

“Because it’s the truth,” she replied, her voice just as soft. “It’s the truth what I said about you and it’s the truth what I say about myself. I deserved it, Ben. And what’s more, I-I enjoyed it.” Her voice broke on the last word. “Every time they used my body, my body responded. It climaxed as theirs did. They told me that meant I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it, Ben. How can it be wrong or bad when that happened? When I liked it?”

Again Ben grimaced, his hatred for the Scavenger’s rising within him all over again and he had to pull Rey closer to physically keep himself from rerouting the ship.

They deserved death and so much worse for what they’d done to her.

“They lied,” he only just managed to get out through gritted teeth, shaking from his fury. “They’re liars, Rey. All of them. What happened to you was nothing more than a physical response to stimulation. It...it happened to me too.” He struggled saying the words. “And that doesn’t mean you enjoyed it. If-if I’m innocent, you are too. More than.”

You’ve never done the things I have.

He could feel she didn’t believe him, that, like he did about what she had said, thought what he said was a beautiful lie rather than the honest truth.

But he also knew such feelings had been born out of years of the opposite belief of what was being said. It would take more than one day of a few kind words for them to ever even begin to believe what the other had said.

There was a sudden bang as the ship came out of lightspeed and then a beeping from the cockpit and Ben automatically turned his head in that direction as a female voice announced, “Tatooine approaching. Time to destination: thirty minutes. Prepare for final descent.”

Somehow, it seemed, three hours had already passed.

Ben stood, bending down to kiss Rey’s forehead, before returning to the cockpit.

Through the glass, he could see Tatooine. Like Jakku, the place was a barren desert with a few clusters of civilization here and there. They were little more than villages, no big cities. They would hold few, if any, of the medical advancements of the inner planets. Again his jaw clenched, but this time in frustration, cursing himself for listening to Rey even if it had been what she wanted. She needed those advancements. Even if they would hardly work. She was very ill. He doubted anyone here would be able to help her in any sort of sustainable way.

But it was what she wanted. She wanted to be here. And it was for that reason alone, he didn’t turn the ship around now.

“It reminds me of Jakku,” her voice said, coming from directly behind him.

He turned. Somehow she’d managed to stand and had limped from the medbay to the cockpit without collapsing or falling unconscious. But he could see that it had cost her. Her lips were pressed into a thin line from the pain and her arm, braced against the back of his chair, all that was keeping her upright, was shaking from weakness. When he turned the copilot’s chair towards her, she less sank into it gratefully than collapsed. The movement made him wince and he clutched the arms of his own chair to keep himself from inputting other coordinates.

Instead he asked, “Are you sure this is where you want to be? Jakku...held so much pain for you. We could always go somewhere else.”

“I know why you’re saying that,” Rey replied, her voice hard, her eyes never leaving the approaching surface of the planet before them. She blinked and turned to face him, he only barely hiding the wince of frustration that crossed his lips as she did. “And my answer is still the same. Besides, they won’t be able to help me there either and you know it as well as I do.”

Ben pressed his lips into a thin line as well, his eyes narrowing as he looked away.

The worst part of all of this was she was right.

Even with all their advancements, they wouldn’t be to help her, let alone save her. For all that he told himself differently, the truth was going there would be as hopeless as going to any of the medcenters on Tatooine.

It’s unfair, he thought bitterly, his hands curling into fists.

They were finally together after years of fighting to be and now they were sick. Dying. Rey, especially. They deserved to have far more time than they were being given.

“I know it isn’t fair,” Rey replied, her voice very soft, the hardness from before gone. “But life isn’t fair, Ben. Even when it should be, it’s not.”

Again she was right. And again Ben hated it.

His eyes remained on the planet’s surface, closer than ever, as he said, “It should be.”

This time she didn’t reply. But he knew she agreed.

Chapter Text

The star cruiser made its delicate landing onto the sand covered surface of Tatooine, Ben guiding it manually with Rey’s help the whole way. Though it seemed obvious once he thought of it, once he’d done it, it turned out flying with the other half of his dyad as copilot was much easier than it ever would’ve been with anyone else.

Not that he had much experience flying.

He could fly a single pilot ship without much difficulty. Even expertly. But with a simple cruiser such as this one, without the help of a copilot, he mainly used the autopilot function to fly.

