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Nightshade & Sakura

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Nightshade & Sakura (ベラドンナと桜): Chapter 1: A Familiar Poison

 


 

 

“Rey?”

Rey froze, blinking. It was him. After eight years. “Ben?”

Her mother’s warnings danced around her brain. He’s not the same, Rey. Remember that. He caused the death of his father. Bastard. Liar. Don’t listen to a word he says. Don’t listen—

“Hisashiburi,” he whispered in Japanese. Long time no see. At least he’d used a word she knew. His amber-brown eyes trailed up and down her body, lips pressed together in a smug smile, one corner raised.

Her cheeks burned. It couldn’t be him. The Ben she knew would never stare at her like that, like he were peeling off her dress and stockings inch by inch. He’d never looked at her as anything more than a gangly, awkward teen—a child thrown into his family by the British foster care system. And the Ben she knew would never dress like this. His long black hair was too in place, posture too straight, dark blue suit too crisp.

Maybe her mother was right.

He didn’t used to be like this. Without any effort at all, she could recall the way his lips curled into a smile, the way his laugh reverberated off the walls of his tiny flat in Kyoto, head thrown back. No, even now, with that smug grin flashing across from her, it didn’t take long to remember that trip to Japan when she was thirteen years old and newly adopted by his uncle's girlfriend. 

Before he’d cut contact with his family, including her. Before, when he was just Ben in a pair of torn jeans and not Kylo Ren, Head Ambassador for First English, the Number One teacher recruiting company in Japan. Kylo Ren—the name, the mask that had consumed him. A man she’d once thought had such soft eyes. Before, when things were simpler, innocent, like those pale pink petals fluttering in the wind all that time ago.

She tugged at her blazer, straightened her shoulders, and reminded herself: she was no longer thirteen. She was no longer in love.

“You’ve gotten…” His eyes trailed across her body again, lingering for a moment then snapping back to her face. “Taller.”

Her cheeks burned more. “Yeah, nope, still short. But a lot has changed since you left. Not that you care.”

He looked over his shoulder in the direction of his mother. “I presumed I’d see you here when I heard Leia gave you the ambassador position for the English Resistance,” he said, his American accent stilted and cold. “How are you liking Tokyo?”

For two months she’d rehearsed what she was going to say to him if he confronted her. Wrote it down ten times and read it out loud, pacing her room. You destroyed everything. You bastard. You tosser. You liar. But now, with him towering above her, every vengeful word vanished.

She searched the room, locking eyes with her mother and then with Leia Solo, president of their company, the English Resistance, and Ben's mother. Today, she was Rey's escape. 

“Fine, thank you. If you’d excuse me, I need to get back to my table,” Rey said, walking past him. “But so good to see you.”

She had a presentation to give in front of the Tokyo Board of Education. In two weeks, the BOE would choose the recruiting companies that would provide English teachers to their public schools, and First English dominated the market every year.

Not for long. Not if she could focus and give the best presentation possible.

“Good luck,” he called after her. “The first time is always the most difficult.”

“Only if you don’t do it right," she replied with forced confidence. 

Behind her, Rey heard him chuckle. She pretended to ignore it, sitting down in the chair between her mother and Leia. First English was three tables from them to the right, and Ben, despite beginning to sit down, was still staring at her. What gave him the right? They hadn't spoken in years. No calls, no letters, not even a bloody text message. 

“What did he say to you?” her mother asked.

“Nothing.”

“I told you to let one of us go with you. I told you not to be alone."

“It’s fine, mum.” It had been a trip to the loo, hardly anything remarkable. 

“Are you okay? I should have gone with you.”

Leia touched Rey’s shoulder. “Mara, Ben has known Rey since she was a child. He wouldn’t say anything rude to her.”

Mara glared at Leia, but remained silent.

“I am twenty-one years old, thank you very much,” Rey said to Mara, brushing off Leia’s touch. “I did what you told me to do and left as soon as I could.”

“Your hands are shaking,” Mara said.

“I’m fine. I’m just nervous about the presentation. We’re on second.”

“You’re going to do great." A pause. "Stop looking at him.”

Rey wrenched her gaze away.

The conference started, the superintendent walking onto the stage and making a speech. But even if Rey could understand Japanese, she didn’t hear any of it.

Because First English—Ben—was set to present first after the opening ceremony.

She’d known she’d see him. Her mother had warned her and warned her and warned her. But a part of her wondered, why did it have to be now? After all this time? Why during a conference that was so important to the start of her career?

Her vision blurred with tears, but she didn't let them spill. No longer thirteen. No longer in love.

With the added height of the stage, Ben towered over everyone, further than he already did. Shoulders squared, he glided through each of his presentation slides, the Japanese flowing off his tongue like a native.

Meanwhile the memories bled behind her eyes. Piles and piles of Japanese language books on his desk making her dizzy. “This is how you write the kanji for ‘spring’ or ‘haru…’ Rey, your stroke order is perfect.” Cherry blossoms and crimson Torii gates. Water on the pavement. His hands shaking a frying pan. Noodles on her lips, burning her tongue .

Rey wanted to turn her back and look away, wanted to run from this room and forget seeing him again. But she didn't move. Her eyes remained fixated on his face, drinking in every detail. Numbly, she memorized how his mouth opened and formed every word, showcasing a set of crooked teeth. Those same crooked teeth smiling down at her. She used to try everything—tickling him, teasing him, dancing around clumsily—to make him smile. Despite eight years, despite being thirty-one, his features had barely changed. His nose was still angular, deep-set eyes fixed in a long face. Ben.

Was he really different? Was it true?

His eyes snapped to hers.

No longer thirteen. No longer in love.

And yet, she didn’t look away.

 


 

I look forward to speaking with you privately tomorrow.

Rey read that line over and over again, bleary eyes darting back and forth between two items. To her right—her laptop, an email with Kylo Ren's elegant business signature, written in English and Japanese kanji, staring back at her. To her left—the only photo of her and Ben together, its split edges showing through despite the frame. Under a sea of pink, Rey stood, arm hanging around his neck, brown hair whipped in the wind. Her mouth was open, all teeth showing. Beside her was Ben, lips half-turned, black waves disheveled, hands clinging to her arm. But neither were looking at the camera, their eyes locked on each other, for a moment frozen. The world, the beauty around them, ignored. Rey couldn’t even remember who took it. Her mother? Luke? Ben’s ex-girlfriend? All she remembered was him, his strangely handsome face staring down at her. Had she spent the last eight years idolizing a lie?

