Folders and papers fly from his hands as Ben trips up the stairs, having missed the stair railing. Funding requests spill across his apartment building's second floor landing.
There are some days, and today is one of them, when Ben thinks he'd either have quit or been fired by now if he didn't work for his family's own charity. It's good work, though. The only work that makes him feel less shitty about the things that went down while he was still putting his MBA to use working for the First Order.
Now, rather than taking money, he chooses who to give it to.
It only takes a minute to pick up all the documents, but they're no longer neatly organized. He's not patient enough to get them back the way the interns had arranged them, so Ben shuffles them into a haphazard pile and continues up the stairs.
There's music blasting from his apartment.
That doesn't bode well.
His roommate isn't the type of college student to host parties—that was the first thing he'd asked before agreeing to rent her the second bedroom. No, Rey wouldn't throw a party. Not without warning him, and not at 6 PM on a Wednesday.
The song from St. Elmo's Fire also doesn't strike him as a popular party song for early 20-somethings.
Still, opening his apartment door involves surviving a shock wave of enthusiastic mid-80s vocals, and a trumpet, Ben thinks.
What the hell is Rey up to?
At least her boyfriend—the insufferable redhead he wants to strangle no less than every time the man visits—isn't here. Armitage's loafers aren't at the door, nor is the pretentious air that follows him around.
"Hello?" he calls out.
By now, Rey should be home from class, and she should have his dining room table covered from corner to corner with textbooks, sticky notes, and printed articles. Rey's studious, often to the point where he feels the need to coax her into taking short breaks with the promise of snacks.
St. Elmo's Fire ends, much to his relief, and briefly he expects to see his sweet, mouthy roommate pop out of her room and chastise him playfully for interrupting an impromptu solo dance party. That'd be like Rey. He catches her dancing around their apartment sometimes, and it always comes with an annoying flare up of the feelings he harbors for her.
The song is replaced with what has to be the cheesiest song to come from the same decade, and Ben frowns at her bedroom door.
He drops his documents off on the table, yanks off his jacket, leaves his shoes by the door, and shuffles down the hallway toward their bedrooms. The music gets louder with each step, confirming his assumption that it's coming from her room.
Just as the singer proclaims they'll be right here waiting, Ben raps his knuckles on her bedroom door. "Rey? Everything okay?"
Barely audible over the music, she replies, her voice strained. "Ben? Ben! Oh my god, you're home! Can you come in here? Just… don't look?"
His eyebrows pull tighter in confusion, but he covers his eyes and opens her door. The music blasts at him. "Can you shut that off?"
"Don't you think I would have by now? Please save me from this '80s hell. It's been like this for hours, like some sort of demented prom."
He wants to laugh at that comment, but she's crying.
Why is she crying?
Ben doesn't ask, focusing on the music first. "Where's your laptop?
He stumbles over something—a textbook, probably—on her floor, but makes it to her desk without injury, and cracks his eyes open when he gets to her computer. It doesn't prompt him for a password, and he makes a mental note to remind her yet again to set one, but he silences the music and sighs, happy with the silence.
Now that he can talk at a normal volume, he asks, "What's going on?"
She's sniffling, and if it wasn't for her vehement order that he not look, Ben would spin around and demand an explanation. Instead, he waits patiently for her reply.
"I'd rather not say."
It's hard not to be frustrated. "Can you at least tell me if you're okay? I'm getting the impression you're not."
His grip on her desk chair tightens with her hesitation. "Rey. I need to know if you're okay."
"I'll be fine," she mumbles. It's a lie. It doesn't take a genius to know she's still crying, even if she's quiet about it.
A dozen different scenarios—ranging from the annoying, like she's just read a sad book and didn't feel like getting up to turn off the music, to the deeply concerning, like she's broken her leg—cross his mind.
"I need to know what the hell's going on," he blurts, wincing at his own demanding tone.
Rey sniffs again. "I think I've had enough of men snapping at me today, thank you. If you're going to be a dick, go ahead and leav— wait, no, please don't leave!"
