The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth
We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each
It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it
two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.
- by Denise Levertov
Ben, min larel. Come home.
Ben wondered how much has changed since he left as he moved from the living room to the kitchen to the upstairs corridor.
Behind him, he could hear aching grunts- guttural tones in answer to the wound on her stomach. The stitches were twenty-eight hours old. Ancient methods that he had to resort to when his attempt at healing with the Force only partially patched up the wound.
In the normal world, she would be in a Medcenter, submerged in a bacta tank or doped up on bacta pills and giving him lopsided smiles. Except that this was their normal world so she would have to pretend that she wasn’t sliced by an electroblade and he would have to pretend that watching her suffer was not painful and the children would have to be picked up from Kuruk’s home.
She would have to move to the bedroom and he would make her excuses to the children and order flangth and space waffles for their dinner but for now, he let her doze off on their couch. She couldn’t navigate the stairs. He would carry her up later, once she’s fallen asleep because sleep was the only time she allowed herself to be vulnerable, even- perhaps especially- around him.
The bedroom, the one that he and Rey shared- used to share- was a different matter. Dresser space which they had divided, the left his, the right hers, was now completely Rey-land. The bed looked as if she slept in the center.
He didn’t know what to make of that. There was nothing left of his existence.
Bazine had wanted him to pick out a drawer in her house, a small tangible mark of his presence in her life, despite his insistence that he would not reside with her. Yet in the bedroom he shared with his wife of eleven years, it was as if by removing the accouterments of his life with her, she could erase what had been. As if the years could be undone by merely willing it so.
He opened a drawer and pulled out what he came for. The black wooly socks, her favorite. His Rey of the desert with perpetually cold feet, who had never gotten used to Coruscant’s weather despite living here for eleven years. She had worn them so often one was threadbare at the heel.
Then it hit him- the unexplainable squeezing pain in his chest, a constant companion in his time away from home.
His knees trembled and he sat at the edge of the bed before they could give way. He made love to her wearing those socks during that period when Rey had agreed to try to make it real.
She had teased him and offered to wear anything he wanted, even the black corset that pushed up her breasts- the corset that she wore to seduce other First Order officers- and he had teased her right back and told her to take everything off except the socks. They had laughed together, up until it became intense. And when they came, Ben had been both joyous and terrified. When she had told him to come home, he thought that could have been for the sake of their work or some pain induced insanity. Or, as he hoped, that perhaps she wanted to try again.
Now he wondered. All that remained in the bedroom that used to be his and hers was Rey and her dedication to the Resistance, the one constant silent bedfellow in their lives.
He forced his grip to loosen from around the socks. It’s inanimate, no need to kill it, he joked in his mind and forced himself to loosen up as well. His hand dropped to his side and it was then that he felt it, the lump beneath the covers. He swept his hand under the duvet and unraveled a length of black. His shirt.
The tightness eased in his chest.
Sleep rumpled and worn, it smelled faintly of him and more strongly of lilies, of the lotion Rey used before she went to sleep.
She woke up just as he finished slipping the socks on her icy feet.
“Ben?” Her voice was hoarse, the way it sounded if a mark insisted on plying her with drinks the night before. Whenever that happened, she usually had been wearing the black corset.
He waited for a beat, wondering if she would continue in unguarded speech, Basic mixed in with the occasional hodgepodge of outlawed languages- Mando’a, Old Corellian even Hutteese. Instead she asked in Galactic Basic: “Where are Padme and Obi?”
At the incredulous look on her face, he felt his skin flush- the heat of anger, followed by the rising of his defenses. Less than twenty-eight hours since she spoke to him in Old Corellian, since her entreaty for him to come home, and they were already arming themselves to the teeth.
“It was either Kuruk or Skywalker,” he said tersely. “I prefer Kuruk.”
“I…” she took a deep breath. The emotions flickered so quickly that he didn’t catch all of them, only the anger and annoyance then the pain and loneliness, before settling once more into steely determination. Her default face.
