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Let Go (Never Let Me Go)

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Rey gets on the Brown Line at Washington, her hands shaking as she pulls out her phone and taking a deep breath.

It’s chilly now that the sun’s gone down, the sunshiny days that prelude summer not quite being enough to combat the wind and shadow from the tall buildings of the Loop.  Rey crosses her arms over her chest to hide the way her nipples are responding to the chill and opens up Tinder.

You have intimacy issues, Rey, Finn had told her months ago, before she’d started using the health care benefits that her company provided her to go see a therapist.  Dr. Tano phrases it differently.  Of course you are afraid to trust—after what your family did to you.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try, and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t.  Look at Finn.

Tinder had seemed like a good idea at the time.  A way to meet people, maybe find a hookup or—dare she dream—a boyfriend.  But Rey rarely matches.  There’s something about her profile, maybe, that is unappealing—or maybe she just has high standards and swipes left on everyone the app sends her. 

Why are all of these profiles identical?  Fish photo. Shirtless photo.  Puts height in bio.  Out to drinks with four completely undifferentiable friends.  Which one is he in this group shot?  Does he have a personality at all?  Likes tacos; likes dogs; likes travel; likes fun.  A string of emojis.  Fish photo.  Photo in front of Machu Picchu.  She swipes sometimes before she’s even looked at more than just the first picture because they’re all exactly the same.

She Tinders on the train to and from Ravenswood every day, something to do that’s not just refreshing her Facebook feed for the nineteenth time since she got on the train. Something to do, because she finds that she gets too distracted by the announcements about stops on the CTA to read.

She pauses when she sees a profile that is different from the usual straight dude profile she finds on Tinder.

Ben, 35.  Probably too much of an asshole for you, but my therapist is trying to convince me that assholes deserve love too, so here’s me on Tinder.

It makes her smile.  That’s why she’s on Tinder too, after all—because her therapist told her she wasn’t even trying to trust people, now that she had Finn, and a job, and her cat.

His pictures are shitty, but Rey’s used to that.  Men don’t know how to make dating profiles. That’s patriarchy for you, Rose had told her, when—to make sure she wasn’t going totally crazy—Rey had gone through her Tinder feed with her. The profiles had all been horribly bland, and Rose had confirmed for her that they were all thoroughly uninspiring, and that had made Rey feel at least a little less crazy.  Ben’s photos are a little blurry, as though he’d found ones that he was in but which he wasn’t the center of and added them to his profiles—a shot of him in a suit; a shot of him at some party, clearly in the middle of speaking so that his face just looked weird; a shot of him and a woman who was veering into elderly territory and who was probably half his height sitting on a beach, looking terribly awkward. 

But my therapist is trying to convince me that assholes deserve love too, so here’s me in Tinder.

Rey swipes right, and isn’t really expecting anything from it as the Brown Line makes its way through the Merchandise Mart stop.  It’s late enough in the evening that there aren’t crowds and crowds of people getting on, which is a relief, but as the doors ding closed, a low voice says,

“So do you want to just talk in person instead of making awkward small talk on Tinder?”

Rey almost jumps out of her skin because yeah—that’s Asshole Ben standing there right over her and good god he’s tall.  Like Rey knows she’s sitting down, but his entire body seems to stretch on for days above her.  She glances down at her phone and sees the It’s a match!  Start chatting or keep swiping? screen on her phone.

“Hi,” she says.  “I’m Rey.”

“Ben,” he replies, as if she didn’t already know that.  Should she extend a hand?

“Awkward small talk is bad enough on Tinder, so now you get to watch me have no idea how to start a conversation in person,” Rey says.

He snorts.  “Is this better or worse than unsolicited dick pics?”

“Depends on how good the dick pic is, and how bad the conversation.”  His lips twist into a wry smile at that.

“I can’t tell if that’s a low bar or a high one,” Ben says.

“Me neither,” Rey replies, smiling despite herself.  “I suppose it depends on how much of a stalker you are, given how we literally only just matched.”

His wry smile fades at that, and something apologetic creeps into his face.  “Didn’t mean to creep you out.  I just looked up from my phone and there you were.  Figured this would save us some time.”

“You’re not wrong,” Rey says. 

“And if you do decide I’m a creepy stalker you can fake your exit on the train and get on the next one, and I’ll be none the wiser.”  And then, the apology in his face merging oddly with the dryness in his voice,  “So—you know, to dispel the idea that I’m a creepy stalker—heading home?”

Rey snorts.  She doesn’t know why, but she believes he’s not a creepy stalker.  Something in her gut, maybe, or the fact that he’d taken her joke seriously.  So she leans back in her seat and says, “Yeah.  Just got out of therapy.”  Probably not the right thing to say to a Tinder stranger, but he’d mentioned a therapist in his profile, and it’s not like this is a normal conversation to begin with, so she decides it’s fair game.

“Good session?”

“Are they ever really good?” she asks and his eyebrows twitch knowingly.  “I sit there, I cry, my doctor tells me that I’m still recovering from trauma, as if I didn’t know that, and that I have high expectations of myself, as if I didn’t know that, and that I’m looking for my parents in every boss and mentor figure I ever have, as if I didn’t know that.  And then I get to do it again next week.”

“Sounds familiar,” his lips are quirking.  “Only mine is more about needing to control anger and emotional reactions to things that make me feel powerless.  Yeah—I know. Great dating material.”

“You didn’t falsely advertise at least,” Rey says.  “The number of dates I’ve been on where someone says they like tacos and then they order a burrito.”

“Liars and frauds on Tinder. At least I’m an honest asshole. Too honest.  That’s something my therapist tells me too.”

“I imagine it goes hand in hand with being an asshole.”

Ben rolls his eyes.  “You tell one person that they’re woefully and miserably incompetent and their university should refund them the tuition they spent on their degree and suddenly you’re the asshole, even if it’s the truth.”  She can’t tell if he’s joking—she can’t tell if she wants him to be joking.  There’s something oddly charming about his deadpan.

Finn would hate him, she thinks.  But Rey…

“Going well for you, I see,” she teases. 

“Thirty-five and chatting up younger women on Tinder.  Exactly as planned.”  He sighs and his eyes go serious.  “I’m working on it.  It’s hard. Family stuff, you know.  That shit hits you hard.”

Rey knows so very well—or at least, she does in theory.  She knows because she doesn’t know.  Because she doesn’t trust, because she’s terrified that someone’s going to leave her behind again, and she’ll be alone, alone, alone and miserable and worthless, and every time she lets herself think about it, her throat closes up and her eyes get bright with tears and—

“Hey,” Ben says, his voice gentle and he’s watching her very closely.  “It’s ok—whatever it is.  It’s ok.”

“Hits you deep,” Rey says quietly, and the tech bro sitting next to her in his hoodie gets up and Ben slips in the seat next to her. 

“I know this is exactly what you might want from some stranger you just matched with on Tinder—but if you want a hug…No strings attached or anything.”

Rey leans into him sideways and he wraps an arm around her shoulder, rubbing a hand up and down her arm. “I don’t know what it is,” he tells her quietly, “And you by no means have to tell me.  But whatever it is—you’re not alone.”

“Thanks,” she mumbles. He’s still got his arm around her and it shouldn’t be this comforting—it really shouldn’t be, but the weight and warmth of it, and the heat from his body right next to her is easing the sudden constriction in her chest.  “Usually I’m better at handling it.”

“You just got out of a therapy session.  All wounds are open after a therapy session.”

“How long have you been in therapy?” Rey asks him.

“Six years,” he says automatically.  “Should have started way sooner, but shit hit the fan when I was twenty-nine.”

“What happened? Or—no.  No, you don’t have to tell me.”

He’s watching her, and his arm is still around her, and he has really expressive eyes.  That’s one thing that she doesn’t think any dating app could capture.  Ben, 35.  I’m an asshole and I have the most expressive eyes you’ll ever encounter. She loses herself briefly in the emotions she sees there.  He licks his lips as though they are too dry.  He looks almost nervous. 

“Ran over my dad with a car,” he says quietly and Rey inhales sharply.  “It was an accident, but he died anyway.  There was a lot of shit going on—I have a lot of unresolved bitterness about him.  But I also didn’t want to kill him.  So yeah. Therapy.”  He’s breathing shakily, and she can tell that it’s hard to talk about—can tell that he probably doesn’t tell anyone about this. 

“Do you want a hug?” Rey asks.  She’s still cuddled into his side and he gives her a wry smile. 

