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Say It With Sugar

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***

When Rey sees the ad in the paper for the first time, she can hardly believe it.

Family-Owned Chocolate Shop seeking experienced chocolatier

She’s only two years out of culinary school herself. The last few bakeries she’s worked at have had nothing to do with what she actually studied - the artistry of chocolate. It’s not like she doesn’t enjoy baking cakes, pies, and cookies around the clock but that isn’t where her passion lies. Her passion lies in chocolate. Her passion lies in what her grandfather taught her, the stories he told her of his career as a chocolatier. While she may lack years of professional experience that others have in the trade, she’s been working with chocolate since she was a little girl. She has a handle on this. She knows she does, even if her anxiety tells her otherwise most of the time.

So she takes a chance and applies for the position. Even though the chocolate shop called Say It With Sugar is across town, she takes the bus to deliver the application in person. She’s greeted by a tall blonde woman named Phasma - Phas for short - who takes her application and offers to quickly show her around the back. She’s the co-manager, apparently, but she’s more in charge of day-to-day operations than running the business side of things. That’s the owner Mr. Solo’s job, Phas explains.

“I don't normally do this,” she confides in Rey as she guides her away from the front end of the shop and past the burly cashier whose nametag reads Chewie, “But you're the first to apply so far - in person, too! - and Mr. Solo is out for a few more minutes. Business lunch.”

“He doesn’t approve of giving tours?” Rey asks, struggling to keep up with the taller woman’s longer strides.

Phas sighs. “No. This used to be run by his parents. They let school groups tour the place all the time but ever since he took over things have been more business oriented.”

Rey nods. “That’s not a bad thing.”

“No. But, uh...if I can be frank?” Phas looks over her shoulder and then back at Rey. “Things aren’t good. When his parents stepped down this place was practically bankrupt and while business has picked up slightly over the past two years, we’re still floundering. You can imagine why we’re desperate for more help.”

Rey digests this information while they continue to walk down the hallway. Phas turns a corner and pulls open a set of glass doors. Beyond is an outdated but fairly large industrial kitchen. Two workers, both of them dressed in the same black uniform, go about their work at the stainless steel tabletops. One of them is singing along to the radio. Rey follows Phas inside and she's immediately greeted by the smell of chocolate wafting through the air.

“So, this is the kitchen,” Phas offers. “We’re short-staffed right now, as you can see. We need another chocolatier to help things run more smoothly. Our head chocolatier is on medical leave and Finn has volunteered to fill in for the meantime but he’s got his work cut out for him. He’s the one over there looking stressed but still managing to sing through his problems, bless him.” Phas cups her hands around her mouth to carry her voice and bellows, “Finn, give a wave!”

A man who’s been busily piping icing over a huge tray of chocolate bonbons straightens up from his work. He waves and jogs over, wiping his hands on the front of his apron.

“Finn, this is Rey Kenobi. I’m showing her around.”

“Awesome!” He gives her a tired but genuine smile and shakes her hand. “You’re an applicant for the new chocolatier position, right? Please God, say yes. I need someone to save me. Ever since Poe broke his leg it’s been a nightmare. I feel like I’m juggling the work of ten men, not two.”

Rey smiles sympathetically. “Yeah, I am.”

“Great! I hope to see more of you around. We need someone young like you. Don’t let the boss man intimidate you when you come back for the interview, okay?”

Alarmed, Rey looks over to Phas but she just laughs. “Don’t worry. Finn is kidding.”

Finn shakes his head. “I’m really not. He can be mean at first.”

“At first?” Rey echoes.

Finn considers this. “You know what, you’re right. He’s always mean.”

“He is not, Finn, shush! Back to work.” Phas gives him a light-hearted slap on the arm and he laughs, waving both of them off as he jogs back over to his table. Phas checks her watch and her smile falters. “Uh, it’s almost twelve. Mr. Solo will be back any minute. Can I show you out?”

“No problem.” Rey follows her back to the double doors, waving to Finn again on the way out.

They make it to the front of the shop just as another man pulls open the front door and steps inside. He’s as tall as Phas but where she’s all smiles and warm welcomes, he’s nothing but intimidating. He sweeps past Chewie, Rey, and Phas without a greeting and disappears down the hallway where they’ve just come from. Rey doesn’t need to ask Phas who he is. She instinctively knows. Just like that, the anxiety that’s melted away since arriving comes back in full force. How is she supposed to survive an interview with someone like that?

