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In the Ripe and Ruin

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The campus cafeteria is bustling with lunch traffic as Rey waits, sipping hot chocolate to warm up a little. Seven minutes to the meetup time, no sign of anyone in jeans plus a hoodie and rainbow Battlestar Galactica shirt. Rey scrolls through her older messages to distract from her nerves.

Ben_the_Wren: (five days ago 4:40 pm) Hux hasn’t seen Fringe yet he’s so adorable
Rey-of-Sunshine: (five days ago 4:45 pm) !! you’re such a nerd
Rey-of-Sunshine: (five days ago 4:45 pm) and now I want to watch it again, gee thanks I don’t have time for that
Ben_the_Wren: (five days ago 4:47 pm) you’re welcome

They’d ‘met’ through a dating app six months ago, near the end of Rey’s first year in college. None of his pictures really featured his face – he always seemed to be slightly out of focus, in a crowd, or turned away – so it was his listed interests that intrigued Rey enough to contact him.

I’ve never met anyone else who has read Parade’s End, she’d typed into that first message. How do I know you’re not bluffing?

He replied later that day: Ford expressed regret for publishing the fourth part of the book and I agree with him – I read it the first time and was so disappointed I never read it again.
Then: Is this your idea of small talk?

She found the message after class and huffed a laugh. Why waste time on small talk when we could be arguing about nerd stuff?

It’s not nerd stuff if it’s academic he countered.

You can believe whatever you want to believe, nerd.

A half hour later, he replied. Your list says you’ve read that manga Holyland. First of all, you’ve made me want to read it again – now I have to hunt it down. Second of all, what’s your favorite fighting move he learns and why?

And it went on from there. It was amazing to Rey, really, how their minds often ran together, to the point where a conversation would wind down for a bit and she would wonder if it was all an elaborate trick. He seemed genuine enough, and would reveal some things about himself, such as:

-He had a best friend named Hux with whom he squabbled constantly (he characterized their relationship as ‘frenemies’).
-She and Ben were going to the same college; he was a couple of years older than her due to taking those years off but didn’t detail his major beyond “math intensive”.
-He was from a neighborhood outside of Chicago.
-He never complained about his family but he never wanted to discuss them, either.
-He’d been in martial arts classes when he was younger but stopped in order to be in a band in high school. He played guitar but “couldn’t sing worth a damn, unfortunately”.
-He kept in shape thanks to the campus gym but didn’t care for how tall he was.

They’d met online in April but never in person. They didn’t need to: it seemed like he was always present, if only existing in the next room, their conversation flowing over days and weeks. With her job (two in the summer) and classes, she didn’t have time anyway.

And then, three months ago, they’d had their fateful conversation on the Fourth of July.

(Rey, thinking about it while sitting in the crowded cafeteria, five minutes to meetup, blushes and hopes no one is paying close attention to her. She has the conversation in a few screen-shots saved to her phone, but resists the urge to open the app and read through them again. She practically has them memorized, anyway.)

She’d been sitting in a creaking, second-hand folding chair waiting for the city fireworks show to start, vodka-and-Gatorade in her water bottle and a pregame shot of vodka sanding down the sharp corners of her mind. It was a miraculously perfect night for the Midwest: not too humid, not too hot, and the breeze seemed to ward the mosquitoes away. There were groups of people all around her, settling in the grass with their folding chairs and coolers; with the buzz of the alcohol, she felt like she was a part of the crowd instead of set apart. She hadn’t felt this good in a long time.

Her phone beeped a few times in a row before she got it out of her shorts’ pocket, and she grinned when she saw they were from Ben. She opened the messages and squinted at the screen.

Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:30 pm) borng frat parties shuld b band ugh
Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:30 pm) did u no thwrs a sex shop off campsu? i sure didnt
Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:30 pm) i cn see my tupos 2 drunk 2 car
Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:31 pm) they hv some seriosly kinkt stuff
Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:31 pm) *kinky i thoughy they we’re going to kicj me ot whn i saw th handucffs sectn

Drunk in the dusk, reading the messages on her too-bright screen, Rey cycled through a series of sensations. She flushed hot all the way from her head to her feet. She was paralyzed as she had to catch her breath and her heart pounded. She felt like she was at the top of a hill on a roller coaster. She forced her fingers to move.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (July 4 9:33 pm): are the handcuffs for you or someone else?

Rey wondered if she was going to be sick from anticipation and took a swig from her water bottle. She opened the message almost the moment it arrived.

Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 9:35 pm) me

Holy shit. Holy shit. Her pulse pounded in her ears and she was free-falling on the roller coaster, elation running through her veins.

Rey-of-sunshine: (July 4 9:36) kneeling at my feet or locked through the headboard?

She put her phone away when the fireworks started, which meant she didn’t see his reply until the fireworks were over and she was back in her dorm room, riding out the last of her vodka.

Ben_the_Wren: (July 4 10:02 pm) efther one is fine

Her hangover the next morning had been immense, and made worse by Ben’s noticeable absence. For the first few days, it was like he vanished off the face of the earth and she was caught between the agony of uncertainty and the relief of avoidance. Finally, on the seventh day, she woke up to a message.

Ben_the_Wren: (July 11 8:11 am) Look, I was really drunk last week, I’m really sorry if I made you uncomfortable. I don’t exactly broadcast the fact I’m into S&M lol sorry if I was TMI

She’d had to think about her reply for the rest of the day.

Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:25 pm) I was really drunk too, so I’m not judging
Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:25 pm) and you didn’t make me uncomfortable
Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:26 pm) …did I make you uncomfortable?

Ben_the_Wren: (July 11 5:27 pm) um no definitely not, it was hot

Rey took a deep breath.

Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:28 pm) have you ever…been kinky with someone?

Ben_the_Wren: (July 11 5:30 pm) haha no I’m actually really embarrassed about it. I don’t even know if I’d like it in real life, you know?

Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:31 pm) same here! no real opportunity to be a dom
Rey-of-sunshine: (July 11 5:31 pm) in any case your secret is safe with me

Rey was in the middle of working out the next day when his reply came.

Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:45 am) ok so hear me out
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:45 am) we’re kinda in the same boat
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:45 am) and we did meet on a dating website after all
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:46 am) what if we experimented a little together?
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:46 am) safe sane consensual
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:46 am) safewords pre-decided
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:47 am) doesn’t have to be serious, we can have an open kind of thing going on if that’s what we want or break it off if we find other people to date
Ben_the_Wren: (July 12 10:47 am) just think about it, no rush

Rey, knee jiggling with nerves in the present, finishes her hot chocolate as the message she’s been waiting for finally arrives.

Ben_the_Wren: (today 11:58 am) ok I’m at the square table facing the tv

Rey does her best to calmly stand up and she forces herself to move as leisurely as possible. She feels like she’s going to pass out. Her eyes scan every table as she gets closer, and her heart leaps when she sees a rainbow shirt peeking out from a dark hoodie. She stops in order to double check it’s what she’s looking for.

He’s slouched at the table, the logo on his rainbow shirt barely visible beneath the dark, baggy hoodie he has halfway zipped. He’s got his hands up on the table, his phone gripped between them with white knuckles. His hair is dark and wavy, covering his ears and part of his face. He’s staring down at his phone as if waiting for it to jump out of his hands.

Rey is frozen stiff. She recognizes his face. She recognizes the angry scar that deforms one cheek and cuts through part of his enormous nose. She recognizes his eyeliner, drawn so thick and ugly around his eyes it might as well be war paint. She recognizes his eyes that usually glare at anyone who gets within 10 feet of him except for the snide redhead he always seems to be with in class. She recognizes his sullen demeanor, his lips that so often form cutting remarks in anger or sarcasm. She’s never had to interact with him personally, but she has heard some terrible things about him.

“Kylo Ren?” she asks aloud in bewildered disbelief, words swallowed by heavy din of the cafeteria.

With shaking hands, she messages Ben. She can’t tell if she’s going to vomit up her hot chocolate or not.

Rey-of-sunshine: (today 11:59 am) nice shirt nerd

Kylo twitches in his seat when the message reaches him, as if his phone gave him a small electric shock. He opens it quickly, not blinking. As Rey watches, his face seems to relax, to the point where he smiles a little. For a moment, the sullen demeanor is gone, leaving a reasonably handsome face partially hidden by his perfect hair. He types out a message quickly and turns his phone back off. Rey’s phone buzzes.

Ben_the_Wren: (today 12:00) I will graciously choose to interpret that as a compliment – thanks! it looks even better on me than online

That’s Ben alright. Part of her wants to walk right out of the caf and all the way back to her dorm, but that look that had crossed his face is making her stand still. This isn’t a commitment, she reminds herself firmly, this is just to see if we might be compatible.

She takes a very deep breath and forces herself to walk up to the table. He looks up at her, taking in her clothes and face. She puts on a friendly demeanor at the last second, hoping she doesn’t look scared to death.

“Hi,” she says, holding out a trembling hand to shake. “Ben the Wren, I presume?”

Chapter Text

Kylo Ren (in another life: Benjamin Organa-Solo-Skywalker, good grief, he thanks himself for changing it every time he has to write his name) honestly can’t tell if this is the worst or best idea he’s ever had.

Well it isn’t the worst decision you moron, there were many more before this to take that honor--

Rephrase: Kylo doesn’t know if he wants to go into the caf or walk all the way back to the dorm and curl up in bed like the pathetic piece of shit he is. He’s currently pacing near the bike rack outside the student union, hoodie zipped up to his chin, hoping no one calls campus security about an angry emo asshole who looks like he might be considering going postal. His backpack isn’t big enough to carry a semiautomatic weapon but people don’t notice details like that when they’re scared. He’s thrown enough tantrums around campus that security knows exactly who he is.

Rey-of-Sunshine is careful about what she shares online – no social media profiles, just a LinkedIn with a very professional picture and minimal information other than job history – but has shared a few things so far:

They enjoy a lot of the same books, movies, TV shows, and manga (to an eerie extent, really)--
She is from rural Arizona and complains about the weather here constantly (it’s not even that cold!)--
She doesn’t have any family in the area (and doesn’t mention any friends)--
She’s a few years younger and wants to be an engineer of some sort, yet undetermined—
They’re attending the same school but haven’t crossed paths (strange)--
She is immensely grateful for her two summer jobs (“only one during the academic year!” as if that made her seem like less of a workaholic) for the only reason that she’s no longer working at her first job or for her first boss—
She is the most positive kriffing person he had ever encountered in his entire life.

Take, for instance, the very first thing she ever messaged him about – to prove he had made his way through Parade’s End, he noted his complaints about the fourth part of the book. That had led to their first discussion pitting his pessimism against her optimism – she had, in fact, enjoyed the fourth part and regularly included it in her re-read of the book, like a crazy person. He’d argued that it ruined the triumph of the third part’s ending and it demonstrated that Christopher hadn’t made successful change to his life. Her argument had haunted him for days:

Rey-of-Sunshine: (April 12 10:43 pm) the fourth book gives us the hope that great things will happen in our lives, then our lives go on. Bad things will happen, but we can survive and we can keep finding happiness. If we’re lucky, our lives will be bittersweet with an emphasis on the sweet.

And that’s the thing. If she was constantly telling him to look on the bright side of life, their conversation would have ended months ago, well before The Fourth of July Disaster And Subsequent Conversation. But her upbeat attitude, her gratitude towards her boss and workplace, her response to his Devils Advocacy: all were always tempered with that balance of the bitter and the sweet. She hoped for the best but prepared for the worst. That is an optimism he can respect.

And, oh, how he’d warred with his pessimism when he woke up, hungover, on July 5th and saw those damning sent messages on his phone. He ghosted her for a week like the coward he was, gnashing his teeth in pathetic agony. Like repeating a word too many times until it loses meaning, him reviewing the problem over and over again desensitized him to it until he felt slightly distanced from his frustration. He typed and deleted his apology a half dozen times before he gritted his teeth, growled, “Fuck it!” aloud to his empty room, and pressed send.

His apology went better than he could have ever hoped. Thank the stars he didn’t have a roommate so no one could see him laughing in relief like an idiot. A thought had come to him, unbidden, about an hour after she’d promised not to publicly humiliate him:

Based on her professional photograph online, she is a very beautiful woman; based on their conversation, she would be interested in dominating someone if the opportunity arose.

What if they created an opportunity?

In the present, his watch beeps. He takes a deep breath and presses his eyes shut for a moment. Worst-case scenario, this was all an elaborate scheme to get blackmail material. Second-worst case scenario, she runs away screaming. Comforting.

He walks inside and chooses a table out in the middle of the caf so she won’t think he’s a serial killer. She messages him a snide comment about his shirt, which makes him laugh. Someone steps up to the table and he looks up. She’s just as beautiful as her photos online, just more informally dressed. He meets her eyes.

Dread floods his entire being as if he stepped under the bucket. He was wrong: this is the worst-case scenario. She’s trying to be polite, but he can read it in her face: she recognizes him as the angry SOB who always seems to disrupt class to argue with the professor and sometimes storm out like a teenager. She’s most likely heard the gossip about him, and she probably believes it. He should have known when she mentioned her desired career and her school – he hadn’t recognized her online picture and assumed they weren’t in the same classes. He’d obviously been unobservant. This was definitely a mistake.

He stands up, grabbing his backpack while sliding out of his chair. He avoids her eyes as he makes to brush past her as unobtrusively as possible. He’s got his whole route back to the dorm planned out – two shortcuts so he can be curled up in bed as quickly as possible – when she catches his sleeve and freezes him in place. He turns to face her and forces himself to meet her eyes again. He’s so much taller than her she’s practically craning her neck to make eye contact.

She, strangely, looks vaguely ashamed. With her free hand, she holds up her phone and wiggles it slightly. “Start again?” she asks, in a British accent that is startlingly unexpected but very pleasant. She sits down at the table and focuses on her phone, typing out a message.

He receives it a moment later, standing a foot from her chair.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 12:05) are you safewording?

He blinks, then looks at her. She doesn’t look up at him, resolutely holding her focus on her hands and phone, and it is an inexplicable relief. After a moment, he takes the two steps and sits back down in his chair.

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 12:05) I don’t know yet. I didn’t realize you were in my class.
Ben_the_Wren: (Today 12:05) I don’t deal well with frustration and I don’t look my best in an academic setting

She doesn’t reply for a second and he forces himself not to watch her thinking.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 12:07) Well it’s probably good I found that out up front
Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 12:07) *that you don’t deal well with frustration
Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 12:07) do you want to pretend that we’ve never crossed paths?

Despite himself, he rolls his eyes.

Ben_the_Wren (Today 12:08) how are we supposed to do that when you’re the one acting surprised?

She exhales loudly through her nose across the table.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 12:08) give me a sec ok I need a moment to acclimate

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 12:08) are you calling me ugly after I brushed my hair and everything

At this, she glances up at him with a frown. He quirks an eyebrow her, and his levity causes her to relax fractionally.

“Rey of sunshine, I presume?” he quips, holding out his hand. She shakes it, spiking an unamused eyebrow.

“Rey.” She smirks at him in return. “You should have gone with ‘unmitigated asshole’ as your screen name. Still vague, much more accurate.” He can’t help but laugh at that and her smile tilts into the genuine. “Can I call you Ky?”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“Should I pretend I don’t know you when we’re in class?”

That makes him laugh again. “Probably. Otherwise people will think we’re in cahoots.”

She raises an eyebrow again. “In cahoots, old man?”

“Yes, ‘in cahoots’. Or if you would prefer: ‘Up to something’, as the late, great Alan Rickman intoned so famously.”

Rey chuckles at his imitation. Then she wrinkles her nose. “What are the odds we’ll be put into the same group for that project coming up?”

Kylo groans aloud in real distress and puts his head into his hands. “I was hoping to get through today without dreading that project, thank you very much.” The section of the syllabus that describes the project is on his desk somewhere, hidden under a stack of unrelated papers just so he wouldn’t have to look at it.

Frankly, the professor’s insistence on having a group project instead of a final was fucking annoying on so many levels. One, this is not a freshman-level class. Two, the groups will be randomly assigned. Three, it is a group project instead of a final.

Kylo speaks into his hands. “There’s no way we’re in the same group, this isn’t a rom-com.”

Rey laughs at that. “I am a little excited, though,” she admits, and he looks up at her. She shrugs, sheepishly. “I’m too busy to go out and meet people. They’ve already weeded out everyone who is going to leave, so I’m interested in who I’ll get in my group.”

He squints at her. “You’ve got time to meet me.”

She gives him an unimpressed look. “I haven’t had time in the past, smart-arse. My hours were cut this semester – I don’t even know what I’m going to do with all this free time.”

It was as if they had been driving down a winding road and the car had been brought to an abrupt stop at the stop sign, and both of them were staring at the stop sign, except the stop sign said in itty bitty letters: WE ARE HERE BECAUSE WE’RE THINKING ABOUT ENGAGING IN NO-STRINGS KINKY SEX.

Kylo realizes he is blushing about the same time he sees that she is blushing, which is…comforting, actually. Kinda cute. “Are doms supposed to blush?” he asks her with as straight a face as possible. She gives him that same unimpressed look, just somehow more unimpressed.

“So, uh,” she clears her throat and makes a valiant effort to carry on, “what’s the plan? Do we go out to eat first?”

He gestures at their surroundings, and she sort of shrug-head-nods to concede the point. “Fair enough. So what do we do next? Movie?” Then her eyes positively light up, all uncertainty gone. “We should go to a club! I love dancing. Ooh, I haven’t been to Finalizer in ages.”

He blinks. That sounds…like a fantastic idea, truly. He does enjoy it too, after a few drinks, and hasn’t been in a while. He smirks. “Only if you do my makeup,” he counters, as deadpan as possible. “I don’t want the bouncer to not let us inside.”

Rey doesn’t laugh at that, which surprises him, but her actual reaction is even more unexpected: she’s studying him, and he can’t quite tell what she’s thinking.

“Are you ok with using my makeup, or do I need to use yours?” she finally asks, all business.

He squints at her a little. “What is that supposed to mean?”

She laughs a little, and the tension is thinned a bit. “Some people are worried about hygiene, you know.”

He rolls his eyes. “Punk doesn’t care about hygiene, ok? Or emo assholes like me. I can do my own makeup just fine, it was a joke…”

She leans forward subtly, still with that unreadable gaze. “If you do your own makeup, it won’t be much of a disguise, will it.” It’s not a question.

He can’t move. He’s breathing, which is good, but the two of them are in an echo chamber, the entire world outside of their bubble a distant roar. He can’t open his mouth to say, What? but he doesn’t actually need to.

She continues. “I’ve got some fantastic concealer – I mean, it only does so much, but the club will be dark and it won’t matter after we get inside. Do you want a cat-eye sort of look, or should I be looking at tutorials?”

He still can’t speak, and she seems to notice. “This isn’t a huge campus, or a huge town,” she says, voice quieter, face neutral. “Someone as tall as you are stands out in public, and I’ve never seen you anywhere. I literally only see you in class, and never without…” she circles her finger vaguely around her eyes. There’s no way she could know— “There’s nothing wrong with putting on armor to go outside, Ben. Or a bit of camouflage. I’m happy to provide some.”

It’s the use of the name that snaps him out of it. The sounds of the cafeteria come rushing back in, and Rey leans back, former gravity now absent. Kylo clears his throat. He’s shaking a little, so he slouches a bit more in an attempt to hide it.

“Besides,” she finishes, “I haven’t done anyone’s makeup in a long time. It’ll be fun.” She flashes a small smile at that.

“Surprise me,” he says gruffly. “What time?”

“Ten?” she asks, and he nods. “If we’re using my makeup, you’d better come to mine. I’ll message you the address.” He nods again, hoping she doesn’t think he looks angry. She checks her watch, oblivious to his turmoil. “I’d better be off. I’ll watch some tutorials after class. If you don’t like what I come up with, you can practice your safewords,” she says, and winks at him. He watches her stand up and walk out of the cafeteria, and keeps looking long after she’s out of sight.

He still can’t tell if this is the best or worst idea he’s ever had.

Chapter Text

He knocks on the door at 9:45, feeling very out of place. He’d gotten dressed way too early, leaving him to sit around uselessly in his room until he couldn’t stand it anymore. Rey lives two stories above him, on the far side of the building. Neither of them, thankfully, are on the med students’ floor; however, Rey is on the floor below them and he can hear running footsteps thundering down the hall above as he waits for her to answer the door. Quiet hours started at eight, but from what he understands, the med students are just batshit-fucking-crazy at all hours. He supposes he’s just lucky he’s not here during finals week – the stress makes them even crazier (something he can fully understand, even if their antics would make him want to strangle them all).

The dorms were built on a very strict budget, so this hallway is a carbon copy of his floor plus sparkly name signs on the doors and differing scuffs on the walls. He has an irrational fear that the RA is going to walk up to him and tell him he isn’t allowed on this floor and he needs to leave immediately. He had wiped off his eyeliner after a shower and not re-applied it, which isn’t helping either.

The door unlocks and opens – Rey is in her bathrobe (he grits his teeth and, not for the first time, curses the damnable, habitual punctuality he inherited from his mother), but she smiles and waves him inside. She gestures to a chair next to the brightly-lit mirror. He slouches into the chair as she walks over to the open closet and starts pushing clothes aside methodically. There’s a bottle of cheap vodka sitting on the vanity, next to a sleeve of plastic cups.

“May I?” he asks, and points to the vodka when she looks at him. She nods, and he pours himself a shot. It burns all the way down. “I’ll bring a mixer next time,” he coughs and she laughs a little.

She lives in a standard, two-person room, which means she has the use the communal bathrooms down the hall and doesn’t have the traditional sink to strew her makeup over. Instead, the standard rooms have a well-lit mirror and a table extending from the wall, which, in his opinion, is much more efficient. The mirror lights are bright, but the rest of the room is mostly dark. The walls are bare, aside from a few scribbled diagrams and a calendar. One half of the room has the requisite fluffy purple lamps and kaleidoscope bedding and mardi-gras-necklaces-hung-on-the-bedposts he would associate with a young woman’s college dorm room. The other half of the room is, well, practically a prison cell. The bedsheets have hospital corners, for fuck’s sake. It’s not just bare, it’s barren. It makes him vaguely uncomfortable.

He clears his throat. “Where’s your roommate? You didn’t kick her out for me, did you?”

Rey laughs. “Little miss social butterfly is rushing omicron delta chi this year.” She picks a dress and pulls it off the hanger. “Before I started college, I thought I wanted the roommate experience, you know, giggling and gossip and 2 am grocery runs, but her being gone all the time is nice. Very peaceful.”

More thundering steps down the hallway above. The two of them look at each other.

“Well, more peaceful.” She moves behind the folding screen that separates the two sides of the room. He can hear the robe shush and sees it fall onto the bed with hospital corners. His mouth goes dry: she’s probably naked except for her bra and underwear right now. He refuses to look at his blush in the mirror.

“Look, what’s the plan for tonight?” he asks, abruptly frustrated with his awkwardness and uncertainty.

“The plan?” she asks from behind the screen. “Go dancing, I thought.”

He exhales audibly through his nose. “Yes, thank you,” he answers sarcastically, “but other than that. Is this…part of our experiment? Are we gonna fuck? What’s the plan?”

She’s silent for a moment, he can hear a zipper, and then she walks out from behind the screen. She’s got the dress on and it’s three-fourths of the way zipped up.

“What do you want?” she asks, watching him. “Are you asking because you’ve already got a plan in mind?” She’s not accusing or upset, but genuinely curious, which is a relief.

He has to think about that for a second, but he finally admits, “No, I don’t have a plan.”

“Do you want to have sex after?” She’s moving forward, slowly but deliberately.

“I don’t know yet.”

“Do you want this to be part of the experiment?” She’s closer now.

“Maybe? I don’t know.” He shrugs. “I’m rolling with the punches.”

“Help me zip up,” she says, gesturing behind her, and turns around, sweeping her hair out of the way. It’s an intimacy he’s not used to; he stands quietly, and it takes a few attempts to get a grip on the minuscule zipper for long enough to complete the track. She turns back to him and catches his hands before he can sit again. She’s a vision of beauty.

“How about this,” she says softly. “We go out, have some fun, and if we feel like sex after we do, and if we don’t there’s no hard feelings.”

That sounds great, actually, and he lets out the breath he was holding. He nods silently, and she releases his hands. A moment later, a thought occurs to him and he smirks.

“No hard feelings, huh?” he quips, and she unimpressedly glares at him until she can’t keep the straight face anymore and bursts into laughter.

“Sit your arse down and let me do your makeup,” she says, still laughing, and he sits. She retrieves some scraps of paper off her desk and hands them over. On the scraps are poorly-executed sketches of faces with different styles of eyeliner.

“I hope your makeup skills are better than your drawing skills,” he mock-gripes at her, and she punches him in the arm.

In the end, he chooses a slightly more complex design than he’d ever attempt himself, much less go outside in. It’s mysterious and a little exciting. “Are you sure you can pull this off?” he asks after handing over his final decision. Rey gives him that unimpressed look of hers.

“Darling, that’s what cold cream is for,” she says, digging through her frankly alarming collection of makeup. Armed with a multitude of brushes and tubes, she turns to him. “Ready?” she asks, and he nods. She steps in close, and takes his chin very gently, which is a sensation he’s honestly never experienced before. “Close your eyes,” Rey orders him softly, and the hairs at his nape stand up as he complies. She’s wearing a scent that’s light and sweet; he tries to speak but she shushes him. She tilts his head this way and that, with varying levels of pressure in her hand, quietly making sounds of satisfaction when he holds still as she needs, when a layer is finally finished, when her method has the result she wants. As it goes on, he feels like he’s floating a little, tethered by the occasional grip of her hand, the motion of the brushes, and the sound of her vocalizations. Finally, she takes a deep breath and he comes back into his body.

“Ok, first part done,” she says, and he opens his eyes, squinting against the light.

His scar is now like an optical illusion: if he unfocuses his eyes at his reflection, he can’t see it, but if he looks really close he can see the indentation. It’s jarring to look at an older version of the face he hasn’t seen since high school. He closes his eyes again.

“Part two,” he requests, voice raspy from silence.

Eyes are tedious, especially when someone else is holding the brushes. Close your eyes, look up, hold still…she gets eyeliner in his left eye and she has to redo some of the lower lid after his tears spring up. In the end, though, as he’s inspecting her work in the mirror, a thrill goes through him. It looks fantastic. She takes his chin in her hand, turns his face towards her, and inspects her work for herself, quietly humming in satisfaction. Her eyes are hazel, the brown shot through with streaks of green.

Abruptly, Rey’s hand shifts and her thumb is resting against his bottom lip. Arousal shoots through him and he has to fight the urge to lick his lips. He swallows, which only serves to jostle her thumb.

“Lipstick?” she asks quietly, eyes fixed on his lips. She moves her thumb incrementally, rolling it against his lip, causing his mouth to open slightly. He’s finding it difficult to breathe quietly.

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” he rasps against her finger, and clears his throat. He also speaks quietly, and his voice rumbles a bit. “What have you got?”

She releases him to dig through her makeup bag, which causes unbidden disappointment to lance through him. He breathes through it. She’s got an impressive array of lipsticks, and he finally chooses something that is subtle. He applies it himself: he doesn’t know what he would do if she touched his face again. She doesn’t say anything, choosing instead to fuss with her purse on the other side of the room.

He can still feel the pressure of her finger, even with the lipstick on, even as they gather their coats and leave the room.

Chapter Text

As the mostly-empty bus sways through the orange-lit streets, Rey reflects on the nature of masks.

She had known, objectively, that people present a carefully-cultivated persona online, just by the grace of being able to choose the photos they upload, by the grace of time to create and type an answer to a question. She herself is eschewing social media and building up her Linkedin for the exact purpose of impression management. However, it was one thing to know this, and it was something entirely different to see it at play in someone you’ve been talking to for months. Online, Ben (ugh, Kylo is his real name, get it right) was thoughtful, considerate, bitingly sarcastic, and a positive presence in her life. Offline, from what she had seen at a distance, B-Kylo seemed to be none of that, but deliberately inscrutable, rude, and friendless. She doesn’t quite know how to reconcile it all yet.

She can still remember the first time Maz, the diminutive, ancient diner owner she works for over the summer, sent her to wait on some decidedly terrifying biker-types who had just sat down to a table. Maz had seen the worry in Rey’s eyes and sighed, not unkindly.

“Sweetie, ignore all of that,” she’d told Rey in her gorgeous accent, waving vaguely to their fading tattoos, their careworn leather jackets, the sweat-stained bandanas tied to cover their heads, their grungy, flame-painted bikes visible through the front windows. “Well, don’t ignore it, your instincts are very important, but those things are only one factor. Those things are masks they choose to wear. But no matter the mask, their eyes usually show through.” She tapped her temple knowingly. “I see the same eyes again and again in different people. If you keep looking, you’ll catch on, too.” Then she patted Rey’s hand holding the menus, serious moment gone. “Besides, they’re regulars. Good tippers. Your Maz is looking out for you.”

Rey chuckles at the memory. Kylo, scrolling through some news article on his phone, shifts in the seat next to her but doesn’t ask. He’s been mostly silent since the lipstick thing. She tries her best not to blush, thinking back on it. She’d moved her thumb to cover the center of his bottom lip before giving it conscious thought, and the effect had been tremendous. His oh-so-expressive eyes, magnified by her excellent makeup work, had positively been wide enough to swim in. And then, if that hadn’t been enough, he’d spoken in that voice. It’s making her fingers tingle thinking about it now, how it had felt against the pad of her thumb, through her index finger against his jaw, even though at the time it had become too much and she chickened out.

She hadn’t gotten the full effect of his voice earlier in the day, sitting across the table in the cafeteria. But that’s to be expected: at the start, after he agreed to sit back down and talk, he’d seemed to be looking for something in her demeanor, her behavior. He’d relaxed, incrementally, when he didn’t see what he was looking for. He made the comment about her doing his makeup, and she’d remembered look for the eyes showing through. She’d looked, and she’d seen them.

He wears all that makeup, doesn’t take any effort to decrease his resting bitch-face, speaks fluent Sarcasm, and willfully isolates himself from his peers but can’t hide his eyes, showing through his masks like shining beacons. He wears mask over mask in an attempt to hide the fact he has no poker face whatsoever.

He had been visibly surprised when she’d revealed she could peek behind the mask, and she’s conflicted about that. On one hand, it’s disturbing when you can’t keep your secrets to yourself. On the other hand, it had made her feel powerful. The feeling had buoyed her through two classes and several hours of video tutorials.

She peeks at him again. She should have insisted on a picture, and she might do so when they get off the bus. He looks damn good; she hasn’t done someone else’s makeup since living at that one tolerable group home and she’s glad her skill hasn’t completely gone to waste. Aesthetically, the makeup matches his very sexy waistcoat-goth-chic thing going on (she has no doubt he’d had the outfit tailored to fit him, and she’s more than a bit jealous he has the money for it). As a ‘disguise’, her makeup work isn’t too shabby; she even managed to make his nose appear smaller. She knows that he prefers his masks, his disguises, when he has to be out in public, but she doesn’t truly know why. She already knew he is self-conscious (about his height, of all things, why do tall people look gift-horses in the mouth), but what if it was more than that? Knowing how he behaves in real life, she wouldn’t be surprised if he’s worried people will recognize him and pick a fight over past insults. She rolls her eyes a bit at the thought.

Kylo reaches past her with his ridiculously long arms to pull the line for a stop, breaking her reverie. “I hope the line isn’t bad,” he says. Her nervousness evaporates a little and she is overpowered by excitement. She adores dancing, and hasn’t been able to go for a while. “Ooh, I hope they play some good stuff tonight,” she gushes, unable to contain it. Kylo huffs a laugh through his nose at that.