“I’ll take that as a ‘it’s not awkward that my arm is still around you,’” Ben replies, trying to smile, trying to lighten the conversation back up—but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Because I’ve been worrying about that.”

“Not awkward,” Rey says. “Calming really.”  She blushes.  She hadn’t meant to say that, it had just slipped out.

Ben looks at her, and her blush only deepens at the expression on his face—like she’d said something magical, or admitted that she was in love with him or something.  “I don’t think anyone’s ever described my presence as calming before.”

“Another unfortunate connection with being an asshole?” she asks.

“Probably,” he replies, that dryness coming back to his voice.  He does that thing where he tries to smile, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes—his eyes, which are suddenly sad.

“You don’t like being an asshole, do you,” Rey asks him quietly as the train pulls into the Armitage stop.  He grimaces.

“It was easier,” he says as the doors halfway down the car from them part for train riders to pop on and off.  “Easier than feeling all the other shit.  If I made people hate me, then it would at least be understandable why they would.” He swallows and gives her a nervous look.  “How’s that for too honest?”

“Doesn’t seem very asshole too honest,” Rey says.  “Seems vulnerable.”

“Being an asshole is easier than being vulnerable.”

“Optimistic’s mine,” Rey says.  “Always hoping, always having faith.  Easier to do that than to admit that shit’s fucked and I couldn’t fix it.” There.  She made it through that one without hyperventilating.  Progress.  Right?

“I’ll trade you,” he says. “Some optimistic denial seems like exactly what I need to get through conversations with my mom these days.”

“Oh, I bet,” Rey thinks. She can’t imagine that his mother had taken her son accidentally killing her husband with a car very well. 

“Not sure it’s a fair trade, though,” Ben says.  “Not sure anyone deserves preventative-asshole as a coping technique.”

“Not sure I’d pull it off very gracefully.”

“The nice thing is you don’t have to.”  He looks almost cheerful again.  “In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t.  Really commit to the asshole vibe.  If you want.  I won’t foist it on you if it’s an unfair trade.  But if you need a teacher…” He gives her a look that would be debonair if it didn’t have self-deprecation pulsing through it.  Or perhaps that was what made it almost debonair.

There was something almost intoxicating about watching him just be…honest.  There’s something brave in it, she thinks.  She’s always thought of herself as brave, and Dr. Tano tells her that she is whenever she worries that maybe she’s wrong, but sitting here with Ben—she takes a deep breath, and her throat goes dry, but she actually manages to say it.  “I don’t think I could pull off asshole.  It won’t make me feel better about my parents.  But I could probably learn how to be a little more honest with myself.”

And just like that, the debonair self-deprecation is gone again, and his hand is moving comfortingly up and down her arm.  “That’s hard,” he tells her.  “It’s really hard.  Important, but hard.  Life-changing, really.”

“Yeah?”

“I quit my job and talked to my mom for the first time in ten years,” he says quietly.  “And it still hurts like hell, but at least I’m not blind to shit I’ve done that’s hurt people—myself included.”  He clears his throat and mutters, “Myself most of all, sometimes.”

That sounds exactly right. Who are you helping when you think these things, Rey?  Dr. Tano had said not even an hour before, Obviously getting yourself through the day when you were young and alone was one thing.  Coping is important.  But you’re self-sufficient now.  You have a job, you have friends.  Who does it help to keep hoping that they’ll be back for you?  Why do you even want it?

He’s watching her very closely, and ordinarily, when Rey’s feeling vulnerable, she looks away, she tries to hide it.  But for some reason, his gaze is steadying, like his arm around her, like the sheer open admission that he is an asshole and he might deserve love too.

At what point do I just drop in casually that I was abandoned by my parents and have abandonment issues, Finn? she had demanded one night when someone she’d been chatting with for three days had ghosted her.  It had hurt more than it had any right to—that this stranger (one who liked tacos, and dogs, and adventures, but who had had a nice smile) had just disappeared from her life, throwing her away like she was worthless.  Finn had just hugged her and hadn’t known what to advise and Rey had known that, like always, she’d have to figure it out for herself.  At least I can acknowledge that I have abandonment issues.  And commitment issues.  And parental issues.  And issues, issues, issues.

People never thought she might be fucked up because of her bright smile and her perpetual optimism. Who are you helping with all of it, Rey?  Yourself? 

“Yeah,” she says when she realizes she’s been quiet for a long time.  “Yeah.  I—”

She swallows and watches as the flurry of people run across the platform at Belmont to switch to the Red Line.  “I spend a lot of time trying to be happy, because if I look happy, and people think I’m happy, then I don’t have to admit to myself that I don’t know if I’ve ever been happy.”

Her heart is pounding like she’s run a mile.  She knows all this, of course.  Has known it forever, really, and has talked about it regularly with Dr. Tano for months now.  But actually telling someone—a stranger—who isn’t Finn… Trust issues.  Commitment issues.  Abandonment issues.  Looking for your parents in everyone.  And Asshole Ben isn’t even really part of her life, not yet, they’re supposed to be flirting and seeing if they’re compatible and figuring out if they want to get tacos/coffee/beer before they drift apart because that’s what fucking happens with Tinder matches.

Ben squeezes her shoulder. Her mind goes still.

“Happiness is transient,” he tells her quietly.  “I’m not saying that to be an asshole—I’m saying it because it helped me understand that the opposite of misery isn’t happiness.  It’s not being miserable all the fucking time.  Happiness is a cherry on top that happens every now and then, and it’s more every then than every now when you’re dealing with deep-seeded shit. You will be happy.  Just like you’ll be sad.  And angry.”

“Emotions aren’t worth it,” she mutters, trying to smile at him.

“Yes they are,” he says fiercely.  “What else tells you what’s fucked up in your life?  Reason?  You can reason yourself into anything if you’ve got coping mechanisms as strong as mine—and, I suspect, yours.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Rey snorts bitterly.  How many years had she wasted waiting for her parents to come back for her?

Ben’s hand tightens on her shoulder, inhaling sharply—not a supportive squeeze.  His fingers are digging into her skin through her shirt. “They left you?”

She’d said that out loud. Oh god she’d said that out loud. She hasn’t said that out loud to anyone except Finn and Dr. Tano.  Not a single person.  Except, it seems, Asshole Ben.

And now, to make matters worse, tears are pricking at the corner of her eyes, and she sets her jaw and does her absolute best not to, because she thought she’d cried enough at therapy today, but nope.  Nope, there they are.  Dripping down her face and Ben’s grip on her shoulder changes and it’s back to being supportive and this time he wraps his other arm around her and she finds herself with her face pressed into his shoulder as she shudders for breath.  He’s so warm.  She hadn’t really noticed that the chill hadn’t really left her from the shadow and wind in the loop.  He smells nice too. 

“Great first Tinder date,” she mumbles as she pulls herself back together.  He pulls away from her, though he leaves his arm around her shoulder. She doesn’t know what she’d have done if he’d have tried to pull it away.  “Hi, I’m Rey and I have abandonment issues because my parents left me at the town dump when I was six and I never found out what happened to them.” She tries to smile, but Ben’s face is deadly serious when he looks at her and something about his gaze, the intensity of his eyes as he stares at her takes her breath away.

“Fuck them,” he growls at last.  “Fuck them for doing that to you.  Fuck them.”

Finn’s said that to her before—that her parents could go fuck themselves for what they’d done to her. And Dr. Tano had made it clear that she would suffer none of Rey’s attempts to justify what had been done to her.  You were a child, the psychologist had said firmly.  There is no justification in the universe for what they did.  Nothing. Nothing you could have done or been to have deserved it.

But hearing Ben’s anger, simmering under his words, sends a shiver up Rey’s spine.  His arm around her, his eyes—so deep, so intense—but god his anger makes her feel oddly safe with this stranger.

Then suddenly he’s looking away, breathing deeply, staring out the window in front of them as the train turns.  The sky is a hazy shade of purple outside as the sun sets to the west.  His face is twitching, as though he’s trying to control himself.  Rey can’t help but stare at him. 

Only mine is more about needing to control anger and emotional reactions to things that make me feel powerless, he had said when they’d been talking more lightheartedly about all this. 

Is he trying to control himself? she wonders, somehow, in her gut, knowing that he is.  Then, Why?  He doesn’t know me?  Why would he care that much?

