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And Closer Still Is Never Enough

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When his mother summons him to her chambers, Ben knows why before even entering.

He also knows she will try to go about this gently with him. Nearly everyone in the palace — nigh all of Alderaan — knows exactly how the crown prince feels about his duty as the heir apparent to the throne.

Which is to say, not thrilled.

“Good evening, Ben,” says his mother once he arrives.

“Mother.” He nods his acknowledgement but makes no move to step further into the room.

Queen Leia of Alderaan sits in an opulent chair by her fireplace, elegantly sipping on a cup of tea. She’s wearing night robes, and her gray hair is loose from its usual intricate braids at her shoulders — it reminds Ben of when he was a child, sneaking into this very suite after a nightmare and slipping into her bed for comfort.

It’s a far cry from how he feels now, wishing he were just about anywhere else.

“I’m sure you know why I called you here,” his mother says carefully, black-brown eyes flecked orange by the low firelight.

“I’m sure I do,” Ben agrees lightly. He sniffs, averting his eyes from his mother’s face to focus on the flames behind her. “You’ve decided on someone, then?”

His mother raises her chin. “I have,” she says. “Duchess Rey of Exegol. She’s young, but not so much that she won’t make a suitable wife.”

Ben can’t help the way he snorts. “Of course. And how serendipitous that Emperor Palpatine just so happened to produce a granddaughter shortly after the search for my potential wife was announced.”

“Ben,” she sighs, long-suffering.

“You don’t agree?”

The queen purses her lips, regarding her son with a practiced sort of patience. “I admit the timing was quite… fortuitous,” she settles on, ever diplomatic. “But whatever the case, the marriage would be greatly beneficial for both countries.”

Ben’s jaw clenches, teeth grinding together. “And what could be more important than that?”

“I know this is something you have dreaded since you were young,” she continues, and her voice takes on a softer quality — no longer that of a queen, but of a concerned mother. “Believe me, if anyone understands the feeling, I do. But it’s not something we can put off any longer, son. You’re thirty years old, nearing thirty-one. I’ve let you avoid it as long as I could, but I’m getting older now and with your father gone—”

“I understand,” Ben snaps, immediately regretting his harshness when he sees the way his mother’s expression flashes with hurt. He swallows and takes a deep breath through his nose, attempting to calm himself.

He’s trying to be better about his temper — he’s trying, after so many years, to be princely for his mother, whatever that means. God knows she’s been through enough.

“I understand,” he repeats, forcing his voice to be gentle. He shakes his head, bowing it slightly, and when he speaks again there’s a thread of vulnerability running through his words. “I just—I can’t imagine how this will work out for someone like me.”

A small, sad smile lifts up the corners of his mother’s mouth. “It’s not unusual to feel that way. Marriage isn’t easy—much less an arranged one—but with work, they can be quite happy. Just look at your father and me.”

Ben scoffs, though it’s without any real venom. “You and father fought like cats and dogs.”

“Yes,” the queen acquiesces, and then her smile widens, tinged by a secret joy, “but how we loved each other.”

This, Ben cannot argue.

“I can only hope that you find love in your own marriage,” she continues softly. “You may think it impossible, but you may also find yourself pleasantly surprised.”

I won’t, Ben doesn’t say. I’m not meant for this. I never wanted any of it.

“Promise me you’ll at least try to make it work, son.”

Ben musters up the ghost of a smile, and he is certain that it looks just as empty as it feels.

“Of course, mother.”

Sheev Palpatine is exactly the sort of calculating man one would be smart to maintain careful awareness of while keeping at a safe distance.

Ben supposes that is exactly why he’s being made to marry his granddaughter — his mother is nothing if not a ruthless politician.

He had met the Emperor of Exegol once before when he was much younger, so long ago now that he hardly recalls the encounter save for the keen sense of unease with which he’d walked away from it. Even as a child, Ben had understood that the Emperor was not a man to be trusted.

This accounts for his current feelings of disconcertment as he stands at the end of the dining table in the Great Hall, silently observing as the Emperor and his royal guard are welcomed through Alderaan’s palace doors.

The Emperor is even more decrepit than Ben remembers, with wrinkled, paper-thin skin and yellowed eyes. He has to suppress a shudder at the sight of him, especially when he pulls back his lips to reveal a slimy, gap-toothed smile.

“Your Majesty,” the Emperor croons, sweeping across the floor to where Leia stands beside Ben. “How do you do? It’s been far too long.”

The queen offers a polite smile in return. “It has, hasn’t it? Alderaan is thrilled to have you back.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” says the Emperor, his beady eyes sliding to Ben. “It’s good to see you again as well, Benjamin. Especially for such a happy occasion as this.”

It grates to hear Palpatine address him without his title, but Ben tamps down his annoyance and pastes a civilized smile onto his face — a taxing feat, to be sure. “Quite,” he grits out, impressing himself with his own deference.

“Ah!” exclaims the Emperor suddenly, lifting a bony finger. “Why don’t we introduce the future couple, then?” He glances back toward the palace doors with a wave, all too eager. “Come, Rey! Meet your betrothed.”

Ben grimaces at the title, an involuntary reaction. He senses the way his mother looks at him in warning and tries to school his face into something neutral as Palpatine’s royal guard breaks apart and allows his betrothed to step forward.

The first thing that strikes Ben is just how young she is — she must be at least a decade younger than him, and for a moment he panics that his mother has agreed to give him a child bride.

It is a fleeting thought, however, for as she draws closer it becomes clear to him that Duchess Rey of Exegol is most certainly a woman. A slip of a woman, if the protruding bones of her clavicle above the bust of her gown are anything to go by, but a woman all the same.

She approaches Ben slowly, keeping her eyes trained on the floor until she is but a few feet in front of him. Here she bows, and Ben watches as a curl of chestnut hair falls out of her bun and comes to rest just over the shell of her small ear.

“Your Royal Highness,” she says quietly. She raises her head and Ben finally meets her eyes, large and hazel and wholly imperceptible.

She does not offer him her hand for a kiss, so Ben bows his neck slightly in greeting. “Your Grace.”

Rey nods and turns her eyes downward again.

She keeps them that way all throughout dinner. She speaks only when spoken to. She is not rude or lacking propriety (although Ben doesn’t fail to notice the way she pauses sometimes before picking up a utensil, as if unsure of her decision), but nor is she particularly friendly. The Duchess offers only tight, small smiles when appropriate and brief answers to any questions his mother asks her.

Many would probably consider her an ideal candidate for the wife of a future king — polite, dignified, seen but not heard. But Ben notices a defiant jut to the Duchess’ chin, a rebellious twist to the tightly-pressed line of her mouth. He studies these curiously, and it’s only as he does that Rey lifts her eyes to meet his.

She stills and holds his gaze for the briefest of moments, just long enough for Ben to catch the red-hot flash of fierce indignation there before she promptly turns them back down to her plate.

Ah, he thinks wryly. Perhaps we will find some common ground yet, Your Grace.

News that the Prince of Alderaan has chosen a wife spreads through the kingdom like wildfire, igniting a feverish excitement across the land.

Ben doesn’t share the sentiment. He orders that he not be bothered with wedding plans, and when his mother tries to include him despite this, he huffs in annoyance.

“Why don’t you ask the future princess for her opinion?”

His mother frowns, displeased and vaguely pensive. “The Duchess has expressed that she does not wish to partake in the planning.”

This surprises Ben, though he hides it; as far as he understands, most women are at least somewhat invested in the details of their wedding, whether in love or not.

The more he learns about the Duchess of Exegol, the warier he grows. From what he’s seen and heard of her thus far, he has a feeling that his mother’s hope for his marriage to be a loving one is unlikely; Ben is inclined to believe that it will hardly even be a happy one.

The week passes in a whirlwind as the palace prepares for the royal nuptials, and the actual day of the wedding is one Ben barely remembers in the end: vows are exchanged in front of the court, the ceremony is concluded with a brief, unmemorable kiss, and Ben is officially married to a perfect stranger.

During the banquet, he escapes to the palace gardens, drunk on wine and a permeating sense of hopelessness.

He wonders briefly what his father would say if he were here to see him intoxicated like this on his own wedding day; the late king had always been much more lenient than his mother when it came to etiquette and diplomacy, but Ben guesses that this behavior would be too far even for his normally unrepentant father.

The thought would probably make him even more miserable, if he weren’t already so numb.

“Your Royal Highness?”

Ben whirls around in alarm, swaying as he does, and comes face to face with a familiar pair of blue eyes peering out from the shadows of the palace overhang. He breathes a sigh of relief.

“Gwen,” he says, nodding at her.

Gwen Phasma, daughter of one of the palace’s noble families, steps out from behind a stone column with a coy smile, the moonlight painting her pretty face stark white.

“What is the happy groom doing out here all by his lonesome?” she asks innocently, taking another step toward him.

Ben licks his dry lips. He isn’t nervous, per se, but he’s aware that he’s entered a precarious situation. Gwen has fostered affections for him since they were children, and while Ben has always ignored her advances, it wouldn’t seem that way if he were caught with her alone like this. On his wedding day, no less.

Of course, the prince is permitted — expected, even, in some cultures — to take on mistresses. And with the way Ben is feeling right now (angry and drunk and pathetically lonely) he might even consider it.

“Just needed some fresh air,” he answers, offering her a brief smile. “Inside, it felt a bit… crowded.”

“I agree,” says Gwen, slowly drawing closer. A predatory gleam flashes in her eye. “Much nicer out here.”

“It certainly is a beautiful night.”

Her smile widens, and then she’s in front of him, curling a warm hand around his arm. “We had some good fun in this garden as children, didn’t we?”

“We did,” Ben answers, keeping his voice carefully neutral.

