Ben writes his resignation letter in August, straight off of the plane from Charlotte, his bags piled on the sofa in the corner of his office where he has spent a not inconsiderable number of nights futilely attempting to sleep. He should go home first--it’s nearly 11pm and his first meeting tomorrow is at 8.15am on the Hill--but the thought of trudging down Pennsylvania Avenue with this hanging over his head makes his throat seize up.
He shakes the mouse on his desktop to wake it up, enters his absurd twenty-digit password, and closes the Adobe Flash Player Install Manager that is insisting it be allowed to install updates. He has twelve Microsoft Word windows already open, so he makes a new document and looks at it for a while, at the blinking cursor, and can still hear the thunderous applause that had echoed through the Spectrum Center mere hours ago.
Mr. President, he finally types. It has been an honor and a privilege to work with you for the last four years. I will not be returning to serve as your Deputy Chief of Staff in the coming year. Thank you for this opportunity. Yours, Benjamin Solo.
Pedantic common wisdom--the kind Ben’s mother and uncle had done brisk trade in when he was a child--suggests that writing lies should be a difficult, burdensome task. But it only takes Ben about twelve seconds to finish this letter. He saves it as office notes, jan 2020 , and closes the file. It’s probably just his imagination--or his guilty conscience--but it feels like the tinny, echoing applause begins to fade from his ears as he sends his computer to sleep and gathers up his bags for the long walk home.
“There’s an emergency,” Hux says to Ben as he bursts into Ben’s office, his pretentious steel thermos clutched in his skeletal hand. “Senior staff meeting in Snoke’s office in fifteen minutes. Undoubtedly it’s some wretched news.”
“What the fuck could it even be?” Ben asks, returning most of his attention to answering an idiotic email from the counsel’s office about minutiae in the new corporate tax bill that Ben is trying to kill. If you stop sending me emails about this, I’ll have time to actually stop it from being passed , he types. “An October surprise? About the President? He’s been in politics for sixty-two years, his closet’s been clear of skeletons for decades.”
“Perhaps oppo has unearthed something,” Hux says, taking a delicate sip from his thermos and making a moue of distaste when Ben looks up to glare at him. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, have I perhaps stepped on your tender feelings?”
“Get the fuck out of my office,” Ben says. He hits send on the email, even though he knows it’s going to come back and bite him in the ass. Last week he’d been in line for a sandwich in the cafeteria behind someone from the counsel’s office who had been informing someone else, vaguely familiar-looking, about how nobody would even blink if she decided to shove Benjamin Fucking! Solo in front of a bus. This might be enough to actually push her over.
“You know, if you just wanted to tell us whatever horrible secrets are lurking in Dameron’s past, we’d be very receptive,” Hux says. “No one would turn you in for electoral fraud,” which is, of course, a lie told straight to Ben’s face--Hux would love nothing better than to see Ben in jail. The feeling is mutual.
“Three,” Ben says, and then, “two,” and Hux rolls his eyes so hard that his whole head bounces off of the doorframe and he disappears back out into the bullpen.
Ben has Mitaka cancel his 9am meeting with the Heritage Foundation and his 10am phone call with Senator Tarkin with the expectation that an emergency senior staff meeting a month before the election will be enough of a clusterfuck to require most of the morning.
This turns out to have been particularly prescient on Ben’s part, because at 10.03am he’s bursting out of Snoke’s office at a dead sprint, shouting, “Mitaka, cancel the rest of today’s meetings. Where the fuck’s my go bag? No, you’re not coming, just cancel my fucking meetings. Tell Tarkin I’ll call him next week.”
By 11am, Ben’s on a flight to Chicago.
There’s a car waiting for Ben at O’Hare, a black Lincoln, with some teenager in a suit too big for him and a comically oversized hat. “No,” Ben says when he sees the teenager, who is holding a sign that says SOLO printed on it. “Give me the keys.”
“I’ve been hired for the week--” the kid tries, but he’s only about five feet tall and he crumples under Ben’s hard stare within literal seconds. “I have to call my boss,” he finally says, reaching into the pocket of his plasticky, crinkled suit and pulling out an iPhone with approximately four thousand Mass Effect stickers plastered over the case. Ben waits, not very patiently, as the kid calls his boss and explains the situation, and then the kid covers the bottom of his phone and says, “My boss has to call her boss,” so Ben shoves his suitcase at the kid and says, “Sort this out while I get some coffee.”
By the time Ben has waited in line at a Starbucks, answered fourteen emails, and had to verify that he does indeed want five shots of espresso to be added to his red eye, the kid is off the phone and Ben’s suitcase has disappeared, presumably into the trunk of the black Lincoln. “Here are the keys,” the kid says, sounding a little petulant but plainly not interested in another battle of wills. “When you’re done with it, call our office and I’ll come and collect the car. The number is on the keyring.”
“Fine,” Ben says. The kid slouches off, maybe to wait for someone to pick him up, maybe to catch the CTA back to his office--wherever he’s going, it’s not Ben’s problem. Ben’s problem is located twenty miles northeast of O’Hare. Presumably she’s going to be just as pleased to see him as this kid.
Plutt’s Auto Services is on a lonely corner of flat wasteland just over a creek. Ben has seen almost the entirety of the continental United States for his sins and he hates the Midwest the most; it’s flat, it reminds him of his parents, and there’s no interesting wildlife. Illinois is a cesspool that deserves to be struck off of the face of the planet.
Ben does a circuit when he first arrives, to see what sort of information might be gleaned from the landscape. There’s not much to see, of course--grass starting to go brown from the characteristically shitty late fall weather, bushes lopsided from haphazard trimming, paint peeling off of the garage. The building might have started out a kind of rusty orange but it’s all grey now, with dirty windows and piles of junk dotting the parking lot and surrounding lawn. The sign, PLUTT’S , is clean, but it’s just about the only thing in sight that is, other than a lime green bike chained to the fence that encloses the back of the shop’s property.
On his second loop, Ben pulls into the parking lot. The dashboard of the black Lincoln tells him that it’s 3.04pm, 65F, going to rain tonight, and that there are two pizza restaurants in his vicinity.
When he turns off the engine and climbs out of the car, someone comes out of the garage to meet him. “Heya,” the person calls, and Ben has to lower his sunglasses and look out over the top of them to get a clear look at her; there’s enough cloud cover moving in that Ben believes his car’s prediction that it’s going to rain. “What can I do for you?”
“Rey Smith?” Ben asks, just to be sure, and she pauses, still protected by the overhanging lip of the roof, her features shadowed. He can’t see her face but her accent is British, crisp. The file Snoke had given Ben had said she was a UK citizen in the States on a J1.
“Who’s asking?” she says, cautious, her crisp and beautiful voice going a little lower. It’s good that she’s wary, Ben tells himself. It’s stupid to be offended by her apparently instinctual flinch. Ben’s been making people nervous since he finished the tenth grade and grew nine inches in four months. He’s learned to cultivate that, in his line of work.
“I’m Ben Solo. I’m here to discuss your DNA testing results.”
There’s a long pause; Ben takes the time to remove his sunglasses, fold them, and tuck them into the front breast pocket of his suit jacket. Without the tinted lenses, he can see her features clearly--small, sharp, wary. She looks like a suspicious chipmunk. Ben feels a useless and unwelcome tug of something low in his stomach at her clear, focused stare. Plenty of people are afraid of Ben, but not many of them can punch at his weight.
“Do you work for the company?” she asks.
“No,” he says. “Is there somewhere we can talk privately?”
Her chin jerks up and she folds her arms across her chest. “No need for that,” she says. “If you don’t work for the DNA testing company, why are you here to discuss my results?”
“I’d be happy to explain,” Ben says, “when we’re somewhere else.”
“There’s no one else here,” she says. “If you want privacy, you have it.” But as she says this, she shifts her weight onto the balls of her feet and steps closer to the edge of the doorframe. Ben would bet a significant amount of money that there’s a long pipe or something equally heavy within reach just inside the building.
Ben stays where he is, one elbow propped against the roof of the black Lincoln, letting her sweat a bit as he thinks through how he wants to handle this. He knows the result he needs, of course, but she’s not quite the sad, pale waif he was expecting to deal with. Ben’s not great with people in general but he’s all right with waifs. They seem to like that he’s tall and competent.
Ben taps his finger against the roof of the car, twice, thinking of Snoke’s pale, snarling face as he’d shouted, Deal with her! He’d expelled Ben from his office like Ben was a bullet being fired out of a gun. That’s always how he’s treated Ben. That’s often all that Ben is good for; he’s a blunt instrument.
“You have a family match,” Ben tells her and he sees her whole body seize up at once, like she’s been jabbed with a cattle prod. The look on her face is nearly heartbreaking, it goes so open and excited. She looks like children look at Christmas when they still believe in Santa Claus.
“Are-- you --?” she asks and Ben must make some kind of twitchy facial expression because she catches herself, saying, “Oh, sorry, never mind,” as though Ben’s just told her he’d rather be related to a Mesozoic slime mold. She’s not leaning against the doorframe anymore but she still doesn’t show much sign of moving out into the parking lot, so Ben comes around the black Lincoln and joins her in the garage. Up close, her eyes look damp, shining, with stubby black lashes that have clumped together from moisture.
She’s unbelievably pretty. She has that look of someone wholesome, scrubbed, even though there’s grease smeared on her chin and all down her front. Not a single fingerprint on her , Ben thinks, a little dazed in spite of himself. She smells like Gojo, that hint of false orange that always lingers.
“Who is it? Is it my parents?” she asks.
“Your grandfather,” Ben says and she looks disappointed for half a second--Ben can tell instantly that the parents are a sore spot, he doesn’t even need to remember the LSCB interview in her file--and then a smile breaks out over her face. It’s like the sun rises from somewhere deep inside of her, spilling out of her mouth as she laughs, a little disbelievingly, and a few tears manage to actually escape. They leave grey lines on her face, cutting through the grease.
“I have a grandfather,” she says, softly, to herself, and then she leans forward and grabs Ben’s forearm--her hands are cold and very, very small--and says, “Do you know him? Is that why you’re here?”
“Yes,” Ben says. He doesn’t like being touched as a rule but he can’t quite shake his arm to dislodge her. “His name is Sheev Palpatine. He’s the President of the United States.”