Except just as clearly as she knows that he’s trying to control himself, she knows that that’s right too.  That this tall, self-deprecating man has, over the course of however long they’ve been on the train together, started to care about her. And part of her—the part that speaks very much with Finn’s voice—is telling her that that’s fucking creepy and she should run away, hard and fast, or at least remove herself from under his arm.

But the part of her that’s been sitting on the train, talking to him, hushes that voice.  I haven’t told him anything about myself, but I’ve told him about the core of me, she realizes.  If he cares, it’s because I’ve Trust issues. Abandonment issues.  Commitment issues.  Looking for her fuck them parents everywhere. given him something to care about.

And he has cared.

She had been on so many Tinder dates where the guy just drones on and on and on about himself, assuming that she’ll follow along raptly, and wait politely for him to ask her about her, without actually asking a question that matters to her, or sees her as a person to get to know.  It always made her feel angry, feel small, like she was supposed to be some man’s vanity project or something.  But within twenty minutes on the Brown Line, Asshole Ben has—has—

“You’re really not an asshole, are you?” she asks him quietly, and that gets his attention back to her.  “You haven’t been to me, at least.”  He swallows and looks suddenly nervous.  “An asshole wouldn’t have cared, or would have, I don’t know—I don’t know.  But you’ve been really kind to me.”

He rocks his jaw back and forth, as though trying to figure out what to say, to that.  But Rey, who is tired of crying and who feels warm, and wants to see if she can make that nervous look on his face lighten up, says, “I’d change your Tinder profile to recovering asshole.  I think that’d fit more.”

His mouth opens slightly in surprise before an almost bewildered look crosses his face.  Then he gives her a half-smile.  “Thanks for the marketing advice,” he says at last. “I could probably use a rebrand.” His eyes are very gentle now.  He swallows and she watches as his eyes dip down ever so slightly, as though he’s looking at her chin, before jerking back to her eyes.

Rey can’t really get past his eyes.  Neither of them seem to know what to say, but neither of them seem to be able to look away from one another.  He’s got the deepest, softest brown eyes she thinks she’s ever seen.  There are flecks of lighter brown in there that—next to the darker brown—almost look gold.  And his pupils seem a deeper black than any other she’s seen.

“When you started talking to me,” she begins.  Her voice is dry, and she clears her throat, “Did you think it would be like this?”

“I thought it would be just as disappointing as most conversations I ever have are—Tinder or otherwise.  Then I’d go home, drop my shit off, go to the gym, and beat up a punching bag for an hour to let out my frustration with myself for even having the gall to hope that I’m not just some irredeemable asshole.”

Rey shifts for the first time since Ben had hugged her, twisting in the plastic seat of the train car and curling one of her legs up onto it so that, for the first time since he’d appeared right in front of her, she’s facing him.  His arm falls away slowly and if it had happened at any point before now, she’s quite sure that she’d feel bereft of it, but now she is determined. 

Rey has always trusted her instincts—it’s what has gotten her this far, she thinks.  For all Dr. Tano thinks she work on being more open, in the past, Rey’s instincts have kept her alive, kept her sane.  Ordinarily, her instincts tell her when to run from someone, when to block them out of her life, when to keep them away from her heart.

And every single instinct is telling her to run towards Ben.  Ben who had given her a hug—no strings attached—twice now.  Ben, who had just met her and yet seemed hell-bent on taking care of her, not because he seemed to want to possess her, but because he didn’t seem to want her to be in pain.

“I refuse to believe that you’re an irredeemable asshole,” she tells him firmly.  “No matter what you’ve done, and how it’s affected you.” She takes his hand.

Rey’s heard the term sparks flying before.  She has heard people describe a certain feeling in their gut, across their skin when they touch someone for the first time.  She’d all assumed it was just people trying to find words to justify how strongly they feel about someone. 

But she swears a spark jumps from his hand to hers when she touches him.  And what’s more, she knows she’s not imagining it because she hears him inhale sharply and sees the way his face goes very, very still.  He felt it too.

He swallows, he moves his jaw as though biting back words, and his eyes are bright.  He takes one deep breath, then another.

“Recovering asshole,” he says at last, clearly trying to joke.

“There’s kindness in you,” she tells him firmly.  “More than you let yourself acknowledge, I’d guess.”  His eyes are very bright, and for a moment, she thinks he’s about to cry. “It’s ok,” she whispers to him. She’d cried, after all.  She’d cried and he’d held her.  If he cries, she’ll hold him.

But he doesn’t cry.

He just stares at her, and it’s as though years have been taken off his long face somehow.  He doesn’t look like Ben, 35, Asshole, he looks like he’s fifteen and the world is scarier than he’d thought it would be when he was a child who just wanted to grow up.

“My parents’ marriage fell apart because of me,” he tells her at last.  “My mom—she says they always used to fight, but it was sort of playful fighting.  And then I was born, and I was loud, and uncontrollable, and they blamed each other for me.  My dad…” He shudders and Rey squeezes his hand.  “My dad just…I don’t know.  When I was a kid I just wanted to be my dad.  And then as I got older…” he swallows and looks nervous again.  He looks away from her, but this time, it’s as though he’s hiding from her, as though he’s can’t bear to see the look on her face when he tells her what he’s about to tell her. “Look, there’s me being an asshole to people, and then there’s systemic assholery.  And I fell in with some really bad shit when I was younger.  And it took me until I was twenty-nine to really shake myself of it.  And I’ve got to live with who I’ve been, and what I’ve done and—”

“Bad is relative,” Rey begins, trying to sooth, but his eyes snap to hers.

“Alt-right shit?” he demands and there’s defiance in his face and immediately Rey winces.  “American proto-fascist shit?  I don’t think that’s relative.  And fuck knows my parents didn’t think it was either.  I meant it when I said that I’m some irredeemable asshole. Even if I also think I am trying to recover.” 

Rey doesn’t know what to say to that.  Her breathing is shorter now than it was before, her heart is pattering in her chest with this.  Her hand is still in his.  Her grip is sweaty.  She stares at him, looking at his lovely long face, his expressive eyes—so hard now where they had been so soft before—and that determined set to his jaw which had been so vulnerable only moments before.  Am I idealizing him so I don’t have to face the hard truth of him? she wonders.  She can practically see Dr. Tano hesitating. 

“And you and your dad—that changed things for you?”

“It might have,” he said, “The kicker was my boss making a joke how it was one less liberal snowflake in the world.  That catalyzed everything.  Quitting. Therapy.  Calling my mom for the first time in ten years.”  He’s looking at her now as though daring her to release his hand, as though afraid that she’d do it.

“What do you do now?” she asks him.

“I’m an immigration lawyer,” he says.  “Helping people with visa statuses, helping transition permanent residency to citizenship. That sort of thing.” 

It is not what she’d been expecting at all, in truth, but she also hadn’t known what to expect at all.  Apart from him being a force of comfort for her in the short period of time she’d known him, and that he’d killed his father, and had a strained relationship with his mother, and that he’d had a major change of ideology, she doesn’t know much about him. 

Except no. No—no that isn’t right.  She does know a lot about him.  They’d covered a lot of groundwork since he’d gotten on the Brown Line.

If there’s one thing that she trusts, it’s how point-blank honest he is.  Brutally so, brutal to himself as much as to her.  Too honest, he’d described it earlier.  But he’s also not shying away from it, not trying to hide it from her, not trying to soften it.  If anything, that feels kinder than if he’d lied and let her find out about it later.  Rey knows all too well that a kind lie can be far more damaging than a hard truth.

If I made people hate me, then it would at least be understandable why they would, he had said.  Is that what he’s trying to do to her now?

“Do you like it?” she asks. And with that one little question, he visibly relaxes.  She hasn’t run away screaming, she hasn’t decried him as a fascist, she hasn’t called him an asshole and meant it this time.  His thumb runs along her hand, and she runs hers back along his.

“I feel like I do good work,” he says, sounding a little more settled.  “It’s complicated, and I had to go back and do a ton of additional training to do it.  But it’s good.  Yeah. Yeah, I think I like it.”

“You sound so convinced,” she teases.

“Happiness is transient,” he shrugs again.  “But it’s definitely got moments of strong satisfaction.  And I know somewhere I’m pissing Snoke off by helping foreigners actually get here and stay.”

“Snoke’s your former boss?” The name is familiar—the sort of name she might have read in a news article the past few months about the rise of authoritarianism.