“Perhaps we could still have some fun now.”

It’s a blatant proposition. And it would be so easy for Ben to bend down and claim her mouth, to push them back into the shadows and find some sort of hollow companionship in the soft, willing body beneath her skirts, but—

But it is his wedding day. And despite not being a very good man, he had promised his mother that he would try.

Ben finds Gwen’s fingers on his arm and pulls them away with a polite smile. “I should be getting back to my guests. I hope you enjoy the festivities, Gwen.”

He slides past her toward the palace then, feeling instead as though he walks directly into the jaws of a beast.

Rey doesn’t take a single step further into Ben’s quarters once the door shuts behind her that night.

Ben doesn’t know what to say or do. He’s not drunk anymore, but the alcohol has made him tired, and his patience has all but evaporated.

It’s not meant to be this way, he thinks bitterly.

If he weren’t royalty, if he actually thought he could be happily married, if he were just about anyone else in the world, this moment would have been completely different for both of them.

He sits at the edge of his bed and focuses on untying his boot laces just to give his hands something to do while Rey stays silent and unmoving at the door. The atmosphere in the room is unbearably awkward, growing worse with each passing second.

Ben searches for something to say, but comes up short. It doesn’t help that he and Rey have hardly exchanged any words all day. He clears his throat, scanning his room as if it can give him an answer to this impossible problem, when his eyes land on the book on his desk.

“I usually read before bed—” he begins, at the very same time Rey blurts, quite loudly, “I can’t!”

When Ben looks back at her in surprise, she’s flushed all the way down to her collarbones, and her eyes have a wild look about them.

He blinks, bewildered. “You can’t...?”

Rey’s hands flutter up to settle at either side of her splotchy neck. “I can’t,” she repeats frantically — and then, firmer, as if correcting herself: “I won’t. I understand it’s tradition, my ladies-in-waiting have explained everything to me, but I just—I can’t.”

Ben needs a moment to formulate his response, utterly taken aback by the panicked intensity in her expression. It’s the most he’s ever heard her speak at once, and though her voice shakes, it is fiercely determined.

He stands cautiously from the bed and turns to face her, regarding her as one does a skittish animal. “I’m sorry,” he says slowly. “I don’t understand.”

Rey swallows, averting her eyes from him as the muscles in her jaw jump. “I understand that part of the wedding ceremony is the—the consummation.” She flushes impossibly further at the word, bright red. “But that’s just not something I’m able to—”

Realization hits Ben like a brick to the head — followed quickly by bone-deep mortification.

“Stop,” he interrupts hastily, and it’s his turn to blush, heat spreading violently across his cheeks. “That’s not—that won’t be necessary.”

Rey pauses, doubt crossing her features. “But I thought that the ceremony wasn’t official without it.”

“No,” says Ben, grimacing. “No, that’s… an antiquated tradition.”

Despite his embarrassment, he forces himself to look at her, taking in the tense lines of her shoulders and the fear on her face that she is clearly trying to hide. She seems so small crowded against his door, and Ben has the sudden, overwhelming urge to calm her.

“What happens tonight is our business,” he says with finality, if a little clumsily. “We won’t do anything you don’t want to do. You… You have my word.”

A beat passes before he sees her shoulders relax ever so slightly. She nods, a jerky thing, and it’s the last bit of communication exchanged between them for the rest of the night.

When Rey crawls into the opposite side of his bed later, she faces decidedly away from him, back ram-rod straight under the blankets and curled in on herself, as if expecting someone to strike.

Ben stares at the ceiling in the dark, knowing he should feel relieved — and he does, to a degree. It’s just that the relief hardly compares to the bitter loneliness that sits heavy on his chest, threatening to crack it in two.

He thinks that he should be used to it by now.

The queen corners him in the library two days later.

“Well?” she asks as soon as the door shuts behind her, eyebrows raised expectantly.

Ben pointedly does not look at her as he peruses through the shelf of books in front of him. “Well, what?”

She huffs, impatient. “Well, how are things with Rey?”

He resists the urge to sigh. He and Rey have communicated the bare minimum since that first awkward night, which Ben suspects will be the standard for their non-relationship.

It doesn’t bother him. He’s never truly been close with anyone. Why should his wife be the exception?

“We’re fine,” he answers, clipped. “I rarely see her, so I suspect she is acclimating well.”

“Have you asked her that?”

Ben pauses and reluctantly turns to face his mother, frowning. “Asked her what?”

“Have you asked her if she’s acclimating well?” she clarifies in the tone she uses when he is being particularly dense. “Have you spoken to her at all about how she is adjusting here?”

Ben’s frown deepens, and he crosses his arms across his chest defensively. “She’s not interested in speaking to me,” he says despite himself. “She makes that very clear.”

It’s not a lie; Rey spends as little time as possible in Ben’s presence, avoiding him during the day until she is forced to retire to their chambers at night and share the bed. And even then, she says no more than necessary, the line of her back drawn tight as a bowstring beneath her nightgown as she lies across the mattress.

“Perhaps if you showed some interest in speaking to her, then she would return the sentiment,” says his mother, and it’s not lost on him how embarrassing it is that she even feels the need to explain such a thing to her adult son.

Essentially proving her point, Ben makes a petulant noise and spins his back on her.

It’s quiet for a moment, but he knows better than to think the discussion is over. He knows his mother is simply gearing up for her next line of attack, and when he hears her sigh wearily behind him, his shoulders tense in preparation.

“I don’t suppose your wedding night was spent very happily then,” she says, all too casual.

Ben splutters, whirling around to fix her with wide, incredulous eyes. He can feel the telltale warmth of a blush creeping all the way up to his ears. “Pardon me, mother,” he manages, strained, “but I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

She adopts a breezy tone, continuing as if he hadn’t even spoken, “It’s just a shame. I’m getting so old, and I can’t help but worry that I’ll never see any grandchildren—”


“—and you know, sometimes physical chemistry can lead to compatibility in other ways. God knows it was that way for your father and me—”

“Enough!” Ben hisses, understanding that he’s giving her exactly what she wants but too chagrined to care. “What would you like me to tell you, exactly? Am I to force myself on her?”

His mother scoffs, rolling her eyes. “Of course not, Benjamin. There are ways to charm your wife.”

Through gritted teeth, Ben asks, “And what, pray tell, might those be?”

The queen fixes her son with a deadpan look, the glint in her eyes disappointed and amused all at once. “You woo her, Ben. You court her.”

Ben blinks.

“I know you don’t exactly have a wealth of experience with this,” she continues drily, “seeing as you have refused to court anyone up to this point—which is exactly why we’re in this situation now, mind you—but you’ve always been a fast learner.”

A losing battle, all of it. Ben sighs and puts up once last fight. “I don’t think she wants to be courted. Not by me.”

“But I’m sure she would appreciate a friend, at least.” His mother’s eyes are almost plaintive as she searches his face, voice softening. “She’s been uprooted from her home and sent to a foreign country to marry a stranger. She knows nothing and no one. I can only imagine how lonely that girl must be feeling right now... Can’t you?”

It rankles, to be so soundly defeated and chastised in one fell swoop. Ben turns his face away, unsurprised by the guilt that floods through him at his own selfishness.

So consumed was he by his own self-pity that he had forgotten, somehow, that he is not the only person enduring this uncomfortable situation — and perhaps not even the one with the worst circumstances.

He suddenly recalls the indignation in Rey’s eyes at dinner that first day, then the fear when she’d stood against his door on their wedding night, and he’s ashamed enough to relent.

“I—” his voice is reedy as he stares out the stained-glass window of the library, “I don’t even know where to begin.”

The queen chuckles. “Just be yourself, Ben. If you actually gave anyone the chance, they’d have no choice but to love you.”

It takes a few days for Ben to muster up the courage. He’s a prince and a knight but speaking to his wife somehow feels far more high-stakes than charging onto a battlefield.

He corners one of Rey’s ladies-in-waiting, a young woman with ink black hair and a round face, who looks up at Ben in unconcealed fright. A common occurrence, considering his tall build and serious disposition, and Ben immediately tries to make himself smaller so as to ease her, hunching his shoulders uncomfortably.

“Could you tell me where the princess is?” he inquires, careful to keep his voice light.

He watches the girl’s brow knit, confusion and nervousness flitting across her features in tandem. “Oh. Um.” Her cheeks redden, and she begins to shift her eyes. “Her Royal Highness requested that she not be disturbed—”

“I only need a moment of her time,” Ben interrupts, firmer than before. He doesn’t miss the way the girl flinches.

“She, ah—”

He waits patiently as panic flits through the young woman’s eyes, loyalties warring across her face as clear as day. He almost feels bad for putting her in such a position — and then, because he’s not a particularly good man, a touch amused.

The woman finally sags forward with a defeated sigh. “Her Royal Highness is in the study,” she mutters. “She likes the view of the gardens there.”

Ben is turning in the direction of the aforementioned room before she even finishes speaking. “Thank you!” he remembers to say, just before rounding the corner — he doesn’t suppose he’ll ever truly master the manners expected of a prince, even after all this time.

The study is a spacious room, enough that knocking seems silly when Ben approaches the door, so he quietly cracks it open and slips inside unannounced.

Rey is there, tucked into the alcove that lies in front of three tall windows. A faint, serene smile plays at her lips as she gazes down at the gardens below, legs folded up onto the seat beneath her gown.

She looks... peaceful. Almost happy, for the first time since she’s arrived. It has Ben faltering in his steps, suddenly reluctant to disrupt her.

It’s too late to turn back, however; Rey hears his footsteps, and her head darts over in his direction, smile wiped clean off her face.

“Your Highness,” she says, standing quickly to her feet.

