The last, sad remnants of the Sith and Palpatine and the darkness blurred at the edges of Rey’s vision as she took a moment to gaze at him, looking at Ben Solo for what felt like the first time, his eyes so full of light and love as they were. In that moment, she knew for a fact that anything was possible. She could feel it.
This was what she had seen, she realized. A year – a lifetime – ago, when they first touched hands, as the warm fires licked the walls of her hut on Ach-To. In that one fleeting, eternal moment, she’d seen a vision of the man he could be if he let go of what restrained him. If he were able to shake the voices that poisoned his mind and weakened his resolve. She had not seen the specific image, but the shape of it was clear in her mind, and now it had come to fruition.
He’d done it for her – crawled himself up from the pits that loomed under Exegol by sheer force of will and brute strength and determined resolve. He had come back to fight. For her.
Her hands cradled his face, thumbs rubbing against the tips of his cheeks, as though by touching him – connecting herself to him even further – she could convince herself that this was real. Everything about them, this moment, felt right. Whole. Balanced.
Her eyes dropped down to his lips, admiring the way they framed his face, finally allowing herself to acknowledge what she had spent a year and a half trying to ignore.
And then she kissed him.
She’d never done this before. She knew the basics, of course, understood the pure mechanics of it all, but this act, in and of itself, was new to her and unfamiliar. How, then, could she explain the sweeping sense of right, yes, this is what it’s supposed to be, that soft sense of wholeness that unfurled in her chest and bloomed the moment their lips met? His strong arms -- she’d finally let herself acknowledge them, too – wrapped around her, pressing their bodies flush against each other in a moment of pure bliss amongst the sad, dark remnants of war and destruction. If just pressing fingertips across their Force bond had opened up entire worlds, there were no words for how this felt. The rightness of it all made her heart sing.
When they pulled apart, the smile that erupted on his face could move mountains. So new and unlike the mask he’d worn before. This was Ben. She smiled back, instinctively, finding ecstasy in the way his eyes skirted across her face, too, as if he were just as unsure that this moment was real and happening as she certainly was.
They sat there, nestled in each other amongst the darkness of Exegol, as if by not moving they could prevent what would come next – the inevitable pain of confronting the rest of the world. It was then that his smile began to falter, his force signature at last unmasking the pain he was hiding from her. He had become too weak to shield her from it. She straightened, not yet having realized how exactly he had brought her back from death.
"You’re getting weaker,” her mind moved at what felt like dozens of lightyears a minute, drawing conclusions from the information that she could scrounge in his head. “You… you used your life force to bring me back.”
She went to heal him, instinctively preparing to draw from the Force just as she did when they battled on the remnants of the Death Star, but his hand stopped hers before she could attempt anything.
"No,” he groaned, shifting his weight and adjusting Rey on top of him. His mind opened for her like a dam, finally, his memories reaching out to Rey for her perusal. She could see her limp body, felt the pain and hopelessness radiating off of Ben as if it were her own. The desperation as he pressed a warm hand to her cold stomach, eyes closed in deep meditation as he called on every ounce of wisdom he had picked up over the course of his life. Her hand grabbed at his, life pouring into her – in that moment she could feel the subsequent weakness emanating from his body, conflicting with the unadulterated joy of seeing her alive. Alive and breathing and in his arms at last.
Understanding dawned on her. A deep, fierce understanding that what he had done was a favor that could not be returned – not right now, at least. Even the Force had its limits. Rey didn’t quite know what it was that allowed Ben to use his life force to revive her, nor how he survived it, but neither of them were too eager to lose the other again to test the boundaries of this… whatever this was, really. All that she knew was that it had taken more out of him than he was letting on, and he needed help. Quickly. “Okay. Then we need to go back to the Resistance base.”
His body froze, wincing despite himself at the pain that wracked it. He had defied all logic and common sense in climbing out of that pit, had put his life force at risk and in doing so brought her back from death, but he couldn’t go to the Resistance. Not now – perhaps not ever.
“Rey, I…” he started, his voice hoarse. “I can’t go there. That’s not my place.” Nowhere is my place, were the words he left unspoken.
“Ben,” she didn’t raise her voice, but she was firm. “You’re not leaving me. We… we’re not leaving each other.”
She strengthened her grip, taking one of his hands in two of hers and pressing it to her heart, her pulse strong and stable because of him and what he had done for her. “Ever.”
“Rey…” he tried to protest again, eliciting a frustrated growl out of the last Jedi, her patience reaching its limit.
