Every step she marched away from her cubicle—no matter how cramped that tiny, gray space was—was a step taken with fear and anxiety.
Three knocks, then—
“Come on in, Ms. Johnson.”
Alistair Snoke’s office was the epitome of corporate power. Two full walls of pure glass offered a stunning, bird’s eye view of Cloud City. On the other wall—a pristine white—hung fancy Latin-dotted diplomas and framed, glossy magazine covers.
“Good morning, Mr. Snoke,” she said, a little unsure. From what she had heard, it was rare—practically unheard of—for a standard journalist, much less a mere entry-level writer, to ever meet the CEO, unless one had committed a grave error.
But here Rey was, standing tensely in his office, upon receiving an “incoming mail” notification that morning from Alistair Snoke himself, personally requesting a meeting.
“Take a seat.” She gently sat down at his command, fingers bunched nervously in the fabric of her skirt. “Do you have any idea as to why I called you here today?”
“No clue, sir.” She rubbed her palms together anxiously. “Am… am I in trouble?”
Memories spun through her mind, one domino falling after another.
“You must have heard about the incident I had with Poe Dameron.” The puzzle pieces began to click in her head. “I didn’t mean to blow up at him. I only wanted to question something incorrect he said about—”
“Ms. Johnson.” Mild annoyance peeked through his tone, halting her explanation.
She inhaled deeply. “I deeply apologize for my actions, sir.”
“It wasn’t about that.” Snoke rolled his eyes. “Frankly, I couldn’t give a shit about what happened between you and Dameron.”
“Oh,” she breathed out in relief, though her brows furrowed at his dismissive, irritated tone. “Did I do something wrong then?”
“I just wanted to have a… casual chat with you.” Snoke leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. “Tell me about yourself, Rey. How long have you been here? Where are you from?”
She laughed hollowly. “I’m from nowhere.”
“No one’s from nowhere,” he insisted.
Rey sighed. “Jakku.”
His left eyebrow shot up. “All right, that is pretty much nowhere,” he remarked. “Why are you here, Rey from nowhere?”
She exhaled slowly. “I’ve always dreamed of telling stories.” At her words, he leaned forward, resting his chin on his raised fist. “I didn’t grow up in a particularly exciting town, clearly—so any story about the world outside Jakku fascinated me. I loved reading stories, loved hearing stories. When I got to college, I was fortunate enough to be able to study journalism and computer science. Now I have the incredible opportunity to tell other people’s stories here, and I’m really excited.”
Snoke nodded along to her words, but his forehead creased in thought. “Curious, most curious…”
“What’s so curious?”
“That you’re so young— you’ve just graduated from college, after all, and a no-name college in Jakku at that. Yet your first piece was so well-written.” He tilted his head, awaiting her reaction.
“You read my writing?” Her heartbeat quickened. Rey wondered if she was dreaming—she had to be. There was no way the CEO himself could have read her piece. Or call it “well-written.”
“Yes. It was so… ‘extraordinary’ that Hux sent it to me and insisted I read it. While I don’t usually read entry level writing pieces, I trust Hux’s judgment—so I did.”
For someone whose career depended on eloquent communication, Rey found herself at a rare loss for words. “Oh… wow. I don’t know what to say, sir. Thank you—”
“I know what you can tell me,” he cut in brusquely. “Why don’t you tell me who wrote your piece for you?”
“This is the First Order Journal,” the man in front of her barked. Chin held high, he wore a pristinely ironed blazer that complemented his fiery hair. “My name is Armitage Hux.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Hux,” Rey said, excitement bubbling up her throat. Her eyes darted around the lobby, eagerly absorbing every inch of the room. “I’m Rey Johnson—”
He cut her off as though she had not spoken and walked across the floor. Rey quickly followed. “Here at the First Order Journal, we strive to create and present the best content for the world to consume. This extraordinary publication we have built, upon which we stand, is read by and greatly cherished by hundreds of thousands of people around the globe every day.” He paused his well-rehearsed speech to meet Rey’s eyes. “You are now a part of this organization— which means you are a public representative of our values and mission. Do you understand?”
Hux gave a quick nod at her agreement, moving forward in their tour. “The company has a distinguished hierarchy. There’s information on that in your welcome email, but there’s a few important people to know.”