Rey is still clutching Ben’s White House ID badge--the only evidence he’d had on hand to corroborate that he was the Deputy Chief of Staff to the President that wasn’t her file, which had TOP SECRET printed on it in red--twenty minutes later when she finally seems to recover some control over herself. She’s been pacing for endless minutes, chewing on her lower lip and muttering to herself, occasionally throwing out questions to Ben that she seemed to hope would trip him up and reveal the whole enterprise as a massive prank.
“It’s not a prank,” Ben tells her flatly the sixth time she insinuates as much.
“But this can’t be real,” she shouts back at him, shaking his ID badge. “I have a grandfather? And you expect me to believe that he’s the president ?!”
“Yes,” Ben says. “I can show you the results, if you want, but unless you have a degree in biochemistry I don’t think they’re going to mean much to you.”
“How would you know?” she demands and then she stomps over to the sad, decrepit couch on which Ben has been sitting for the last fifteen minutes and plants her ass so firmly that she almost sits on his lap. “Go on,” she says. “Show me the results.” Under the persistent scent of Gojo, she smells faintly metallic, like a hot penny baking in the sun.
Ben thumbs open his email and calls up the annotated family analysis that the Physician to the President had put together and sent to Snoke confirming the DNA testing results. He hands over his phone, with it colorful PDF full of chromatograms, electrophoresis, and summarizing statements written in what is, essentially, a foreign language.
Rey stares at it for a long time, using her thumb and forefinger to zoom in, her eyebrows scrunched low over her nose. She slowly scrolls across and then down every single page--there are fourteen of them--and then she finishes, zooms back out, and hands his phone back to Ben. “Okay,” she says. “So the president is my grandfather.”
“Did you really understand any of that?” he asks her.
“No,” she says. “But your face matches the photo on your Wikipedia page and I think hiring the actual Vice Chief of Staff of the President and writing a dozen pages of fake DNA analysis is beyond the scope of any of my idiot roommates.”
“Deputy Chief of Staff,” Ben says.
“Right,” Rey says. Some of the brightness has gone out of her in the last half hour. She heaves a sigh and says, “So, I’m assuming there’s--there’s some kind of an offer, right?”
“Now is a bad time to make an announcement of a surprise granddaughter,” Ben explains. “The election is in four weeks.”
“Right, of course,” Rey says, voice gone completely flat now. She’s not looking at Ben, but instead staring out into the depths of the garage, her eyes unfocused. “The election.” After a pause she adds, “I don’t suppose there’s ever going to be a good time, though?”
She’s right, of course; a certain kind of surprise granddaughter might have been fine, especially if she had happened to be raised by a pair of doting conservatives in Texas who’d taught her to be polite, ladylike, and interested in some kind of career in early childhood education. There is probably never going to be a good time for Palpatine to have a granddaughter that’s European, let alone one who had double-majored in environmental science and civil engineering at her fancy European university and has an extremely vocal Twitter account advocating for global climate reform. Snoke had snarled as much in the emergency senior staff meeting this morning: No amount of scrubbing is going to remove the stain she would leave on his legacy .
Ben opens his mouth to explain her options, but what comes out instead is: “I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” she says flatly. After a moment she turns to face him and says, “That sounded surprisingly sincere.”
“It was,” Ben tells her. He looks down at his phone, the screen of which has now gone dark. “To be honest with you, your grandfather is something of an asshole.”
“I had figured as much,” Rey says. “He’s not, uh, fond of immigrants, as a class of people. Although I suppose I’m white, so I have that going for me as far as he's concerned.”
There’s not really much Ben can say in response to that. He has an NDA in the trunk of the black Lincoln that he’s supposed to be convincing her to sign: two dozen pages full of crippling legalese that the president’s private counsel had put together. If Rey even so much as breathes in Palpatine’s general direction in the next twenty years, she’s going to owe him five hundred grand on top of the thirty thousand dollars being offered for signing the NDA. That’s the paperwork Ben is supposed to be convincing her to sign.
“You’d know about asshole grandfathers, I suppose,” she says into Ben’s silence. After a moment he looks at her and she shrugs. “I saw on your Wikipedia page when I was verifying your identity. Your grandfather--that is, Anakin Skywalker? Even I’ve heard of him.”
“Yeah,” Ben says. In the White House, Ben’s grandfather is considered something of a tarnished icon. People come up to Ben sometimes--the ones that don’t have to work with him regularly and therefore aren’t aware that he, too, is a huge asshole--and quietly say things like, It really is a shame how this country treated your grandfather . “I never met him, but he did try to murder my grandmother, so.”
“That sucks,” Rey says. She reaches out and pats the top of Ben’s hand where it is curled around his phone, resting against his thigh. “I don’t suppose your boss--that is, my grandfather--knows anything about what happened to my parents? They just left me. I never knew who they were. Are?”
“Were,” Ben says. Her comforting pat on the hand turns into a sharp, hard grab and Ben finds himself using his free hand to lift hers, dropping his phone into his lap so he can turn his hand over and hold hers, palm-to-palm, although her hand is so small that it’s more of a swallow than a mutual grasp. “Car accident. You would have been seven.”
“Oh,” Rey says, a sharp sigh of a word. “They would have only just left me.”
“Two years after,” Ben says. “Your father was high, ran off the road. Post-mortem found signs of extensive heroin use. Both of them.” He doesn’t know how to offer her this information gently, so he just says it quickly. “Your mother was born late in Palpatine’s life, after he’d been widowed. He was having a quiet relationship with an aide. When she discovered she was pregnant, he gave her a lot of money to relocate to the UK and never tell anyone what had happened. She died in '91.”
Rey’s hand tightens, impossibly hard. “How do you know I was seven when they died?”
“Birth records,” Ben says.
“You found my birth records ?” Rey says, and then, “They left me when I was five ? The social worker thought that I was almost seven, I was so tall--are you telling me I’m actually two years younger than I thought?”
“You were born 4 May 1996,” Ben tells her.
“Mother fucker ,” Rey hisses. “Motherfucker! I’m twenty-four?”
“As far as I’m aware, yes,” Ben says. “I have your file in my car.” It is, technically, a criminal offense to show it to her, but Ben feels very strange--has, since the first moment he saw her, standing in the garage, her face shadowed and smudged with grease. He wants nothing more in this moment than to give her anything she might want or need.
“Can they--can my visa be revoked, if it doesn’t have the proper birthdate on it?” she asks Ben. “Wait, no, it’s the birthdate on my passport, it must still be legal. Fuck . If I don’t tell anyone that he’s my grandfather, will he keep mum about my birth records?”
“They will probably disappear,” Ben tells her frankly.
“I can’t believe I’m twenty-four,” she says. “I can’t believe I have a family and they’re all dead except for my grandfather, who is Palpatine . He’s going to be almost single-handedly responsible for the death of this planet, you know.”
“I know,” Ben says.
“Then why do you work for him?” Rey demands.
She’s still holding his hand, so Ben says, “I’m not going to be, for much longer.”
“Oh,” Rey says. The righteous indignation in her voice simmers down a little. “Had enough of working to crush the oppressed?”
“Sure,” Ben says flatly. “I love being hated by basically everyone for doing my job. Can’t get enough of the passive-aggressive phone calls from my mother--” but, of course, he hasn’t had any of those since July, and he clamps his mouth shut around the correction: that is, couldn’t .
“Well, congratulations,” Rey tells him. She seems to realize she’s still holding his hand because her fingers flex and suddenly she’s tugging her hand free and springing to her feet. “So I suppose you’ve got paperwork?” she asks nervously. “Let me close up the shop and we can go into the office to sort it out.”
Rey accepts the offered NDA, in its huge plastic sleeve, and politely asks for twenty-four hours to read it over before signing. Ben hands her his card with his personal cell number scribbled on the back and advises her to find a lawyer and she actually laughs at him for close to twenty seconds before she realizes he’s not kidding. “Me and what disposable income?” she demands before saying, “Never mind, I’ll figure it out,” and shooing him out the door.
Ben drives the black Lincoln to the Hyatt in downtown Evanston and checks into his room, which Mitaka had booked for him some time in the flurry between getting him a plane ticket and canceling all of Ben’s meetings. Ben has a U of C alumnus’ native hatred of Northwestern and its ugly, suburban campus, but he draws the curtains in his room and drops onto the bed, too tired to really lean into his disgust. He can’t stop thinking about Rey and her huge eyes, turned down in the corners by exhaustion and disappointment. Ben has been the familial disappointment for most of his life but he’s never felt this acute jab of shame so strongly before.
He musters up the energy to order some Thai takeout and goes for a long walk to pick it up, hoping that the exercise will clear his head a little. It’s drizzling by the time he’s circled back to the Hyatt. The streets are full of Northwestern students with their overstuffed backpacks and purple fleeces, running to study groups or coffee shops or poetry readings or whatever it is that Northwestern undergraduates spend their time doing. Ben feels like a giant amongst them. A giant who is a thousand years old.
She’s twenty-four . Ben is an animal.
He stops in the lobby to shake off some of the water, taking a second to make sure that his shoes haven’t been irreparably harmed by their brief acquaintance with Illinois weather. It is then that his phone rings. SNOKE . Muscle memory has him swiping to answer the call immediately, before he has a chance to consider whether or not it’s something he actually wants to do.
“Solo,” he answers.
“Did she sign?” Snoke asks.
“She has the documents,” Ben replies, giving up his shoes as a lost cause. “I’ll have her signature on them by tomorrow.”
“You left them with her ?” Snoke demands. “Solo--”
“She’s not going to distribute them,” Ben says with more confidence than he really feels--not because he thinks he’s wrong, because he doesn’t, but because he’s not sure she shouldn’t. “She’ll need to talk to a lawyer.”
“She’s a child ,” Snoke says venomously. “You tell children what to do and they do it, Solo. You know this.”
“She’s not a child,” Ben says, too sharply, and there’s a very deliberate silence on the other end of the line. Ben lifts his hand to scrub at his face and remembers just in time that he’s holding a plastic bag full of takeout. “Everything is fine. This time tomorrow I’ll be on my way back to D.C.”
“Don’t bother,” Snoke tells him. “The president will be in Michigan the day after tomorrow for a rally. Meet me there with the paperwork and we’ll see about getting it properly filed.”
“All right,” Ben says.
“Solo,” Snoke says, with the thin, whispery voice he uses to convey his most poisonous insights, “I realize you might feel some sympathy for the girl.”
“I don’t,” Ben says, and it’s a lie and they both know it. “Good night, sir.”