It wasn’t like Ben was everything. Eight years’ worth of photos lined Rey’s desk at work, placements a messy zig-zag across the surface. The first was a photo of her, Mara, and Luke, taken when she was fifteen years old, out at a restaurant celebrating her birthday. White formal dress, light brown hair spilling over her shoulder. No smile, tired eyes. It contrasted with Luke’s silly expression, mouth open, face beaming. Mara was the balance between them, a controlled but inviting smile, red hair curled around her ears. Rey’s first full year without Ben; her only wish to hear a simple Happy Birthday. A phone call that hadn’t come. Down the line of seven photos, Rey’s smile grew as the years spanned away from Ben’s abandonment. A photo of her and her best friend pulled into a tight embrace which made Rey’s eyes crinkle closed. Then another with only her and Mara wearing silly expressions and milk mustaches.

Today, a new addition. Rey moved the old photo of her and Ben under the cherry blossoms next to her laptop. A reminder from the past when she stared into familiar but wholly unfamiliar eyes. Never needed until now.

For the past eight years, Rey had settled into her new life with Mara and Luke, even had two boyfriends. It hadn’t been easy or simple, but she had done it—everything she and Ben had talked about her doing with her chance at, finally, a stable home life. She had studied hard, juggled friendships, and graduated university as early as allowed. During the day, she happily slaved away in a cubicle. At night, she watched telly like everyone else, the memory of Ben drowned out by some chick-flick or travel novel.

When Leia and Mara asked her to take over the representative position for the English Resistance three months ago, Rey had immediately said yes. She knew only a little about English teacher recruiting, but enough. In addition to First English and the English Resistance, there were numerous dispatch recruitment companies that provided English teachers to Japan. The teachers came straight from English-speaking countries, and the companies placed them in Japanese public schools to work alongside the Japanese teachers. Thus, in order to make money, the English Resistance had to secure teaching contracts with each Board of Education by placing a bid. If they won, they were allowed to place a teacher with that BOE. Schools in Japan usually started in March or April. Recruiting companies also helped with everything from visas to basic living issues. They made dreams of living in Japan become a reality.

Rey loved her job representing the English Resistance. She loved the teachers, the board members she spoke with. She loved her life, friends, and family. It wasn't a large family—Luke's parents had died before Rey came to them, and Mara only had a grandmother with Alzheimer's Disease and an aunt alive, but it was her family. After the system removed Rey from her biological aunt’s home due to neglect and placed her with three subsequent foster homes, it was a stable refuge, even if it hadn’t been perfect.

Even if it had meant losing Ben.

On her desk, Rey's phone buzzed with a text message.

 

Rose Tico

Hey, girl! Are you coming to see me before you leave? Lunch at our usual?

 

Rey replied quickly, telling her she was working through lunch, but the reality was that she couldn’t work efficiently today with the thought of speaking to Ben later. She ate a soggy sandwich at her desk (it had gotten crushed in her work bag), had her usual Monday meeting at 5 P.M. with her mother and Leia and replied back to as many emails as she could. Next month was booked to the brim with speaking engagements at universities. Would Ben come to London? First English did recruiting in the U.K., but not much. The English Resistance would have to do more in the United States if they wanted to compete. Her brain swam with images of him, the past and the present colliding, his many faces blurring together. Ben. Ben. Ben...

Ping!

 

Rey woke in a panic, head snapping up from her desk. She rubbed her eyes, once, twice, and looked around her cubicle.

Ping! Ping! Ping...

Where was that sound coming from? She glanced down at her watch. 7:03 P.M. Her meeting! She moved her mouse frantically, bringing her laptop screen back to life.

Video call from Kylo Ren. Answer. Decline.

She hovered her cursor between the two options, heart pounding. She could back out now. It still wasn’t too late. Send him a scathing email. Tell him to shove it. Not reply at all. All acceptable options for dealing with the person he’d become.

Ping, ping, pinggggggg. Answer. Decline.

She clicked the little green button, placing her finger over her laptop’s built-in camera. Holding her breath, she watched her screen fill with him—hair groomed, eyes focused straight ahead—determined, menacing, as was everything about Kylo Ren. She needed to get to a conference room, and quickly, judging by his mood. She craned her neck from her cubicle, the office silent. No one should be in the building at this hour other than the custodian, but she didn’t want to risk it. Mara would skin her hide, adult or not, if she knew she was talking to him.

Rey looked both ways before scurrying into the nearest conference room. And only when she’d shut the door and settled into a chair, did she remove her finger.

His lips twitched, eyes locked on hers. “I should congratulate you on securing five contracts with the Tokyo Board of Education,” Ben said, no greeting, no time for pleasantries, only a voice dripping with contempt. Mara had reiterated after Tokyo, “If he ever contacts you, come straight to me.”

And here she was. Once again doing the opposite of what she'd been told.

Yet when she looked in his eyes, there was something different, something she couldn’t place. Curiosity?

He folded his hands together and rested them on his desk. “Your performance last month was impressive.”

“Thank you,” Rey said tightly.

Despite the bad video quality, he still had that same smug smirk plastered on his face—the one he’d worn the entire conference in Tokyo when she’d kicked his, and his company’s, arse with her presentation. That smirk. Like he was planning, waiting for her to misstep.

“Truly, it was sublime. I’ve worked with this BOE for the last seven years, and I’ve never seen them so excited about taking on a small company. I’m impressed they even granted you time... without knowing any Japanese.” He smirked. “Let’s hope they don’t regret it.”

Rey took a breath. “You already congratulated me in your initial email, and I hardly think the pressing matter you want to discuss is my job performance.”

“And what a performance it was… Though, I didn’t think you had the assets to resort to coquetry.” He looked her up and down like he had in Tokyo, his smile growing. “But you certainly proved me wrong.”

Her chest stung. There it was. The type of comment she was expecting to come out of his mouth all along. The type of comment Mara had warned her about. She was an idiot.

When Rey received an email two days ago from him of all people, she’d almost thought it was spam, one of those junk emails offering discounted Viagra to anyone that clicked on its bogus link. And when she finally recovered from the shock of seeing his name, she’d choked on her coffee after she read that he wanted to talk to her, privately, via video call.

Now she wished she’d never clicked that link and put spam mail where it belonged—in the trash folder. If only that were so easy to do with her memories of Ben.

“Coquetry? Flirtation? Is this what you want to discuss?” she said, fighting to keep her voice even and polite. “Whether I have assets or not?”

“You know what I want to discuss. Surely you received the same email from the board two days ago requesting us to work together to bridge the gaps in training our teachers?”

She stifled a laugh. “I figured as much. Don’t tell me you really think us working together will go well.”

“If we don’t, you’ll lose the contracts in a year. I guarantee you that. First English has a proven method of transitioning foreign assistant language teachers to Japanese life and teaching styles.”

“Yeah, at the cost of a living wage. Have you even talked to any of your teachers? They’re miserable.”

The smug smile returned. “That’s a matter of opinion. This is my proposition. You keep the contracts you already have, I’ll give your teachers access to our Transition Program.”