“You’ll hear from us shortly. It shouldn’t take more than a couple days until we start to call in people for interviews - if anyone else applies, that is! You could be the only one!” Phas tells her with a cheery smile, holding the door open for her.

Rey nods and forces herself to smile back. “Great!”

***

The next few days are the longest of Rey’s life. She keeps her phone with her at all times and sets the ringtone to the loudest possible volume though she normally hates doing it. On the third day, just as Rey is in the middle of preparing a pathetic dinner of rice and beans, the phone rings. She lurches across the tiny kitchen to fetch her phone, knocking her elbows on the counter in the process. The number on the screen isn’t one she recognizes but she answers it, positive it’s who she thinks it is.

“Hello?”

“Rey! It’s Phas, from Say It With Sugar. You got yourself an interview!”

Rey breathes a sigh of relief. “Yeah?”

“Yeah! How’s tomorrow sound? Around noon?”

A new wave of anxiety washes over her. Crap. She’d almost forgotten about the actual interview itself. The memory of Mr. Solo - tall, clean cut, scowling - comes flooding back to her but she shuts it out at once. She can do this. It’s just an interview, and she doesn’t even know the guy. She hasn’t even met him yet! Clearing her throat, she answers, “Absolutely! Yes. You got it. I’ll be there.”

“Great. I’ll let you go. Have a good night and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The call ends and Rey slumps down to the kitchen floor. Her orange tabby Bebe brushes against her leg then jumps up onto the counter, eager to eat the sad little meal she no longer has any interest in.

The next day, Rey is ready two hours before she actually has to catch the bus. She’s showered, styled her hair three different ways before deciding on a simple bun, and borrowed a skirt, blouse, and shoes from her neighbor Jess. The pantsuit she wore the first time is the only nice outfit she’s got and she can’t wear it again, not if she’s going back to the same place. She has to make a good impression. This is the first interview she’s had for a chocolatier since she’s graduated - not just a pastry chef, but an actual chocolatier. She cannot screw this up. She cannot.

The bus ride over is longer than it should be and cramped but it gives Rey time to think. She keeps her eyes trained on the seat in front of her, resolute as she goes over interview scenarios in her head. She comes up with an answer for every hard hitting question Mr. Solo could possibly ask.

Phas is waiting for her when she walks through the front door and her friendly smile gives Rey a much-needed boost of confidence. “Rey, hello! You’re a few minutes early but that’s great - I’m sure he’s ready to get the ball rolling. Come with me.”

Rey gives Chewie the cashier a hesitant wave as she passes him which he returns with a phrase she’s pretty sure is Russian. She follows Phas down the now-familiar back hallway, the heels of her borrowed shoes clacking against the linoleum flooring. The kitchen is as busy as it was before but Finn isn’t cracking jokes or singing songs this time. It’s no wonder why; Mr. Solo is observing his work, murmuring something to him with a shake of his head.

Phasma approaches the pair of them and clears her throat. “Hey, Ben? This is the first applicant for the position.”

Mr. Solo turns around and appraises Rey. She immediately feels unsettled by his intense stare, the way his too-large mouth puckers in apparent distaste for what he must find lacking. He motions to his office with a jerk of his head. “This way.” He clomps off, not waiting for her to follow.

Rey looks to Phas helplessly. The blonde woman offers an encouraging nod of support. Behind her, Finn gives a thumbs up. “Good luck!” they both chime.

Rey swallows nervously and turns on her heel, following Mr. Solo. She can do this. She can do this! She’s a capable chocolatier. This interview is nothing to be afraid of. She steps inside the office and takes a brief glance around, feeling herself relax a tiny bit more. The room is surprisingly homey. Bookshelves take up the entirety of one wall. A cozy looking armchair is pushed into a corner and beside it stands a reading lamp. It’s a nice space, this office. It’s at odds with the man standing a few feet from her, in the same way that the cutesy name of the shop is too.

“Have a seat,” he tells her.

She scurries to the less-comfortable looking swivel chair he’s pointing to, across from the one behind his desk. He waits until she’s seated then does the same.