Her voice is frantic, and he interrupts, hushing her. "I'm not leaving. I'm sorry I snapped, but I'm anxious and you won't tell me what's going on."
It takes a minute for her to reply, and when she does it comes out all at once. "I'mhandcuffedtothebedandIcan'treac—"
"Rey," he says softly. "Slower, please?"
The little whimpering sound she makes stabs at his heart. "Promise you won't laugh?"
"Of course I won't laugh."
"I… may be handcuffed to my bed frame," she admits. "I thought these had one of those easy release buttons, but they don't. The key's on my desk, next to the laptop. Please don't laugh, my day has already been a nightmare."
Ben blinks, processing the mention of handcuffs. He looks down at her white-painted desk—there's a small silver key, placed next to her computer. "Any chance you'll tell me why you're handcuffed to a bed with music blasting loud enough to hear from the stairway?"
"The music wasn't my fault. The handcuffs… are self explanatory."
He squashes the jealous little voice that's urging him to find and punch Hux, and he snatches the key, spinning around to free her from her unintentional—
Gobsmacked isn't enough to cover his reaction.
Rey is, indeed, handcuffed to her bedframe, but she'd failed to mention that she's handcuffed and naked. To be fair, he should have guessed.
She's very, very naked, from her toned, bare arms that tense against uncomfortable metal, to her ankles, which are spread and tied to different corners of her bed frame.
He claps a hand over his eyes, despite every instinct that's screaming for him to commit to memory the placement of every freckle, the exact shade of rosy pink of her nipples, and the way her hips flare just so.
Unasked for but not unwelcome thoughts of gripping those hips pop up in his mind.
"I told you not to look!"
Ben works his mouth together, trying to determine how he'll help her without seeing anything. "I'm sorry, I forgot—I'll do my best not to again, but I need my eyes to get those cuffs open."
She's silent, considering it, and her reply is so soft he almost misses it. "Okay."
He turns his back to her and looks for something that might make her more comfortable. A magenta terry bathrobe hangs off a hook on the back of her door, and he grabs it.
"I'm going to put this over you, okay?"
"Please. I'm freezing." Her voice isn't firm as it normally would be. She sounds sad. Small. "It's so cold in here."
It is frigid in the apartment, even for February. She's probably ice cold. He closes his eyes before turning back to her, and bumps into her bed, then spreads the robe down, hoping he's covered her well enough. "Am I okay to look?"
Rey sniffs again. "Yeah, it's okay. Can you just undo these please? They started hurting a while ago."
"Yeah, yeah, of course." Ben looks down, relieved to see he's gotten the robe over most of her.
There are tear tracks and mascara running down her cheeks.
He sees red, but focuses on the harsh metal cuffs that are wrapped around her wrists. With the key, they open easily, and he sits next to her, holding her shaking hands to inspect them.
Rey's wrists are circled in red. The discoloration of bruising is rising on her skin, and she flinches when his fingertips brush over it.
"Did you try to get out of them? What happened?"
She pulls her hands back, biting at her swollen bottom lip as she reaches down to untie her ankles. "I tried something with Armitage. It didn't go well."
"Didn't go well? That's a nice way of saying he left you handcuffed and alone," Ben snaps. "Are you kidding me? Rey, that's-"
The glare she gives him is withering. "Don't."
"Don't? Don't what? Don't be worried about you? Don't be pissed at your boyfriend? Don't-"
"Don't assume you're the only one who's upset," she snarls. "Because I just spent half my day like this, and I am the one who got dumped when I tried to spice things up and I am the one whose boyfriend left to meet some woman he'd matched with on Tinder. So stop acting like you're the one who's personally offended."
A sob erupts from her, cutting off anything else she might have said. Ben shuts his mouth and watches her tuck the robe under her arms, flex her feet, and wince as she rolls her wrists around. Now that he's getting a better look, it's clear that her eyes are red, and her face is blotchy and puffy from crying.
