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lilies of the valley (cover me with kisses, make my garden grow)

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The flower shop on the corner of Wesessa and Abelard was a classy little establishment, with a black storefront, a discreet typeface over the entrance that read, TANTIVE. Est. 2014, and a three-panel glass window boasting an avant-garde display of red camellias, purple hollyhock, and white Kentucky starwort arranged on folds of pale gold crepe de chine. It looked expensive— it was expensive, according to the online brochure, definitely the sort of place that Rey would have been kicked out of back when she was still that grubby waif bouncing from one foster home to the next, and she couldn't help the current of nervous dread that fluttered in the pit of her stomach as she backed her motorcycle onto the curb. Funny how the past could stick around, dragging behind you like a shadow that occasionally loomed over your shoulder to insist that you had no right to eat at fancy restaurants or browse the designer racks or, say, purchase flowers at a store where some bouquets went for hundreds of dollars a pop.

 

You're not that girl anymore. You're a very mature nineteen-year-old engineering major with a grandmother who loves you and just gave you birthday money to burn, Rey told herself firmly, tugging off her helmet once her boots hit the concrete. Strands of brown hair spilled down the sides of her face, dislodged from the three buns that she'd gained a certain notoriety for on campus— as in, "You know Rey?—" "No—" "The British chick with the tattoos and the three buns?—" "Oh! Yeah..." Never mind that she'd been an American citizen for four years and counting; her accent refused to go away and, thus, to her fellow students at Alderaan University, she was the British chick.

 

Glass chimes hummed mellifluous silvery notes as she stepped over the threshold. Tantive's airy, well-lit interiors were composed of polished mahogany floors, matte black shelves, and accent pieces wrought in antique brass— dark colors and strong lines that provided a beautifully sharp contrast to the froth and riot of blossoms that had the run of the place. On any other day, Rey would have stopped to admire the assortment of pre-made bouquets wrapped in satin and twine and the exotic petals sprouting from translucent vases like still-life paintings, but she was here on a mission and so she made a beeline for the man seated behind the cash register.

 

"I've got fifty dollars," she announced without preamble, slapping half of her treasured birthday money on the counter's glossy wooden surface. "How do I say fuck you in flower?"

 

The proprietor— at least, she assumed he was the proprietor, she doubted a lowly assistant would be wearing the latest charcoal jacquard knit from Emporio Armani that she'd, coincidentally, seen an ad for while browsing local flower shops— looked up from the Moleskine he was scribbling in. He was surprisingly, strikingly attractive, his face a study of contrasts just like the flower shop— soft brown eyes and patrician nose, plush lips and strong jaw, pale complexion and dark hair disheveled in a manner that looked too good to not be deliberate. Rey had to suppress the ridiculous urge to pat down her own bad case of helmet hair.

 

He cocked his head, regarding her with faint, unsmiling amusement. She didn't know whether to feel relieved or regretful that her brown leather jacket covered up her tattoos— she didn't actually want him to think he was about to get robbed at gunpoint, as that lay contrary to her purpose, but she did so cherish shaking up the snooty set's world.

 

"I've exhausted my supply of philadelphus for the month," he drawled at last, in a rich, deep voice that unexpectedly sent a shiver down her spine, "but I do have some digitalis and glycyrrhiza coming along nicely. How severe is the fuck you that you wish to levy upon your erstwhile recipient?"

 

Rey stared at him blankly for a few seconds as her brain translated his words to, like, English that normal humans spoke. "He's my differential equations professor and he failed me on the first quiz of the spring semester," she finally replied, her gloved hands clenching into fists as she once again relived the absolute unfairness of it all, "because, apparently, my essay on dynamical systems wasn't holistic enough— what does that even mean, and who the hell assigns essays instead of proofs, God, this is why I loathe theoreticians—"

 

"Digitalis it is, then," the florist wisely interrupted before Rey could self-combust from sheer anger. He got to his feet and she swallowed as her chin tilted upwards to keep looking him in the eye. He was extremely tall— and fit, too, judging from how the sweater clung to his broad shoulders before tapering down a long, solidly-built torso and lean, narrow hips. "I'll be right back."