“And the catch?”

He paused, studying her again. “You refer some of your recruits to us instead.”

She scoffed. “How about you keep your program, we’ll keep our recruits, and we can both forget this conversation ever happened?”

“I don’t think you understand the severity of this. You’ll lose the contracts. If you don’t remember, I worked for the English Resistance when it was the English Republic eight years ago as a teacher and recruiter. The company wasn’t big enough to handle its contracts. It failed. They couldn’t even manage my contracts properly, and the BOEs were pleased with my performance.”

“Oh, yes, the BOEs were so pleased that they had you fired.”

Ben’s attention didn’t falter, gaze calm and intense. Rey swallowed, remembering how intense his demeanor had been in person last month. But she wouldn’t let him have that satisfaction, knowing how he made her feel. She would sooner end up in his bed, tangled in satin, fingers weaving through his hair as he... than tell him.

“Is that what they told you?”

“Face it.” She shrugged and leaned back in her chair. Cool, calm. Breathe, Rey. You can do this. “You have nothing to offer us.”

He moved closer to the camera, the deep amber of his eyes coming into focus, making her heart beat faster. “Then let me offer it to you... Rey.” He lingered on her name, like he were savoring the feel of it on his lips. “Listen to me: the English Resistance will fail. And you with it. I could show you what real success looks like.”

“Right.” She swallowed. “And be loyal to a tosser like Alexander Snoke. Thank you so much for the feedback. It has been duly noted.”

“You’re not listening to a damn word I’m saying. You’re in way over your head.”

“And yet I still snapped up five of your contracts!”

“How so very difficult when you have other... angles to work.”

Her mouth hung open, eyes narrowed. “You’re a bastard.”

“No, I’m honest. If you don’t—”

“See you in Kyoto,” she retorted, slamming her laptop shut so hard the entire conference table shook.

 


 

“Who keeps calling you at this hour?” Mara asked, gazing at Rey from their tiny kitchen. “That’s the third time since you came home.”

Rey looked down at her buzzing smartphone on the table.

 

Kylo Ren

Come on, Rey. Let’s talk.

 

“No one important,” she said, silencing the device and turning it face down.

Mara put her hands on her hips. “If it’s a Japan-based call, you should refer the person to Amilyn. She’s on the same time zone as the teachers. You already do enough.”

“Yeah. I’ll do that.”

Mara opened her mouth to say something, but at that instant, the microwave beeped, and her attention was pulled toward the sound.

Rey looked away blankly. What part of her hanging up on him did he not understand? She wasn’t going to work with him. She wasn’t even going to look in his direction at the Kyoto Conference for English-Teaching Professionals. Not after what he’d said.

Mara set down a plate of reheated bangers and mash, the smell making Rey’s mouth water, despite the stomach ache she’d had since her call with Kylo.

“This was the surprise dinner I missed?” Rey said with a smile, taking a bite.

“I thought you could use a taste of home before you flew off to the land of fish with their mouths still open in horror.”

Rey laughed. “You know, I only just came across that in a pub in Tokyo. The man next to me ordered it.”

“British bloke?”

“Yup.”

Mara shook her head. “Traitor.” A pause. “That reminds me.” She picked up a length of black foil packets and threw them to Rey. “You won’t be getting any British sausage for a while.”

Rey caught the recognizable strip with one hand, turning it over. Want to see Big Ben? was written across each packet with the actual Big Ben shaped like a penis. She choked on her bite of food, pieces of chewed sausage flying onto the table. “What the bloody hell is wrong with you?” she said, tossing the condoms to Mara with a laugh.

Mara cackled and threw them back at her. “I know you’ve been talking to a certain Japanese gent. Rose told me.”

Rose, the English Resistance’s secretary and accountant, was probably about as close as Rey had to a friend. Next to Finn and Poe, who both handled the securing of their Britain-based sponsors. But none of them were good for shit when it came to keeping secrets. Rey had known Mara would find out eventually.

“It’s nothing serious. Just a guy I met on a language exchange app. We’re going to meet up in Kyoto.”

“Okay, but be smart.” Mara crossed her arms. “I’m too young to be a grandmother, and you’re too important to me and the business to be murdered by some psycho that gets his jollies shagging corpses.”

“Ha! That’s a lovely mental image, mum. But you don’t need me, really. I’m a new business grad. Hardly worth the trouble.”

“What are you going on about? We have five new contracts with the Tokyo BOE because of you. And if you’ve forgotten, I was there. You were amazing.”

Rey tried to listen to her words, but all she could hear was that smug, deep voice whispering,  "I didn’t think you had the assets to resort to coquetry."

The front door to their townhouse opened, revealing Luke, Mara’s boyfriend of nearly eleven years. When Mara adopted Rey, Luke had made it clear that he wasn’t interested in being a father figure. He’d promised to never have kids, and no one was going to ruin that. Rey had stayed up late listening to their conversation in the kitchen. "I think it’s great that you decided to open our home up to her, but you can’t expect me to start treating her like my kid."  Rey shook her head to clear the memory. And that’s where she’d decided her crush on Ben started. While Luke was cold, Ben would envelop her in his warmth and let her borrow his old heavy metal CDs. “You’re family, Rey. Fuck what Luke says.”  But why then, she wondered, did Ben leave and Luke stay?

Mara walked over to greet him, planting a quick kiss on his cheek. “Hi, love. How was—oh. Leia. What are you doing here? Did Luke talk you into tequila shots again?”

“No, no. I wanted to see Rey before she left.” Leia passed fully through the doorway, a tired smile on her wrinkled face. For being only fifty-three years old, her face was too lined, hair too grey, eyes too sad. But maybe Rey would look like her too if her son had cut contact with their entire family and caused the death of her father.

Rey stopped mid-bite, swallowing. “Did I do something wrong?”

Leia Skye was the head of the English Resistance and Luke’s sister. Rey rarely saw her outside of work hours and when she did, it usually meant bad news.

Leia laughed. “No, no. I’m sorry to disturb you. I just wanted to make sure you were okay and prepared to fly out tomorrow. Luke and I went out to grab dinner. He said he was going to teach you a little Japanese tonight before you left?”

“Oh. Yeah. I almost forgot,” Rey said, averting her eyes. But she hadn’t forgotten. She’d begged Luke for two months since Mara asked her to fill the Ambassador role for the English Resistance, texting him nearly every week and receiving no reply—to the point that Mara had to tell Rey to back off. “You need to respect that Luke doesn’t want to revisit that part of his past.”

So she knew she’d have to act like it was no big deal in front of Luke. It was only when she’d stopped pestering him that he’d agreed to help her.

“I’m sorry we’re interrupting your dinner,” Luke said, taking off his coat and walking into the dining area.