He might hate Hux, but for whatever reason, she didn't.
"I'm sorry." He catches one of her hands and studies her wrist. "Do you mind if I clean and bandage these? It looks like you rubbed them raw."
He struggles not to let his anger show, but it's an impossible feat. "How long?"
Rey nibbles at the nails of her other hand. "What time is it?"
"A little after 6."
"Four hours. My afternoon class got cancelled, so I invited Arm-"
"Please don't say his name right now," Ben interrupts. "I'm trying to stay calm so I don't tick you off again and talking about him isn't helping. I'll be right back."
He leaves and brings a roll of medical tape, gauze, antibacterial ointment, and a warm, wet washcloth back from the bathroom, then begins to clean the spots that are red and raw, putting antibacterial ointment over most of it. Rey's eyes are laser focused, watching him while the occasional tear rolls down her cheeks. As he wraps gauze around her wrists, his gaze flicks to hers.
She opens her mouth to say something, but seems to change her mind, and only wipes at her eyes.
Her eyebrows pull tighter. "You're… kind of protective, aren't you? I didn't notice that. How long have you not liked-" She stops, not speaking the prick's name. "My ex?"
Ben hums thoughtfully, taping the gauze. "How long has it been since the first time you brought him home?"
"Part of me wants to defend him," Rey sighs. "But today, I'm not feeling generous. He doesn't deserve it. Can I ask why you never liked him?"
Ben shrugs. "It didn't seem like he was nice to you. I never heard about him suggesting dates, or doing things for you, but you were always thinking of ways to make him happy. He never stayed over—he always left once you'd fallen asleep. He never came over to watch a movie or keep you company when you had a bad day. Mostly it was just a feeling. An accurate one, I'd say, considering."
He pauses. "Did he leave you like this on purpose?"
If so, he really might track the man down and—
"He's not that cruel," she whispers. "After he broke things off, I yelled at him to get out. I thought the cuffs had a release, and that I could get out of them myself. By the time I realized they didn't, he'd left, like I told him to."
Knowing that doesn't make Ben feel much better, but he nods. "But how does someone see you waiting for them handcuffed to a bed and then leave to meet someone off Tinder? Is he blind? Not that I'm not glad he's gone, I just don't understand his thought process there."
A faint blush appears on her cheeks, but she doesn't reply. He swaps over to her other wrist and starts cleaning it, too. "What's the deal with the music?"
Rey groans. "I had a playlist on that I like, but once it played through the songs, it started shuffling through the next playlist."
"Which was… cheesy '80s music?"
"Apparently. That's been my hell for a few hours. I think I spent a whole hour listening to Cyndi Lauper."
Rey lets out a humorless laugh. Another tear rolls down her cheek and he just can't help himself anymore. He cups her face, brushing her soft hazelnut waves to the side so he can wipe the tear from her skin.
He's seconds from finally telling her how beautiful she is when her lips press into a thin line, and her lashes flutter closed.
"Hey," he murmurs, "You don't have to act for me. You don't have to laugh and pretend you aren't upset right now. Anyone would be."
The unshed tears start to flow. He's never seen her upset before—never seen her cry, except for that time she watched the beginning of Up without knowing what to expect. Rey buries her face in her hands, and her shoulders shake as she lets it all out, her breath coming in gasps.
Tentatively, Ben wraps an arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer until she leans into him. Whether she's seeking warmth or just comfort, Ben doesn't know, so he offers both.
"It- it's not the breakup. I don't care about that, not now that I know how awful he was," she mumbles, once she's caught her breath. "I was so alone, and scared you'd work late or leave to visit your parents and nobody would find me until tomorrow, or later."
His stomach turns when he realizes what she'd truly been afraid of. It brings him back to the night they'd had a few drinks, and she'd told him about her parents. At that thought, he pulls her closer, collecting her in his arms while wrapping the robe around her.
"You thought you'd been abandoned."
Rey nods and sobs into his chest, dampening his button up.