Despite having a father who owned the Millennium Falcon, he had never once flown it himself, never even helped fly it. Everything he had learned about flying, he’d taught himself in the years after his mother had abandoned him to Luke and after he’d given into Snoke’s sinister whisperings after Luke’s savage attempt on his life.

It turned out with Rey, an expert pilot herself (somehow nearly as good as Poe Dameron, despite having less than half his experience), made flying come easy to him. All of her inexplicable knowledge, she was able to pass to him through the dyad and, as their ship finally settled in the sand, less than a mile from the town of Mos Espa near the location of the old Skywalker residence, a wealth of information was given to him that he knew he never would’ve gained any other way.

Ben stood immediately, wincing at the pain of the tumors eating away at the lining of his stomach as he pressed a hand over his belly button, but Rey lingered, her eyes darting across the dashboard of the star cruiser, her brows drawn together, something he only noticed once he reached the entrance to the cockpit and then paused, one hand on the doorjamb.

His own brows knit into one. “What are you looking for?”

“Is there a way to connect to the frequencies on this vessel?” she asked, not looking up.

“Why?”

“To contact Finn and Poe,” she replied, still searching for some sort of recording device.

Ben swallowed hard, his hands curling into fists to mask their anxious trembling. He’d thought the whole point of them coming out here was to stay off the frequencies. To hide. He had a feeling that if any of the Resistance knew he was still alive, they’d come to kill him, Rey’s feelings about him be damned. Even if they did trust her. And Finn and Poe were part of that Resistance.

To be completely fair, he knew they had every reason to feel that way. He’d spent the better part of the last few years trying to wipe them out. He’d killed his own father. He’d been a part of the fighting group that attempted to kill his mother. He’d kidnapped and tortured Poe. He’d allowed Rey to be tortured by Snoke. And he’d been the reason, however indirect, that Luke Skywalker had died. This wasn’t even counting all of the murders he’d ordered, the raids he’d led, the attacks he’d been a part of.

It couldn’t even be called a foolish mistake. It had gone on for too long to be excused as something so simple.

He looked away, his fingers digging half moons deep into his quivering palms, shame filling him as his jaw clenched so hard his teeth ached.

Even taking into account the manipulation, torture, and countless abuses Snoke had put him through since birth, the only explanation was it had to have been a choice.

It had to have been.

Right?

And the Resistance, perhaps especially Finn and Poe, had every reason to distrust him and want him dead for that choice. It was far away and beyond his own stupid fault.

His doubts must’ve been loud and very much at the forefront of his mind because Rey, still without turning to him said, “They’re my best friends, Ben. They deserve to know where I am. They deserve to know what happened on Exegol.”

Again Ben swallowed and this time asked, “Are you...sure about that?”

This time she did pause in what she was doing and she did look up at him, slowly straightening from her position hunched under the controls, searching for the recording device. “They’re my friends, Ben,” she said again, a sharp edge to her voice now. “I want them to know I’m alright.”

He looked away, swallowing a third time. “What will they think about you being with me?” His voice was quiet, a stark contrast to her own. “Last they knew...I wanted to kill you.”

Her expression softened at his, her tense shoulders slumping. She stood and crossed the small cockpit to stand before him. He found he couldn’t look at her, feeling the same horrible feeling of guilt from selfishness and control that he’d had when she’d been unconscious in the medbay – frankly, he wasn’t sure how she managed to remain upright now; her strength, her ability to ignore pain was remarkable, a direct result of her painful childhood, he was sure.

It isn’t your place to ask her not to contact her friends. It isn’t your place to speak at all. Not even to save your life. What right do you have to live anyhow?

The voice was right. And he still thought it was right, even when she took his hand and said gently, “They’re not going to kill you, Ben. I promise, alright? They’re probably not even going to come after us. They’ll understand. They’ll realize why we’re here.”

Turning back to her, he forced his lips to upturn and his head to nod once.

Rey squeezed his hand and returned the nod before returning to the control panel to record her message, connect to the frequencies, and send it to her friends.

He watched her, impassive.

She didn’t seem to have noticed the fraction of a smile did not reach his eyes.

