There was a routine to his days, and his days (such as they were) never varied from the routine. Death, after all, was the one certainty of any mortal life, and death came with a surprising amount of paperwork- and even with a small army of clerks, there were certain duties that Ben preferred to handle himself.
It was a life that lent itself to solitude, and that solitude, that routine, did not include a second party in his bed. An uninvited second party, at that, discovered after a day of tending to his subjects and greeting not one, not two, but six queens incensed to unexpectedly find themselves no longer among the living, leaving Ben with an intense desire for sleep or, at the very least, silence. Instead he found a woman- a young one, skin streaked with grime and wearing a threadbare tunic- asleep on his bed, quietly snoring. She was impossible and incongruous and utterly alive in a realm populated only by the dead and Ben’s own household, and for a moment all he could do was stare- and then he shifted, and the rustle of his clothing sent her jerking awake.
She sat up with a suddenness that sent his heart-rate flying, a flicker of what appeared to be uncertainty crossing her face. “Oh,” she said, blinking at him sleepily. “Do you always work so late?”
A casual question, spoken as though he were anything other than the ruler of the underworld, a man avoided by nearly every deity in the pantheon. As though he were… approachable.
Despite himself, Ben felt a stirring of attraction. “Who are you?” he growled nonetheless, drawing himself up to his full height, only to have her respond with a yawn.
“Rey,” she said after, looking exhausted and so very small in the middle of the expanse that was his bed. “Would you like to marry me?”
The question was akin being thrown into an icy lake, all shock and unexpected betrayal. “Is this a joke?” he snarled, grasping the blanket in one hand. “Did my mother send you?”
When he jerked the blanket toward him, pulling her a foot closer, she barely flinched. “Why would it be a joke?” she asked tartly, looking far more awake in the space of seconds. “And I don’t know your mother. Does she make a habit of depositing women in your quarters?”
Ben purposefully raked a look down her body, taking in for the first time lean muscle and a scattering of bruises. Her hands, pressed flat against the bed, were calloused and scarred, nails ragged and broken. “No,” he answered after a beat, more cutting words falling away unspoken. The women his mother shepherded in his direction were soft and perfumed, all minor goddesses of some art or another, and she had never stooped to actually leaving one in his bed. He looked back up, meeting her eyes, and memory nudged at him. A recent visit to the vineyards his mother preferred, in search of an amphora of their best as a gift. Nymphs tending to the vines, to the vats-
“Plutt,” he snapped in realization, remembering those same eyes staring at him over carefully trained vines. “You’re one of Plutt’s nymphs.”
“Not anymore.” She stared him down coolly. “Now I’m a denizen of the underworld, offering to fill a vacant position.”
“How kind of you to apply.”
She- Rey- ostentatiously glanced around the room, empty save for the necessary furniture. “I don’t see anyone else queuing up for the honor.” Her fingers bit into the blanket beneath her, as if she expected him to pick up her up and toss her from the bed. “You looked… lonely,” she said after a moment, a hint of genuine emotion slipping into her voice.
He tugged on the blanket again, unsure why, exactly, his instincts were screaming keep her. Keep her, see her pampered and well-fed, and spend his nights studying all the little sounds he could wrench from her pretty mouth. “Lonely.”
“Gloomy.” Rey smiled in challenge when he tugged her forward again. “Wouldn’t you like a wife, my lord? I’m too clever for my own good and too opinionated for any decent society.”
She spoke the words in a mocking, self-deprecating manner, and by chance his gaze fell again on a dark bruise just peeking out from beneath her tunic. His own tone, when he responded, matched hers. “And you think to change my nature? Reveal a sunnier, more pleasant man to the pantheon?”
“Why would I do that?” she asked with actual confusion, brow creasing. “A terrifying husband is just what I want.”
Ben stared at her, trying to decipher the sentiment, and she took pity on him. “Who would dare harm your wife?” she translated, one bare, dirty foot pointing and barely touching his thigh. “You couldn’t possibly be any worse than what I’ve already experienced.”
He should be insulted. He should be furious, to be reduced yet again to his role instead of who he was, and yet there was something in being seen as a protector that sweetened her words. And she was right, in one respect- no one touched what was his.
“You can’t be that terrible,” she added, a slight smile appearing on her face. “You have excellent taste in dogs, for one.”