Chapter Text

The line to get in goes quick, which is a relief for her: she shivers through their entire wait in the October night. The hand stamp is a winking eye, which makes Rey laugh. She can hear the music inside while they’re waiting for coat check, which makes her bounce impatiently. Then, finally, they’re in.

The thing she loves most about Finalizer is the intimate atmosphere - it’s a large-ish space divided cozily into the dance floor, the bar, and a couple of balconies that are great for people-watching if you can get a spot. The colors and the lights add the good kind of mystery to the furniture, to the walls, to the dancers. Even when she comes here alone, she feels like they’re all at a party to which they were specifically invited by a unknown and beneficent stranger.

“Drink first, or dance first?” Kylo bellows into her ear, barely audible over the music. This isn’t Rey’s favorite song, and she does want to be a little more inebriated when she starts dancing, so she mimes drinking. At the bar, she gets a vodka cranberry and misses Kylo’s order but it’s very purple and sparkly. He doesn’t offer an explanation, pointedly ignoring her raised eyebrow.

Rey is luxuriating in everything when the music changes to one of her favorite songs currently on the radio, and she gasps, jumping out of her seat. It’s officially dance time! She makes to chug the rest of her drink and Kylo puts out a very alarmed hand. “I’ll hold, you dance!” he shouts, covering the top of the glass with his hand when she does relinquish it. She gives him a quick smile and excitedly makes her way to the dance floor. It takes a bit of maneuvering but she reaches an area big enough to dance in without being at the edge of the floor or stepping on anyone’s toes. She can feel the beat through her entire body, through the entire crowd, and she is in love with it. Another solo dancer catches her eye after a song or two and the two of them improvise for a while, sometimes making Rey laugh, mostly making her grin like a maniac.

The run of really good music goes for a while, then the DJ chooses something a little slower. Rey, dripping with sweat at this point, takes it as her cue to cool off for a minute. Kylo is still sitting where she left him, still holding her glass with his hand as the lid. He’s to the end of the purple stuff. She leans into his ear before sitting down and shouts, “You’re dancing after this song!” He rolls his eyes a bit but doesn’t disagree.

She takes the last sip of her drink just as the song changes, and she definitively sets her glass on the table. She holds out her hand to Kylo; he looks from it, to her, and rolls his eyes again but there’s a ghost of a smile on his face. He takes her hand and stands up.

She doesn’t have to tug him to the dance floor but it’s a close thing. Kylo is easily the tallest person she can see in the club and some of their fellow dancers glance at him and edge a bit away. He’s very obviously uncomfortable in his dancing, which is a bit of a mood-killer, so she decides to overcompensate in retribution. After one particularly ridiculous move, she looks up and he’s laughing at her but visibly more relaxed. She grins at him and returns to her usual repertoire. Once he actually gets into it, it’s fun.

Eventually, the dance crowd grows beyond them and it’s closer quarters; his bulk protects him slightly, but she bumps into a few people because they aren’t giving her room. In a fit of pique, she turns around and crowds right into Kylo’s space, his front to her back. She cranes her neck to see his startled face. Is this ok? she motions, mouthing the words. He nods, eyes wide.

If she thought the club was intimate before, it was because she had no basis for comparison. They’re moving in tandem now, grinding, and if she didn’t know better, she’d say that her not being able to watch him dance emboldened him. She can feel him dancing with real enthusiasm now, and after a song or two, he places those enormous hands on her waist and leans down to her ear. “Is this ok?”

Oh, yes, she thinks, and nods enthusiastically.

She takes the lead and he dances like he was made for it. It’s like they’re part of one person in two entities, two circuits bridged by his hands. The feeling is incredible and she absolutely basks in it.

The tempo slows down to a beat that is downright sensual when she can feel him pull away a bit. She’s about to turn and ask what the plan is when he leans down and presses a kiss into the space between her neck and shoulder.

Her breath leaves her in a rush, arousal lighting her up like flame traveling along a trail of gasoline. He presses another kiss against her neck, slightly higher than the one before. She reaches up and tangles her hand in his soft-but-now-sweaty hair, grip pulling it slightly at his scalp. His groan rumbles through her and it’s so deep and so close she can hear it over the music of the club. She has to let go of his hair, but she spins around in his arms, grabs his face, and pulls him into a kiss.

She’s never made out with someone wearing lipstick before, which is a shame, because it is hot. His lips are just as soft and full as they look and the purple stuff he was drinking earlier tastes like blue raspberry. He kisses languidly, like they have all of the time in the world, but with an edge of simmering passion, which sends electricity shooting through her, even when their noses bump or their teeth collide. One of his arms makes its way around her waist while the other cradles the back of her skull; she feels cocooned in the best possible way, by him, the music, and the crowd around them. It feels like they’ve somehow moved outside the progression of time.

They break apart as if by unspoken accord a while later and time slowly resumes. The music has changed. The crowd is giving them a little more room than before. Rey is positively floating even though she can feel her feet on the floor and Kylo’s arms around her. He looks exactly as dazed as she feels. She pulls him close and rests her head on his chest; he tightens his grip for a moment, then she can feel his chin come to rest on top of her head. They gently dance like that for a while, not really keeping to the tempo of the music, while she feels like she’s surfacing from being deep underwater.

She feels fully back into her body a few songs later when he again pulls back and mimes drinking. She gives him a thumbs up, and he releases her, which should not feel as disappointing as it does. The hand that had been cradling her head runs down her arm and he catches her hand in his own. She interlaces their fingers, then gestures imperiously with her other hand. Lead on, then!

He smirks at her and they begin their journey out of the crowd and to the bar.

Chapter Text

Rey wakes up slowly, every heartbeat like a physical blow to the inside of her skull. She lies as still as she can, eyes pressed shut, breathing in 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, out 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, to keep the headache at bay. Blessedly, the room is quieter and darker than normal - usually, it would be those kriffing med students waking her up on a Saturday, or the dawn. She’ll thank Rose later for putting up some curtains.

Gradually, the sounds around her filter in despite her catastrophic tinnitus. There are birds outside, sounding closer than usual, while the traffic on the street outside is nearly nonexistent. There’s someone snoring nearby - maybe Rose has a head cold? Rey will be fine with being a nursemaid as long as Rose can survive until tomorrow. She gently shifts a little on the bed and all of a sudden, she can feel that the sheets aren’t hers. Panic shoots through her and her eyes spring open, headache slamming into her like a brick. Even while squinting through the pain, she can immediately tell that this is not her dorm room.

It’s a single-occupancy room, less than half as small as her room. There are blackout curtains on the window and what looks like band posters covering the walls. The desk is buried in a foot of textbooks, binders, and stacks of paper. There are clothes strewn everywhere, including the back of the chair, on top of the dresser, and the footboard of the bed. She squints. She’s sleeping in an enormous bed, definitely not the twin-size mattress that is included with the rooms. In fact, the bed is so big it takes up three-fourths of the floor space. No wonder the room seems so small.

There’s no sign of anyone else from her vantage point on the bed. Panic flares again and she rushes to check her clothes - she breathes a quiet sigh of relief when she can feel that she’s wearing everything she was wearing the night before, dress, leggings, underwear, and bra, exactly as she had put them on the night before. Where’s my shoes and purse?

She forces herself to sit up in the bed even though it makes her head pound even harder, which she hadn’t believed possible. She has to breathe a bit before she can open her eyes again. The first thing she sees is Kylo Ren lying on a garish carpet remnant that covers most of the floor, snoring into a pillow, dead to the world. He changed into shorts and a t-shirt at some point, and he’s wrapped in a careworn quilt that’s a little too small for him. He hadn’t wiped off his makeup and now it’s smeared all over his face and the pillow.

She sees her shoes and purse in a pile next to the bed, and finally begins to relax. She lies back down, taking care not to make noise, and tries to remember what happened last night after the second round of drinks.

Well, she certainly drank too much, that’s for sure. At one point, she tried the purple sparkly stuff and was very happy with the firsthand results. She remembers a bit of the bus back: Kylo had to put an arm around her shoulders to keep her from falling over every time the bus swayed. She remembers stumbling on the sidewalk a bit, and then she remembers seeing the sidewalk from a much higher vantage point than usual. She opens her eyes despite the headache and squints at the ceiling in bafflement. If she’s not mistaken…he’d given her a piggyback ride back to the dorm, like a damn anime cliché. She can hazily remember the sensation of it now, his enormous hands hooked under her knees, gravity pressing her chest to his bowed back, side of her face being tickled by his hair. She remembers a moment or two of the elevator, and she can remember the sensation of her pulling the coverlet over herself in this bed. His bed.

Well. She’s got a few options, now that she’s solved the mystery of last night and her current location. She could go back to her room and be tortured by the rowdy students on the floor above. Hard pass. She could go back to her dorm room, change, and limp over to the library and hide on the quiet floor. No thank you. She could stay here and try to fall back asleep again, but she doesn’t have a change of clothes. This is her best dress but she’s slept in it this long, what’s the rest of the day…?

Her eyes alight on a pile of folded shirts that are draped over the headboard. She slowly sits up again, glances at Kylo, and makes an executive decision. She picks up one of the shirts; as she suspected, it is large enough to be a toga on her and smells newly-washed. As stealthily as she can, she completes the acrobatics necessary to unzip the dress and wiggle out of it then don his t-shirt, all while staying under the coverlet. Comfort achieved, she folds up the dress and lobs it towards her purse. It lands a few inches away, which is fine, but she accidentally makes the bed creak. Kylo startles awake, then comically groans in pain, curling up a bit. She tries not to laugh, mostly because it would make her head hurt.

“You too, huh?” she whispers. He startles again, just a bit, and moves the quilt away from his face a bit to squint up at her.

“If I was petty, I’d blame you for this,” he mutters to her, “but I can admit we’re both to blame.” Then, after a moment: “It’s a damn good thing I’m young enough to sleep on the floor.”

At that, Rey feels guilty. She’s slept on the floor enough times in her life to know that the carpet he’s laying on isn’t cushioning a damn thing. She sighs and gently! go gently, oh her head scoots herself and her pillow over to the wall, the mattress cutting him out of her line of sight. “Stop complaining and get up here,” she whispers to him grumpily, patting the area she just left. He rises from the floor unsteadily, throwing his pillow and blanket into the area she vacated. Instead of getting in the bed, however, he hobbles over to his desk, shuffling some things around to grab something she can’t see, then opens the mini-fridge and straightens up with a couple of gatorades in his hand. He hobbles back to the bed and hands her some of the items he had retrieved: makeup wipes, some saltines, and one of the two ice-cold drinks.

She looks dumbly at them for a moment, as he pulls the covers back and climbs into his bed. When he’s settled, and starting to wipe off his own makeup, she looks over at him.

“Bless you,” she says, with every ounce of gratitude in her horrendously hung-over body. He laughs at her with his eyes and takes a swig from his gatorade.

After she drinks and eats as much as she can stand, and wipes away the most of her makeup (tossing the wipes on the floor when he doesn’t move to indicate a trashcan), she asks, “How did you ever get a bed this big in here, anyway?”

Kylo, at this point lying down with an arm flung over his eyes, replies without looking at her. “Very carefully.” Fair enough.

She lies down again and turns herself so she’s facing the wall. Her readiness to sleep is back, and she closes her eyes in obedience to it. She’s never fallen asleep in the same bed as someone else before. Same room, yes, but not same bed. It’s strange. She can feel him shifting a bit, trying to get comfortable, can hear his breathing taking on an even cadence in anticipation of sleep. It’s strange, but not uncomfortable. As unknown time passes, he twitches slightly once or twice, just as she does when she’s about to fall asleep. She hadn’t realized other people did that. Her mind begins to drift - the kitchenette is just down the hall, the staircase just across the hall, and the study rooms just beyond that

Chapter Text

They doze for an unknown amount of time, occasionally startling each other awake but falling back to sleep quickly. Late afternoon light is slanting around the edge of the curtains when she finally wakes properly. She feels much, much better as she sits up to drink more of her gatorade.

But now she has to pee.

Oh so carefully, she gets up and crawls over Kylo’s sleeping form. He’s sprawled out like he’d been on the floor and it’s a miracle she doesn’t step on anything. Just as she’s about to reach down and grab her purse to go down the hall, she realizes there’s a second door in his room. Suspicious, she opens it a bit, and her jaw falls open. He has a freaking private en-suite bathroom, the lucky bastard! She opens the door wider and winces a little. It isn’t the cleanest bathroom she’s ever been in, but it definitely isn’t the dirtiest.

She pees and washes her hands, then splashes water on her face, using the shirt she’s wearing to dry. When she exits, Kylo is awake and squinting at his phone screen. She clambers back over him to get to her side of the bed. He gives up on his phone, placing it on the nightstand, and sighs.

“You can kick me out anytime,” she says eventually. “But I’ll stay, if that’s ok.”

He looks embarrassed at that. “I couldn’t remember your room number and you were getting a little heavy,” he apologizes. “Did I freak you out?”

“No,” Rey lies, then tells the truth: “But as far as I could tell, you were a gentleman, and that is appreciated.” He nods, a little awkward.

Then he asks, “Do you still have a headache? I do.”

“Yes,” she admits. “The sleep did help but it’s still there.”

He nods in silence. Then, “Do you want to watch Netflix?”

Rey shakes her head. “The light might just kill me, and I don’t know if I can handle more sound. Sorry.”

“No, you’ve got a good point.”

The silence stretches and Rey has a crazy, crazy idea. Certifiably insane. She scoots towards him a little. “Do you know what’s good for pain, Ben?”

He looks at her, brow furrowed. “What? Motrin?”

That makes her pause. “Yes, good point, but I don’t have any with me and you haven’t offered me any. Do you know what else is good for pain?”

He shakes his head again.

“Orgasm.”

He blinks at her. “You cannot be serious.”

She smirks a little. “I’m very serious. The question is, do I need to go back to my room, or would you like to join me?”

He stares at her for a moment. “I’m not feeling up to sex.”

“That’s what wanking is for. Are you in or not?”

More silence, but now he looks amused. “Why do you call it ‘wanking’?”

She laughs a bit at that. “Because there isn’t really a good word for it for women. I like how utterly, defiantly crude it is.”

He’s still silent, and she feels doubt. “Look, I have no problem going back to my room. Seriously. That’s fine.”

“No,” Kylo says, raising a hand slightly to stop her. “No, here is fine. It’s just…” he looks uncertain, and he might be blushing a little. “Can we make this a part of the experiment?”

She smiles, and rises up from the covers to kiss him. It’s just as slow and sweet as the night before, but she’s too tired to support herself for long and breaks away to lay back down. “Of course,” she answers, and lifts a hand to trace the pattern on his shirt. “How does this sound: you are not allowed to orgasm unless I give you permission. When you get close, you must let me know. If I tell you to stop, you must stop. Do you agree to this?”

He’s a little breathless. “Yes.”

She uses her fingernail against his shirt stretched across his chest and he shivers. “Yes, what?”

He takes a small breath. “Yes, Rey.”

She had been hoping he would say ‘mistress’, but to hear her name in that voice makes electricity run through her. “Good,” she praises, and moves her hand farther down his body to toy with the hem of his shirt. “Now, do you remember your safewords?” She prepares to start removing his shirt.

“Yellow,” Kylo says in a dazed voice.

“Very good,” she says, and lifts the shirt up farther. She can see about an inch of his abdomen, and can’t wait to see the muscles she could feel a few minutes ago…

In a heartbeat, Kylo has her hand in an iron grip. “Yellow,” he repeats, in a clear voice this time. Their eyes meet, and whatever emotion had prompted the safeword fades to embarrassment. “Sorry, but the shirt stays on. I’m sorry.”

Rey lets go of the hem of his shirt, raising her hands in surrender. He smoothes down the hem. “Shirt staying on isn’t a problem,” she tries to reassure. “We’ll just have to talk about limits sometime. But that isn’t a problem.”

She kisses him again, and when she pulls away, his eyes focus on her and he squints a little. “Why are you wearing my shirt?”

It’s on her lips to say, Because it was available and more comfortable to sleep in than my dress, but she senses an opportunity. “Because it smells like you. Does it excite you, to see me wearing your clothes?”

“A little,” he says, and shivers again.

“Do you want to touch yourself, thinking about my cute little bra and panties hidden under this shirt?”

Another small breath. “Yes, Rey,” and she’s got another frisson of electricity: oh, he’s learning. She reaches down, moving her shirt aside slightly, and shifts so she’s pressing just right against the sweet spot on her clit. She rolls her hips and oh, she’s aroused all right.

“Let’s see that sweet little cock,” she says, rolling her hips again. He’s breathing heavily and his eyes are closed. Without opening them, he reaches down and pulls his shorts and underwear out of the way, and takes his penis into his hand.

Did she say little? Her mistake.

“Very good,” she breathes, and he swallows thickly. “Go slow, show me how you like it.”

He pumps the shaft once, then just a few inches past the head, twisting slightly in the upstroke. He catches his breath when he runs his thumb over the ridge of the head. In this way, he builds up to a steady rhythm, slow, just as she bade him. Rey rocks at a similar tempo, basking in the slow burn. He clears his throat.

“May I use some lube?” he asks, a little breathless.

“Of course,” Rey says, hiding a smile, and he reaches over with his left hand to open the nightstand drawer and dig around for the bottle. He has to twist his arm a bit and Rey gets to see some of the musculature in his arm stand out. It hits her all at once just how masculine he is, but making himself at her mercy.

“I will devour you alive,” she says without thinking, pressing even harder against her clitoris. “Kriff, you are so hot.”

He blushes at that, all the way down to the neck of his shirt. He squeezes some lube into his hand and returns to his rhythm, this time thrusting his hips a little. Rey scoots a little closer - she could lean over and bite his shoulder if she wanted to. She resists the urge.

“Rey, I’m…” he takes a deep breath. “I’m getting close.”

“Do you want to come, Ben?

“Yes, ma’am.”

She pretends to think about it for a moment, the ma’am thrilling through her. “No, not yet.” And he actually stills his hand. She has to catch her breath a little.

“Oh, you’re so good for me,” she breathes, and she has to pause in her movements for a moment when she actually sees his cock twitch in his still hand.

“You can start again whenever you’re ready,” she says, after she resumes, and he takes a shuddering breath then does so. His pace is a little faster this time, and she allows it.

“I think I’m going to ride you next time,” she says to him, and twists a little to watch his face. “I’ll bring myself off first, so I’m nice and slick, then put a cock ring on you and ride you as long as I want. You’ll be my sentient little sex toy.”

He squeezes his eyes shut as his lips part and he cries out quietly, more breath than word.

“Are you close, Ben?” she teases.

“Yes!” he forces out, gasping for breath a little. “Yes, Rey.”

“You’re not allowed to come yet.”

This time, he has to let go of his penis entirely, and she sees the tremors in his hands as he breathes through it.

“Very good,” she praises. After a few breaths, he takes himself in hand again and slowly builds back up to his former tempo. She notices that his left hand has crept up and is reaching towards his balls. He realizes what he’s done and hastily sets his left hand back onto the coverlet.

He’s waiting for my permission, she realizes, and it’s all she can do not to come right then and there. She has to full-out stop for a moment, turning her mind from her own arousal, breathing through the transition. He slows his hand on his cock while she does this, uncertainty plain. After a minute or two, she finds the good spot against her clit again and resumes her masturbation.

“You’re doing perfect,” she tells him. “Go ahead, touch yourself the way you like. You may use both hands.”

He has to move his legs a little but after a moment, he’s found a new rhythm between the motion of his left hand on his balls and his right hand on his cock. His eyes are shut but she can see the tension in the rest of his body. Just as she’s about to tease him, he speaks.

“I’m close, Rey. I’m so close.” And that’s what she wanted to hear: an edge of desperation. She speeds up her rhythm.

“Beg me to let you come, Ben.”

“Oh, Rey. Please!”

“Please, what? Beg me.”

“Please let me come, Rey, I need to come, please!”

She is so close, riding the high of his sheer want. She can feel the crest of the wave approaching, feels it rising above her, feels it’s imminent crash…

“You may come,” she gasps, and orgasms hard, squeezing her eyes shut. Her clitoris and the muscles around her vagina contract not once, not twice, but four times, and she keeps rolling her hips to milk out as many smaller orgasms as she can as the wave rolls over her and away. She’s breathing through her pounding heartbeat, endorphins buoying her to a fantastic high. At one point, she opens her eyes and watches Kylo - he’s sped up, breathing hard through his nose - just as she focuses on him, he stills, making a guttural sound in his chest, and comes on his shirt. After all the aftershocks are done, he lets his hands fall as he goes boneless against the mattress.

She doesn’t know how long they lay there, hungover and high. Her heart rate has almost returned to normal when she shifts on the mattress to look at him.

“I’ll make you lick it up next time,” she teases, and he rolls his eyes at her, amused.

“You are going to be the death of me,” he says. He tucks himself away, goes into the bathroom to change his shirt, detours to his desk to plug in his phone, and gets back under the covers. “I think it’s time for another nap,” he yawns, comically.

She just watches him for a moment. “Was…was that ok?” she asks, quietly. He opens an eye to peek at her, and he’s blushing again.

“Later, I’m going to make a list of the ideas you come up with when you talk dirty and then we’re going to do them sometime.” He closes his eyes again. “Just not today.”

She feels light and happy again, and she buries it deep down inside of her to burn as white-hot, slow embers. She also gets under the covers and shifts the pillow under her head. She’s got time to study tomorrow. Today, she can sleep.

“Oh, and Rey?”

“Yeah?”

“You were right. My headache is better.”

She smiles into her pillow and doesn’t reply.

Chapter Text

The dream starts out like it always does: his dad climbs into the passenger’s seat of the Falcon and has to try a few times to get the door to close completely, swearing all the while. He looks over: Han is older than he was when he was teaching Ben how to drive. It’s the first sign that something is going to go wrong, but the dream continues. Han says with a sheepish grin, “Don’t tell your mother I said that, ok? She’ll tan my hide.”

It’s a beautiful summer day, clouds like mountains in the sky, wind audible through the cottonwoods. Ben can see and hear all of it even though he’s driving. Chewie is hanging out of the back passenger window, tongue lolling, fur buffeted by the wind. Ben turns around in his seat even though he's supposed to be driving: instead of the back windshield, he can see a part of the house (a mix of the front entryway and part of the living room), sun falling through the windows and warming the hardwood floors. His mother calls Chewie to eat in a much younger voice than he remembers. The dog gets up out of the car seat and runs to her, around the corner and out of sight.

As he turns back, Han is talking, and it’s a mix of driving wisdom and things that don’t make sense. “Now, don’t be a leadfoot, kid, speeding tickets have gotten more expensive and not only can you not afford it, your mother sure as shit isn’t going to bail you out of the cost.” A beat of car sounds and the blowing wind, Han making a face like he'd rather not say anything but he wants to make the effort to extend an olive branch. “That girl you’re seeing seems nice, Ben. I wouldn’t have guessed her to be your type, but if you’re happy, I’m happy.”

“I'm going the speed limit,” Ben says irritably, ignoring the rest, and his father nods amicably.

“But when it’s raining, you gotta go slower,” the man emphasizes with that very sheer veil of patience he always seemed to have around Ben. “In the winter, bridges freeze before everything else, even when the temperature seems ok. Have you spoken to your Uncle Luke recently? I know he misses you.”

“Stop lecturing me!” Ben shouts over the wind and the engine, anger flaring up on a hair trigger. He hates this kriffing piece-of-junk boat of a car, with its worn seats and sticky clutch. “Can you let me drive for two fucking seconds?”

“I worry about you every day,” Han says angrily, but when Ben looks at him, his old, grizzled face is tired and sad. The wind is roaring now, and when Ben looks out of the windshield, the wipers can’t clear the rain fast enough to see.

“How about your mother, have you at least called her recently?”

Ben slams his hands against the steering wheel. “Why is it that every time you talk to me, you’re busting my ass about something?” He’s older now, Han shouldn’t still be teaching him how to drive. This isn’t how their arguments went, either: it was usually Han making snide comments and Ben biting back. “You should be proud of me! I am in an excellent program, I have a top-notch advisor…”

“Your mother and I are worried about you!” Han thunders, losing his temper and deafened by the rain. “You’re only an hour away! Would it kill you to have a decent meal with us one day of the week?! You might gain back some of the weight you’ve lost!” Those had been his mother’s words, originally.

“My advisor…!” Ben starts, but Han’s on a roll now. The world outside the car is darker than night, lightning flash blinding him with images of the road burnt against his eyes.

“That decrepit old man is just using you, Ben!” There: that’s something he had actually said.

“You’re not one to talk about decrepit,” Ben spits out, but Han doesn’t rise to the bait.

He’s pleading, now. “I know you and Luke aren’t talking right now, but you should at least get an advisor who will treat you like a human being…!”

The headlights are dead now, and Ben is driving completely blind. He’s trying to slow the car down but the brakes aren’t working, brake pedal hitting the floor of the car impotently as he pumps it cautiously, then slams his foot down in desperation. The steering wheel stops vibrating in his hands and the car is weightless for a brief, terrifying moment before it starts to free-fall. He’s falling but everything is going the wrong way: he’s falling backwards, feet rising up instead of head going down, he’s going to hit the ground anytime now and he isn’t ready…

Kylo gasps awake, vertigo spinning in his head for several heartbeats before it fades, leaving him lying down safely in his cool, dark room. He can hear the traffic outside and focuses on the normal-ness of it as his panic slowly evaporates away. He doesn’t cry, but neither does he sleep for the rest of the night.

The sensation of emptiness doesn’t fade completely, even after he forces himself out of bed and over to the Rec center. He puts his earbuds in but doesn’t turn on any music while he forces himself through his workout routine. He goes over to the cafeteria for breakfast and everything tastes wrong.

It is a bright, dry October sunday, not a cloud in the whole blue sky, and it only adds to his sense of disorientation. His phone rings on the way back to the dorm and he ignores it until he’s sitting at his desk, looking for an excuse to not start studying.

1 missed call from: (and his stomach plunges, just for a moment) Mom
1 missed voicemail from: Mom

After staring at the notifications for a good five minutes, he marks the voicemail as read and deletes the call out of his history so it won’t alert him again. If he was more superstitious, he would suspect that his mother can sense his state of mind and wants to bombard him while his defenses are down.

He immediately feels terrible about thinking that way, which gives way to anger at the fact he’s feeling guilty. In a fit of frustrated pique, he starts gathering up all the clothes waiting to be washed. (The shirt Rey had appropriated, then relinquished before leaving yesterday, is still draped over his desk chair. It's stupid to keep it unwashed out of sentiment, so he crams it into the laundry bag with a little more vehemence than is strictly necessary.)

He’ll say one thing about being forced to live in the dorms despite having a prior college degree: by some miracle, they have relatively-new, very well-kept laundry facilities in the basement. He grew up with a laundry machine in his house: he doesn’t know what he would do if he had to go out to a laundromat.

Thirty minutes into the wash cycle, he gets an email. His stomach plunges again when he sees it’s from his mother. Honestly, he shouldn’t be surprised: they play this game every few months. She calls, he ignores, she emails. She probably uses a form letter at this point. Despite himself, he skims the email.
I know we haven’t spoken in a while hope you’re doing well, I miss your father is In other news, we’re still looking for wondering if you’d looked through your papers recently, Lando and I can’t seem to find

He deletes the email and puts his phone away.

Chapter Text

It is 9:30 on a Monday morning and the lecture hall is buzzing with tired, nervous energy. Today is the day when the professor assigns the groups for the final project. Rey figures the choice of day was very deliberate and extremely shrewd: his classroom can’t erupt into anarchy if everyone is too exhausted and hungover.

Rey herself feels great. After sleeping all day Saturday, she was supercharged for Sunday. It had been a lovely day: the weather was perfect for October, the library was busy but not too loud, she got caught up in all of her classes, and (the proverbial icing on the proverbial birthday cake) the food in the cafeteria had been absurdly delicious. When she returned to her room at 11 pm, exhausted but satisfied with the day’s work, Rose had looked her up and down from her desk and smiled, simultaneously delighted and conspiratorial.

“So, what’s his name?” she demanded happily as she abandoned any pretense of studying. “I should’ve known when you weren’t here yesterday! I thought I’d just missed you.”

In the present, Rey very deliberately doesn’t look for Be-Kylo in the classroom. They’d parted awkwardly but amicably on Saturday night, B-Kylo’s face open and friendly. She doesn’t know how she will react when she sees him in this setting, masks firmly in place.

One of the TAs walks up to her with a small bucket filled with folded scraps of paper. She takes one and thanks him. Group number five. There are pieces of paper tacked to the walls of the lecture hall, each with a large sharpie-d number. Rey finds the one with the number five and mentally plans her route for when the professor releases them into their groups.

Behind her, a voice cuts across the din, quietly scathing. “Ren, if I wanted to sit up in the front like a teacher’s pet, I would have done so already.”

Then, a dry, condescending voice she would now know anywhere, from what sounds like a few rows back: “We’re not handcuffed to the same briefcase, Hux, you can sit wherever you want.” Rey keeps herself utterly still in her seat.

The other man sighs in irritation and she can hear him sit down despite his protestations. “You’re very lucky that everyone else in that row is boring.”

In front of her, the professor steps up to the podium. “Alright, everyone, please make sure you get a number from the TA. If you’re sitting in a row before,” Row twenty-six! one of the TAs shouts over the din, “thank you, row twenty-six, please raise your hand so the bucket can come to you.”

Behind her, someone drops a pen with a muffled curse and Rey can hear it roll towards her and stop somewhere around her seat. With trepidation, she reaches down, finds it, and turns around to hand it to its owner.

Kylo is sitting two rows behind her, makeup a little neater than usual. It’s like she’s seeing double: he’s just as inscrutable as always, face devoid of emotion except boredom, but she can see the lines on his face that crease when he laughs, or when he’s begging for release. Rey hopes she isn’t blushing as she holds the pen out. He leans forward in his seat and easily reaches across the row to grip the pen with two fingers. His eyes are searching her face and there’s that vulnerability she was unsure of. She attempts a smile. She can see him relax fractionally, and she lets go of the pen. He visibly swallows and retracts his arm. “Thanks,” he mutters, barely audible over the classroom around them. She nods, and he turns his head to look at the professor, maintaining eye contact with her until the last moment. She turns back in her seat and breathes through her pounding heart, through her want.

The noise increases in the classroom and she jumps - she hadn’t noticed the professor give the okay to disperse. She has to wait in a few slow queues before she makes it over to her number. Someone is already there: the nervous kid who sits directly in front of the professor every single lecture, in every single class they’ve ever shared. If she ever has to go see a TA or visit a professor during office hours, he’s there first with his mountains of notes. His study guides, which get passed around in the Facebook group for their class, are so good that Rey sometimes wonders why he doesn’t have a Patreon.

“Group five?” she shouts over the din. He nods, relief obvious on his face.

“I’m Finn!” he shouts, and they shake hands. “I’m glad I got a hard worker in my group,” Finn grins at her. “I was sure I’d get all the slackers!”

Rey laughs. “I know exactly what you mean!”

From behind Rey, a woman shouts, “Well, if you didn’t want slackers, you’re in the right place!” Finn looks over Rey’s shoulder as she turns to look. The newcomer is dressed to the absolute nines, makeup done to perfection, radiating confident authority. Rey’s jaw drops. It’s Jessika Pava, the number one top student in the class. She is always perfectly put together when Rey sees her in class or studying on-campus, no matter the time of day or night. It’s like a superpower or something.