It took a very short amount of time for locate the recorder after that – the recorder that Ben hadn’t known the location of himself until she found it. It took only slightly longer for her to record and transmit her message straight to the Falcon, a surefire way to make sure it would not be seen by anyone she didn’t want to see it.

Once this was finished, she turned once more to face him, smiling, pleased with what she had done. He returned the smile, this time much more convincingly than before, but his smile disappeared as soon as she stood, watching as her knees buckled almost instantly and her eyes rolled back in her head for just a moment as she began to fall.

Ben, with his long legs and large frame, lunged across the room in one mighty step and caught Rey in his arms before she hit the floor. Her eyelids, closed when he caught her, began to flutter back open almost immediately. He brushed her hair nervously out of her eyes, his fingers trembling. Without really trying, he was again able to feel just how ill she was through the dyad and, again, he winced, feeling as though ice were melting in the pit of his stomach.

With a horrible certainty he hadn’t felt before, he knew she would die before him.

He turned away, closing his eyes tight, grimacing.

He couldn’t survive this world without her and he refused to try.

Once she died, he would too.

The only thing still up for debate was how he would accomplish this.

A sudden gentle hand on his face, followed by a soft tender voice, saying his name like a prayer:

“Ben.”

He took a shuddering breath and turned back to her, opening his eyes as he did.

Her brows were drawn together, her fingers ghosting over his jaw. He pressed automatically into her touch, still reveling in how wonderful it felt, how soft even her fingertips were.

He could feel the concern radiating off her in thick waves just strongly as her sickness.

“Ben,” she repeated, her tone unwavering, her palm pressing more firmly against his cheek, “what’s wrong? What’s the matter?”

He hesitated. He wasn’t sure if she were asking because she truly did not know or if because she wanted him to tell her rather than intrude on his private thoughts, though he was certain she could read or at least feel them.

It was the one downside of the dyad.

There were no secrets, even when there maybe should have been.

As he had before, Ben forced a smile, one that he tried to make far more believable than the last one, his lips spreading across his cheeks though still no part of it reached his eyes as he said, “Nothing.” He turned his head, pressing his lips against the inside of Rey’s palm.

Rey’s face fell and she looked away. He couldn’t tell if she were sad or frustrated. “How long is it going to take for us to be honest with each other?”

Without really thinking about it, Ben’s smile vanished in an instant, the corners of it turning towards the floor as his mouth opened to tell her as he had so many times before that he’d never lied to her, but the words died on his lips.

It had been a single word, but it was still a lie.

He closed his mouth again slowly and looked away. He wouldn’t lie to her, but he couldn’t tell her the truth either. Even considering her question. The last thing her failing body needed was to know just how much irreversible danger it was in.

He stood, pulling Rey up with him, his arms still around her as he set her back on her feet. He ran a shaking hand through his hair, still unable to meet her eyes. “Let’s go into town and purchase a speeder. It’s several miles to the Skywalker residence.”

“Ben.”

The quiet word stopped him, so abruptly it was as though he’d hit a wall, once more trapped in the entrance to the cockpit.

He didn’t turn. One hand came up, pressing against the doorjamb.

It seemed to be all that was holding him upright.

“Am I dying?”

His fingers pressed more firmly into the solid metal, his lips twitching painfully, twisting into a tormented grimace, his eyes fluttering shut at the agony that shot through him like a raging current of pure electricity at the words.

“No,” he said, half shouting the word through gritted teeth, trying to convince himself of that as much as her. “I won’t let you.”

He didn’t turn, but he heard soft footsteps approaching him from behind. Then thin arms wrapping around his middle, holding him tight. The hand not pressed into the doorjamb rested on her skin, his fingers curling around her arm. His shoulders slumped and the air sighed its way out of him.

“You can’t change the will of the Force,” Rey finally replied softly. “No one can.”

Ben looked up and opened his eyes as he set his jaw, thinking of the Temple on Exegol, thinking of how he’d given half of his remaining life force to bring her back.

I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again. Nothing and no one – not even the Force – will take you from me. Not again. Not ever. Not before I allow it.

He didn’t care this time if that sounded selfish.

His life had been full of one heartbreak after another.

He would not allow the galaxy to take Rey from him too.