“Please,” he begins, wincing, “call me Ben. I am, uh—sorry to disrupt you.”

“You didn’t,” she responds, gesturing to the window beside her. “I was just admiring the gardens.”

“Ah,” Ben intones, nodding.

A beat.

They stand there, saying nothing.

“Did you need something from me?”

“Oh, no.” Ben shakes his head, then frowns. “Well, that is—I actually came to ask how you were doing?”

Good god. He really is hopeless at this.

She stares blankly at him for a moment before stiffly answering, “I’m fine, thank you.”

“You are…” he trails off, waving his hand around as he searches for the word. “Adjusting well, then?”

At this, Rey lets out a disbelieving little huff of laughter, not at all humorous. “Adjusting to what? Palace life isn’t exactly a strenuous one.”

Ben clenches his jaw, annoyance flaring through him hot and quick — at her, at himself, at this whole situation.

“Well pardon me for asking,” he snaps churlishly. “You do a fine job of making yourself scarce, so I wouldn’t exactly know.”

Her face does something funny then, a twist of incongruent emotions that Ben can’t completely parse out — surprise, anger, perhaps something forlorn — and a blush spreads out high across her cheekbones.

“I’m fine,” she repeats, barbed. She presses her lips together tightly and fixes her eyes out the window — a clear dismissal.

Ben sighs, wiping a hand down his face and internally chastising himself. As always, he’s let his temper get the best of him. Delicate just isn’t part of his nature — he’s always a bumbling, uneasy mess of words when he tries, often swerving into anger out of frustration.

So, dropping his hand, he takes a deep breath and resorts to his usual bluntness.

“Look,” he begins. “I’m not going to pretend that I understand what this is like for you, because I don’t. I can’t. You left your home to come here. You’ve sacrificed more than I can imagine, and I don’t take that lightly.” He pauses here, noting how Rey’s eyes are riveted to his now, wide and unblinking. Something he sees in them gives him the confidence to continue. “But like it or not, these are the cards we’ve been dealt. It’s not an easy situation, but perhaps we can make it a bit better for each other.”

A long, tortuous stretch of silence passes between them, leaving Ben clammy and near-ready to sprint out of the room in its wake. But then Rey finally answers, her voice milder than before: “And how do you suggest we do that?”

Ben releases a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“Friends,” he says, fingers twitching restlessly at his sides. “I thought we could try to be friends.”

Rey seems to consider this, head tilting to the side. Ben can practically see the machinations of her mind at work behind the limpid hazel of her eyes, lit up by the midday sun.

Intelligent eyes, he thinks, distantly.

“I’ve never been too good at making friends,” she finally admits, and Ben would think it a refusal if not for the undercurrent of self-doubt he detects in her voice.

His heart twinges peculiarly at this — it’s a common thread between the two of them, pulled suddenly into stark recognition. Hearing her voice an insecurity he’s wrestled with since he was first old enough to recognize it in himself is comforting in a way he is reluctant to examine.

“Nor have I,” says Ben. He frowns, running a hand through his dark hair. “I can’t promise I won’t fuck it up.”

He immediately winces when the profanity slips out of his mouth and prepares to apologize, but the words die on his tongue once he catches the amused gleam in Rey’s eyes just before she looks out the window again. He can’t be sure, but it appears as though the corners of her lips have lifted, the tense line of her shoulders softening just so.

“You could show me the gardens,” she says after a moment, keeping her eyes fixed out the windows. The sunlight slants through them and cuts geometric shapes across her golden skin, an entrancing sort of abstract. “I’ve been… meaning to have a look.”

Stricken, Ben stands and stares at her newly relaxed profile. The elegant curve of her neck, the straight bridge of her nose, the strong slant of her brow — an appealing mix of soft and hard.

His throat feels oddly dry.

“I could,” he says, a bit hoarse, “or I could show you something better.”

Rey meets him in front of the study right after breakfast the next morning. Caution still masks her face, but there’s a glimpse of something bright in her eyes — something alive and curious.

“So,” she begins airily, “now will you tell me what this secret place of yours is?”

A smile threatens at the corners of Ben’s lips as he starts down the hallway. He’s surprised by how easy it comes.

“Patience is a virtue, Princess.”

Rey huffs after him. “This had better astound me,” she grumbles, and Ben’s eyes widen before he turns his head to keep her from seeing the way he has to swallow down a surprised laugh at her words.

Outside of his mother, he’s not sure any woman has ever spoken to him that way — not many people would dare, female or otherwise.

Once his expression is back under control, he chances a peek at Rey’s profile. Her cheeks look rosier than he remembers, and he wonders briefly if her ladies-in-waiting applied some powder to them for the occasion.

But, no. Ben shakes his head and admonishes himself. Silly thought.

He leads them down the corridors of the palace, stopping in front of two tall, ornate doors.

“Just through here,” he says, and pushes them open.

Morning sunlight bursts forth. Before them, the palace grounds lie pristine as always; perfectly tended flowers line a brick path that leads to a towering stone and glass building. Ben hears Rey gasp beside him and turns his head to read her expression.

“Oh my…” she breathes, lifting a gloved hand to her mouth. Her eyes are wide and glittering under the blue sky, flecks of green and gold visible in their depths.

Ben can’t help himself. “Are you sufficiently astounded?” he asks, teasing.

Rey doesn’t even make an attempt at unimpressed. She gawks, face more open than he’s ever seen it, the childish wonder on it plain as day.

Something in Ben’s chest tugs at the sight, and he has to clear his throat before speaking again. “I’ll take that as a yes, then.”

“It this…?”

“The conservatory, yes. I think you’ll find it even more impressive inside.”

Rey looks over at him and quickly nods her head. He huffs a laugh and motions for her to follow. Holding one of the heavy glass doors open, he watches her expression carefully as she steps inside.

Again, she covers her mouth, this time with both hands. Ben shuts the door behind them as she turns in a slow circle, taking in the sights and smells of the verdant plant life surrounding them.

She immediately gravitates toward the massive pink flowers adorning one of the nearby trees. Carefully, she lifts her slim fingers, suspending them just above a thick petal and tracing the outline of it without touching.

“Beautiful,” she breathes.

Ben steps up beside her, feeling strangely off-kilter by her reaction. “Magnolias,” he supplies, clearing his throat again. “One of my mother’s favorites.”

Rey blinks before she looks up at him, as if suddenly remembering he’s there, too. Her face looks so young like this, surrounded by velvety hues and vibrant greens, slack with fascination.

“I didn’t know there was this much green in the whole world,” she murmurs dreamily, eyes tracing the plants above and behind him, filled to the brim with a profound awe.

Ben frowns down at her in confusion. “Does Exegol not have much plant life?”

Rey’s eyes suddenly snap into sharp focus. Quickly, she turns back toward the flowers. “Oh, it… Not like this,” she says, adopting a tight, academic tone. “Exegol only gets sun a few hours a day, and usually there’s rain to block it out. Only very specific plants can thrive there.”

“Ah,” says Ben.

Something about her answer doesn’t sit right with him, but he doesn’t push the matter. He feels as though they are making progress in their effort toward friendship, and he doesn’t want to ruin it by asking too much, too soon.

“This… this is a gorgeous place, though,” Rey says, just barely avoiding an awkward silence.

Ben nods. “It’s my favorite part of the palace. My grandmother had it built when she was alive.” He reaches out and thoughtfully drags a finger down one of the petals in front of him. “I spent a lot of time here as a child.”

“Oh?” Rey perks up in interest, tone playful. “Doing what, exactly?”

He fights a smile, something he is beginning to suspect will be a habit around her. Arching a lofty eyebrow, he shrugs. “I read, sometimes. But mostly I hid in the bushes to escape my school lessons.”

A laugh erupts from Rey’s mouth, effusive and inelegant. It transforms her whole face, blending out all the hard edges and crinkling the corners of her eyes, stretching the plush line of her mouth to reveal a set of bright, white teeth. The sound rings out, a warm, large thing that seems to fill up the entire room.

Ben can do nothing but stare, stupefied.

“What a lucky child you were to have such a wonderful hiding spot,” she says, entirely unaware of her effect on him.

And perhaps he only imagines it, the slight wistfulness to her words.

“I drove my parents crazy,” Ben admits, once he manages to find his voice again and feels only half as dizzy. “My mother for missing my lessons, and my father because he couldn’t understand why his son wanted to hole himself up with a book all day.”

Rey giggles, a dulcet sound, and reaches out to grasp his elbow as she sweeps her eyes around them. “What’s your favorite, then?”

Ben glances down in surprise at the place where her hand holds him. Dumbly, he echoes, “My favorite what?”

“Your favorite flower, of course,” she answers, rolling her eyes teasingly. “You’ll show me, won’t you? Or is it another secret?”

It isn’t, so Ben leads her to the back of the conservatory and stops in front of a small bush with wide, emerald leaves.

Rey stares at it blankly. “There’s no flowers,” she points out, fixing him with a raised eyebrow.

“They’re called Moonflowers,” he explains with a small smile, “because they only bloom under the full moon.”

Rey mouth pops open in surprise and she turns her attention back to the meager bush with a newfound respect. “Fitting,” she says, huffing a laugh.

“They smell quite good when they open,” Ben continues lamely, if only to keep the sweet, awed look in her eyes from disappearing. “Unless the petals get bruised. Then it’s… not so appealing.”

He’s not sure what possesses him to tell her such an inane fact, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because Rey’s face softens beautifully, lips tilted upward, eyes bright and vast as she looks up at him and says, “I’d very much like to see them one day.”

I’d very much like to show you, Ben thinks, unaware of where exactly the violent desire springs up from but knowing only that he means it.

“Well,” he starts—lost, floundering. “You can, of course. What’s mine is yours.”