Passing a series of cubicles, he stopped his footsteps outside a large glass office. “This is the office of the CEO, Alistair Snoke. You’ll likely never set foot in here, but it’s good to know where it is so you don’t accidentally enter his office.” Hux then brushed his fingers atop a small cubicle seated outside the frosted glass doors. “I would advise you to avoid his assistant as well.”
“What’s wrong with—”
Hux cut her off again, walking with long and quick strides. “Then, here is my office.” He took out his handkerchief, wiping down the metal Editor-In-Chief nameplate until it gleamed perfectly. “I am in charge of all journalists and editors in this firm.”
She was standing face-to-face with her boss, then. Got it.
“Journalists, of course, are a vital part of our company. Without all of you, we would have nothing to distribute to our consumers. This means we push our journalists to the utmost highest of standards.” He handed a stack of papers to her. “Your first assignment, as we give to all entry-level journalists, is slightly unorthodox.”
“Unorthodox?” she repeated.
“Yes. You have three months to design your own piece, from start to end. This means you need to brainstorm, research, interview, write, edit, and more”
“Oh?” Rey was intrigued. “We have complete freedom to choose the topic? No subject matter, not even a broad theme?”
“Yes. Complete, utter freedom. This assignment will allow you to take full control of your process. In doing so, you will hopefully meet many people within the company, so you can determine who and what are the best resources to help you the most effectively.” He grew more animated throughout his response, arms outstretched in distinct gestures. “You will make mistakes. You will stumble into roadblocks. But you will learn what it takes to be an effective reporter and more about journalism than you have ever learned before.”
“Understood,” she said. “I’m excited, my brain is just buzzing with ideas. I can’t wait to get started.”
Hux looked at her curiously. “That’s not the usual response I get from new hires,” he observed, “I don’t say this to many newcomers, but I think you will find a place for yourself here,” Hux said, lips curving ever-so-slightly upward. “Welcome aboard.”
“What are you doing here?”
She jumped two feet backwards, the fallen autumn leaves crunching softly under her leather boots. Heart hammering against her chest, Rey turned her gaze to the man in front of her.
Where had the man come from? There’s no way she could have missed a six-foot-three man in her peripheral vision, could she?
“I work here,” Rey said, gesturing to the glass buildings behind her. She breathed quickly, trying to calm her racing heartbeat. “Just started yesterday. So I have every right to explore the grounds.”
Her eyes scanned over the man’s well-ironed business attire—quite snugly fitted against his broad shoulders, she observed—to meet his raised eyebrows, skepticism clearly etched across his face.
“How do you know this is part of the firm’s campus?” The man motioned his hand in circle, pausing his gesturing to point at the cabin beside them. “We are, quite literally, standing in the middle of what is basically a forest.”
“Well, uh—” Truth be told, Rey didn’t know how to respond; she was merely curious. She was a journalist for a reason—to satiate her never-ending hunger to learn more, to investigate mysteries one would never expect to see unless one looked closely. And since she had just been given her first assignment, her mind had been latching onto any interesting tidbit that came along.
And a barren, wooden shed surrounded by dense redwood trees, right beside the most sleek and modern buildings Rey has ever seen?
Definitely a mystery worth investigating.
Rey scrunched her eyebrows together. “Wait, how do you know about this place?” She took a step closer to the man. He towered over her, his dark hickory eyes meeting her own bright hazel ones. “What are you doing here?” Her eyes traced over the faint red scars on his cheeks, pink scratches and dashes that stretched down to his neck.
Then, in a final whisper, “Who are you?”
“What?” Rey’s eyes widened in outrage. “Mr. Snoke, I don’t understand your question. I will kindly ignore your accusation of plagiarism. I wrote the piece myself.”
“Rey,” he scoffed, coating her first name in a mocking tone, “I understand that doing well on your first piece is important in making an impression. You already have. But the First Order Journal, as a publication, values transparency. Raw, radical honesty. I demand you to be honest with me.”
“I am being honest ,” she said through gritted teeth. “You think I, what, paid a higher-level journalist to write my article for me? Just on the basis of me coming from nowhere?” She stood up. “Everyone needs to start from somewhere, Mr. Snoke. I don’t appreciate your false accusations against me.”