 

He disappeared out the rear door of the shop, which Rey knew from previous excursions in this neighborhood led to a small greenhouse hidden behind the cafes and boutiques of Wesessa Street. Her fingers drummed a haphazard rhythm on the counter as she waited, her gaze wandering idly to a nearby display cabinet lined with floral arrangements that looked more like elegant little statues in their precision— azaleas, irises, calla lilies, dogwood, rosemary, and acacia slanted out from shallow ceramic containers, their stems and branches carefully pruned into asymmetric silhouettes. Rey could have studied them all day, and she probably would have if Mr. Tall, Dark, and Bourgeois hadn't come stomping back in with a bunch of foxgloves in hand.

 

"My moribana shelf," he explained, following her line of sight. "It's one of the classic expressions of ikebana, which plays with the ideas of space, minimalism, balance..." He trailed off, somewhat self-consciously, and before she could assure him that she was interested, that she would like to hear more, he'd walked over to an empty table and started assembling her request. He worked quickly and quietly, brow furrowed in concentration, and what he presented her with in the end looked way too pretty to be a passive-aggressive fuck-you bouquet. Sprays of lavender foxgloves and orange lilies jutted out from a bed of almond leaves and meadowsweet, nestled in Tantive's trademark black satin wrap.

 

"Whom should I make it out to?" the florist asked, plucking a card from the stack behind the counter.

 

"Professor Luke Skywalker," Rey promptly supplied. "From Rey Niima."

 

He blinked, and then those sensual lips of his widened into a smirk that could only be described as pure evil. He wrote down her name and Luke's with a calligraphic flourish, attached the card to the bouquet, and handed the entire magnificent creation over to her, along with her money.


"It's on the house," he explained, sounding almost cheerful. The effect was unsettling on such a dour-faced man. "My own special treat for first-time customers."

 

"Thanks," Rey said.

 

"No," he replied with feeling, his smirk looking like it was mere centimeters from becoming a full-fledged, manic grin, "thank you."

 

Rey shook her head as she left the shop. Why did the hot ones always turn out to be so goddamned weird?

 

*

 

She returned to Tantive the following afternoon with murder in her eyes. The absolute bastard was trimming the stems on some burgundy roses, and he didn't look at all surprised to see her again.

 

"You lied to me," she growled, crossing her arms in front of her chest and glaring at him as best as you could glare at someone who towered over you by a good several inches.

 

"Technically, I didn't state for the record that I wasn't related to him."

 

"That's lying by omission," she retorted, "Ben." The echoes of Luke's laughter still rang in her ears— rusty, creaky chuckles filling his cluttered office the moment she handed the bouquet over to him and he caught sight of the shop's logo on the card. "He called you his naughty nephew."

 

Ben scowled. "He is, as your people would say, a prat."

 

"I'm an American citizen," she haughtily informed him, more out of a desire to be contrary than anything else.

 

"Interesting. Which particular region of America is that accent from?"

 

"If you must know, my maternal grandmother lives in Connecticut. She found me floating around England's foster care system when I was fifteen." Rey normally didn't like sharing the messier details of her past, but she wanted to trip him up. She waited with bated breath for the inevitable stammering apology or the hollow sympathetic noises, upon which she'd march out of the shop with her head held high, triumphant at having gotten the last word.

 

Ben put down the rose and the stem cutter he was holding, trailing one finger along the serrated margin of one dark green leaf. "And here I thought—" he gestured vaguely with his other hand at the London Calling album art screen-printed on her white shirt— "that you were just a really, really big fan of The Clash."

 

Rey gaped at him, at the tense set of his shoulders, the slight flush creeping up one side of his pale neck, the funny little twist at the corner of his mouth. It was as if he'd realized it was a bad joke as soon as he said it and was now bracing for the fallout.

 

She giggled.

 

He relaxed. He spritzed alcohol onto his grass-stained palm and then wiped with a cloth before sticking his hand out to her. "Shall we introduce ourselves properly this time? I'm Ben Solo."

 

She peeled off one of her biker gloves and shook his hand. "Rey."