It won’t be until long after that Ben will look back at this moment and realize the inescapable truth of those words, even then.

They form a routine.

Every morning, they meet in the study after breakfast before heading to the conservatory together. They walk slower as the days pass, taking their time, and Ben does his best to recall the most arbitrary of facts about whichever plant Rey points out. And each time he does, her whole face lights up with a mixture of excitement and genuine interest, eyes shining brightly as if he’s somehow blessed her unspeakably by sharing such a small bit of useless botanical knowledge.

It’s addicting.

Soon Ben finds himself joining her for breakfast each morning, a meal he would oft skip before. He looks forward to watching her dig into her food with gusto, so different now than how she had eaten during that first dinner on the night they had met.

Rey eats as if the food might up and run away. She tears into the pastries and fruits, juice dribbling down her chin, and smiles sheepishly when she catches his beguiled gaze from across the table as she wipes it away.

The simple act of eating shouldn’t make Ben feel overwhelmed by fondness, and yet—

And yet he always slides her his portion of jogan fruit just to relish in the sparkle of happiness in her eyes as she bites into it, just to see her smile up at him, dimpled and shy.

Ben doesn’t understand it, how she can treat every moment and experience like a first, how she can act as if all of the things he teaches her are gifts; he knows only that he is utterly charmed by the open excitement that lights up her eyes each time.

In turn, he feels possessed to discover every last avenue by which he might elicit it.

“Back home,” he begins one morning, as Rey carefully examines an orchid, “what were some of your hobbies?”

She starts a bit, straightening up and fixing him with an uncertain look. “Hobbies?”

“Surely you had some favorite pastimes,” he says, hoping his smile doesn’t look as nervous as he feels. Hoping she can’t see right through him to his very core, hoping she doesn’t discover that his reasons for asking are actually terribly, terribly selfish.

Because Ben wants all her smiles to himself; he wants to give them to her and then hoard them away, tucked safely between his ribs. It’s a novel desire, and one he isn’t quite sure what to do with — he knows only that he’s helpless but to pursue it.

Rey chews her lip, considering. “You promise you won’t make fun of me?”

“Never,” Ben swears, vehement, unthinking.

Something in her frame loosens at this, like the slow unfurling of a blooming rose. “It’s a bit unconventional,” she admits, grinning secretively, and Ben’s heart gives a pitiful jerk. “But… I quite like to spar.”

He blinks, unsure if he’s heard correctly. “Spar?”

Uncertainty returns to her eyes and she looks away from him hurriedly, flapping a nervous hand around. “It’s odd, I know, and not exactly becoming of a princess—”

“You can spar.”

It’s her turn to blink in surprise. “I… I can?”

Ben thinks she could ask for just about anything and he would give it to her, if it were in his power.

For now, though, he simply nods and says, “You can.”

Her answering smile is beatific.

Rey turns out to be a lot of things Ben never expects. Not of her, not of what he imagined his future wife to be, nor of any person he’s ever met.

But what he certainly doesn’t expect is the way she looks in the tight cloth leggings and tunic that he had one of his manservants fetch for him, tied off at the waist with a sash that accentuates the subtle, alluring flare of her hips.

She’s gained weight since arriving at the palace, no longer a tanned, skinny little thing with sharp angles and protruding bones. In their place, she’s acquired healthy, rounded curves, supple and soft and lovely.

Ben stares when she slips out of their quarters that evening, eyes moving by their own volition over the new shape of her, all the way down her strong, endless legs.

“Ready?” she asks, sounding breathless, and when he looks up, her cheeks appear a little pinker than usual.

She’s pulled her hair back into three buns, a style Ben has not seen her wear before. He’s quite sure he’s never seen it on anyone, in fact, much like he’s never seen the shape of a woman’s legs unobstructed by the skirts of a gown until now.

It takes a moment to find his voice, and when he does, it sounds raspy and tightly pulled. “Yes.”

Rey fixes him with a funny look. “Lead the way, then.”

Ben guides them to the training grounds, trying his best to resist the urge to steal glances at her the whole way and failing miserably. He notes, with no small amount of satisfaction, the glint of excitement in her eyes as they go. Her steps have a bounce to them, and there’s a familiar surety to her movements that he hasn’t seen before, as if her new clothes have granted her an old comfortability.

They manage to avoid any of the servants’ prying eyes, emerging onto the training grounds just after dusk. Ben fetches two wooden quarterstaffs from the storehouse, and when he hands one to Rey her entire body seems to thrum with barely contained anticipation. Ben has to pause at the sight, suddenly lightheaded.

She is a never-ending force of life. Every day, he is a little more lost to it.

“Have you, ah—” Ben starts, stops, clears his throat. “Is there a particular fighting technique you prefer?”

“Oh.” Rey pauses, averting her eyes in a manner that could almost pass for abashed. “No, not really. I just… do what comes naturally.”

Ben nods, somewhat relieved that she won’t expect a serious fight. “Fair warning—I haven’t done this in a while, so I’ll probably be a bit rusty.”

A mischievous grin flashes across her face as she assumes a starting position. “Don’t worry, I’ll go easy on you.”

He huffs out a surprised laugh. “Cocky, are we, Princess?”

In answer, Rey suddenly lunges forward, the end of her staff just barely missing his right shoulder before he raises his own to stop it.

Ben eyes widen in shock, mere inches from hers. His heart thumps wildly against his ribcage as he takes in the near feral expression on her face.

“What was that, Your Highness?” Rey pants, warm breath fanning sweetly across his cheek.

With a jerk of his staff, Ben pushes her away despite the besetting urge to draw her closer. He swallows, taking in the tightly coiled crouch of her strong legs and the wild blaze of her eyes, lit up by the purples and blues of dusk.

Arousal punches through his gut, dizzying in its swiftness.

When their staffs come together again, Ben isn’t sure who moves first; he is only aware of the mesmerizing way in which they collide with each other as she parries all of his blows. Under the cover of darkness, each brush of their skin feels that much more charged, that much more thrilling.

In all of his time spent training and fighting, Ben can’t remember anyone keeping up with him like this, anticipating his every move and meeting him with just as much power. Where she draws it from, he has no idea, but he feels utterly compelled to find out.

He wants to know everything about her, he realizes, as Rey attempts to kick his feet out from under him with a determined grunt.

He’s never wanted to know everything about anyone.

The weight of this realization dawns on him in full-force, heavy and unexpected enough that he falters in his steps, failing to dodge her incoming attack as a result.

Rey’s staff comes to a stop at his neck, just shy of touching it, and a reckless, brilliant smile stretches across her face. Ben can’t look away.

“Afraid?” she asks, breathless and exuberant.

Ben’s heart wails in his chest.

Yes, he thinks, helplessly.

He notices when the line of Rey’s back begins to relax across the bed at night.

It’s nearly imperceptible, at first; if Ben didn’t spend the better part of his days observing her, he probably wouldn’t have even noticed. But as it stands, most days he feels as though he can do nothing but notice her.

Who would be able to resist, he wonders, once they had seen the sweet curve of her spine? Or the plush swell of her mouth? Or the soft beckoning of her nape?

Ben would like to meet such a person, if only to convince them of their unequivocal wrongness.

For now, though, he lies awake and wonders how anyone could be so close, yet so out of reach.

“You know,” his mother says to him one day, “my birthday is coming up.”

Ben snorts, flipping a page in his book. “I’m well aware. It’s basically a national holiday.”

The queen hums, sipping her tea across the table from him. “I think for my gift I’d quite like a grandchild.”

Ben sighs, ignoring how his heart lurches at the thought. “This again?”

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed how close you and Rey have become. You hardly leave each other’s sides.”

He swallows, keeping his eyes carefully trained on his reading. “It’s not like that between us.”

The words chip away at something inside of him, something he can’t name. When he chances a look up at his mother, her eyes are the softest he’s ever seen them.

“Oh, Ben.” She smiles, small and knowing. “Have you asked her that?”

He tries to write a letter, but the words won’t come. They look all wrong on paper, warped and strange in inked calligraphy, and Ben realizes with no small amount of dread that this is the sort of thing a person has to say aloud.

Trepidation makes a home in his bones; the idea of losing the fragile, unexpected relationship he has with Rey is just short of unbearable, and it only serves to emphasize just how precious she has become to him, how desperately he depends on her quick wit and warm laugh, on her kindness and her quirks.

His best and only friend.

He wouldn’t jeopardize it, if not for the incessant, burning desire that grows day by day, threatening to consume him. He trembles with it at night, lets his longing suffuse the air between them, so thick he nearly chokes on it.

He has to tell her. It feels as though he might rip in half if doesn’t.

Ben invites Rey to walk the shaded paths of the palace gardens one afternoon, preparing. He clutches a basket of jogan fruit in one hand, buzzing with anxiety as she happily chats away beside him, completely oblivious to his panic.

They stop at a gazebo that stands among a grove of Arborway trees, and Rey immediately flocks to the Plom bloom bushes around the edges. Ben steps inside and takes a seat on the bench there. He busies himself with pulling out his knife and slices into one of the jogan fruits with a trembling hand, sending a thin river of juice down to his wrist.

“Oh, you’ll stain your jacket.”

And suddenly she’s right there, invading all of his senses. She reaches out and collects the purple liquid just before it touches his sleeve, and Ben’s heart stutters in his chest as she brings her finger up to her lips and sucks.

The death of me, he thinks, weakly.

Rey grins as she pulls her finger out of her mouth with a wet pop.

“Thank you,” Ben manages, grateful when it comes out only slightly wooden.

“Of course.” She settles on the bench beside him, happily accepting the slice of fruit he offers her. “This is different,” she comments, shoving the entire piece into her mouth and speaking past it. “What made you want to have a picnic today?”