“Do you have experience in the field?” he asks brusquely, slipping on a pair of glasses.

Rey pulls her resume from its folder in her bag and hands it to him, attempting a nervous smile that he does not return. “Uh, just a few years professionally, but yes.”

He gives the resume a cursory glance then leans back in his seat, giving her a critical look. “Because chocolate is a unique product, you understand. People think of it as a sweet candy but it’s more complicated than that, it’s set apart from other sweets because--”

The phone on his desk rings, interrupting his train of thought. He glances at it, then back at her, then back at the phone. The ringing fills the room, cutting through the silence but making it all the more uncomfortable, somehow.

Rey smiles, gesturing to the phone. “Please, go ahead.”

He lets it ring some more. His eyes are now fixed on her. Rey notices that the tips of his ears have gone red. When the incessant ringing continues for another round he lurches forward and picks up the handset then slams it back down. Rey jumps in her seat, letting out a small gasp of surprise.

He leans back in his seat again, spares her with the same unsettling look. Rey nervously bites the insides of her cheek. When it becomes apparent that he’s not going to pick up where he left off in the conversation she prompts, “It’s the bitterness, right?”

He blinks at her. “What?”

“The - the bitterness. Of chocolate. The varying degrees of bitterness. That’s what sets it apart, makes it such a unique product.”

He’s silent for a moment, then gives a terse nod. “You’re very knowledgeable about the subject.”

She swallows. “I try to be.”

He stands from his seat and comes around to her side of the desk, clasping his hands behind his back. He’s so tall that Rey has to strain her neck to look at him. “I couldn’t have said it better myself,” he murmurs quietly.

Rey doesn’t know what to say to that. She wrings her hands in her lap, offering him another small smile.

“Do you like it? Chocolate?” he asks abruptly.

Rey blinks. “Of course.”

“No, I mean, do you really like it? Truly?” he presses.

She wets her bottom lip, tears her gaze away from his. “Yes. I love it,” she says softly. “I’ve always loved it, even when I was little. You have to love it, I think, if you’re a chocolate maker. Because really, what kind of chocolate maker can you be if you just like chocolate instead of absolutely love it?”

He stands there for another moment, as though he’s processing what she’s just said. Then he springs into action and goes to the door, wrenching it open for her. “That will be all. Thank you, Miss Kenobi.”

Rey scrambles to her feet, pulling at the hem of her borrowed skirt. “Oh. Um. Thank you.”

She moves past him, trying to keep her expression neutral. That was, without a doubt, the shortest interview she's ever had. She knows she doesn't have as many years of experience as the other candidates probably do but honestly, would it have hurt him to ask her a few more relevant questions? Something besides whether she likes chocolate? What kind of interview question was that, anyway? “Do you, um...need anything else from me?” she asks him lamely.

He stares at her, hard, then looks away again. “No. That’ll be all. If you would return to the front-end, I’m sure Phasma will be with you shortly.”

“Okay. Well.” Rey forces herself to hold out her hand for him to shake. “Thank you for your time.” She can feel how sweaty her palms are, but she has to do this. Handshakes are a definite must where interviews are concerned, at least that's what she's always been told.

He shakes her hand once. It's more of a jerk than a proper shake. Then he lets go and wipes his hand on his pant leg, of all things. As if Rey needed to feel any more mortified than she already is.

Without another look back, she hurries to the front of the building, not even stopping to chat with Finn when he waves her over with a smile.

***

“Phasma, a word?”

Phasma looks up from her computer, blonde eyebrows raised. “Wow, that was quick!”

Ben sighs. “She’s the one. Miss Kenobi.”

“You’ve got three more interviews scheduled today, Ben.”

He huffs out a small irritated breath. “Yes, I know. But I've made a decision. File the paperwork. She starts tomorrow.”

Phasma’s brows reach even higher but she gives him a mock salute. “You know best. What do I tell the other applicants? The next one is due to arrive in thirty minutes, and the one after that is--”

“Tell them we’re sorry for the inconvenience but we’ve found an exemplary chocolatier for the position already.”

“O-kay. Will do. Anything else?” Phasma sighs. He knows she hates to be the bearer of bad news, but Ben will be damned if he has to talk to three other strangers today only to tell them he’s not going to hire them. Speaking of talking to strangers...