“That’s okay,” Rey replied. “I’m almost done.”

Luke followed Mara into the kitchen and slapped her bottom playfully when he thought no one was looking. Swatting him away, Mara smiled and drew him into a kiss, her whole body seeming to glow in his presence. Rey stared at them, pursing her lips. Would she ever have that? Would her eyes ever reflect that intensity, that passion?

“What’s that?” Leia asked, pointing to the strip of condoms still laying on the table next to Rey’s plate.

Rey picked at her food. “What?”

Leia sat down across from Rey and picked up the condoms, staring blankly at their vulgar message. Rey anticipated a small chuckle from her—the only woman Rey knew, next to Mara, that could make a joke out of the most trivial of matters, but Leia only finished reading and passed them back Rey in silence.

And that’s when Rey realized. Ben. “It’s just a silly joke. Mum thinks she’s funny.”

“I am funny!” Mara called from the kitchen, putting a dish out to dry. “I can still hear and see you, rotten child.” Then, to Leia: “I’ve gotta make sure my girl is prepared.”

Leia smiled sadly. “I haven’t seen those before.”

“Yeah, they sell them at a few chemists near the tourist traps.” Rey pushed her plate away, feeling worse.

“Don’t stop eating because I sat down.”

“That’s okay. I’m not feeling well.”

Leia shifted in her chair. “Nervous about going without us this time?”

“Ha. I have two days of vacation time before the meeting, thanks to you. So, not really. Just had a long day.”

“You earned the vacation time. You did well last month with us.”

“Thanks. I could have done better though.”

“The only thing you could have done better was steal all of that monster’s contracts,” Mara said, coming into the dining area and drying her hands with a towel.

Rey glared at her, indicating to Leia with her eyes.

“You know it’s true.” Mara looked back and forth between them. “Can we all stop pretending at this point there’s even a small hint of Ben in that monster? I’m tired of doing somersaults around his name when he has the potential to ruin everything we’ve worked for.”

The room fell silent, the aching in Rey’s stomach growing stronger, more urgent with every suspended moment.

“You’re right,” Leia whispered so abruptly Rey thought she might cry. But she only sighed. “Regardless, if you see my son, tell me how he’s doing... please.”

Rey nodded. “Yeah, of course.”

“Thank you.”

Mara threw up her hands and returned to the kitchen. “Fine. But if he says anything to you, come straight to me and—”

“I know, mum. You don’t need to tell me again.”

Rey’s phone buzzed for the fourth time. She breathed out, angrily flipping it over, fully expecting to see his stupid name once again. Instead, she was greeted by another’s—Haruki Nakamura, the guy she met on a Japanese-English language exchange app a month ago—and also the guy she was working to hook up with in Kyoto. Tomorrow you will come right? Shall we go to Midori? She smiled, beginning to type a response when her phone buzzed again.

 

Kylo Ren

We’re not finished yet.

 

God help her, she couldn’t stop her fingers from punching in a response, teeth gritted. 

Oh, yes, we are.

She hit send without another thought.

 


 

Empty. The seat next to Rey at the izakaya was empty. Her phone—no notifications, zero unread messages. She took a sip of her rum and coke, shifted in the bar stool.

She should have known Haruki wouldn’t show up, that he would get her hopes up only to crush them without a word. He was too perfect. A thirty-year-old business executive making more per year than she would probably see in her lifetime. How could she have ever thought he would want more from her—a twenty-one-year-old British girl still living with her parents? All she would ever be to him was a child. Stupid girl, you should have known.

A new song blasted through the bar speakers, a quiet intro morphing into the chugging of electric guitars. The lyrics, So make it real. Just make it real. Her lips instinctively mouthed the familiar words.

Dark eyes locked ahead, hands gripping a steering wheel. No fear, a smile playing at his lips. The song growing louder, instruments banging around in her head. Being in the car beside Ben, that same trip to Kyoto. Just the two of them. The road, the wind, the music. Calico by Alien Ant Farm. One of Ben’s favorite songs. Collisions hurt and abrasions bleed. It’s hard to deal when all you do is feel. Just make it real. He had always driven so fast, fields and low-lying mountains blurring together. But it never bothered her. She was with him. Safe.

The music faded, and with it, its spell over her. No text messages, not even from Ben. After Rey had told him off, the communication stopped. No more emails, chats, or video calls. The last two days, mostly spent on an airplane and in airports, had been silent.

Rey felt eyes on her back. She looked over her shoulder and met the gaze of a stranger who oddly didn’t look like a stranger at all. He was sitting at a low table behind her, saying something to another guy across from him.

She smirked. Probably some creep—one of those psychos Mara had warned her about. “Sumimasen!” she called to a waiter, the world spinning a bit. Excuse me. It was one of the more natural, automatic words for Rey. And if Haruki wasn’t showing up, she would at least eat, drink, and then pass out before exploring Kyoto tomorrow.

The waiter hovered over to her, an unintelligible garble of words flowing from his mouth. What were the words for “this please?” Kohe? Kori? That one should have been natural as well, but for some reason, it wasn’t.

Why should she care about having good Japanese? It was mid-evening, and she was already slipping into that light, weightless feeling after two drinks.

Rey pointed to her empty glass. “Kuso wo kudasai.”

The waiter hesitated, eyebrows raising. Had she said the wrong thing? She was about to attempt to order again when he snapped out of his daze, wrote down her drink choice, and proceeded to say more nonsense. However, from that nonsense, she recognized: tabemono. Food.

“Kuso wo kudasai,” she repeated, pointing to the picture of Japanese fried chicken— karaage —with chips.

The waiter smiled, but wrote down her choice and walked away.

Most restaurants in Japan used pictures in their menus. Something she was grateful for now, without Haruki to help her. She wouldn’t have picked this restaurant on her own, and a part of her, besides being disappointed, was angry with him for asking to meet at a place with a sign outside their door that said “we don’t have English menu.” Haruki had planned to take her to all the famous places in Kyoto, and now, she would likely be going alone.

The creepy man’s friend said something that Rey couldn’t quite catch, and he laughed, throwing his head back. Entranced, she studied how his mouth formed each foreign word, how his straight hair fell across his eyes, fashionably styled in the same way as numerous other Japanese men. But there was something in his features that drew her. She couldn’t place it. It was strangely familiar.

Her drink arrived, and she immediately took a swig, trying to figure out the conundrum. A buzz in her lap.

 

Haruki Nakamura

Sorry, I am late. Work was long. Shall we meet another day?

 

Rey breathed out. Maybe she had only been half-stood up. If that was a proper thing. Her eyes wandered to the creepy stranger again; he continued to smile at her.