He shrugs and doesn’t meet her eyes, focusing intently on the way his knife glides through the purple and white fruit in his hand. “You haven’t seen this part of the gardens yet. Thought you might like it.”

From the corner of his eye, Ben sees how inordinately this answer pleases Rey — he knows her tells now, better than he knows himself.

“How kind of you,” she says, grinning small. Her voice drops a bit then, softening into something syrupy sweet at the edges: “You’ll spoil me if you’re not careful, Ben.”

Ben swallows hard. You deserve to be spoiled, he doesn’t say. Let me spoil you—it would be an honor.

“I hardly think this counts as spoiling,” he rasps instead, handing her another piece of fruit. He still hasn’t taken a bite for himself, doesn’t know that he’ll be able to stomach it past his nerves.

“I think so,” Rey argues quietly, gaze drifting to the Plom bloom bush that peeks over the gazebo railing. “You always do so much for me.”

Now! something inside of Ben shouts. Tell her now!

He should tell her now that he does all of it, everything, because he loves her.

Because of course he loves her. Of course, of course, of course—

He loves her so much it feels impossible to remember a time when he hadn’t. He feels as though it must have always been true, must be written into his bones, etched into the very frame of him.

She must feel it, mustn’t she? It must be so glaringly obvious, mustn’t it?

Ben can’t speak. The air around them suddenly feels full, electrifying, brimming with something he would be too afraid to disrupt with words even if he could.

Beside him, Rey sets down the piece of fruit in her hand to reach out and delicately wrap her fingers around the stem of a Plom bloom, plucking it away from the bush. She examines the ruby-colored flower for a long moment before looking up at him with a determined sort of expression on her face.

Slowly — so slow Ben feels every second pass like the aching throb of a bruise — she lifts her hand and brushes back a lock of hair from his eyes. Ben’s breath stops short in his chest, stunned, waiting, and with her lip between her teeth, Rey carefully tucks the Plom bloom behind his ear.

She stays near when she’s finished. “Looks good,” she murmurs, meeting his gaze with half-lidded eyes.

“Rey…” He has to scrape the word out of his throat, a dry, wanting thing.

I love you. Say it.

“Where did you learn how to spar?”

The words leave his mouth without permission, quiet and tremulous and all but drowned out by the pounding in his ears. He wants to kick himself, wishes he could — it has been a heavy, nudging question in the back of his mind for a while, but not one he had meant to ask here. Not now.

Rey stiffens, eyes widening, and in them Ben sees confusion turn to panic turn to defiance before her expression shutters closed. She leans away from him and the resulting distance between them feels like miles.

“I taught myself.” Rey answers in that guarded, hardened tone Ben has not heard her use since the beginning of all of this. As if daring him to push her.

And yet, he can’t help himself. The words are out, and he can’t take them back, can’t rewind and start over, can only dig himself deeper into this terrible hole.

“Rey.” He keeps his voice low, non-threatening. “I’ve trained as a knight. I’ve fought in dozens of battles. And you still bested me. You’re telling me you taught yourself how to fight like that for fun?”

Her throat bobs, the only indication of nerves amidst her stony mask. “It was dumb luck. You were distracted.”

“Why do sleep like you’re waiting for someone to attack you?”

Impossibly, she tenses up even further, and genuine fear moves across her face, quick as a flash. “What?” she breathes. “I—I don’t.”

“You do.”

“I don’t.

“Why do you eat like you’re afraid the food is going to disappear?”

Rey jerks back as if slapped, and Ben feels the ground drop out from under him because her eyes fill with tears.

“I’m trying to understand,” he rushes to say, reaching out toward her hand only for her to snatch it away before he can touch. He has to swallow past the deep pang it sends through his heart. “Where were you, Rey? Before all of this. No one knew Exegol even had a duchess. Where did they find you?”

And suddenly she’s standing on the other side of the gazebo, as far away from Ben as she can get. Anger radiates from her in waves, but her eyes are terrified, and worse — immeasurably hurt.

“Where did they find me?” she repeats, voice climbing. “How terrible my table manners must be to have disgusted you so much as to question how I could possibly belong here.”

Ben jumps to his feet, panicked. “No! No, that’s not what I meant, Rey, you know that’s not what I—I just want to understand what happened to you—”

“What happened to me?”

“—you were so thin at the start, it looked like you hadn’t eaten a proper meal in years—

Tears spill over, coursing down her cheeks in fat rivers. There is no delicacy about it, no hiding the red, angry splotches that explode onto her cheeks, and Ben has to stop because he hates himself, he hates himself.

“It seems that no part of me appeals to you, Your Highness,” Rey says stiffly. Her eyes are hard but shimmering, her whole expression appearing to be just at the edge of collapse. “I sincerely do apologize that you’ve been saddled with such an inadequate princess and wife.”

“Rey, please, that isn’t—”

“Allow me to rid you of my offending presence from here on out.”

And before Ben can get out another word, Rey picks up her skirts and runs, disappearing down the garden path.

Queen Leia’s birthday arrives, and the palace prepares for the celebration ball in her honor, as it does every year. For all intents and purposes, the world keeps turning.

Ben hardly notices.

He can’t remember the days ever being so long, so dull. Rey refuses to speak to him — refuses to even look at him. She wakes before him, eats breakfast without him, and disappears for the rest of the day, nowhere to be found. At night, she makes sure to be in bed before he gets back to their chambers, her back firmly turned to face him.

It is as if they have regressed right back to the beginning of their relationship. Ben feels the absence of her presence like a gaping wound in his chest, feels it all the time and without reprieve, a constant, throbbing ache.

He had been a coward. He had said everything except for how he felt: How she lives inside his ribcage. How she is never nearly close enough. How no one could ever compare.

The night of the ball forces them together at the doors of the Great Hall. They are to make their entrance as a couple before taking a seat at the head table beside the queen, as is traditional.

Ben stands outside the double doors, restless. He hasn’t seen Rey all day, as usual, and the inevitability of finally having her in close proximity catapults him somewhere between elation and intense anxiety, a dozen different apologies swirling through his mind.

And then she turns the corner, and all else blurs.

Rey is beautiful always, but now — now she is transcendent.

There are no adequate words to describe how Ben feels as she draws near, the gauzy folds of her cream gown trailing out behind her in fluttery waves. The bodice is covered by delicate gold flowers, beginning at her bust and trailing out into the folds of her skirt, and cut down the back to reveal lithe shoulder blades. Beneath the hall’s candlelight her skin retains an impossible shimmery quality, as if she’d bathed in pearl dust beforehand.

And Ben—

Ben is spellbound. Transfixed. Yearning. So many things, held hostage and dangling at the precipice of everything she is.

The love of his life.

“Rey,” he murmurs, overcome. His eyes don’t know where to rest, between the lush red of her lips, to her long, inky lashes, to the coral stain high atop the apples of her cheeks.

“Your Highness,” she answers, all stiff formality as she loops her arm through his, pure diplomacy even now.

The ceremonial nature of it burns, quick to the bone.

Even so, Ben’s nerve endings scream in adulation at her touch, the relief like a balm to the fierce burn of her absence, and he can’t help the way he pulls her tighter to his side, all desperate instinct. He does it so quickly she hardly has time to react or resist, and if he thinks he hears her breath catch in her throat in response, it’s probably just misplaced hope.

The doors to the Great Hall swing open.

Together, they make their way to the head table under the watchful eyes of Alderaan’s dignitaries and noble families. Ben’s heart pounds in his chest, a relentless hammer, and he wonders what he possibly could have done in a past life that he gets to have Rey on his arm now. Even if she doesn’t speak to him — even if she doesn’t look at him — he still feels like the luckiest man in the room.

Her arm slips out of his when they reach the table, and Ben feels the loss of it profoundly. He doesn’t even attempt to pry his eyes away from her as they sit, the guests and food ignored in favor of her sweet, sharp profile.

“Rey,” he says again, lowly, only half-recovered from before. “You look… beautiful.”

He almost winces as he says it, so inadequate is the word. But truly, no word would suffice — all pale in comparison to the reality of her.

Rey looks at him for the first time in days, almost surprised, scarlet mouth popping open to form a small ‘o’ as her eyes widen incrementally.

It lasts for a split second before her head snaps forward again, cheeks appearing slightly darker. “Thank you,” she says, primly.

They stay like that throughout dinner, silent amidst the music and jovial chatter. Ben feels on the edge of breaking, telling her everything, just so that she will look at him again. But he manages to hold back and maintain some pretense of decorum, even as his fingers twitch to reach out and close the small distance between them.

He makes plans to pull her aside after dinner and talk, appearances be damned, but the moment dessert finishes and guests begins to move toward the dance floor, Rey shoots up from her chair and disappears into the crowd.

Ben has to resist tugging his hands through his hair. He knows all of this is his own fault, but must she be so steadfast in her avoidance of him?

On his other side, the queen levels him with a reproachful look.

“What did you do, Benjamin?”

He grits his teeth. “I tried to talk to her, as you suggested.”

“Ah.” The queen nods sagely. “Makes sense, then.”

“Very helpful, thank you.”

She waves a hand. “You’ll fix it, I’m sure.”

Ben sighs, slumping back in defeat. “I’m not sure she’s going to let me.”

“She will.”

He raises an eyebrow. “You sound quite confident of that.”

His mother is the picture of effortless elegance as she sips her wine, gazing across the room with a faint smile on her lips.

“I am,” she answers furtively, “because I’ve seen the way she looks at you.”

It shouldn’t make his heart pound the way it does — his mother is bound to be bias, believing the best of her son. And yet, Ben can’t help the hope that blooms inside of him.