“Rey,” she introduces herself, trying not to look star-struck. “This is Finn,” she manages to say, gesturing to him. Jessika gives her a surprisingly genuine smile and reaches to shake Finn’s hand as well, turning her spotlight-bright attention to him in turn. It feels like they’re introducing themselves to their new celebrity boss and Finn is failing to play it cool. As they move down the row to make room, Rey elbows him lightly before he can open his mouth. They make faces at each other for a moment, trying to be subtle, fighting giggles.

Calm down! she emotes at him, glancing to check that Jessika didn’t notice.

I’m trying! he emotes back, and they can’t help it anymore, dissolving into quiet laughter.

“I get the funny group? This is my lucky day!” another voice says happily from the isle, and it’s Finn’s jaw that drops this time. Rey whips her head around to see who it is.

The man is dazzlingly handsome. Everything about him radiates sex appeal, from his perfect dark hair, to his long dark eyelashes, to his lovingly-maintained bomber jacket, to his perfectly-faded jeans. His face and posture are open and friendly, and at his feet sits a perfectly-groomed golden retriever wearing a service dog vest. Rey has seen them around campus occasionally, the man usually surrounded by a group of laughing admirers. Not for the first time, Rey wonders wildly if he’s single.

“Dameron, you’re the luckiest man alive and you know it,” Jessika shouts, grinning, and the handsome man’s face lights up. The two of them embrace with much slapping-of-the-back. Rey is irrationally jealous.

“More like, Damn!eron,” Finn mutters into Rey’s ear, and they start giggling again.

The newcomer leans around Jessika to shake hands. “I’m Poe,” he introduces himself, “and this is BeeBee,” he gestures to his dog. “She’s a goofball.”

When he hears Rey and Finn’s names, surprise then awe cross his face. “Rey Niima, and Finn Trooper?” He laughs when they nod, throwing up his hands. “We now have four of the top ten in the class! How’s that for lucky! We’re gonna have a great time.” In the face of his friendly confidence, Rey can’t help but agree.

Jessika punches him in the arm, then jerks her thumb over her shoulder. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand! I vote for the fifth floor conference room!”

Poe thinks about it for a beat, then gives her a thumbs-up. He turns around, BeeBee jumping up immediately, and starts back up the isle. Jessika gestures for Rey and Finn to follow and starts off. Rey shrugs at Finn and follows.

It’s slow going up the isle but Poe and Jessika are keeping in sight. “You ever been up to the upper floors in this building?” Finn asks her, close to her ear, as they leisurely make their way. Rey wonders if Finn is nervous about everything, not just school.

“Nope,” she says honestly, leaning in so she doesn’t have to shout. “No classes up there. I usually just study in my dorm room or in the library.” Finn nods thoughtfully. “I’m always afraid someone will get angry if I use a room anywhere else,” she admits, and Finn laughs, nodding harder.

“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” he says as they emerge from the lecture hall. Poe and Jessika are waiting for them, patiently. The silence of the hallway is a blessing.

“Elevator ok?” Poe asks once they’re close enough. When they nod, he shrugs. “I wasn’t sure if you were fitness nuts, or something. Or afraid of elevators, which is legit.” They start towards the elevator.

“We’re, uh,” Finn clears his throat, “not entirely sure where we’re going, so we’ll just follow you.”

Poe and Jessika look surprised for a moment, then they look at each other. “I guess we’re real busybodies,” Poe explains, looking back at Rey and Finn. “Freshman year, we explored as much of the campus you could reach without a badge. Our favorite spots are up on the fifth floor of this building. We’ve only been kicked out once.”

“Twice,” Jessika corrects. “But the second time was bullshit.” The two of them start bickering about it.

Finn leans in to Rey again. “Save me from these beautiful super-geniuses!” he hisses, causing her to stifle a laugh.

“I was about to ask you for the same thing,” she mutters to him.

“Do you think they’re dating?” Finn asks, after Jessika laughs at something Poe said and slaps his arm.

“I hope not,” Rey replies before thinking. She blushes while Finn tries not to laugh.

“I’d fight you for him, but you’d kick my ass,” Finn mutters, and Rey gives him a questioning look.

He gives her the best ‘bitch, please’ look she’s ever seen. “Girl, you are so fit. You don’t have calves, you have cows. I’ve seen you on the treadmill at the Rec. You’d kick my ass in a second and we all know it.”

Rey blushes even harder. “Well, thank goodness it won’t come to that,” she says, floundering for something to say.

Finn’s levity evaporates a bit. “Yeah, that’s my luck,” he says, a little bitterly. They step into the elevator, where Poe is holding the ‘open door’ button. “He’s probably straight as an arrow and married young.”

“Who is straight and married?” Poe asks, teasingly, with that 100-watt charm Rey has only seen from a distance. Finn is speechless in it’s light.

“Uh,” Rey says, desperately digging for something to help Finn save face. “Kylo Ren.”

Poe gives her a very odd look as Jessika bursts into undignified laughter.

“I grew up with him,” Poe says to Rey, Jessika’s laughter making his cheek crease as if he’s suppressing laughter. “There’s no way he’s married. At least, I hope not. I wouldn’t wish him on my worst enemy.”

“We were, uh, just speculating,” Finn jumps in, recovering his wit. “With the,” and he gestures to his face. This makes Jessika laugh harder.

“Is it possible for someone to be so Emo and such an unwarranted asshole, simultaneously?” she asks, wiping tears from her eyes. “I had an elective with him first semester and I cannot believe the professor passed him. He’s smart, don’t get me wrong, but he’ll never get a job with his attitude.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Rey says with what little enthusiasm as she can muster, words like ash in her mouth, hoping this closes the subject. Poe, standing in his corner of the elevator, is studying her thoughtfully, former mirth absent, and Rey ignores him while trying to appear like she’s just absentmindedly waiting for the elevator ride to end.

It’s bizarre to her that, out of thousands of students on campus, she is now in the orbit of two who have known each other in the past. She wonders, irritably, if Poe would exclude her from his charm if he knew that she and Kylo were…whatever they were. Friends. With benefits. Fuck buddies. Whatever. Poe seems popular and normal enough - he’s probably as straight and vanilla as they come, and would be scandalized by any details of the relationship, much less the fact that she’s having sex with a past adversary, which…isn’t comforting in the least. She tries not to feel contempt for Poe or shame for herself and fails on both counts. Consensual sex acts aside, it absolutely chafes at her, the idea that A. Kylo, who has such expressive, vulnerable eyes, would be treated with such blithe disdain, and B. she could be treated with the same disdain regardless of how nice she is, just because she’s associating with an outcast, by C. easily charismatic people who don’t care to understand anything about the person they’re mocking. She wishes, for a white-hot moment, that she could be back in her warm bed in her empty dorm room. She breathes through it.

The door opens. Poe and BeeBee proceed to lead the group through a veritable maze of hallways and half-flights of stairs, passing elaborate painted murals Rey wants to stare at for hours and windows that look out over stunning flame-red foliage.

“Wow, you two really were adventurous,” she says, willing herself to lighten up. Poe and Jessika have been nothing but friendly to her and Finn so far. Yes, they despise Kylo, but he certainly doesn’t discourage their animosity. She’ll just have to be more careful about what she says in their company.

Poe looks back and wiggles his eyebrows at her. “I know, right?” He stops at a random door and opens it dramatically. “Welcome, my new friends, to my,” Jessika punches him in the arm, “and Jessika’s, of course, favorite study spot.”

Chapter Text

Rey peers past Poe into the room. The enormous table runs down the center, punctuated at intervals by extremely plush chairs. The table is so big that there’s barely enough space to walk around it. The walls are covered with old-fashioned green chalkboards - Rey can’t tell if they’re dusty or recently erased. The window at the end of the room frames the sight of more gorgeous fall colors, and even has a portion of stunning stained glass. There’s a wonderful brightness permeating everything, and as Rey steps inside after Finn, she realizes that the room is very warm and dry, in steep contrast to the hallways outside (and the fall weather outside the building). She breathes in the smell of chalk and feels a completely unexpected peace.

“It’s lovely,” she gushes to no one in particular, and sheds her coat. Jessika takes the spot at the head of the table, Poe to her right (BeeBee at his feet), and Finn and Rey shuffle into the seats at her left hand. The chairs are just as comfortable as they look, and Rey sinks in to hers with a sigh.

Jessika nods at her in emphatic agreement. “I know, right?! This might be the best spot on campus, I swear.” Everyone shuffles through their bags to grab paper and pens for a moment.

When he sees that everyone is ready, Poe leans forward with a semi-serious expression. “Alright, time for an icebreaker.” Rey groans internally. “I like to call it the ‘Tragic Backstories’ part of our team building.” Rey and Finn look at him blankly. He shrugs. “Well, if you don’t have a tragic backstory, or don’t want to share, you can pass on your turn and no one will judge. But I do have one, and I’ll go first.” Jessika rolls her eyes at him good-naturedly.

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that BeeBee is a service dog,” Poe begins seriously, and waits for everyone to nod. “I had a stupid accident when I was younger and ended up with a brain injury that causes me to have epilepsy. That means that I have seizures randomly. My doctors haven’t quite figured out everything that triggers them yet. BeeBee is trained to assist me while I’m seizing, and while I’m recovering. I’m telling you all of this because I don’t want you to call an ambulance if I start to seize. Ambulances are more expensive than Uber and my seizures usually end quickly.” He waits for everyone to nod again, then smiles. “On a more positive note, I am now seven months seizure-free, and looking forward to getting my driver’s license even though my parents are using my car. Do you have any questions for me?”

Rey is a little ashamed of her earlier contempt and tries not to let it show on her face. She and Finn shake their heads. Poe nods, lightening up a bit. “If you do have any questions, please feel free to ask.” He looks to Rey. “Your turn, and you can decline if you want.”

Rey blinks. She supposes that her story could be a tragedy, but is it really relevant? Things have gotten much better, after all, and if there’s anything she’s learned, it’s that picking at past injuries just makes them bleed again. She forces herself to smile pleasantly. “I’m boring,” she shrugs. Poe nods again and turns to Finn.

Finn shifts in his seat and laughs a little. “I wouldn’t, uh, call this ‘tragic’, necessarily. Just a curiosity. I don’t actually remember everything, but my foster parents kept all the news articles they could find about it in my baby book.”

The words ‘foster parents’ echoes through Rey like a bullet rattled in a tin. She’s fighting to keep the shock off her face as Finn goes on, oblivious.

“They don’t show them off unless someone expresses doubt that any of this actually happened, which I appreciate. I mean, tragic backstories can be important,” he says, gesturing to Poe, who nods amicably, “but I don’t want every date I bring to the house to be bombarded with it, you know? Anyway, the FBI guesses that I was stolen from a hospital or out of a baby stroller at the mall when I was an infant, or sold to traffickers by a desperate parent. What they do know is that I was raised by a fascist cult, and brainwashed by them as I grew up.” He pauses for a moment.

“I was raised to be a fighter, to defend the compound from outsiders.” He becomes more self-conscious than he’d been before. “I was sent out for my first non-training mission at thirteen, and everything that could go wrong went wrong, both in my team’s mission and for me. I honestly don’t remember what happened with the team because I was so focused on my side of things. At first, my brainwashing held, but when I saw real blood for the first time, after one of my teammates got hit, something in me snapped. It was like my mind turned inside out: everything I had been taught felt wrong.” He shakes his head a little, then shrugs. “Anyway, we failed in our mission and were going to be very severely punished. I was planning my escape when the FBI raided the compound and arrested everybody, took custody of us kids. I was really lucky: my escape had a very small chance of success and I probably would’ve been executed by the Fi-by the cult if I had attempted it and failed. And my luck continued: I was adopted very quickly, by the best parents I could ask for. They helped me pick out a new name I liked, because I was literally just a number before. They send me a huge box of letters and snacks and stuff via snail mail once every month.” He laughs self-consciously. “So, not much tragedy in the end. But it’s a pretty interesting story.”

There’s a stunned silence in the room. Poe recovers first. “Thank you for sharing, Finn,” he says sincerely, waits for Finn to make eye contact, and gives him a kind smile. Finn returns it, relaxing a little.

Poe turns to Jessika, who shakes her head. “I know this isn’t supposed to be the Tragedy Olympics, Poe, but holy shit, I ain’t got nothing on that.”

“Oh, come on, you’ve never opted out of Tragic Backstory time, no reason to stop now,” Poe needles with a laughing glint in his eye. “We need some contrast.”

She rolls her eyes at him but leans forward to speak anyway. “I was homeless for two months in High School because my Dad threw me out of the house,” she says bluntly, tossing her perfect braid over the shoulder of her perfect sweater. “I came out to him as a lesbian and he literally threw me out the front door, right then and there.” She shrugs. “I had it really good, though: my brother snuck my wallet to me at school and I had enough money to buy some clothes, keep up appearances. The high school had decent showers. I was sleeping in my car, which wasn’t too bad once my brother snuck me a pillow. I don’t even like to call it homelessness because I didn’t suffer at all. I mean, yeah, it was scary, but I had enough money, privilege, whatever, to not fall to any real harm. Before things got too desperate, my mother left my father and found me at school to take me back.” She smirks. “Joke’s on him: she’s the one who made all the money between them. I haven’t seen him since the two of them were in court, which is fine. He was a dick. But as a result of that whole scenario, my mission is really advocating for homeless youth, since a good majority of them are LGBT.”

“Didn’t we meet at a protest?” Poe asks her, and Jessika laughs.

“Yeah, we did, and that one got pretty nasty. You remember that? I was so sure the police were going to bring out the tear gas. Do you remember what happened?”

Poe shakes his head. “I wasn’t close enough to the action to see what was going on. I felt it prudent to quietly make my way out of the crowd because I had to go to class. You were at the bus stop, I saw your sign…”

“And we gushed about how terrified we were about getting arrested! Yep,” she laughs. “Nothing like shared trauma to create a bond.” The two of them nod nostalgically for a moment; Rey and Finn share an amused glance.

“Alright, gang,” Poe says, clapping his hands together, looking around the table. “Show time. Let’s get this project knocked out.”

Chapter Text

All of them need to leave around the same time for their next classes (or campus job, in Finn’s case), so they wrap up for the day. Rey is trying to get her folders into her over-stuffed bag when Poe speaks up. “Oh, I was meaning to ask: are either of you done with your Internship application yet?”

Finn sighs. “Halfway. The essays are killing me.” Poe and Jessika nod knowingly.

Rey blinks. She has absolutely no idea what Poe is talking about. “I’m sorry, what?” she asks politely. Poe misinterprets this as being coy.

“Oh, come on, there’s no way you have it submitted yet. Even little miss overachiever over here,” he jerks a thumb at Jessika, who sticks her tongue out at him, “doesn’t have hers done yet. Holdo said she sent you an email when I asked her about it. You’d think it gets easier the second time around but it sure hasn’t.” He stops, then looks at her more closely. “I remember your name in the top ten of the class Freshman year, too. Don’t tell me you saw how much work the application was and chickened out!” Rey can tell that Poe thinks he’s lightheartedly teasing, but she is seeing red right now.

If Rey has one weakness she is painfully aware of, it’s the inability to be reasonable when someone calls her a chicken. She can hear herself biting back at Poe before she fully realizes what she’s saying.

“I’m sorry, but I’m a little busy with my nineteen credit hours and two jobs. Freshman year, it was twenty-one credit hours and two jobs. I didn’t have time for anything, much less this Internship.” She’s so angry she’s slightly out of breath. Finn gives out a low whistle. Poe throws up his hands in visible surrender, trying to regain the room’s positive mood.

“Well, two credit hours less ain’t nothing,” he tries to jibe again. “That’s plenty of time!”

Jessika steps in. “Oh, Poe, leave her alone. I wouldn’t have had time either if I was taking twenty one hours.” Rey knows that Jessika is trying to be sympathetic, but right now, it feels like a goad.

She takes a deep breath and opens her mouth to say something reconciliatory. She instead says something she immediately regrets: “Of course I’m pursuing the Internship this year. It’s just taking a little longer than I wanted it to take.”

Poe laughs, and the tension in the room is gone. “You and me both, sister.” He leans back in his chair. “Well, when we’re all done and submitted, we’ll all go out for a drink or something.” Dread blooms in her stomach, even as she tries to stamp it out.

She’s still cursing her hot-headedness when she sits down at the library and logs in to her laptop later that day. She feels like the worst type of fool: she ran her mouth about her workload, and then she lied to save face when staying quiet was an option. She scours her inbox for emails from Professor Holdo. She eventually finds the email Poe was referring to in the trash. It isn’t addressed specifically to her, which is a little disappointing after hearing Poe’s phrasing, but that’s how it got thrown away in the first place: she’d glanced at it and assumed it was a scam. “Extremely prestigious”, “resume-building”, “once-in-a-lifetime” legitimate opportunities don’t just show up in Rey Niima’s email inbox. She clicks open the PDF of what the Internship entails.

What it entails, Rey discovers with wonder and mounting excitement, is a little bit of everything. The primary purpose of the program is degree experience: whatever projects Professor Holdo is made aware of, the interns get first dibs, and the interns are guaranteed recognition on the projects they participate in. There’s also a teaching element: every weekend, the physics department hosts kids’ classes in the physics lab rooms, teaching simplified math concepts, and the program interns are sent to teach and demonstrate whatever engineering things they want. There are set teaching plans that the intern can use, or they can set up their own plan with Professor Holdo’s approval.

But the most exciting part of the program, to Rey, is the optional section detailed at the end of the description. There are robotics competitions all over the state in the Spring (one or two in a state over) that the interns have priority to compete in. The competition requirements, criteria, and goals all look very similar to the robot competitions she did in High School, at which she had definitely succeeded (flourished!). (Thinking back on it, it had been the only thing she had truly enjoyed in High School.)

She’s trying to remember where she put her high school teachers’ and advisors' email addresses when she starts into the fine print and crashes back down to Earth: the Internship requires twelve hours per week on average. Most of the time commitment is during normal business hours and weekends, i.e. when she’s supposed to be going to work. And the worst, most damning thing: the Internship is unpaid.

Rey closes her laptop slowly, not knowing if she wants to scream or cry. After a few minutes of slowly drowning in all the warring sides of the problem, she forces herself to stand up, grab her things, and walk out of the library. It’s dinnertime, she’s hungry, and she wants ice cream.

Chapter Text

It’s dinnertime, so the cafeteria is bursting at the seams. Under these conditions, Rey usually just installs herself at the end of one of the long tables and eats as quick as she can, but she’s using the meal as an excuse not to think about the Internship, so she scours the crowd for a free table where she can take her time.

Just when she starts to give up, Rey finally sees Finn tucked away in one of the far corners. (Despite herself, and despite the fact she’s never seen him in here eating dinner, she wards off a fission of disappointment that it’s not Kylo.) Finn’s got his textbooks and notes strewn across the table, a fork in one hand and a highlighter in the other.

“May I sit?” Rey asks politely. Finn glances up at her for a second.

Focus noticeably elsewhere, he mutters, “Sure, peanut.”

Amused, Rey makes herself some room and sits down. She starts eating, and after a moment, Finn visibly re-focuses on the present. He freezes in his seat, and mortification drapes across his face like a veil. Rey can’t help it: she starts to laugh.

“I am so sorry…!” Finn starts, but Rey just shakes her head, trying to get her laughter under control.

“You’re fine,” she’s finally able to say. “You can call me peanut anytime. It’s adorable.”

Finn relaxes a little. “I’m sorry, I was a hundred miles away just then. It’s what I call my foster sister.”

“Do you like your sister?” she asks, taking another bite of her food. Finn nods, starting to grin, and he’s finally shedding his embarrassment.

“When she was younger, she was my little shadow, wanted to be just like her big brother. She’s in that ‘I hate everyone’ phase in high school now, but she tolerates me well enough, so I guess we get along just fine.”

“Was she also adopted?” Rey asks, and Finn shakes his head.

“No, she’s their biological kid.” He seems to remember his fork in his hand and starts eating. “You got any brothers and sisters?”

Rey shakes her head. “Not really. My Uncle wasn’t married before he took custody of me.” And it was always my fault he was alone to hear him tell it, is on her lips to say, but she doesn’t release the words. She doesn’t want to bring the conversation down. Finn isn’t asking questions (most obviously: what happened to your parents), but nodding thoughtfully, and she feels absurd relief.

A thought occurs to her and she smiles. “He got me my first job at his junkyard, then at his Auto Repair place, and I worked with some good people at both places. When they wanted to be, they were what I imagine older siblings would be. It wasn’t too bad.”

Finn is nodding, focusing on his food, and a memory flashes before her eyes before she can stop it: one year, one of her coworkers (can’t remember who, now) had brought in a lop-sided cake for her birthday, name misspelled in icing, and it had been the best day of her life. They even cut her a large piece and let her take the first bite before anyone else. The embers within her had burned so, so bright that day.

The very next day, crumbs of the cake still on the table in the breakroom, someone (and it had to be one of her coworkers, who else had access to the breakroom?) had started stealing her lunch out of the fridge. At first, it was just one part of the lunch every day, but after a month or so, the theft often included her entire meal.

She didn’t have money to buy lunch every day from the vending machines or the McDonalds a block away and everyone started teasing her when her stomach started growling near the end of her shift, or when she had to sit down because she was light-headed with hunger. She didn’t have seniority in the group, and quickly learned that Plutt wouldn’t take the theft seriously. In response, her food-hoarding at home got worse, which made Plutt install locks on the cabinets in retribution. Finally, in a moment of desperation, she picked an old, mostly-insulated lunchbox out of a dumpster two buildings down the street. She hid it away at work, stashing her lunch there with a freezer pack she hid under some frozen meals before she clocked out every night. The theft stopped and she never figured out who it was: even now, thinking about it unwillingly in this noisy space, she can feel the inescapable sensation that every one of her coworkers was conspiring against her, laughing behind her back, plotting their next act against her. She moved jobs, but that sensation never quite went away. She doesn’t know if it will ever go away.

As she comes out of this (very unpleasant) memory, she forces herself to take a bite of her food and savor it. It’s delicious, and she can go up and get another plate if she wants. Things have gotten better, she repeats to herself, taking another bite, then another. Things have gotten better .

Finn’s words from earlier come to her: “I wouldn’t call it tragic, necessarily. Just a curiosity.”

She chews a bite of food and swallows it. “That was really brave, what you shared with the group today,” she says quietly to Finn.

Finn shrugs, again self-conscious. “Hope I didn’t make it a sob story.”

Rey laughs in spite of herself and Finn relaxes. “You really didn’t,” she says, and smiles at him.

Finn leans forward a little. “I feel so bad, Rey, I lied to Poe today.” Rey’s eyebrows shoot up and Finn shrugs again. “I said I was halfway through that application and let me tell you, I’m not even remotely close to that. Those damn essays might be the death of me. Is it paranoid for me to think it’s a mind test and they’re trying to weed out the pretenders? I mean, people who are pretending to be good at…” and he gestures to the mass of his notes and textbooks.

She frowns laughingly at him despite sinking in dread at the change in topic. “You’re not a pretender, Finn. You wouldn’t be in the top ten if you weren’t actually good.”

He doesn’t look convinced but she physically can’t force herself to go on. On one hand, she wants so, so badly to admit she also lied about the application. She can hear herself saying the words and it’s so loud it might as well be dialed up to 10. On the other hand, she so, so badly wants to pretend that she can be a part of this program and the only obstacle is the application itself.

“I haven’t, um,” she coughs, “gotten to the essays yet. I didn’t want to get overwhelmed. What kind of stuff will I have to answer?”

Finn sighs. “Half of it is the usual shit: where do you see yourself in five years,” Rey breaks out into an involuntary sweat, “what are your goals, that kind of thing. One or two are things like: who is your hero and why, who was a great influence in your life and why, why did you get into Engineering. The question I haven’t even looked at yet is the ‘five strengths, five weaknesses’ one.” He and Rey shiver almost in unison at that.

“I’m thinking this is going to be a ‘write drunk, edit drunk’ sort of situation,” she says without thinking, and Finn laughs until he has tears in his eyes.

“Cheers to that,” he says after wiping his eyes, holding up his plastic cup of soda. Rey looks at him for a moment, then smiles. She lifts her cup and clunks it against his.

Chapter Text

Her phone chimes while she’s studying in a drafty alcove in the engineering building. Rey had wanted to study in Poe and Jessika’s room on the fifth floor, but she was too afraid of being disappointed when she got there (the room being occupied; the room being occupied by Poe or Jessika and them asking how the Internship application was coming along…). She ended up wandering through the building in an attempt to be adventurous and choosing this (quite unsatisfactory) space because 1. she was tired of the suspicious stares she was getting from the groups of people already studying and 2. this was the first unoccupied place she found.

She’s tired (a usual feeling, these days) and irritable (an unusual feeling, but growing more prevalent as the Internship application sits, accusingly blank, on her computer). She hasn’t looked at the application since she and Finn talked in the caf the other day, and that brings her relief and anxiety in equal measure. Relief because she has more important things to do. Anxiety because the more she puts this off, the worse it’s going to be.

Her phone buzzes, reminding her she has a text waiting. She pulls her phone from her pocket; the message is from Kylo.

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 2:30 pm) a little something came in the mail today

Rey tries, for a few minutes, to come up with a suitably pun- or innuendo-laden reply and fails to think of anything. She sighs, conceding defeat.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 2:35 pm) I can’t even begin to guess

His next message is a picture without any text attached. She squints at it, even though she recognizes the objects in the picture immediately. Her stomach swoops, much like during that dusk conversation so many months ago.

In the picture is an open cardboard box. Inside the box are a pair of black leather handcuffs, the bands comfortably wide and punctuated with silver studs, the chain between the cuffs shining bright under the camera’s flash.

A door audibly closes somewhere nearby, making her jump. Rey blushes beet red and slams her phone face-down so the screen is hidden against the desk top. As she’s waiting for her heart to stop pounding, a series of images occur to her:

Kylo, hunched over his keyboard, scrolling through the hundreds of suggestions shown when he googled “handcuffs”, then possibly, if he was bold, “bondage handcuffs”. He’s having trouble breathing steadily and he’s terribly aroused. (Rey herself has done those searches multiple times and knows exactly how arousing they can be).

Kylo, who is uncomfortable when gazed upon, thinking about being at Rey’s mercy (pinned to the bed like a butterfly on a board, open to her hungry gaze) and deliberately moving the cursor to click ‘Buy Now’.

She checks that there’s no one nearby and slowly picks up her phone with slightly shaking hands.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 2:43 pm) what are you doing tonight? I’m free

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 2:44 pm) i was hoping to be Not Free this evening
Ben_the-Wren: (Today 2:44 pm) a little tied up, you could say

Rey allows herself an extremely luxurious eye-roll even as she’s soundlessly trilling with nervousness and excitement.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 2:45) I think i can help with that. 7?

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 2:45) yes, Rey

She stares at the reply for much longer than she should. She’s the one having trouble breathing steadily now. She tears her gaze from the words, exits out of the app, turns off her wifi, and opens Google.

Time for some research.

0*****0

She takes a deep breath and knocks on the door. She’s terribly nervous and late, which only makes her feel worse. She’s only a minute or two behind, but Kylo was absurdly early last week; with her luck, he’s one of those people who despises tardiness.

The door opens abruptly, startling her a little; he’s standing there, looking down at her with those wide eyes she can’t ever seem to get used to. Rey is almost relieved to see that he looks as nervous as she feels. Despite her anxiety, she finds herself smiling at him.

“Good evening,” she greets, somehow sounding more confident than she actually is.

“Come on in,” he replies, swallowing, and stands out of the way. She walks past him and stops next to the bed; when he closes the door, all of her nerves rush back tenfold. For a moment, they just stare at each other. Kylo swallows and gestures to the desk. “Have a seat,” he manages to say. Rey’s words desert her so she nods, walks over to the desk, and turns the chair around so she can sit in it and face the room. The desk is just as much of a disaster as before; it makes her wonder where he studies. Then, she sees them: the cuffs he bought are sitting on top of the tallest pile. She can smell the brand-new leather from where she’s standing. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Kylo freeze a little and she turns to look: he’s looking at her (he saw her see the cuffs) and he looks even more unsure than before. For a second, Rey just wants to call the whole thing off. It feels, overwhelmingly, like they’re standing at the base of a looming mountain, and they can’t see their goal through the swirling, blinding snow (their nervousness; their inexperience; a decade - on her part, at least - of hearing that people who want what she wants are to be denounced, are shameful, are wrong).

She takes a deep breath. “Where did you find them?” she forces herself to ask, lightly, pointing at the cuffs.

He just stares for a beat. “Amazon,” he replies, brusque with nerves, not relaxing a bit.

“Hmm,” Rey hums, as if they’re talking about the weather. “I shouldn’t be surprised, they have a lot of stuff.” She forcibly keeps herself from grimacing at her terrible small talk. Then, a thought occurs to her and she smirks at him, just a little. “Too nervous to go back to the sex shop, huh?”

It does the trick. He gives her a withering look, nerves displaced for a moment, to which she chuckles, places her bag on the floor, and sits down in the chair.

She carefully folds her hands on her lap. “I think we should just talk for a minute,” she says as calmly as she can. Kylo nods and moves closer to sit on the edge of the bed. As Rey’s casting around for something to say, her eyes wander along the lines of the bed until she’s looking at the nightstand. It’s still a mess, too, but there’s now a box of condoms sitting on it. He’s removed the plastic wrap but it doesn’t look like the box is open yet. She smirks again.

“I guess you’re feeling up to sex this time,” she says, half-teasingly, pointing at the box.

The effect is immediate. All levity leaves his face and his gaze drops right down to the carpet on the floor. His face is deliberately neutral, but his body radiates stricken embarrassment. Rey feels awful.

“No, no, no, it’s fine,” she says hastily, desperately trying to regain their progress toward calm. “I’ve got a box in my bag.” She unzips her backpack, digs around a second, and pulls her box of condoms out. She holds it up and, when he doesn’t move, rattles it a bit. “They’re, uh, off-brand, so those are a bit nicer, but, uh, the more the merrier!” She fights the need to laugh nervously. She takes a deep breath and figures she’s going to have to be the vulnerable one first. “I’ve had a rather stressful week and, well, I was really hoping we’d, um, put them to good use. Maybe a few of them.” As he visibly relaxes, she clears her throat. “Well, a girl can hope.” He drags his gaze from the floor to meet her eyes and she can see relief written all over his face, mixed with a blend of cautious hope and faint amusement.

“So, we’re both glad sex is on the metaphorical table,” she presses on, feeling embarrassment and doing her best to ignore it. “What else are you interested in trying?”

He looks down again, but she can’t see mortification this time, only uncertainty. “I don’t know.” She can see that he’s not done, and waits. Eventually, he asks, so hesitantly, “Is there anything you want?” He swallows. “To try?”

Somehow, she should have known this was how the conversation would go. She’s not opposed to them doing only what she wants, per se, but if this experiment is going to be successful, they both need to get what they want out of it. And the only way to do that is for them to Talk.

She gets another waft of the leather and inspiration clicks on. She twists in her chair and picks up the cuffs, weighing one in her hand as the other dangles. They’ve got a nice weight to them. The aesthetic is pleasing: seeing them up close, she can tell why he chose this design, with the matte leather and understated metal studs. It suits him. He was made to wear leather, her brain supplies, distractingly, and she turns back in the chair in an attempt to regain her focus. She holds up the cuffs for him to see.