“Such a fiery spirit you are,” Snoke remarked.
Rey refused to address his comment. She stared at him wordlessly, lips pressed into a thin line.
“Yes, everyone needs to start from somewhere,” Snoke repeated her words in agreement, “but I your credentials are highly suspicious for the level of talent you exhibited. Perhaps I did make a hasty conclusion.” But there was no apology, no remorse in his voice. “But, I must know, did you receive any help on your piece?”
“I did,” she said, the two syllables emphatic and terse. She crossed her legs, leaning forward, daring him to ask the question they both knew he would ask.
“Ah.” He stated this as if this revelation solved all problems in the universe. At his reaction, Rey wanted to roll her eyes. “Who did you receive help from?”
There it was . “Why does that matter? It has been under my impression that collaboration is permitted—encouraged, even—in this company.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Oh, it is. I merely want to… commend them for helping you achieve this spectacular piece. ”
Rey folded her arms in front of her chest, unhappy with the turn of the conversation but conceded to his request. ‘Commend them’ my ass. You want proof that I cheated. “Ben gave me some pointers in my initial draft, and I reached out to him for periodic feedback on later ones.”
“Ben?” Snoke repeated slowly. “We don’t have a writer or editor named Ben. Or—surely you don’t mean my assistant?”
A wild look of surprise flashed across his eyes. It was rare for Snoke to lose his composure, Rey suspected, so she was secretly overjoyed to have been able to surprise him.
“Solo isn’t supposed to impose himself upon other people in the company. He is only supposed to serve me.” He slammed his palm down on the desk, shooting her an unwithering glare. “You had no right to ask him for help.”
“He’s an employee of this company. I’m allowed to collaborate with anyone who is an employee here.”
A long beat of silence stretched between them, as Snoke stared at her, his mouth twisted with displeasure. Rey stared back, unwilling to back down. Internally, however, she felt less composed; fear gnawed at her, eating away at her heart piece by piece with each passing second. She knew her job was on the line—it was quite possible that she would be fired and packed up by the end of the hour.
Finally, he opened his mouth to break the silence.
“Cease all communication with Solo.” He stood up, turning to leave his office, not giving Rey any chance to respond. “Don’t ask him for help again. Don’t even talk to him.” Snoke gave Rey one last look. “This isn’t going to go the way you think, Ms. Johnson. You don’t know Ben Solo like I do.”
“You’re a werewolf.”
“You lied to me.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You weren’t supposed to know—”
“Were you ever going to tell me?”
The hesitant beat of silence told Rey enough.
“I work at First Order Journal as well,” he said, as if he needed to carefully consider every word he spoke. “I… I’m—it doesn’t matter who I am.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Rey said, expecting the man to introduce himself.
She was met with a steely, tired gaze—and silence.
Rey sighed. “Let’s try this again. My name is Rey Johnson.” She held out her hand. The man looked down to her hand, hesitant, before shaking it with a firm grip. “I’m a new journalist at First Order Journal—just started this Monday, actually! I’m originally from Jakku,” she finished with a warm smile.
The man nodded, a curious twinkle shining in his eyes. “Nice to meet you, Rey. I’m Ben. I, uh, am the assistant to the CEO—”
“You know Snoke?” Rey perked up. “What it’s like to work for him?”
Ben scratched the back of his neck uncomfortably. “It’s not… much. I run simple errands for him and stuff— get his coffee, proofread his emails—really nothing much…”
“That’s not nothing, I’m sure you’re well-deserving of the role. What’s he like in person?”
“He’s—” Ben paused for a moment, thinking. “He’s never what you expect. Quite hard to read him, actually. It’s difficult to command his respect— that’s how this magazine is so consistently high quality. But once you do, he holds you in high regard. Like Hux, for example.”
“Oh, I met Hux on my first day. He seemed a little pretentious at first, but he really knows his stuff.”
The corner of his lips curved down in a slight grimace. “Hux and I don’t get along too well... Snoke is a lot like Hux, but he holds even higher standards. They can both be strict, but it’s… for the greater good of the company.”
“I see,” she replied. “Why don’t you two get along well?”