She flashed him a sarcastic smirk and rolled her eyes, batting away cigarette smoke. For a Tuesday, it was packed. Haruki had listed it as one of the top ten izakayas to visit on the south side of Kyoto. And with this many people laughing around her, cigarettes in hand, he likely hadn’t been wrong. But regardless, Why did everyone feel the need to light their lungs on fire? It was one of those things she could never and would never understand about Japan. It brought back memories of one of her foster fathers, Plutt, sitting in his ratty chair by the window, chain smoking. The smell gave Rey an immediate headache and caused her throat to tighten.

Her food arrived, and she had just started eating when the creepy stranger’s friend turned around, phone to his ear.

“What the fuck do you mean we lost another contract with the Yokohama BOE?! They can’t back out now.”

Rey’s heart raced at the sound of that voice. Please don’t let it be him. Please, please, please.

She stole a quick glance, eyes meeting the side of a long face and black hair. Definitely him. Now, it all made sense—why that psycho had kept smiling at her. That psycho wasn’t a psycho at all. He had been sitting next to Ben at the conference in Tokyo. What was his name? Kenji Kaneko? Yuta Kaneko? She couldn’t remember, but she knew he definitely worked for Ben.

Rey took a sip from her drink. Maybe Ben wouldn’t notice her if she kept quiet.

“I talked to them last week! We have a teacher starting in three days! Three fucking days! I’m in Kyoto now... what? Yes, I’m in Kyoto now. We can’t go back to Yokohama. What? Yes! Yes, it is your fucking problem! What? No! Do you fucking understand me? It can’t wait a week. Fix it before Alexander finds out or you’re fired.”

Ben slammed his phone on the table and knocked back his drink, saying something to his friend in Japanese Rey couldn’t make out.

So, this was how they would meet again. She thought she would have had at least a good fifty-seven hours before she was face to face with the demon himself. Of all the places to see him again and all the times—right after getting stood up. She had to give the universe double points for this one. So far tonight: Universe-3, Rey-0. Knockout. Fried and served with a side of chips.

Chicken caught in her throat. She gasped fruitlessly for air and chugged her drink as fast as she could, shuddering. They had definitely made this one stronger. Throat clear, she breathed in heavily, pushing her plate away. If she thought she only had to worry about one stranger looking at her, now she had at least thirty, eyes locked in position and ready to probably Heimlich the hell out of her.

“Can’t handle your kuso?”

Rey tensed. Universe-4. Ben-1. Rey-0. “I’m more than capable of handling my liquor.”

“Is that what you thought you said?” Ben looked over at might-be-Yuta with a smirk.

“Kuso wo kudasai!” Yuta repeated loudly, laughing at what she now realized was her own expense. “I’d like shit, please.”

She wished she could bury her head in her hands, click her heels three times, and disappear. No wonder the waiter had given her such an odd look. Her ignorance of the Japanese language in Tokyo hadn’t been a major struggle with Amilyn translating, but here, on her own, it was apparent that she knew nothing about Japanese, despite her last-minute refresher.

She waved to the bartender. She needed something stronger, something that burned the back of her throat so much she couldn’t think about anything other than its sting. She flipped through the menu again, trying to find a picture of a tequila shot. Except there wasn’t a picture. What was the name for rum? Maybe the brand name would do. She had already made herself look stupid.

It occurred to her then that she could use her phone to look up translations. Why hadn’t she thought of that earlier? She had already dug a hole and buried herself. But this time, after checking her translator app, she smiled confidently at the bartender and told him she wanted a shot of rum.

When he left, she turned to  again and flashed him a how-do-you-like-me-now smirk. He rolled his eyes, clapping his hands in mock praise. Then, he did something she wasn’t expecting—he stood up and sat down in the stool next to her.

“That seat’s taken,” she snapped, glancing in the other direction.

“Doesn’t look like it. Yuto says you’ve been staring at it for thirty minutes.” Yuto. So, that was his name. She had only been one letter wrong.

She turned, searching the bar for a free seat away from him, wishing she could mention it was her company who had stolen that Yokohama BOE contract. The look on his face... But that would be a breach of her employment contract, so she held back.

“What are you smiling at?” Ben’s gaze followed hers.

Rey spotted it—an empty stool in the corner. But as she was about to move seats, the bartender appeared with her shot, and she immediately raised it to her lips. “Eat kuso, Ben,” she said, downing it without blinking.

“You should slow down. You’ll be on your ass before midnight.”

The stool in the corner was now no longer empty. She swallowed. “Not your concern. A lot has changed since I was thirteen. I can handle more than you think.”

“What are you doing in Kyoto so early?” His eyes burned into the side of her face. I will not look at him. I will not look at him. I will not look at him. If she looked at him, she would probably melt into a puddle.

“Just a few contracts to lock in before the convention,” she replied indifferently, coolly, channeling the confidence she had on their video call two days ago.  “Not that it’s any of your business.”

He paused, drawing in a breath. “Who stood you up?”

“No one. I came here alone... and that’s also none of your business.” When would he go away?

She gestured to the bartender again, pointing to her empty glass and holding up a finger.

“Seriously, slow down.”

“Why don’t you go back to your friend? I’m sure he’s missing your dick up his arse.”

He regarded her, a blank expression on his face. Oh God, I’ve pissed him off, and now he won’t go away. Going away would mean backing down from a challenge. She had started talking to him again last month, but she had learned that wasn’t Kylo Ren’s way. Why hadn’t she held her tongue? Her eyes darted to his, gauging his mood.

But the corners of his lips only turned up in a smile that she couldn’t place this time. Curiosity again, like during the call? No, it was more genuine, brighter somehow. Quickly, however, it changed, growing darker, severe, the mask falling over his face as if it had always been there. “Why did you ignore my texts?”

She rolled her eyes. “You mean your obsessive, oh please, my love, talk to me texts? I don’t answer to you. I told you. We’re finished. There’s nothing you can say that would make me work with you or First English.”

The bartender returned with one more shot. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said, now realizing that she had been too stressed to thank him properly. What was it about owning Ben that gave her confidence? Or was it the alcohol? No, it couldn’t be. The room wasn’t spinning, and she wasn’t slurring her words—at least she didn’t think she was.

Ben lit a cigarette, let it dangle on the edge of his lips.

“Can you go somewhere else and do that, please and thank you?”

He inhaled a long drag.

“Since when do you smoke?”

“I’ve always smoked on and off, but I didn’t do it around you,” he said, exhaling in the other direction.

Rey picked up her last shot of the night, turned it up, and let the harsh liquid burn the back of her throat. Wincing, she clinked the glass loudly onto the counter, making a writing gesture toward the bartender to indicate she wanted the check.

Ben inhaled another drag. “Leaving so soon?”

“The view has wildly deteriorated... as has my breathing space.” She stood up, pulling down her short dress. 