Snoke pointedly doesn’t say anything and then ten seconds later he hangs up. Ben is too tired to be really furious, but the feelings do battle for long enough to rile him up. He takes the stairs up to the third floor, two at a time, trying to burn out his fury at his boss, who is and always will be an asshole, and at himself, for being the kind of idiot who ends up in these situations. Ben had spent most of his adolescence needing to be rescued from his own bad decisions, so he’d thought making a career out of fixing other people’s mistakes would provide some kind of psychological benefit.
It hasn’t, of course. Yet another bit of his mother’s wisdom proven true with time.
Ben eats his yam ma kua and kao nar ped with a plastic fork while he answers emails on his laptop. He tries to go to sleep but finds himself still awake as the hours roll back, ten into eleven, and then at quarter to twelve he puts on a pair of athletic shorts and running shoes and goes down to the gym to lift weights for forty minutes. The TV over the treadmills is playing CNN, clips from Dameron’s rally in Pittsburgh, and Ben's forgotten his headphones and therefore can’t block out the sound of his cheerful, forceful voice as he urges the nation to welcome change and a new way forward.
“My mentor, Senator Leia Organa,” he says, and the crowd cheers so loudly that for a moment Dameron can’t say anything and all he does is look out at them, serious now. “Senator Organa, she was one of the greatest lights of her generation and truly the best of us. She always believed that we could work together to find solutions, but more than that--more than the power of reconciliation and compromise--she believed in doing what was right . Even if you have to break a few eggs to see it done.”
The crowd roars.
Ben puts down the barbell he’s holding and gives himself a second to breathe through the pain that spikes through his chest. He remembers the last time he’d gone home for Yom Kippur, his last year at the University of Chicago, and having to make nice with Dameron as they broke their fast with their parents. His mother had asked, Poe, I heard from Shara that you’re thinking about going to law school?
I want to do something good , Dameron had said. Maybe a job with a public defender’s office .
That’s very laudable, Poe , Ben’s mother had said. She had not looked at Ben. It’s hard work, of course .
Everything worth doing is hard work , Dameron had said, and then he’d laughed and added, Sorry, I think you’re the one who told me that .
“I know you’re ready for change, to do the right thing, to do the good thing,” Dameron is saying on the CNN clip. “I’m ready to do it with you.”
“That was Rep. Poe Dameron from IL-4, the Democratic candidate for president who came out of essentially nowhere to accept the nomination after Senator Leia Organa’s unexpected death from colon cancer in early July. There were some concerns that Dameron was going to be a longshot, especially as a candidate opposing an incumbent president, but he’s had something of a meteoric rise in the last few months,” says Don Lemon.
There’s no sign of a remote, so Ben uses the bottom of his shirt to wipe off his face and leaves before he gives in to the urge to punch the television.
Ben has only just gotten back to his hotel room when his cell rings—the personal one, which he’s currently holding because it has all of his music on it. It’s an unknown number, so for a second Ben is tempted to let it go to voicemail. It’s a 412 area code. It could be anyone, of course, because Ben grew up in Illinois and knows plenty of people with that area code.
“Solo,” he answers.
“Do you think I should ask to meet him?” Rey demands. It’s like the sound of her voice is a hand that runs along Ben’s back, soothing the dregs of his fury.
“Do you want to?” Ben asks her.
“Yes,” Rey says. “And no. Because I want to know my family--I always have. I’ve always needed to know them, to understand why they left me. But at the same time, no, I don’t want to meet him, because he can’t tell me why my parents left me. And if he wants me to sign an NDA disavowing our relationship then it seems unlikely we’re going to have some kind of magical family-bonding moment.”
Ben hmms at her.
“But to not even give us a chance ,” she continues. “What kind of person does that?”
“The kind of person who loves power,” Ben says.
“More than family?” Rey asks him.
“Yes,” Ben says. “You’ve just described easily half of the Hill.”
“If I had a family,” Rey says, “I wouldn’t sweep them under a rug because it wasn’t convenient for my political ambitions.”
“I strongly suggest that you never run for office,” Ben says. He’s been standing just inside the door of his hotel room but he takes a moment now to kick off his shoes and walk over to the armchair by the window to sit down. He’s sweated clean through his shirt so he leans forward, letting the circulation of the air conditioning system sweep over his back as he rests his elbows on his knees.
Rey makes a huffing noise. “They can’t all be like that,” she says.
“Yes,” Ben says. “They absolutely can.” He closes his eyes for a few seconds, letting himself think of what it would be like to have her here, in this room, with him. Her hand in his, her thigh pressed against his thigh. “You should do whatever you need, Rey. If you need to meet him before you sign, I can get that for you.”
“I don’t know what I need,” she says quietly.
“Take some time to think on it,” Ben suggests. “Maybe get some sleep.”
“That sounds awfully judgmental coming from someone who answered their phone on the first ring at one in the morning,” Rey says.
“I have horrible sleep hygiene, anyone can tell you that,” Ben says. “It’s what gives me my abrasive personality and makes me so effective at my job.”
“I don’t think you’re abrasive,” Rey says, too gently for Ben’s sanity. “You could have told me to fuck off. You let me cry on you this afternoon.”
“You can’t tell anyone,” Ben tells her, and he can hear an unfamiliar note in his own voice that matches her softness. “I’ll lose my job.”
“I thought you already quit,” Rey says.
“After the election,” he tells her. “If I quit now I’ll get blackballed and no one else would ever hire me.”
“To do what?” Rey asks. “Their dirty work? Is that what a Vice Chief of Staff does? Bring non-disclosure agreements to newly-discovered granddaughters and bully them until they sign?”
“Deputy,” Ben says. “Brat.”
“You’re only saying that because you think I’m twenty-four,” she says. “But as far as the government of the United Kingdom is concerned, I’m twenty-six.”
“Oh, sure,” Ben says. “A real elder statesman among brats.”
“How old are you ?” she demands.
“I’m thirty-four,” Ben says, which is to say: too old not to know better. But all of the tightly-wound tension from having to watch Dameron on the television, invoking Ben’s dead mother like a saint, has evaporated. He almost feels light-headed with it gone.
“What do thirty-four-year-old ex-Vice Chiefs of Staff do, after they’ve quit working for a government solidly committed to disenfranchisement and destruction of the planet?” Rey asks.
“They work for a think tank equally committed to those ideals,” Ben says. “Or they retire to a cabin in Montana where they can spend the rest of their lives not talking to another human being. Or they write a book and make an obscene amount of money and do the lecture circuit for an even more ludicrous amount of money.”
“Sounds horrid,” Rey says.
“Yes,” Ben agrees.
“Are you a lawyer? Aren’t politicians all lawyers? Could you go--be a lawyer?”
Ben says, “I have a graduate degree in statistics.”
“You should go work for FiveThirtyEight,” Rey says sagely. “They like politically-minded statisticians over there.”
“I once threatened to punch Nate Silver in the face,” Ben says. “I don’t think he would hire me.”
“Oh, but then Nate Cohn absolutely would,” Rey says. “Or would you burst into flames the moment you set foot in the New York Times offices?”
“Undoubtedly,” Ben says. “They’ve been committed to hiring idiot conservatives lately, though. So that’s hardly the worst idea anyone has offered me as a career after leaving Palpatine’s administration.”
“What’s the worst, then?” Rey says. “Go on, tell me about my competition.”
“Well, my father offered me a job doing oil changes at his garage,” Ben says, and as he’d hoped, this sparks a burst of loud, cheerful laughter from Rey. “Rey,” he says, when she’s done and it’s just a few little chuckling snorts coming across the line, “you should take as long as you need, all right? And you really should talk to a lawyer. The university should be able to put you in contact with one.”
“Don’t you need these signed, like, right away?” she asks.
“I can hold off my boss for another day,” Ben says. “If you have trouble finding someone, let me know. I grew up in Chicago and my mom was a lawyer. I might know someone who can see you on short notice.”
Rey makes a soft, surprised noise. Ben has an extremely inappropriate mental picture of the multitude of ways he could elicit that noise from her, in person, and he jabs his thumb into his temple to make it go away. “Oh,” she says, almost shyly. “Thank you. I’ll try at the university tomorrow.”
“You should get some sleep,” Ben tells her.
“Oh, pot ,” she says.
“I’m hanging up now,” Ben says.
“You’re being an absolute pot!” she insists loudly as Ben, extremely reluctantly, hangs up. The absence of her voice is almost like a vacuum. Ben wants nothing more than to call her back and invite her into his hotel room, to pull her small, cold body against his as protection against this sucking loneliness that has pulled at him for most of his life. Let me give you what you need, whatever it is . What a fucking mess.
Ben sleeps like the dead until nearly seven. He sleeps so deeply that when he wakes up he’s legitimately disoriented, like everything in his hotel room has shifted fifteen degrees to the left. He nearly dislocates his toe banging it against the dresser and then almost gives himself a concussion with the showerhead. By the time he’s dressed enough to be able to venture out into public for coffee, it’s nearly 8.30am and the housekeeping staff have begun to appear in the hallway with their carts of towels and bleach. Ben leaves the DO NOT DISTURB hanging on the outside of his doorknob.
It’s not actively raining anymore but the sky is grey and the swarm of Northwestern students at the Peet’s up the street from Ben’s hotel all have umbrella handles poking out of the side pockets of their backpacks. Ben orders the largest size of drip coffee they offer and drinks it at the bar along the window, scrolling through the hundreds of emails that have come in since the workday started at the White House three hours ago. There’s a reply from the woman in the counsel’s office, a per my last email that might as well be suck my dick, Solo .
A text comes in to his personal cell phone from an unknown number, area code 412, as he’s finishing his coffee at nine. Uni can’t get me an appointment with any kind of lawyer until next Thurs, and even that’s with their immigration guy. He painstakingly saves the contact as Rey Smith .
I’ll make some calls , he sends back. When are you free today?
TAing until 11, then I’ve got office hours until noon. Afternoon’s flexible.
I’ll let you know , he sends back.
There is really only one person that Ben trusts enough not to fuck this entire situation up, not in the least because he knows that she hates Dameron almost as much as he does. Ben almost doesn’t expect her to take his call--they haven’t spoken in five years--but she’d come sit shiva for his mother and had been one of the few friends who hadn’t looked like she’d wanted to kick Ben out of the house.
A young, cheerful voice asks, “Amilyn Holdo’s office, how can I help you?”
“I’d like to speak with Amilyn, as soon as possible,” Ben says. He’s standing outside the Peet’s, watching the overburdened storm drains as they sluggishly attempt to filter last night’s rain through moldy leaves.