“Oh, uh, it’s… A tiny personal thing between the two of us, and he holds it against me. I don’t mind, honestly. It just means we’re not the best of friends, and I’m okay with that,” Ben said. “Johnson, here’s a tip for your first piece. Hux tends to use the first assignment to distinguish the stars from the ashes with entry level journalists. That’s why the topic is so freeform: he wants to see you demonstrate unique creativity and potential that the company could truly benefit from. So the best first pieces often come from niche, tiny cracks that other writers won’t consider—he and Snoke like to say that ‘there’s a story to be found everywhere’.”
She bobbed her head thoughtfully. “Interesting…”
“It’s helpful if you don’t choose a topic, or write an angle, that any other writer or publication could report on. You don’t really get any freedom in your future topics as a journalist—so make the most of this chance.”
“I will, thank you,” she said, mentally filing his suggestions away. “If you’re so knowledgeable about this all, how come you’re not a writer yourself?”
“I had always dreamed of being a journalist,” he admitted with a wistful smile. “But… things changed, so I can no longer pursue that as a career path.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” she refuted. Likely his parents had squashed his journalism dreams— she’d seen that happen to many of her classmates. “I’m sure you could be a great journalist.”
Ben shook his head, but smiled appreciatively. Rey couldn’t help but think that the smile suited him well, much more than the frown usually in place. “It’s okay.” He looked down at the ground, leaves crackling as he shifted from one foot to another. “I’m… happy in my role right now.”
“Well, if you ever change your mind about your career prospects, I know which one I think you’d be great in. Thank you so much for your advice, I’m really happy that I got to meet you,” Rey said with a grin. “Not gonna lie, you seemed… quite aloof at first. It’s a good thing you don’t bite or anything—”
The friendly twinkle was gone in a flash. “I have to go,” he mumbled, “I’m sorry—”
Rey watched Ben vanish into the shadows of the lush woods, as quickly and fleetingly as the man himself had emerged.
“The building’s in the opposite direction,” she called after him. But he was already gone.
“Alright everyone, I want to hear ideas,” Hux barked, stomping into the conference room.
Around the table, the twenty entry-level journalists blinked in surprise. Only one individual, sitting inconspicuously in the far corner of the room, remained unfazed.
Pointing at the wide-eyed man sitting at the front, Hux commanded, “You. Mitaka. Your idea, go.”
“Uh… um...” Mitaka cleared his throat. His fingers, shaking, fumbled through the pages of his notes. “I… Oh, I was thinking—”
“You lost my interest. You—” Hux shifted his finger to the woman sitting next to Mitaka. “Connix. Go. My patience is already low.”
“My idea is to look into how the adoption of technology in classrooms has affected student learning,” Kaydel said. “Holograms, magic-powered tablets, all that stuff.”
“Okay,” Hux nodded, “good start. But education is a topic that is frequently written about. And technology even more so.” He paced around the front of the room, eyes lasered in on all the journalists. “What will make your article different from our journal’s other articles on the topic? Or any other newspaper’s? Think about it. Next!”
Poe nodded. “Sure. I want to write about the recent laws and regulations passed regarding magical creatures.”
Hux’s eyes lit up. “Which creatures?” Rey didn’t miss how his eyes strayed to the back of the room, though her gaze remained focused on Poe, curious about his article idea.
“The hybrid-human creatures, sir. Especially centaurs, merpeople, and werewolves. I want to write about how the government’s new law restricting them from the workplace will be beneficial to humans’ safety.”
“Good, good,” Hux said, his lips pressed into a thin smile. “I think that will be a fun topic to research. Good choice, Dameron.”
Poe grinned proudly. “Thank you, sir.”
“I’m sorry to interject,” Rey said, “but I am curious, why do you think banning a population of competent individuals from working be beneficial to society?”
“‘Competent individuals’?” Poe repeated incredulously. “They’re not humans like us, they’re monsters! They’re all a menace to society.”
“They haven’t caused harm for the last century,” Rey argued back, a roaring fire lit behind her eyes. “Take werewolves, for example. Since the Mind Stabilizer vaccine was invented eighty years ago, there has only been—” Rey quickly typed a search query on her laptop. “—fourteen cases of werewolf attacks on humans, with only two resulting in significant injury.”