“I’ll get the children after I’ve gotten you settled upstairs,” Ben said resignedly.
“Will you be here when I wake up?”
She sounded so small that Ben had to look away- and his eyes landed at the spot in the corner that she always forgot to clean- staying there until his eyes dried.
“Yes,” he answered without looking at her.
Then he raised the syringe and expected her to fight him, but she nodded then extended her arm for him to administer the painkiller. And he knew that she must have been in a lot of pain to allow that.
Just as she was closing her eyes, she reached out. For a moment the trajectory of her arm made it seem as if she was going to touch his lips, but mid-flight her hand jerked abruptly before stuttering to a stop on his arm.
“Ben,” she whispered, already halfway to slumberland, “Thank you for the socks.”
He rang the doorbell and while he waited, he did an about face, turning to the street with his back towards the door. His eyes quickly scanned the road, up and down, staying alert for movement. Next he noted the windows with curtains pulled back, searching for faces and eyes. Then he took note of the vehicles, looking for ones that don’t belong, matching each one with his neighbors.
It was something that he had been doing since his mother assigned him to his first mission at sixteen and it was something he suspected he would be doing for the rest of his life.
Once he was satisfied with the security, he rang the doorbell again.
“Ben,” Phasma greeted with a degree of cheerfulness belied by her red rimmed eyes.
He returned her greeting with much more convincing fake cheerfulness. She did not have his years and years of experience of acting out marital bliss.
He was barely through the threshold when he was pummeled from both sides by human ballistics. Obi gripped him tightly around his waist while Padme threaded her arm through his.
“Dad!” Arms around Ben, eight-year-old Obi spoke into his shirt. “Where’s mom?”
“At home, resting.”
“What happened?” That was Padme, and while her tone was full of concern, there was also a curiosity there that alarmed Ben. She knew nothing, he was sure, but his daughter was astute.
“I’m sure mom would like to tell you herself.” Then looking up at Phasma, he said, “Kuruk’s not home?”
“Work,” Phasma paused and Ben felt a bit guilty for mentioning him.
Well, he’ll be home soon, I’m sure. Now that his men was done slicing up my wife. All part of a day’s work for a Knight of Ren, Ben wanted to say. Instead he said: “Thank you so much. It was an impossible situation and I really don’t know how to thank you for it.”
“Oh it’s nothing,” Phasma replied. “This is what neighbors do for one another all the time.”
After another round of thank yous and goodbyes while ignoring the elephant in the room that was Phasma’s red rimmed eyes, they all headed home.
All the time, Phasma had said. That tickled Ben’s sense of irony before the morbidity sobered him. You took care of my children while your husband’s men hurt my wife.
When the children were home, he asked Padme to order space waffles and Obi wan to set the table while he carried Rey to their bedroom.
“Isn’t mom going to eat?” Padme asked after punching in their order on a datapad.
Ben paused midway up the stairs, careful not to jar Rey. Already, her brow was furrowing as her wounds pressed against his chest.
“She’s tired, she should get some rest,” Ben replied softly.
He noted that Padme’s curiosity was there again, but it was overshadowed by her concern for her mother.
Obi’s head poked into the hall. “Are you going to stay after dinner, Dad?” His voice was so small and he was blinking rapidly, keeping the wetness of his eyes at bay. Padme, wise kid that she was, remained silent; her furrowed brows and bitten lip spoke for her.
That’s the thing with having children. They were the best parts of their parents and despite a parent’s desire to bundle them up forever to keep them safe, despite best intentions, they cannot go through childhood unscathed.
“Yes.” Ben’s voice was hoarse and difficult to force through the lump in his throat.
In the middle of the night, once the children were deep in slumber and the house alarms were up, Ben went about his last business of the night.