"Oh, Rey," he sighs. "I'm not going anywhere, and I always let you know when I'm going to be away."
"I know, I was just scared."
She curls up on his lap, letting him hug her, and on a normal day he'd be lost in the wonder of Rey being so close, but now he's too worried and too angry.
"You don't have to be scared," he hushes. "Let's get out of your room for a bit, hm? I can make you some mac and cheese. I'll even make you the boxed kind you keep insisting is better than my homemade recipe."
Rey lets out a little sputtering laugh. She nods again, with her face still buried in his chest. It's a relief that he knows the best way to comfort her involves food.
"We've even got that trail mix that's more chocolate than nuts. Ice cream, too. I'll bring you a big bowl, and you can put that cartoon bug show on."
Her shoulders shake again, but Ben doesn't think it's from crying.
"It's not a bug show," she huffs. "The girl's superhero identity is just called Ladybug. It's cute."
"Sure, sure," he humors her.
Rey readjusts to stare up at him. Her hazel eyes are shining and reddened, and her face is still blotchy from crying. All he wants to do is hug her. Hug her, and keep her safe.
At least now she's smiling, even if her smile is small, and still a little sad.
He squeezes her gently. "Any time."
Against his better judgement, Ben empties two cardboard boxes of noodles into a pot of boiling water, stirring them in. He'd love to make her a proper mac and cheese—his mother's recipe includes a thick white sauce and almost a pound of melted cheeses—but Rey's comfort food is the boxed stuff.
He almost considers it an insult to his otherwise gourmet kitchen, but doesn't argue. At least, he won't argue tonight. Not after the day she's had.
Ben peeks out at where she's sitting in the living room, flushed pink from a hot shower and bundled up in one of his old college hoodies that hangs to her mid-thigh. She's curled up on the couch, going through movie options.
One thing he's noticed in six months of cohabitation is that Rey rarely lets someone else take care of her. She doesn't rely on people. He's never seen her ex try to take care of her, though now Ben's pretty sure the man just wasn't a considerate partner.
The only time he can recall her asking for help was that time, back in December, maybe three or four months into her living in the apartment.
She'd been home sick from class for two days, and she'd been sick straight through the weekend with a high fever and no voice. Ben had needed to convince her to call out from her shifts at Maz's bar, and she'd soaked through a t-shirt burning through her fever.
It had been the first and only time she'd let him—or anyone, as far as he can tell—take care of her, bringing her soup, monitoring her temperature, making sure she slept… and as much as he'd hated seeing her sick, Ben liked being the person she'd relied on.
Back in his kitchen, he scoffs at himself, watching the water boil.
Only a moron would fall for their roommate. Their much younger roommate.
"Do we still have apples?" Rey asks from the couch.
He folds his arms over his chest. By that, she means "Do you still have apples?" because god forbid she buys any produce that doesn't come in dried or gummy form.
"Apples? You mean the things you slice up to use as peanut butter spoons?"
Rey's voice is saccharine sweet. "Yes. Do we have any?"
"I bought a bag on Monday," he laughs. "I'll bring you one with the mac and cheese. Did you find something to watch?"
"You won't like it. Have you heard of She-Ra?"
Ben frowns, trying to remember where he's heard the name. After a moment, he snorts. "What is it with you and cartoons? I haven't watched He-Man since I was a kid."
"Mm, this show is new-ish. 2018."
He spoons out a massive serving of chemically orange carbs, then gets himself a bowl, too. It's annoying how delicious the stuff is. Snatching an apple from the fruit bowl, he heads toward the living room, and inspects the show Rey has queued up.
"They must have done a reboot. In the original, She-Ra is He-Man's twin sister."
Rey tilts her head as he hands her a bowl and the apple. "Original? I didn't realize this was a reboot."
"Yeah. Really, what is it with you and cartoons?"
She shrugs. "People underestimate how good some of the writing is for animated shows. And with fight scenes and big events, they aren't as limited with a budget, because it's animated. Plus, they're fun." Rey looks over at him and teases, "Don't you know how to have fun?"