His fingers closed around her hand. “Stay.”

“Yeah, no, thanks.”

“I didn’t mean to…” He shook his head. “Stay. We haven’t talked in a long fucking time.”

“And whose fault is that?”

He put out his cigarette, finished off his drink. “Mine, I know.” His lips quivered around the last word. “Stay.”

Rey scoffed. “No, thanks. See you at the conference.”

Ben released her arm, and Rey followed the waiter toward the register at the entrance of the izakaya.

The waiter punched in her check, the total flashing back in green, digital numbers while Ben moved to stand beside her. She reached for her wallet at the same instant Ben set down a 10,000 yen note. “It’s on me,” he muttered.

“No, it’s not,” she tried to protest, but they weren’t listening to her.

“I’m a regular.” Ben said a few words to the waiter in Japanese, and her check was settled without them ever listening to a word she had said.

Rey bolted to the door and shoved it open with more force than necessary. If only she had better Japanese. She would’ve cleaned the floor with his smug face and paid him back for all the hurt he had caused her family.

Crisp spring air floated across her face, carrying the smell of fresh rain. She breathed deeply, cleared her lungs of the lingering smoke. Kyoto—her first time back in four years. Strangely enough, it smelled the same, a scent she couldn't describe. The dim city lights, tiny water droplets clinging to her hair and dusting her cheeks. She smiled.

“You forgot your jacket,” Ben called, placing it on her shoulders. “It’s cold out here.”

“Thanks.”

“At least let me walk you to your hotel.” He touched her arm; it sent shivers up her back. “Make sure you get there okay.”

“Where the hell have you been for the past eight years? Decide to care now that I have something you want?”

“I think you’ve misconstrued my intentions.”

“I have? Really? And what are your intentions?”

He grimaced. “To walk you to your hotel. That’s it.”

Rey paused, remembering her Mara's advice on men. Did it apply to him, to Ben? She'd known him for ten years. The street was quiet around her, but it was dark, and despite the safety of Japan, there wasn’t any harm in having him walk with her. It was a short distance away.

“Fine,” she found herself saying. “Just to my hotel.”

“Where are you staying?”

“Nightshade and Sakura.”

He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “That’s my hotel, too.”

That’s why he had been at Midori. Should she bother giving the universe any more points tonight?

“You’re in Kyoto early as well. Why?”

“Same as you. Work.”

It had to be a lie; the English Resistance didn’t an office in Kyoto. But neither did First English.

Silence followed as they crossed the street toward her hotel. All those silent years spanned before them, stretching as high as the buildings above. Rey didn’t know what to say. A part of her wanted to yell at him, recount what he’d done to her eight years ago and berate him for the way he’d treated her in Tokyo and on the video call. Another stronger, treacherous part of her wanted to curl into his chest, breathe in his scent, and let his arms fall around her. She could do it. His hand was so close to hers—a shallow breath’s length away.

Rey glanced up at the gothic architecture of Nightshade and Sakura. It was a historic, upscale hotel paid for by Leia herself as a reward for Rey’s performance in Tokyo. Together, they walked into the lobby, and Rey fought to keep her mind from wandering to him, memories from a lifetime ago. She longed to soak away the smoke and booze in the massive spa tub until her skin no longer held any traces of this disaster of a day.

“Are you calling it a night?” she asked when he entered the lift after her. She debated taking the stairs; the lift was an older model, not yet renovated. It shook slightly and made a strange whirring sound.

He nodded, brushing back slightly damp, matted black hair out of his eyes. “Seeing you, coincidence, yeah? What floor?”

“Three,” she said, her body tensing. Perfect. Now he knew what floor she was on. That would make it more difficult to avoid him.

The first floor ticked away. He looked over at her, smiling.

The lift halted before the second floor. “What was that?” she mumbled, trying to control the shaking in her voice.

“I’m not sure.” Ben punched the button to open the doors. “It’s not responding. He pressed the emergency button. Nothing happened. “Stay calm.” He pulled out his phone and placed it to his ear. “I’ll call the front desk.” The lift filled with the angry sound of his Japanese, and Rey watched him, holding her breath.

“They don't know what's wrong,” he said, hanging up the phone. “They said this happens occasionally. They'll send someone to figure it out, but until then, we're stuck.”

“For how long?”

He rubbed his face. "If they don't know what's wrong, they obviously don't know how long."

Not only was he staying at the same hotel, but now she was also stuck with him, in a small space, for an undefined amount of time. What were the odds? Exceedingly low, most likely. It had to be her luck, or lack of it, trapped with the one person she couldn’t stand. The second time in her life a lift decided to break down with her inside. At an upscale hotel, no less. A few moments passed in silence, with her stationed at one end of the box and he at the other. The lift didn’t move.

“Why did you leave, huh?” Rey’s voice cut through the stillness. The words flowed out, her tongue loosened by alcohol. “I texted you every day for weeks, and nothing.”

Ben’s eyes were locked straight ahead, jaw ticking. “I left because I had to.”

“Because you had to? Really?” Rey didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She hadn’t seen him for almost a decade; she had held in that question for so long, and that was his response? “Why didn’t you at least call, text, anything? Do you have any idea what you did to me?” The tears stood in the corners of her vision, but she didn’t release them.

“It’s not that simple, Rey,” he whispered, his eyes far away.

With a frustrated sigh, she pulled a makeup compact out of her purse and used the mirror to wipe away her rapidly dissolving eyeliner.

“Seriously? You don’t need to fix your makeup.”

“Huh! That’s rich coming from someone that told me I wasn’t attractive less than two days ago.”

“What’re you talking about? The video call?”

She didn’t respond.

“That’s what you’ve been pissed at? I said I didn’t think you had the assets.”

“Yeah, well, I also don’t appreciate your implications.”

“Implications? What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Are you really that dense? Implying that I secured those contracts using flirtation? I’m not stupid.”

“I see women like you all the time.”

“How dare you! You don’t know anything about me.”

“But I do. Laughing at the right time. Making the right joke. Letting your hand linger a minute longer than necessary.”

“You think I’m going to fuck the board members to get contracts?” Rey shook her head, disgusted. “You know what I think your problem is, Kylo? You can’t stand the fact that my world no longer revolves around you. I’m not thirteen anymore.”

His eyes skimmed across her body. “Yeah, definitely not thirteen.”

And just like that—her cheeks were burning again. Her mouth hung open, unable to form words. Another sexually-implicit comment. Another she could add to his rapidly growing Kylo-Is-An-Asshole-Listen-To-Your-Mother Box.

He caught a glimpse of her expression, rolling his eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Really? You of all people?”

He breathed out. “No. I meant... you’ve changed. You’ve…”

“Filled out? Have boobs? Have something you want to fuck? Is that why you offered to walk with me? Only attractive enough to get your dick off?”