“What were you thinking of,” she asks as gently, as conversationally as she can, “when you bought these?”

He looks away again but he’s less hesitant. “I was thinking about what you said on Fourth of July.” It occurs to her that she wants him to look at her when he speaks, no matter how unsure. She files the thought away, allowing him to keep his gaze averted for now: she wants him to be comfortable in this moment, learning how to be honest with her.

“What specifically?” she prompts amiably, deliberately keeping any hint of impatience or attempt at control out of her voice.

He has to take a breath. “You asked me,” he swallows, “if I was to be locked to the headboard or have my hands bound,” he has to steel himself to say it, and when he does, it’s quiet, “kneeling at your feet.”

Rey tries to keep her voice gentle, her breath steady, despite her racing heart. “I was asking you which one you prefer.” She can hear him breathing heavily as he stares downward, jaw working as he visibly builds up the courage to say what he wants to say.

Abruptly, he flicks his gaze from the floor directly to her face, directly to her eyes, and there’s an equal mix of fear and defiance in his gaze. “And I said, ‘both’,” he replies.

Victory runs through her veins, intoxicating. She has to take a deep breath, and the exhale shudders despite her best efforts.

“In that case,” she says, voice steady by some unholy miracle, “I want you to kneel for me.”

Chapter Text

For a long moment, he doesn’t move, her words seeming to play on repeat - kneel for me, kneel for me - as his heart races. It would be a heinous lie for him to say he’s never imagined the request, or never imagined his response. It would be an even more terrible lie to say he’s never posed himself in front of a mirror (as a teenager, jumping at every sound in the hallway; in the dorm room of his first college when all of his roommates were miraculously absent), his form evolving over the years, wondering what would get the best response from his (with his luck, vanishingly likely) partner.

And now, shaking at low frequency, he pushes himself off the bed and curls himself into the form he has chosen after all this time. He rests on his knees a shoulder-width apart, hands crossed calmly behind him over his mid-back. He turns his gaze downward, heart pounding, in clear submission. This is the first time anyone has ever seen him like this, and Rey’s presence feels like he’s too close to a dangerously hot fire.

He hears Rey pull in a surprised breath, sees her feet and legs move as she crosses one over the other. “Very good,” she praises, genuinely, and triumph sings through him. She uses one foot to pivot the chair, and he can hear her place the cuffs back on to the pile. He’s really too nervous to be disappointed, and his heart jolts a little when she stands up and walks to two steps to stand before him. He can’t see her face but he can see her lift a hand towards him; he flinches, just a bit, when she places her hand on his bicep, but starts to relax as she unhurriedly moves her hand along the fabric of his shirt, going up to neck and back down to where she started. She brings her other hand up to his face, but does nothing more than brush the hair from his forehead, then trace along his skin to behind his ear.

Gently, she raises both hands and slides them into his hair, cradling the back of his scalp with her delicate fingers. The action raises goosebumps on the backs of his arms. “I have only one adjustment to your posture,” she says, and applies pressure with her hands until he’s looking up at her face.

She’s smiling a bit, with that unreadable expression on her face, as she looks down at him. “When you are here with me,” she begins, and it’s an unmistakable command, words like electricity running over his skin, “when you kneel for me, you will look at me.” He feels himself pulse with arousal, which intensifies when she tightens her fingers in his hair slightly. She continues, even more seriously. “When we are here, your desires belong to me.” He can’t help it: he shivers, feeling every point of contact between him and her hands, her gaze. She continues with that same gravity: “I want us to learn how to leave our shame outside of our space.” She studies his face for a long moment. “Do you understand?”

He remembers his words. “Yes, Rey.” Her eyes darken in response.

Her gaze takes on an edge of mischief. She takes a half step back, moving her hands from his hair to his shoulders. She surveys him for a moment, eyes slowly running from his face to his knees and back up again. “I think you should always be like this when we’re alone,” she says softly, teasingly, “you on your knees, for me. You asking for permission to stand, or move, or touch. Would you like that?”

And he can imagine it: kneeling in this spot, his door unlocked so she can enter without a key, him listening to his heartbeat, waiting, watching for the door to open. The door would open, and she’d have the look on her face that she does now. It’s dizzying to think he could have that.

“Yes, Rey,” he answers, and it’s a a hell of a feedback loop, his want reflected back in her eyes.

“I’m glad we’re agreed,” she murmurs to him in that same teasing voice, moving her hands back into his hair, and kisses him.

It’s even better than it was at the club. Then, it felt like they had all the time in the world, no rush, like they could exist in that intimacy forever. That’s not what he wants now, and Rey is kissing him like she can read his mind. Unlike their kisses at the club (his pulse in his ears reminds him of it, it’s so loud they might as well be cocooned by the music again) she’s unmistakably in control now. He wants so badly to uncross his wrists, touch her, wrap his arms around her again, and he resists. The conflict between the impulse and his self-restraint is making him feel like a live wire.

Rey pulls away a little, fingers in his hair lightly gripping his skull to prevent him from following. “You’re so good for me,” she says breathlessly, and he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to her praise. Each time, it’s a new revelation, a new wave of undiluted satisfaction. “I want you to touch me,” she says, and again, the command is electrifying.

He moves his hands, bringing them around to place them on the first place they reach - Rey’s calves, covered by her jeans. She fits absurdly well in his hands. He squeezes gently. Rey’s breath catches a little. Feeling bold, he runs his hands decadently up the backs of her legs until he reaches her ass, which he also squeezes. Rey takes a deep breath and kisses him again, with the same fervor as before. His hands travel farther upwards, up under her shirt to the bare skin of her torso. Fuck but she’s fit. He wants to take off her bra and feel her breasts in his hands, but he doesn’t know how to ask in a way that doesn’t sound stupid. Before he can put too much thought into it, Rey breaks away again and looks at him with undisguised, intoxicating lust. “If you're ready, get up on the bed,” she orders, “grab the headboard, and don’t let go.”

Chapter Text

He stands up, legs shaking a little. It doesn’t feel right to again be taller than Rey, so he quickly sits on the mattress and lies down. He reaches up and curls his fingers around two poles of the headboard, feeling a little dazed. Once she’s satisfied he isn’t going to let go, Rey turns around, grabs the cuffs off his desk, and steps up to the bed.

She looks closely at him. “Red, yellow, or green?” she asks.

“Green,” he replies, heart pounding a little as she starts to unbuckle the cuffs. “Definitely green.”

She smirks at him a little and leans in to put the cuffs on. She smells nice, like she did when she was applying his makeup. Her grip is gentle but firm as she wraps the cuffs around his wrists and buckles them one at a time, running the chain around the post between wrists. As she works, it occurs to him that he is still fully dressed and his shirt can’t really come off (comfortably) at this point. This thought makes him feel relief and something he can’t quite identify (she remembered about the shirt: it feels like she understands him a little. Like she actually does listen to him, like she does actually care about his comfort. He doesn’t know the name of that feeling but it feels good.)

“Okay, how’s that?” she asks, tapping one finger against the hand nearest to her. He tests them subtly, moving his wrists back and forth a little, tugging his wrists against the chain. The cuffs aren’t too loose, aren’t too tight.

Rey straightens and looks down at him expectantly, waiting for his answer. He’s never felt like this, bound up while being at someone’s mercy. He doesn’t know if he can get out of the cuffs without her help which is, in retrospect, an important safety measure that should’ve occurred to him earlier. Rey could do anything to him right now if she wanted. She might not be able to take his shirt all the way off but she could reach under it, push it up to his armpits. She could beat the shit out of him. She could leave right now and no one would find him until he died of thirst and the stench of his rotting body was too strong to ignore.

Rey must see him break out in a cold sweat because she frowns down at him in genuine concern. “What color are we?” she asks. Kylo tests the chain against the headboard again, avoiding her gaze. When he doesn’t immediately answer, she sits down on the coverlet beside him and runs a soothing hand down his side. It feels nice and he relaxes a little.

“Yellow,” he says finally.

“Yellow, or red?” she asks immediately, emphasis on ‘red’, which puts him a little more at ease. Everything so far has been at his pace. When he thinks about it and questions his fear outright, he does believe that if he said ‘red’ right now, she would undo the cuffs in a heartbeat. She has never behaved like someone who wants to hurt him.

“No, just yellow,” he replies, more confident.

“What do you need?” she asks, without any suggestion of impatience or frustration, and allows him to think for a second. “We can save the cuffs for another time.”

“No, it’s…” he starts, but he’s not sure what he wants to say. Part of him wants to ask what he looks like, but it feels like that’s another step farther into vulnerability he doesn’t want to take. Rey pets his side again, gently smoothing out the wrinkles in his shirt.

“Well, if you want to take off the cuffs without waiting for me,” she says, “I think your hands are close enough together you could manage it. Just tug up on the buckle strap to pull the pin out of the hole.” And that makes him feel like a idiot. He reaches one hand over to the cuff on his other wrist to test it, and she’s right. His sheer relief is almost literally a weight off of his chest, and he allows his arms to fully relax against the pillow under his head. He catches his breath, and can feel the sweat on the back of his neck drying.

When he doesn’t speak, she takes a breath and says honestly, “You’re gorgeous like this, you know.”

It feels like genuine praise and he soaks it up like ink wicking through paper. He wonders distantly if she can literally read his mind as she takes another breath and continues. “I want to run my hands all over your body. Maybe find some good spots, maybe find some spots to avoid. I forgot to ask if you were ticklish, sorry. In any case, my plan was to get your jeans off, then I was hoping to try riding you.” Now he’s glad he’s lying down: the loss of blood to his brain is making him feel faint. He wishes that his hands were free just so he could take his pants off right this second because they are too tight. She’s not done: she fixes him with her earnest gaze and speaks seriously. “I want you to enjoy this. I will get everything I want even if we take the cuffs off right now. Even if we scrap all my plans and just wank again, I will be getting what I want. You just need to tell me what you want.”

Her attitude is reassuring, encouraging him to be bold. He rallies. “If you think that I’m settling for jerking off when you offered to ride me…!” he says, mock-glaring at her, and Rey laughs like she can’t help it.

“What do you need from me?” she repeats, laughter still in her face, smile on her lips.

“Kiss me,” he says finally. “And help me get these pants off.”

“Well, that certainly won’t be a hardship,” she teases, and leans in to kiss him again.

It’s a different angle, a little overwhelming in a different way than before. He figures out pretty quickly that his range of motion is limited unless he wants to dislocate his shoulders or hurt his neck. Once he accepts this and relaxes, letting Rey do most of the work, it’s very nice. He does miss her hand in his hair. But he feels at her mercy in a good way now, and this is definitely helping.

Rey breaks away and climbs up on the bed, laying down on top of him, taking most of her weight on her elbows and knees but resting slightly on him. Her forearms are parentheses on either side of his head (inside the parentheses of his own arms). He can feel every nanometer of her body against his and they haven’t even taken off their clothes yet.

“Green,” he says without prompting into the very small space between them, searching her face with his eyes. He doesn’t know how he never noticed the freckles on her cheeks before. Rey smiles down at him in gratifying satisfaction, just like she did the first time he remembered to ask for permission. She leans down the rest of the way and resumes kissing him.

She’s all around him now, and he wants. He wants to wrap his arms around her, press her to him, squeeze her ass again, and again, it makes him feel like a live wire. He can feel her rocking her hips and an idea comes to him from the ether: he bends one knee until the top of his thigh meets the space between her thighs in the join of her legs. She understands immediately, and rearranges their legs to grind against him. She makes a sound of sincere pleasure into his mouth, and he is alight.

She breaks away. “Pants!” she gasps, as if she had forgotten and was forcefully reminded by need.

“Green!” he replies by accident, instead of yes. It’s all a little muddled. “Please, Rey!”

Her hands are on the button of his jeans and he allows his head to fall back, on to the pillow. He doesn’t know if he can watch if he wants to make it to the actual sex. The button is undone, the zipper is pulled, and she hooks her fingers into the waistband of the jeans and underwear. Every millimeter of her skin that touches his is like a brand. She starts to work the jeans off, and just when it starts to get uncomfortable, she reaches into his underwear and frees his erection from his pants. He he has to pull a breath in through his mouth and it shudders as he exhales.

She’s got his pants partway down his hips when he realizes she’s having a little bit of trouble. He lifts his hips to try to help but it’s still slow going.

“Next time I’ll take them off first,” he says, lifting his head to mock-glare at her again. Rey bursts into slightly-hysterical laughter as she continues tugging. He can’t help it: dick out, pants only partway off, he starts to laugh a little, too.

“It’s a lot more difficult to get someone else’s pants off than you think!” she says, aiming for indignant, but dissolves right back into even stronger laughter as she inches his pants down. “How do you even get these on?!”

“Some domme you are,” he manages to quip, head spinning from stimulation and this ridiculous turn of events. “Can’t even get your sub’s pants off!” Rey laughs harder.

She finally gets the bright idea of pulling in two places, pulling at the ankle hems until there isn’t any more slack, then working the pants down some more. This makes quick work of the rest of his legs, and soon he’s naked from the hips down (it’s a strange but undeniably exciting sensation). Rey tosses his jeans and underwear away without looking where they went, then leans down and presses a simple kiss to his bare hip bone, on the side closest to her.

His amusement is transmuted into molten arousal. He can hear himself breathing heavily as she steps away from the bed and starts to unbutton her jeans. It only takes a second for her to shimmy out of them. Her legs are gorgeous: athlete’s legs, all lithe muscle, still slightly tan despite it being several months into Fall. He’s never seen her working out at the rec center but he thinks he might like to watch her work out sometime, see her put that muscle to use.

She takes off her underwear just as quickly as her jeans. Her legs are shaved but she’s got a brush of hair hiding her intimate parts from view. I wonder if she’ll teach me how to eat her out, he thinks, distractingly, and feels himself blush bright red. He must make a noise because Rey looks up and sees him watching her. “Like what you see?” she asks him, teasingly.

He hopes his embarrassment isn’t showing on his face. He lets his head fall back again. “Will you get ON with it,” he replies impatiently, hoping Rey doesn’t interpret it as petulance, or reluctance. Rey laughs again, putting that fear to rest. He doesn’t watch her open the box of condoms on the nightstand, but he does watch her climb back into bed, half-naked, to holy shit straddle his hips.

“What color are we?” she asks softly, like she’s a little uncertain now, too.

“Very green,” he replies, swallowing, and she reaches down, lifts his dick away from his body, and runs her thumb over the frenulum in the most intimate caress.

“Do you want me to ride you?” she asks, and he can feel his dick twitch in her hand.

“Yes, Rey,” he says, and he can barely get the words out. “Please, Rey.”

She rolls the condom on him, shuffles forward a bit, lines herself up, and sinks down onto him. He couldn’t have imagined this. He jerks involuntarily in the cuffs, causing the chain to rattle against the poles in the headboard. The entirety of his great, lumbering body has ceased to exist except for what’s inside of her, and that’s…

After the initial push, her movements are minimal. She’s experimenting with her hips, with her balance, with the placement of her hands, and that’s a sensation he never could have imagined, to be a thing designed only for her pleasure. When she tries a small, gyrating movement they both moan, nearly in unison. “That’s it,” she breathes, and brings a hand to what has to be her clit. It takes a few more tries, but soon she builds up a steady rhythm, grinding down on his dick in that small, powerful motion, pressing against her clit, and he can hear the pleasure in her gasping breaths, feel her squeezing him with her internal muscles, and it’s…

There’s a roaring in his ears as he unconsciously brings his knees up, thrusts his hips by instinct, and realizes this gives him leverage to participate. He pushes farther into her and she gasps gratifyingly. It takes a bit of time to find a new rhythm, but they find it, her hand pressing against his chest, his heels digging slightly against the covers.

He had once read somewhere, in the vastness of the internet, that when you find a motion, a rhythm, a method that the woman finds pleasurable, do not stop, do not change a thing until after she comes. He can hear Rey getting closer - he himself is so close that every movement feels like it will be the one that finishes him - so he breathes (in-2-3, out-2-3 like he does when he’s running) and focuses on making every repetition the same, even as her audible pleasure is the best kind of torture.

The moment lasts forever and no time at all, simultaneously. Rey gasps as she comes, and her insides squeeze him so tightly that he’s helpless to do anything but come as well, hips thrusting without his conscious control, arms jerking against the cuffs. He’s also gasping, and after he rides out his climax, he slumps against the mattress, heart pounding, head soaring.

As his soul re-enters his body, he realizes that Rey already undid the cuffs and he can move his arms. She also got rid of the condom and cleaned him up a little which is...not something he thought he'd be able to miss, but somehow he did. He brings his arms down to his sides. He knows, distantly, that his shoulders are going to be sore tomorrow, but he just can’t muster the energy to care. He feels like he’s been emptied out except for sound waves echoing through him, like an ancient metal bell that was just rung. He feels like his whole body is ringing and the rest of the world is far away.

Something lands on his chest - he reaches for it, can’t identify it by touch, then looks down at it dumbly - they’re his shorts. He puts them on, moving as little as possible. The mattress dips. It’s Rey, and she’s placing a hand on his shoulder.

“Do you want me to stay?” he can hear her ask.

One answer rises from the ringing chaos in his body, in his ears. Yes, yes, yes it says, drowning out his first instinct, which is to tell her it’s okay if she leaves. It feels selfish, but he can hear her words from earlier, as if she just spoke them: your desires belong to me, your desires….

“Please,” he manages to say, feeling like it’s the only word in his vocabulary. He wants to pull her close, curl around her, lay side by side with his arm around her. He wants to be in the parentheses of her arms again, her weight resting on him to keep him from floating away. The enormity of it is overwhelming, and he doesn’t have the words to express it.

She, unfortunately, cannot read his thoughts this time and merely sits next to him, which feels like some kind of loss. As his breaths slow, she starts combing her fingers through his hair. The sensation of it is so powerful it smoothes the ringing into a roar, like he’s now listening to the ocean tide advance against a gentle shore. He falls asleep like that, the sea carrying him away.

Chapter Text

Rey is sitting at her desk waiting for her laptop to boot up, trying not to move around too much in her chair due to her (extremely satisfying) soreness. She can still feel the ghost of Kylo inside her, which is both very distracting and very arousing. Intimate ache aside, every shift, every movement makes a different muscle group remind her: your first experiment as a domme went very, very well. Every reminder makes her want to grin like an idiot. She could have never imagined how good control felt…no, not control: such unquestioning trust. His face had been so open, his desires so clear. Kriff, he’d been like putty in her hands. (After she’d dragged herself from his room and back to her own, the only thing she’d had energy for was sleep. But this morning, after Rose had left to study somewhere else, Rey allowed herself a lie-in; specifically, she’d brought herself to orgasm twice remembering the look on his face, the feel of him, the noises he made. Honestly, all she wants right now is to go back to bed and try for a third, but she’s got this damn interview in seven minutes.)

To distract herself and attempt to focus, Rey picks up her interview notes and skims through them. She hadn’t been able to find any recent pictures of Master Skywalker, just the same news-candids from when he was a handsome young man with late-Seventies-hair. His wikipedia page (it was sparse but still: a wikipedia page) calls him ‘the finest Jedi mind in living memory’ which is…more than a little daunting, to be honest. Many of his early writings have already become canonized; he was the youngest Jedi to ever be so honored. The majority of his writing and speaking work was decades ago, with the exception of a few very cryptic, unheralded articles published in the last couple of years. Rey is dying to ask about them. She is a bit nervous, but also excited: this extremely famous person agreed to be interviewed by her, a nobody.

Skype rings, and she jumps to answer. Because the dorms have shitty internet, it takes a while for the call to connect, and when it does, the quality is quite poor. Despite the pixelation, she can see that the room - she assumes it’s Master Skywalker’s office - is not well-lit. There might be a window to the right of the computer but most of the light is from a somewhat battered, low-wattage lamp on his desk. The video quality improves slightly and more of the room becomes visible. The plastered walls are bare except for a few partially-filled wood bookshelves. Master Skywalker himself, wearing layered grey monk robes, is sitting in an old wooden chair that creaks as he leans forward, into the light of the lamp, when he sees that the call went through. The shadows are harsh against the lines on his forehead and his somewhat unkempt beard. He smiles politely at her in greeting, but it’s distant, weary, and maybe a little sad. “Good afternoon, Miss Rey,” he says, and his voice is just as tired as his face. “Is this still a good time for you?”

Rey swallows nervously. She should have done more research on proper etiquette when interviewing Jedi monks. “Um, yes, it’s a perfect time. Is it for you?”

He nods amiably but otherwise doesn’t answer. Rey hopes it’s okay to start asking questions.

Rey begins, “Master Skywalker…” but the man holds up a black-gloved hand, expression sliding into slight amusement.

“Please,” he says lightly, “call me Professor, or Mister Skywalker if you like: you are not my padawan and I…” his expression slides back into detachment, gaze shifting away, “I haven’t taken an apprentice in ages.” This lasts for a beat of silence, then he looks back up at the screen with another polite but distant smile. “Please, ask your questions, Miss Rey.”

Rey has to look down at her notes. In prepping for this interview, she had thought through a list of reasonable questions and painstakingly ordered them in a logical manner. She has that sheet of paper in her hands and she’s looking directly at the first question; however, the first few now feel like a waste of time in the presence of this once-celebrated holy man, sitting wearily in his dark office. She skims through the list, looking desperately for a question that seems fitting.

Just when she’s starting to panic, she sees it. “Yes! Yes, um, according to my research, you didn’t grow up in the Jedi Temple but converted as a teenager, taking monastic vows as a young man. You achieved the honor of Jedi Knight at a very young age, and a Jedi Master not long after that. Your written work on forgiveness has been canonized. That’s quite a career.” Master Skywalker nods politely in thanks but otherwise doesn't answer. “Um, in the past, you’ve spoken and written briefly about your journey in becoming a Jedi monk, in forming your identity as a Jedi Knight, as a teacher. I was hoping you could maybe go into a little more detail about what you’ve learned. My first question for you is: what has your journey taught you about ‘being a Jedi’? Like, to you, what does it mean to be a Jedi? Has your idea of ‘what a Jedi is’ changed from when you first converted to now?”

A strange look comes over the man’s face, and for a long moment, he just thinks. Finally, he replies, “That’s a good question, Miss Rey, with a complicated answer.” He pauses, then asks: “Have you read anything by a Jedi Master named Kenobi?” Rey shakes her head no and the professor half-laughs, a look of fondness on his face. “In his youth, he was a real spitfire. Some of the stories he would tell I could hardly believe.” Another pause. “As an old man, he was my first mentor for a short time, just before his death. He always said that the Jedi were ‘guardians of peace and justice’ in this world,” Master Skywalker quotes with reverence, and allows it to linger as he thinks for a moment more. “After Master Kenobi died, I turned to Yoda’s writings per Kenobi’s instructions to me.” He smiles to himself, as if at an inside joke, leaning forward slightly more, a dim light of mirth in his eyes. "If you’ll forgive an old academic for saying so, I’m partial to the Oz and Mullen translation of Yoda’s works: they managed to really capture the spirit of the monk, not just his wisdom. Yoda wrote that all a Jedi’s muscle, all his strength meant nothing: we are ‘luminous beings’ whose powerful ally was the Force.” He sits back in his chair and the look on his face is difficult to interpret: the amusement wars with something grim, maybe bitter, as his gaze again moves away.

Rey doesn’t really know how to react to his answer. She’s read a few excerpts of his writings, seen some grainy VHS-to-digital interviews on YouTube: in those, he was always straightforward and right-to-the-point, speaking to his own experiences before invoking Jedi masters of the past. Here and now, it feels like despite all his words, he’s avoiding the question, and she can’t begin to imagine why. Is this some sort of Jedi riddle, one of those Jedi-Master-teacher things? He’d agreed to the interview, and hadn’t asked for her list of what she wanted to ask, so, presumably, he was okay with facing the unexpected. Maybe years of the same questions made him complacent, made him think no one would ask anything new. Should she let his vague answer go?

Her first instinct is to just move on and ask something less intense, but she has a feeling. She has the feeling this is an opportunity, that if she pursues this line of thought, that if she just asks the right questions, he’ll answer honestly - and in full.

With that feeling urging her on, she replies carefully, forming the acknowledgement into a question: “I’m sure that your experiences have expanded upon your Masters’ words…?”

Master Skywalker’s eyes slide back to the screen and he watches her right back. Right when she's thinking he's going to end the conversation, he asks, just as carefully, “Miss Rey, are you Lucian?”

Rey worries for a beat that he’s the type of Jedi who believes in proselytizing, but the moment passes. Worst-case scenario, he goes into a spiel and she has to quickly but firmly end the call. “No, Professor, I am not. My guardian wasn’t a Jedi and I never had much interest.”

His expression doesn’t change as he asks, “Tenebrian?” His level tone of voice is a surprise: usually, when a Jedi asks that question, it is a poorly-veiled insult.

“I don’t adhere to Sith philosophy, no.” She shrugs a little, shaking her head. “Again, no familial obligation, no interest.”

He leans back in his chair a bit, studying her with sharp eyes. “Ah,” he replies, but it doesn’t sound dismissive or judgmental. After another long moment of silence, he says, “Miss Rey, you said in your email you were studying Facian philosophies; what do you know about the Jedi religion, as it’s practiced in the modern-day US?"

She blinks incredulously at the heavy question. She wasn’t expecting a quiz, and she doesn’t know what he wants to hear. If anyone else in the world had asked her that question, she would tell them, I have to pass a final about this stuff and maintain my 4.0: I know my shit! But this is a monk she’s talking to, and she really doesn’t want to look like an idiot. Rey takes a deep breath. “Well, um, I know they’re the majority religion in the US. Facio Lucis has its roots in Eastern religions, like Buddhism and the Dao.”

Master Skywalker holds up his hand again and she stops. “Which one came first, Buddhism or Facio Lucis?” he asks conversationally, but there’s a slight intensity to his gaze, like he’s a teacher playing dumb to put his student on the spot.

Rey, again, has no idea what he wants to hear. “Well, official Jedi teachings say that they came about during the same time frame, like, um, parallel evolution in, uh, biology.”

He calmly folds his hands and tilts his head a bit. “Miss Rey, what does your research say on the matter?”

The historical record has been pretty well decided by the scientific community at this point. “The consensus is that Buddhism is older than Facio Lucis by several centuries, Professor. The genesis of Facio Lucis from Buddhism is relatively well-documented, thanks to preserved East Asian and Middle Eastern texts.”

The Professor’s facade of calm seems to be pushed aside, just for a moment, by the meaningful look he gives her. “If you do read Master Kenobi’s works, Miss Rey, you’ll find he held to “truth from a certain point of view”. I respect him very much, but that was a point upon which I came to disagree with him. In my philosophy, facts are facts.” After his face returns to its previous enigmatic calm, he lightly says, “I apologize, I rudely interrupted. You were saying?”

Right, the pop quiz. “Well, um, the Jedi religion has been integral in the US, culturally and legally. In fact, the Jedi temple teaches that the US was founded on Jedi teachings, is a ‘Jedi nation’.”

Master Skywalker leans forward, the intensity of his demeanor warring very much with his calm. “Do you disagree?”

Rey stares at him for a moment, unable to reply, then presses her eyes shut for a second and blinks them back open. In the late-70s/early-80s, a few influential people in the Jedi community started a movement to conflate Jedi religious identity with US national identity. It was wildly successful, taking the Jedi community by force. It mobilized religious conservatism into overwhelming governmental power by one insidious idea: the US couldn’t be a morally-upstanding nation without Jedi principles (either enshrined into law or practiced by most members of the federal government). The movement was so successful that most, if not all, Jedi Councils since that time have considered the idea "The US is a Jedi Nation" to be religious canon, even though that statement is nowhere to be found in any of the holy texts. To oppose or reject that idea is now treated like heresy in most of the Jedi community, punishable by exile in all but name. For goodness’ sake, the idea is so culturally ingrained in the US at this point that Plutt, who had never stepped into a temple in his life, would get upset when someone challenged it in his hearing. Opposition to the idea has been growing in the secular sphere for the last 15 years or so, and the Jedi Council (along with its loyal adherents in the government) have been fighting that opposition politically and legally along every inch of growth. In his monastic vows, Master Skywalker would have pledged loyalty to the Jedi Council. As someone who is allowed to train padawan, he would be required to uphold the Council’s interpretation of doctrine.

She did not get enough sleep for this. “I really couldn’t say, Professor,” she demurs, to which he gives her a very stern look, as if she were a misbehaving pupil.

“Facts are facts, Miss Rey,” he repeats, with the utmost solemn sincerity.

Rey fights the urge to sigh deeply, or throw up her hands. She doesn’t want to answer his question, to go down this path, and that hesitance irritates her: he is the one insisting she tell the truth when he swore to uphold a lie, not her. Granted, he probably didn’t know it was a lie at the time he took his vows, but still: he is a grown-ass man and she doesn’t owe him a damn thing. She has the advantage here: if he gets upset, or debates her with the same old tired arguments that haven’t meshed with reality since they were thought up, she can just end the call and block the number.

She takes a deep breath and answers. “While it is true that the majority of people in the US identify as Lucian, including, um, 70-some-odd percent of Congress, which is a higher percentage than the general population, it’s a well-documented fact that most of the Founding Fathers were atheists, agnostics, and Sith. Many of the early settlers in the US were escaping religious persecution in Europe because they weren’t Jedi. The Constitution specifically, and very deliberately, addresses the separation of Temple and State. All of these facts are contradictory to the idea the US was founded on solely Jedi principles and are therefore often ignored by devout Jedi, especially the recent Jedi Councils. As a matter of fact, a lot of energy is spent opposing these truths.” Something occurs to her, out of the blue, and she blinks in surprise as she considers it. Master Skywalker still hasn’t reacted negatively; he’s sitting up in his chair with that same deliberate, intense calm.

“If you’ll pardon a deviation from fact into speculation,” she says slowly, cautiously, “the Jedi, um, aren’t all that upset about the constitution being written by those who don’t believe in the Force: Lucians believe that the Force can work through people whether they believe in the Force or not. What upsets them, the idea they’re opposing, is that Sith were in the room, writing the constitution.” She suddenly feels bold: he hasn’t disagreed with her once during this bizarre line of questioning. She sits up straight, fixes Master Skywalker with her gaze, and declares confidently, “By promoting the idea that the US is a Jedi Nation, the Jedi Council is very deliberately perpetuating anti-Sith propaganda.”

The effect of her statement is quite dramatic, and definitely not in the way she expected: triumph breaks across Master Skywalker’s face, like summer sun breaking through heavy clouds. It’s mostly in his eyes: they’re wide, focused intently on her, startlingly boyish in his aged face. He’s still frowning, but there’s a determined energy to it. The sad, tired man is gone, replaced by a man who has discovered something he almost lost hope of finding.

He exhales heavily, eyes relaxing out of their boyish energy a bit, and settles back in his chair with an air of solemn purpose. “Very good,” he says simply, and it’s the most energy she’s heard in his voice since the start of the call. “And there we have the heart of the matter, Miss Rey.”

Chapter Text

Rey waits for Professor Skywalker to elaborate, but instead he says, “You’ve been very patient with my questions, Miss Rey, so let me begin to answer yours in return. Being a Jedi means different things to different people. Something that I personally hold to is that the ancient, true heart of Lucian teaching is self-sacrifice, and a desire to find balance in the Force.” Rey nods slowly.

He’s watching her intently as he asks, “In your research, have you noticed any-” and he visibly thinks for a moment, “-impediments to the Jedi goal of balance?”