Ben blinked, tugging on the blanket again more out of instinct than intention. She settled neatly in front of him, legs dangling over the edge of the bed. “Cerberus?”
“He- they?- are very sweet,” Rey said with no hint of a lie. “I could only bring them rats from the vineyard, but they seemed as overjoyed as a puppy at the gift.”
“You’ve turned my guard against me,” he accused her, unable to bring himself to put any heat into the words. “You-”
Ben broke off, the words you must have been very desperate left unsaid. What came out instead was something harsher, something that to him bordered on inexcusable: “And if I want a husband’s rights now?”
She shrugged, what softness that had been in her expression disappearing behind a bland mask. “Could you be quick?” she asked. “I really am very tired.”
He left without response at a very dignified walk.
He most certainly did not bolt from the chamber, shame and confusion chasing at his heels.
(“Traitor,” he told Cerberus gruffly not too much later, using both hands to scratch behind the hound’s many ears. What appeared to be a rat tail lay nearby on a blood-stained bit of stone. “What did I tell you about women with pretty eyes?”
One wet tongue lapped at his wrist, and he sighed. “Right. Nothing.”)
- - -
Rey did not disappear, nor did she turn out to be some kind of immortal fever-dream.
“My lord,” Ben’s steward began the first morning, barely-hidden surprise on Mitaka’s face, “the woman?”
The woman was examining one of the many shelves of scrolls, wearing what looked suspiciously like one of Ben’s own tunics. She held a piece of folded flat-bread in one hand, bits of goat cheese occasionally dropping to the floor between bites.
“Find her something to wear.” Not that he didn’t like seeing her in his clothing, muscled legs on display, but that was hardly something he could admit aloud. “Keep her fed.”
“Who is she?”
Ben gave Rey one last long, lingering look. She had spent the night in his bed, and he had spent the night on a too-short couch, and yet-
“She’s a guest,” he answered finally, trying to focus on the scroll in front of him. Name upon name upon name, and none of them brought to mind a face. “Her name is Rey.”
If Mitaka gave him an incredulous look, Ben didn’t see. All Ben could see, scroll or no, was the memory of Rey in the vineyard, eyes flashing at him over the vines and, later, carrying a far-too-heavy basket to the presses. His finger skimmed down the list unseeing. “And find her a room.”
- - -
“I don’t think spouses sleep apart,” Rey said as he entered his bedroom. She was sitting in the middle of his bed once more, but this time she was dressed in a black shift, hair clean and spilling around her shoulders. “Do you not want a wife?”
“I’m undecided.” He looked away from her- that shift was thin, verging on sheer, and he would be having a talk with Mitaka come morning- and fiddled with the fastenings of his own clothing without actually undoing anything. “You’re under my protection. Isn’t that enough?”
“Why not?” he bit out. “Plutt won’t follow you here. None of the dead will touch you. None of my servants will touch you. Is it only a crown you want?”
When he slid a glance in her direction he saw that Rey had paled beneath her tan. “Is fear a reasonable thing?” she asked in a carefully measured tone. “Does it listen to reason, or does it skitter away, deaf to all logic? You may not have lived under Plutt, but I have. I’ve had my fill of drudgery, thank you.”
There was something there, something she wasn’t revealing. “And?”
“It’s more than work you’re avoiding.” More, possibly, than the bruises she wore. “What did he threaten you with?”
“It wasn’t a threat.”
“Then what was it?”
She narrowed her eyes, plucking hard at the blanket underneath her. “No one ever looks at his workers,” she said bitterly. “No one remembers our faces. If he wants to give one of us away to curry favor, there’s no one to stop him.”
Ben took a step toward the bed, and then another. “What?”
“I won’t be exchanged for the promise of a standing order for wine,” Rey snapped, expression fierce. “I’ll choose whose bed I land in.”
“You apparently have,” he offered after a moment of silence, voice low.
“I liked the look of you.” She didn’t look away. She barely blinked. “I liked the way you didn’t once grope or leer at a single person along your path. I liked your face, the way you moved, the way you spoke. You’re the only person I’ve ever met that I wanted to fall into bed with.” She smirked, though he didn’t think the disgruntlement beneath the expression was necessarily directed at him. “Which was a surprise. And I still do, by the way, even with you glaring at me like that.”
Rey paused. “Maybe because of the glare. I’m not sure.”