“May I ask who’s calling?”
“Ben Solo,” Ben says.
“ Oh ,” the person at the other end of the line says. “Um, one moment please, Mr. Solo.”
After an eternity--no hold music, which Ben appreciates--there’s a click, and then, “Ben?”
“Thanks for taking my call,” he says.
“I can’t say I was expecting to hear from you,” Amilyn says. “It’s not--your father?”
“He’s fine, I assume,” Ben says. “I’m calling to ask for a favor.”
“Ah,” Amilyn says neutrally.
“It’s not for me,” Ben says quickly, just in case she’s tempted to hang up. “It’s for a friend, who’s been asked to sign an NDA that she shouldn’t until she’s had a lawyer look at it with her.”
“And you thought of me?” Amilyn says. “I’m not admitted to the bar in D.C.”
“I’m in Chicago,” Ben says.
There’s a long, considering pause. The water in the street is high enough to cover the bottoms of the tires of the cars parked along the sidewalk. “I’m going to be candid with you, Ben,” Amilyn says. “Many aspects of what you do and who you work with make me uncomfortable, and I’m not sure--”
“Aunt Amilyn,” Ben interrupts, and she immediately stops talking, “it’s not like that. I’m worried that someone is being taken advantage of, and she needs help. Quickly. She needs help today.” After a few seconds’ consideration, he adds, “Please.” It’s been a while since Ben has asked for help, as opposed to demanding it; the word comes out a little rusty.
“It would have to be at 1pm,” she says. “I only have forty-five minutes. I have an appointment with a judge at 2.30.”
“That’s fine,” Ben says quickly. “I’ll bring her to your office. You’re still on Randolph?”
“Yes,” she says. “We’ve moved to the 20th floor, but you’ll be able to find us in the directory. I’ll let my assistant know to expect you. What’s her name?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there,” Ben says. “Amilyn--thank you.”
She says, “I’ll see you at one.”
Rey is waiting for Ben opposite the corner of Sheridan and Chicago, wearing an enormous denim jacket lined with shearling and black Carhartt overalls cuffed a few inches above her high-tops. She’s clean of grease, mostly, but she still smells like Gojo when she slides into the front passenger seat of the black Lincoln, dropping her backpack on the floor by her feet.
“Heya,” she says. “Did you have a productive morning? Manage to get any members of the Squad evicted from Congress?”
“The White House wishes Rose Tico and Jannah Calrissian were a problem so easily solved,” Ben says drily. “Good afternoon, Rey.”
“Where are we going?” she asks, yanking at her seatbelt to get it over the enormous shearling collar of her coat. She should look ridiculous, but with her hair half-pulled back, she resembles nothing so much as a square-jawed flying ace from a WWII propaganda film.
Ben turns off his blinkers and eases back into the flow of traffic behind a 201. “You have a one o’clock appointment with Amilyn Holdo. She’s mostly in and out of family court but she has experience with contract law.”
“Did you tell her?” Rey asks. “About--you know. My grandfather.”
“No,” Ben says. He thinks about trying to pass the 201, which is flashing its break lights as it makes yet another stop, but he doesn’t want to get pulled over and ticketed when he needs to be downtown in forty minutes. “I don’t want to invalidate anything that might be protected by attorney-client privilege.”
“Oh,” Rey says, almost nervously. “Right.”
They sit in silence as Ben navigates the winding streets that take them from Evanston into northern Chicago. This neighborhood is full of beautiful mansions, remnants of Chicago’s time as one of the country’s richest cities at the turn of the previous century. One of these mansions belongs to Ben, technically; it had been built by his grandmother’s family and his mother had left it to Ben in her will. Your uncle doesn’t want it , she had told him, years ago, when first broaching the topic. Wouldn’t you like having your own place, when you move back to Chicago? Like it was a two-flat in Hyde Park, not a monstrosity with fifteen bedrooms and property taxes so exorbitant that Ben had actually felt the blood drain from his face the first time he’d read through the paperwork.
Ben has just gotten them onto Lake Shore Drive when Rey says, “I’ve been thinking about meeting him.” She picks at the inseam of her overalls with her thumb. “Asking myself if I would regret it. That is, not pushing for it while I have the leverage.”
Ben tightens his grip on the steering wheel. Every vulnerability that Rey shares with him makes him want to close her up against the world and protect her from the cruel, careless idiots he’s worked for for the last decade. He says, “Not every experience is worth having.”
“Do you regret never meeting him?” Rey asks.
Ben does not need to ask for clarification. “I used to,” he says. “I thought I understood him. I thought that we were the same kind of person and if I had the opportunity to ask him the right questions, he would be able to fix me.”
She stops picking at her inseam. “Oh,” she says. “Wow. That’s--a lot.”
“Yes,” Ben admits easily. That’s Ben in a nutshell: a lot. “It took me a long time to realize that the past wouldn’t have any answers for me.”
“Do I want answers?” Rey asks, but softly, to herself. She sighs and reaches up in a quick jerk to scratch under the little nubbin of a bun sticking out of the back of her head. “I don’t know what I want from him. To look me in my face when he tells me he doesn’t want me, I suppose.”
Ben’s chest feels tight. He wants to pull the car over onto the shoulder and take Rey into his arms and tell her that she isn’t unwanted, categorically--that it’s Palpatine, who is cruel and selfish and greedy for things that will give him more power and control. Just like Snoke. Just like the person Ben had tried to be for ten long years.
“What will you gain from that?” Ben asks.
“Isn’t it enough?” Rey asks. “Getting--closure.”
“I don’t think that what you just described is closure. It sounds like purposefully hurting yourself.” Ben sees the exit for Monroe coming up and signals to change lanes. “Looking to the past to tell you more about the future is futile. The only way to move forward is to let go of your past.”
“I don’t know that I agree with that,” Rey says softly. “You told me so much about my parents yesterday that I never knew. I barely remember them.” She’s been turned away from Ben for most of the drive, staring out over the approaching skyline, but she wiggles in her seat now so that she’s mostly oriented towards Ben, her calves tucked under her. “I knew it wouldn’t be a happy story, because what happy parents leave their seven-year-old at a petrol station in Hitchin? But knowing the truth of them now--no longer wondering, not letting myself have these silly fantasies--I woke up this morning and I felt better, somehow. Shouldn’t I feel worse?”
Ben says, “It’s good that you don’t.”
“Well, I have been reliably informed that I’m a callous bitch,” Rey says cheerfully, and Ben barks out an incredulous laugh.
“That’s absurd,” he says.
“I was in the process of kneeing someone in the face,” Rey says. “Which I freely admit to be the behavior of a callous bitch.” She tilts her head back so she’s looking at Ben straight-on; Ben is focusing on exiting Lake Shore Drive and he can only see her steady stare out of the corner of his eye.
“What?” he says, after it’s been a full minute and he’s starting to get a little uncomfortable.
“You just--sounded very sure,” she says. “That I wasn’t a callous bitch, I mean. You’ve only known me for, like, a day.”
“The only thing politics is good for is making someone an adequate judge of character,” Ben tells her. It’s true, sort of, but it masks the truth, which is that Ben's felt as if he knew her from the first second his eyes met hers across the parking lot of Plutt’s, and he’s been grappling with that for the last twenty-four hours like someone in the process of being drowned.
Rey’s bright eyes move across his face; he can feel their touch, like fingertips. “Is that what you are?” she says. “A good judge of character?”
I don’t have to be, to understand you , Ben thinks. The thought becomes less terrifying with each moment he spends with her.
Ben waits for Rey in an empty conference room catty-corner to Amilyn’s office. He can see her closed door--behind which sits Rey, with her plastic sleeve of non-disclosure documentation and her enormous shearling coat and her huge, expressive, beautiful eyes--through the glass walls of the conference room and he only gets distracted staring at it every ten minutes. He answers emails, edits legislative agendas, mediates a catfight between Hux and Phasma that seems likely to land Hux in the ER, and stares at Amilyn’s office door.
At 1.50pm, it opens. Ben stands up and shuts his laptop immediately. He’s crossing the room as he shoves it into his shoulder bag with one hand, the other reaching out to push open the conference room’s door. “--been a real pleasure,” Amilyn is saying, holding Rey’s hand in a kind-looking grip.
“Thank you,” Rey says, shyly. “You’ve been so much help.”
“Of course,” Amilyn says. “Think about what we discussed and call me if you have any questions.” She looks up at Ben’s quick approach and says, without releasing Rey’s hand, “I like this new friend better than your old ones, Ben.”
“No one actually likes Dameron,” Ben says dismissively. “Everything okay?” he asks Rey. Her eyes are damp, lined in red, but she doesn’t look puffy from extended weeping. Amilyn releases her hand and Rey reaches up and scratches under her little bun.
“Yes,” she says. “We made changes. Will you see that they go where they need to?”
“Yes,” Ben says. He stops about six inches away from Rey and can’t look away from the evidence of her recent tears; he reaches out to just beneath her shoulder with the intent of checking that she is stable. He doesn’t quite touch the denim of her coat; his fingers brush along the outside of it, curling without conscious intention with the desire to bring her closer to him. She’s looking up at him, face framed by the shearling collar, her fearless flying ace persona still firmly affixed.
Ben has trouble looking away from her, but he manages it. “Thank you, Amilyn,” he says, and she nods and shakes his hand briskly.
“Take care, Ben,” she says, meaningfully, and she doesn’t need to flick her eyes to Rey for him to understand: Take care of her .
“I will,” he says.
Ben takes them off of Lake Shore Drive in Edgewater and automatically turns right onto Broadway, heading back to Evanston, at which point he realizes, “Where should I take you?”
“Sorry?” Rey asks, blinking at him. She’s been in a silent daze since they left Amilyn’s office. Ben had let her fiddle with the radio, even though she’d settled on a Top 40 station full of aggressive synthpop that he hates. Further proof that Ben is too old to be fantasizing about someone who is, essentially, a teenager.
“Do you want me to take you home?” Ben asks.
“Oh,” Rey says. She blinks at the dashboard for a few seconds and then says, “I suppose. My roommates are probably home.” She doesn’t sound exactly eager at the prospect. “You must have things to do. Those pesky civil liberties won’t disrupt themselves and all.”
“Not really,” Ben says, although of course there are a hundred things he has to accomplish this afternoon and he’d only managed about two of them in his distracted haze while waiting for her in Amilyn’s conference room.