“Let’s into town and purchase a speeder,” he said again, more softly this time.

This time he felt Rey nod against his back. “Alright.”

There was nothing for them to gather on the star cruiser besides their lightsabers, both of which were still in the medbay. Ben retrieved these before leading Rey off the cruiser. He closed the door, locking it securely behind him. They might not need it now, but he realized, however much he did not want to, that there may come a day when they had to leave the planet.

As much as he wanted to believe all of the Sith had died on Exegol, his feelings told him otherwise. And as much as he wanted to believe that those who’d survived would never be able to find him and Rey so near the outer rim, he knew that them being on Tatooine was ultimately not a smart move. It was where his family had been born. It seemed only logical they’d end up here.

And anyone who knew anything about his family would know that.

Maybe you’ll be alright, a voice whispered to him soothingly. Maybe they won’t find you. Maybe they’ll never know. Maybe you’ll be left alone.

But he didn’t believe any of that.

His life had never once been gentle or easy. It seemed ridiculous to think it would be now.

The surface of Tatooine was bright and blistering, the heat rising of the sand in a shimmering iridescent haze. Ben wore only a loose long-sleeved black shirt with a matching pair of pants and his combat boots, but, however thin the fabric was, it seemed to be not enough. Within seconds of stepping off the cruiser, he felt sweat dripping down his back and his face, coating his thick hair in a lay of slimy dirt as sand was kicked up into his face by the breeze.

Rey, however, seemed unaffected by the sudden extreme change in weather, but Ben was unsurprised. He’d found her on Jakku, a planet that was nearly an exact twin of this one. And there was also Pasaana. How was it there were so many planets made purely of desert in the galaxy?

But it seemed Tatooine was the worst, the most virulent.

It was a wonder to Ben that anyone could survive in such intense conditions.

Through the haze of heat before them was the shaking image of the nearby town. Even from this distance, he could see robed figures walking between the domed adobe buildings.

“There’s probably a scrap yard over there,” Rey said pointing to what he thought was the west side of the town, but the truth was he wasn’t sure. From this distance it seemed as though she were just pointing to the town at large.

Still he nodded and said, “They should have a speeder.”

“Ben,” she said, her tone urgent as she turned to look at him, squinting against the sun, “I haven’t any money. How are we going to pay for a cruiser?”

“I have money,” he replied, not looking at her.

Her brows lifted as her eyes widened. “You have money?”

He nodded once. “Yes.”

“How? From where?”

He curled his hands into fists, forcing himself not to mind the suspicious tone in her voice, though she had every right to have it. “I’ve been saving up for years now,” he admitted softly, turning to her briefly. Her eyes widened a little further, but she looked away and didn’t reply. He turned back to the town as well, walking with purpose towards it.

He limped noticeably. The pain in his stomach and his leg were a steady throb now. Rey wasn’t doing much better. She kept staggering through the sand. He was primarily focused on the town, needing to see how close it was, how many more steps he had to take, how much farther he had to make his already weak body go, but his peripheral vision was entirely focused on her.

She had fewer steps left in her than he did he was sure.

It was only twenty yards from the walls of the outer buildings of the town that Rey’s knees buckled again. Ben once more surged forward, catching her before she collapsed into the sand, guilt filling him as he did. He should’ve carried her. He should’ve allowed her to lean against him. He should’ve allowed her to do anything other than struggle to walk to the distant town without any support, his own pain be damned.

Just as anxious as he had been before on the star cruiser, he brushed Rey’s hair out of her eyes, watching her eyelids flutter as they darted across the sky, searching for something to focus on in a desperate attempt to stay conscious.

“I’m alright,” she said, nodding, her gaze still on the clouds far above her. “I’m alright, Ben.”

He didn’t reply and he didn’t believe her. He placed a hand on her abdomen. He didn’t even have to close his eyes this time. He could feel without even trying the distress such physical stain was putting on her body. It was coming off her in waves.

“Let’s go get a speeder,” he said again quietly. He would feel better once he would feel better once they got to the Skywalker residence and had a place to lie down.

“Ben,” she asked softly as he helped her up again, this time keeping her pressed securely to his side as they limped into the first alley between buildings, shadows falling over them at last, “they don’t use Imperial credits in the outer rim. Do you have anything else to pay with?”