Ben could hardly believe it was eleven years now. Eleven years since the First Order won. Eleven years since his mother and what remained of the Resistance went into hiding in the Hapan cluster. In the eleven years, the First Order had managed to transform Coruscant. The sprawling streets, towering buildings, marble edifices, palladiums, gardens and art museums- all gone. Ben could still remember his awe, strolling along these streets as a child, holding on to his father’s hand as they explored the city while his mother was attending one meeting or another. Then later as a surly teenager, when his mother decided to pull him out of Jedi training after his falling out with Luke, he had spent days exploring the less artistic but certainly more worldly part of the city, no less enthralled by the neon signs and the nubile species that lined up against the windows of their showrooms.
It was all gone now. The dazzling lights and gilded buildings had been replaced by symmetrical polygonal structures- squares, rectangles, triangles- divided into industrial, manufacturing, educational, military, commercial and housing districts. Uniform, equal, similar. And a preponderance of whites, grays, blacks and reds. After destroying Hosnian Prime, Coruscant became the First Order’s seat of power and they managed to recreate the planet into its image.
He visited all their dead drop locations. The metal fence at the edge of the manufacturing sector. The first stall in the male refresher of the train station. The loose brick along the road in front of the New Academy.
It was at the third bench set in semi-circle around a marble monolith- following the emblem of the First Order- that his fingers teased the corner of a thick piece of flimsiplast taped beneath the middle slat.
A new mission.
Less than forty-eight hours ago, Rey was sliced by an electroblade and now there was something else to do.
What was the Chandrillan saying? No rest for the wicked. Except that that should be wrong (Rey would be emphatic about that) because he and Rey were the good ones and this regime with its emphasis on Might is Right and Ends Justify the Means are the wicked ones.
He wondered if he still believed in it. Oh, he used to. Walking through the beautiful streets of Coruscant and Naboo, reading the tomes on good governance and justice and being fed tales of his parents’ and uncle’s heroism, he was struck with the fervor of a youth belonging and being given a purpose.
Rey certainly believed in it with a passion that was brighter than holocron crystals. It was that zeal that bound her to Finn. Her first love.
As for Ben himself, what did he believe in now? Oh, he did not believe in the First Order, with their iron fist and their crushing policies. He understood the value of their work, his and Rey’s. Yet some days he wished he had her burning passion for the Resistance. Because there were days when he wonders if it would have been better if they defected. So that they could be just who they were, an officer of the First Order and his wife, with their two children, trying to live their life as peacefully as they can. He wished that they truly were married, so that when this was all over, it would not end with a debriefing, a handshake and a “see you around sometime.”
It was a testament to her brief Jedi training that even doped up, she woke up. She did not know if it was some small sound or a finely tuned survival sense that did it, although the painkiller had taken its toll and she wasn’t her usual alert self once consciousness hit.
She glanced briefly at the chrono, registering the time; then reached over to the desk, wincing when the skin over her stomach stretched. Quietly, she pulled out her lightsaber. She would have preferred a blaster- her injury might make lightsaber dueling impossible- but because of the children and for the sake of keeping their cover, they tried not to bring blasters into the house and it would take too long to go down to the basement to get to their hidden cache. But for now, the lightsaber would do. In fact, if past experience was anything to go by, her bare hands would do just as well.
Yet it was the faint pattering of water from the refresher and the lazy wafting of the scent of soap- and the hundreds of memories just like this one- that roused her fully.
Ben. Her mind cast about. Ben was home.
She wanted him home.
That time she visited his hotel room, she had wanted him back but pride had stopped her from saying the words. Then he said he had already gotten an apartment.
The hotel indicated a stopover. Temporary.
The hotel was hope. Hope that what they were doing was not permanently damaging their marriage and there was still a chance of him filling the tangible void in their lives.
Because that was Ben. His presence filled her dark corners and encompassed her loneliness and she wondered when the clearly distinct line between reality and make believe blurred away. All she knew was the feeling and she started having doubts when he took that case with Sabina Alde. His girlfriend from before this fake marriage. Rey was his woman of duty; Sabina was his woman of choice.