“Oh,” she says again, this time a little more shyly. “I don’t really want to go home.”
Ben has an insistent, niggling thought that he should immediately kill. He humors it instead, of course, because his willpower apparently has the structural integrity of a piece of old celery. “Are you hungry?” Ben asks.
“Yes,” she says. “Perpetually.”
Ben drives them to Bill’s, which is predictably packed, and buys Rey a burger and fries and a chocolate malt. There’s no room for them to stand at the bar, which gives Ben the excuse to enact the second phase of his stupid, ill-conceived plan. He ignores the tight feeling in his chest as he says, “Let’s go, I know somewhere we can eat.” Rey stuffs her cheeks with fries, making pleased huffing noises, and follows him back out to the car.
The house, Varykino, looks unprepossessing from the street. There are a number of Victorians on this stretch of Sheridan Road and their true scales are difficult to determine when they’re shaded by tall oaks and maples. Ben’s grandmother had grown up living in Varykino, as the beloved child of a wealthy industrialist family, and the house is still mostly furnished and decorated as it had been when she had inherited it as a young wife in the late fifties--delicate antique furniture, dark wood accents, high ceilings and tall windows. Ben had spent summers at Varykino for years, mostly under his own recognizance as his mother commuted back downtown on the UP-N and his father drove out to his garage in the west suburbs. Ben had felt happy at Varykino in a way that felt impossible anywhere else, even the brownstone they occupied in Chicago during the school year. Although it is the irrational belief of a child, Ben still thinks of Varykino as a place where it is impossible not to be happy.
“This is your parents’ house?” Rey asks as Ben pulls into the driveway. She’s unearthed a metal straw from a pocket in her backpack and is in the process of poking it into the malt, for which she had refused a plastic lid.
“No,” Ben says. “There’s a brownstone in Gold Coast. This was my grandmother’s house.” He twists around to grab his bag from the floor behind Rey’s seat and unearths his keyring from where it’s been buried under his laptop, pens, pieces of notepaper, and a dozen phone chargers. “Come on,” he says, getting out of the car.
“Is she--here?” Rey asks, not moving, clutching the greasy bag of fries to her chest.
“No,” Ben says, shutting the door of the Lincoln and following the path from the driveway around to the entrance on the south side of the house. He can hear Rey follow after him, the gravel crunching under her high tops.
Ben unlocks the door and disables the alarm system in the time it takes Rey to catch up to him. “Holy fuck,” she says when she follows him through the front door into the foyer; when Ben turns to see if something’s wrong, she’s staring up at the chandelier with eyes that are so wide they look like they’re going to pop out of her face. “I figured you had to be rich, what with your--everything--” she gestures at Ben’s chest with the bag of fries, “--but this is beyond .”
“It’s a light fixture,” Ben says.
“Yes,” she says. “One I last saw in Beauty and the Beast .”
Ben points out, “You weren’t even born when that came out.”
Rey sticks her tongue out at him. “Even the tragically orphaned occasionally have access to a VCR,” she says. She wanders past Ben deeper into the house. “Does it have a library?” she asks.
“No,” Ben says. His long strides eat up the distance between them before she has a chance to get very far. He reaches out and snags the back of her coat, giving her a gentle tug to direct her towards the kitchen. There’s a cozy table set into a bay window looking out over the lake that he thinks she’ll like better than the table in the dining room, which seats fifteen when its leaves are taken out. “Eat before your food gets too cold, you can go exploring later.”
Rey eats her burger and fries and then most of Ben’s fries when it’s obvious that he’s not going to put up more of a fight than a few token protests. She saves her malt for the end, dipping the last of her cold fries into it. “What did you study in graduate school?” she asks.
“Econometrics,” Ben says shortly.
Rey overdramatically widens her eyes and drags a fry through the surface of her chocolate malt. “Fascinating,” she says.
“It’s not,” Ben says. “Derivative securities, hedging against statistical uncertainty, that sort of thing. Will you stop stealing my fries?”
Rey says, “You’re not eating them!” And then, “Why go into politics? I’m sure you could find some extremely fancy and equally morally bankrupt job in New York working for a stockbroker or whatnot.”
“My thesis advisor has been friends with the president for years,” Ben tells her. She’s still making eyes at his fries, so he eats two and then pushes the rest of the bag towards her. “When Palpatine decided to run, he asked Snoke to run his campaign and eventually serve as his Chief of Staff. I came with Snoke, as did a few of his other recent students.”
“My disgust with the nepotistic system you just described is warring with my insane jealousy that you landed a job right out of grad school,” Rey informs him. “Are you sure?”
“I can’t eat them with you looking at me like that,” Ben says. “You must have seen the numbers on post-doctoral employment and job satisfaction. You’ll be fine.”
“Yes,” Rey says, “nothing quite so comforting as cold, hard numbers.”
“Will you go back to the UK?” Ben asks her. “There are better sustainability initiatives in Europe.”
“Oh, gee, I wonder why,” Rey says, but she quirks a small smile at him. “I would like to stay, I think. There’s not really any reason for me to go back, unless I can’t manage to find a job that will sponsor me here. I haven’t got any friends back in the UK. I barely have friends here, to be honest. I did a summer research fellowship in Vermont last year and none of my roommates remembered to water my plants like they promised. Two of my orchids died.”
Orchids seem surprisingly fussy for Rey’s practical, no-nonsense attitude. They suggest a nuance to her character--a willingness to care for the temperamental--that hits Ben somewhere in his sternum.
“You keep orchids?” he asks, hoping that she can’t somehow intuit his thoughts from his voice. It comes out a little raspier than he’d like.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rey says. “But the Chicago Botanic Gardens have free admission and if you go on the last day of their annual Orchid Show you can get a great deal from the horticulturists that sell specimens. I’ve gotten all of mine for less than five dollars.”
It had honestly never occurred to Ben to wonder how she afforded the plants themselves. “We used to go to the Orchid Show when I was a kid,” he says instead of admitting to it. “My mom really loved it.”
“Everybody does,” Rey says. “Especially rich people. Rich people love orchids. Or, they do when they have flowers. No one seems very interested in them for the forty-six weeks of the year that they aren’t in bloom.”
“Except for you,” Ben suggests. Rey’s eyes, irises patterned green and brown and gold in large swirls of color, sweep up from his neck to his chin and then to meet his gaze steadily. Can she see his weakness, that he can’t stop thinking about her? Probably. Ben has never been a particularly subtle person.
“I suppose,” Rey says. Ben can’t look away from her, so he sees the red bloom in her cheeks in soft splotches, across the bridge of her nose and up the line of her cheekbones. “They aren’t that hard to care for, you know. They have a reputation as difficult but you just have to be sure not to overwater them and dust their leaves regularly.”
Ben’s mouth feels dry, like it’s been years since he drank anything. He cracks his lips to touch his tongue to the outer corner of his mouth and he sees Rey’s eyes dart down to it. “There’s a greenhouse,” he tells her.
“Sorry?” she says absently.
“Here,” Ben says. “In the house. There’s a greenhouse. Would you like to see it?”
“This isn’t a greenhouse,” Rey announces when Ben has taken her through the entire downstairs--the sitting rooms, his grandmother’s study, the staff rooms repurposed for storage now that there are no live-in staff, and then, finally, the greenhouse. “This is a proper conservatory. Where’s Professor Plum with the candlestick?”
Ben says, “They’re the same thing.”
“They are not ,” Rey replies instantly. She wanders deeper into the space, drawn to the citrus trees in their huge pots where they are clustered along the southern windows. “There are couches. No one would put couches in a greenhouse. God, it’s boiling in here.” She tugs off her coat and drops it onto a padded bench set in amongst a cluster of huge bay bushes. Her bare arms are corded with muscle. “I think this is the first time I’ve been warm since August. What are these?”
“Citron,” Ben says. He puts his hands in his pockets and trails after her. The heels of his dress shoes click against the tiles that mosaic the floor in geometric patterns of white, grey, and dark blue.
“I’ve never seen one before,” Rey says, enthralled. “I can’t believe they’re fruiting in October. They smell amazing.” She reaches out and clasps a leaf between her thumb and forefinger, gently rubbing its surface. “What does a citron taste like?”
“Raw? Disgusting,” Ben says. “As I discovered when I was seven. You have to make it into jam, or cook it in sugar syrup. I’m sure there are still some jars of it in the pantry, Mom couldn’t get enough of it.” Rey is looking around the greenhouse, dazed, like she’s been drugged. It smells good in here, the way that Ben has always remembered Varykino smelling--like the Mediterranean on a hot summer day, the herbal earthiness of bay overlaid with citrus and Spanish jasmine. It’s a huge space made quiet and cozy by the rows of raised beds and potted trees. Ben had read in here for hours as a child and it had made his loneliness seem deliberate, somehow. Like he had found his own quiet planet.
“This is,” Rey says, voice raw, “Ben, this is amazing .”
“Yeah,” Ben says. His heart is pounding in his ears. Mom and Uncle Luke had loved Varykino, of course, but it had felt to Ben growing up that it was the same way they loved him: somewhat perfunctorily, when they remembered the existence of it, for short periods of time. His hands feel sweaty in the pockets of his pants but he can’t pull them out; he’s worried they’ll reach for her and not let go.
“What is it like to live here?” Rey asks. She’s smelling the bay, now, holding a branch of it close to her nose. “I’m so insanely jealous that I can’t even think straight. I want to live here.”
“We never stayed as long as I wanted,” Ben says. “When we visited when I was a kid. I wanted to stay forever but we always had to leave.”
Rey lifts her eyes to him. She has an almost dreamy expression, her eyes soft. “I would want to stay,” she tells him. “Who could ever leave this place?”
Ben says, “Rey.” She replies, “Ben,” low, an answer, not an inquiry. Ben does not have to go very far to reach her--two steps and he can cup her jaw with his hands, curl his fingers into her hair and pull her up towards him into a kiss. She tastes like chocolate malt. Her lips are chapped, rough against Ben’s, and her skin is pleasantly cool. The scent of bay rises so strongly between them that it’s nearly dizzying; they must have crushed some of the leaves of the nearby bush.
Ben feels her strong, small hands slip under his suit jacket and along the waistband of his pants to his back. She fists the fabric of his dress shirt, hard enough for him to feel the tension. She makes a low, hoarse moaning noise into his mouth. Any thought of Rey being twenty-four is swept away by the pressure of her breasts against his chest, her open-mouthed sigh as he pushes his tongue inside her mouth, trying to taste as much of her as he can.