“I think you’ve truly misconstrued my intentions.”

She snapped her compact closed. “No. You’ve dug your hole.”

His bottom lip twitched, determination vanishing from his eyes. It continued to fall, softer still into... into misery?

“Yeah, I guess I have,” he whispered. “What was it you called me? On the video call? A bastard?”

“Well, you are!”

“You never…” He laughed bitterly, eyes breaking away for a moment only to flicker back to hers, suffering tangled in amber. “You’re exactly like them. Exactly like them.”

“And you’re so misunderstood,” Rey spat, but his words echoed in her mind. “Don’t give me that rubbish.” She took a few steps backward and slumped down in the farthest corner away from him, pulling her knees to her chest. She clung to that picture of him from the video call, his eyes undressing her. Fuck this day. Fuck this lift. Fuck this trip. And she wanted to add, Fuck you too, Kylo fucking Ren, you insufferable prick.

Unsatisfied with her internal monologue, she waited for his response, shoulders tense, hoping he would give her more to throw in his face. She wasn’t going to back down this time. He was going to get it. All of it. Everything she had been saving since that video call.

However, there was only silence. She removed her hands from her knees, breath almost steady again.

Bang!

Her head snapped up at the abrupt sound to find he had smashed his fist into the wooden panel doors, pieces of plastic—likely his cellphone—falling from the door.

She jumped up. “What the hell?!”

He turned to face her, chest heaving. “Why can’t you be fucking reasonable?!”

“Me?!” She couldn’t hold it back anymore. It all threatened to come out, a release of burning tension. His abandonment, the emotions, everything she had pushed down since he walked away. She stomped toward him, teetering in her heels. “Fuck you, Kylo. Fuck, fuck you.”

The lift began to move upward again. They were saved. She was saved. She would—

It lurched and halted again. Rougher, more abruptly than before, a weightless feeling washing over her. She cried out, reaching for the handrail, heart hammering away in her chest.

Arms enveloped her waist, hands winding possessively around her abdomen. Like warm tendrils of wisteria and springtime and his arm in hers…

Ben.

Her skin prickled under his touch, the pressure of his fingertips like raw energy, as if they had the ability to awaken every desire she had tried to bury since the beginning. She attempted to form words, but they died on her lips.

“Are you okay?” he whispered, looking down at her, his eyes intense as always, but somehow softer, rigid arms holding her against him. A face flashed through her mind—a black waterfall of hair, those same arms fastened around a tiny waist. “ I’m Yuki, Ben’s girlfriend.”  Rey had looked away, holding back silent tears.

His eyes searched her face, almost as if... almost as if they were hungry. She furrowed her eyebrows, directly meeting his gaze. Had she imagined the softness in his voice?

“I’m fine,” she said, frozen in place. “You?”

Ben continued to stare intently at her, his eyes unwavering. “I don’t know yet.”

Rey knew this look. She had seen it, memorized it, traced its shape over and over for years in the eyes of other men. Yet, no man’s gaze had frightened her or made her feel this afraid of her own feelings. Not like this man. Never in the same way this man made her breath hitch and her heart pound.

His hand rose to her neck, sweeping damp hair away from her face.

“Earlier,” he stammered, his fingertips brushing her cheek. “I didn’t mean… You’ve changed. You’re different.”

She placed a hand over his mouth, stopping him from saying anything else. His eyes darted to her lips. Did he want to kiss her? She let her hand fall slowly away, watching as his attention tracked it, savored the movement.

His gaze moved back to her face, and he regarded her intensely, those same hungry, brown eyes burning, pleading with hers.

Ben pushed her against the wall, hands sliding across her waist, fingers exploring the curves of her body. The last time Ben had seen her, she was only beginning to fill out.

“Rey…” His lips lingered near her neck, leaving a light trail of kisses. “Is this… okay?”

She nodded, unable to stop herself. It was more than okay. It was… She entwined her leg around the back of his knees, unable to compensate for their difference in height. With the heels, she had a boost, but even then, the top of her head only reached to his chin.

Ben chuckled; a rare smile rose to his lips. It was a smile from the past, one that made her heart race more. “Need a ladder?”

“Shut up.” Rey traced fingers along his jawline. She had spent so long wishing she could touch him like this, have his face next to hers, the heat of his breath against her lips. Eight years later, here she was, in his arms. What she was doing? Was it the alcohol? It couldn’t be. She didn’t feel dizzy. Maybe a little tipsy, a little good, but not drunk. So, what was this?

Ben pulled her up onto the cold handlebar, his mouth parting. Every piece of him seemed to be intent on the breath escaping from her lips, on finishing their argument in a way she never could have imagined.

His lips collided with hers, desperate, frenzied. Water on her skin, slipping across her face in dizzy streaks. Fingertips on her cheek. His voice a whisper against her ear, echoing. It called her. To him. Home.

No one had ever kissed her like this before, with this much intensity. As if he wanted to meld his body with hers and become one whole being. All of her previous kisses from ex-boyfriends and drunken hookups faded away with his warmth, the feeling of his chest against hers.

More, more, more, her body begged. Heat flushed through her, pulsed between her legs. She furthered the exchange, messy, quick, tongue brushing against his. He tasted of whiskey and cigarettes and Ben. What she had always imagined he would taste like. But no—there was something more, something sweet, almost fragrant.

Ben slid a hand under her dress and found her center, eyes relishing the way she exhaled in pleasure when he pressed his fingers against it.

“Ben, wait,” she found herself saying between kisses and pants. “The camera. Lifts have cameras.”

Without stopping, he reached over her head and pushed the camera toward the ceiling. It was an old-style model, another thing it seemed the hotel hadn’t updated yet.

His attention didn’t waver; he sped up, increasing the pace of his circular strokes each time the breath flew from her lips.

Rey knew she should stop him. She hated him. They worked for rival companies. It was a breach of contract. None of this made any—

Zipping sounds. She looked down. His hands were fumbling with the clasp on his pants, a slight tremble in his fingertips. Was he…? Yes. He wanted to take her, like this, right here. In the middle of a lift. And she was going to let it happen. She was going to let Ben do this to her. The Ben she had spent almost a decade wondering about, listening to everyone tell her about the type of person he was. After he had turned his back on his family, morality, and her.

This wouldn’t end well. There was no way anything good could come of this, but strangely, Rey didn’t care. She slipped her underwear down her legs, smiling at the way his eyes trailed up and down her body. He had ruined her night, and maybe she couldn’t make him pay the way she wanted to, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter one bit.

Because she wanted him, too.

Run, every rational cell of her mind screamed. Are you stupid? Stop. Put those back on! She pushed the thoughts down, powerless to stop herself, captive to this new feeling igniting inside her chest.