Rey studies the deep lines running across his forehead, wondering how she’s going to answer this question, and something clicks: there is a very obvious thread through this entire conversation. She wasn’t willing to entertain it up to this point because he was the Golden Boy, the Jedi hero, the finest Jedi mind of his time. She takes a breath, and decides to be the first one to reach out, to signal she might understand what’s going on.

“Jedi wouldn’t know balance if it smacked them in the face,” she proclaims evenly, then chickens out a little and quickly adds, “if you’ll pardon me for saying so.” The Professor gestures slightly as if to say, no harm done. Rey mindlessly shuffles her notes in her hands, trying to quell her nerves, and continues. “Just for one example: since the beginning of the religion, Jedi have looked to prophecies telling of ‘one who will bring balance to the Force’.” She breathes in slowly, and takes the leap: “For most of those Jedi, “bringing balance to the Force” is getting rid of the Sith.”

The Professor’s eyes are practically glittering in the low light of his office. “Explain that,” he says quietly, intently.

“I mean,” Rey replies, struggling to organize her thoughts, “the Jedi believe that the Force is what directs our lives, determines our fate. The Force is an entity whose exact nature is hotly debated, but Jedi readily admit that there is ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ to the Force and it is essential that the two be ‘balanced’. The problem with this is that the Dark Side is considered by the Jedi to be forbidden, unspeakable, even immoral. The Jedi, in all of their history, have not developed a way to interact with the Dark Side except to,” she counts on her fingers, “one, ignore it, two, avoid it at all costs, or three, destroy the object associated with it. This forbearance turns Tenebrian philosophy, which is deliberately and exclusively concerned with the Dark Side, into something so indescribably evil it can’t even be discussed in the Jedi community. Like, in the more conservative areas of the US, textbooks aren’t even allowed to mention Tenebrian philosophy, much less engage with it in any meaningful way.” She pauses, thinking of something that has always bothered her: “For goodness’ sake, the overblown language used to describe deconverting from Lucian to Tenebrian is ridiculous. ‘Seduced’ by the dark side? Really?” And that’s the first part of a whole other problem she has with Jedi thought, but she doesn’t want to get into it now. She stops and tries to get back on track. “Anyway, there’s this overwhelming feeling of,” she searches for the word she wants, “persecution in Jedi writings, like,” she struggles for a moment, “there’s this feeling that Jedi are completely surrounded by these unspeakably immoral people - the Sith - and it’s only by the Will of the Force,” she enunciates sarcastically, “that they’re not completely overtaken.”

Professor Skywalker hasn’t moved a muscle from his previous relaxed observation, and the fact he hasn’t puffed up in rage makes her feel better. Rey takes a deep breath to calm down a bit. “The reality is, as I said before, the Jedi are a majority of the population in the US and they outnumber the Sith greatly. The Sith are few but the Jedi consider the Dark Side overwhelming, a hidden danger, ‘winning the invisible war’.” She shrugs. “In the Jedi’s point of view, ‘balance’ is evening up the score, or decreasing Sith influence. How does one decrease Sith influence when Sith are already in the minority? In the past, it was genocide, the Inquisition, et cetera. In this modern age, it’s making sure the Sith have legal impediment.”

For a moment, Skywalker doesn’t reply, but he’s smiling a little, albeit cynically. Eventually, he says, “You’ve done your research, Miss Rey, good work."

The Professor studies her as she tries not to preen from the unexpected praise. “Miss Rey, you said a moment ago that the Jedi haven’t ‘developed’ a way to interact with the Dark Side, except to reject it. Can you think of any reason why that might be?”

Rey considers the question for a moment, but it doesn’t feel like as much pressure to know the answer as before. “I haven’t given that any thought,” she replies honestly. “I’d only just come up with that.”

He smiles, just barely, and folds his hands on the desk, gesturing slightly with both of them. “Then here’s a question we can consider first: who benefits from the idea that the US is a Jedi nation, or that the Dark Side is to be avoided at all costs?”

And Rey has to think about that for a bit. The Jedi, who believe that every single thing in the universe interacts with the Force and everything is influenced by the Force, never came up with a purpose for the Dark Side except to be an omnipresent enemy, an unbeatable foe. “Talisman makers and sword makers, back in the day?” Rey guesses flippantly, and Skywalker huffs a real laugh.

“True,” he replies, amused, “but probably not the primary ones who benefit from it today. Keep going. Answer first: what is the benefit of warning people away from the Dark Side, making it forbidden?”

Rey suddenly has this image in her mind, a painted scene in that perfect Renaissance style, of an ancient Jedi council demanding the public humiliation and execution of a fearsome, masked Sith fighter who had been captured and was bound in chains before them. It's an archetypal story that can be found all through recorded history, made gorgeous by a painter's brushes and oils: a voice of authority handing down judgement to banish the metaphorical dark. But she can’t see any benefit from the depicted scenario - except maybe for some fool on the council who sits back after the execution and believes they’ve stomped out all the Sith influence in the area by killing all the known Sith practitioners and terrifying the populace away from investigating Sith philosophy.

“I don’t know,” she says finally. “To have an adversary they can never win against, I guess, but that doesn’t benefit anybody. It’s just a waste of time and resources.”

The Professor is still amused, but it has been subsumed by a seriousness she can’t quite interpret. “No, you’re correct, Miss Rey: an unwinnable war is the goal. So the next question we must ask is: why must a group have an adversary? Any group, not just the Jedi.”

“To make the group afraid?” Rey asks in reply, but she isn’t as unsure as she made the statement sound. She tries again. “When a group has a tangible enemy, fear makes the group draw closer together. It unifies the group, makes people less likely to dissent.”

“Aha!” Skywalker replies in quiet triumph, “Got it in one. Do you know what that phenomenon is called?” Rey shakes her head. “It’s called tribalism. Humanity evolved in tribes because that was a safe way to live. It isn’t as necessary in this modern age but it is a powerful instinct. Appealing to that instinct makes fearful people feel safer. By singling out a small, vulnerable group, and ruling that the small group’s beliefs or innate characteristics are morally incompatible with the large group, an ever-present enemy is created, and tribal instinct is activated.”

Rey is about to rebut, I wouldn’t exactly call the Sith vulnerable, but she realizes that’s not true. Professor Skywalker isn’t talking about the ancient past, when Sith Lords were masters of deception and intrigue, some of the most skilled assassins and military leaders in recorded history. He’s talking about modern times, when Sith can be acne-ridden freshmen, college professors, janitors, CEOs...anyone who even slightly practices Tenebrian philosophy. These Sith are normal people, living normal lives, in a society whose elected leaders believe without question that Lucian philosophy is the only correct philosophy. Everything clicks into place, and Rey can’t believe she didn’t see the answer to the Professor’s question immediately.

“The Jedi Council is who benefits from all this,” she says grimly, defeatedly. The terrible cruelty of the truth is simultaneously beyond belief and ludicrously mundane. “By creating an unwinnable war, they create fear in their group. The fear binds the group together and makes the group look to their leaders, giving them power.” Rey shakes her head and goes on. “By creating a monopoly on morality, the Jedi leadership has created a group that supports their power in society and perpetuates it.” Rey isn’t satisfied with that being the end of her answer, so she summarizes aloud: “By creating a fearful majority in society, they’ve solidified their power in that society.” It’s a bittersweet triumph. She looks down, unseeing, at her notes. “Meanwhile, people suffer.”

“Bravo,” Skywalker answers mirthlessly. Rey looks back up at him. The weight of his sadness has settled back over him, but there’s a small measure of relief on his face that wasn’t there before. Rey wonders if this is the first time he’s heard the whole heretical truth with his own ears: reading an awful truth in bits and pieces is one thing, hearing the entirety of it spoken aloud is a point of no return. “The effect of these policy decisions is something we can cover next time,” the Professor concludes.

The Professor moves one hand to his other wrist, brushes his sleeve up a bit, inclines his head to look down at his watch - he does these things slowly, like he’s using the sequence as an excuse to stall for time, or make a decision - then leans slightly further into the light. He speaks quietly and deliberately, watching her closely with guarded eyes. “To answer your first questions, Miss Rey: I absolutely believed Master Kenobi’s words, and didn’t question them for a very long time. I thought I knew, without doubt, what it was to be a Jedi, a guardian of peace and justice, then, later, a Jedi Master, upholder of the Code, teacher of padawan. If you’d asked me even ten years ago what it was to be a Jedi, I would have answered confidently. But in the last few years, as I have come to understand the topics we discussed today, I’ve had cause-” and his eyes search hers for a moment, as he decides how honest he’s going to be, “-for doubt.” The admission is suspended between them as he watches her reaction. Rey nods slowly, searching desperately for how to ask her burning question in a way that will keep him confessing and not make him clam up. She watches as he visibly decides not to say any more and replaces his mask of polite distance. “Do you have any last questions for me, Miss Rey? We’ve got three more sessions scheduled but we’ve still got a minute or two of this one left.”

Rey breaks out in a slight sweat, knowing she has to ask the question now or regret it. She hasn't figured out how to term it gently, so she just opens her mouth and spits it out: “Professor, you don’t have to answer this, but what...started all of this?" She doesn't want to invoke the word 'doubt' because he was so reluctant to say it a moment ago. It takes a second for her to think of maybe the right term to use. "What made you start asking questions?"

For the briefest moment, the polite mask is drawn away entirely and she can see the full depth of his anguish, but he smoothly sits back in his chair, almost entirely out of the halo of light. When he does speak again, his voice is measured. “I…” He stops for a long moment, then restarts, “One of my last students converted from Facio Lucis to Facio Tenebrae. We fought about it, just before he left.” His jaw works, but he doesn’t say the words. Finally, he adds, somewhat distantly, “Some of the things he said to me caused me to, as you say, ask questions.” He remains like that, shadowed and unreadable, for what feels like a long time, then shifts in his chair and adds wryly, “He wasn’t exactly feeling amicable for an exit interview, so I had to find the answers myself.”

He leans slightly back into the light and doesn’t smile politely at her, but he doesn’t seem as sad as before, maybe grimly determined. His only farewell gesture is a slight incline of his head. “Until next time, Miss Rey,” he says seriously, then leans forward and hangs up.

Chapter Text

Rey arrives at the library about ten minutes before it is due to open; despite her coat, she shivers in the morning chill. The parking lot is deserted at 8 am on a Saturday and the overcast sky drapes all things in a grey pallor. It isn’t yet finals week, so there’s only two or three people waiting for the doors to be unlocked. They all wait in silence, even when Security is seven minutes late to open the doors.

Once inside, Rey makes a beeline to the third floor. First floor is mostly service desks and special collections with no real place to study. Second floor is the designated quiet floor, with creakingly-hard chairs, worn-down carpet, drafty industrial ceiling, and groups of whispering strangers that make whatever study spot she chooses feel like a barren island in the middle of an uncrossable sea. No, she prefers the third floor, which has a plethora of well-stocked vending machines, a state-of-the-art computer lab, and rows of clear-plexiglass-walled study rooms with plush, comfortable chairs and plenty of outlets. The plexiglass walls block a lot of sound but aren’t soundproof, so there’s always a hum of human activity in the background. The cubicles are built for four people, so there’s enough room for her stuff without the room feeling empty when she’s in it. Plus, the plexiglass makes for a perfect whiteboard; she’s got a dry-erase marker in her bag for just that use. She finds a study room with a clean table and settles in.

To her surprise, the floor fills up quickly; there must be a big test coming up for one of the degree programs. Lots of people drawing funny hexagons and arrows, from what Rey can tell. Lots of enthusiastic debate between groups.

She’s idly watching one such debate through the plexiglass after lunch, wondering if Security is going to be called this time, when a knock comes from the door. Startled, she looks over and sees none other than Kylo Ren, looking well-rested with eyeliner to perfection, flanked by a dour-faced ginger dressed in a sharp suit and a silver-haired giantess dressed casually but exuding an air of lazy, regal menace. After a moment, Rey recognizes the ginger: he’s (a more-caffeinated version of) the guy Kylo always sits with in class - his compulsion to dress like a business student makes him stand out like a sore thumb. Before she can look closer at the giantess her eyes meet Kylo’s (open and unguarded, makeup again hiding nothing from her) and it’s like electricity jumps between them. Rey hopes she isn’t blushing as Kylo opens the door and asks, “Can we sit in here? It’s crowded this morning.” When she doesn’t answer immediately, he adds self-consciously, “We won’t bother you.”

Rey realizes she is staring and jumps a little; she waves them in, nodding and hurriedly moving her stuff out of the way. Kylo takes the chair next to her, the ginger sits across from her, and the giantess takes the diagonal.

“We are indeed lucky, Ren, that you have a single friend in this stars-forsaken world,” the ginger says, with the driest snark Rey has ever heard, as he pulls some notebook paper from his incredibly stylish bag. “If we had to sit with the freshmen again, I might have had to kill someone. Or had you do it, with your relaxed Sith morals and all.” He says this in such a way that is both deriding and half-joking.

Kylo merely rolls his eyes, and Rey can’t tear her gaze away. This is the most relaxed she has ever seen him (well, without having an orgasm first she thinks, and then very deliberately turns away from that line of thought, again praying her face didn’t turn red). Kyo turns to her, ghost of a smirk on his face, and gestures to the ginger. “Rey, this is His Royal Majesty Emperor Hux. Don’t worry, he always sounds like an ass, it’s nothing personal.” Ah, the infamous frenemy Hux, Rey thinks. The ginger gives Kylo a disdainful, try harder next time look, then turns to her and says, “Charmed, I’m sure,” in a way that is somehow haughty, bored, sarcastic, and genuinely polite, all at the same time. Before she can react, he continues in that same voice, “If you’re Ren’s friend, I’m sure you’ll be interesting enough for my time and company,” then holds his hand out to shake. Rey can’t figure out if that was an insult or a compliment but after a moment figures, what the hell, why not and shakes his hand.

“This is Phasma,” Kylo continues, gesturing to the giantess. “She’s full-ride, on the track team. A bit of a celebrity.”

She gives Kylo a withering look, even as her face gleams a little with mischief, replying archly, “I suppose I should be flattered by your modesty on my behalf,” then smiles genuinely at Rey, in a way that is friendly but somewhat predatory, as they shake hands. “The track program wouldn’t be shit without me and everyone knows it,” she says to Rey bluntly (and with that look in her eyes, Rey believes every word of it), still smiling, teeth glinting like a shark’s, “but it is nice to be occasionally appreciated for my brains instead of my brawn,” and she winks conspiratorially. Rey immediately likes her.

“Please, um,” Rey has to clear her throat because she hasn’t spoken at all today until now, “please call me Rey.” The two nod politely in reply.

Rey’s expecting the group to take a while to settle in, talk amongst themselves as they bring themselves to study, but that doesn’t happen. As promised, the trio is indeed quiet and studious to boot, which Rey appreciates immensely. Aside from Kylo (pulling at her attention like a private gravitational field), they could be be four strangers studying in the same space, which Rey much prefers over being the stranger next to three friends. The hum of the library around them is a lovely cocoon, and the time seems to pass at just the right pace.

0*****0

In the late afternoon, someone taps on the cubicle door: Rey looks up, and Poe is standing there with that friendly look on his face, book bag slung handsomely over one shoulder. BeeBee is sitting next to him, adorable. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Hux look up, and stiffen slightly. She glances at him: he looks like he just bit into a rotten lemon.

As Rey looks back to Poe, he opens the door and waves a little, as if they’re friends who haven’t seen each other in a while. “Saw you studying, just wanted to say hi. How’s it going?”

“Oh, not too bad, getting a lot of work done,” Rey says politely. And then, because people going out of their way to say hello are a rarity, and she wants to at least make an effort, she says the first thing she can think of: “I picked up some excellent study buddies.”

Poe looks around the room at that, still smiling charmingly. Rey can see out of her periphery the ginger and the giantess give him stiff nods in reply.

“We’ve met, I think. Hugs, right?” Poe asks with charismatic uncertainty, pointing at the man.

The ginger’s facial expression and vocal tone could cut glass. “Hux, actually.”

Poe nods, seemingly unfazed, and looks to the giantess. “Hey, Phas. Good job at your last meet, I heard we swept ‘em away. Too bad about your fall though. But they did well enough without you, and that’s what matters, right?”

Phasma smiles, but Rey can tell that it’s not nearly as genuine as earlier today. “Thank you,” she replies, politeness brittle.

Poe’s gaze turns to Kylo, and some of his charm morphs to polite reserve. “Ben,” he greets.

Thinking nothing of it, Rey looks over at Kylo, and the sight of him makes her start a little. He’s leaning forward slightly in his chair, holding himself perfectly still except for his jaw, and Rey can literally hear his teeth grinding.

“My name is Kylo,” he replies, with the sheerest veneer of calm. The room seems to get colder.

“Oh, right, my bad,” Poe says, and beneath his regained charm now lies a layer of something Rey can’t quite identify, but knows it’s unpleasant. “Emo Ben.” And he shakes his head, as if he made an honest mistake. “I’m sorry, my bad, Darth Tantrum. Oh, I’ll get it right one of these days.” Poe looks around the room again as if oblivious to the palpable outrage of nearly every occupant. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally found some friends. Hope you aren’t too hard on them.”

Phasma speaks up at that. “I rather think it is us who are hard on him, Dameron.” Rey can hear that her civility is now very forced, maybe slightly terrifying.

Rey doesn’t understand what is going on right now, but she would very much like for it to end. She’s sweating profusely and her body is made of lead, not allowing her to move in any significant way except for breathing.

Poe laughs, like he and Phasma are good friends, just chatting away. “Good, he needs that,” and Rey can hear his derision. “Friends were never his strong suit. Well, keeping friends, anyway.” Poe focuses on Rey again, and her terrible foreboding crescendos as he says with audible contempt, “But I guess that’s what happens when you’re a Sith.”

Everything happens at once: Kylo jumps out of his chair and is at the door in a heartbeat, grabbing Poe’s jacket with the obvious intent to beat the shit out of him. Simultaneously, Hux and Phasma are out of their chairs and Rey watches as Kylo gets one good hit in (the sound of fist-meeting-face makes Rey jump from shock, unconscious reflex being the only movement she can manage) before Hux grabs Kylo from behind and bodily pulls him away. Poe is bleeding - Rey can see it just before he reflexively reaches up to press against his injury - but Phasma steps in the way before she can see anything else. Rey realizes that the giantess is blocking Poe from Kylo’s line of sight as well.

Poe says loudly, “Not like this hasn’t happened before, Phas, I’m used to it by now.” Rey can see Phasma move her arm - to clap it onto Poe’s shoulder, sounds like - and speak in a voice that forbids dissent: “Let’s get you an ice pack, Dameron.” She maneuvers Poe out of the doorway and out into the isle. As Rey watches them walk away, BB trailing behind, she realizes that people are staring at their cubicle. She knows, logically, they’re staring at Kylo trying to break away from Hux’s iron grip, or at Poe’s injury, but it feels like they’re all staring right at her.

“Fucking breathe, Ren,” Hux is saying through gritted teeth, hair now in disarray. “Pull yourself the fuck together. You know the only reason he came over here is to rile you up.”

His words are a punch to Rey’s gut, and she’s still reeling as Hux finally releases Kylo so he can pace around the cubicle to vent his agitation. Poe used her presence as an excuse to open the door and talk shit. She should have known. She feels like she’s encased in lead and plunging downwards, to depths unknown, no end in sight.

By the time Phasma returns, alone, Kylo has calmed down enough to sit back down in his chair, and the three return to their former spots. As if by unspoken accord, Phasma and Hux start packing their notes up. Kylo doesn’t move except to breathe evenly, face grotesque with the effort of calming back down. Rey sees Hux notice that Kylo hasn’t started gathering his things: he just sits and blinks for a second like he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

Do get a move on,” Hux commands impatiently after a moment of staring, “before security gets here, Ren, if you don’t mind?” Kylo glances at him resentfully but reaches down for his book bag and unzips it.

After another moment of silence, Phasma shakes her head at no one in particular. “You’d think that Jedi Temple would teach him some manners,” she gripes, incensed, as she fiddles with her notes irritably. “I wouldn’t think you’d have to take monastic vows to be taught some decency.”

“Trust me, Phasma,” Kylo replies, and they’re the bitterest words Rey has ever heard him say, “being a Jedi has nothing to do with treating others well.”

Into the silence following that statement, Rey’s alarm beeps, and it almost makes her jump out of her chair. She has to check her watch because she can’t believe it: it’s time for her to go to work.

“Um,” she says, desperately trying to find a way to salvage this whole situation, “It was lovely studying with you all, but I have to go to work now.” Kylo glances at her briefly and nods slightly, but the other two don’t so much as look at her. All of Kylo’s former levity is gone; she can’t read him at all. Rey waits for a moment, but no one replies (she’s still sinking, borne down by the weight). She’s now officially the odd man out in this group, one stranger beside three friends. The sensation is just as terrible as she remembers. It isn’t a relief when they leave before she can pack her things away.

Outside, the weather has only gotten worse: the overcast sky was bad enough, but now the dark is early due to rainclouds. It’s only sprinkling when she exits the library, but by the time she’s halfway across the nearly-vacant parking lot, the rain is steady and cold. She knows from experience that none of the buildings are open but she tries every shortcut across campus anyway. (Everything is locked up tight.) Her shoes are soaked and she’s openly shivering by the time she gets to the bus stop. It’s a small relief to take shelter under the plexiglass roof: she’s cold down to her bones and the wind is starting up. The rain is heavy when she looks out from her shelter; there isn’t a single soul on the whole street besides her. She might as well be the only person on Earth.

When she lived in the desert, she ached to see rain, loved how it brought strangers together in solidarity beneath awnings and umbrellas. Now, it feels like she lives in the rain and can feel nothing but hollow, gasping hunger for dry shoes, warm air, and the crowds happily enjoying fair weather. She thinks about the near future, compounding her misery: the thermostats in the dorm are locked, so it’ll be cold when she gets back from work. If the water heaters are working, there might be hot water in the showers, but there’s no way to depend on that comfort. She wishes she had time to go out and buy the thickest, fluffiest, knee-high socks she can find. She wishes the dorms allowed space heaters. She wishes she could pile three quilts on Kylo’s bed and curl up beneath them, the little spoon with his arm around her waist.

Abruptly, she despises the lot of it: the imbecile, ugly rain; the damp, clammy cold; the empty, darkening street; the bus, which is late; and the feeling that Kylo doesn’t really care to ever speak to her again.

She isn’t going to cry.

She isn’t going to cry.

She…

She cries. It doesn’t make her feel any better.

Chapter Text

On Monday morning, Rey sits in her normal seat, staring deliberately at the whiteboard and nowhere else. Despite her efforts, she knows when Kylo sits in his new spot two rows behind her. She’s tired, which is making her grumpy, and his seeming refusal to sit with her is multiplying her irritation. He either needs to go back to his old seat, ask to sit with me, or invite me to sit with him, she grouses to herself, wondering if her eyes will eventually drill holes in the whiteboard. But she doesn’t dare do anything: discretion is definitely feeling like the better part of valor today.

When class is (finally, finally!) over, Finn crosses into her field of view as Kylo’s presence behind her lessens (it’s irrational to feel like she can telepathically follow his movements, so the sensation manages to irritate her further.) She pastes on a smile for Finn.

“Hey, peanut,” he greets her when he’s close enough (and the nickname is a balm she shamelessly sponges up). “Ready for group time?” After she nods and starts packing up her things, he adds, “I don’t have to work today so I’m planning on going to the caf after, maybe study there after I’m done eating.”

Rey mentally reviews her schedule. “May I join you?” she asks, and Finn nods, looking pleased, like he wanted her company but was too nervous to ask.

0*****0

Poe is already in the study room, trenched into his seat with a halo of study materials on the table around him. “I slept in so I skipped,” he explains at Rey’s questioning look. His cheek is bruised an ugly, swollen greenish-purple, and Poe sees her notice the damage.

“I’ve had worse,” he says to her, reaching up a hand to press on it slightly, wincing at the touch. “Especially from him.”

Rey wants to say, at least you weren’t surprised when the provoked beast bit you! but keeps her mouth firmly shut.

“His anger has always gotten the best of him,” Poe says then looks from her to Finn. “That asshole Kylo Ren,” he clarifies, and looks back at Rey. “I went over there to see if you were okay. Wouldn’t put it past him to pick on somebody like you.”

Rey very, very deliberately keeps her mind from what Kylo looked like handcuffed to the headboard, writhing with pleasure beneath her. She barely stops herself from hissing at Poe, “I don’t need your kriffing help!” Instead, she smiles at him politely, sits down in a chair, places her backpack on the floor, and leans down farther than strictly necessary to rifle intently through the bag as if she’s lost something. BeeBee’s lounging on the floor, watching her lazily, and Rey ignores her.

“In his defense, though, I think he has gotten better,” she can hear Poe muse, above the table. “I mean, he got kicked out of his first college for getting into a literal, physical fight with his advisor - who happens to be a bigwig at that institution, by the way - and the only reason he didn’t get a big, black mark on his record is his mommy is rich and politically powerful. I cannot even imagine how his mother kept Snoke - the advisor he fought with, sorry - from pressing charges against him.”

Poe’s mostly ranting to Finn now, which means she’s off the hook. What a relief. When Rey feels like she’s gotten herself under control, she starts putting her things out on the table.

“On the other hand,” Poe continues, oblivious, “guys like that don’t really change. I mean, that anger doesn’t ever go away. I feel sorry for anybody who might take a liking to Mr. Ben Tall-Dark-and-Brooding if he ever starts dating.” (Rey does not allow herself to think about that statement.) Poe leans forward and jabs his finger into the tabletop for emphasis: “The truth is, people who are that angry will eventually turn their anger on you.

“Was there anything that seemed to make him angry?” Finn asks with polite interest, actually participating in the conversation, which is honestly more sporting than Rey can be. She wishes for a white-hot moment that he’d kept his kriffing mouth shut.

“Everything!” Poe bursts out, letting loose to his seemingly-receptive audience. “And what in the hell did he have to be angry about? Nothing! He’s practically fricking royalty. All the money you could ask for,” Poe holds up a hand and ticks off on his fingers: “healthy, caucasian, cis, het, and male.” He jabs his finger in the air: “Two parents who loved him to death. And, until a few years ago,” he emphasizes with a jab to his right, presumably indicating the past, “he was the most devout Jedi you could find anywhere, being trained by the finest. He got the best education money can buy. None,” hand sweeping imaginary papers off an invisible table, “of that was good enough for him. And don’t even get me started about…!” The door opens, and Poe pauses to see who it is.

It’s Jessika. She pauses in the doorway, looking at them with concern. Immediately, she asks, with an edge of panic: “Poe, what the hell happened to your face?!” Poe shrugs in reply, to which she rolls her eyes. Then, she asks with suspicion directed at no one in particular: “Is this an argument or is Poe ranting?”

“Ranting,” Poe answers amicably, drawing away his angered conviction like a veil. “You’re right on time, I was just getting started.”

Jessika puts her backpack down on the table. “What are we ranting about today?” she asks conversationally, unzipping the bag and pulling out her laptop.

After a beat, Poe answers, “Kylo Ren,” somewhat abashedly. Jessika gives him a not-so-longsuffering look.

“We’ve been over this, Poe,” she chides him, not-so-gently. “I hate that guy as much as anyone else, but ruminating is not healthy. Just because you are the gayest man alive and used to have a crush on him doesn’t mean you get to be judge and jury.”

Poe slouches in his chair a bit. “I did not have a crush on him!” After a moment of pouting, he sees Finn and Rey staring at him incredulously. He squints at them. “Didn’t I mention I’m gay?” They shake their heads. "Oh. Well, congrats, now the invisible closet has been drawn from your eyes. I expect a party,” he says with such deadpan sarcasm that Rey can’t actually tell if he’s joking about the party or not.

Jessika sighs, rolling her eyes, and sits down at her laptop. “Don’t let him bully you,” she says to Rey and Finn. “He still hasn’t mentally moved out of his hometown, where he’s Out to everyone and their great-grandma.” Satisfied the machine is waking up, she looks up at Rey. “Not to change the subject,” she begins pointedly, doing just that, “but my friends and I are having a girls’ night on Friday. It’s a potluck, so bring whatever food you want to share. Bring a friend, if you want. Booze, same.” She smiles genuinely. “We’d love to see you there. It’s super chill. It’s a lot of good people from all different programs.”

Rey nods in thanks, too stunned to speak. Jessika smiles wider. “Good. I’ll email you the address.”

“When are you going to start inviting guys to that, Jess?” Poe complains, making very handsome puppy-dog eyes at her. “What’s-her-name makes the best dessert and there’s never any leftovers!”

Jessika frowns at him, unimpressed. “When I roll over in my grave, Poe. Are we going to work on this project or what?”

Chapter Text

The project is tedious but hopefully making slow progress (and Poe is, thankfully, staying on-topic). Rey doesn't know where they are in the outline because she can barely focus. She got invited to a party. The last time she was at a party, at someone’s actual house was her last sleepover in middle school. Never again being invited to anyone’s sleepovers was mostly her fault - she’d shown up to her last one in clothes that were visibly more ill-fitting and shabbier than the other girls’, and one of the Queen Bees had chosen that night to inform her that she needed to ‘learn what deodorant is’. It hadn’t ended well, to say the least, for either Rey’s reputation or the Queen Bee’s nose.

Rey hopes that this party will be different in several key ways, most notably: adults can (sometimes) manage their cruelty better than children can. Also, more importantly, she can leave the party whenever she wants, which would’ve been the best solution to the catastrophe of her final sleepover. With these positives, her delight at the word ‘potluck’ definitely overrides her trepidation concerning the party itself.

They’d had potlucks at the repair shop, so that’s what Rey imagines: a battered folding table piled high with delicious, mushy foods in a variety of chipped casserole dishes. She’s really looking forward to that - just thinking about it now is making her stomach grumble. What she can’t imagine is what the guests will look like. Surely they won’t dress up really fancy (and Rey would prefer to be underdressed than over-dressed). Would it be stupid to ask Jessika what she should wear? In any case, it’s not like she can go out and buy a ‘disguise’: she doesn’t have the money and, even if she did, she doesn’t know what to get to blend in. If she listens to her worry and entertains the worst-case scenario, the guests will be a crowd of perfectly-styled bleach-blondes, glittery nails immaculate, dressed in form-fitting sweaters, sculpting leggings, and brand-new Ugg boots. But even being in a group of people like that might not be so bad: as long as people can be civil to her face, she doesn’t care what they think about her or say behind her back. She can tolerate a lot of unpleasantness if the food is good, too.

Rey has almost calmed down and tipped the scales from ‘nervous’ to ‘excited’ when it occurs to her she has no idea what food she’s going to bring.

Finn interrupts her venture into this new realm of worry by nudging her arm. When she looks up, he first glances and Poe and Jessika, makes sure they aren’t watching, and makes an indecipherable series of faces at her. When she doesn’t respond, he repeats the motions with added emphasis.

She squints at him.

Finn makes a face of exasperation - that one she can interpret - but before he can go on, Poe looks up from his paper. Finn’s “of course I was paying attention” face is the best one she’s ever seen.

“Either one of you want to tackle this section?” Poe asks evenly, resigned to the tedium. There isn’t a hint of suspicion in his voice or on his bruised face that the two of them aren't paying a whit of attention. “It’s too boring for me and Jessika took the last one.”

“Um, I’ll take it,” Rey says, despite not having a blessed clue what she just volunteered for. “Just, uh, update the google doc.” Poe nods amicably and goes back to his paper.