“But they’re still dangerous,” Poe said. He leaned back, lips parted and slightly deflated, but was unable to refute her statistics. His mouth twisted into a frown. “If you’re such a know-it-all, what’s your idea?”
Rey took a deep breath. “I plan to write about orphans.”
“... Orphans?” Hux paused in his steps, eyebrows raised. He had been following the two journalists’ discussions with great curiosity. “What specifically about orphans?”
Before Rey could answer, Poe tossed his head back and laughed. “Who wants to read about orphans?” He shook his head. “I can’t believe you criticized my idea, when your idea is about abandoned children no one cares about. Mine, on the other hand, is actually relevant. ”
The room fell to an icy hush, as she closed her eyes to take a calming breath, before repoening them. “There are over nine thousand orphans in this city, alone. Twenty thousand in this region, eighty-seven thousand in this state, and five hundred thousand orphans in this country.” Rey slammed her computer shut and stood up, eyes never leaving Poe’s. “That’s half a million orphaned children, who each have a unique story, a unique angle to look at.”
“That’s great and all, but still, no one cares about them—”
“Well, if that’s true, I’m going to write something to make people care .”
At the conclusion of her passionate declaration, Hux looked at Rey with raised eyebrows, unable to hide the proud smile blossoming across his lips.
“Unlike you, Mr. Dameron, Ms. Johnson seems to have done empirical research for her topic investigation,” a deep voice rang out from the back of the room. “So I find it unpleasant that you seem to be attacking her topic, and even more unacceptably, her integrity, when she has so far exhibited that she is a better journalist than you.”
All eyes snapped towards the voice.
Rey gasped softly—it was Ben. The mysterious man she had met in the forest during her first week.
Had he been here the whole time? Had… had he heard everything she said? She sat back down in her chair, feeling lightheaded and slightly embarrassed for her vigorous display of emotions, especially in front of Ben.
“I’m sorry, but who the fuck are you?” asked Poe, never one to back down.
“I’m Ben Solo, the CEO’s assistant,” he stated calmly, watching Poe’s face drain of color. “Snoke sent me here to observe your progress thus far. Clearly, some of you…” His dark gaze latched onto Rey’s, making her heart stutter. “... have made better progress than others.” His gaze shifted to Poe.
Then, he stood up, towering over the table of seated journalists. “This meeting is over.”
“I met with Snoke today,” Rey blurted out.
Ben, who had just gulped down a mouthful of food, choked and sputtered. “Sorry, I could have sworn you just said you met with Snoke today —”
“He called me to his office—”
“What?” he interrupted sharply. “I know his schedule like the back of my hand. He had a full slate of meetings on his calendar today.”
“Then he must have lied about one of them.”
“Why?” he asked, frowning. He didn’t like this situation at all—especially how his boss went around him to schedule a meeting with an entry-level writer. “Why did he want to meet you?”
“He thought I paid someone to write my piece.”
“Wait, what ?”
“It’s—” Rey struggled to capture the incident in words. “Complicated. He said my piece was so stellar that it raised some eyebrows. So… it’s a good thing, really—”
“That’s bullshit.” Ben slammed his palm on the dinner table. “He’s discrediting you because he doesn’t think you’re good enough. Or that you can be this good. Snoke’s probably up in his ass about how you don’t come from a prestigious school or something. That son of a—”
“Ben.” She placed her palm on his hand and at once he went still. Rey took his hand between hers, drawing little circles on his palm with her thumb. At this, his eyes snapped to her, his Adam’s apple bobbing with a swallow.
Her cheeks warmed. It was a far more intimate gesture than she had expected, but she didn’t stop.
“No need to get so worked up, I handled it. He stopped once he realized I had some help, which is fine.” She decided not to mention that Snoke had demanded for her to stop talking to him. It would only anger him further.
“That still doesn’t make it right.” He scrunched up his napkin in a tightly fisted ball. “Be careful with Snoke. He can really wreck a person’s career if they make one wrong move against him.”
“Do you like working for him?”
“Yes—well, no—sort of?”
Rey frowned. “It’s not that hard. You either like working for him, or you don’t.”
Ben looked down at his plate, averting her gaze. “Do you want more spaghetti?”
“Don’t change the subject, Ben.”