She wanted more. She wanted to feel him, hard and pulsing inside her, wanted to scream his name until her voice died to a whisper.

“Condom,” he breathed against her face. “Should we use a condom? I mean I’m clean… I’m..."

“Yes, me too. Ju-just fuck me,” she panted. She knew what she was doing, what she was agreeing to, but all she could think about was him, raw, without anything between them. Besides, he could pull out. He would pull out, right?

Ben didn’t wait another moment. He pushed into her passionately, his lips finding hers again, that taste swirling around her tongue. Biting, pulling, he consumed her—his body thrusting harder and harder into her. She returned his vivacity with her own, a dance of her hips, encouraging him to claim and quell the heat flaring in her blood.

“Rey, fuck .” He nearly spat out the curse word. “You feel… fuck.” His hands snapped to her hips and compelled her to turn around. She thought about fighting him—pushing his hands off and screaming at him for treating her like she was his own personal marionette doll.

“Harder,” she demanded instead, slamming her backside into his hips. “Harder.”

Again and again, Ben took her from behind until her eyes stung from the force of his thrusts and her hands ached from gripping the metal bar. His fingertips swirled across her center, breath echoing in her ear—a song she both hated and wanted to play over and over until her senses deadened and failed.

The sensation intensified. Different from anything she had experienced before. She could feel him everywhere, a sharp edge to his thrusts, a fullness that left her slamming her hips harder against his pelvis.

“Rey… I’m…” A sharp intake of breath. “I’m… fuck .” His hand tightened around her hip, low moans ringing in her ears. His fingers paused on her center. Inside, she felt a dull throbbing, a warmth. So slight she almost didn’t notice it at all. Did he—

His fingers resumed gliding between her legs until she couldn’t hold back any longer. It was like he knew her better than anyone else—better than even herself. He seemed to know the exact places to touch, the right pressure. It was too much. The fullness of him inside her. His smell. His hips against hers. It enveloped her sweetly, tenderly. She was slipping, slipping, slipping, legs tensed, body shaking. In euphoria, she quivered around him, a fever of darkness dowsing her vision.

Ben collapsed against her back, gasped for air. “Rey.” His lips trailed across her cheek, hands cradling her face. “Rey…”

Her body. His body. They were locked tightly together, her pelvis fitted against his. He was between her legs. He had finished inside her. He was still inside her. The lights flickered slightly. He pulled out and began to button his pants, all without cleaning up or looking at her.

What had she done? Rey stared at him, pondering the new wetness between her legs, knowing just what it meant and how unbelievably stupid she was. “Do you have anything…” She cleared her throat. “Any-anything I can use to uh…?”

“I... Fuck.” He reached into his pockets, pulling out a handkerchief. He passed it to her; his hands continued to shake. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Numbly, she cleaned herself up and pulled her underwear up her legs, the handkerchief limp in her hand.

Ben stared at the evidence of their stupidity, realization at last setting into his features. “You’re on birth control, right?” His voice was desperate, shaking. “The pill? Something?”

The lift finally moved, floors ticking away. Nothing. She felt nothing. She couldn’t. What should she do? What should she say?

“Rey?”

Her lips trembled, a cry coiled in her throat. She couldn’t speak; if she did, she would fall apart. She swallowed, silent, looking at the walls, the lights, her handbag—in every direction but his. How unbelievably stupid, how unbelievably… She needed a shower so scalding, so blistering hot to burn away the imprint of his hips against hers, that feeling as he released inside her. The tears spilled over. All of her previous boyfriends had used condoms or pulled out with no accidents. Ben was now the first to cum inside of her, and they weren’t together. What had she been thinking? How could she have been so stupid? Why hadn’t he pulled out?

The doors opened to her floor; she rushed out, nearly tripping over her feet. But before she could slip out of range, his large hand closed around her arm.

“Let me go,” she snapped, trying to yank herself free.

His grip tightened. “Answer me.”

“Let. Me. Go.”

“Answer me!”

She winced, the tears falling harder. “You’re hurting me.”

“I…” He looked down at her arm, which was turning red from the pressure. His fingers relaxed, tender now. “I'm sorry. Please don’t cry. Just answer the question.”

“No,” she said. “I’m not on anything. I thought you’d pull out. I tried the pill for a few months and it mucked everything up. Now, will you let me go?”

“What?” His face creased, lips trembling around the word. "But the condom. I asked. I thought when you…”

Taking advantage of his shock, she wrenched her arm away. The lift doors began to close.

He rushed for the button to keep the doors open, but it was too late. She had escaped.

Tears danced in the corners of her eyes as she ran to her room. What have I done? What have I — She fumbled with her keycard, trying it three times before the door registered it. Bypassing the shower, she fell into the hotel bed, letting white sheets envelop her and draw the tears out like her mother would do if she were still in London.

She smelled overwhelmingly like him, like expensive, earthy cologne that must have cost more than she made in a day. But that wasn’t the scent that concerned her. She reached down, running her hands along her ruined underwear, tracing the wetness that had seeped through the fabric.

Why hadn’t she used the condoms in her purse? Why hadn’t she been able to think of anything else the moment his skin touched hers? And when was her last period? She counted back on the days, eyes growing wider the longer she thought about it.

What could she do? She was in Japan, far away from a chemist that she could buy that little pill cheaply and discreetly from. Mara had warned her. Given her the condoms herself and told her how difficult and expensive it would be to buy if she made a mistake. She’d always been responsible, careful.

She took deep breaths, trying to calm the beating in her chest. She needed to talk to someone who wouldn’t reprimand her. She couldn’t call Mara. Or Rose. She couldn’t face them. She couldn’t stand to hear the disappointment in their voices through the phone. For a moment, she thought about texting them, but even that made her throat constrict. And Finn was completely out of the question. He wouldn’t keep her secret from them, and definitely not a secret like this.

Leia. She could call Leia. She wouldn’t judge or tell. When everyone condemned Ben, Leia always kept quiet, eyes far away. And if she did say something, she would remind them that he was still Ben, their family, despite it all.

Rey didn’t have to mention that it was her son she'd done this with. Or the body of what was left of him. Drying her eyes, she searched her purse for her phone. 12 A.M. It was 4 P.M. in London. Leia would probably be finishing up a meeting with Mara.

Without thinking any further, she pressed Leia’s contact picture and held the phone to her ear.

Leia picked up after the second ring, unusual for her. “Hello? Rey?” She laughed nervously. “You're calling late. Don't tell me you ran into Ben already?”

The question shattered every piece of composure she’d gained within the past three minutes. She sobbed into the mouthpiece, hand over her lips, shoulders convulsing with each cry.

“Rey? What is it? Are you okay? I can give the phone to Mara."

“No,” she choked out. “I need your help.”