Rey is covered in freckles and speckled by the last dregs of the October sunlight as Ben lays her down on the cool tile floor of the greenhouse, peeling off her overalls and the thin, clinging t-shirt underneath. She’s brown to her shoulders and knees and pale in-between, probably from a summer of working in the sun under the hoods of cars. She can’t possibly be only working the twenty hours a week allowed by her J1 but Ben literally couldn’t care less about that.
“Ben,” she says, shivering under his hands, “ Ben ,” a long sigh as he strips off his suit jacket and puts it on the floor, rolling her onto it to protect her from the chilly tiles. She fumbles with the buttons of his shirt as he kisses down the flat plane of her sternum, feeling the bumps of her ribs with his palms. Her skin is soft and tastes almost tropical, like coconut. Ben has never really been fond of coconut-flavored anything, but he literally can’t bring himself to stop tasting her, not even when she makes a frustrated noise and tries to rip his shirt off over his head.
“Ben, take it off,” she says, pulling at his shoulders, and he says, “It’s fine,” distracted, dipping his tongue into the inward curl of her bellybutton. She’s wearing caramel-colored cotton briefs across her hips and Ben moves lower, the tiles biting into his knees, and can see a wet spot on them between her legs. The coconut smell is muskier down here and Ben opens his mouth so he can breathe across his tongue for one, two, inhales, and then he presses a kiss against the wet spot on her little briefs and she makes a choked-off gasping noise.
Intellectually Ben knows that Rey is probably average in size--she might even qualify as tall--but he puts his hand against her stomach to hold her in place as he eases her underwear down her legs and she looks so unbelievably small under him. Ben is an animal but he can’t stop. “Rey,” he rasps but she moans and says nothing. She doesn’t tell him to stop. “Can I eat you out, sweetheart?”
“ Yes ,” she squeaks.
Ben has never felt anything softer than the skin flanking her cunt. It’s the lushest kiss Ben has ever received and he presses his mouth against her for a long minute, savoring it, before he uses his lips to ease up the hood covering her clitoris and rubs against it with his tongue. He’s so drugged-feeling that he can barely feel the muscles in her thighs, moving under his hands. She’s making groaning noises, progressively higher in her throat, but Ben is only barely cataloging what makes her pull on his hair because he wants to keep doing this forever. Her small, strong body is strung out under him, so tightly wound that it feels like she’s a rubber band that will ricochet off of the floor. He’s so hard that it hurts to grind his erection against the floor but he has to, a reflexive twitch of his hips to her undulating little jerks.
Rey has not come yet when the tugs on his hair stop being little reflexive movements and become a firm, insistent call for attention. “Ben,” she’s saying, he realizes, like his head is coming above water. “ Ben , please.”
“What is it, sweetheart?” he asks. It scrapes its way out of his throat.
“Please, I need--” she says, her cunt clenching, her hips pushing up, and Ben knows what she needs. She needs him to fuck inside of her, hard enough to make an indelible print inside of her.
“You need what?” Ben asks. He takes his right hand off of her thigh and licks his thumb and then presses it, gently, against the glistening seam of her cunt.
“ Ben ,” she gasps.
“What do you need, sweetheart?” She sucks at him, gently, inexorably, but Ben stays just outside. She’s wet enough that he slides in and out again misleadingly easily. Ben thinks they’re probably going to have a harder time of it than that. Her hips are so narrow, because she’s so fucking small.
“I need you to fuck me, Ben,” she says. “Please.”
“Okay,” Ben says and he pushes his thumb inside of her, where she is, finally, warm to the touch.
“ Ben ,” she says. He’s mesmerized, fucking into her with his thumb, trying to imagine fitting his cock inside of her. “Ben, Ben-- Ben .”
“Yes?” he says.
“Ben, please, for the love of God, fuck me,” she says, and she sounds choked. When he looks up, over the curve of her belly and the jut of her sternum, she’s on her elbows looking down at him and she has tears of frustration glazing her eyes.
Ben somehow gets up on his knees, gets his pants undone and shoved down his thighs, gets his briefs out of the way, struggling one-handed as he supports his weight and Rey wiggles down to meet him. She clamps her knees around his hips and then grabs his head and yanks him down to crush their mouths together. Ben’s thrown off-balance enough that he doesn’t manage to hold himself up and his body comes down on top of hers, hard, and she lets out a strangled sigh, her hips jerking up against his. He feels the hot brush of her cunt against him, another kiss.
Ben fucks into her with short strokes, which he only manages because her cunt is a tight fist around him and he can’t make space in her any other way. She stops making those needy noises and goes so quiet that Ben stops, halfway through his third stroke, worried that he’s hurt her. “Rey?” he says.
“Please don’t stop,” she say, voice small, and so Ben keeps going, bracing his weight on his forearms and with his feet, urging her to open and let him in, until he’s managed to work himself inside of her completely and she’s gasping, wet, mouth open, totally silent. Ben’s breathing so hard that his chest hurts and he rests for a moment, letting himself sink into the sensation, his forehead against the curve of her neck.
I love you , he thinks, and it’s insane. He’s only known for her a day . But it’s true. He feels it so clearly that it cuts through all of the useless bullshit cluttering up the inside of his head.
“You doing okay, sweetheart?” he asks.
“Yes,” she says, winding her arms around his neck, pulling him more securely against her. “Yes, I’m amazing.”
“Great,” Ben says, and then he starts fucking her in earnest, using the strength in his back to get himself as deeply inside of her as he can manage at this angle. He stops noticing the tiles of the floor cutting into his knees nearly immediately, from the first time Rey tilts her hips up to meet his stroke. Their sweat smells like coconut and fresh bay.
It feels like Ben has an eternity or about twelve seconds before he knows that he’s going to come. He pulls out of her entirely, which elicits an angry squeak from Rey, and takes a firm hold of her hips to push her up, away from him, until he can suck on her clit and stuff three fingers into her, curling up and looking for--the spot that he has only just touched when Rey stiffens and cries out, all of the muscles in her lower body tightening, clenching down on his fingers with impossible force that Ben would literally cut off a hand to experience from the inside.
It takes two tugs of his hand for Ben to come, spilling onto the tile floor.
He collapses off of his elbows and lets his head rest against the curve between her groin and thigh, sucking in air with huge gasps as he tries to get his breathing back under control. Rey’s hand comes down to rest against his head and she slowly begins to run her fingers through his hair. It’s so soothing, so calm, that Ben doesn’t realize how much his knees hurt for probably a full fifteen minutes.
“Oh, fuck,” he says, rearing up. “Are you okay? This floor is hell--”
“Yes,” Rey assures him, and then she tries to sit up and winces. “Ah, fuck. No, no,” she says, as Ben tries to bodily lift her off of the floor, “I’m all right, I think I just have a tile embedded in my ass--” and she turns over to check and she just has a very clear imprint of one of the circular tiles with luckily no sign of having been impaled. Ben kisses it and she laughs, softly, so one kiss turns into two, four, a dozen, a hundred, as Ben licks her freckles until she moans and comes again, softer, against his fingers, one of her nipples tucked between his teeth.
It’s very, very late when Rey says, “I need to ask you something.” They’ve claimed one of the upstairs bedrooms, the bed dressed with linens that smell only very faintly dusty, proving that the housekeeping staff Ben’s mother had hired to take care of the house are worth their incredible price tag. None of the beds in this house are big enough for Ben, whose feet are sticking out off the end, but he’s curled himself around Rey and is too bone-deep content to be worried about chilly feet.
“What is it?” Ben asks her. He’s not quite asleep yet but he can feel it just there out of reach--a real sleep, the kind with REM where you wake up the next morning and actually feel satiated. Is it Rey? Or it’s Varykino. Or it’s both.
“The things you do for Palpatine--the immigration reform, removing the sanctions against companies that are large-scale polluters--are those things you really believe in?” Her voice is muzzy with sleep but also, faintly, nervous. He can feel Rey’s heart pounding in her chest through her back. He has his arms wrapped around her, a palm against each shoulder, and he can feel how tightly she’s holding herself.
The sleepiness drains out of Ben near-instantaneously. “Not really,” he says slowly. “Maybe, once, but not--deeply. And now, certainly, not at all. Now it’s just a job.”
“A job you hate?” Rey says, body not relaxing.
“Yes,” Ben says.
The last phone call Ben had answered from his mother had been two days before the State of the Union and Ben had been annoyed, harried, because he’d only been halfway through approving the shit that Phasma’s team was trying to fit into the latest draft. His mother had asked, Does this success make you happy, Ben? Ben had been in the middle of trying to shoehorn an anecdote about coal miners into the job numbers section and he’d said, Why does it matter?
As your mother, I want you to be happy , she’d told him. As someone who has always believed in the great potential of the American experiment, I worry that you’re committing your prodigious intellect and talent to the accomplishment of something that you will eventually decide is meaningless, perhaps even harmful.
Good luck in Iowa, Mom , he’d said, and then he’d hung up on her staticky sigh. They hadn’t spoken again--she was too busy winning primaries and caucuses, Ben was too busy running the country. The weeks had gone by so quickly; in almost no time at all, it was July and she was gone.
Ben says, hating the weakness that drops the bottom out of his voice but powerless to stop it, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Rey sighs softly, some of the tension easing out of her. “I really like you,” she says muzzily. “But I can’t be with someone who works to achieve those things.”
“Are you going to be with me?” Ben asks. But it’s taken him too long to build up the courage; she’s already asleep.
There is no time for further discussion the next morning. Ben and Rey sleep through Ben's alarm at 5.30am, Rey's alarm at 7.30am, and Rey's calendar reminder at 8.30am that she has class in half an hour. They only wake up at quarter of nine because Rey's stomach starts loudly protesting being empty. Ben gets halfway through offering to buy her breakfast, Rey sleepy-eyed and interested, when he looks at his phone and realizes it's nearly nine.
"Oh, fuck," Rey says, scrambling out of bed so fast she almost breaks Ben's nose with her elbow, "fuck fuck fuck, I have class in ten minutes," and then they're both rushing to get dressed. Ben's suit jacket is too wrinkled and stained for him to even consider putting it on; he tucks yesterday's dress shirt into his slacks and rolls up the sleeves because Rey had dripped all over the cuffs when Ben had carried her upstairs last night.