“Your place is with me, Ben Solo. We are going to go back to the Resistance, finding you the help you need, and that is final.Or are you planning to reject me now?”
She didn’t give him a chance to answer.
The healing had worked well – her body felt nimble and strong, not at all like she’d been thrown around by the Force and left to die by Palpatine. Your grandfather, she internally amended, still unsure at how to grapple with that bit of information. Part of her was unsure she’d ever be able to. Rey found she had more questions than ever before, and no idea where to start.
They walked to the ships, Ben’s body practically limp in Rey’s arms. His Force signature was weak, only growing dimmer, and yet she felt him drawing as much strength as possible to stay upright. Still, she clasped onto him for dear life, and he did the same.
When they eventually reached the clearing where the X-Wing and TIE Fighter sat, a heavy silence settled between them. The X-Wing was clearly older, practically archaic, all dingy corners and chipped paint. A faded remnant of the past. The TIE Fighter, on the other hand, was as sleek and shiny as ever – and it’d be shot out of the sky just as quickly if they tried escaping on it.
“We should –”
“Let’s take –”
They looked at each other then, an amused smirk catching on Ben’s lips as Rey looked down and chuckled awkwardly. Everything still felt so new and raw, as if all that connected them were pieces of live wire, waiting to detonate at the simplest nudge. She took a mental picture of that smirk and put it away in her mind, filing it for later. She still had so much to learn about him, and the opportunity and bounty of it all excited her. For now, though, they needed to focus on business. And he was clearly weak under that roguish smirk of his.
“It’s going to be a tight squeeze, but we’re taking Luke’s ship.”
Again, no room for argument. In all honesty, his exhaustion had officially taken him past the point of arguing about anything. Rey led him into the X-Wing and settled him on the seat, taking a moment of quiet to grab his jaw and examine the injuries there, nudging his face to the side and pressing where she thought it might hurt. Her pulse sped up just a bit at their forced proximity on the ship – it was really only made for one person, and the control panel sat squarely against her backside. Ben’s hand reached towards her waist as if by instinct, cavalier even in his obvious weakness, drawing her closer. Despite the severity of the situation, heat pooled in her belly, and she found herself unable to move – staring blankly like a lovestruck teenager.
Before she could think about it, Rey moved her hand to cup his jaw and kissed him again. This kiss was not as passionate and sweeping as their first – it was softer, more tender, a promise of what was to come -- but it left her equally as soft and pliant in his arms, which once again curled around her protectively as he smiled into the kiss. She couldn’t help the desire that bubbled in her to live in this feeling for the rest of her days – deciding then and there that she would make sure she does. When she pulled away, she only gave herself a second to appreciate the softness in his eyes before turning to sit on his lap, firmly ignoring how good it felt to be surrounded by him. Back to business again, she prepared the ship for take-off.
“Alright, Solo. Let’s get you home.”
The flight to Ajan Kloss was smooth if not uneventful. Ben had slumped over, alive and breathing but growing weaker by the minute. Still, he’d somehow found the energy to wrap his arms around her waist in lieu of a seatbelt to keep her positioned. She was smirking under her helmet at that.
As they inched closer to the lush and green-filled world, the tension in Rey’s shoulders intensified.
She was bringing the former Supreme Leader of the First Order, after all.
She eyed the panel to her left, gaining a closer look at other ships registered around Ajan Kloss. It took her a moment to find it, but she was able to locate the Falcon and began to engage her comms panel.
It only took a moment for Finn to respond, as though he’d been waiting for her to reach out. She could sense somehow in the Force that he was.
“Rey!” he yelped, excited. “I knew you were alive; I could feel it. But for a second there…”
“Yeah. It’s a long story,” Rey sighed, turning quickly to look over at the figure slumped behind her. Despite the evident weakness and resolution in his eyes she could feel his anxiety spiking at the sound of Finn’s voice. “I’ll tell you all about it when I land,” she added. “I just needed to let you know I’m on my way.”
“Roger that, Rey,” he said. She could practically hear the smile on his face, and pangs of gratitude itched at Rey’s chest as she thought of her friend – inked with dread at what was to come next. She could only hope that it would go smoothly.
“Oh, and Finn?”
“Just… be prepared,” she focused on the feeling of Ben’s strong hands snug around her even in the throes of pain, harnessing his energy and doing her best to flood him with comfort in the meantime.
“I have company.”