Ben nods.  “Spite is probably not the purest motivation when it comes to having gotten here, but sometimes the impact is more important. Or at least that’s what my therapist tells me.”  He has definitely relaxed.  He is facing her in the seat now too.  She hadn’t noticed when he’d shifted for it, but he’s leaning sideways, and his legs—so much bigger than hers—are stretched out straight.  Were the car not predominantly empty, she’s sure that someone would be complaining about how he’s manspreading.  “What do you do?”

Rey takes a deep breath. “I’m an inventory specialist,” she says. “It’s fine.  It pays my bills.  The commute is too long, but I like my roommate too much to move.”

“But it’s not what you want to be doing.”

“I don’t know what I’d rather be doing,” she says.  “Sometimes I feel like I could be doing more, and my therapist has to remind me that sometimes just getting through is a lot of work.  But I could like it more.”

“You good at it?” Ben asks. It’s an odd question.

“Yeah,” she replies. “I am.  I just—” she pauses and sighs.  “It’s just one more thing I’m going to have to solve on my own, I guess.”

That makes Ben frown. “You don’t have friends to help you? I know parents are a no-go, but—”

“There’s only so much that Finn can help,” she replies.  “My best friend,” she adds.  “My roommate. Him and Rose—they’ll help.  And they do try.  But at the end of the day, I still have to figure it out on my own, don’t I?”  Ben nods, understanding now gleaming in his eye.  “And I appreciate that it’s good to be independent.  And honestly I’d hate someone telling me what to do, or what I wanted, which is the most frustrating part of it.  I guess…I guess sometimes I like to hope life can be easy, but it never will be, will it?”

Ben shakes his head. “Probably not.  I certainly don’t expect it to be at this point.”

“I just keep hoping…” then she laughs bitterly.  “But that’s me.  Hoping until I’m able to stomach the hard truth.”

“Yeah—that sounds miserable and you should stop,” Ben says dryly.  “Not to be that asshole telling you what to do or what you want.”

She laughs again and leans her head against the window of the train car.  She always comes out of therapy feeling as though she’d been put through an emotional wringer, but right now she feels even more as though she’s felt every possible emotion in the past few minutes.  She’s laughed, she’s cried.  Her stomach rumbles and she glances out of the window.  The sky is inching towards deep blue now, and the streetlights are on and—

“Shit,” she says.  The Brown Line is at street level.  “Shit I missed my stop.”

Ben jerks his head out the window too.  “Ah fuck.” He starts to laugh. 

“Where were you supposed to get off?” she asks.

“Montrose,” he replies. “You?”

“Western.”

They both pull themselves to their feet and he’s a good head and shoulders taller than her.  It’s unreal.  “Do you—” Ben begins before cutting himself off.  “Do you want to grab dinner?”  He looks nervous, as though he can’t believe he’s asking it. Quite the opposite of the way he’d burst into her life at the Merchandise Mart stop. 

“Sure,” Rey says, startled by how breathless her own voice sounds.  “There’s a good Thai place near my apartment if you like Thai food.  I don’t really know what’s up here.”

“Thai sounds great.” He looks as though he’d have agreed to anything.  He tugs his phone out of his pocket.  “Uber? So we don’t accidentally end back up in the Loop?”

She laughs and he hands his phone to her and she plugs the address into the app.  Then she navigates to his contacts app and adds her name and number.

Chapter Text

They are silent the entire Uber ride. 

Rey is acutely aware that they’re not alone, that there is a driver sitting there in the front seat, able to hear every word they say to one another.  So she sits there in the back seat of the car and watches Ben.

And Ben—Ben watches her too. He sits with his head tilted back against the headrest, his eyes almost dazed again as though he still can’t really believe how all this turned out. 

Rey knows the feeling, and rather suspects that she’s looking at him the exact same way.

Her hand inches towards his on the seat, and her fingers brush against his skin.  There it is again, those sparks flying.  His fingers wrap around hers and pull them closer to his palm, and her breath hitches for just a second.

And Rey is wholly, unbelievably unafraid.

The fact that she’s not afraid frightens her more than the intensity of Ben’s eyes on her, than the feeling of his fingers twined with hers, the fact that she’s noticed that they are inhaling and exhaling at the same pace.  She should be completely frightened of him.  He is still a stranger.  And it’s not like she’s ever been this open emotionally with anyone.  It’s not like anyone’s ever been this open emotionally with her.  He is taller than she is, and probably stronger.  He had mentioned boxing.  He had mentioned getting angry.  He had mentioned doing things with the Alt-Right for years.  If, say, Rose had mentioned meeting someone like him, she’d have counseled her friend to run screaming in the other direction.

But instead, she rubs her thumb against his again, and he closes his eyes for a moment as though savoring the sensation of it. 

Then Rey’s stomach growls, and his lips twitch into a grin.

“Hungry?”

“Yeah, I’m usually home by now,” she says sheepishly.

He glances at his phone. “Nearly there.”

She knows that.  She knows where they are, has biked along here with Finn on nice days.  Their route will actually likely take them right by her apartment.  Indeed—as they pass, she can see the light in the living room is turned on, and can tell from the way the wall is illuminated that either Finn or Rose has the TV on.

She tugs out her phone for the first time since she and Ben had matched and sees three texts from Finn.

Where are you?  Everything ok?

Oh right you had therapy tonight.

We’re ordering pizza.  I’ll save you some.

<3

Believe it or not I’m on a Tinder date right now.  Crazy story. I’ll tell you about it later.

She puts her phone away right as the Uber pulls up in front of the Thai place.  Ben gets out and holds the door for her as she thanks the driver and scoots along the seat to follow him. 

It’s later in the evening than most people tend to start their dinners, and the hostess seats Rey and Ben at a table by the window.  They smile at one another from across the table, but neither says anything.  And for one wild moment, Rey is terrified that they used up all their conversation on the train, that there’s nothing left for them to talk about.

Ben drops his gaze to the menu and asks, “So what’s good here?”

“Everything,” Rey says at once.  “I like the curry a lot.”

Ben nods and glances back up at her.  “Do you like splitting food or separate dishes.”

“I’m fine with whatever,” she says.  “Split?”

He nods.

“I’m going to order a lot,” she tells him.  “I eat like an elephant.”

He arches an eyebrow at her and she sees the way his gaze drops to her torso.  It’s odd—knowing that he’s gauging her weight against her words. “That so?”

“Yes,” she says firmly. Everyone she’s ever eaten with has been astounded by how much she can put away.  Finn’s probably saved her an entire pizza back at the apartment because he knows that she’s a bottomless pit.  “Comes from being hungry a lot growing up.”

A flicker of understanding crosses his face.  “You were in foster homes?”

She nods.  “Not very good ones.  I know that some of them tried, but some of them really didn’t.”

“How many?”

“Five,” she replies.

“Nice and stable,” he says dryly.

Rey grimaces.  “I ran away from one when I was sixteen.  That’s how I met Finn.  He was running away too.  We just sort of…clicked together after that.”

“Two unwanted children on the road for two years?”

Rey shakes her head. “Nah.  We got caught after like a week.  Turns out cell phones can get tracked, but neither of us had watched enough TV to know that.  Got put into new homes.  But we kept in touch, and both ended up not too far from one another when we got out of the system.  That’s when we were on the road for two years.”

“Where’d you go?”

“Chicago,” Rey says, grinning.  “Finn did deliveries and I did odd mechanic jobs.  I’m good with a wrench,” she adds, and the corners of his eyes crinkle fondly with the mental image.  “Then we both applied for an associates program.  Then we both went on to get bachelors.  Took a few years, but it was worth it.  What about you?”

She asks out of habit, but watches his face go still.  He’s already told her some of his, after all.

“Boarding school when I was fourteen,” he says.  “Then college for four years.  Then working for Snoke for a year, then law school, then back to Snoke. Then…yeah.  The rest of it.”  He doesn’t specify where he went, but then again, Rey hadn’t either.

“What brought you to Chicago?”

“I wanted to be in a completely new place,” he says.  “I’m from back east originally.  The Boston area—my mom’s still there.  She usually comes and visits for a week in August to spend time by the lake, and I’ll head back for the High Holy Days because that matters to her, but other than that it’s…intermittent.  Talking to her, I mean.”  He’s rambling, Rey notices.  He’s nervous. “I worked in the DC vicinity for a few years, and I just wanted to…not be anywhere anyone I knew was going to be. And everyone forgets Chicago out east because they think everything between the coasts is flyover country, even if Chicago is like the second or third biggest city in the country.”

“Good place to lay low,” Rey says.

“Yeah.  Lick my wounds and all that.”