“It’s not so simple,” Ben sighed. “I had a hard time finding a job, Snoke was the only person who was willing to offer me one at all.” He spun strands of spaghetti around his fork aimlessly, shoulders slouching forward. “I owe him a lot, not only for the job. So I can’t just… quit if I don’t like working for him. Most days, he’s… okay.”
Unsatisfied, but recognizing how uncomfortable he seemed, she decided to drop the topic. “I’m going to get more sauce. Do you want anything?”
“Uh—sure. You got anything to drink?”
Rey found herself back at the same spot that started her initial "investigation": the mysterious, seemingly misplaced shed that hid in the forest near First Order Journal. The magnificent redwood trees towered over her, their thick leaves blocking the moon and stars above her, leaving her in a deeper darkness than the night.
She tiptoed around the shed, carefully stepping around any leaves and branches to avoid noise. The coast was clear.
"I don't understand why Ben was so secretive about this place," she muttered to herself. "Even if this place was—I don't know—haunted or something, it's just a shed. There's nothing scary about a shed—"
She paused when her eyes latched onto something she hadn't previously seen—a small, square window propped open at a thirty degree angle. The shutters rattled against the wind blowing into the window, allowing a small gap that was perfect for a person to peer into.
And what sort of journalist would she be if she didn't follow her instincts?
So Rey tiptoed closer. With utmost patience, she leaned in to peek through the shutters, nervousness and excitement flooding her.
Above her, the full moon burst out from the clutches of dark, snarling clouds, its silver light beaming onto the forest floor.
Tilting her head, Rey managed to peek through the window shutters and into the shed.
Despite the strange aura of that surrounded this shed, Rey hadn’t expected it to carry anything more than random knick knacks. Rakes and gardening tools, perhaps, given its location in the woods. At the very worst, perhaps it contained the carcasses of dead forest animals.
She was wrong.
What Rey saw was much, much worse.
“You’re an orphan.”
Rey whipped her head back, pausing her motion to climb into her car. “What?”
“You’re an orphan,” Ben repeated. It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
Her lips pulled into a fine line. “Yes, I am.”
“That’s why you chose it as the topic for your piece.”
“I’m sorry.” His voice comes as a choked whisper, the three simple syllables like prisoners in chains.
“There’s nothing to be sorry about,” Rey said. “I’ve come to accept it a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry Dameron attacked you like that today,” Ben continued. “It’s awful you had to sit through that.”
“Thank you for defending me. It meant a lot to me.” It was rare for anyone to care about Rey, much less defend her against someone else, with so much passion too.
“I actually think your article idea holds a lot of potential.”
“Really?” She looked up at him with furrowed brows. “I was thinking of changing it. After everything he said.”
“No—please don’t,” he said earnestly. “What he said was… unacceptable. Very unprofessional of him. And all untrue.” Ben took a step towards her. They stood so close that she could faintly smell his cologne—a soothing, musky scent that made her heart beat for this mysterious man even more.
“I don’t know,” she said, hesitant. “I… I feel so alone writing this. And it won’t be an easy topic for me to write.”
“You’re not alone,” he whispered. “I… I’ll help you.”
Rey swallowed thickly. She was utterly captivated by his expressive, warm eyes, a beautiful sea of brown that left her breathless. “Really?”
He bobbed his head. “You can use me as a sounding board anytime. I won’t write anything for you, but I’d be happy to be a second pair of eyes to look things over, or if you need an opinion on anything.”
She lifted her gaze in surprise. Here was a man who she barely knew, yet she felt a bond of trust and belonging with him that she had never felt before. “I… I’d really appreciate it.” Rey bit down on her lower lip, eyes rooted to the ground, before she looked back up at him. Taking a deep breath, she decided to be bold. “Do… do you want to join me for dinner? I was just about to head home.”
His eyes widened. In horror or shock, she did not know.
Seeing his incredulous look, she hastily added on, “I—I mean… as a thank you gift. For your offer to help me.”
“Oh.” Ben blinked for a few long seconds, lips parted. “Of course. Sure. I… yeah. I’d love to, if you don’t mind.” Then, he beamed at her, clearly pleased by her invitation, those soft, plush lips stretching into a slow and devastating smile. All thoughts quickly drained from Rey’s head, replacing themselves with static white noise.
“Er—great!” Her face melted in relief. “Hop in.”