He had no idea how to respond to that, other than a whim to say we’ll have to experiment. “Most women- people- avoid me.”
“They’re fools. Look at the other gods- they spend all their time lazing about or ruining the lives of mortals because they find it amusing. But you- you take care of your realm, and you keep to yourself.” She considered him, and Ben was so caught by the look in her eyes that he didn’t dare interrupt. “You don’t want a wife,” she said finally. “You want a partner.”
Rey crawled to the edge of the bed, the shift stretching taut under her knees, outlining pert breasts. “A lover,” she added, feet landing on the floor.
She had broken down his deepest wish with just a look and a handful of words, and he had no idea what to make of it. “Are you sure my mother didn’t send you?”
Ben turned his back to her, the better to hide how utterly she had rocked him. With shaking fingers he began to undo his clothing, stripping off layer after layer as he tried to decide how, exactly, to handle this situation. “You can stay on trial,” he said finally, down to only a loose shirt and trousers. “Without-”
He turned, shock immediately stopping his tongue. Her shift lay in a puddle on the floor, and she leaned back against the bed, completely naked. She was beautiful, and enticing- but she was bruised, and several thin scars streaked across her skin.
And he liked her, for more than just her external beauty. He liked her daring and wit and plain speaking. He wanted to bear her down to the bed, and he wanted to wrap her in a blanket and stroke her hair, and in lieu of either he took the few steps needed to pick her shift up from the floor. “It’s a trial for both of us,” he said quietly, holding it above her head and waiting until she begrudgingly lifted her arms. The fabric dropped back down around her body, catching briefly at her hips. “You may not like me so much, on closer acquaintance- and if you don’t, I’ll find a place where you do feel happy and safe.”
Her bravado faded, a little. “Really?”
“Really.” He resisted the urge to cup her cheek, to smell her hair. “Shall we find you a room?” When she stiffened, he took a moment to consider, putting the pieces together. “You feel safer here.”
“Yes.” A whisper, but a firm one.
“Should I find other quarters, then?”
If she wanted him as a shield, she could have him.
If she wanted him for more than that, when all was said and done- well, they would see.
- - -
Harboring one nymph, Ben thought- a nymph who stole the blankets and snored and somehow ended up in his arms by the time they both woke- would never be noticed or commented on.
When Poe arrived not three days after Rey had crashed into his life, Ben was forced to revise that theory.
“So,” Poe said with a grin that was somehow both chiding and insufferably knowing, “having fun?”
Ben gave the scrolls in front of him one long, meaningful look. “Of course,” he answered dryly. “The underworld is always full of merriment.”
“I mean your little fling.” Poe swept his arm over Ben’s desk, knocking scrolls and reeds to the floor and barely missing the ink. He hopped up onto the surface. “If I had known you were that desperate, cousin, I would have introduced you to a few of my maenads.”
“Your maenads have a tendency to pull their mates limb from limb, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Poe rolled his eyes. “The wench you snatched from the vineyards, Ben. I hope you’ve had your fill, because I’m here to take her back. She’s probably longing to see the sun again, anyway.”
“The underworld has light,” Ben replied stiffly, and it wasn’t a lie, not exactly… though he had noticed that in the brief time Rey had been with him, the entire realm had seemed a bit brighter. “And she’s happy here.”
Thrilled, if he was any judge. Thrilled, and infecting Cerberus, his staff, and even the damned dead with her enthusiasm, to the extent that the latter could be enlivened.
“Yes, I’m sure she’s smitten with your many charms,” Poe said with unbearable condescension. “But now she has to go back. Plutt is at his wit’s end; claims he can’t do without her. Has completely shut down production and exports, if you can believe it, and now the entire pantheon is in an uproar.” His levity disappeared, leaving a very grave god of wine draped over Ben’s desk. “He makes the best, Ben,” he said with deadly calm. “This is a more serious matter than you realize.”
And who, Ben wondered, had Plutt promised Rey to, that he was willing to cause this amount of fuss?
“I suggest you find a different purveyor, cousin,” he answered in a similar tone. “Because the lady stays with me.”
Poe scrutinized him for a long moment. “For now,” he replied finally, coming to his feet. “I’ll be back soon enough.” He glanced over his shoulder. “Or perhaps your mother will pay a call.”