He looked, trying not to let his surprise and anxiety show in his face.

He’d never really visited the outer rim before and when he had, he hadn’t needed to know the ins and outs of dealings here. He’d been Kylo Ren, master of the Knights of Ren of the First Order. The difference between Imperial credits and peggats, the currency of the Hutts, wasn’t information he’d needed. He could get what he wanted simply by asking. No one wanted Stormtroopers invading their place of business because they refused an officer of the First Order.

But things were different now. And being Ben Solo, savior of the galaxy, wasn’t the same as being Kylo Ren of the Knights of Ren of the First Order. And the dealers here wouldn’t bow as gracefully to him as they had to Kylo Ren.

Ben swallowed hard and grimaced.

“What?” Rey asked softly, looking at him instantly, her eyes searching his.

There was another way to get the speeder. But it was dishonest and he was trying very hard not to be that anymore.

Still.

If they wanted to get to the Skywalker residence alive and not dead from sheer exhaustion, he didn’t see that they had any other choice.

“Do you know how to hot wire a speeder?” he asked, unable to look at her as he said it.

He knew, logically, that it was far more likely something the old Ben, the Ben before Kylo Ren, would have done than Kylo Ren himself, but he felt more like Kylo Ren asking it than that Ben.

Somehow, she must’ve sensed the mischievous youth he’d once been because she smiled and almost giggled as she replied, “Yes. Do you want to steal one?”

He turned back to her, unsmiling. “Can you do it?”

Her smile faltered. “Yes, Ben. I can. Are you sure you want to do this?”

He swallowed hard, looking away again. “We don’t have much of a choice, do we, if Imperial credits don’t work out here?”

She swallowed as well and nodded. “No, I don’t suppose we do. But...first we have to find the scrap yard. Scrapped vehicles are much less likely to be watched constantly as they’re than vehicles in yards made for them, since they’re being sold at a discount.”

Ben glanced in the direction Rey had first pointed where the scrap yard might be, trying to see through the buildings blocking his vision to what might be past them and nodded once. He held her more securely against him and said, “Stay close to me. I know this place won’t be kind to us if they manage to catch us stealing.”

She didn’t reply, but she didn’t have to. He knew she knew this already.

He knew as little about Jakku as he did Tatooine, but the two planets seemed highly similar: both desert planets, both ruled by gangster-like groups, both filled with poverty and abuse, both lingering on the outer rim, out of the Republic’s safety net – or rather, what was left of it.

He winced and looked away, pausing in walking for only one stuttering moment.

It was his fault the Republic was in shambles now.

It had been Hux responsible for Starkiller Base, but he hadn’t done anything to stop it being build. He had watched impassively as the weapon had been tested, destroying five planets and billions of lives in one instant of wretched cruelty.

Just one more thing he did he would have to repent for.

Would he ever be able to atone for all he’d done?

It was looking more and more like the answer to that question was no.

And besides, his father was dead. He’d killed him. His mother was dead. He’d all but killed her. Even if he did manage to somehow atone to all the people he’d hurt for the things he’d done, he’d never forgive himself. There were some things he just could not take back.

And those were just two of them.

There were many, many more.

More than he’d ever be able to reasonably count.

Heading west through the town, they found the town square, loaded with vendors selling various goods such as clothing, food, personal items, and other things that Ben couldn’t identify. He was hit all over again with what a different place this was compared to how the planets closer to the Republic’s inner systems. He knew to blend in, they’d have to eventually purchase all of them, but that would have to be after they earned some peggats.

He could only hope they wouldn’t get caught having stolen the speeder before then.

Which, considering how small the town was and how unremarkable the old Skywalker residence was bound to me, would be more difficult the more he thought about it.

He winced again, wishing there were any other way to do this.

Maybe they could eventually pay for the speeder.

He could only pray there was a way to convert Imperial credits to peggets.

The scrap yard was on the edge of the north western end of town. It was run by a male Toydarian who had been there for longer than just about anyone else in Mos Espa. There was something familiar too about his name to Ben, but he couldn’t place it, and besides at the moment none of that mattered. It only mattered that they could find a way into his scrap yard behind his shop and take something before they were noticed.