The waitress stops by, and asks if they’re ready.  Rey glances at Ben.

“You order,” he tells her. “I’m fine with whatever.”

So she does, watching with an amused expression as he takes in just how much she orders.

“I did warn you,” she teases when the waitress is gone.

“You did,” he agrees. “You probably eat more than all my frat brothers combined.”

“I’ll take that as a badge of honor,” Rey grins. 

“You should.  They were ravenous.”

“Are you still in touch with them?”

He stiffens before shaking his head.  “Not really. I ended up cutting a lot of ties I made when I was younger.  And it’s…” he takes a deep breath.  “I wasn’t lying on that Tinder profile—that my therapist has been trying to convince me it’s worth my time to actually make friends and stuff.  Most of the time I feel like I’m lying to people.  That I have to lie to people to even be remotely acceptable to them.  There’s no good way to tell people about what I used to be.”

“So you don’t have friends?” Rey asks quietly.

“I have colleagues I get along with, and a mom I barely talk to.  And my clients.”

“Are you lonely?”

He watches her for a moment. “Yes.  And I deserve it.”  He bites the words out as though daring her to contradict him.  It grates.

“And yet you set up that profile,” she points out.  “You listened to your therapist.  I don’t see how forcing yourself to be on your own is some sort of just punishment for what you’ve been.  How is that turning yourself into who you want to be?”

He stares at her. 

“You almost make me believe that,” he says after a moment.

“Good, because it’s shitty logic, and you’re the one who said you can reason yourself into anything you like as a coping mechanism.” 

The potstickers Rey ordered arrive before he can respond, and she pops one into her mouth.

Almost at once, she feels less annoyed and she pushes the plate towards him to take one.  He does, and he chews slowly, watching her.

“You’re going to kick my ass, aren’t you,” he says after he swallows.

“When you’re dumb,” Rey replies and he takes another potsticker.

“I suppose that makes an assumption.”

“That you’re going to be dumb?  Because—”

“That we’re still going to be talking after tonight.”  The words make Rey stiffen and she stares at him, her mouth dry.  He is staring back at her, his eyes soft, and he moves his jaw again before speaking.  “I’d like to—if you don’t end up running screaming for the hills.”

“I assumed we would.” Her voice is thick, and there’s a sting in her eyes.  It’s not him wanting to leave, she tells herself firmly.  It’s him making sure you’re not pushing him away.  “I—I want to too.  Very much.”

He’s got that look in his eyes again—like he can’t quite believe she’s real.  He looks like he might cry.

Why?

The question is almost hissed, his voice is so quiet.

“Is because you care about me not enough?” she asks.  “Or is it just not good enough?  Because no one—not a single person—has managed to make me feel safe the way you did. Right away.  I’m more scared of not being scared, than I am of everything that has ever prevented me from trusting someone.  And maybe you’re fucked up, but you’re also working on it, just like me.”  Her voice is trembling now and suddenly she’s afraid she might cry again.  “I don’t see why we can’t work on it together.  I want to.  Because you clearly need someone to tell you when you’re being dumb, just like I—I need someone to offer me a hug with no strings attached.”

“For what it’s worth, when I offered you that hug, I didn’t expect to end up here.”

“All the more meaningful that you did that, then.  I needed it, and it was selfless.”

“Until I didn’t want to let you go.”

Rey rolls her eyes. “Good thing the feeling was mutual, then,” she says.  “Good thing I don’t want to let you go either.  Stop pretending like it was meaningless because—”

“It wasn’t meaningless,” Ben interrupts fiercely, leaning forward.  “I haven’t felt the way I felt on that train with you, the way I feel with you now—not ever in my life.  It’s not meaningless.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why you’re not running screaming for the hills.”

“Maybe because I see your future more than I see your past.”

The words are out of Rey’s lips before she has even had time to think about them, but that’s it—that’s the truth of it.  Ben’s past has been dark—he’d told her that himself.  And maybe his future isn’t bright and shining, but it’s not dark at least. Dr. Tano is always telling her to look at her progress in comparison to her past and not in comparison to what everyone makes her think her present should be.

That’s Ben.

That’s Ben, and his arm around her, her fingers sparking when she touches his hand, a warm feeling she’s never felt before in her chest expanding the longer she looks at him.

“You have a lot of optimism in me,” he says quietly after a moment.

“I have too much optimism, and you don’t have enough.  Seems logical that spreading some of it out to make up for what you’re missing would make sense.  Do you want that?” she points to the last potsticker.

“Take it,” he says without even looking at it, and she does.  “Well, it’s working.”

“What is?” Rey asks, her mouth full. 

“Redistributing your optimism.  You’ve made me feel hopeful for the first time in years.  It’s terrifying.”

Rey gives herself time to breathe as she chews.  This is fine. Everything will be fine.  “Is that what that freak out was?”

“Was it a freak out?” She raises her eyebrows and he grimaces, a little sheepish.  “Yeah. Yeah I guess it was.  On both counts.”  He heaves a sigh.

“Is it the powerlessness thing again?” she asks, as if she’s known about it for years, as if she’s known about it for more than two hours.

“Yes,” he says.  “It’s always powerlessness.  Finding you, but knowing there’s nothing I can do to make you stay if you don’t want to.  Not knowing what the hell to do with myself as I find myself caring more about you with every passing second.  Knowing I probably shouldn’t say it, but the only power I have is that I can.”

“Well, I think I’m staying,” Rey says.  “I did put my number in your phone.  I hope you’re not a sociopathic murderer.”

“Pity you showed me your favorite Thai place.  Now I know how to lure you into my trap and destroy you slowly.”

“I never said it was my favorite Thai place.  Just that I liked it.”

He inclines his head, ceding the point.  He also tugs his phone out of his pocket and begins typing on the screen.  A moment later, her phone buzzes in her purse and instinct makes her grab it.  On the lock screen, she sees the words Ben Solo, under a string of numbers.  Her throat gets thick at the sight of it.

“Solo?” she asks.

“Ellis Island name,” he says, shrugging.  “It was something significantly more Polish at one point, or so my dad claims.”

“At least there’s a story there,” Rey sighs.  “I’ve only got the single most common last name in the universe.”

“Was that your last name or was it assigned you?” he asks carefully.

“It’s mine,” she says. “I don’t remember much about my parents without getting terrible migraines, but I do remember my dad’s last name was Johnson.”  Johnson, and the backseat of a too-hot car, and the sun hitting her strong down in the southwest.

“Is it ok for me to ask about them?”  His voice is quiet, his head tilted forward, his eyes firm as he asks.  “Or is that something more for your therapist?”

Rey takes a deep breath. “You can ask,” she says.  “My therapist thinks I need to be able to talk about it more but,” she waves her hand, “intimacy issues.”  He gives her a small smile and she feels his foot nudge against hers under the table.  “Can I ask about yours?”

“You can ask whatever you like,” Ben tells her.  “I’ve already told you the hard cold facts.  If you want more details you’re welcome to them.”

Rey takes a deep breath. She wants to ask, she wants to, but she’s never known how to ask people about their families.  Not without her throat closing up.  “Your mom—you said things were strained with her.”

He sighs and leans back slightly.  “It’s a lot of complicated shit,” he sighs, running his hand through his hair.  God his hair is beautiful.  “Lots of conflicting shit, and we try to be honest about it.  She loves me, and I love her.  I killed my dad.  She and my dad were separated, but he still died because of me, and she still loved him even though they were separated.  She’s involved in politics—like very actively so, so her son going and doing shit that operated in exact opposition to everything she stands for—she doesn’t trust me anymore.  She loves me, but she doesn’t trust me.  That’s hard. That’s strained.”  He rattles it off and she knows that he’s talked about it with his therapist because when he’s done, he catches his breath and he takes a sip of water.  “And the only thing that’ll make it better is time.”

“And then you feel powerless.  And you get angry.”

“Funny how you can read me better than anyone I’ve ever met,” he says, ducking his eyes as he smiles.

“It helps that you’ve told me all your tricks already,” Rey points out.

“My success on Tinder: telling the girl I matched with all of my psychological bullshit so she can at least see if I’m being consistent or not.”

“Hey, it worked better than any other Tinder date I’ve been on,” Rey laughs, and Ben has such a lovely smile.  His whole face seems to light up and his eyes seem to shine out of his face like these great big beacons of joy as he looks at her.  And her heart is so full as it pounds in her chest. 