Dinners at Rey’s house had become a regular occurrence in the past few weeks, since the first night. He loved to cook, but he said he didn’t have a kitchen. She loved to eat, but she hardly ever used her kitchen. It was a win-win for them both.
Were these dates? Truth be told, Rey had no idea. It was an eternal dance of feelings, where the two sidestepped and tiptoed around advances, too fearful to take it to the next step. There had been many intimate almost -moments—but it seemed like there was still something holding Ben back. But for now, despite her burgeoning feelings, she was okay with them being just friends.
It was during these dinners that Rey really got to know Ben outside the workplace. And she found that she rather enjoyed his company—in Ben, she found a close confidant she could rely on for all walks of life. He lent her a shoulder to cry on when her article’s investigation, centered around orphans, hit too close to home for her. She told him about her past, her successes, her failures, her dreams.
He confided in her as well. About his lonely childhood, his precious dog Chewie, his maniacal uncle. But there were still red flags about him that nagged at her at the back of her brain. Hux’s casual comment about avoiding him. Snoke’s emphatic warning to stop talking to him. How Ben just happened to be near a random cabin in the forest the first time they met.
“I was thinking of checking out the cabin after work sometime next week,” Rey remarked after she sat back down. She peered closely at him, curiously awaiting his reaction. “I haven’t had time to explore it since I met you there.”
Ben’s fork dropped to his bowl with a hollow clank. “I don’t think,” he chewed on his words carefully, “that would be a wise idea.”
“Why not?” Her brows drew into a deep crease.
“It’s—uh—” he stammered, “—it might not be safe.”
“Why wouldn’t it be safe?”
“It’s company property,” he blurted out, “and the First Order can be quite sketchy honestly. Who knows what they have in there?”
She laughed at his suggestion. “No matter how ‘sketchy’ it is, I highly doubt this company has that many skeletons to hide.”
“I heard it might be haunted.”
“Haunted houses are urban legends that teenagers make up.”
Ben sat still, eyes unblinking as he gazed at her. “I know you think it’s a joke, but I really would advise against it, Rey,” he said quietly. “Promise me you won’t visit.”
Her eyes raised to meet his worried pupils, before tracing over the rest of his face— every little wrinkle, every faded scar. The depth of his concern mystified her. She had never experienced the feeling of someone deeply and genuinely caring for her, and it astounded her.
It also only further fuelled the string of suspicions building against him.
Pain twisted and squeezed her heart, knowing that she would inevitably break this promise. Nothing would stop her pursuit of the truth and unraveling of secrets.
What secrets did Ben have to hide? And how did the cabin relate to them?
It was not an abandoned shed, Rey quickly discovered.
The first sign that tipped her off was a cramped bed in the corner, blankets tossed and sheets ruffled. No one’s sleeping on it though. A dresser sat next to it, neatly folded shirts stacked in a tall pile upon it alongside what seemed to be a small electric pot. The clothes likely belong to a man, by the looks of it. Across the room— quite an empty distance away, oddly enough— there was a plastic foldable table, cluttered with bunched up paper balls and numerous pens. Who still uses fountain pens to write?
Someone—a living, breathing human being— lived here.
Rey’s eyes fluttered shut in disbelief. Why would anyone choose to live in the center of a forest—on First Order Journal’s grounds, no less—with few utilities, so little space?
Her vision now adjusted to the dark, she reopened her eyes and leaned in to take a second look.
They immediately darted to the dark, empty space on the floor: the inexplicable absence of furniture between the dresser and the table that covered several meters of distance.
Rey frowned. She didn’t need to be an interior designer to figure out that was a poor usage of living space, especially given how cramped the shed already was. Perhaps there was something there, and she just couldn’t see it in the dark?
The overcast skies must have heard her inner questioning. The moonlight seemed to shine brighter, illuminating a spotlight onto the exact spot Rey was fixated on.
She was right—there was something there—something unlike anything she’d ever seen before.
On the floor lay an animal with dusky gray fur and a long, protruding snout. Its triangular and pointy ears drooped against its skin, its body curled up, but its heaving chest signified that the animal was very much still alive—and likely awake. Silver, sharpened claws glinted under the cracks of moonlight, resting upon several long, thick scratches on the wooden floor panels.