Ben rolls his eyes, but can't help his grin. She's joking, and it's a relief to see her in a better mood. The smile she gives him doesn't meet her eyes, but she's not crying, and that feels like a big improvement.
They eat in comfortable silence, until Rey finishes her bowl and sets it aside, curling up with the blanket they keep over the back of the couch. She leans against him, just like she normally would. He readjusts so she can rest her head on his chest.
Softly, she says, "You were right. About Armitage."
"Oh?" He doesn't dare to prod further.
"Yeah," Rey nods. "I didn't see it at the time, but you're right. He wasn't nice. I mean, he was nice enough, but he didn't do any of the stuff I thought boyfriends did. He wouldn't let me steal any of his sweaters. Even if he had, he didn't have any cozy ones."
Ben doesn't mention his own sweater, which she's wearing. She'd stolen it fresh from the dryer.
"He would never have picked up tampons or anything—he avoided me whenever I was on my period. And remember that time I was sick? I'd asked him if he could swing by with cold meds on his way home from work and I'd pay him back, but he said he didn't want to catch anything from me." She grimaces. "And god you should have heard the shit he said today."
"Probably a good thing I didn't," Ben mutters through gritted teeth. He sets his bowl on the coffee table, and Rey slides down until she's lying on her back, using his thigh as a pillow.
She continues, sounding numb. "When he saw how I was… uh, in my room… he made this comment about how he'd have to do the work, like it was a chore or something. Like it was inconvenient. I should have told him to fuck off then, but I guess if I had hindsight I would have told him that a while ago."
The urge to shatter something flares up. He wants to grab the bowl he's just set down and toss it at a wall, or see if he can crush it in his grip. He doesn't. Instead, Ben focuses on breathing, and waits for her to go on while he plays with her hair.
"When his phone went off, I thought he was getting up to silence it and when he said he needed to leave, I asked him why. He just gave me this look. Like he was bored with me and had finally decided to say it."
"Did he?" Ben hisses, unable to hide his outrage.
Her eyes flick up to his. "No. Not exactly. He laughed, and told me I'd been 'sort of fun' and that we were done, and he was going to meet up with someone who'd be more fun. It was pretty clear he meant sexually."
Ben deadpans, "So what you're telling me is that he was bad at sex?"
"I think the implication was that he was bored. Hence my attempt with the handcuffs."
He studies her for a moment. While they're talking so openly, honesty seems like a good idea. "Good sex has nothing to do with all the extra stuff. The handcuffs, toys, kinks—they're fun, great even, but that's not what makes sex good or entertaining. You know that, right?"
It almost kills him when she shrugs again. "I'm not sure I'd know. It's always been… fine."
Ben chews at the inside of his mouth. "What do you think the point of using handcuffs is?"
"It's… kinky." She waves a hand. "Spices things up when they get dull."
This isn't a conversation he'd expected to have tonight. Or ever. Not with her head in his lap. Still, Ben replies, "I'd say they're a show of trust. You need to be able to trust that your partner won't be a dick and leave you stuck to a bed." At Rey's slight glare, he lightens up and explains, "The reason they're exciting is that, when you're in them, you don't know what your partner will do, and you have to trust them not to cross any of the boundaries you set. They're in complete control, and you're at their mercy."
Rey swallows. That's when he sees that her cheeks are flushed. "That's… not something I'd have done with him. Now that you've put it that way. There aren't many people I trust that much."
The hand that isn't playing with her hair finds her jaw, and his fingers ghost there, and down her throat, moving in random soothing patterns.
Her eyes lift to his. "I had a lot of time to think about things today. There wasn't much else to do. And… I think I've been a little blind."
She struggles for an answer, and lands on, "I'm wearing your sweater."
"You always wear my sweaters," he whispers.
Rey reaches up and catches his hand, nuzzling her face into it. "Yeah, that's my point."
Then, tenderly, she kisses his palm.