The second his gaze is averted, Finn turns back to her and repeats the indecipherable look, then tries to mouth what he wants to say with too much exaggeration. Rey makes her best “I have no idea what you want!” face.

talk AFTER she scribbles on a piece of paper and quietly slides it to Finn. He rolls his eyes but desists.

By the end of the session, Finn is not-so-subtly vibrating at high frequency and Rey is sure he’s dying to say what’s on his mind. When she starts packing up her stuff, Finn starts making his excuses and hurries to be done packing when she is. They leave together, Rey carefully shutting the door behind them.

The exact second the door is shut, Finn turns to her and hisses as quietly and ecstatically as he can, “Did you hear that?! He’s gay! The gayest man alive!

His excitement is hilariously contagious: as they walk through the hall and down the stairs, Rey is fighting the giggles bubbling up.

Finn is fighting (and failing) to keep his cool. “I have a chance!

She rolls her eyes at him, even as she’s grinning. He mock-punches her shoulder. “I knew my gaydar wasn’t malfunctioning, little miss he’s probably married!"

You said that, not me,” Rey protests, trying for indignant but starting to lose the battle with her laughter.

“Well, I sure don’t remember you voicing any objections!” Finn retorts animatedly, trying to sound accusing but unable to keep the grin off his face.

“Yes, yes, congratulations, you win this round, well done,” she tells him, pretending to be irritably defeated, as they cross over the threshold into the gorgeous October midday. Finn can’t hold back anymore: he lets out a whoop of triumph so loud it echoes through the Quad. Rey can’t help it: she laughs, loudly and happily, even as passers-by stop and stare at them.

0*****0

They’re halfway to the caf when Finn turns to her, still glowing, and asks, “Have you ever seen Halloween? The movie, with young whatshername.”

“Isn’t that the one with the famous music?” she asks. “The guy with the mask?” When it comes to pop culture, she always had more time for written works than movies: neither her Uncle nor the library had a spare DVD player and monitor she was allowed to use.

Finn shrugs amiably. “R-rated movies aren’t allowed in the house, so I’ve never seen it. Mom found a copy at the thrift store and sent it in the box ‘to get into the halloween spirit’.” He grins at her. “I’m a little scared to watch it, honestly, but she sent a couple of others, too, and this one seems the least scary.”

Rey isn’t the biggest fan of Halloween the holiday, and thinking about it now dampens her mood a bit. Halloween always seemed like an excuse for all the shitheads to come out of the woodwork just to make more trouble for her. Their target was always Plutt, but she inevitably got caught in the crossfire. She can remember many nights of hiding in her closet, listening to the menacing rowdiness of hooligans outside, followed by frigid early mornings of cleaning egg off the siding, or trying to get toilet paper out of the trees without breaking any limbs (hers, or the trees’).

Scary movies in the company of a friend, however, seem like they might be fun. (And that word, friend, startles her for a moment before the embers flare up and she’s fighting the urge to smile like an idiot.) “I’ve never seen it before, either,” she replies. “Want to be scared together?”

Finn nods happily. "I can't wait to show you my setup!" He enthuses. "We're gonna have so much fun."

Chapter Text

Rey’s phone buzzes while she’s struggling through her powerpoint slides in a dark corner of the caf. It’s Rose.

The med students are batshit this evening: my contact up on their floor says that their first big round of tests is coming up. they’re going to be LOVELY all week >:-(

Rey sighs in frustration and resignation. “Fuck,” she says aloud.

Fuck, she messages Rose, but it doesn’t make her feel any better. She switches apps and opens her conversation with Kylo. For a long moment, her fingers hover over her phone screen, remembering the look on his face at the library, but in the end she forces herself to start typing. After everything, there should still be a modicum of amicability between them. (She hopes.)

Rey-of-Sunshine: (today 6:05 pm) the med students are going to be crazy tonight. You think there’s anywhere I can hide in the library so I can get some sleep?
Rey-of-Sunshine: (today 6:05) Those benches in the engineering building are comfy but security would find me too easy

She’s simmering over her presentation notes when she gets the reply.

Ben_the_Wren: (today 6:20 pm) I don’t know how thorough security is in the library but don’t chance it
Ben_the_Wren: (today 6:20) Just use my desk to study. Let me know when you’re coming over and I’ll clear it off for you

Rey stares at his reply. She feels…

Ben_the_Wren: (today 6:21) and we know my bed is big enough for both of us so there’s that

Then, a few minutes later, as the edge of her surprise is just starting to wear off:

Ben_the_Wren: (today 6:25) I’ve got a big test in a few days so you won’t even know i’m there besides my frustrated cursing

Rey laughs a little at that, relieved their rapport isn’t gone, hoping this means that they’re still friends (or whatever they’ve been up to this point).

She takes a deep breath.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 6:30) I’ll be in the caf until it closes then head over to yours

0*****0

She knocks on his door and after a few seconds, Kylo shouts something incomprehensible. She waits a moment, knocks again, and he shouts again. Feeling a little foolish, she tries the handle. The door is unlocked, so she pushes the door open.

He’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, leaning back against the wall. Open books, various papers, and a laptop are strewn haphazardly across the coverlet, precluding all but the most careful escape. His desk is startlingly clean; it takes her a second to see that the piles were moved to the floor on either side of the legs. “Sorry,” he apologizes distantly, gesturing to the mess around him by way of explanation. “Make yourself at home,” he says distractedly, pointing in the direction of the desk, focusing on the paper in front of him. She nods, not yet ready to speak; she watches him for a moment, trying to gauge his mood. He seems relaxed, maybe a little stressed about what she guesses is his upcoming test.

When she can’t stand it anymore, she blurts out, “I’m really sorry about Poe on Saturday.” His head snaps up to look at her properly.

He frowns in confusion at her for a moment, then visibly remembers. His face withdraws from half-hearted anxiety into a mask of simmering, almost resigned, anger. A muscle moves in his jaw and he looks away. “Wasn’t your fault,” he grits out quietly.

Rey blinks incredulously at him. “I’m the one Poe came over to talk to.”

Kylo gives her a squinting look as if her reaction is unexpected. “It had nothing to do with you.”

“What?”

“Poe is just an asshole who thinks he’s…” He visibly stops himself, presses his eyes shut, and takes a deep breath. “What do you know about Poe?” Kylo asks instead with fake-calm: irritably, pointedly, as if daring her to stand up for the man. Rey bristles.

“He’s very charismatic and can be really nice but he can really be an asshole at times. It’s really starting to piss me off, actually.” It feels good to say it.

Thank you! Kylo’s face proclaims in angry, relieved agreement. He replies aloud, his voice a sharp, bitter knife: “He’s a prick who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s never fucked anything up in his whole life.” He huffs out an angry breath but he’s a tiny bit calmer when he continues, “I could never understand why everyone likes him so damn much. People fall over themselves for him! My—“ and his speech hitches here, so slightly that Rey almost doesn’t catch it, “—Everyone adores him! But watch out if you don’t say what he wants to hear!” He rolls his eyes in irate frustration. “People think he’s so damn perfect but they don’t realize Poe has one loyalty: himself. He just does whatever the fuck he wants and people let him get away with it because he’s got a pretty face.”

Rey mentally files that evaluation away - if Poe needs to be managed in a group setting, she'd rather start that now than have to do damage control later. Her silence spurs Kylo on.

“He’s not even that original.” He mimics mockingly, with an exaggerated look of disdain: “Darth Tantrum.” He rolls his eyes, shaking his head and gritting his teeth. After a beat of rumination, he continues in his previous edge of anger: “Fuckwit. Everybody still thinks he’s soooo funny, all these years later.”

That makes Rey pause. “Funny?” she asks.

He rolls his eyes again, shrugging this time. “They never got used to my name so his irreverence,” he enunciates with an edge of sarcasm, “was always a riot.”

With his choice of words, Rey is even more confused. “What?” she asks. “Not used to your name?”

Kylo furrows his brow at her for a moment, as if her question is the last thing he expected her to ask. His puzzlement slowly morphs into a sort of uncertain, strained patience. “Kylo Ren is not the name on my birth certificate,” he explains gently, like he can’t believe he’s explaining something so well-known but he doesn’t want to offend by treating her like an idiot. “I changed it for religious reasons.”

Rey blinks at him. “…And Ben was your old name?” she ventures a guess.

“Yes,” Kylo replies simply, as if this were the most obvious thing in the universe.

At this moment, she remembers Poe’s parting shot: But I guess that’s what happens when…

“You’re Sith,” she realizes aloud. “Poe used that as an accusation because it was true.” Kylo’s expression is veiled, as if waiting for her to condemn him in kind and that’s all the confirmation she needs. Had she ever called him Ben to his face? She can’t remember, and she feels terrible. “Oh my stars, I had no idea. With your username, I didn’t realize…”

He sighs. “You haven’t done anything wrong,” Kylo mutters.

“Kylo,” she fires back in exasperation, “I cannot read your mind. If I’m doing something you don’t like, you need to tell me. Consent does not just apply to sex.” She takes a breath to calm down and her fervor is supplanted by awkwardness. She continues into the silence, aiming to make a joke, “It's the law.”

He looks at her like he can't tell if she was trying to make a joke or not, and didn’t think it was funny if it was a joke, but doesn’t want her to think he’s still angry. “That may be true, but...” he starts, awkwardly in the space of taking her literally and trying to extend the joke by playing the straight man.

“No 'buts'!” she insists, and shrugs her backpack onto the floor. “It's the law, and a damn good thing, too.” The awkward silence continues. Kylo shifts a little on the bed.

“Speaking of, um,” he clears his throat, “consent…”

“None of our Arrangement until further notice?” Rey anticipates. He nods a little, looking relieved when she nods too. “That sounds fine to me,” Rey agrees, “I really need to study. I’ve got a presentation in a few days that’s going to kick my ass, I can’t afford any distractions.” She sits down at the desk. “I wasn’t kidding about sleeping on the benches in the library, by the way, so thank you.”

He makes a guileless face. “Sleeping in the library would indeed be a shame after all the trouble I went through to clean off that desk.”

“Oh, yes, terrible trouble,” she replies with teasing sarcasm, pointing to the pile of junk he obviously lifted off the desk top and dropped straight down onto the floor. “I feel like we’re going to be evicted by the fire marshal at any moment.”

“I haven’t died yet,” he deadpans, turning back to his homework.

Rey drags her backpack over to the chair and starts digging through it. She still has so much left to do. It’s a little overwhelming. “I’m going to use your bathroom a sec,” she decides.

“You know where it is,” he replies, gesturing vaguely in its direction.

Last time she was in here, she was too hungover to really notice anything. This time, however, she has to stop in the doorway to take it all in. Every horizontal space has clutter on it. Her eyes track slowly around the room, attempting to make sense of it all. Hair products - bottles, cans, brushes - litter the counter. His hair dryer (!) is tied up on a towel bar, while the towels are draped over the shower curtain rod. The other towel bar has sweaty workout clothes she can smell from the doorway. Bottles of bathroom-cleaning products are crowded around the toilet. He’s got two bottles of shampoo and conditioner each in the shower, plus a few shower gels. Most amusing, however, are the tiny pencils of eyeliner crammed up between the junction of the sink and the mirror. All of them are different shades of dark brown or black.

“I’m amazed you can find any damn thing in this bathroom,” she comments dryly, which causes him to sigh and angle a glare in her direction.

“You come into my house…!” he begins to gripe, a light in his eye and a twitch of his cheek the only things giving him away, and Rey can’t help it. She laughs.

Chapter Text

Kylo doesn't know if he's going to regret impulsively inviting Rey over - it wouldn't be the first time he regrets making a snap decision, probably wouldn't be the last - but from what he knows this far, it should be alright. He doesn't ever use his desk except for storage, and she wasn't overly chatty when she studied with them at the library last weekend. The bed size shouldn't be a problem and she didn't snore when she was here before, so that's a plus. (Did it make him look like an idiot to bring up their arrangement? Will he regret that line in the sand? He tries not to dwell on it.)

After she gets out of the bathroom, Rey sets up her study things quickly and is quiet except for the click-clack of her keyboard and the occasional scratching of her pencil or eraser. Her single-minded focus is almost unnerving - it’s like he’s invisible to her. After a bit, he realizes he’s absurdly glad to be invisible: if she were paying attention to him, he wouldn’t really be able to focus on his work. Being observed is like having a real-time live camera feed of himself projected into his brain: when others are watching, every flaw, every hesitation, every fuck-up is magnified to the nth degree. Their gazes are demanding and he is always, always found wanting. It doesn't help that those gazes have been especially accusatory or cloying after his face got all torn to shit. Rey has been different, so far - his mind flashes to the look on her face the first time he kneeled before her - but the sensation of being truly, actually Seen isn't what he needs while he's trying to study for a test that might just kick his ass.

As he forces himself to refocus on his work, a couple of (probably freshmen) stomp-run down the hallway outside the door. Rey mutters under her breath at the disturbance but doesn't otherwise react; absolute silence is left in their wake. It feels strange to have someone else in his space and it be so quiet; maybe next time he’ll turn on some music. He’ll have to remember to ask what she likes.

0*****0

By 11, he can barely keep his eyes from crossing and that’s his cue to be done for the night. Quietly, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, he grabs the clothes he wants to sleep in from the footboard - he almost forgets to check but they smell fine, it'll be fine - and slips into the bathroom.

As he wearily brushes his teeth, leaning against the sink with his back to the mirror, the sheer novelty of he and Rey's conversation finally dawns on him: she hadn’t known he was catenae comminutus, chains-broken, freed from his past. Not only that, but she probably doesn't know about the string of events that led to and resulted from that decision. It's mind-blowing, almost beyond belief. At this point of his life, it feels like people take one look at him and just know, as if there’s a secret message hidden in his scar and his eyeliner, as if the Skywalker Family Drama is household gossip that parents worldwide introduce to their children When They're Old Enough. The roiling, unending disdain of his community when he declared himself chains-broken had felt completely absolute, completely ubiquitous. Up until the exact moment he saw horror bloom across Rey’s face because she thought she’d (unknowingly!) insulted him, he’d unreservedly believed that no matter where he went, no matter what he did, the hatred of his choice would follow him like he was wearing it as a cloak. Everything after - well, during and after The Accident - paled in the face of his first unforgivable decision.

It was one thing for his therapist to say his community had been uniquely set against him because it was a small town, Kylo’s relatives were famous Lucians, and anti-Tenebrian sentiment can be very vehement in more conservative Lucian communities. It was something completely different to see the truth for himself: not everyone in the world automatically thinks he made the worst decision he could have ever made. It doesn’t matter if Rey assumes he’s Sith - the nomenclature debate got tiresome even when he was still passionate about it - what does matter is that she realized he was chains-broken and didn’t reflexively grimace in distrust. She had, in fact, apologized for using his old name, and had apologized genuinely. And the cherry on top of the whole sundae: she doesn’t think the sun shines out of Poe Dameron’s ass.

The wonders might never cease.

He spits, rinses, then gargles some mouthwash because he has a guest. The scar cream only takes a moment to apply and he forgoes the rest of his usual nighttime skin routine out of exhaustion (and, truthfully, because he doesn't want to find out how Rey would react to it). He quickly changes into his sleeping clothes, avoiding his reflection with ease. Rey doesn’t so much as look up when he exits.

“Ok if I turn the light off?” he asks belatedly, hand already on the switch. Rey starts a little, looks around at him, visibly focuses on the present.

“Desk lamp?” she asks in return.

“It's…” he starts, pointing, and she reaches up and turns it on. He's glad the lighbulb works; that's something he should've checked before she came over.

He flips the switch, crawls into bed, and, remembering her preference from the last time, leaves the space by the wall empty. Rolling away from the light so it won’t keep him up, he realizes that if this continues through the semester, he’ll need an eyemask.

“Night,” he mumbles, wondering if it’s more polite to say something or be quiet.

“M-hmm,” Rey hums distantly.

He falls asleep in the silence between her typing and turning the textbook pages.

0*****0

He drifts awake sometime in the early morning - he can tell because the traffic outside is especially quiet - and his desk light is still on. He squints blearily. Rey’s still sitting at his desk; as he watches, she turns from the textbook to scribble on something, then back.

“What are you doing?” he slurs, clumsy with sleep. Rey starts a little and turns in his chair to look at him.

“I’ve still got a half hour to study,” she whispers to him, and he isn’t quite sure what that means. She must see the question on his face and she smiles a little. “Go back to sleep,” she whispers, and turns back to her work.

He turns over and drifts in and out due to the light of the desk lamp. Just as he starts to dream, he can feel Rey climb over him to her side of the bed and the movement startles him awake again. The desk lamp is off. As she settles in, he twists towards his nightstand and tilts his phone to where he can read it.

“Two a.m.?” he asks in tired bewilderment. Rey just hums at him. He can’t see her in the dark but she sounds exhausted.

“I have a good routine,” she says, and yawns so hard her jaw pops. “Go back to sleep.”

Somehow, he does.

(The next morning, her phone blares at 7 am sharp and she climbs clumsily over him (jostling him into irritable half-wakefulness) making muted-but-furious sounds until she gets the alarm turned off. As she moves through the room, he dozes lightly through the mostly-unbroken silence. Wakefulness spikes when he hears what sounds like backpack zipper close.

“Where are you going?” he asks blearily into the morning darkness. He can hear her pause.

“Breakfast,” she answers, not whispering but very quiet. “The caf just opened. I’ll wait for you, if you want?”

She’s insane, he decides as he turns over, pulling the covers up over his head. If this is some 'bird getting the worm' bullshit, they're going to have a serious discussion. Later. For now, he replies, "No, thank you," as sarcastically as he can manage, knowing full well he's muffled by the sheets and not caring a bit. She laughs quietly, and, before he can react, she plucks the covers away, just enough to fiddle with his hair playfully, her nails scratching delightfully against his scalp.

“Sleep well, lazybones,” she says, smile in her voice, drawing her hand away. In a moment his door opens, then closes, gently prevented from slamming shut. There’s nothing but silence left behind.

He falls back asleep, scalp still tingling from her touch.)

Chapter Text

As Rey skims through her notes from the previous conversation with Professor Skywalker, she’s grateful the library is quiet around her. She’s hidden away in a back corner of the fourth floor, which is the only floor that has physical books on shelves, out for anyone to browse through. It makes her feel like a kid again, to be sheltered by the silent walls and their musty, intriguing bricks. She searched out the best spot to make the call and decided on this one: the area is both out-of-the-way and devoid of eavesdroppers, which makes it less likely she’ll be overheard, interrupted, or chastised for taking a skype call in public. (This isn’t technically a quiet floor but they do have some stereotypical librarians on staff here; also, Rey hates people who make cell phone calls in public.) She didn’t want to go all the way back to the dorm just to take the call, especially when the library has the best internet connection on the whole campus.

She took the time to find a private spot because of what Professor Skywalker admitted last time: doubt. Rey is so curious about that she feels like she could burst. The cynical part of her isn’t all that surprised: being cautious while fighting monsters, voids staring back, and all that. He was canonized as a young man and now he’s, as they say, lived long enough to be the villain. But that’s what her less-cynical side wants to know: is he the villain? He lost a student to the Factio Tenebrae, started asking questions, and began to doubt what he’d been taught -- but what happened next? How is he reacting to his doubt? Lately, Rey’s been perusing ex-Jedi blogs online to procrastinate her studying; it seems there are a few common reactions to religious doubt, and Rey doesn’t know which one Professor Skywalker is going through. The most common initial reaction described online is doubling down on one’s beliefs and ignoring the doubt as best as one can. Rey doubts this is what he’s doing: he’d readily, honestly agreed with her when she criticized the Jedi Council, which is the opposite of ‘double down and ignore’.

Obviously her sample size is biased, but the other most common reaction (sometimes initial, sometimes happening after the doubling-down doesn’t exorcise the doubt) is to leave the Jedi religion entirely, to ‘deconvert’. In the past, most people deconverted from Jedi to Sith to None, but now data shows the ‘Nones’ are on the rise, bypassing any alternate religious sect entirely.

To boil it all down, Rey is dying of curiosity to know if Professor Skywalker is planning on leaving the Jedi religion. High-profile Jedi have deconverted before, but still. It’s rare. In any case, feeling the desire to leave might explain his depressed demeanor. Her morbid curiosity is wondering if his works would be struck from canon, humiliating public academic inquiries conducted, retaliation on the part of the Jedi Council enacted. The compassionate side of her worries about the toll such a ordeal would take on the old man’s health.

So, with all of that in mind, she’s in a quiet, private corner of the library in an attempt to protect him as best she can - she wants (needs!) to ask about his doubt but she doesn’t want anyone else but her to hear the answer.

Now she’s just got to figure out how to ask.

Her Skype rings, she answers. As anticipated, the picture quality is much better this time: she can see a lot more detail of the Professor’s office. There might be a little more light in the room, too. His robes are a lighter color of grey and it makes him look less unkempt than before, maybe a tiny bit less weary.

“Today,” she begins after their polite greetings are done, “I was hoping to ask you what you think the difference between Lucian and Tenebrian philosophy is.”

Professor Skywalker’s eyebrows betray his surprise, but there’s another emotion on his face Rey can’t immediately identify. As he hesitates, thinking, Rey jumps to making her case: “The difference between Jedi and Sith is something that people think is really obvious but isn’t actually addressed in religious canon. As we discussed last time, the Sith are scapegoated but what they are isn’t really well-defined. There isn’t actually a set of rules that draw a line in the sand, like, cross this line and you are no longer Jedi, but Sith! It’s more just a lot of admonitions to not fall to the Dark Side, Yoda being the most-quoted on the subject.”

She’s taking a breath, looking towards her notes when the Professor quotes, unprompted, “The path to the Dark Side,” and the vitriol in his voice is alarming. She looks up in surprise and there’s palpable, bitter anger creasing his face, anguish pulling the edges of his mouth down. She can actually see him struggling to regain his composure as he stares at the plain wood of his desk. She has no idea how to react.

Finally, she takes a deep breath and replies quietly, matter-of-factly, “Yes.” She lets the ripples of that fade, and Professor Skywalker manages to rebuild a bit of his former calm. She continues: “Your theological emphasis was in Yoda’s teachings, and that’s the school of thought you trained your padawan in. Yoda’s teachings form the basis of how Lucians think about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy. Obviously, I’m not the expert, but I don’t feel that it’s a stretch for me to say that Yoda was very much of the opinion that the Sith were morally abhorrent, that Tenebrian teachings were inherently and unavoidably harmful to those who practiced them and the people around those practitioners.”

The Professor nods in an attempt at equitable agreement. The anger, the bitterness are still there, barely muted.

Rey mentally squares her shoulders. "Last time, you shared with me…” and she can see the trepidation flare up in his eyes. She hopes she’ll get the wording right, continues delicately, “…that you might be challenging this way of thinking." Gratitude that she didn’t use his own words aloud is plain as day on his face. She summarizes, “I was hoping to ask you if your more-recent research has challenged what you were taught about the difference between Jedi and Sith, or how you feel about the dark side, or Yoda's teachings in general. If you're comfortable with that.”

Professor Skywalker takes an audible, calming breath, and asks lightly, “Miss Rey, do you know the full name for Tenebrian philosophy? The old, Latin name.”

Rey tries not to think of this as a non-sequitur and answers amicably. "Factio Tenebrae.”

“Do you know why it’s called that? Where the name came from?”

“I was of the understanding that it was because it convened with or was concerned with the Dark Side of the Force. I thought it’s Latin for the Dark Side.”

The professor bows his head slightly in half-agreement. “You’re mostly correct. The word tenebrae is actually Latin for ‘opaque’ or ‘obscure’. Factio Tenebrae was named by Lucian scholars - history is written by the victors, after all,” he adds wryly, “-and they chose the word “obscure” because they didn’t know anything about the intensely secretive opposing faction they were naming. That lack of knowledge has yet to be,” and he pauses to choose his words, “significantly corrected in the leadership of the Lucian community.” Rey tries not to visibly react to this statement as the Professor studies her for a long moment. Finally, he says, “Miss Rey, in our previous discussion, you noted that you are neither Lucian nor Tenebrian. As a, shall we say, neutral observer, what would you judge the difference between Jedi and Sith to be? No wrong answers."

Chapter Text

Rey suddenly wishes they’d agreed on their questions beforehand so she could’ve studied. “Well,” she starts slowly, “if I had to choose practical differences, differences visible to a layperson like me…”

Then, just when she starts to panic, it comes to her: “The differences between the Codes is a big one. I can never remember if the Sith came about as a reaction to the Jedi or vice versa, but the Codes start out as a direct rebuttal of the other: ‘There is only peace’ vs ‘peace is a lie’. They branch out after the first line and are completely different thereafter. The Jedi Code, as a whole, is an affirmation of balance; the Sith Code is more like a chain-reaction, highlighting how one goes from being powerless to to the goal being one’s own master, culminating in ‘breaking the chains’.”

The Professor nods and Rey tries to dredge up anything to talk about, to give herself time to think of something better. “Um, we talked last time about the fact that there are more Lucians than any other Force sect.” Rey has a thought and she brightens. “Ooh, here’s a good one: education!” Professor Skywalker raises his eyebrows and nods in approval as Rey elaborates to buy herself time: “Lucians have historically been, for the most part, the impetus behind most of the older institutions of education. They fund orphanages and primary schools and secondary schools and most of the old colleges in Europe and teaching monasteries and so many things I can’t think of right now. Needless to say, it’s a lot. Contrast that with Sith teaching: the Sith have historically believed that knowledge is like poison, not fire. It was explained to me that they believe that knowledge is diluted as more people possess it. I’m under the impression that this is going away, but traditionalists still hold to it. Like, older Sith Masters will only take one padawan at a time, and they usually get into the ‘the student shall not possess a sliver of power’ thing.” Her mind is searching but nothing more is coming to her.

The Professor must see it on her face because he prompts, “You mentioned earlier that the Tenebrian goal is to be one’s own master.”

“Yeah!" Rey nods emphatically. "That’s a big one, thanks for reminding me. One way I’ve heard it described is that Lucians are taught to have a ‘slave mentality’ and Tenebrians have a ‘master mentality’, and I really think that’s a good, succinct way of putting it. You know, like, Jedi are taught to sacrifice oneself, Sith are encouraged to ‘bend the universe to their will’. Past Tenebrians of historical importance were generals, assassins, Napoleons. Jedi were ambassadors, emissaries, peacekeepers, bodyguards to important government figures.”

Then, Rey has a hint of a complex thought and she pauses.

“When you think about it,” she continues slowly, talking through it, “the power thing is a huge difference, but it’s more complicated than ‘Jedi abhor power’ and ‘Sith crave power’. Because there are many, many historical Jedi who have had positions of great authority, positions of power and privilege. There were Jedi generals, for example.” She pauses to think. “It’s more like, the way they think about power is different. Like, Tenebrians value gaining power, being their own masters, maintaining their own personal power and gaining power over others. Lucians throughout history have, for the most part, valued and upheld power structures that didn’t necessarily include them. They maintain others' power. Like, the Council sent Jedi Knights to negotiate treaties in other countries, or sent knights to protect other villages. That sort of thing.”

Professor Skywalker is watching her closely. “You feel there’s more to it,” he states.

The complex thought is blooming a little, and Rey decides to run with it. “The damning thing about it all,” she replies carefully, “is that for all their lofty ideals and impressive goals - guardians of peace and justice, remember - the Jedi don’t necessarily protect the vulnerable: they protect whichever group was most successful at persuading the Jedi council their cause was worthy.” She looks up to meet the Professor’s gaze straight on. “A more modern and, frankly, chilling example of what I mean: it is a documented fact that the Jedi temple supported and helped maintain slavery in the United States, then did the same for segregation after 1860. There were actual, published resolutions from the Council about the 'morality of slavery' and the importance of slaveholders, then 'the morality of segregation' and the importance of people who supported segregation. The Jedi temple was segregated seating until the law forbade it, then until they were forced to integrate. The slaveholders were wealthy and powerful, the slaves poor and vulnerable, and the Jedi council preserved that power structure deliberately. Yes, there were Jedi abolitionists, Jedi involved in the Underground Railroad and in the emancipation effort, but the Jedi Council possessed immense resources, even back then. Maybe even more than they do now, I don’t know. Regardless, if they had chosen to oppose slavery, the Underground Railroad wouldn’t have necessarily been needed. Maybe even the Civil War could have been avoided, who knows.”

Professor Skywalker is nodding solemnly. Eventually, he says, “You make a very good point, Miss Rey. I do remember the apology the Council issued in the 90s for supporting slavery so long, though I didn’t really understand the implications at the time - but I had never thought about it in the way you just described.” He looks up, meets her eyes, says evenly, “That would not be the first example of Lucian hypocrisy, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.” Rey nods soberly in response: she wasn’t going to say it but she sure isn’t going to disagree.

A moment of contemplative silence, then the Professor says, “Somewhat tangentially, as it doesn’t relate to the US, but I was reminded…I’ve been reading a lot of information about Tenebrian philosophy, history, and so on. I do find it interesting that the general consensus of Sith is that they, as you said, have a ‘master mentality’. In the information I’ve found, there's this very interesting disconnect between the start of many Siths' religious journey and the famous Sith that history remember. This may be biased as the body of surviving history is from Europe, but many, many Tenebrians whose writings or memoirs survive started out in positions of non-authority, positions of vulnerability: servants, slaves, coerced marriages, individuals at the mercy of societal injustices. There are so many historical Tenebrians who break their chains and go on to keep breaking others’ chains, and reading their writings, I wouldn't say they have a 'master mentality'. Many of history's famous Sith tyrants started out humbly. Somewhere along the line, their primary goal becomes to bring others into their power."

“Well, that’s just the nature of power,” Rey replies, after she has a second to think about it. “It’s like Consular Kreia said: ‘…Because all those who gain power are afraid to lose it’.”

He nods, agrees distantly, resignedly: "Indeed, the corruption of power."

Right when the silence stretches long enough for Rey to wonder if the call is finished, the Professor takes a deep breath, seems to shake off a bit of his lassitude, and says lightly, "Well, I suppose it's my turn: we're here to interview me, not you." Rey laughs a little at that and the Professor leans back in his chair with a contemplative air.

“Let me see - your questions were the difference between Jedi and Sith, and how research has changed my feelings toward the Dark Side and Yoda’s teachings in general.” He pauses for a moment, then nods slowly. “You are correct in assuming that research would change my opinion in all three of these areas. Since you asked them at the start of this call, I've been thinking about how to answer your questions, and I came to a realization that surprised me." He pauses and Rey nods in encouragement. "I hadn't thought about it before, but the answer to all three of these questions is connected. They all share a common element, are..." and he gestures vaguely with his hands, "tied up together. I'm trying to think about how to make a linear narrative out of it," he says ruefully, amusement in his eyes, "because it feels a little like Ouroboros: where do I begin?" He loosely steeples his fingers in front of his face and mulls it over for a moment.

"Well," he says finally, "if I am to, as the adage goes, 'start from the beginning', then I must say that we will start," and he looks up at her, the weight of pensive, honest seriousness on his face, "with the power of fear."

Chapter Text

Professor Skywalker leans back in his chair, hands folded. “It has recently occurred to me,” he begins, eyes serious and intense, “via all the research and thinking I’ve been doing in the last few years, that the way adherents think about fear is, firstly, hugely different between Lucians and Tenebrians, and secondly, a microcosm of the differences between them. Lucians teach that fear is something to be abhorred, rejected…avoided, at all costs. Tenebrians teach that fear can empower you, either to make yourself stronger or to make your enemies weaker.” He pauses for emphasis, then continues, “Fear, anger, hatred: this pattern follows for all of these emotions. Even before I…” and he looks at her, says carefully, “started asking questions I felt the need to investigate, this was a difference between Jedi and Sith that I was aware of, but didn’t know how to elaborate. If that makes sense.” Rey nods.