“She’ll receive the same answer.” Ben clenched his hands into tight fists below the cover of the desk. “Plutt can do without one nymph. Plutt should probably be relieved of the lot of them. Rey arrived covered in bruises and half-starved.”
“Vineyard work is hard.” Poe shrugged casually. “But now that I know that lean and scrappy is your type-”
“-I’ll be sure to keep a look out for a replacement.”
- - -
“What’s this?” Rey asked with a frown when Cerberus thundered into the dining room ahead of him, collapsing with besotted joy at her feet.
“They stay with you, for now.” Ben poured a cup of wine, glaring down at the dark liquid and wondering where it had come from. He made a mental note to ensure that Mitaka not only switched suppliers, but vetted them thoroughly.
“Because they like you.”
When he looked up he caught Rey considering him thoughtfully, one hand ruffling Cerberus’ fur. “Thank you,” she murmured.
“They pine,” Ben said in a mutter. It wasn’t even a lie. If Rey actually left, it would be with a three-headed dog trotting at her heels. “I’ll find another hell hound to guard the gates.”
“Are they hard to find?”
He shrugged. “It’s not impossible.”
“Hmm.” She picked up a piece of meat and dropped it onto the floor, then two more in quick succession. “You really are very kind, Ben.”
“Take it back,” he told her flatly, settling at the end of the low couch she sat on. “I can’t have that kind of rumor getting around; you’ll destroy my reputation.”
“It would take more than me to destroy it, I think.” Rey shook her head, the light from the lanterns catching the gems braided into her hair and splashing refracted color onto the floor and walls. For a moment Ben fiercely envied the handmaiden who had done the work. “Has there been trouble?”
“Plutt claims he can’t work without you.”
She snorted, tossing Cerberus more scraps. “He has plenty of workers. He just-”
“Just?” he asked gently when she broke off abruptly, and spoke an endearment without quite thinking about it. “Just what, my sweet?”
Cerberus shoved one head into her hand, whining pitifully as if they had never been fed once in their centuries of life. Rey bent, pressing her face to the dog’s fur, and mumbled, “He doesn’t want to lose Snoke.”
The duties of death were split.
Ben cared for the mortal dead.
Snoke gathered them… and his hand, at times, fell heavily and with deliberate malice. And while there had been a period in Ben’s youth when he had been swayed to Snoke’s side, time and maturity had more than done away with those beliefs. Deep distaste was all that remained, and with it an even deeper shame that Ben had ever found the man admirable at all. “Ah,” he breathed, and reached out a hand to lightly, carefully touch her hair. When she lifted her head, arms still wrapped around one of Cerberus’ necks, he pulled his hand away. “He has no claim on this realm,” Ben assured her quietly. “He isn’t allowed to step a foot inside.”
“What’s to stop him?”
“Me.” Feeling daring, he touched her hair again. Polished onyx and faceted diamonds swung on a delicate chain, slipping under his fingers and brushing against her neck. “I’ve fought him before, you know- and you must know,” he added with a small smile. “That’s one of the reasons you’re here, isn’t it?”
“I have an entire list.”
“I’m honored that you have more than one reason to endure my presence.”
“I’m not enduring anything.” She sat up fully, grasping his wrist before he could pull away a second time. “How tragic, for me, to be treated with courtesy by a handsome man who has never once demanded my body in return.” She flashed him a quick smile. “Even if you might be tempted. Don’t think I’ve missed the way you rut against me in those moments between sleep and waking.”
Ben felt his cheeks heat with a blush. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not. I like it.” Rey leaned in, tangling her fingers with his. “What can I do, Ben?” When he stammered in reply she shook her head, amusement crossing her face. “Not in bed. What can I do to help you.”
A partner, she had said, and that was exactly what he wanted even if he had no idea what that would look like. “I’m tired of ink splattering all over the scrolls,” he finally said in desperation, nearly blurting the words out, the look in her eyes surprisingly kind given the muddle he was making.
“I might be able to do something about that.” She tilted her head slightly to the side, pinning their clasped hands to the couch. “Would you kiss me?”
“Because it might be pleasant.”
Ben wasn’t sure which word irked him more, might, or pleasant, and decided that the emotion was equally split. “Cerberus won’t stand for it.”
Cerberus was drooling on her skirts, the picture of an over-sized dog scheming to creep onto someone’s lap. “Cerberus will have to put up with a great deal, if we make a pair of it.” She raised a brow. “I dare you.”