She loves his smile. She loves it, loves the softness of his lips, and suddenly she wishes they were sitting in a booth and not at a table across from one another because she could change sides, sit next to him like she did on the train, kiss him if she wanted to.

“You’re so beautiful,” she whispers to him and he freezes.  He swallows, and the smile is gone and she can tell that no one’s ever told him that—not with his big ears, his big nose, his big lips, his long face. But it’s the truth.  He is.  He is, and he wants to stay with her, and is afraid that she’ll leave him—possibly more than she’s afraid that he’ll leave her. 

Then it creeps back across his face, that smile—shyer now than it had been, hyper aware that Rey is staring at him. 

So maybe it’s a good thing that the server arrives with the food that Rey had ordered—curries and noodles and rice and meat and spicy things that she realizes she had not asked Ben if he could handle. 

He seems fine with it—or at least if it’s too spicy he doesn’t let it on.  They eat in silence for the most part and when the conversation picks up again, it’s lighter.  Which is odd. Rey’s gone on so many Tinder dates at this point that she’s gotten tired of talking about favorite movies and favorite TV shows and what she does on the weekend for fun when she’s not working.

But maybe because of everything that they’ve already talked about, this part seems oddly fun.  He’s stunned that she’s never watched The Lord of the Rings and she half expects him to drag her back to his apartment and make her watch the twelve hour version he can’t shut up about, claiming that the extended edition makes all the difference in the world.  He listens eagerly about the volunteer work she does with high school students—the only person she’s ever been on a date with who doesn’t look more like he’s trying to impress her by not appearing bored but rather seems genuinely interested. She’s not surprised by this.  It only makes her feel that much warmer towards him.

He pays for dinner and doesn’t listen to Rey’s protestations that they split the check.

“I asked you out, remember.”

“Yeah but this isn’t a first date.  Our first date was on the Brown Line, which we split evenly.  You paid for our Uber.  That was the second date.  We’re well into third date territory now and we can split the check again.”

“That’s not how it works.” He pushes her credit card back across the table.  “Seriously. My treat.  There’ll be other opportunities,” he pauses as the words hit him before pushing forward, “for us to have this fight again in the future.”

“Am I always going to have to fight you for the check?” she demands.

“Time will tell.”

“Asshole,” she mutters under her breath and he grins at her.  She can’t get mad at him when he’s smiling.

It’s full on chilly when they step outside and Rey crosses her arms over her chest, feeling her nipples press through her shirt almost at once.  She looks up at him and he looks down at her and in the darkness she can see the glinting reflections of the headlights of passing cars in his eyes. They look like stars.

“I don’t want this to be over,” she blurts out.  Because she’s not ready.  She’s not ready to put him on the Brown Line again, not ready for this bizarre evening to end.  If she goes back to her apartment, will it have all turned out to be a dream?

And his arms are around her again, pulling her against his chest, pulling her against his heart.  He presses his lips to the top of her head, his breath warm and gentle against her scalp.  Warm and gentle, but oddly she shivers even more and she tilts her face up because she is in his arms, she’s wanted to kiss him since he smiled over dinner, and he’s right there.

It is a tentative kiss.  Rey can’t remember the last time she kissed someone—years ago at this point, at some party or something she and Finn had been at. Ben’s breath has traces of basil and curry on it.  His lips are soft, and oddly stationary as she kisses him.  And suddenly, even though she’s the one shivering in his arms, and he’s trying to hold her steady, he is quivering.  She keeps kissing him and he starts breathing very hard, and slowly, his lips begin to move against hers.

It is not an artful kiss—not a practiced one, and questions pepper Rey’s mind that she hadn’t thought to ask over dinner.  Have you ever been in love before?  Have you ever kissed a girl before?  Have you ever wanted to?

She licks along his bottom lip and sucks it between her own for a moment and he makes a noise in his throat like he is trying to stifle a groan.  And suddenly he’s pulling his lips away from hers.  He is breathing harder than she would have expected. 

“Too fast?” she asks him quietly.

“No, I—” he swallows. Then he takes a deep breath and kisses her again, clearly trying to mimic what she had done with her lips and tongue.  His hand comes to cradle the spot where he spine meets her head and she wraps her arms around his waist, pulling him closer to her.  He’s so tall that she can feel his groin stirring not against her own, but rather against her stomach, and when she stands on tiptoes to get at a better angle of his lips, he pants into her mouth because of the way she drags herself over his stiffening cock.

“My place is only a few blocks away,” she whispers to his lips.  “If you want to come over.  You could meet Finn and…” And?

He’s hard already, and she’s probably wetter than she thinks she is because she’s almost always wetter than she thinks she is when she’s been kissing someone and it’s been so long since she’s kissed anyone and Ben isn’t just anyone.  No one else has made her heart hammer like this before.

He swallows.

“I haven’t done this before,” he tells her at last.  “So I’m not sure what you’re offering, but wanted to be clear about that.”  In the darkness she can’t see if he’s blushing or not, but she can guess that he is.

“We can figure it out,” she whispers.  She knows that Finn has condoms in the apartment that he hasn’t used ever since Rose went on birth control.  If they need them, she’s sure Finn wouldn’t mind letting them use one.  She’s equally sure he’ll tease the crap out of her for the next twelve years for asking, but it’d be worth it, Ben will be worth it.

Ben’s already worth it.

“Do you want to?  Come over?”

“Are you sure?”  he asks.  “I know we’ve been joking about it, but I really won’t mind if you don’t. We did only meet a few hours ago and—”

Rey kisses him and the words die on his lips.  “I’m sure. I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t,” she tells him firmly.  “But if you don’t want to, I’ll understand.  For the same reasons that you just—”

And she can’t help but grin as he kisses her quickly before resting his forehead against hers, his arms tightening a little bit around her.

“How far is your apartment?” he asks.

“Seven minutes?” she says. “Depending on how fast we go.”

“Hmmmm,” he says. He’s taking deep breaths, as though he’s trying to—

Oh.

Because he’s rock hard against her stomach right now.  She bites back a grin.

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Just…stay still for a second.  If you don’t mind.  Or ask me questions about my parents or something?”

“What does your mom do?  You said she was political.”

“She works for the governor of Massachusetts.  And might run for Senate sometime soon.  If she can figure out what to do with me.”

“Do with—”

“Because she’s a woman running for office and her former Alt-Right scummy son might be a drag on her shining reputation,” he sighs.  And even as he says it, she feels his dick start to go slack.  He’d been right about that, at least.

He pulls away from her and takes her hand and then—in a gesture that only cements Rey’s impression that all this might be a dream, brings her knuckles to his lips and kisses them.

Rey leads him down the street, pulling her phone out of her pocket to warn Finn.

I’m bringing him home.

Finn’s response is immediate.

Who are you and what have you done with Rey?

Shut up. 

I really like him.

Like a lot.

Clearly.

I’m happy for you.

Should we make ourselves scarce?

Do you need a condom?

Rey blushes. 

No need.

And maybe?

I’ll put them in the bathroom nice and discreetly for you.

Finn and Rose are on the couch, watching the Cubs game when Rey lets the two of them into the apartment. 

“Hey,” she says and they both glance over.  Finn nods once at Ben, and Rose smiles.  “Finn, Rose—this is Ben.  Ben, Finn and Rose.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ben says, a little breathily.  He glances at the TV.  “Fuck are they really losing against the Mets?

“I’m choosing to believe that they’re being charitable,” Finn says.  “Let those poor Mets have something for once.”

Rose elbows him.  “The Mets aren’t that bad.”

“They really are,” Finn replies.  “She’s from Queens,” he explains to Ben.

“They’ve got a good pitching rotation this year,” Rose complains.  A crack rings out from the TV and both of their heads snap towards it. “YES!” Rose shouts as Finn groans and reaches for his beer.

“Do you want to watch?” Rey asks Ben quietly as Rose gloats.

“I…” Ben starts but he seems to lose his train of thought when he looks at her. 

“Or I could show you around.”  She twitches her eyebrows significantly.

“Yeah, that’d be nice.”

Her phone buzzes in her pocket and she glances at the lock screen briefly.

They’re in the mirror cabinet.  Be safe, kids.

Chapter Text

Rey’s room is small. She suspects it is supposed to have been a child’s bedroom, not designed for the queen size bed that she’d bought from Ikea, feeling like a real live adult with a pay check.  The bed takes up most of the room, and her closet is actually the hall closet right outside her door. 