The only hitch in the whole plan was they would most certainly be noticed by the time they revved up whatever speeder they decided to take and hightailed it out of there. Watto, the Toydarian, would have every reason to put up wanted posters for the thing and for them if they weren’t careful.

“So,” Ben asked, glancing at Rey, “what’s the plan?”

He was sitting with her on a stone bench across from the front entrance of the scrap yard. It was the safest place to sit and discuss whatever boneheaded idea they were going to come up with. The square before them was crowded with consumers and vendors. They were all but unremarkable. The only thing that signaled they were not from Tatooine were their clothing and even then by the thinnest of margins. Rey’s clothes were very similar to what she’d worn on Jakku and their dress was not too far from the fashion worn by the inhabitants of Tatooine. Ben looked more out of place than she did wearing all black. It was beyond ludicrous to do so in such heat.

Rey swallowed hard and coughed. He watched the back of her palm slowly become covered in blood as she did. He sucked in a breath. Even in the few hours since they’d left Exegol, her skin seemed to have grown more pale and the circles under her eyes more dark.

She was struggling. Badly. Even without the coughing that much was apparent.

“We circle around to the back entrance,” she said, pointing with her finger down an alleyway that seemed to go directly away from the scrap yard rather than towards it. “We’ll have to go around the long way if we don’t want to be directly noticed as...doing what we’re going to do. Then...we’ll wait until the coast is clear both in the scrap yard and in the surrounding area and sneak in. Once we do, we’ll keep low and find a speeder that’s...not in the best shape, but will run. I’ll spark it and we’ll jump on and get out of there as fast as we can. Hopefully before anyone even realizes what we took.”

So she realized the dangerous of what they were going to do as well.

Ben hated the plan. He hated every inch of it. There was too much that could go wrong.

But again he was reminded of the single indisputable fact that kept pounding inside his head:

They didn’t have much of a choice.

“Alright,” he said, glancing in the direction Rey had suggested they go. “How far will we have to go from here to the back of the scrap yard?”

“A mile, maybe a mile and a half.”

He looked at her, startled. That was far. Much too far for her to go without collapsing again. Would she even have the strength to hold onto him if they had to climb onto a speeder bike? Ben licked his lips. “Rey,” he began.

But she cut him off, not looking at him. “This is the only way, Ben. The Skywalker residence is too far. We don’t have another choice.”

He grit his teeth and looked away again, his fingers curling into a shaking fist. She was right, of course, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

“Alright,” he said again and as one they stood and turned down the appointed alleyway.

Ben glanced over his shoulder only once.

It seemed that no one had noticed them leave the square.

The streets of Mos Espa were winding and more than once they hit a dead end and had to double back, trying to find out where they’d gone wrong to begin with.

It was endlessly frustrating.

What was the point of being able to use the Force if you couldn’t even sense which was the way you were supposed to go to steal a speeder?

Perhaps the Force doesn’t approve of what you’re using it for, he thought, but he scoffed at the thought almost as soon as it entered his head.

If the Force had allowed itself to be used during all the years he’d been a part of the First Order, he couldn’t see why it would mind him stealing a junked speeder from a slave owner. It was a very small infraction in comparison.

It was about halfway through to the scrap yard’s back entrance that Ben’s first fear became a reality: Rey turned a corner and her legs gave out. He only barely caught her this time, yet again scooping her into his arms, kneeling in the sand, as she fell.

This time it took longer than a few brief moments for her to begin blinking her eyes open and her chest heaving as she gasped, struggling to remember where she was and what was happening. Then she saw his face, twisted in worried agony he was sure, and she breathed out his name.

“Ben.”

He turned his head away for a moment, his grimace becoming more pronounced. “We have to turn back. I’ll carry you to the Skywalker residence, Rey. This is taking too much out of you.”

He began to move to stand, but she stopped him.

“No!” she cried out, gripping his wrist with a strength that shocked him. “We can’t! You can’t do that! You know you can’t, Ben! You know you can’t!”

She was right again, of course. He was much weaker than he was letting on. He was only barely managing to stay upright himself as the pain in his stomach and his leg got ever more agonizing, barely managing to keep from gasping for breath as whatever fluid in his lungs became ever more cloying. Despite this, he shook his head and said, his tone more clipped than he meant it to be, “I’m fine, Rey. I’m fine, alright? But this...this is killing you. I can feel it. You only have so much strength left before...”