And what did it say about him, that he was willing to be dared? And that he took the dare, shifting closer and curving his free hand around the back of her head, tangling his fingers in braids and gems alike so that he could angle her just so and claim her mouth with his. She tasted like summer, like sun and refreshing breezes and ripe berries, and he sank into the reciprocated kiss with a longing never before recognized.
“Pleasant?” he asked afterward in a low tone, his thumb caressing her kiss-swollen lower lip. Rey looked dazed, her hand still clenching his.
She was, he realized, still surprised by kindness- kindness, and both small and great pleasures. Pressing her on the subject would do no good. “Are you ready to eat?”
Rey nodded her head slowly, loosening her grip on his hand. “Yes. I’m… hungry.”
He stroked her lip once more before releasing her, sitting back. “Keep Cerberus with you. Please.”
“I will.” She hesitated, then said, “Ben… do you…”
“Don’t be afraid.” He began to fix her a plate, choosing the best of every dish with care. “I feel it, too.”
- - -
Rey raided his stores, her four-footed guard following close behind, and while she spent days tinkering with metal and wood Ben begrudgingly entertained a whole stream of disgruntled deities. “Who?” he would ask grimly as one after another referenced that nymph. “My guest, you mean? I couldn’t possibly allow her to leave; Cerberus is infatuated with her.”
Only Phasma refused to quaver at the implicit threat, huffing an aggrieved sigh at his words. “Much like their master, Cerberus would worship anyone who found the right place to pet,” she retorted with devastating accuracy.
“I don’t even know why you’re here.” Ben slouched back in his chair, annoyed. “You don’t even drink wine.”
“But I do have to listen to the whining.” She rolled her eyes. “Ariadne’s tits, they’re worse than children. You’d think only Plutt had ever managed to sour perfectly good grape juice.”
“Did you know that he’s been giving his workers as gifts to all and sundry?” Ben asked abruptly. Phasma was one of the few gods he knew who might actually care. “As if they were possessions instead of paid laborers. Assuming he’s even paying them, as he ought.”
“Is that how you got yours?” She raised her hands at his growl. “No, I didn’t, and yes, I know you didn’t throw her over your shoulder and carry her off in a chariot bound straight for the underworld.”
“Is that what they’re saying?”
“That’s one version.” She shrugged. “Honestly, if they weren’t so angry a large number of them would probably admire you for the rumors alone.” Phasma frowned, clearly growing displeased. “Giving them as gifts, is he?”
“Yes.” He thought on Rey’s bruises, her scars. “And beating them too, I believe.”
“Well.” She snapped out the word, a martial light entering her eyes. “Isn’t that interesting.”
Interesting had never sounded quite so much like a declaration of war. Ben rather thought that Plutt would feel much the same, should Phasma repeat that intonation in his presence.
He wished he could be there to see.
- - -
“The stories aren’t true, you know,” Ben informed Rey when he caught her eating yet another pomegranate, juice staining her fingers and mouth. Her grim manner of slipping the seeds past her lips, one after another, suggested that she didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. “None of the food here binds you to the underworld, not even those seeds.”
“A little superstition never hurt anyone.” She ate another with a grimace. “And if they come to drag me away, I could always start screaming that I owe you thousands of days of service. I’ve been counting.”
He sat beside her on the couch, nudging at one of Cerberus’ heads gently so that he could be within a foot of her. “No one’s going to drag you away,” he promised, holding out his hand in silent offer. “No one leaves this realm unless I allow it, and that includes anyone who might try to abduct you, be they god, mortal, or hero.”
“Have you ever tried to enforce that?” Rey asked, placing the half-eaten globe in his hand with what looked to be a bit of relief.
“I once trapped Poe here for a solid month when he tried to steal something of mine. A joke, he claimed, and knowing him that was probably true.” He gave her a small, wry smile. “I might have kept him for longer, but it turned out that dealing with him on a daily basis was far more annoying than his so-called ‘joke’.”
“Bind me, then,” she insisted. “Say I’m not allowed to leave.”
“You are, though.” He set aside the pomegranate, searching for how best to phrase what he felt. “You’re not my prisoner. I would never hold you captive, not if you wished to leave. I-”
Ben cleared his throat, struck by the look in her eyes. “I would help you settle elsewhere. A dominion of your own, with gardens and every luxury, and an army of guards at your back.”