“I’ve sent Miss Kenobi to the front. Bring her back again and tell her congratulations, would you? Then introduce her to the staff. Show her around the kitchen if you haven’t already. I've got too much to do.” A lie, of course, but he doesn't think he can handle interacting with her again so soon. Just the thought of how...how stupid he acted makes him sweat. Honestly, asking her if she liked chocolate? What the hell?

Once Phasma's gone to the front of the shop he makes his way back to his office and closes the door behind him, sucking in a calming breath. Then he lowers the blinds to all the windows overlooking his meager staff. He shuts out the sight of an uncertain Miss Kenobi trailing after Phasma into the kitchen again. She won't look so uncertain in a few seconds when she hears the news that she’s been hired, but he refuses to lurk from a distance and watch that toothy smile - the one he's already committed to memory -  light up her face like a goddamn Christmas tree.

Loosening his tie to let his hot neck get some much needed air, he scrambles to his desk to pick up the phone. Breathing deeply, trying to center himself, he punches in the number for his therapist.

***

“I hired a new employee today.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. But the um...the phone rang. During the interview.”

His therapist Dr. Hux stares at him. Ben rushes to explain himself. “I don’t like the phone in my office. It’s ancient. Doesn’t have caller ID. I don’t like not knowing who’s calling. Then again, I don’t like my cell either. Seeing a name pop up on the screen…” He takes a shuddering breath and then lets it out, shrugging the tension off his shoulders. “I just don’t like the phone, period. Or phone calls. They make me nervous.”

Hux knows this about him already; he gives a disinterested hum as he looks down at his notes, then back up at Ben. “So...the new employee?”

“What about her?”

“Oh, so she’s a woman.”

“What does that matter?”

“You have a problem with women, Ben.”

Ben huffs out a breath and mumbles, “I don’t have a problem with them, per se. They just terrify me, is all.”

“Can you speak up?”

“I said they - they terrify me.”

Hux scribbles something down, nodding to himself. “But what about your associate? Phasma, right?”

“That’s different. She’s like family.”

“Alright. So, generally speaking, what don’t you like about women?”

Ben shakes his head irritably. “What? No. I love women. I love their smiles, their hair. Their conversation. How they laugh. They way their eyes shine.” Uncomfortable with the amount he’s shared, he lapses into silence. But that is the point of these therapy sessions, is it not? To share the parts of himself that he’s uncomfortable with? Ben sighs in resignation, raking an unsteady hand through his hair.

“Ever been in a relationship, Ben?” Hux prods.

Warning bells go off in his head - this is a trap somehow, it has to be - but he forces himself to choke out, “No. Never.”

“But wouldn’t you like to fall in love, though? With a particular woman? Get to know her? Marry her, start a family? You’re young, healthy. You're in your thirties. You run a business.”

“A failing business,” Ben mutters.

Hux pauses, gives him a tight smile. “Still. Seems like the prime time to start looking, don’t you think?

Even if he wanted to respond, Ben has no idea how to. It’s true he wants all of that for himself. He wants a relationship, wants someone to navigate the rest of his life with. He knows for a fact his parents want the same thing for him, too. But how the hell is he supposed to find someone if he’s so damn shy all of the time?

Perhaps sensing his thoughts, Hux sighs and caps his pen, setting it atop his notebook. “I have some homework for you. Or you can think of it as an exercise, if you’d rather do that.”

Ben nods warily. “Okay.”

“Ask someone out.”

“Ask someone?” he echoes, his mind blanking.

Hux nods. “To go out. On a date. Not just a friendly outing. A date. To have dinner, to go see a movie. Or both. It doesn’t matter.”

Shit. Shit shit shit. He can’t do this. What good has ever come of asking someone out? His mind readily supplies him with a flashback to twelfth grade, when he somehow mustered the courage to ask that girl from his French class to prom. Melissa. To this day he still doesn’t know why he bothered. She’d laughed at him before he even finished the question.

“Ben? Can you do that?”

Ben nods back, plastering on a fake smile. “Ask someone out. Sure.” All the while, he’s already coming up with excuses for next week’s session as to why he never got around to doing this so-called homework. Because he doesn't ask people out on dates. He hasn’t since high school, and he never will again. At least, that's what he keeps repeatedly muttering to himself on the drive home.