This fierce longing. She had never felt this way before, not when she was recruited, not even with Finn. It made her afraid.
Listlessly, she returned the lightsaber to the drawer just as Ben exited the ‘fresher.
“You’re up.” His voice was muffled by the towel that swathed his head. “You need to rest. Go to sleep, Rey.” It was so very Ben, using a towel, opting not to use the dryer.
“It’s two in the morning.” She congratulated herself on sounding alert. “You were out.” That was a guess. Apparently it was a smart guess, if the nanosecond stilling of his motions was anything to go by.
He stopped drying his hair then. Without looking away from her eyes, he very deliberately picked up something from the dresser and sat facing her on the bed.
“Skywalker wants us to do something.” His eyes flicked to her abdomen briefly. “I plan to contact him to say no.”
Did he think she was weak? This is their job. They cannot be derelict. This has to be done.
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine.”
He assessed her for a long stretch of time, eyes dark and jaw clenched but his voice was impassive when he spoke.
“Poe and Lori Bell. Actual surnames redacted,” Ben stated while pulling pictures and documents from a folded flimsiplast envelope.
Rey picked up the sheets of flimsiplast and scanned them. “Cygnus?” She paused, meeting Ben’s eyes. “They’re like us.”
“Yes,” he answered. “Skywalker wants us to vet them.” The way he was tapping the picture of the couple, she knew, was the only mark of his agitation. It wasn’t particularly obvious, merely a side effect of eleven years of a shared life.
“Vet them?” She understood his agitation. The similarities to their life. Implication by proxy. “Luke thinks they defected.”
“We don’t have to take this case,” Ben said slowly. “You need time to recover. Luke is resourceful. He’ll think of something else.”
“And that won’t make him suspicious?” Rey knew her voice was rising. Ben looked in the direction of their door, a reminder that they might wake the children.
“He has nothing to be suspicious about. Besides Luke will suspect if he wants to suspect.”
“Nothing to be suspicious about? He accused you before!” Rey hissed.
Of joining the Knights of Ren! And whose fault was that!
The recrimination remained unspoken between them.
Ben looked at some point over her shoulder. “Look, the meet is at 8 am tomorrow. We have until then to decide.” Then turning to face her, eyes resolute, he said, “I’ll take the couch tonight.”
There was a time, in the beginning, when she thought he was soft. Softer than she was. Less dedicated to the Resistance. He was a prince of a vanished world, a budding politician who turned down the chance to train as a Jedi, all smooth and polished and pampered. She, on the other hand, was a scavenger, a scrapper, a survivor. But she was wrong. He wasn’t soft and she knew better and his tone booked no room for argument.
She reached out a hand to him, but before she could even ask him to stay, he was out the door.
Her eyes were laden with moisture and heavy but she bit her lip against them. Maybe, it was time to ask to be recalled back to the Resistance. Where they could live their separate lives, or as separate as they can get when they have two children. She had thought. She had hoped. Maybe, she had been too silent about her feelings, uncertain as she was before. And now after the Sabina case, she had never been more certain of hers, or uncertain of his.
She shook her head.
No. There was work to be done.
A deep breath staunched the emotion but her hand betrayed her as she ran it under the covers, her fingertips crawling and searching.
Where is it?
Then her eyes caught the black fabric draped over the foot of the bed. She reached for it with an effort- any movement requiring her to bend from the waist a torture- until she was able to clutch her quarry.
She had been sleeping with it since that night, the one when she went to his hotel and he told her that he was looking for a more permanent place to stay. She had asked him an unforgivable question then, and his warm brown eyes had gone from hurt, to cold then indifferent.
She resettled back in bed, tiredly pulled the shirt on and buried her face into the collar. The scent of Ben was almost gone.