“I don’t want an army.” She touched his shoulder, stroking the fabric of his over-robe with the same care she might show his skin. “I want you. I haven’t changed my mind about that. I can want your protection and want your l-”
She broke off, a hint of fluster crossing her face, then continued. “Your attentions. I can want both at the same time.”
“True enough,” he murmured, and caught her chin between gentle fingers. “Then until you say otherwise, you are not allowed to leave.” He said the words quietly, but the power behind them was evident. “You are bound to this realm, Rey, as thoroughly as any soul in my keeping.”
When she gave him a bright smile he released her chin, adding dryly and at a more normal volume, “I’m glad you’re pleased with yourself. Enjoy your exile from the land of the living… and stop torturing yourself with pomegranates.”
“Oh, I will, and on both counts,” she assured him, and unexpectedly pulled him in for a frustratingly delicate kiss. “You are sweet,” Rey murmured, her lips brushing against his. “No one knows but me… and I won’t tell a soul.”
She tasted of pomegranates, the juice tart on her tongue when he kept her close for a second kiss.
If she ever decided to leave, he realized, faintly hearing Cerberus’ whuff of disgruntlement at being ignored, he would ban pomegranates from his table entirely. Or become addicted to them.
Ben wasn’t quite sure which scenario would be worse.
- - -
“What happened to your parents?” he asked one night in the dark, his hand tucked over hers in the space between them.
“I don’t remember them. But I do remember… faintly… a flower garden. Butterflies.” She sounded wistful. “I think they loved me, once. Maybe they died.”
“I could try to find them.”
For a moment there was only the sound of their breathing and the rustle of bedclothes. “No,” she answered finally. “I would rather remember them fondly than have that memory spoiled.”
“As you wish.”
Her hand pulled away from his, and he suffered a pang of longing before she moved closer, inserting herself into his arms as naturally as if she had done so a hundred times. “Ben,” she whispered, head resting over his heart, “thank you. For the offer.”
She was soft and relaxed against him, not a bit of discomfort obvious in her frame. “If you change your mind…”
“I just have to ask,” she finished. “I know.”
She fell asleep in his arms that night and every night after that, until Ben could no longer remember what it felt like to sleep without her.
- - -
“You haven’t created quite this much a disturbance since you broke ranks with Snoke.”
Though he had expected his mother to turn up eventually, Ben still found himself flinching at the sound of her voice. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he replied in as even a voice as he could muster, setting aside the scroll he held. “How are you, Mother?”
“Beset on all sides by outraged deities.” She sat across from him with her usual majestic bearing, expression stern. “And while I’m as fond of Plutt’s wine as anyone, I’m more upset by your behavior. I thought I raised you better than to abduct helpless young women.”
Interesting how Phasma had immediately seen through the lie, but his mother hadn’t. “Rey is the least helpless person I know,” he answered dryly, hiding his hurt. “And I didn’t abduct her, she broke in.”
“Ben, that’s hardly a believable story. No one breaks into the underworld except for incorrigible heroes.”
“And yet, it’s true.”
“You have to give her back, and you have to apologize.” The command was not motherly, but very much given in the spirit of a queen to a subject vassal. “I haven’t had a moment of peace since you decided to resort to thievery.”
“So sorry to inconvenience you, Mother,” he replied with bitter calm. “I’m sure Rey would apologize, too, if she knew how pestered you’ve been.”
Leia considered him carefully, looking as if she were planning to change tactics- and when she did, it was with a softer expression. “I realize the underworld can be a lonely place,” she said, voice gentling. “If you want a wife, Ben, I’m happy to find someone more suited to the role.”
“And how would you define that?” Ben thought of the way light seemed to follow Rey into even the darkest, dimmest corners of his realm, the way his household smiled when they saw her, the way even the dead seemed to grow less restless in her presence and more purposeful, showing traces of their former personalities. “I think I’m the only one qualified to make that judgment,” he continued when his mother opened her mouth to respond. “And there is no one- no one- more suited for the role than Rey.”
He caught a glimpse of rippling fabric at the corner of his eye, and turned his head slightly to find Rey watching him through an open door. She held something slim in one hand, but loosely, as if she had forgotten it was in her possession at all. Even in the dimness of the hall she seemed limned by light.
She was everything, and he had made up his mind.