He searches Rey out amidst the party guests, frowning when he spots her at the far end of the hall speaking to Poe Dameron, the Duke of Yavin 4. She has her head tilted back in laughter at something he’s just said, and something frighteningly close to jealously shoots through Ben at the scene.

Moved more by instinct than rational thought, Ben stands and quickly makes his way through the crowd toward Rey. He’s almost there when a slender hand reaches out and catches him by the arm.

“Your Highness!”

Ben blinks, ripping his eyes away from Rey to find Gwen standing before him, grinning slyly.

“Hello, Gwen.” He nods at her, anxiously craning his neck to make sure he doesn’t lose sight of Rey. “I’m sorry, I really can’t chat—”

“But you have to spare me a dance, Ben,” she interrupts, fluttering her eyelashes. “We do it every year—it’s practically tradition!”

Ben glances around at the nearby guests, slightly annoyed. He lowers his voice. “Gwen, you really shouldn’t be forgoing my title here. People might get the wrong idea.”

“Nonsense!” Gwen laughs, squeezing his arm in her hand tighter. “Everyone knows we grew up together. You wouldn’t deny your childhood friend a dance, would you?”

He sighs and, without a believable reason to say no, finally relents. “Alright. One dance.”

She lights up in response, pulling him swiftly out onto the dance floor. Ben has never been great at dancing, but he can manage a waltz fine enough, and cradles Gwen’s hand lightly in his own as the other settles at an appropriate height on her back.

They begin to move together, and Ben’s feet switch to autopilot thanks to countless ballroom dance lessons as his eyes find Rey, who is still chatting with Poe.

“You seem distracted.”

Ben’s eyes reluctantly drift back to Gwen. He feigns nonchalance. “Do I?”

“You do.” She cocks her head to the side, and Ben watches her eyes focus somewhere behind him, in the direction Rey had been standing. “It doesn’t seem like you and the princess are getting along very well.”

Hearing it said aloud is more painful than expected, but Ben forces down any sort of reaction and schools his face into something impassive. “My marriage isn’t your concern, Gwen.”

They spin, and as they do, he briefly catches sight of Rey among the swirling colors of the party. He can’t be sure with how fast they’re moving, but he thinks she’d been looking over at him.

Gwen slides her hand up from where it rests on his shoulder to the nape of his neck, just above the velveteen collar of his tailcoat. Her fingers curl under his hair. “Well, it didn’t seem like you were doing much to hide it, to be honest. You were hardly even looking at each other earlier. Everyone noticed, you know.”

Ben frowns. “That’s not—we’re perfectly… amiable.”

Gwen laughs, tightening the fingers at his neck. “You don’t have to lie to me, Ben. Arranged marriages usually aren’t very happy ones. That doesn’t mean you can’t find... companionship, elsewhere. I imagine it must be lonely.”

At the end of the hall, Ben sees the swish of pearly fabric. His eyes move to catch it and he finds Rey by the doors, head turning away from him as she slips out of the room.

Ben stops moving at the sight, abruptly bringing them to a standstill amidst the dancing couples around them. He reaches up and takes Gwen’s hand off of his neck, brings it back to her side.

“No, Gwen,” he says, low and firm. He holds her gaze unflinchingly. “The truth of the matter is that I’ve never been happier—I’m afraid your lackluster efforts are wasted on me.”

Gwen’s expression is that of pure shock, embarrassed indignation creeping in at the edges. Ben leaves her there, striding off in the direction of the doors Rey had exited through. He hurries out of the room, panicking when he doesn’t immediately find her out in the hallway.

But he rounds the first corner and there she is, standing beneath a portrait of his father that hangs on the wall. Relief washes over him in waves, just from being near her again.

She doesn’t notice him at first, and Ben frowns when he takes in the hunch of her shoulders, the way she curves in on herself and trembles almost imperceptibly, the heels of her hands pressed into her eyes.

“Rey?” Ben calls, worry suffusing his voice as he moves toward her.

Her head snaps up and her eyes meet his for a split second, wide and wet, before she hurriedly turns her face away from him.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she begins thickly, rubbing frantically at her cheeks. “I just—I needed some air, is all. Quite stuffy in there. I think perhaps it’s—maybe hay fever? Or—”

Ben collects her in his arms before he can stop himself. “Don’t cry,” he murmurs, pressing his lips onto the crown of her head. “Please, sweetheart, don’t cry.”

To his surprise, she melts against him, twisting her fingers into his jacket and pulling herself closer.

“Shh, shh.” He cradles the back of her head tenderly, fingers threading through the dark brown locks there. She feels especially tiny like this, trembling in his arms.

A few moments pass before her cries taper off into sniffles. She starts to pull away, and Ben has to refrain from holding fast, keeping her pressed to his chest where he can feel her heartbeat just beneath his own.

“I’m sorry,” she hiccups. Her red-rimmed eyes raise to meet his and fill with fresh tears, plaintive and heartbreaking. “I’m sorry I wasn’t speaking to you, but please don’t—I can’t lose you. You’re my best friend, I can’t—I can’t bear the thought, if you found somebody else—”

She cuts herself off, breath hitching, and Ben realizes somewhat belatedly that her reaction has to do with Gwen — with him dancing with her.

And Ben really must be a terrible man, because there’s a thin thread of satisfaction that curls through him at the realization, an uncontainable hope that flares to new life in his veins.

“Rey,” he says, pulling her into him again. “You could never lose me.”

She sniffles, burrowing into his chest. “But you—”

“You have me. Always.” He squeezes her impossibly closer, desperate to make her understand. “You must know that.”

The fervency in his words is unmistakable. Slowly, Rey cranes her head back to meet his gaze with wide, unreadable eyes.

“I don’t know that,” she says softly.

Ben swallows. With a hand that nearly trembles, he reaches up and tucks a lock of hair behind her tiny ear. “Well, you do now. No one… no one could ever come close to you, Rey.”

You’ve ruined me for anyone else, he thinks.

His fingers linger behind her ear, brushing against the sensitive skin there. Rey’s eyes flutter in response and Ben watches with rapt attention, his breath shallowing.

He’s going to kiss her. He can’t bear another moment without.

“You were right,” Rey whispers suddenly, giving him pause. “About something… something happening to me, before all this.”

It takes a moment for him to process the meaning behind her words, but once he does, Ben drops his hand to her waist, confusion momentarily replacing desire. “What?”

Rey licks her lips, eyes shifting nervously. “I… I wasn’t born in Exegol.” Ben’s eyebrows shoot up by their own volition, and she hurries to add, “I am the emperor’s granddaughter, I just… didn’t know it for most of my life.”

Ben shakes his head slowly. “I don’t understand.”

She shudders out a breath, wringing the fabric of his jacket in her fingers. “I don’t know if you were aware, but my grandfather isn’t exactly a good man.”

He frowns immediately, bordering on a scowl. “Oh, I’m aware.”

Rey’s lips twitch up wryly. “Right. He can be quite... controlling. Especially with family, as I’ve learned firsthand.”

Ben’s heartbeat quickens, and he digs his fingers into her waist. “Did he hurt you?”

“Not—not physically, no,” she answers haltingly, wincing. “He was… far worse to my parents.”

“Your parents?”

Rey nods. “They weren’t supposed to be together. My mother was a servant in Exegol’s palace, and when my father fell in love with her, my grandfather expressly forbade their relationship because she didn’t come from royalty. But my father refused to marry anyone else. So they eloped, and in doing so, went directly against the Emperor’s orders—high treason in the eyes of the law.”

Ben’s head spins as he tries to make sense of her words, suddenly recalling long-forgotten rumors he had heard as a child about the Duke of Exegol who had inexplicably disappeared. Over the years, people had come up with plenty of explanations: lost at sea, dying in battle, and — yes, running away with a lover.

“They escaped to the last place they thought anyone would ever come to look for them,” Rey continues quietly. “Jakku is a wasteland of a country, after all.”

Ben blinks as her meaning registers. “You were born in Jakku,” he says, voice hollow. He pictures junk traders, criminals, deteriorating infrastructure and wailing desert for as far as the eye can see.

No one willingly lives in a place like Jakku.

Rey nods again, and there’s something unspeakably fragile woven into the planes of her face. “We hid there for years as a family. My parents thought we were safe.” She shrugs — a sad, weak jerk of her shoulders. “But my grandfather found us anyway. His men came, they killed my parents for treason against the Emperor, and that was it.”

Speechless, Ben’s hand loosens on her waist as a cold numbness settles deep into his bones. A small, morbid part of him wants to ask Did you see it? but he’s not sure he can bear the answer.

He looks at her face and thinks he already knows.

“I always wondered why they allowed me to live,” she continues with detached sort of thoughtfulness. Her eyes move over the splendor of the palace around them before meeting his again. “Now, of course, I understand. My grandfather was just waiting to see if I could ever be of use to him, and when it was time for the Prince of Alderaan to find a wife, that day finally came. My grandfather’s men came back for me, and after more than a decade of starving in Jakku—fighting for every scrap of food and safety I could get—the long-lost Duchess was returned to Exegol.”

She finishes with another weak smile, lacking any feeling, and there are no words. Ben stares down at her, lost.

“Rey,” he croaks. The backs of his eyes burn, hot and aching. "I am so sorry.”

“Don’t be,” she says, shaking her head. She brings up her hand and places it over his cheek. “I was so certain that this would be horrible. Almost all my life, I have never truly felt safe. But now…” She searches his eyes, and a wave of emotion crests in his chest, robbing him of breath. “I feel safe here, with you. And I want to thank you for that. Had it not been for our marriage, I would still be alone in Jakku’s desert, wasting away.”

Ben feels like he could break into a million pieces under the weight her hopeful, trusting gaze.