BB is asleep in the middle of the bed when she leads Ben into it after quickly showing him the kitchen, the bathroom, the room that Finn and Rose share.  She bends down to scratch the cat behind the ears and he wakes up with a mrow, big yellow eyes taking Ben in curiously. 

Ben has closed the door behind him and sits down on the bed on BB’s other side, holding his hand out for the cat to sniff.  BB does before leaning back and exposing his belly.  “Don’t pet him there.  He’ll claw you,” Rey warns as she runs her hands over the cat’s tail.

“I suspected that might be the case.”

“I’ve heard tell of cats who don’t mind it when you scratch their tummies, but BB’s not one of them.”

“Artoo was,” Ben says. “My mom’s old cat.  Total fucker.  Used to stare you in the face as he knocked your water glass off the table. But he was like putty in your hands if you scratched his belly.” 

“BB’s a rescue.  He’s a little skittish sometimes, but he’s sweet.” She bends her head down to kiss the cat’s nose.  “Normally he sleeps in here with me, but I might kick him out.”

Ben swallows and nods and Rey scoops BB up in her arms.  He yowls, clearly not ready to be moved from his bed, and she opens the door and drops him down onto the hallway’s floor.  He looks up at her, his expression clearly betrayed before he stalks off to the kitchen to eat his feelings.

Rey closes the door again and turns to Ben. 

What next? 

This had seemed like the most natural thing following the Brown Line, following dinner.  But now that they’re actually in her room, she’s aware of how nervous Ben looks.

“I—” Ben starts before stopping.  He’s just sitting there, his hands on his knees, waiting for her to decide what she wants.  So she sits down on the bed next to him and kisses him again.

This time, he doesn’t stifle his groan when her tongue slips between his lips.  His hands come to rest at her hips and she twines hers around his neck, pulling his chest closer to hers. 

His heart is hammering in his chest, she can feel that against her own as she licks her way across his tongue, memorizing the feel of it, shivering when he tries wrapping it around hers.  He’s very much a novice kisser, but Rey doesn’t mind the sloppiness of his lips against hers, or the way their teeth keeps clacking.  It’s not like she’s ever been phenomenally kissed, and she knows they’ll find their rhythm. 

And they do.  He’s eager, but more importantly he’s attentive. He notices her discomfort the first time his tongue goes too far back towards her throat and pulls back.  When he tries something that makes Rey’s breath catch, or makes her hum in delight, he does it again, and again until she’s breathless.  His hands tighten at her hips and god why is him holding her enough to make her head spin? Because her head is spinning, her heart is pounding, her breath is shallow, and she wants to consume him, to be consumed by him. 

She pulls him back down onto the bed with her, running her hands up and down the sides of his face. His lips slow against hers as he rubs his nose against hers.  “You’re incredible,” he whispers to her.  “I—I have no idea what I’m doing.  But you’re incredible.”

She kisses him.  “I can show you,” she whispers back. “Unless it’s too much, unless you want to keep it slow.”

He laughs shakily. “I’m—I’m not sure.  I’m not sure about anything.  Just that you’re incredible.  I’m sure about that.”  He kisses her again, slowly.  “I’ve never done this before,” he says again.  “Like not even close.  Which I think, retrospectively, is a good thing.  I was not a person someone should date for a very long time.”

“And now?”

“Starting to hope that might not be the case anymore,” he grins into her lips.  She nips at his lower lip, sucking it between hers again and runs her hands over his back.  She can feel the contours of muscles there, sturdy and strong.  He’s lying with his hips next to her, rather than between her legs, which she can’t help but feel a little frustrated with because she is starting to get to that point where she wants to wrap her legs around his waist and rub herself all over him.  She lets go of his lip and her tongue is back in his mouth and it’s divine—being wanted this way.  Being held by him, being with him right now.  Even when he pulls his lips away from her again.

“What I’m trying to say,” he says, “Is that I don’t know what we’re…what we’ll…I don’t have a condom or anything with me.”  He flushes adorably and Rey runs her hand over his cheek again. 

“I’ve got us covered. Or rather, Finn does,” she says. She sits up.  “I can go get one now if you’d like.  So we don’t have to get it later.  We don’t need to use it if we don’t go that far.”

Ben nods and she’s not wholly sure how to interpret the nod, but she pulls herself away from him.  It takes more effort than it should—not because he’s holding her back, but because she just doesn’t want to let go of him. But she does, clambering off the bed and making her way to the door. 

BB tries to come back in the moment she opens it and she nudges him with her foot.  “No, kitty,” she tells him.  “Finn and Rose will snuggle you tonight.”

She can hear them arguing about a play on the couch as she walks lightly towards the bathroom.  True to his word, Finn had put the box of condoms in the cabinet behind the mirror and she grabs two little foil packets before glancing at herself in the mirror.

Her lips are red and her eyes are bright and her hair is a bit of a mess.  It’s a good look on her, she thinks idly as she turns off the light and scurries back to the bedroom, slipping in quickly before the cat can follow her.

Ben’s sitting in the middle of the bed.  His shoes are off, as is his necktie and the blazer he’d been wearing, and his legs are tucked up, his arms forming a bridge between them.  Rey drops the condoms on the bedside table and crawls over to him. She kneels between his legs, his arms drop away, and she leans forward.  Wordlessly, she nudges his nose with hers and his hand comes back to her hair and it shouldn’t be that exciting, his grip against her skull—except that it is. It’s like every place he touches her glows whenever he does, like her whole body is fizzling in anticipation of him.

Rey’s had sex before. Not good sex.  She’s had enough conversations with Rose—no details allowed but certain details happening anyway—about what makes sex good, and Rey’s never had an orgasm with another person, never felt like she was an equal participant in the sex itself.  And maybe part of that was self-sabotage (intimacy issues—forever with the intimacy issues) but she also thinks that it just…wasn’t good sex.

She quivers with anticipation of what it will feel like with Ben inside her if every nerve in her body seems to celebrate his hand in her hair.

He pulls her down so that she’s lying on top of him as they kiss.  His hands don’t stay at her hips now.  Now, they are running along the hem of her shirt which has begun to ride up. His touch is tentative as he slips his hand under the fabric and Rey gasps at the warmth of his hand, the way it sends a shiver across her skin.  Goosebumps erupt on her arms and legs, and she feels her nipples stiffen a little more.  She wonders if he can he feel them too, with her chest pressed against him like this. She can feel his cock, hot and hard against her leg through his pants.  She wants to reach down and grab it, to unbuckle his belt and feel how hot his skin is and—

His touch is less tentative now as his hand climbs her spine, and Rey stops kissing, her eyes squeezed shut as he climbs higher and higher.  He finds the clasp of her bra and she feels him freeze and knows that his head is racing with how to get the thing off when he has no experience doing so. She kisses him again and pushes herself up a little bit so that she can straddle his hips—he lets out a groan when her leg brushes against his cock—and she tugs her shirt up over her head and, smooth and practiced, unclasps the bra and tosses both to the floor by the bed. 

She sits there, watching him.  His eyes are dancing over her—her chest, her lips, her stomach, the spot right between her legs that is now pressed against his lower abdomen, back up to her chest, back to her lips, her eyes.  She realizes he is holding his breath when he exhales slowly and he raises a hand to her chest. 

“It’s so soft,” he blurts out. 

She leans forward, grinning, her hair falling forward with her so that she has to brush it out of her face before she can kiss him properly.  She kisses her way across his lips, across his cheek, down over his jaw until her face is buried in his neck and his other hand tightens on her hip. She sucks at the skin and a moment later he’s rolling them over so she’s on her back and his lips are crushing down on hers, hard and hot before he moves onto her neck, to her sternum. 

She can feel his breath shaking against her skin as he kisses his way across the curve of her breast until he wraps his lips around her nipple and begins to suck at it.  Rey sighs and arches into him as that glowing feeling spreads through her again, warm and pulsing in time with her heart. “No teeth,” she murmurs when they graze her skin and he pauses, circling her nipple with his tongue in a way that makes her moan and clutch as his shirt.

His shirt.

That he’s still wearing.

Rey sits up underneath him and he follows her lead, kneeling between her legs and she tugs at the buttons of his shirt.  They’re small and frustratingly stubborn under her fumbling fingers, and Ben works at the one just beneath her.  They alternate their way down the shirt until it’s loose enough to pull over his head and it—and the undershirt he’s wearing—join Rey’s shirt and bra on the floor and—

“Holy shit.”

He has an eight pack.

