"What does this feeling mean to you: both to be seen and to be seen through?"
She was no one.
Actually, she was No One. Capital letters. Proper noun. No One. At least, that’s how he addressed her in his letters.
It started innocently enough. When Rey first arrived at university she had… a difficult time making friends. After spending most of her life jumping from lonely foster home to lonely foster home, adjusting to college life hadn’t exactly been easy. She tried to make friends—God, did she try—but she always ended up coming on too strong and scared people off. Within a day of meeting someone she’d decide they were her best friend, declare internally that she would do anything to love and protect them, and then they’d be gone. Off to another group of friends, freaked out by the fierceness of her friendship.
So when she saw an advertisement in the school’s monthly wellness e-mail about an anonymous pen-pal service for lonely students—they didn’t exactly say it was for lonely losers like Rey, but that’s how she interpreted it—she signed up without a second thought. She and her pen-pal began with letters-passed through the intra-collegiate mail system- before progressing to a combination of hand-written letters and messages sent through an anonymous texting app.
The anonymity was important. In fact, it might have been the most important thing. Once, he’d confided in her that his mother was some kind of high profile figure; he’d signed up for the penpal service as a way of finding someone who could keep his secrets, someone who he could talk to as himself and not a famous woman’s son. As for Rey… It was easier, in the beginning at least, to know that if he ever ditched her, if she ever got too much to handle and he decided her friendship was worth throwing away, he was just ditching an anonymous No One rather than Rey, a real person. Without the burden of their names and idenitities, they were free to say and be anything they wanted, and they did. In their almost four years of friendship, the only thing they hadn’t discussed was their real names.
Even still, she felt like she knew him. Sometimes, she found herself staring at men across the quad or in the dining hall, examining their faces. Would she know him if she saw him? Her heart told her yes. After all, she knew his favorite shade of red and what book was on his bedside table on any given night… Surely she’d seen something in his eyes that would say, “It’s me. I’ve been looking for you, too.”
All of this happened before she met Poe and Finn, of course. Finn attached himself at her hip after she fought off some guys chasing him in one of the campus’ back parking lot, and Poe followed soon after, when his car broke down and he made the mistake of asking her for jumper cables. She didn’t have jumper cables (she didn’t have a car either), but she did fix his old junker with a couple of rusty wrenches and some creative and possibly dangerous wiring.
But before she had her two goofy older brother types, she had her pen pal.
She called him Nothing.
No One and Nothing. It had a pretty nice ring to it. And it made it easy to avoid lying. After all, when Poe caught her smiling at a letter or a text message he’d sent her and asked, “What’s that?” She could say, “Oh, it’s Nothing” and mean it.
But today? Today it was hard to make up some excuse. Almost impossible, actually.
When Poe failed to get a reaction, Finn began his own question.
“Rey, are you okay? Everything alright?”
She could hardly hear him over the hammering of her own heart and the rushing water of possibility roaring in her ears; the tiny coffee shop in which they’d all been working-Poe grading papers for the aeronautics class he’d started teaching this year, Finn writing a philosophy paper and Rey reading the latest issue of Popular Mechanics she’d stolen from the library and shoved between the pages of her chemistry textbook- disappeared as she stared at the black words on the screen before her.
I know we said we’d never do this. I know I shouldn’t ask. But I need to see you. Face-to-face.
Then, in a separate message, he wrote:
Do you want to meet me?
No explanation. No context. Just a dramatic jump from their late-night conversation about sword fights in movies set during the medieval ages to shattering everything she knew and believed about their relationship. She turned the words over and over again in her mind, observing them from every angle.
It was the first message that sent her into an emotional tailspin, sure, but it was the second that spread a dull ache through her chest. The question was hesitant, frightened. As if he already knew the answer was no; as if he believed heartbreak was inevitable.
A pinch to the bare skin of her forearm shattered her thoughts and almost sent her lapful of magazines and textbooks clattering to the floor.
“Ow! What?” She snapped and shot daggers at Finn, rubbing her sore arm.
“What is the matter with you?”
“Nothing. I just…” Do you want to meet me? It played like a merry-go-round refrain in her head, teasing and taunting her. Did she want to meet him? What if he took one look at her and never wanted to speak to her again? She couldn’t handle the rejection; she just couldn’t. “I got a weird message.”
“From who?” Poe asked, thick brows knitting in concern.
“It’s Nothing. Really.”
“Are you gonna respond?”