 

The moment their bare fingers touched, an electric shock passed through her system, the warmth of his skin oddly thrilling against hers. She let go of his hand after what felt like too short a time and said, more reluctantly than she cared to admit, "I actually have to go— my flatmates are waiting for me back home. But I'm still mad at you."

 

"I know," Ben gravely replied. "Give me a few minutes—"

 

She did, watching with some amusement as he tore about the shop like a whirlwind, plucking flowers from pots and vases here and there. "A traditional Victorian nosegay would be composed of fragrant herbs surrounding a central blossom," he said, holding the finished product out to her with both hands, "but this is the best I can do within the alloted time. I hope it's suitable as a peace offering."

 

Rey took the bouquet from him— pale pink amaryllis, snowy glacier buttercups with a golden center, and leafy sprigs of maroon-flowered spindle tree, all bundled together with a bit of silver ribbon— and smiled as she breathed in the sweet, delicate scent. "It's suitable."

 

*

 

"Ben Solo?" Finn nearly spat out his mouthful of Jawa Beer. "Ben freaking Solo gave you flowers?"

 

"You say that as if it's the end of the world," Rey told him primly, settling back into one of the paisley beanbag chairs scattered throughout the living room.

 

"It kind of is," said Rose, pausing in the act of opening the box of pizza on the coffee table. "He's Mayor Organa's son— different last names because his parents got divorced years ago—"

 

"— And he's a legendary jackass," Finn had no qualms about adding. "My friend Slip worked at Tantive a couple of summers back and quit after two weeks. He's just so unpleasant."

 

"I can believe that," Rey muttered. "Wait, so this means that Professor Skywalker is Mayor Organa's brother? Why does no one tell me these things?"

 

"We thought you already knew." Rose shrugged. "I mean, everyone knows."

 

"I just moved here last fall!" Rey exclaimed. "Clearly, you've both failed in your duty as roommates."

 

"Right, because that was on our Craigslist ad," Finn retorted, dark eyes sparkling with humor. "'We solemnly swear to keep our new roommate updated on the Skywalker family drama.' I didn't even know Luke was your professor until you complained about your grade a few days ago."

 

"This can't go on," Rose sighed. "You need to start hanging out with us more often, Rey."

 

"I will," Rey promised with a small laugh. The truth was, she wasn't used to having friends, and she'd spent the previous semester adjusting and studying and missing Connecticut. But maybe things could be different now.

 

She frowned down at the hand that she'd extended to Ben, because there had definitely been some sort of spark. His narrow, expressive face had taken on an abruptly closed-off look, enough for her to suspect that he might have felt it, too, and it was something she was theoretically interested in pursuing. "Is Ben Solo seeing anyone, then?"

 

Finn and Rose booed her. Loudly.

 

*

 

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Rey worked the morning shift at Maz's Cantina, a grungy little diner on Takodana Lane, before speeding off to class. It was a Wednesday and she was scrubbing coffee stains off one of the tables when there was a shift in light from the main doors being pushed open, followed by a gruff, tobacco-stained voice saying, "Don't know why you're complaining. I love it here. They serve real, sticks-to-your-ribs food, not those— what d'you call them— those microgreens and all that crap."

Deep, younger-sounding, and all too familiar tones mumbled something petulant in response. Rey looked around. Ben was squeezing his overly broad, six-foot-two frame into a window booth across from a gray-haired man in a beat-up leather jacket— his father, probably, judging from their identical scowls, although Ben's was quick to dissipate when he noticed Rey's approach.

 

"You're here," he said dumbly, causing his companion to also blink up at her.

 

"Yeah. Small world." Rey whipped out a notepad, feeling shy for some reason. The flowers he'd given her last week were in a vase on her windowsill. "What can I get you?"

 

"Wait, you two know each other?" The older man's gaze darted from her to Ben, his weathered features slowly breaking out into a wide grin. "How—"

 

"It's not like that, Dad," Ben snapped. To Rey, he said in a softer tone, "I'll have a coffee, black, please."