A real, honest to god eight pack.  And pecs that are a fucking godsend and—and—

He’s grinning now as he leans forward to kiss her, clearly pleased with her reaction.  Numbly, she reaches a hand up to his chest.  His skin is hot, and firm and now it’s her turn to lean forward and just—she doesn’t suck on his nipple, though they’re there, a dusty red in the middle of each of his pecs.  But she knows there’ll be a hickie on his pec tomorrow because of the way she’s sucking at it, the way her hands are running up and down his stomach now and he’s pulling her back down on top of him, letting her kiss her way across his chest, across his beautiful, beautiful abdominal muscles, his cock jutting against her skin, twitching every time she moves, making Ben’s breath hitch. 

When her lips reach his belt buckle, she tugs at it and his hand flies to her wrist.

“Oh, do you not—”

“I want this to last,” he tells her and there’s a fierceness to his voice that makes her shiver.  “Because I’m not going to.  I’m toast the second you touch me.  Trust me.”  Then, a little more strained.  “I want to. But.  Just a little more time.  Please.”

It’s the please that melts her heart.

She crawls up the bed next to him and kisses him again.  She runs her hands through his hair as she does.  It’s so soft, and silky, and how so unbelievably perfect, everything about him is perfect—his hair, his body, his heart.  She could cry, she really could. 

His hand drifts across her belly, up to her breasts again, which he palms again inelegantly.  He twists at her nipple with his fingers, not quite comfortably, but not bad per se, and she rests her forehead against his and his hand slows as their eyes lock again. 

His pupils are so dilated that she sees more black than brown there.  He blinks lazily at her, his lips arcing into a gentle smile before he leans in and kisses her again.

She doesn’t think she’ll ever be over the feeling of his lips, really.  They’re so soft, and plump and he’s really getting the hang of kissing her in a way that feels wonderful.  His tongue rubs its way along hers, and she shivers again and pulls herself closer to him and is immediately comforted by how warm, and solid he is. 

He’s here, she thinks.  He’s here.  He wanted me.

And I want him.

She wants him, and she has him, and her heart is so full it feels like it will explode with happiness. When had Rey ever gotten what she’d wanted? When had she ever wanted to cry because she was happy?  Happiness too often feels like a myth, but she can’t stop smiling right now, even as happy tears threaten their way to the corners of her eyes.

“It’s going to last,” she whispers. 

“Hm?”

“I know it’s not what you meant when you said I want this to last.  But it’s going to last.”

And he’s on top of her again, his chest rubbing against hers as his tongue dives into her mouth.  Her legs snap up to wrap around his midriff and she groans as she rubs against his abs.  It’s not his cock, but god that feels good.

“Fuck I can feel how wet you are,” he tells her between kisses.  She rocks her hips against his stomach.  “Rey.  Rey.”  And he groans, low in his throat and his hand fumbles down between them to the button of her pants, popping it loose and unzipping.  He yelps when she sits up and accidentally jams her head into his jaw.

“Sorry,” she says, kissing him where she’d knocked him, “Sorry. Sorry,” but her apologies turn to giggles as he starts to laugh and his hands leave her pants to cup her cheeks. She sucks his lower lip between hers again—fuck she likes doing that, likes the way it makes him hum happily—before she hooks her thumbs into her pants and underpants and starts to tug them down her legs. 

Ben pulls away from her just long enough to pull them the rest of the way down her legs.  She lets them fall open, Ben swallows, his eyes on her slit.  He’s trembling again, and swallowing, and doing that thing where he moves his jaw when he’s nervous. 

“Rey,” he whispers again. “I—”

“I’ll show you,” she tells him and he sits back down next to her, lying down again so that their faces are at a level.  She kisses him and takes his hand and brings it between his legs.

He makes a noise in his throat when he touches her, and Rey bites her lip.  His fingers aren’t hers.  They are wider and blunter, and not connected to her mind.  He doesn’t know whether his touch is too light, or too intense.  But she’d promised to tell him.  So she guides his hand up and down her slit, letting him get used to the feel of it. He’s breathing hard right next to her and she peeks over at him.  He’s staring at her face, clearly concentrating. 

“Where’s your clit?” he blurts out, and she huffs out a laugh.  She takes his thumb and shows him, circling it around her before letting go of his hand.  She sighs and closes her eyes and he keeps circling.  It’s so nice—not to be the one touching herself.  And because it’s Ben, she still feels all glowy and warm inside. For now, it is a relief.  Soon, she is sure, it will build into something bigger than she’s felt before. 

Ben sits up next to her and she opens her eyes again.  He’s leaning forward, clearly wanting to see what he’s doing, that look of concentration still strong on his face.  He thumbs over her clit in a different way and an unexpected moan rips out of her because it sends a searing heat straight through her.  She tries widening her legs, arching her hips up towards his hand, trying to expose that bundle of nerves that’s the only thing she’s aware of right now a little bit closer to him.  Her leg brushes against his hard on and she hears him gasp. 

“Can I—can I finger you?” he asks.

“Go for it,” she says and sighs when he slides his pointer finger inside of her.  It’s him that groans this time, not her. 

“Fuck you’re so wet,” he pants as he wiggles his finger around inside her.  “Holy—”

“Put in another and sort of—bend them.”

He does it.  “Like this?”

“No, more like you’re trying to gesture me—” but she doesn’t finish saying it because he gets the motion and she cries out, louder than she had before.  Somewhere in this apartment, Finn and Rose are going to hear her and she’s sure Finn will mock her for a long time but she doesn’t care, she doesn’t care because she feels like the heat is expanding everything inside her now. So quickly, so much faster than she’d thought given that he’s never done this before, but this is more than she knows what to do with, the way he’s curling his fingers inside her now, rubbing against her walls.

And then he remembers his thumb on her clit.

Rey’s head is spinning long after she’s stopped coming.  She’s vaguely aware that she’s still moaning and gasping, vaguely aware that she’d come so hard that her cunt had gripped itself around his fingers as tightly as it could.  She thinks she might even have called out his name—that would be a logical thing to assume.

She opens her eyes and smiles at him.  He’s staring at her and looks wholly stunned by what’s just happened.

“Get over here, I want to kiss you,” she tells him and he pulls his hand out of her and is kissing her hard. 

“You’re so beautiful,” he tells her.  “Rey, I—”

She cuts him off with a kiss.  She doesn’t want to hear anything except the way he groans when she slides her tongue into his mouth. 

Her heart is still hammering in her chest.  She’s still aftershocking.  She’s never aftershocked for this long—not ever, not even with the new fancy vibrator she’d bought herself as a birthday present last year. 

She wants him to feel it. “Ben,” she whispers.  “Ben it’s time.  If you want.  I—”

He kisses her and sits up, leaning over to the bedside table.  She sits up too, kissing his shoulder as he fumbles with his belt, with his pants and shoves them down his legs before ripping open the foil of the condom she’d gotten from Finn.  He pulls the latex out and pinches the tip as he rolls it down—

Rey gulps and kisses his shoulder again.  He’s—huge. Like.  Really really big.  Bigger than that fancy vibrator she’d bought herself, and she’d thought that was more girth than anyone needed really when she’d opened the box from Amazon.

“I’m—” he begins to say and she just keeps kissing his shoulder because she knows he’s going to say, “really not going to last long,” before the words have even come out of his lips.  She tugs lightly at his arm and lies back on the bed and it’s in that moment she realizes just how big every part of him is.  His torso is so long that, when their groins are lined up, her eyes are level with his beautiful, beautiful chest.  He’s resting on his forearms, looking down and his hand is around his dick, trying to figure out if he should just…

“Can I—”

“No, I think I’ve—” they both groan as he presses his tip into her.  She wraps her legs around him, pulling him in deeper, and all she can think is yes, yes this is what I wanted, as she stretches so deliciously around him.  He doesn’t sheath himself fully in her.  She looks up at his face—an odd angle from where she’s lying right now—and she can see that his eyes are screwed up and his cheeks are flushed and lips are shining from having licked them as he jerks his hips into her about five times before going very still and keeling over sideways, nostrils flaring, breathing hard, his eyes closed.

She presses a kiss to his chest, and his hand floats to the middle of her back, pulling her closer to him. 

She pulls herself off him so that she can be level with his face again, kissing him slowly, deeply, running her hand over his cheek and through his hair again.

When he opens his eyes, she sees every sort of home she’s ever wanted in them. She sighs, tucks her head under his chin, and drifts off to sleep to his steadying heartbeat.