By the time they reached Ajan Kloss’ atmosphere, Rey was a bundle of nerves. In the year since killing Snoke, she’d kept more secrets than she could count. Kriff, she’d never even told Leia about her and Ben’s bond. Regret pooled deep within her – the Princess turned Senator turned General would have wanted to know. She believed in her son when no one else did.
How was she going to explain this to Poe, Rose… Finn? Would they understand something she barely understood herself – a bond forged in the Force, only strengthened by the very real, raw connection they shared? The topic of Kylo Ren had been easy when he was a faceless villain in a mask. A target, a figurehead for the elusive enemy. Would they understand the boy that had been beneath it all along? He had put his life at risk to save her, just as she would have for him. Was that enough?
His fingers twitched around her waist, sensing her nerves. “Rey…” he groaned. “You don’t have to do this.”
She started to answer, a sarcastic quip ready on her tongue, only to feel his insecurity and regret flooding into her. Softening, she took one hand and placed it over the one holding her left hip.
“Yes. I do.” He would do the same for her. Hell, he already had. There was so much to explore between them, and she didn’t want to waste a second more. Her friends would have to accept it.
Rey made sure to land far enough from the base so as not to arouse curiosity from her fellow Resistance members, but close enough that she and Ben could make their way there. He hadn’t gotten any stronger over the course of their flight, eyes hooded and sweat collecting on his forehead. His protective hold on her never wavered, though.
Once they had officially landed, she turned to inspect him again. She knew it was overkill – she’d done the same check-up half an hour ago, after all – but the anxiety in her chest had only worsened and she needed to make sure he was still there with her. She pressed the back of her hand onto his forehead, expecting to feel him growing colder – instead, she found him to be hot under her touch, a shiver passing through him as though he were freezing. That helped answer some of her questions, at least. There were still many more that needed answers.
She saw Finn first, his head bowed in deep conversation with Poe. Behind them, the Resistance cheered and laughed and celebrated a battle well-won, the end of a war. She watched with trepidation, her arm slung around Ben’s waist as he limped alongside her. He had only managed to speak in groans or grumbles as he had deteriorated, and had now taken to silence. They needed to get to a medic, and quickly.
As though Finn could sense her approaching – and perhaps he could – he turned to Rey as she drew nearer, eyes wide and ready to tackle her in a celebratory embrace. That is, until he took notice of the half-dead body attached to her. Though the former Supreme Leader had operated without his mask during his year-long tenure, it was still rare to catch glimpses of him outside of intercepted First Order holos, usually only shared in confidence during exclusive meetings. That explained why recognition bloomed in Finn and Poe’s eyes while the rest of their comrades continued to celebrate blindly in the foreground.
Recognition which bled into confusion, anger, fear.
"Rey, is that…?”
“I did mention I had company, didn’t I?” Rey smiled weakly, a sad attempt at comedy, tightening her grip around him. There was a beat of confused silence, no one quite sure of how to proceed with the predicament that had presented itself.
“He needs help, quickly. I promise I will explain everything , but…” Rey could hear herself becoming frantic, feeling absently for his pulse with his wrist around one hand (it was there, but faint).
She was losing the carefully composed mask of strength and passivity that had gotten her through the past year as the Last Jedi – a title she neither desired nor felt she could live up to. She had been chosen as the face of the Resistance, mythologized in the wake of Snoke’s death as the last hope of the galaxy. She grew used to their blind faith in her, noticing the way they squealed amongst themselves as they passed her during training, the glimmer in their eyes when they watched her from across the dining hall – to them, she was untouchable. And so she made herself untouchable. A fearless warrior. A dedicated comrade.
Among her friends, though, that visage cracked slightly. With Rose, she gossiped at night and shared sweet rations. With Finn, she napped under the shade of the largest tree they could find on rest days. With Poe, well… her and Poe were a different story. A tenuous friendship at best that was softened by the presence of the others. Together, though, they’d become something of a group among the base. These were her closest friends – a rarity in and of itself for the lonely scavenger from Jakku, she knew that. And yet, she never let them in close enough to truly see her. None of them could possibly understand the things she was holding, the secrets she couldn’t share.
And in her arms she held the biggest of them all.
She hardened, finding herself angry. Did they not trust her?
“I’ll take him myself, if I have to,” she growled, hoisting his large (absurdly large, much too large ) body once more, only to feel him fall from her hands.
That was the moment Ben Solo, formerly known as Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader of the First Order and the infamous Jedi Killer, sank into the mossy green ground on the Resistance base in Ajan Kloss.