But he broke off, looking away, sudden tears in his eyes.

He couldn’t even say it.

He wouldn’t.

It would make it too real.

“Ben.” A hand on his face, on his trembling lower lip.

It took him several long breaths before he was able to turn back and look at her.

There was determination in her eyes and strength. Enough perhaps to keep her going. It was the only reason he believed her, the only reason he helped her to her feet, keeping her against him this time as he had foolishly not done before when she said, “I can do this. I have strength enough for this.”

Ben nodded.

They continued on.

The back of the scrap yard, they found when they finally reached it, opened out onto an empty expanse of sand dunes. Far beyond near the distant horizon were small dots that marked what Ben could only assume were houses outside of town. None of them seemed very big. At least not from this distance, something he assumed was unfair to judge them by.

Rey knelt down, peering around the corner of the scrap yard’s back entrance as Ben examined the area outside of it, searching for onlookers.

To his surprise, there were none.

“It’s empty,” Rey said softly. He could almost hear her brows drawing together. “I can’t feel anyone. There’s...nothing protecting the speeders either. It’s almost as though...he doesn’t think anyone would dare to steal from him.”

Just another reason to turn back, Ben thought, his nerves growing with every moment they remained motionless. It was just another chance for them to be spotted.

To be captured and killed.

“Come on,” Rey said softly and, still bent over double, began walking in a crouch into the scrap yard, ducking behind large piles of scrap and other junk as she did so. At first, it seemed, there was no purpose to her doing so except to avoid detection, but, the further they crept into the scrap yard, the more apparent it became she was heading towards a row of speeders being kept against the back wall.

Ben winced at the sight of them. None of them looked flyable.

Still, bound and determined, Rey made her way to them and began to inspect each one. A few she discounted out of hand, but a few others took her a little longer to decide they weren’t worth it. Finally, she pointed to one shaped like a bike that hovered a few inches off the ground.

“This one,” she said, already bending down to open the square that revealed a bunch of wires that held no meaning to Ben at all.

“Is it flyable?” he asked, feeling the question was stupid even before he asked it.

“Yes, but only just.”

Again Ben winced. “Can’t we try one of the others.

“The first one doesn’t have an engine and the other two don’t have compressors,” Rey said, pointing to them with one hand as she dug through the mess of wires with another. “We don’t have a choice. This is the only one that’s in any sort of decent shape.”

Ben glanced at the speeders. He couldn’t see anything outwardly wrong with them, but he trusted Rey’s judgment. It had long since been clear to him that she knew more about mechanics than he ever had or probably would.

It took several moments, several tries of Rey striking to exposed wires against each other before the speeder finally came to life, quite loudly.

He gasped and glanced automatically in the direction of the shop where Watto was undoubtedly helping customers or cleaning parts. Whatever it was, he couldn’t possibly be suspecting there were two thieves in his junkyard right now.

But he would know now.

“Ben! Come on!”

Rey’s voice broke him out of his thoughts and he jumped, turning back to her.

Somehow he’d already gotten on the bike.

He got on in front of her. Immediately, her hands went around his waist.

Behind him he could hear unintelligible shouting.

“Ben! Come on!” she shouted again, her voice taking on a desperate urgency that hadn’t been there before. “Let’s go!”

Revving the speeder bike, Ben shot out from between the other broken down speeders and directed the thing, with only a little difficulty, to the scrap yard’s back entrance.

The shouts followed them, but by then they were already speeding out across the dunes, headed away from Mos Espa and to the location of where his family had been born. And part of it had died.

There was a shaking from behind him and for a moment he was terrified something bad was happening to Rey. Perhaps she’d been shot by the owner of the scrap yard. Or perhaps she was having a seizure. Either way, he couldn’t think of it being anything good.

But then with, a shocked relief, he realized she was laughing.

And then Ben’s face spread into a big smile, bigger than he’d allowed himself to have in years.

Decades maybe.

And then he was laughing too, hard and loud and unending.

It hit him then all at once:

For the first time in his life, he was truly free.