She glanced up from the phone for the briefest of moments and caught Poe’s hand holding Finn’s. He rubbed small, absent-minded circles on his skin even as they stared at Rey with matching concerned frowns.
I want that. I want to love someone like that.
Oh, God. The truth struck her square between the eyes, stunning her and ripping the air from her lungs. Nothing wasn’t her friend. He wasn’t just her friend. Somewhere between their late-night heart-to-hearts and the stacks of letters scented like him in a box beneath her bed, she’d fallen in love with the nameless stranger. Her heart sat behind the heavy weight of the phone screen in her hands, and one word to him would either break her heart forever or make it whole.
She knew what she had to do. With a single swipe of her finger across the keyboard, she typed out the only answer she could possibly give.
Yes. Of course I want to meet you.
Ben Solo was perfectly aware what people thought of him. He knew how they whispered; they never bothered to be quiet when they did. He’d always hoped that it would go away. In High School, he told himself it would go away once he got to college. In Undergrad, he told himself it would go away once he was in Grad School. Now that he was there, he knew the truthit would follow him forever. The hatred. The fear.
And he knew that No One- whoever she was- probably felt the same way. Without knowing he was Ben Solo, she probably believed every rumor and indulged in all of the gossip that kept him from making real friends. It was almost a certainty that No One would walk into the diner, realize that she’d been talking to Ben Solo for four years, and walk straight out of his life forever.
But for now, he clung to happiness like a disintegrating life raft. It would be gone soon, leaving nothing but fragments of shattered salvation in his hands as he once again fell beneath the waters and drowned, but for now, he would hold it close to his chest and pretend it could last forever.
Not even Rey, the tech whiz who sometimes picked up shifts at the bookstore Ben managed on campus, could bring down his mood. He sat behind the desk in his joke of an office when she walked in, a steely expression on her face. Never once had she been outwardly hostile to him, but she guarded herself; like everyone else, she was afraid of him.
“Yes?” He asked, not glancing up at her from the paper in front of him. He’d promised No One he would be carrying a letter for her tonight as a way of identifying himself, and it needed to be perfect. Rey stopped short of his desk, skepticism flooding her every word.
“What are you so happy about?”
“Am I happy?”
“You’re not frowning. I’ve never seen you not frowning.”
“There.” Ben picked his head out of the paper and dragged his lips into a deep scowl. As much as he hated to admit it; she was right. He didn’t not frown often. In fact, the face he made then, exaggerated though it was, came more naturally than the neutral look he’d adopted while writing his note to No One. “Better?”
“Just these to sign.”
A stack of paperwork crossed his desk; she waited for him to put his signature to the various shipping papers. Out of the corner of his eye, Ben spotted Rey peering over his desk and evaluating their contents. What did she think, he was going to have a “how to murder” manual there?
“Handwriting books?” She pointed to the handful of books covering the desk’s metal surface, surprise coloring her tone.
“Penmanship is important.”
He handed the stack of papers back, but something shifted in Rey’s posture. Her stare caught on the letter waiting atop his desk; she ignored his outstretched hand in favor of gazing at the leaves of paper, a strange look coming across her delicate features. As if she was listening to a familiar song but couldn’t quite remember the lyrics to the refrain.
With a slight shake of her head, Rey disappeared through the office door, leaving him to return to his letter. He had to get it right. He just had to. Even if No One didn’t want to know Ben Solo, she had to know how he felt. How she’d made him feel.
Rey was going to throw up. Or die. Yes, that was it. Her heart was going to give out. It was going to just beat faster and faster and faster and fasterfasterfaster until it just quit working all together. For a moment, she was almost grateful Finn convinced her to retire her usual attire of ripped jeans and layered sweaters for a dress. If she’d been wearing something that covered more of her chest, she was sure the outline of her rambling heart would be visible, like something out of a Looney Toons short.
They’d agreed to meet somewhere quiet, an old-school diner near the Eastern edge of campus that wouldn’t get full until well after midnight, when the drunk frat bros filled the place after a long night of keg stands. He’d be sitting at one of the window counters with a letter for her.
To be honest, before Nothing suggested it yesterday, she’d never allowed herself to give this meeting much thought. She’d always considered meeting him face-to-face and revealing her real self an impossibility, and Rey didn’t have the heart for impossibilities. But in the seven blocks between her apartment and the diner, she couldn’t think of anything else. A million scenarios and fears and secret longings took hold of her.