"I smell vile," Rey opines when they're in the car. She's buckling up the straps of her overalls as she wrinkles her nose at Ben. "I smell like I spent most of yesterday having sex. Oh God, I'm going to have to do some kind of wretched walk of shame into Ecohydrology and everyone will know because I smell like a bordello--"
"There's deodorant in my bag," Ben says. "Check behind your seat."
Rey digs Ben's deodorant out of his bag and slicks it on under her arms. "I don't suppose you have a hair tie?" she asks him, sorting through the stuff in the bottom of his bag. "You snapped mine--thanks for that, by the way--"
"Yeah, you were really complaining," Ben says. "There might be a rubber band or something in there."
"Don't you put your hair up when you're working out?" Rey asks. And then, when Ben shoots a look at her, "I've seen you naked, now. You have no secrets. Are you one of those people who have arm days and leg days?"
Ben knows better than to answer that. "I don't put it up," he says. "I just shower afterwards."
"Ah!" Rey exclaims, pulling a sad little blue rubber band out of the bottom of his bag. She tucks her hair into a lopsided little bun on the top of her head, scraping at the fine hairs that try to cling to the back of her neck. "I'm nearly respectable. Oh, and perfectly on time, it's right here," as Ben pulls the black Lincoln up in front of Tech, a monstrosity of a building in the middle of Northwestern's campus. "I'll text you when I'm out of class," she says, leaning over the center console to peck Ben on the cheek. He turns at the last moment and catches her mouth against his, a slipshod kiss that tastes horrible and amazing all at once. She looks worried when he pulls away, like they might have just done something stupid, so Ben puts his hand against the back of her head to hold her in place and kisses her again, more firmly this time, and when she slowly moves back her mouth is reddened and her cheeks are flushed.
"You aren’t leaving, right?" she says, eyes pleading. "I still have your paperwork--"
"I'm not leaving, Rey," he tells her. "Go to class."
Ben does work, some of it well and some of it poorly, for the rest of the morning. He goes back to the Hyatt to shower and deal with his voicemail, packed full of pissy little asides from Hux and increasingly clipped messages from Mitaka wanting to know when Ben will be available to meet with Senator Tarkin. Dealing with them is like moving through mud. Any joy Ben might have once gotten from this job, a thrill of doing it well even if he didn’t necessarily agree with what he was doing--it’s all gone now. He has no desire to go through the motions any further. The only thing keeping him from submitting his resignation letter immediately is that he wants to make sure that Rey gets what she wants from Palpatine. He’ll deal with this, and then he’ll leave.
Snoke calls just after noon and leaves a short voicemail informing Ben that they are boarding Air Force One for Detroit and Ben should bring himself and the signed and notarized NDA there forthwith. Ben listens to it and then deletes it.
An hour later, Ben packs up his things--his suitcase, his bag, his laptop--and checks out of his hotel room. There’s some haggling over the fee for a late check-out that he literally couldn’t care less about and then he’s free to dump his stuff into the black Lincoln and walk over to the Peet’s. Rey is waiting for him, nursing something in an enormous ceramic thermos. As he waits to cross the street, he watches her through the window. She’s watching the people walking by, her eyebrows set low across the bridge of her nose, blowing across the surface of her drink but not yet taking a sip. She’s wearing a sweater now, somewhere in color between beige and cream, and the sight of her makes Ben’s heart pound until it’s echoing in his ears.
Ben has no idea what he’s going to do once he quits his job. None of the possibilities he’d told Rey about appeal to him, and journalism is even less appealing than going to work for the Heritage Foundation--a bastion of assholes and idiots--which leaves him with, essentially, living off of his trust fund or going into academia.
Ben waits for the light to change and imagines, as the pulse of his own blood begins to drown out the ambient street sounds, living in Chicago--living with Rey --going back to working on computational models, teaching undergraduates, ending his days of little frustrations by going home and fucking Rey until she cries or they both cry or they’re too hungry and have to order in Thai. In the intervening years, Ben has forgotten that the only redeeming quality of the Midwest is its excellent Thai food.
The light changes. Ben crosses the street, watching Rey, and can see the exact moment that she spots him. Her eyebrows go up, the wrinkles in her forehead smooth themselves out, and her whole face brightens. Hi she mouths at him through the window.
“Hi,” Ben says, like a fucking idiot, out on the sidewalk. She beams back at him and gestures for him to come and join her.
The contents of Rey’s thermos are sweet-smelling, crested with foam, and Rey offers him a sip that he refuses. “Do you want me to get you something?” she asks. “You paid for all of my food yesterday, I feel as though I owe you coffee.”
“You don’t,” Ben tells her. “You owe me nothing.”
He says this seriously enough that Rey stops smiling for a moment, although her expression doesn’t completely close off. “You look rather brooding,” she says. “Thinking about something very serious, are we?”
“Have you decided what you want to do?” he asks her.
“Yes,” she says. “Let me guess: drip coffee, black?”
“What do you need?” he asks her.
“Sit down,” she tells him. “I’m going to buy you coffee and a muffin. Did you have lunch? I didn’t, so I’m ravenous. I’m going to get a muffin. Do you want one?”
“No,” Ben says, almost desperate to hear what she wants. “Rey, what--”
“Sit down,” she tells him, taking his arm with both hands and tugging on it. “You look like a man who needs a muffin. Just--sit here.” She forces him into the chair next to hers and springs up, heading for the counter. She’s gone too quickly for Ben to stop her, and then it’s a glacial age before she returns with two muffins and a large hot coffee, sans lid.
“The best thing about America is muffins,” she informs Ben as she settles into her seat and rips the top off of hers. “We haven’t got anything like this in the UK, it’s all scones.” She says it like the light fixture. “I don’t know if you’ve ever watched Bake-Off but everyone gets very sanctimonious about baked goods, like somehow America’s a bastion of diabetes and poor taste. I, personally, love this invention. It’s like a cupcake but microscopically less terrible for you.”
She stuffs almost the entire bottom half of her muffin into her mouth. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who cares about what food is good or bad for them,” Ben says.
“Yes,” she agrees, muffled through the muffin, and then she chews and swallows before she adds, “health isn’t a metric for the worthiness of a person and it’s absolute rot that we pretend otherwise.”
Ben silently pushes his muffin, wrapped in a napkin, towards her. The coffee he keeps; he’s felt a low-grade caffeine headache pushing at his temples for most of the morning and he’s actually a little grateful that Rey had insisted on purchasing it for him.
“Do you care?” she asks as Ben says, “Have you decided what you want?” They both pause and then Ben says, “I don’t care about what people eat. What do you want to do about your grandfather?”
Rey exhales and wiggles in her seat. She lifts the top half of her muffin to her mouth and then puts it down without taking a bite. “I want to meet with him,” she says, finally. “Not now, not before the election. But I won’t sign unless he agrees that he’ll meet with me afterwards. And I don’t want the money.”
“Rey,” Ben says, “you should--” because her financial records had been in her file.
“No,” she interrupts, very firmly. “I don’t want his money. Amilyn thought it might be easier to get him to agree to meet if I said I didn’t want any money.”
“It might,” Ben agrees reluctantly. “Have you put some kind of timeline into the new language?”
“He has to meet with me within twelve months,” Rey says. “Hopefully he won’t be the president anymore in January, so he’ll have loads of free time.”
“Do you have the paperwork?” Ben asks, and she does, printed off in Amilyn’s office and added to the plastic sleeve with the original NDA. She pulls it out and it had all been signed and notarized yesterday afternoon. Her signature looks like a small hurricane; it’s barely legible.
“Oh,” Ben says, flipping through it. “Yesterday?”
“Yes,” Rey says. “Thank you for taking me to Amilyn. She’s really amazing.”
Ben says nothing. Was it his pleasure? In a way. But now Ben has his paperwork and he can leave, both Rey and the state of Illinois, and he has no good reason to return. This morning, when Rey had kissed him in the car, Ben had felt quite sure that they were on the same page--that this connection between them, unusual and distinct, was worth fighting to preserve in some way. But now Ben feels unsure and he doesn’t know how to talk about it. I love you is just as unsuitable now as it was last night but Ben is just as sure of it now as he was then.
“Are you going back to D.C.?” Rey asks him.
“No,” he says. “Detroit.”
“Oh,” Rey says. They both take a sip of their drinks--Ben’s is more of a gulp, because his coffee is now a palatable temperature and he’s desperate for some kind of relief--and then Rey begins to shred Ben’s muffin with her fingertips. “I suppose you’re quite--busy. With the election being so soon.”
“Yes,” Ben agrees, and then--fuck--, “well, no. I’m probably going to quit as soon as I get back to D.C.”
“I thought you were waiting,” Rey says. “Until the election. So you can find your swanky new job without your record having been marred.”
“I have no idea what I’m going to do,” Ben tells her, “but I’m fucking sick of this job. As soon as Palpatine signs your papers, I’m going to tender my resignation and get the hell out of there.”
“Oh,” Rey says, delighted. “Ben, that’s wonderful.” She beams at him and begins to eat his muffin.
“I think I’m going to come back to Chicago,” he tells her, and she keeps beaming at him, her cheeks stuffed full of muffin. “Would you--if I came back, would you have dinner with me?”
She chokes on the muffin and Ben puts his hand on her shoulder. “Ben,” she gasps.
“You don’t have to,” Ben assures her. “I wasn’t sure--last night--it doesn’t have to mean anything--”
“Ben,” she says, “it did, of course it did, it was--wonderful. You were wonderful.”
“Rey,” Ben murmurs. Her sweater is cool under his palm, like her skin, because Rey has no heat retention. “Say you’ll have dinner with me, sweetheart.”
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, Ben, of course.”
She tastes like bran and cranberries and some kind of horrible pumpkin-adjacent flavored syrup and Ben eats at her until he can’t breathe and she’s gasping under his mouth. His caffeine headache is completely eradicated by the time he remembers they’re in public and he can’t just fuck her on the floor of a Peet’s in downtown Evanston.
“Give me a week,” he tells her.
This is v important , the first text from Rey says. She’d sent it at 3pm, when Ben had still been at the gym, listening to The Strokes loudly enough that any ambient noise--such as, say, CNN’s coverage of tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony--wouldn’t be able to penetrate his earbuds.
IF YOU HAD TO CHOOSE , the next one says, and there’s a photo attachment of two four-packs of Trader Joe’s sparkling wine, peach-flavored on the left and mango-flavored on the right.
You’re disgusting , Ben texts back, but it’s nearly five now and she’s definitely bought one of them. There’s no answer, but she’s probably on her way over already and she won’t check her phone on her bike.