The Professor tilts his head in thought and continues, “As a Jedi Master, I’ve always taught - and as a Jedi, fully believe - that Yoda’s wisdom had two emphases: the power and ubiquity of the Force, and the corrupting power of fear.” Rey nods slowly when he makes a visual check that she's still with him. “What I, as a young man, learned from Yoda is that fear within ourselves is a corrupting influence and therefore we must work to rid ourselves of it. I like to think of it as pulling it up by it’s roots. What that means in a practical sense is investigating why I feel fear - what am I actually afraid of? Can that be avoided or averted? Or is my fear something primal and the outcome something to be accepted?”

It looks like he might be amenable to elaborate, so Rey asks, “Can you give me an example of that?”

For a moment, the Professor looks surprised, then thoughtful. “For instance,” he begins slowly, but increases speed as he talks, “when I was a very young man, my godparents were killed in a house fire. It was a freak accident and that made it even more terrifying to me. I would wake up in a panic that the house was going to burn down and all of us be unable to escape. I used to have nightmares about it all the time. Later, as someone trained in the Jedi way, I investigated that fear. It’s not entirely unfounded: house fires happen all the time. Well, fewer people smoke now, so it isn’t quite as common as it used to be, but the fact remains that it does happen. Sometimes it can be preventable: I have fire- and heat-sensitive fire detectors in my house and I test them diligently. I don’t keep flammables around my fireplace, and so on. However, preparedness doesn’t always calm the mind, so I had to dig deeper.” He thinks for a moment. “After a lot of self-reflection, I realized I was scared I’d be trapped inside the house and feel pain as I died. Practically speaking, most fears stem from the human instinctual fear of death. So, like any human, I was afraid of pain and death.” Rey nods in empathy. “Now, I had to decide how to react to this knowledge, and for a while, I didn’t have an answer. Totally by happenstance, I came across a book called Code of the Samurai. It’s a translation of a Japanese work from the Edo period called Bushido for Beginners or ‘how to be a warrior for beginners’. Have you heard of it?” Rey shakes her head. “I’d picked it up because a student had asked me about the history of Jedi being warrior monks, and I thought it would be interesting to see how a non-Facian culture taught their warriors.”

Lighthearted revelation blooms across his weary face. “You know, I can still remember the first time I read it - the very first section, it shook me…” he squints in thought. “I can never remember the full wording, let me go find it,” and the Professor heaves himself from his chair. Rey watches him search through the sparse bookshelves behind his desk. Eventually, she hears him utter a distant, triumphant, “Aha!” as he chooses a slim volume and returns to his chair. He has to rustle through some pages before he brightens a little and says, “Listen to this, Miss Rey,” he says, and begins to read reverently:

‘One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve. As long as you keep death in mind at all times, you will also fulfill they ways of loyalty and familial duty. You will also avoid myriad evils and calamities, you will be physically sound and healthy, and you will live a long life. What is more, your character will improve and your virtue will grow. Here are the reasons for that. All human life is likened to evening dew and morning frost, considered quite fragile and ephermal. While this is so of all people’s lives, the life of a warrior is particularly precarious.’

Professor Skywalker looks up at her and says apologetically, “It isn’t anything pithy, I always forget that there isn’t one sentence I can just point to and say, ‘There, that’s the heart and soul of it.’” He looks back down at the book and squints, running his finger down the page, “The writer goes through some examples, interesting but a little more tedious, they basically boil down to, ‘When you remember that death is inevitable, you are reminded to make your time count’…ah, here’s the conclusion:"

‘The idea is to take care of your public and private duties day and night, and then whenever you have any free time when your mind is unoccupied, you think of death, bringing it to mind attentively. It is said that in the great hero-'

"-I can’t pronounce his name, my apologies-"

'-in the great hero’s instructions to his son, he told him to “always get used to death”.’

He closes the book reverently then looks at her closely, his former seriousness returned. “Meditating upon that passage, I realized I didn’t need to 'bring death to mind attentively’: death was already on my mind. As I have gotten older, I feel the weight of death becoming heavier and heavier upon me. Things not yet finished, things unsaid, regrets that cannot be undone. Fear is a very powerful thing, as is regret, Miss Rey, and to uproot either one from one’s mind takes time and diligence.” He pauses, then explains, “Every time I’m anguished by those things, I must calm myself and ask myself, ‘can this be changed? or am I just causing myself needless pain?’ The things that cannot be undone I do my best to put behind me. I try to balance as much as possible: I work as hard as I can so that when my time does come, I am not full of regret; I also try to enjoy everything as much as I can, because my life isn't over yet.”

There’s something in his eyes Rey can’t identify. It doesn’t look like catharsis, which is what Rey would expect in this conversation. It looks instead like resolve and humility blended together and nearly eclipsed by sadness. There’s something specific he wants to do, Rey realizes several hours later, out of the blue. He has a regret, something he feels he needs to do, but maybe even his fear isn’t spurring him into action.

In the present moment, the Professor tucks the unnamable emotion away and continues thoughtfully, “Unlike fear and regret, death itself is like the burden of…well, gravity: a weight that cannot be shrugged off, just ignored. That isn’t like uprooting a weed. It’s like…” And the Professor has to think for a long moment, exhaling heavily. “I can’t think of a metaphor for it. The fear of death is too instinctual to be uprooted. Meditating on the passage I just read to you, I realized I needed to get used to the eventuality that I am going to die. In practice, I remember that I could die at any time and I breathe through my fear, meditate on the knowledge that I will someday not be alive to help bring my life into perspective. When I am afraid of fire, I remember my precautions, yes, but chief of all, I remind myself that I will die eventually, and if that’s how the Force wills for me to go, then that it how it will be whether I am afraid of it or not.”

He takes a moment for that thought to rest, then a modicum of amusement flits across his face. “Between you and me,” the Professor says lightheartedly, “the Jedi notion of sacrifice is born out of this fear of death: if one’s death has meaning, then it isn’t as terrifying.”

Rey nods slowly, absorbing that, and the Professor shifts in his chair. “To answer your original question, my research has been challenging my way of thinking, in that it has allowed me to contemplate more deeply Yoda’s teachings about fear and has given me some new understanding of them.”

Rey can see that Professor Skywalker isn’t sure he wants to say what’s on his mind, and she watches him silently weigh the decision, ultimately deciding to speak. “Yoda famously said,” he begins, “that fear is the path to the Dark Side. Through my research, through my contemplation, I eventually realized,” and he’s deadly serious now, “that the Jedi fear the Dark Side,” he’s meeting her eyes, unflinching against the seriousness of this statement, intent in conveying the truth, “that I myself fear the Dark Side.” After a moment, he lightens up infinitesimally, slips back into what Rey wants to call Lecture Mode: “Religious sensibilities aside, it makes sense from a psychology perspective: the Dark Side represents a loss of control that is antithesis to Jedi thought but also dangerous. We fear losing control because we don’t know how far that loss will go.”

He pauses to think, then continues, "I reminded myself that fear is antithesis to Jedi, then started asking myself how to not be afraid. First, I had to ask myself why I was afraid. It occurred to me, after some time, that I feared it simply because it was unknown to me. Many fears stem from the unknown, and so it was for me. They say the best weapon against fear is knowledge, so…” and he tips his head, eyebrows raised, to indicate his most logical form of action. “I am lucky to live in this modern age, where information is so easily obtained.”

“As I armed myself with knowledge, I realized that the Sith were more numerous than I had ever imagined, as I had grown up in a very sheltered environment and had been educated in a rather cloistered community. Sith were everywhere: in every state, in every city, in every income and education level, in every ethnicity. This revelation, at first, caused me to feel terror,” the Professor says evenly, looking directly at Rey, the weight of his honesty heavy upon him. “But, as the surprise wore off, so did my fear. I was surrounded by Sith in a prosperous country - they hadn’t brought the county to ruin, as I’d been taught. I was reading stories online that were so normal and relatable to me, except that a Sith was narrating them. They expressed the same desire for peace and justice that I feel, the same desire for the vulnerable to be protected and supported. These were devoted Tenebrians I was agreeing with, not ex-converts. It dawned on me that that there are so many people who take real comfort in Tenebrian teachings,” he says, and his voice breaks, just a little. His eyes are shining, his lips pressed into a thin line, mouth pulled down in the corners. He looks away.

It takes him a bit, but his voice is deep, unbroken, and resolved when he turns his gaze back to her and continues, “Miss Rey, I believe that the Force is in everything and everyone.” He pauses to let that sink in and Rey can feel goosebumps cascading from her neck downwards. “Master Yoda taught me that as a young man, and I still believe that to be true. My religious education has been going my whole life, and as I learn more and more, I become more and more aware that my understanding of the Force does not span it’s entirety, because nothing can do that. I realized, at great, agonizing length, that my fear of the Dark Side is baseless: the Dark Side is as much a part of the Force as the Light.”

Rey doesn't know what to say, so she doesn't try to speak, still awash in goosebumps. Professor Skywalker looks a little less burdened than at the start of the call, but as the silence goes on, his gaze returns to his desk, shuttering his burning resolve away. In no time at all he's a tired, sad, old man dressed in light grey robes again.

Just when she starts rallying herself to make her gracious exit, the Professor takes a deep, weary breath and says, “To conclude this non-linear narrative, I have gradually come to the conclusion that a Jedi is a Jedi because he declares himself so. A Sith is a Sith because he proclaims allegiance to the Dark Side. As you said, there are no lines in the sand - except that which we draw ourselves.”

He solemnly wishes her a good afternoon and hangs up. Rey sits back in her chair, in the echoing silence of her fortress, and reflects on her abundance of questions and scarcity of answers.

Chapter Text

Rey is in the cafeteria, trying to practice eating slow by reading between bites, when -

“Do you always have insomnia?” she hears Kylo ask grumpily, clacking his plate down and slouching into the previously-empty chair across from her.

She looks up from her book, her initial surprise blooming into a grin she can’t suppress. The cafeteria is deserted - he could have sat anywhere but he’s here, frowning at her in-between the first bites of his food. The dark wool scarf draped around his neck looks dry and warm, comfortable for the blustery cold he braved to cross campus (if the contrast between the white of his scar and the red of his nose is any sign). He’s got a windswept, moody, more-goth-than-usual air about him today. It’s a good look for him.

“Well, hello stranger,” she quips before she can stop herself, grinning impishly. “Come here often?”

He gives her a look - irritated objection to such a line being used in his presence mixed with amusement in spite of himself - and insists, “I hear melatonin works great.”

Rey hadn’t really heard his first question so this is quite the non-sequitur. “What?” she laughs, and takes a bite of her food.

“You should try melatonin for your insomnia,” Kylo replies with the barest veneer of patience, and takes a drink of what smells like coffee.

Rey laughs again. “I wish I had insomnia!” she scoffs, good-naturedly. “I’d get a lot more work done that way, that’s for sure.”

He squints incredulously at her. “Are you telling me that you always study until 2 am and wake up for breakfast at 7?”

Now she’s self-conscious even as she’s fighting laughter - when he puts it that way, it sounds like a bad thing. “That’s a good three sleep cycles, thank you very much,” she defends, primly.

“Three…!” he mutters to himself, then frowns at her, unimpressed. “You need a bedtime,” Kylo says grumpily, obviously without thinking.

Rey's amusement overflows. “Oh my stars, you’re actually an old man,” she gasps in delight and he scowls at her.

“Bedtimes are healthy,” he insists darkly, but she is not deterred. She laughs so hard she can’t even make noise.

“This isn’t my first degree, Rey - it isn’t worth it,” Kylo says, defensively, irritably.

When she regains the ability to speak, she replies placatingly, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead, or graduate, whichever comes first.” She's only half-kidding.

He blinks in annoyance for a moment - possibly because of the cliche, probably not appreciating being talked down to - then retaliates with, “Ok, well, in that case, I need my sleep," and he drops his voice even though there's no one around them, how adorable, "so if you’re going to stay over at mine, you’re going to have to get a bedtime.” Rey can hear the genuine frustration in his voice and realizes, for literally the first time - real college isn't like college in the movies: real people, in real life, don't have schedules like the one she's put herself on. Rose had been joking about it for months now but Rey hadn't gotten the hint.

Rey mulls this revelation over as she slowly finishes the last of her lunch. “I think that’s reasonable,” she finally concedes. “Old man.” He pointedly ignores this jibe.

“Next you’re going to tell me you haven’t done anything fun since the start of the semester,” he mutters sarcastically, and Rey bursts out laughing again because - he had obviously been kidding but it is mostly true, the Experiment notwithstanding.

“How did you know!” she laughs, shaking with mirth. “You’re, like, a mind reader!” She says this half-sarcastically: of course she hasn't had time for anything fun, with her courseload.

He rolls his eyes but there’s no vitriol in it. “Living that way sucks,” he says emphatically, ignoring her mind-reader comment. “Take a fricking break, it’s not going to kill your GPA.”

When she doesn’t reply to that, he squints at her. “You need to take a break. Soon,” he insists irritably. “You can even call me for a ride if you’re off-campus.”

“Call you for a ride, huh?” she teases him, wiggling her eyebrows mock-lasciviously.

“Rey!” he says sternly, exasperated she's not taking this seriously, and she reels herself in.

“Okay, fine, yes, I’ll call you if need be.” She realizes that sounded ungrateful and adds, “Thank you, I do appreciate that.”

He rolls his eyes, mollified, and goes back to his food.

“Not your first degree, huh?” Rey asks a few minutes later. “I guess you’re a glutton for punishment.”

Kylo rolls his eyes again but says only, “I guess.”

Rey gets up for dessert and reflects on the conversation they just had while looking through the dried-out pieces of cake. Just this morning, walking from the library to the cafeteria, she'd wondered if she should take a preemptive rain-check on her movie night with Finn: all of the assignments on her syllabus are looming like eldritch horrors in the mist, bearing down on her with agonizing slowness. “I just feel so guilty when I take time off,” she admits aloud to Kylo when she sits back down at the table. “I usually just end up regretting it.”

Kylo looks up from his food, studies her expression for a moment, then shrugs. “It isn’t that hard to adjust your mindset, it just takes a little bit time and diligence,” he replies. “For example, in your situation: you’re not a freshman, you’re not in any weed-out courses - do you talk to your professors?”

“Most of them,” Rey replies, and Kylo nods.

“Seriously, I'm sure you've heard this before but it's true: it’s not what you know, it’s the resources you have and who you know. You can take three hours and relax, for fuck’s sake. Tell the little guilt-voice to pipe the fuck down, you’re busy.”

“Aren’t you just a little fountain of old-man knowledge,” she teases and he glares at her mildly, but returns to his food without retaliating.

0*****0

That evening, Rey's phone buzzes: it's Finn.

found a working vcr at goodwill!! his message reads. what r u doing thurs? still up for movie nite?

It's not going to kill your GPA, she reminds herself.

That's after my presentation is done so movie night sounds great! Anytime after 6 is fine

U want to bring booze r snacks? Finn replies.

She's still got some vodka left, so... How about I bring the booze, you bring the mixer

Sounds good! ill let you kno what time closer to?

Sounds good!

Rey lets out the breath she was holding. “Well,” she says to her unhearing phone, “that’s that.”

Chapter Text

Rey's message the night before Kylo's big test isn't entirely unexpected.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 5:42) Ok so i have that presentation tomorrow, i really need to sleep

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 5:43) but i also need to do some focus-heavy work that isn't going to be done while the med students are BOWLING upstairs

Kylo sighs, but there's not much irritation to it. He lets himself think about it for a while but it isn't that tough of a decision.

Ben_the_Wren: (Today 6:29) You can study here until midnight but you'll have to move if you want to keep studying after that

Rey's reply is immediate.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (Today 6:30) thank you thank you thank you

0*****0

At his loud, "It's open!" Rey opens the door to his room, dressed in what he assumes is her work uniform (generic, ill-fitting t-shirt; black uniform pants; black, workplace-mandated tennis shoes), and he can immediately tell she’s upset about something. The irritable sighing, the slapping of her notebooks onto his desk, and the out-of-proportion profanity when she drops her pencil behind his desk are all a dead giveaway. He can't tell if she's deliberately trying to get his attention, but she's got it nonetheless.

“Bad customer?” he guesses lightheartedly.

Rey sighs again, and sits heavily in his desk chair. After a moment: “No.”

“Bad test score?”

She turns around in the chair and glares at him, to which he shrugs in reply. “It happens. Don’t be ashamed of it.”

She glares at him some more. “It wasn’t a bad test score.”

He looks at her expectantly. For a moment, they’re staring at each other, him patient, her angry, until she sighs again and her glare crumbles away. “I got an email reminder while I was at work about the Internship application, as if I'm not stressed out enough." She sighs, deeply, then admits frustratedly, "I want to do it so bad but I’d have to quit my job.”

He squints at her, concerned by the contrast between the gravity of her pronouncement and his utter cluelessness. “Do what now?”

She throws up her hands in sarcastic relief. “Did you not know about it either? Kriff, I thought I was the only one.”

She lays out the bare bones of the program, vehement frustration morphing into glowing enthusiasm. He's never heard of this program, and from any other source he wouldn't care about it, but her eye-sparkling excitement when she's talking about the Robotics stuff almost makes him feel like he's missing out. From their past interactions, he wouldn't have guessed she was a gusher but - what can he say? It's adorable.

When she’s done, he says, “Decrease your hours. This program sounds way better. You’ll actually enjoy it, for one.”

She sighs in frustration, her high deflated. “I talked to both of my bosses this week. They’re not willing to give me flexibility in my hours. I’d have to quit or be fired.”

Well, that’s a no-brainer. “Then quit. Gracefully, of course, don’t want a black mark on your record.”

She’s glaring at him again. “I can’t quit my job, I need the money.”

He squints at her again. “You’re taking out loans, aren’t you?”

She looks like she wants to throw her pencil at him. “I take out the minimum possible I can.”

“Then take out more money. What’s the problem?”

Now she looks like she wants to walk over and stab him with the pencil. “The problem, moneybags, is that I’m looking down the barrel of being a woman in a male-dominated field that is already oversaturated, while being crushed under two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of debt, plus obscene interest, from which only death can release me. I’m glad," she adds sarcastically, "that financial security is so easy for you that you don’t even have to think about having to work as a floor-sweeper, or a less-than-minimum-wage waitress, for the rest of your life.”

He is not going to allow her to make him feel guilty about this. “Rey, your jobs are menial, minimum-wage labor.” When she opens her mouth, outrage on her face, he raises a hand to stop her and rushes to speak when she doesn’t close her mouth. “Those are your words, not mine, and further, by your own admission, you can’t put them on your resumé when you apply for degree-related things unless you get extremely creative with the job descriptions. This Internship? Sounds like resumé and job-interview gold. This is the real deal. Sacrifice a little now for a better job later.”

She’s still glaring at him, but she looks a little less murderous. He continues, quieter. “You’re still in undergrad, so your payments are deferred until graduation. Just work as much as you can for that little old lady during the summer.” He can't remember much of what little she's messaged him about her summer job, but his distinct impression was that job outstripped her other jobs by a mile.

Rey's still upset, so she turns back to her desk. He sighs a little. “Alright, how about this: apply for the Internship, and when you get it, give your two weeks notice.”

“I’ll think about it,” Rey replies, not looking at him.

He throws up his hands in surrender, even though she can’t see them. A thought occurs to him and he smirks a little. “You should start hanging out in the med school. No, no, you should start studying on the med students’ floor. Catch the eye of some young heart surgeon.”

She turns back around slowly and fixes him with a dry glare. Then, she presses her lips together and he can see the mischief in her eyes.

“Is that why you’re here?” she asks primly. “Pre-wed?” And before he can retort, she turns back to the desk and adds in that same prim, joking voice, “That’s the only thing that makes sense, with how little effort you put into your studies!”

He can’t take it anymore and starts to laugh. “Rey, I’m not slacking because I don’t have a schedule like yours.”

She doesn’t turn around. “That’s what they all say,” she replies, barely keeping herself from cracking up.

0*****0

It's fifteen to midnight. He's wearily brushing his teeth, sluggish with exhaustion - he can hear Rey packing up her stuff without being prompted, small mercies - when he just happens to look up and catch sight of his scar in the mirror. He doesn't know when he turned back towards the sink but he just stares at the jagged line of it, hypnotized. What was the insult Hux had used that night he was pissed all to hell (he'd talked to his Father on the phone that afternoon, out of Kylo and Phasma's earshot, and subsequently spent the rest of the night raging mad, drinking himself into oblivion): "hit with both ends of the ugly stick," maybe? Kylo exhales a laugh through his nose. Doesn't matter; it's as true now as it was then. The scar doesn't look quite the same as the first time he saw it (drugged out of his mind on fentanyl in a hospital bed, the nurse holding the mirror because the cast for his wrist made his fingers clumsy). It's funny, really - he'd changed his name, what, a year or two prior? But he hadn't truly felt like he was Kylo Ren until he was coming down from the initial peak of shock, panic, and revulsion the first look had triggered. After all that time, he finally felt like Kylo, but there was nothing sweet in it, only bitter, bitter.

Is that why you're here? he hears the echo of Rey's voice say. He closes his eyes and his reflection is burned against his retinas for one moment, two...but it fades away. When he re-opens his eyes, the scar is once again an unremarkable feature of his ugly face. He spits the toothpaste, rinses.

Old man, Rey's voice echoes again, which--

"When the hell did I get old enough to give advice about kriffing college, fuck," he mutters to himself, then exits the bathroom, turning out the light.

Chapter Text

Rey leaves at some unholy hour, whispering something about needing to stop by her room that he doesn't register because he's mostly asleep. He falls back to sleep easily, thank goodness, and sleeps well until his alarm goes off. He's able to leisurely go get breakfast at the caf, go to his first class, and stroll to the lecture hall for the exam. He feels strange - he's nervous, but calm. It almost feels like he's prepared for this test, which...is not a sensation that comforts him.

Anticlimactically, he utterly decimates the test, to the point where he's double- and triple-checking his answers out of paranoia that he's missing something. Finally, he turns in his test because there's nothing else he can do. He walks out of the lecture hall, keyed up and restless - he was expecting to be worn down, exhausted, but he isn't. There is nothing else on his schedule today.

He pulls out his phone to check the time and finds Rey has sent a slew of messages through the morning - he'd turned the ringer off right after he got up so he wouldn't forget to do it right before the test.

Rey-of-sunshine: (Today 09:10) i may have had too much coffee

Rey-of-sunshine: (Today 09:15) my feet hurt so bad these shoes need to die in a fire

Rey-of-sunshine: (Today 09:15) if some jackass bothers me today they won’t know what hit them i am a 5’6” can of whoop-ass do not fuck with me

Rey-of-sunshine: (Today 10:31) I AM SO NERVOUS UGH

Rey-of-sunshine: (Today 11:45) i could sleep for 100 years holy shit

He laughs.

Ben_the_Wren : (Today 12:03) feel free to nap at mine if you need

He decides that the gym is a good idea and after finishing his usual workout, he almost walks back in for a second round: it tired him out a bit but he's still restless. He eats a late lunch irritably, mentally calculating the odds of Hux and Phasma being game for happy hour. He messages them anyway and receives a resounding 'are you batshit?' from both sides. Returning to his room in defeat, he sits down on his bed and tries to decide how he wants to spend the rest of the day. He’s totally forgotten about his message to Rey when someone knocks on the door.

“It’s Rey,” she not-quite-shouts.

“Yeah, it’s open,” he replies loudly. She doesn’t hesitate to open the door this time and walks in. She’s backlit at the doorway but he can see what she’s wearing once she closes the door behind her. His mouth goes involuntarily dry.

With the exception of the night they went out dancing, Rey has been a jeans-and-a-tee-shirt person through their whole acquaintance. Today, Rey is dressed in business casual for her presentation (he assumes she either wanted to make a professional impression or that professor is a hardass) and her hair is drawn into one rather severe bun at the crown of her head. Separately, each piece of her outfit leaves something to be desired - the collared shirt needs to be tailored but just an ironing would do wonders; the pencil skirt is a little threadbare, maybe slightly stained, maybe left out in the sun too long; the hose have a run; her shoes desperately need a clean and polish - but taken together, with a dash of imagination, the right demeanor, and maybe a bit more eyeliner…

He swallows, heavily. Did he buy that crop yet or is it still in his ‘potential purchases’ folder? Well, he doesn't have a semi-private mailbox, so it's doubtful he's bought it already. He does have handcuffs but he doesn't want to do that again so soon - it'd probably take the thrill out of it. Besides, whatever he suggests has to be low-energy on her part: she already said she's exhausted...

Rey doesn’t notice him staring.

“That damn presentation, ugh,” she says, dropping into his desk chair and slumping enough to rest her neck on the back of her chair. Her skirt rides up a little. His brain is racing, trying to come up with a way to broach the topic he suddenly (desperately) wants to talk about. “It was a nightmare. I made the mistake of not volunteering to go first. It was like Chinese water torture. I am kriffing exhausted.

“Do you have anything else today?” he hears himself ask.

Rey sighs again, this time in satisfaction. It doesn’t help his situation. “No, thank the bloody stars. Well," she waves a dismissive hand details, details, "later, yeah, but that’s Future Rey’s problem. I wasn’t kidding about sleeping for 100 years.”

“Are you going to sleep in that?” he asks, and mentally curses himself for his ill-timed curiosity and his inability to get to the point.

Rey huffs a laugh without looking up. “I’ve got a change in my bag. Rose warned me the med students are being assholes again and I don't want to waste the whole afternoon being pissed at them."

He clears his throat. “As a matter of fact, I also have the afternoon off.”

For a moment, Rey doesn’t react, but then she tilts her head forward and cracks an eye open to look at him quizzically. She sees something in his expression and she sits up. “What did you have in mind?” she asks.

He says the first thing he can think of. “It’s the first time I’ve seen you in that outfit.”

Rey squints at him: Yes, and?

Damn her intermittent telepathy. “I think it’s interesting you wore it here instead of changing at yours, and I think it’s very fortuitous we both have the afternoon off.”

Understanding dawns on her face and she starts to smile. “Fortuitous?” she parrots, schooling her expression.

“I think it has potential,” he hazards, then loses his nerve. “I’m sorry, you just said you’re tired, and we didn’t talk about re-enacting the Agreement…”

Rey shifts in her chair, adjusting her clothing to be more neat, and watches his eyes follow the movement. “It’s alright, we’re talking about it now,” she says, and very deliberately crosses one leg over the other, posing, keeping her toes pointed to make her ankle look more narrow. He doesn't hide the arousal on his face, and she drinks it in.

“Tell me what you were envisioning, and I’ll decide if I’m awake enough for it,” she says archly. He swallows - she's got the demeanor down, that's for sure.

“You look quite professional,” he starts, wondering how specific he’ll have to be. “You look very strict, very aware of how precious your time is, very aware of your importance. If I don’t…perform…adequately, I will be reprimanded.”

Rey isn’t sold yet, but she prompts him, “Go on,” when he pauses.

“You’ve been teaching me…” and stars, he hopes this doesn’t sound too stupid, “how to use my tongue. I’m a quick study but sometimes still need guidance. At your discretion,” he swallows, goes out on a limb: “Mistress.”

Rey’s eyes are gleaming with the same emotion as when he kneeled before her the first time and he feel his own heartbeat racing. She finally allows herself to smile. "I think I’m awake enough for that,” she answers, understated words belied by the wheels turning behind her bright eyes, planning the scene. “Let me go grab something a sec.”

She’s at the door when she stops and walks back over to him. “Have you shaved?” she asks frankly.

“Um,” he replies, brain still stuck on I actually offered to eat her out and she’s actually taking me up on it.

She reaches out, runs her thumb along his jaw, frowns just a tiny bit. Before he realizes she’s doing it, she takes his chin, leans his head slightly, leans in, and kisses the line of his jaw, then mouths lightly at a spot just behind where she kissed. “Oh yeah, that’ll do,” she says, and smirks almost-imperceptibly when she sees the look on his face.

“I’ll be back in just a sec,” she says, turns to go, turns back. “Safewords?” she quizzes.

Will you get on with it! he thinks in a flare of nervous irritation, and she sees it on his face, grins outright. “That’s the spirit. Be right back.” She finally leaves.

Chapter Text

The door opens after a swift, authoritative knock and Rey enters. It doesn’t look like she’s changed her outfit but there’s something different about her; she closes the door and studies him with an aloof, contemptuous expression. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ren,” she greets him, and it’s with the same haughty attitude. “I hope you aren’t here to disappoint me, this time,” she states with an edge of derision, walking over to the chair and sitting down, posture perfect, crossing one leg primly over the other. She’s the absolute image of a beautiful, powerful woman in her natural habitat of easy authority, and oh, he’s seeing stars.

“No, mistress,” he replies, and is rewarded with a momentary, hidden smile from Rey.

“I haven’t got all day,” Mistress demands impatiently, and he does his best to play his cards right, too: he stands as gracefully as he can and kneels swiftly before her, keeping his gaze dark and steady. This vantage point is particularly thrilling - he knows, logically, she isn’t looming over him, but it certainly feels like she’s looking down on him with bored scorn. She hasn’t relaxed from her first pose and she makes no move to uncross her legs. Convince me you're worthy to touch me, her closed-off posture says.

He takes a risk and leans forward to run his hands slowly up outside of her thighs. “Please, mistress,” he implores quietly, voice as resonant as he can manage, eyes fixed on her face. "Permit me the pleasure of this."

“If you must,” Mistress sighs irritably, but Rey's eyes gleam as she gracefully uncrosses her legs. Before she can move further, he presses his lips to the inside of her thigh, just beyond her knee, runs his hands along the outside of her thighs again, this time digging his hands under her butt - she feels small in his grip - and lifting enough to set her down on the very edge of the chair.

“Very impressive, Mr. Ren,” Mistress rebuts sarcastically, but she playfully moves to rest her legs on his shoulders, boxing him in on two sides, rucking up her skirt further. It's pleasant, being enclosed in such an intimate embrace. As he runs his hands up the insides of her legs, to push up her skirt farther and, hopefully, make her as aroused as he currently is, he realizes - she changed her stockings. The old ones had a run and were most likely standard hip-to-toe pantyhose. These stockings are in pristine condition and are thigh-highs. He can see the lace on the end, the white striking against the uneven, fading tan of her thigh. Rey gasps a little when he leans in, runs his lips along the stocking, the lace, and her skin to feel the difference in texture. She’s so warm. Rey breaks out of her character and leans back in the chair to enthusiastically wiggle her skirt up out of the way.

She isn’t wearing underwear, he realizes belatedly, imagining her walk all the way here with just the skirt and stockings, and he almost comes right then. His heart is pounding, partly due to nerves, partly due to arousal; he has to take a breath, in an attempt at composure. He places a kiss on the inside of her thigh, just above the lace, and does the same thing to the other side.

“I haven’t got all day, Mr. Ren,” Mistress repeats impatiently.

He takes a deep breath and - again, with as much grace and dignity as he can manage - takes the plunge, using her legs thrown over his shoulders as leverage to tilt her hips up. She smells musky but it isn't unpleasant. Her hair is strange against his face; he parts her folds with his tongue and finds smooth, smooth skin. Rey shifts around him, sliding a hand around the back of his skull. He explores with his tongue for a moment but doesn’t know what to do next. He takes a cue from porn and tries sticking his tongue in her vagina. He knows, logically, that porn is unrealistic but it it disappointing when Rey doesn’t gasp in ecstasy. He falters and is wondering how to get direction in this scenario when Mistress sighs in frustration.