None of them could have prepared her. None of them could have deadened the hurricane of emotion that bore down on her when Rey peered through the window from the darkened safety of the opposite street. She blinked hard, then rubbed her eyes in spite of the makeup she’d applied generously to conceal the bags beneaht them, then dug her nails into her skin. It has to be a vision. Or a nightmare. Or a really, really stupid joke .
But no. Ben Solo sat in the window of Mel’s diner, the bar space in front of him clear except for a steaming cup of coffee… And a letter. A letter just like the one Nothing told her he’d be bringing to identify him.
Rey panicked. She panicked and then… She ran. She had never run so fast in her life as she did then. She ran straight to her apartment, and cried until she cried enough tears to overflow the oceans.
She’d been in love with the man in her letters. But how could she love Ben Solo?
“Are you sure the clock’s not broken?”
It was almost midnight, four hours after No One promised to meet Ben at his favorite diner. The frat bros were beginning to trickle in for their Saturday night french fry binge, but Ben stayed put.
“I don’t know, kid. Is your phone clock also broken?”
No, it wasn’t. She just wasn’t coming. Ben glanced out of the diner’s wide window at the densely wooded park across the street. An explanation materialized there in the shadows of the towering fir trees. Was it his imagination or were there small, feminine footprints in the dusting of snow there? No One must have walked there, seen him, and decided she couldn’t bear to face him.
Knowing this would happen didn’t make it any less unbearable. It didn’t keep the burning well of tears from rising up behind his glasses.
Just because everyone thought he was a monster didn’t mean he was.
Or maybe he was a monster. It made sense that someone would run when they came face-to-face with a monster, like she ran when she saw him. But even monsters had feelings. Even monsters had hearts to shatter.
He checked the Mickey Mouse wall clock again. 12:09 . He cross-checked it with his phone. 12:09, it confirmed. They seemed to mock him. He drafted a message.
It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to meet me either.
In the course of his life, there had been many days in which Ben Solo wished to be anyone but Ben Solo. The world hated him, and he hated himself. No One had changed that. She’d made him see himself not as the man everyone expected him to be or feared he was. But as a man who could love and, maybe, be loved back.
But in all of his lonely life, Ben Solo had never wished he was someone else as much as that night, when he spent every dark hour staring at his phone screen, waiting for a response that never came.
Three days. Three days since she found out about Nothing. No, Ben. She had to start calling him that. The man behind the phone was no longer anyone. He could no longer be any random man off of the street. Nothing was very much Ben Solo and she had to start getting used to it. She’d given her heart to him and she wasn’t sure she was ever going to get it back.
He occupied a place in her mind no one ever had before. Sometimes she’d be walking through a park and swear she’d seen him sitting on a bench, only to blink and him be gone. He danced through her dreams and pulled her out of nightmares. Even now, at lunch with Poe and Finn, he was there. Sitting in the corners of her thought and waiting for her to say something.
“What do you guys think about Ben Solo?”
“Why do you ask?” Poe narrowed his gaze slightly at the name. The legendary Han Solo had always been a hero to her friend; the story of Ben’s hand in his death was one she heard first from him. Rey shrugged and focused on her plate, not wanting to draw any undue attention to herself. The last thing she needed was her friends getting suspicious and nosy. She’d pieced together her phone with scrapped parts from the Poly and a few prayers; if Finn wanted to crack into it and read her messages with Ben, he’d be able to in a heartbeat.
“What do you think about him?” Finn asked.
“I don’t know,” Rey said, picking blindly at her mac-n-cheese. She reached for anything that would get them going about him, anything that might help her sort this mess out without actually having to talk about it. She wanted to hate Ben, needed to despise him, but her soul pulled towards him. No matter how hard she searched the corners of her heart, she just couldn’t find the hatred she needed to pull herself away from him completely. “He’s kind of a bad boy.”
“Rey.” Poe snapped in front of her face, yanking her attention upwards at his cold, imploring stare. “Rey, look at me.”
“He’s not a bad boy. He’s the worst boy.”
And there it was. The beginning of a tirade against Ben Solo. The hatred rolled off of Poe in heatwaves, rippling against Rey’s skin and radiating straight to her heart. This wasn’t the first of the arguments against the man she’d heard, and it wouldn’t be the last if she kept hanging out with Poe. But this was the first time she heard that name without her empathy curdling at the sound.