A dog, perhaps? But it was much too large to be a dog. It was at least seven feet long. A wolf? Were there even wolves in this town?
Wisps of clouds crossed over the moon, darkening the shadows and the inside of the shed. Rey gazed up into the darkening sky at this change, her eyes roaming over the full moon before drifting back to the animal.
Full moon. A huge dog. The clothes of a man. Claw marks.
Rey gasped aloud, before quickly clapping her palm to her mouth.
It was too late. The werewolf’s ears jerked upwards, searching for the foreign noise. Its body followed, the four limbs unfolding in front of Rey’s eyes to reveal the fully enormous creature it was.
The werewolf instantly spotted the source of the sound, its claws inching forward to edge closer to the window. It snarled, a set of pearl-white teeth gleaming under the moonlight. Rey stepped back, fully ready to turn on her heel and run for her life, when her eyes met the eyes of the werewolf.
Flecks of light gold swirled in familiar dark, hickory eyes, layers of emotions so complex Rey could not believe it was a monster. In fact, these eyes looked familiar, almost identical to the ones of—
“Ben?” she breathed out in horror.
“I thought—” Her voice cracked as tears began to well up beneath her eyelids. “I thought we were friends. Or even… more than friends.”
Ben swallowed thickly. “Rey—”
“I thought… I told you about my past, even my parents. I’ve bared my heart to you when I’ve never done that with anyone else. And you did the same to me.” She laughed hollowly. “At least, I thought you did.”
“I trusted you!” she cried. “I trusted you, when you knew I had a hard time trusting anyone. I— I may have even—” She paused with a broken sob. “I may have even loved you.”
Ben jerked his head up at her admission. “You—what?”
“No, that’s not right,” she continued, heart hammering against her chest. “I did love you, and I…” Rey gazed up at him, jaw set with resolve. “But you never trusted me enough to tell me this.”
“Rey, please—please listen to me for a minute,” he begged. “I’m sorry. I really am. I know this may sound like empty words to you, but I wanted to tell you the truth. It broke my heart every moment I spent with you where I couldn’t tell you. But I didn’t want you to get hurt—”
“And you think I’m not hurt right now?”
“That’s not what I mean—” Ben took a deep breath, remorse evident across his face. “You have no idea how dangerous I can be in werewolf form.”
“No you aren’t,” Rey insisted, “werewolves are—”
“I know the statistics, but you don’t understand! You don’t know what I’m like in that… that form.” He paced across the room, the wooden panels creaking with every nervous step he took. “That night, when you came by my cabin, you could have fucking died, Rey. I could have killed you—”
“No, you wouldn’t have!”
“—and I could never live with myself knowing that I was the murderer of someone—” He exhaled with a shudder at the horrifying mental image, his eyes glimmering with a thin sheen of unshed tears. “—of someone I love.”
For someone who had been on the receiving end of very little love in her life, Rey had always imagined that moments of confessed love were romantic. Perhaps they were fancy, ostentatious declarations of mutual love, or quietly, cozy whispers of “I love you” as the couple was curled up snuggling on a sofa.
Never, did she imagine that this moment—a moment when both of them should have been over the moon—could occur with them both in tears, heartbroken over an issue separate from the feelings they harbored for each other.
“You… love me?” she asked, her words soft and meek, barely above a whisper. “Why?”
“No, I should be the one asking you that,” he uttered. “You deserve someone young, someone handsome, someone fresh, someone whole—”
“I don’t care—”
“I do,” roared Ben, a pained look of agony spread across his lips. “I am far too old for you… too poor… too dangerous…”
“I don’t care either, I don’t care!” Rey cried. “I—I just want… you.”
“But…” He was at a loss for words, struggling to contain his battling emotions of joy at hearing her committed love and his determination to convince her of his unworthiness. “I’m a monster.”
Rey leaned in closer, her face— her lips —barely inches away from his. “Yes, you are a monster,” she repeated, her voice barely above a whisper.
He looked down in disappointment at her words, shoulders falling expectantly.
Tiptoeing, she gently placed her hands on his cheeks, which made him look up at her. Then, she brought her forehead down to touch her forehead. Cradling his face and nudging his nose with hers, Rey whispered, “But not to me.”