Rather than stare at his phone like a sad, useless piece of shit, Ben unpacks the groceries he’d picked up on his way home from the gym--salad mix, clementines, a couple of cheeses that had looked interesting at Whole Foods, a bunch of stuff from the olive bar that he knows Rey will make a face at and then cheerfully devour after her second glass of disgusting fruit wine--and unloads the dishwasher.
Rey still hasn’t arrived by the time he’s done with that, which means Ben is out of excuses for not checking his email. He reluctantly drags himself into the greenhouse, where he’d left his laptop last night. Rey had had some idea about watching some show but they’d only just gotten through the credits before Ben had had his hand inside of her leggings, telling her in a ragged whisper how nice her ass had looked in them, how grateful Ben is that she lets him fuck her, how sweet she smells and how good she tastes. They had not finished the show and Ben’s laptop’s battery is dead.
It turns on unfortunately quickly when he plugs it in at the desk in his grandmother’s study. There, at the top of his inbox, is an email from firstname.lastname@example.org, subject line RE: transition inquiries . Technically Hux has been the Deputy Chief of Staff since late October, but the first email had mentioned that the current White House staff had not responded to emails regarding the upcoming transition. I was hoping that you might be able to answer a few inquiries regarding the position and general policies , email@example.com had said at the end of his previous email. I know that you and the President Elect have had a somewhat contentious personal relationship and I understand if you would prefer not to take the time.
Fuck Dameron specifically, Ben had thought upon receiving the first email. He’d answered immediately: sure, send your questions . Rey’s previous foray into Trader Joe’s fine canned wines is to blame for that response.
Finn Okafor has responded with an itemized list of questions about protocols, procedures, day-to-day workings, and expectations. Looking at them is like pulling out his toenails; it reminds Ben of the horrible fact that he had spent four years as the Deputy Chief of Staff and Legislative Advisor to the President--and not just any president, but an objectively terrible one. Ben is not a person concerned with legacies in the absolute sense; he nonetheless hates the current state of his own.
The first question is about how to establish legislative priorities. Ben has been doing his best to consume zero election news, so he doesn’t know much about Finn Okafor, other than that he’s a fresh-faced baby out of Yale Law that Dameron should know better than to be fucking regularly. CNN has not realized that they’re sleeping together--Dameron’s status as a single man in his late thirties has been the subject of much pearl-clutching in the Wall Street Journal editorial page--but Ben knows how to read that asshole like a fucking book.
First, stop sleeping with the President Elect , Ben types.
“You never answered, so I got both,” Rey announces, coming into the study brandishing a can in either hand. “Do you want mango or peach?”
“Neither,” Ben replies. She comes close enough for him to snag, so he pushes his chair away from the desk and tugs her into his lap. She smells like the garage, greasy and metallic and citrusy, overlaid with the clean, salty tang of her sweat. "How was your day?" he asks. Rey spends about ninety percent of her life as a tightly-wound vibrating ball of tension--she's pure muscle, like a cat--but she lets out a long sigh of satisfaction and tucks her head under Ben's chin, finally relaxing.
"The Peat Bog Council continues to be a source of frustration," she tells him. "I sent a draft of the aims to our collaborators this morning, dusted off my hands, figured they wouldn't have comments back to me until, oh, five days before the submission deadline--but then those fucking wankers at Minnesota got snippy about how I'd structured the aims and wanted to have a phone call about it."
"Those guys are a bunch of dicks," Ben says, although he has never met them and, hopefully, never will.
"I know!" Rey says. "Obviously I love this project and think it's very important but, frankly, it's fifteen acres of peatland. This is a pilot study to see if we can expand the carbon sinks along the Great Lakes. It is, ultimately, a very tiny first step. Is now really the time to be nit-picking which species of moss we're going to seed it with?"
"No," says Ben, a man who has no practical knowledge of peatland mosses.
"It's because they've got that project looking at angustifolium," Rey says angrily. "They just want to double-dip into the NSF's coffers."
Ben closes his eyes and rests his cheek against the top of Rey's head. She's still chilly from her ride over. What kind of a person still rides a bike in Chicago in January? The love of Ben's life, that's who.
"Of course, if angustifolium makes sense, we'll use it--that's what I ended up telling them, just to get off the bloody phone some time this century." She makes a cute little growl of frustration in the back of her throat. "God, sorry, I'm just still so mad at them. I spent most of the afternoon beating out dents in the fender pile trying to be all therapeutic and whatnot.”
“How’d that go?” Ben asks. Her hair is soft under his cheek. Rey’s skin and hair are so soft and smell so good because she slathers her entire body in coconut oil every few days. Ben feels almost jealous of this knowledge; it’s like a secret between Rey and her body that she has deigned to share with him. When they are out--shopping for groceries, visiting the bonsais at the Botanic Garden, going to see one of Rey’s roommates play roller derby--and Ben catches that faint hint of coconut drifting off of her, he feels the intimacy of it spike through his brain and then down his peripheral nervous system.
Rey makes a pfft! noise. “Fine, I suppose,” she says. “How was your lunch?”
“Fine,” Ben says. “She’s waiting to hear back about a grant, at which point she’ll know if she can hire a research assistant.”
“Did you like her?” Rey asks, wiggling until she finds a more comfortable position in Ben’s lap.
“I guess,” Ben says. “She’s like a thousand years old so it’s entirely possible that she’s going to die before she has a chance to hire anyone for the position. It’s very different from what I used to do. She may not think I’m qualified.” When Rey makes a humming, inquiring noise, Ben admits, “She may not want to work with me. Genetic modeling, racial disparities in health care--it’s very different from what I used to do. And she may get some pushback for hiring me.”
“Hmm, maybe,” Rey replies, sounding dubious. “I doubt anyone will care very much.”
“Hmm,” Ben says, also dubious. He’d gotten a number of dirty looks when he’d met Dr. Kanata for lunch at the cafe next to the Seminary Co-op on the U of C campus. Dr. Kanata herself had seemed refreshingly disinterested in his political career, but she’d been very frank about the goals of her research and how quickly Ben would be out on his ass if he tried to use her lab as a platform to pursue any political agenda. I just want to help people , Ben had told her. The only thing I really understand is statistics. If I can use it to help, I want to . She had taken a bite of her spinach pie and said, I see .
“When will you hear?” Rey asks.
“Probably next month,” Ben says.
Rey hums and then says, “You should buy a sweater vest.”
“What?” Ben says, opening his eyes and tilting his head back so he can stare at her.
Rey leans forward just far enough to snag the two cans of sparkling wine off of the desk. She cracks them each one-handed and passes Ben one of them. When he sips at it, it tastes like someone has dissolved an entire bag of peach gummies into a bottle of rancid seltzer water. “If you’re going back into academia, I think you should invest in a sweater vest. And maybe get glasses.”
“My vision is perfect,” Ben says. “This is disgusting .”
“Here, try the mango,” Rey suggests. “I think you’d look very handsome in a sweater vest and glasses.”
“I wasn’t aware that you disliked my suits,” Ben says. He swallows a mouthful of the mango wine and it is, somehow, worse. “No, you keep this one. Did you burn off your taste buds in some kind of horrible accident as a child?”
“Being raised by rich people did you an incredible disservice, Ben Solo,” Rey says. “You don’t know how to appreciate anything truly delicious. I don’t dislike your suits, I’ve just never seen you in anything less formal than, like, a cashmere sweater.”
“I have normal workout clothes,” Ben says. “Not everyone dresses like a dispossessed barista. This is not delicious. This is a fermentation experiment gone wrong and we’re going to get botulism.”
Rey says, “If you don’t want it, I’m sure there’s some kind of massively expensive vintage of champagne in the basement that might better compliment tonight’s supper--which is, what, leftovers from Ghareeb Nawaz?”
“Yeah,” Ben says. “Don’t think that bringing dinner into the conversation is going to distract me. Do you have some kind of prurient interest in sweater vests, sweetheart?”
Rey wiggles around in his lap until she’s facing him, her knees flanking his hips. She’s resting her weight on his thighs, one hand holding onto his shoulder for balance as she gestures with the can of mango-flavored wine in the other. “I could,” she says. “I just think you’d look rather cute in one. No one looking at you now would think, now, there’s a massive nerd who can solve complex equations in his head--”
“--because none of that is true--” Ben tries.
“--but they would, once you put on a sweater vest to advertise it. Or a pair of glasses. I’m frankly a little worried that you’re going to go work on a campus full of undergraduates and they’re going to lose their minds when their professor is fit and gorgeous and dresses entirely in suits and then you’re going to be molested.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Ben says.
“Is it?” Rey asks, raising her eyebrows and tossing back a huge gulp of her wine. “I think not. Which one of us was an undergraduate more recently? If you’d been the one teaching my introduction to statistical modeling course, this would have turned out very differently. Well, this wouldn’t have turned out differently,” and she rolls her hips forward deliberately, in a dirty grind that has Ben dropping his wine onto the floor so he can grab her waist, “but who knows where my academic journey might have ended?”
“I think you’re being deliberately inflammatory,” Ben says. He keeps Rey in place when she tries to roll backwards and pulls her so she’s sitting flush against where Ben’s cock is beginning to harden in his pants. “Gorgeous?”
“Yes,” Rey says. Her pupils have begun to swell, drowning out the browns and greens. “Absolutely. Proper fit.” When she kisses Ben, he can barely taste her through all of the artificial mango flavoring. “Ben,” she says softly, peppering kisses over his chin, “I’m very seriously worried that if you wear a suit to teach a class you’re going to cause a riot.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Ben tells her. He slides one hand along her hip to her back, where he can cup her ass and encourage her into a slow, luxurious roll. The other hand he puts in her hair, sliding up along the base of her skull and tugging until she has to bow her head back and he can put his mouth on the line of her throat. “I’m not going to wear a sweater vest, sweetheart. But I’ll get some jeans.”
“Oh no ,” Rey groans, and then she giggles as Ben bites at the ticklish stretch of her neck. They tumble off of the desk chair, knocking cans of wine akimbo, but Ben barely notices. Rey is under him, laughing, and she tastes so good. Rey is here, in Varykino, and she has begun to bring over her favorite orchids to live in the greenhouse. I love you , he thinks, as he thinks a hundred times every day. I love you more than I ever thought I could love anything .
Ben lives in Varykino, a place where it is impossible not to be happy, and he has Rey with him. He needs nothing else.