Ben Solo. Ben Solo. Ben Solo. She knew everything about him. Everything . He was twenty-six to her twenty-two. He read Little Women every year on his mother’s birthday even though he didn’t have the strength to talk to her since his father died. He studied swordfighting in his spare time. He did the New York Times Crossword every morning and sometimes texted her for answers to tricky ones. He had nightmares about being lost in a black shadow of complete darkness.
He was a virgin.
He’d never been in love and gave up on falling in love a long time ago.
When she was sad, he sent her puppy gifs.
That man was Ben Solo. The man everyone hated. The man everyone accused of killing his own father, Han Solo, the war hero and the Senator’s husband. Han died in a car accident, but Ben was driving… And everyone assumed the worst. He always hated his father , they whispered, so he killed him . Rey had believed them.
Once, he told her his father was dead. And he and everyone else blamed him for it. He told her about his guilt, his nightmares, the crippling self-hatred that kept him from looking most people in the eye.
Back then, she’d told him he couldn’t blame himself… All while gossiping with Poe about Ben Solo, the man who murdered his father.
The angrier Poe grew, the faster Rey broke. It’s okay. I wouldn’t want to meet me either. She’d been so blind.
Most people shoved Ben in a corner and tried to forget him; the few who did remember him painted him with a villain’s face and hated him for it. Ben Solo needed her. She was the only one who saw him.
“He really shouldn’t be allowed to- Rey, where are you going?”
But by the time Poe finished the sentence, the young woman was already gone.
There were only two ways in this world that Ben knew how to sort out his troubled mind. One, he could go to the university’s training ground and swing a sword. Two, he could talk to No One. And since she’d made it clear she would rather do anything than speak to him, he found himself swinging a dulled sword at a practice dummy in the middle of the afternoon. With every slice of the metal through the air, he hacked away at another sin he’d committed. He wasn’t fighting the dummy so much as he was fighting himself.
He’d spent four years accidentally falling in love with No One, and now a mistake he’d made when he was seventeen-the worst mistake he’d ever made, a mistake which stole his father, his humanity, and his connection with the world-was going to cost him his entire life. It cost him any chance at making friends. It cost him the respect of anyone who met him. And it cost him the one woman he couldn’t go an hour without thinking about.
He’d deceived her. He’d made her think she was talking to someone she could love; now he knew no one ever could.
Body freezing mid-swing, Ben tensed at his name as it bounced around the walls of the empty gym. His stupid, cursed name. Then, he realized… He knew that voice. That was Rey’s voice. What in the world was she doing here? Did he forget something at work? He spun on his heel, throwing the sword into its hilt. As he spun, Rey dug her heels into the carpet and tripped over her own feet, spluttering out:
“Why don’t you have a shirt on?”
“What are you-?”
The blush creeping across her cheeks was unbearably cute, but Ben didn’t have time to notice it as she shook her head to clear it.
“No, no. There’s no time for that,” She pressed on, but stammered out a compliment. He hoped his own bare skin wasn’t blushing. “Wow, you look good.”
“Thank you,” he said, blinkingly blankly at her as she ripped the backpack off of her shoulders. “What are you doing...”
The sentence died in his throat as she dumped the contents of the bag out onto the empty gym floor. A cascade of letters, each in his own handwriting, fell at his feet. Rey stood before him with open, honest eyes, scanning him for a response.
“Where did you get those?”
“They’re mine. You wrote them to me.”
His world went silent for a moment as pieces of understanding locked into place. Rey had his letters. Rey was the woman who listened to him. The woman who saw him as no one else had. The woman he loved. He moved to close the gap between them with a single, hesitant step; life often played cosmic tricks on him. A small part of him worried that if he moved too close to the woman with the teary brown eyes, she’d vanish like a mirage.
“I’m sorry I ran.”
She offered a hand. And when he found the bravery to place his in it, he realized he wasn’t just placing his hand in hers. He was leaving his heart there as well.
“It’s nice to meet you."
Then, something strange happened. Something Ben wasn’t sure he’d done in years. He pulled Rey into a hug. They molded together as if they’d been carved to match; even through her sweaters her heartbeat made its presence known against his chest.
“You…” He marveled, breathing in deep the smell of her hair and the solidity of her form against his. She was real . And she was here . For him. She knew who he was… And yet, she was still here. “You came back.”
“It’s hard to stay away when you’re in love with someone, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
As he held her in his arms, Ben realized something. He’d spent so much of his life thinking, “No one can love you, Ben. No one’s gonna love you.”
And, as it turned out, he was right all along. No One did love him. She loved him very much.