“You are safe here,” he says fiercely.

“I know,” Rey says, smiling softly. “I kept it a secret because I was afraid that if you knew you might think me unfit to be a princess. It was silly of me, maybe, but... I was afraid to lose this.”

“You could never,” Ben says thickly. “Never, Rey. You belong here.”

The smile on her face stretches wider as she gazes up at him, sweeping her thumb gently across his cheekbone.

“What a sweet husband I have,” she murmurs, eyes shining.

Yes, Ben thinks. Yours.

Many nights later, Ben wakes up to a small hand shaking him by the shoulder.


“Hm?” He hums, turning over in bed and cracking open an eye. Rey stands over him in her nightgown, eyes alight even in the dark of the room.

“It’s a full moon tonight!” she whispers excitedly.

He blinks awake, rubbing at his eyes and propping himself up onto his elbows. His brain still isn’t running at full speed, and Rey’s words seem little more than nonsense.

“Is it?” he rasps.

“The Moonflowers!” she says by way of explanation, gripping his arm tighter. “Let’s go see if we can catch them blooming!”

Ben is tired. But he is also incapable of denying Rey anything, so he pulls himself out of bed and slips on his shoes to follow her down to the conservatory.

Sure enough, through the glass panels of the ceiling, the moon glows full and bright. Rey moves quickly to the back where the Moonflower bush grows, a delighted bounce to her steps.

They stop in front of the bush just soon enough — its small, white buds poke out from their green stems, straining toward the moonlight that filters in through the ceiling.

“They’re blooming,” Ben murmurs.

It takes less than two minutes for the buds to unfurl, dotting the bush in small, pure white flowers. A sweet fragrance burst into the air around them, nearly hypnotizing, and Ben feels the warmth of Rey’s fingers brush against his knuckles before curling around his hand.

They stay like that, hand-in-hand and bathed in moonlight as the world takes on a magical quality. Ben turns his head to find Rey already looking up at him, her hazel eyes soft and open.

“Beautiful,” she whispers.

Now would be the time, Ben thinks, to bend his head down and press their lips together. To quell this thirst inside of him, finally. To taste and take and revel in fulfilled desire.

But he’s heard her trauma and her horrors. Rey had told him she feels safe here. And Ben can’t bear the thought of making her feel as if that might be conditional — can’t bear the idea of her returning his advances out of misplaced sense of indebtedness.

He can’t give her everything if he takes what he wants most, so he doesn’t; instead he squeezes her small, precious hand in his and smiles back.

“Beautiful,” he agrees.

He doesn’t mean the flowers.

Rey starts wearing thinner, silkier nightgowns to bed. Ben notices right away, of course, though he does his absolute best not to show it.

He thinks that since sharing the truth of her past, she’s gotten more comfortable. As happy as this makes him, he is slowly being torn apart by the lacy sleepwear she now favors come bedtime.

Rey comes into their quarters fresh from a bath, smelling of rose water and sugar scrub, skin soft and sweet where it’s not covered by the pale pink silk of her nightgown. Ben can see the shape of almost everything as she moves around the room, and he has to turn over and stare at the wall, fist clenched around the bedsheets as he struggles to even out his breathing.

She puts out the candles in the room and then the sheets rustle beside him, and Ben can only be thankful that their bed is large enough to prevent any part of her from brushing up against him as she settles in.

“Goodnight,” she says.

Ben swallows past his dry throat. “Goodnight.”

Blessed sleep has almost overtaken him many minutes later when he hears her soft voice come again: “Ben?”


The mattress creaks. “Are you cold?”

The question dispels some of his bleariness, and he begins to sit up. “Do you want me to add some wood to the fire? I can—”

Rey’s hand shoots out and stops him, landing on his shoulder. “No, I… that’s okay.”

Ben stills, his attention narrowed to the place where her hand burns a brand through the thin fabric of his tunic. Her thumb sweeps out, catching the end of the sleeve and drifting beneath it against his skin, and he swears her breath hitches behind him in time with his own.

“You’re warm,” she whispers.

Ben's heart pounds. Slowly, he turns over and finds her right there, a sloping, black outline in the darkness.

Without speaking, he stretches his arm out. Rey moves into it immediately, curling against his side with a low exhalation, her breath coasting out across his chest.

She’s so soft, pressed up against him from cheek to toes, the sensation of her every curve revealed by their closeness. He brings his hand up to rest on her waist, and her arm stretches across his stomach — a warm, welcome weight.

Ben sleeps better than he has in years.

”You’re extra aggressive today," pants Ben.

Rey wipes some sweat from her brow with the hand that doesn’t hold her staff and resets her stance. She jerks her shoulders up in an agitated shrug. “I’m frustrated.”

Ben can see as much. She had practically demanded that they sparred that night, and the moment they both entered their starting positions, she had leapt at him, slashing with fearsome, unrelenting blows.

“Why’s that?” Ben asks, resetting as well.

Rey doesn’t answer — instead she charges at him, a newfound vigor to her movements. He focuses on defensive blocking; she’ll tire if she keeps up this quick pace and eventually slip, opening herself up. It’s only a matter of patience on Ben’s part.

Unfortunately, his patience in regard to Rey has been running dangerously thin as of late. He is constantly strung tight with desire around her, always on the brink of snapping.

Rey kicks out her leg to trip him and he jumps, dodging it easily. He blocks her staff when it slashes at his neck, and Rey growls in her throat. She pushes herself away from him using their joined staffs as leverage, then redoubles her efforts.

Ben parries and dodges and blocks, growing slightly irritated in the process. He doesn’t understand what she’s trying to accomplish — they both know that the way she’s fighting is ineffective, all harried swipes and reckless jabs that will serve to do nothing but exhaust her.

He moves back quickly to put some space between them, frowning at her sweaty, wild expression. “Rey,” he puffs out, “what are you—”

The smack of her staff against his side cuts him off, far too hard for sparring, and Ben doubles over with a grunt. Rey doesn’t give him a second to recover from her cheap shot, moving to his side to land a penetrating blow to the back of his knees.

He falls forward, stunned and breathless on all fours. Rey appears in front of him again, preparing to strike with her approximation of a finishing blow.

Ben doesn’t give her the chance; his hand shoots out and wraps around the delicate bones of her ankle, and with one harsh tug, he pulls her down. Rey tumbles to the earth with an indignant cry, staff falling out of her hand and somewhere to their sides.

Ben moves up her body quickly, pinning her to the ground with his hips as his hands find her wrists and restrain them beside her head.

“What’s gotten into you?” he growls from above her, their faces only inches apart.

All the fight suddenly drains out of her. Her bottom lip trembles and she rolls her eyes up and away from his just as they begin to fill with tears.

“I’m sorry,” she warbles. “I didn’t mean…” She sucks in a hitched breath, eyes fluttering shut as her voice drops to a whisper: “I just can’t bear it anymore.”

Ben’s grip around her wrists loosens, and he leans back to stare down at her, an icy fear seizing him.

“What can’t you bear?” he asks, quiet.

Has he been too obvious? Too overbearing with his feelings for her? Has he made her uncomfortable, made her want to leave?

The thought pierces his heart.

No, he can fix this. Surely Ben can reign in his affections for her — he’ll do whatever it takes so long as she just stays by his side.

He opens his mouth to tell her this but is stopped short when Rey opens her eyes and he sees nothing but clear resignation in them.

“I love you,” Rey whispers, tremulous. “And I’m sorry. I’m sorry you’re stuck with me, and I’m sorry I took it out on you now. I just can’t bear being so close to you all the time, knowing you’ll never feel this way—”

“Rey.” His voice is blank, far-off. “Stop.”

Rey clamps her mouth shut below him, eyes still shining with unshed tears. The thunderous ache in Ben’s heart prompts him to release one of her wrists and cup her cheek, marveling when the small action elicits a tiny gasp from her lips.

He feels suspended in this moment, his heart reduced to a shivering, desperate creature behind his ribcage.

“You love me?” he echoes, needing to make sure that he heard correctly, that this moment is real and not just some hopeful imagining.

A small tear leaks out of the corner of her eye and slides down her temple to the ground below. “Of course,” Rey says, as if it’s the most obvious, unavoidable thing in the world. “I don’t know how anyone could know you and not love you, Ben.”

It’s nearly unendurable, the joy that explodes into Ben’s heart. There’s a moment of incredulity — doubt that he could actually be given everything he wants so simply — but then the sight of Rey’s defeated yet plainly adoring expression crowds out all other thoughts except: Finally.

Swooping down, Ben captures her mouth in a hard kiss, unable to help himself amidst the intensity of his emotion. Rey gasps in surprise, but her hands find his neck and slide into his hair with an immediacy that gives the impression she’s been imagining doing it for a long time.

Ben pulls a hairsbreadth away, “I love you,” he mumbles, brushing his lips across hers, back and forth, “I love you. I love you so much, Rey.”

Her fingers in his hair tighten. “You do?” The words waver as if she hardly dares to believe it.

“Yes,” he breathes, peppering kisses across the sweet, soft skin of her jaw, “Yes, I do. I love you. I think I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you smile.”

Rey whimpers. She tugs on his hair until he’s lifting his lips back to hers and they’re kissing again, long and deep and open-mouthed. Ben’s hand drifts down her neck, stopping at her clavicle, and Rey arches into the touch, breaths coming faster.

She pulls away, squirming and panting. “Ben, I want—”

“Anything,” he murmurs, mouthing drowsily at the column of her throat. “I’ll give you anything.”

“Touch me?”

A violent shiver courses down Ben’s body at the innocent meekness in her voice overlaid by hopeful, desperate yearning.