"Do I have to do everything?" Mistress chastises him. “Here, you oaf,” she commands, and roughly guides his face up slightly by tugging on his hair. “Lick!” she commands, and he obeys, blindly, in long, smooth strokes.

“Good boy,” Mistress praises sarcastically and he pulses.

She tugs on his hair again, moving his face in circles, and it takes him a minute or two to realize what she wants. He laves his tongue in the path she guided, experimenting with the pressure until he is rewarded with a stifled exhalation of, "Ah!"

It's quite gratifying.

"You're not hopeless," Mistress warmly muses aloud, playful tone at odds with the at turns demanding and encouraging hand in his hair, "just in need of some training." And that word goes right through him, like a shock: next time (because there will be a next time, if he can help it), Rey will be laid out on the bed instead of curled uncomfortably into the chair, and train him how to be good for her. He tries tightening the orbit of his tongue and she rocks her hips minutely, lightly digging a heel into his back. "That's it," Mistress says, but it's slightly breathless. "All of that again, come on!"

He settles into a rhythm, ignoring his fatigue, doing his best not to speed up or change the pattern. She doesn't make any vocalizations but her breath grows heavier and deeper. He chances a glance up and it is worth his jaw getting sore and his tongue getting tired to see understated pleasure written clear on her face, her performed character forgotten.

Abruptly, she tugs him away at his hair and he unquestioningly pulls back, just a little - before he realizes what’s happened, she has a hand between them, fingers pressing circles into her clit, hips rocking to complete the motion - she gasps, squeezes him with her thighs, heels digging into his back, she cries out quietly once, twice -

And Rey slumps in the chair, strength leaving her thighs, her hand falling out of his hair, her face flushed, breathing heavily and shakily. He rests his cheek on her leg, riding a high of triumph while his entire body throbs with the need to come. She seems to recover a bit and clumsily starts petting his hair.

When he can’t stand it anymore, he presses a kiss into the inside of her thigh. “Mistress…” he begs quietly, and Rey opens her eyes to gaze at him in a haze of satisfaction.

“You’re so good for me,” she praises with quiet warmth, words like a invisible glow passed between them. She playfully digs a heel into his back. “Go on, then,” Mistress commands. “I suppose you’ve earned it.”

He frees his dick with shaking hands and it only takes a few strokes before he’s coming, gasping against her skin.

When he's back amongst the living, Rey puts her feet back on the floor, stands up, and stretches languidly. "Nap?" she asks, moving behind him to reach her bag, and he hears her undress. In no time at all, she's sitting on the edge of his bed, stuffing her clothes into her bag, having replaced the disheveled business casual and severe bun with a long, baggy t-shirt and a loose braid. He himself isn't antsy anymore but he might be tired enough to nap; he can't tell at the moment, still riding the high.

"Don't know yet," he replies.

She nods amiably, yawns - widely, jaw popping - "Suit yourself," she shrugs, burying herself under the covers. In less than five minutes, she's fast asleep.

Chapter Text

After a good nap, Rey makes a trip to the grocery store - she's lucky that there's an express bus line directly there, so it only takes ninety minutes or so round-trip, but it feels like ages. She wishes she brought her headphones: the inevitable guilt resulting from her Three Hours of Relaxation tonight is looming like the first third of a triathlon, the other two thirds being Jessika's party on Friday. She does her best to breathe steadily and distract herself with something pleasant. She eventually realizes that distracting herself by replaying the highlights from the Scene she and Kylo just had might be too good a distraction: she almost misses her stop, then aimlessly wanders around the grocery store for almost 10 minutes in a cloud.

0*****0

That evening, she knocks on Finn's door cradling a bottle of vodka buried in a bag of snacks. Finn opens the door, grins at the sight of her, and ushers her in. He’s got a great little ‘theater’ set up: his dorm-issued bunk bed is set in the highest position but instead of putting his desk beneath like most people do, he’s got two padded floor chairs tied together to make one large chair and a glorious widescreen TV set up on a crate. They settle in, slightly awkwardly - it’s a tight space for two - and Finn starts the movie. His contribution is a grape soda she’s never tasted before and it is lovely with the vodka.

Halfway through the movie, they’re roaring drunk and Finn is literally hiding his face in her shoulder, practically watching the movie through his fingers. In a fit of drunken judgement, Rey rearranges them so her arm is around his shoulders and he’s snuggled up to her. He doesn’t resist, shifting around a bit until he’s comfortable. It’s lovely, to have someone someone so trusting and so close, to have someone relying on her for support.

“This is nice,” Finn says to her, then flinches as some poor B-character gets stabbed.

“Will you need to watch something funny after?” Rey asks. “Brain bleach?”

“We’ll see when the movie is over,” Finn says, and hides his face again.

When the movie is over, Finn doesn’t move to turn the movie off, letting the credits roll.

“I’m sorry,” he mutters, so quietly she almost can’t hear him over the music. “I’m really clingy. Can’t help it.”

“Do I look like I’m complaining?” Rey replies, drunkenly indignant. She squeezes his shoulders. “We need to watch movies like this more often, if you’re up for it.”

Finn nods, then sighs, loudly. “People get so,” he hiccups, “so worked up about personal space, and I can understand it when people say, ‘No thanks, please don’t get into my personal space’, that’s fine, but when someone says to me or someone else, ‘you can’t get close to others, you can’t hold hands, you can’t lean on their shoulder, you can’t hug them, it’s indecent’, I just get so mad . Kicked more than one boo to the curb over it.”

Rey looks down at him - his eyes are fixed on the screen - and she asks the question because she is very drunk: “Were you allowed to be close to the people in the cult?”

Finn laughs so hard she can feel it through her whole body. “Rey, it was the worst. We spent all our time together - training, eating, sleeping, all of it - but I was so lonely, in so many ways. Like, they got me so young and I was so isolated that I didn’t I didn’t have words for me, or my feelings, until I was several years into therapy, as a teenager, but deep down, I always knew I was different. It didn't come up often but it scared me when it did. Looking back on it now, I understand that they said they encouraged ‘brotherly bonds’ but it was the biggest mess of ‘no homo’ you could possibly imagine. We were expected to willfully die for the leaders, for our fellow warriors, but even the faintest whiff of anything interpersonal 'outside of acceptable' - which changed, based on who was in favor and who was out of favor - was punished without mercy. They were obsessed with the 'unnatural sexual liberation'," Finn rolls his eyes, "'of the Republic' or whatever. Friendships were so closely scrutinized and criticized that they weren't really worth having. It was easier to just be in competition the whole time, shouting insults to show affection and stuff like that. Until long after I was out of the cult, I didn’t understand that you could touch someone with an intent other than sex - which, for the record, was so vilified and condemned by the group I'm now surprised I wasn't sexually abused at some point," he pauses, squinting his eyes in mild drunken confusion, "where was I? Oh yeah - punishment, or, you know, showing dominance within the 'pack' or whatever. And now, it’s like I’m catching up on everything I missed. I’m the kind of guy who hugs everyone and holds hands on the first date. But it’s more than that. I want to tell everyone I meet: please hug me, feel free to kiss my cheeks like they do in old movies, slap me on the shoulder when you tell a joke, don't worry about getting a little rough if we're playing a game at the gym or something.” He snuggles into her side a bit, and she squeezes his shoulders again. “I just don’t know how.”

He can’t see them, thankfully, but Rey can feel the tears in her eyes. Alcohol always makes her emotions dial up to ten. “I’ll remember that,” she says to him, and is glad her voice doesn’t break.

“Can we watch one of the Harry Potter movies?” Finn asks blithely. “I need brain bleach.”

A pang goes through her. She hasn’t so much as picked up one of the Harry Potter books since she was in Middle School: they had become too painful to read. The books weren’t an escape, they were taunts featuring things she wanted more than any other thing in the whole world. She wanted to get a letter, find the hidden train, see the torch-lit castle from across the lake. She wanted to move things with her mind, learn how to ride a broom, be the star in a Quiddich game. She’d wanted to teach Plutt a lesson with her magic, whisk herself away and live a life made easier by her invisible might. After the third book, she’d wanted so badly for Harry to be adopted by Sirius, to the point where she didn’t care about anything else that happened in the story. When Sirius Black died, she put the book down and never opened a Harry Potter book again.

Finn senses her hesitation. “Do you watch any anime?” He asks. “I’ve got Ouran High School Host Club.”

Rey gasps in delight.

After they’ve enthusiastically butchered the Japanese in the intro song, and laughed themselves sore at the first episode, Rey looks down at Finn with Shoju-typical drama and says as theatrically as she can, “You’re not harboring a secret love for me, are you? I’m afraid your heart will be terribly broken.”

Finn tries to feign despair but quickly breaks into giggles, which he mostly stifles. “My heart can only belong to one man," he proclaims then pauses, attempting an expression of suitable drama, "and you are no man,” he finishes, barely keeping a straight face.

And because she’s still drunk, Rey admits honestly without thinking: “Good, because I’ve got a Mr. ‘It’s Complicated’ and I’d hate to have more drama in my life.”

Finn snuggles into her side again. “You’ll have to spill all the gory details sometime,” he replies, conversationally, without a hint of malicious curiosity. “If nothing else, it’ll probably be a beautiful disaster.”

“I certainly hope not!” Rey replies, indignant, then blushes.

She can see Finn smirk, but he doesn’t look up at her. “Are you and Mr. Complicated in loooooooove?" he half-teases, sounding too much like a little kid on the playground. Rey jostles him in retribution, and Finn laughs.

Chapter Text

It’s Rey’s anxiety that wakes her up the next morning (compounding what would normally be a mild hangover). It's friday. Jessika's Girls' Night. She very seriously considers chickening out, sighs, and gets up to splash water on her face.

Thankfully, classes march forward to the uncaring beat of time; Rey puts her head down and gratefully leans into the yoke, the work mostly distracting her mind. She manages to keep herself calm through most of the day, right up until she gets the text from Jessika about an hour before she's planning on getting ready.

Jessika: Hey gurl! Can't wait to see you at the party tonight! Here's the address just in case:

Rey places her phone upside down on the desk before the address can arrive, puts her head into her hands, and breathes deeply. The College Experience is what you wanted, she reminds herself. Three hours of relaxation isn't going to kill you, adults aren't as cruel as children...

She debates taking a pregame shot of vodka through her entire Getting Ready routine - on one hand, it'll make her feel calmer. On the other hand, the party is too near to drive or take a bus so she's walking there - the neighborhood is mostly safe but there are a couple of muggings just off the edge of campus every semester. One vodka shot won't make her drunk but would it be too risky? She'll have mace in her pocket and, despite what the wealthier kids think, it’s not that bad a neighborhood at all...

In the end, she takes too long to do her hair, realizes she's running late, and rushes out the door having forgotten about the pregame entirely.

0*****0

Rey walks up to the house at Jessika's given address, mildly out of breath due to nerves more than exertion. It's actually rather a nice neighborhood, with beautiful, antique houses and tall, stately trees lining the street. She fights down a spike of panic that she has the address wrong - it's the only house on the block with light pouring out every window and what are the odds? The house looks old but well-kept; if Rey had to guess, she'd say it's owned and rented out by the university. She hikes up the steps and rings the bell.

The door is opened - her worry spikes again because it's too late to back out now. The woman who opened the door (in jeans and a baggy tee, Rey sees with some relief) grins at her enthusiastically. “You must be Rey!” she says happily. “Come on in, we’ll get you a drink.”

Rey enters into what must be the living room, handing over her coat when the hostess gestures for it. A few women are lounging comfortably on the ancient, threadbare couches, drinks close at hand, conversing quietly, shoes scattered across the bright rug hiding the floor from view. They nod at Rey in a generally friendly manner as she passes by. A small bit of tension in her starts to relax.

“Jessika’s in the kitchen, I think,” the hostess tells Rey when she sees her looking around. “She was Bartender a just a few minutes ago. I'll take you over there."

Next is the dining room, noisier with music and more women talking over the music. The once-stately (now battered) oak table in the middle of the room is mostly-hidden by crockpots and platters of food. It all looks delicious and Rey feels a spark of optimism. The hostess gestures that Rey can put down her food offering - chips - and Rey places the bag next to what look like dips.

“This is Rey, Jessika's invite this week,” the hostess announces to the crowd as they move through, spurring noises of intrigue. “Once we get her a drink she’ll be back out for food!”

Rey herself feels a bit surreal as they make their way through the crowd: everyone is relaxed, cheerful, and apparently happy to see her at the party even though she’s never met any of them (or even seen the majority of them on campus). People greet her enthusiastically without prompting - it’s downright bizarre.

The kitchen is a long, absurdly narrow space at the back of the house with three women squeezed in. One long wall is crammed full with all the kitchen appliances and the other has a long, thin table standing against it piled startlingly high with booze. One woman is absentmindedly stirring something on the stove, and the other two are arguing semi-drunkenly from each end of the table as Rey and the hostess walk by.

“But that’s the problem,” the woman on the right woozily insists to the one on the left, not sparing Rey a glance. “There's no worker protections, no balance! Four-teen-mil-ion dollars a year for one asshole in a big office? And they "can't afford" to pay EVS more than minimum wage? Fuck them!" Rey and her hostess cross into the next room and Rey doesn't hear the rest. They're in a largeish bedroom painted a pastel blue; Jessika is draped over the end of the bed, arguing enthusiastically in technobabble with another woman who is sitting at an immensely-cluttered desk. Jessica looks up at their entrance and her frown of concentration is replaced by a pleased grin.

“Fashionably late! I like it,” she grins, and Rey can’t detect any reproach in her tone. Jessika stands up, compliments, “I like your shirt!” and gives Rey a hug, as if they’ve been friends for ages. It doesn’t feel like she’s doing it for show - it feels like this is how she normally greets people in a casual setting. It feels like Jessica is genuinely glad to see her.

“Thanks,” Rey replies belatedly, remembering after the hug is over that she was complimented. She fishes for a punch line. “It was on sale.”

It was the right thing to say: the other three people in the room laugh. Rey relaxes a little bit more, smiles genuinely, and says good-naturedly to Jessika, "Where can a girl get something to drink around here? I hear you're the Bartender."

Jessika links her arm through Rey's. "If you want a drink, you've come to the right place," she says, eyes sparkling, and steers them into the kitchen.

0*****0

Turns out Jessika is a junior Mixologist, so the drink is very good. After another round is doled out to the crowd in the dining room, Jessika walks Rey around and formally introduces her as they go. There's women from almost every part of the University here, and Rey is kinda impressed that whoever organized this party is so well-connected. Floating pleasantly with alcohol, trying the food (also very good, she's going to get some of these recipes before she leaves), Rey is just starting to think she might have a good time when...

“Where are you from?” one of the Pharmacy students ask, and Rey can feel everyone’s eyes swivel right to her. It’s like she’s standing on a stage with the spotlight on.

A sweat breaks out on the back of her neck.

She knew this was going to happen. This is the Midwest: ‘where are you from’ is the second most frequent small-talk question after ‘what is your name’, and it’s the first in a long line of questions where, for her, the unvarnished truth is very unpleasant and uncomfortably intimate. She doesn’t want to alienate the group so she can’t: 1. tell everyone to back off (because she doesn’t know how to say that politely), 2. say ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ (because the group will smell blood and redouble their efforts), or 3. tell the truth (and make everyone either pity her or draw back in horror). Therefore, she’s going to have to manufacture a palatable truth, and she hasn’t needed to do that in a while. Rey thinks that if she were a computer, her fan would be whirring distressingly loud right about now.

Rey pastes a smile on, hoping she didn't just look too deer-in-headlights. “Oh, Arizona. Jakku." There's no recognition on anyone's face (thank goodness!), so she clarifies dismissively, "It's a little no-where town near the middle of the state.” That much is completely true. She waits anxiously for the next question, because she can see the horror dawning on every face: oh my stars, she’s paying out-of-state tuition!

“What are you doing all the way out here?” someone else - one of the biologists? - asks, eyes comically wide. “My mom never would have let me travel so far! I was lucky to come all the way out here and I only live four hours away.”

Rey fights to keep her face positive. “First acceptance letter I got, actually,” she manages to lie flippantly and the group laughs a little, in a good way. “The scholarships were really generous so it ended up being the best choice.” The scholarships weren't bad but I could've had a free ride at a few places in Arizona - I turned them all down because they weren't far enough away. The onlookers nod thoughtfully; one or two compliment her on the scholarships.

“So what did your mom say when you told her you were going so far?” the same woman asks. “I think mine would’ve broken out the padlocks!” The group laughs again.

My mother had no fucking say in the matter, she thinks viciously, which makes her ache but Rey breathes through it. Fuck, why couldn't they have asked normal, boring questions?

Without thinking, she answers wryly, “I didn’t ask for permission,” and, thankfully, they laugh again. She can see that no one suspects what a nightmare the whole situation had been and her confidence increases a bit. She delivers another dark truth, defanged: “Packed up my things and just started driving.” It took me three days total; I slept in the car because I was afraid someone would steal my stuff. She slips in one more real truth, to forestall any 'do you miss them?' kinds of questions: “I am very glad to be out of that town. It really was garbage.” Many girls nod in solemn solidarity, the room is quiet and here’s her chance. She says, nonchalantly, “So, where are you from?” and the spotlight veers away. Padlocks jumps into her life story and Rey makes interested noises in all the right places. Blessedly, no one asks her any more questions except, “Do you want another drink?” or, “How did you like the casserole?”

0*****0

Stepping through the door from the well-wishes and enthusiastic ‘can’t wait to see you next time!’s into the almost-winter fall night is like stepping from a too-long hot shower into a freezer. Her ears are ringing from too much alcohol plus hours of loud-ish music and the chatter of happy drunk women in the same limited space, which makes the quiet of the street even more conspicuous. She feels distorted, like she should still be happy but she can feel the chill seeping into her good mood. The street she’s walking down might as well be a painting for as still as everything is. The walk feels like it’s taking forever, and she keeps hearing her answers to their ‘icebreaker’ questions like she’s watching a gifset.

Trying not to shiver from the cold, head artificially full of cotton, voice clips playing on repeat, she passes by an ad in a shop window with a Model White Family (blonde, blue-eyed, immaculately dressed, perfectly straight teeth, heterosexual couple, photogenic daughter) and has a piercingly clear moment of panic:

She can’t remember what her mother’s face looks like.

It stops her dead in her tracks on the pavement. She tries to think around it for a few moments, like trying to remember a chart for a final exam that’s 50% of her grade, to no success. When she starts to shiver in the night air, she shakes the problem away and resumes walking. Memory is fickle. Last semester, one of the grill-chefs in the caf accidentally burnt a pizza and the smell made Rey vividly remember a funny day in second grade that she hadn’t thought about in ten years. She’s found out via trial-and-error that if she panics during a test she’s all but guaranteed to never remember the answer. If she puts it from her mind and comes back to it calmly, it usually works out.

Rey just can't seem to calm herself down. In the midst of her turmoil, Rey finds herself thinking about lies, or, in her case, Palatable Truths. She's imagining herself answering the questions she was asked completely and fully, and it’s making her feel ill with bitterness. What truth could she have told those women and not seen pity or judgement in their eyes? A spiteful part of her wishes she'd lashed out, inflicted the truth on them, taught them a lesson about questions they don't really want the answers to. ‘I wasn’t raised by my piece-of-shit mother, I was raised by my piece-of-shit uncle because my parents died in a car crash.’ 'My piece-of-shit uncle "joked" about putting me in chains to 'cure me of my dumbass plans' then threatened to have my car destroyed when I told him I was going away but I knew he was bluffing about the car: he never would've destroyed something he could've gotten money for.' 'I moved all the way out here so he wouldn't be tempted to shame me in person for giving up a paying job in return for a degree that might not get me anywhere.'

Letting herself into her dark, quiet dorm room, she is half sorry, half relieved that Rose is gone. She collapses backwards onto her mattress, missing the pillows, and watches the ceiling spin a bit; in the ringing silence of the room, she allows the swell of misery to overtake her. It all hurts, the entire convoluted web, and she’s miserably drunk, so she mentally contorts away from the painful truth (‘My lousy parents were killed in a car accident.’), further and further (‘No, my parents were seriously hurt in an accident when I was young, so my uncle kindly took me in.’), until it is outright fantasy: “No, my parents were rich hippies, so they traveled the world, went to places too dangerous to take me, so they left me with my benevolent uncle while they were gone. They brought me presents…” that’s too painful, so she tries again: “They would tell such wonderful stories, show me such wonderful pictures of their travels. They’ve been off-the-grid for a while…” after seven years they’d have to be declared legally dead “…but I get postcards from them, every so often.” She tries to get herself to believe it, to bask in it, to imagine what it would feel like to have this hope wallpapering her mind. “They tell me that they love me, and they miss me, and they can’t wait to see me again.”

It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. If she’d convinced herself of this fantasy growing up, if she could truly bring herself to believe it, it would be much more bearable. As it is, she feels sick basking in it now, in the cold, quiet room, laying askew the mattress, vaguely uncomfortable because she missed the pillow. She can feel pressure in her chest, pressing upwards into her throat, and for a terrible moment she’s afraid she’s going to vomit. When she starts to cry instead (her sorrow wringing her in unyielding hands), she doesn’t know if that’s better or worse.

0*****0

When she finally drags herself up and stumbles to her desk for kleenex, she clumsily snags her headphones, too. She falls back into bed, barely managing to get the pillows this time, and unlocks her phone after a couple of tries. She knows exactly what music she wants (needs) right now - it's an album she found by accident a few years ago that's like liquid melancholy alchemized into music. It's calm, and it's powerful, and it's sad, and that's what she adores about it, especially during times like this.

The discordant piano starts, ticking like a clock, and she turns it up all the way. The musical, indolent chanting, right on cue, is hypnotic, soporific: lighthearted tenor underlaid with a dark danger, an omnipresent menace possessing a benevolent narrator. The lyrics themselves have never made any sense to her, but she can feel the outlines of meaning beneath them, as if the meaning were draped in a heavy, black cloth. The repetition makes the song sound like a magic spell, magic hidden in the mundane, the repeated line a a binding to make the spell stay:

Share ‘em all, rest of all, love at the beautiful - it’s just a nod to the canon -
simple-man stag can’t stand up on the beautiful, no - this is a nod to the canon--
stickle-prick, tickle prig, love at the beautiful, this is a nod to the canon -
hustle over all those who show her towards the beautiful, oh - it's just a nod to the canon now......

One song leads into the next, flowing into the next, and the familiar music feels like what she imagines the ocean is like - first she has to wade out into the waves but then she’s buoyant, sea and sky blending together around her to become a cradle for her floating body, and she’s watching her worries from far, far away. She floats in it, basks in it, sinks in it, and somehow falls asleep halfway through the album, just before her favorite song. She dreams of it's melodies, it's triumph, as bracingly frigid waves crashing against windy, towering cliffs, birds wheeling in graceful circles over all.

Chapter Text

Rey’s only mildly hungover Saturday morning, so she sticks to her schedule: she drags herself out of bed, stands out front of the library in the cold, waits for security to open the doors, then hoofs it to her plexiglass-walled haven.

Her routine is disrupted by a knock on the door a few hours later into the morning. Rey looks up, and blinks in dumb surprise: it’s Phasma, of all people, with a passably friendly look on her amazonian face.

She opens the door and asks, “You saving these?” Rey shakes her head no and moves her stuff out of the way.

“You, er, sure you want to sit with me? After... well, last weekend?” Rey asks as Phasma sits and gets situated. Phasma gives her a withering, but somehow still kind, look.

“He’s a bully and it had nothing to do with you. Selfishly speaking,” Phasma adds matter-of-factly, “you seem to get here early enough to get a study room, and you actually kriffing study instead of messing around, so I’ve decided you’re now the fourth person in the study group.” She concludes graciously, “You’re welcome to come drink with us, too.”

Rey doesn’t know how she feels about being annexed but the compliment warms her. Phasma’s phone makes a noise and the woman attends to it.

“I would gladly kill someone for a cup of coffee right now,” Phasma says aloud, looking down at the screen, with a little more fervor than Rey thinks is appropriate; however, Rey’s headache isn’t getting any better so she makes a noise of genuine and full agreement.

“You want sugar or cream in yours?” Phasma asks a few minutes later, typing rapidly. When Rey doesn’t answer, Phasma looks up at her, sees the conflicted oh, I don't want to be any trouble look on Rey’s face. “Hux has a French Press that makes the best damn coffee I’ve ever had,” Phasma explains. “We bought him a big thermos to guilt him into regularly brewing us a pot and bringing it in.” Phasma’s face says, very plainly, just accept the damn coffee.

“Black's fine for me,” Rey concedes. Phasma nods approvingly and resumes typing.

0*****0

Hux and Kylo show up within ten minutes of one another, hilariously grumpy at how ‘early’ it is. The coffee is indeed amazing, and Hux is smugly satisfied by everyone's compliments. Kylo is initially brusque and standoffish with her, but meets her gaze discreetly when Phasma and Hux begin arguing about something that Rey tunes out. He relaxes a little when their eyes meet and his mask falls away, just the tiniest bit, but she can't tell if he wants to say something to her or not. Rey wonders if he’d speak his mind even if Hux and Phasma were absent - the walls around them are transparent plexiglass, after all - and tamps down a frisson of irritation. She wants to wink at him - to embarrass him, to provoke him into showing something, anything other than the mask - but decides against it at the last moment. He must see the conflict flit across her face because he squints suspiciously at her, which sets off a laugh from her that she quickly stifles. He sees that, too, and is fighting amusement as he deliberately turns back to his work. Rey figures that’ll have to do and allows herself a mote of triumph.

After everyone gets settled in, the day passes quietly, the steady hum of the library in the background.

0*****0

It’s Phasma who asks the damning question.

“What are you working on?” the woman asks during a stretch break. When Rey looks up, Phasma nods to her laptop and, presumably the essay on the screen. Rey blushes a bit - she hasn’t even shared this with Rose because it’s so embarrassingly nerdy.

“It’s, uh, for my ethics class. We have to do a capstone and, uh,” she looks at her crowd of engineering majors and decides that getting technical with this would probably bore them into a premature death, “mine is about the, um, evolution of certain philosophies, from Zen Buddhism to Factio Lucis to modern day.”

Hux and Phasma are nodding with polite but glazed interest. Kylo looks like he might be quietly but painfully bleeding out from somewhere hidden under the table, but isn’t verbally protesting. Rey keeps rambling because she can’t help it when there’s eyes on her and it’s a topic that doesn’t require obfuscation.

“I’ve, well, actually started an email correspondence with a monk out in Illinois. He’s apparently one of the foremost modern experts in, um, Factio Lucis philosophies. Well, certain ones, but he's very famous with those few. I didn’t think he’d give someone who isn’t majoring in philosophy the time of day - I’m taking these classes for fun, after all - and he can be a little grumpy but - and this makes me sound like such a nerd, I know - the discussions we've had are really very thought-provoking…”

Kylo and Hux, comically, interrupt her at the same time.

“Philosophy for fun?” Hux asks, eyebrows raised in amused disbelief.

“What’s his name?” Kylo asks, an inexplicable dread in his eyes, as if he’d rather be having any conversation except this one.

“Um, yes, philosophy for fun,” Rey says, actually glad she was interrupted in her rambling. “And it’s Professor Skywalker from…” but she doesn’t get a chance to finish.

Kylo stands up abruptly, shoving his chair to roll away violently and hit the wall, slamming his laptop shut at the same time. Everything is thrown into his backpack with a distinct edge of poorly-concealed anger. It takes less than a minute or two for him to finish packing and stomp out of the room. The three of them stare at each other as the room seems to cool with his absence.

“Well,” Hux finally says, visibly surprised and taken aback, then slides back into his usual cool, snide, sarcastic honesty. “Congratulations, Rey, you’ve found a trigger I was as yet unaware. We’ll take you out for a drink to celebrate.”

Rey looks at Phasma, who shrugs. “You were saying about taking classes for fun…?” she prompts out of pity.

Rey looks down at her laptop keyboard. “I figured since I was going to be in debt for the rest of my life I might as well learn about something interesting other than math and business.”

Phasma nods in vague, polite support and turns back to her homework. Rey digs out her phone and sends Kylo a message.

Rey-of-Sunshine: (today 3:29 pm) are you ok?

He doesn’t answer for the rest of the day. Hux and Phasma declare that they're going out drinking after this, would she like to come along? But she declines: she doesn't want to intrude and doesn't want Kylo to feel like he can't go with them. (Hux and Phasma flip a coin for who has to invite Kylo. The two of them leave before Phasma gets a text back.) Her walk back from the library to the dorm is cold and damp, the October wind stirring the puddles of yellow lamplight. A train is sounding its horn far, far away, the sound echoing over the miles. She doesn’t see a single person for the entire journey back, and Rose is gone again when she finally reaches her dorm room. There isn’t a single sound from the surrounding rooms, the floor upstairs, or the street outside. The ache of it keeps her wide awake for a very long time.

0*****0

The next morning finds her furiously pounding on Kylo’s door at 10:30 a.m. (She waits this long out of respect for his neighbors - she doesn’t want his RA to be called if she can help it.) She ignores what is probably his shouts to go away and kicks the door a few times to give her hands a rest. She doesn't deserve to be treated this way, damnit, and she is going to get an explanation.

Finally, just as she feels the need to start yelling, Kylo jerks the door open and he looks terrible. If he got more than an hour of sleep last night, she’ll eat a hat. Thankfully, he gets right to the point.

"Why the fuck are you talking to Luke?" he asks her thunderously - genuinely angry in a way she hadn’t anticipated.

"Excuse me?" she replies, incredulously. Then, with mounting anger, "I will speak to whoever I damn well..."

Kylo interrupts, "He's a fucking liar and a coward!" She doesn't have a rebuttal for that and his expression softens ever so slightly, into emphatic determination. "Whatever it is you're discussing with him, he cannot help you."

"I will have you know that he has been very helpful...!" Rey protests indignantly, bewildered at this judge of character, and Kylo's face closes off. He grinds his teeth, a muscle jumping in his jaw as his anger wells up, he breathes deeply -

“If you want to talk to that hack,” he shouts at her, frustrated that the conversation isn't going his way, “that’s fine, but leave me the fuck out of it!” He moves to slam the door in her face. Rey does something incredibly stupid and sticks her foot out so it can’t close. She’s wearing boots in anticipation of her walking outside later, thank stars, so the door bounces noisily but harmlessly against the rubber sole and slams right into Kylo, knocking the breath out of him. He goes down like a bag of rocks.

As he’s gasping horribly on the floor, Rey slowly walks into his room and stands over him. She’s breathing in a deliberate rhythm to calm herself down and to keep herself from vindictively kicking his bruised side.

“What I can’t understand,” she says to him, enunciating each word slowly, letting her boiling anger just peek through, “is why you would be jealous of a random old man who lives hundreds of miles from here.” She has to breathe some more, so she lets the silence percolate, bring weight to her next pronouncement: “If you are trying to control who I talk to in any way, our arrangement is over, do you understand?”

Kylo makes an attempt to retort, anger still very present, “That’s…!”

Rey holds up a hand and, blessedly, he shuts his mouth. It would be unfortunate if she had to kill him right now. “I will give you one chance to explain yourself. Come find me when you’ve calmed the fuck down and grown the fuck up. Nod if you understand.”

It takes a moment - he doesn't nod, but she’s perversely gratified to see shame bloom across on his face. She turns around and walks out, slamming the door shut behind her.