“Meet my wife, Mother,” he said as Rey stepped into the room, his voice soft for her and her alone. “I refuse to accept another.”
Leia scrutinized Rey from the top of her jewel-adorned head to her feet, bare against the polished stone of the floor, her own face giving away nothing. Ben barely noticed, too intent on the woman who twined her fingers with his and tremulously smiled. “Talk to Phasma,” he murmured, not looking away from Rey. “She might have some interesting information for you.”
He could almost feel his mother thinking hard- and then the sense of being weighed was gone.
“She disappeared,” Rey said quietly. “Does she do that often?”
“Sometimes.” He glanced down at the hand he held, taking in the ink splotches on her fingers. “What can I do for you, my heart?”
He caught her biting her lower lip when he looked back up, a blush coloring her cheeks. “Did you mean it?”
“Yes. If you still want the position.”
“More than ever.” She dropped whatever she held with a light clatter onto his desk. “If anyone tried to take me from you I’d claw out their eyes.”
“Would you?” he asked, not bothering to hide his pleasure at the ring of truth in her words. “Tell me more,” he coaxed, drawing her down onto his lap. “My wife. My queen.”
“I love you.” She leaned her forehead against his, her breath sweet with mint, and the words struck hard at the heart of him.
“I love you, too.”
“If you don’t bed me tonight I might die of frustration.”
He surged to his feet with her clasped safely in his arms, work falling to the wayside without a thought for the first time in decades. “You should have spoken sooner; I hate the idea of you suffering.”
Her mouth curved in a joyful smile, amusement glimmering in her eyes. “The situation is quite dire,” she agreed as he walked briskly toward their bedchamber. “You have no idea how often you’ve tempted me.”
“You have no idea how often I’ve wanted to rip your shift to shreds.”
Rey nipped at his neck, and then whispered in his ear, “You’ll have to demonstrate for me, sometime.”
(“Did you have something to show me?” he asked after, nuzzling her tousled hair. Rey snuggled closer, legs tangled with his and one arm slung over his chest, so warm and soft he could barely process the depth of his love for her.
“Something for you to write with,” she murmured sleepily, the words interrupted by a yawn. “Should be better than those reeds. I’ve nearly perfected how to refill it with ink, but I need to know if you find it comfortable to hold.”
He laughed quietly, amazed, and kissed the top of her head. “I love you.”
“Of course you do.” She was barely awake, words blurred. “I’m your partner.”)
- - -
The bureaucracy of death was routine.
Ben’s life, however, no longer was. There were lazy mornings, and often late nights, and though he never shirked his work he more often that not shared his various duties with Rey- and every time he wrote, he admired the smooth flow of ink from pen to paper, not a single blot to be seen.
“I like this wine,” Rey said one evening while contentedly lounging on their bed, naked save the gleam of gold and rubies around her neck and one ankle. “Where did you get it?”
Ben smiled, stroking his fingertips down her side. “It’s from a very old vineyard,” he answered, happy that he could finally give her not one, but two unexpected gifts. “Made by a group of skilled, independent nymphs.”
She stilled, the cup nearly at her lips. “Is it?” Rey breathed.
“Personally, I think it’s even better now that Plutt has been removed from ownership. Don’t you?”
“Yes.” His wife beamed at him, a delighted laugh escaping her lips. “Ben, you trickster.”
“I merely passed on information. My mother did the ousting, once she confirmed his dealings, and you’ll be happy to know that she is now in the process of tracking down every one of the nymphs Plutt traded away.” He curved his hand over her hip, growing more serious. “Whatever they need to heal, she’ll do her best to supply. She promised.”
A tear slipped down Rey’s cheek as she took another sip of wine. “Good. This is… this is the best I’ve ever had.”
“Which is fitting, given that I have one more piece of news.” Ben took in a breath, savoring the anticipation. “Snoke has fallen to a challenger.”
Fallen and sealed away like the Titans for eternity, and all without Ben needing to leave his wife’s side. He liked that part best.
She laughed again, almost disbelieving. “And who,” Rey asked, practically glowing with relief and love, “will gather souls for you now?”
Ben plucked his own cup from the bedside table, lifting it in a toast. “To Phasma, gatherer of souls.” He smiled as the welcome words dropped from his mouth. “Long may she reign.”
(“Where do you want to go?”
“Everywhere. And then-”
“And then, always, home.”)