He exhales shakily, coasting a hand down her side. “Where do you want me to touch you, sweetheart?”

“Everywhere,” she breathes, eyes fluttering, neck straining. “Wherever you want, I just—I need—”

“The death of me,” Ben whispers, finally able to voice it, finally able to curl his fingers under the hem of her tunic and lift. Rey raises her arms for him to take off, and then she lays beneath him in just her chest wrap, gazing up at him with heavy, trusting eyes.

Ben leans down and presses a kiss just below her sternum, following the faint line of muscle down the center of her abdomen with his lips as Rey writhes beneath the attention. He stops above the waistband of her leggings and looks up to find that she’s discarded her chest wrap, laid bare and painted gold in the dying light of day.

All of the air rushes out of his lungs at once; he sits back on his haunches and stares, captivated by the sight of her small breasts, heaving and freckled and perfect.

“Gorgeous,” he breathes, and dips his head down to wrap his lips around one of her peaked nipples.

He swirls his tongue around the soft bud and sucks, saliva pooling in his mouth at the taste of her skin. Rey arches up into him, holds his head close and releases the sweetest noises he has ever heard.

Ben pulls away, replacing his mouth with his hand and admiring the way it envelops her breast completely. He drags his nose through the soft valley of her chest, breathes in deep.

“Like you were made for me,” he mumbles, gently squeezing the soft mound and taking her other nipple into his mouth.

“I was,” Rey gasps, immediate.

An urgent possessiveness curls down Ben’s spine, and he pulls away from her chest, running his hands down her sides and curling them into the waistband of her bottoms. Her legs part for him at once, and he spots a small, wet circle at the apex of her thighs.

It does something to Ben, the irrefutable proof of her desire for him — he pulls down her leggings and undergarments without any finesse, and then she’s stretched out, naked and beautiful on the cool ground.

He realizes he’s been staring too long when Rey bites on her lip self-consciously and begins to close her legs. Ben snaps back into action with a hand on her knee, holding it still.

“Don’t,” he chokes out, fingers digging into her skin. “You’re beautiful.” He pauses to swallow, shakes his head. “You’re so beautiful, Rey, I can’t believe—” He cuts himself off and tears his eyes away to meet hers, dropping his voice to a whisper: “Are you absolutely certain?”

She blinks up at him a few times, slow and syrupy, before her whole face softens into something unbearably fond. “I’m sure,” she says, and her gentle smile is the sweetest benediction. “I’ll never want anyone else.”

Among the myriad of things Ben wants to do to her in that moment, nothing feels as paramount as crawling back up her body and covering her lips with his. They kiss, unhurried and tender, until Rey tugs at the hem of his tunic, prompting Ben to shuck it off.

Their bare chests come together with a shared sigh of bliss. Ben kisses at the junction of her neck and shoulder, licks at the salty-sweet tang of sweat and brings his hand between her legs.

Rey tenses at the first few swipes of his fingers over her, and then he rubs against something that has her tilting her hips up and gasping, nails biting into the flesh of his shoulders.

“Good?” Ben says into her skin, focusing on the spot with gentle swirls.

“Yes, yes,” Rey pants, nodding rapidly, “Keep—keep—”

Ben does as he’s told, waits until she’s moaning softly before he readjusts his hand to position a finger at her entrance. He presses forward experimentally, but she’s so wet that his finger slides right in to the second knuckle.

“Oh!” she gasps, hips jerking up.


Furrowing her brow, Rey wiggles her hips in consideration. A beat passes, and then, blessedly: “Yes. Keep going, please.”

Ben huffs out a quiet laugh against her throat and begins to pump slowly. It takes longer for her to start moaning again, but there’s more urgency to the way she clutches at him when she does, and Ben chances slipping another finger alongside the first, humming in satisfaction at the way she easily stretches to accommodate him. Rey keens, and he pulls his mouth away from her shoulder to look between them at the way his fingers move in and out of the tight, wet heat of her.

His breath comes more shallowly at the sight. Spurred on by the high-pitched, needy sounds she’s making, Ben drops his head again and drags his lips across one of her breasts.

“My beautiful girl,” he murmurs, mouthing wetly at her honeyed skin. “I want to give you everything. Will you let me take care of you, sweetheart?”

“You have,” Rey gasps, moans, pushes her hips into his hand, “you do. Ben, please—”

“You’re so good,” he continues, nearing feverish, curling his fingers up and thrusting faster, “too good for me. Don’t know how I got so lucky. Rey, my heart, my love—”

With a hoarse cry, Rey tightens her hold on him, trembling violently as her walls flutter and contract around his fingers. Ben raises his head to kiss her, swallowing up her noises, and waits until she goes lax against the ground to pull his hand away.

They kiss, slowing until they’re just breathing against each other, hands wandering lazily.

Ben nudges his nose along hers after a few breathless minutes. “Good?”

Eyes fluttering open, Rey smiles up at him, indulgent and brimming with an inexorable joy. Ben feels his heart stutter, just as taken with the sight as the very first time he saw it.

With a fond glint in her eye, Rey brings her hands down between their bodies and stops them just over the ties of his pants. “More,” she whispers.

The moments that follow are a blur — hands and lips become more frantic, newly bared skin erupts into goosebumps beneath the cooling night air, and coherent thought is lost to the barrage of sensation that comes from tangled tongues and a single-minded urgency.

Ben shakes ever so slightly when he positions himself at her entrance, overwhelmed. Rey coasts her hands down his back soothingly, leans up and places a soft kiss just below his collarbone.

“I’ll go slow,” he croaks, sounding like he needs the reassurance more than she does.

“Mhm,” Rey hums, trailing her lips across his skin. “I trust you.” She sucks gently at the crook of his neck until he shudders. And then, breathed into his skin: “I want you inside me, Ben.”

Ben chokes on a breath and digs his fingers into the soft earth beside her head. His hips jerk forward involuntarily, bumping his length against her core and eliciting a soft gasp from her mouth. He brings a hand down to her hip, steadying both of them, waiting until they catch their breaths, until Rey looks up at him and nods small and shy.

He pushes forward.

The first give of her bowls him over with near-blinding pleasure — all tight, burning flesh welcoming him in like he belongs there. Ben groans, head falling down to her shoulder, and wonders hopelessly how he will survive this.

“Ben?” Rey’s voice comes to him, breathy and strained. “Ben, it’s okay. Don’t stop.”

It takes all of his willpower not to plow into her to the hilt, but somehow he manages, inching forward and focusing intently on the pattern of her breathing against his ear to ground himself.

He pauses when her breath hitches, arms trembling, waits for her nod and the encouraging squeeze she gives to his bicep before continuing.

He’s almost all the way in when Rey whimpers, nails biting down.

“Are you alright?” he asks, pinched.

“You’re—so much,” she pants, turning her head to the side and squeezing her eyes shut.

Alarmed, Ben begins to pull out, but she stops him with a quick hand just above his backside.

“No, no,” she blurts out, eyes fluttering open to meet his, half-lidded and glassy. She licks her lips, seeming momentarily at a loss for words. “It’s—I like it. I can feel—all of you.”

The tenuous hold on control Ben has maintained up to this point snaps. He buries his face into her neck and grips her hip, gradually sinking back into her with a low moan until he’s fully sheathed. Rey cries out softly, nodding, digging her fingertips into the small of his back and urging him on.

He pumps slowly, does his best to notice any signs of discomfort even as her soft heat envelops him and tries to crowd out every sensation besides the perfection of being inside her.

He can’t say exactly when it happens, but eventually the soft, stilted noises she makes turn more sensuous, and her body begins to undulate beneath him, meeting him thrust for thrust. Stars explode behind Ben’s eyes and he groans, giving her a particularly hard thrust.

“You feel—amazing,” he manages between labored breaths. “I can’t—Is it good? Does it feel good?”

“Yes, yes.” She breathes it like a prayer, moves against him desperately. “Feels so good—I—please—”

Ben swiftly pushes all the way into her, grinds his hips into hers until she’s throwing her head back with a shout.

“What is it?” he prompts, feeling half-crazed. “What do you want, sweetheart? Tell me.”

Rey wraps her arms around his neck, holds on helplessly as he moves inside her. “Want a family with you,” she whispers against his jaw, like a secret between just the two of them. “Want you to give me children. Can we, Ben? Please?”

In the end, it’s those words that are his undoing.

Ben’s climax pummels into him, mouth parted soundlessly on her throat, body shuddering. He groans as he empties into her, long and low, wracked with a near-delirious pleasure, her words still ringing sweetly in his ears.

Rey sighs when he pulls her into his arms afterward, contented, placing a gentle kiss just above his thundering heart.

“I love you,” Ben whispers, reverent.

He doesn’t have to just think it anymore.

“My mother will forever be smug about this,” Ben grumbles, several months later.

Rey laughs, his favorite sound, and rubs a hand over the slight swell of her growing belly. “I think she’s just happy she’s finally getting a grandchild.”

The woman in question — Queen Leia of Alderaan — flits about the Great Hall with a broad smile on her face, welcoming the guests who have come to celebrate the announcement of the Prince and Princess’ pregnancy.

“I still think throwing a feast is quite over the top.”

Giggling, Rey places her hand over his on the table and runs her thumb across his knuckles. “You know mother—she can never pass up the opportunity for a good party.”

Ben sighs in defeat, turning his hand over and lacing their fingers together. “As long as she’s happy, I suppose.”

“What about you?” Rey asks suddenly, lowering her voice. She tilts her head at him, smiling softly. “Are you happy, Ben?”

Her smile is breathtaking as always — Ben hopes he never gets used to it.

“I am,” he answers. He smiles back at his wife, weightless, and speaks the irrevocable truth in his heart: “More than I ever thought possible.”