 

"Nonsense, you're eating something, it's my treat," the older man protested. He glanced at Rey's nametag and said, "Rey, make that two coffees, and my son will have the steak-and-eggs— medium rare on the steak, well-done on the fried eggs, he hates the goopy yellow stuff—"

 

"Dad," Ben groaned, looking like he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole.

 

"And I will have Maz's famous pancakes and some extra-crunchy bacon on the side."

 

"Your cholesterol—" Ben started to argue, but his father waved him off before suddenly sticking the same hand out to Rey.

 

"I'm Han," he said. "This punk mention me at all?"

 

"He hasn't had the chance to. We only met last week." She shook the proffered hand and flashed her best customer-service smile in their general direction— she had no idea, really, why she was suddenly too bashful to look at Ben. "I'll be right back with your orders."

 

*

 

Han left a generous tip and bolted out the door with a cheeky, "I'll give you two kids some time to catch up." In his wake, Ben stood as well, staring more at his feet than at Rey.

 

"I'd appreciate it if you could excuse my father's behavior," he said stiffly. "I believe he's going senile. Or he's desperate for grandchildren—" He paused, fists clenched at his sides like he wanted to smack himself upside the head. "That's probably too much information."

 

"It's fine," Rey said. At some point during breakfast he'd started running his fingers through his hair out of frustration and his ears were now peeking out. They were large ears, flushed an embarrassed shade of red, and it was both amusing and cute.

 

"Well—" Ben nodded toward the door. "I'd better head out before he finds some other unsuspecting woman to accuse of being my girlfriend."

 

"Sure. See you around." Rey started clearing the table. Just as it occurred to her that he was taking a bit too long to leave, he walked away.

 

It wasn't long before she spied a wallet lodged in a crack on the vinyl where Han had been sitting. She grabbed it and chased Ben out onto the sidewalk— he turned around and, for a split second, looked incredibly happy that she was there. He didn't smile, exactly, but there was a certain lightening to his pale features that made her heart— kind of?— skip a beat.

 

"I think this must've fallen out of your dad's pocket." Shit, why did she sound so breathless?

 

Ben shook his head, taking the wallet. "Going senile," he repeated, more to himself than to her. Behind him, Han waved at her from the driver's seat of a vintage gray Corellian Engineering SUV.

 

"That's a YT-1300, isn't it?" Rey gushed, too pleasantly surprised to continue being a socially awkward mess. "That's a Falcon— an actual Falcon!"

 

"It's a piece of junk," Ben said dismissively, but he was giving her an odd, indecipherable look. He turned to his father, who started making impatient motions with his hands, like he was shooing Ben further into Rey's orbit.

 

Ben exhaled— Rey watched those big shoulders shift with the movement— and then spun on his heel again, his hands tucked into the pockets of his black coat. "Do me a favor," he mumbled. "It's nothing huge, but..." He paused until a decent amount of time had gone by. "Okay, now shake your head."

 

She complied, hopelessly bewildered.

 

"Great. Thank you." He flashed her a tight-lipped half-smile. "Should he come through here again and bother you about it, just tell him you weren't interested in me."

 

By the time Rey put two and two together, the Falcon had already peeled out onto the street and driven away.

 

*

 

She let it stew for, like, a week. She wasn't sure what she felt, exactly, and so she spent some time parsing the situation in her head, breaking it down into more manageable bits and pieces and coming up with all sorts of pros and cons that basically boiled down to: Pro— a man could get it. Con— a man is bad news. But Rey had always had an impulsive streak, which was why she found herself parking her motorcycle outside Tantive on the way home from school one afternoon.

 

Ben was working on a floral arrangement when she stormed inside. "This is becoming a habit," he remarked without looking up from the pile of yellow lilies, indigo flax, and pink Syrian mallows spread out before him, as if he were in the middle of making the most difficult choice of his life. "You walking into my shop, about to give me hell—"

 

Rey ignored this pathetically obvious attempt at diversion. "You made your dad think you asked me out and I said no."

 

"He would never have desisted otherwise."

 

"Well, I— I would've liked to be given the option of actually saying no!" Rey sputtered. "I might have even said yes if you'd done it for real. Theoretically."

 

Ben inhaled sharply. He looked conflicted, his hands trembling as he selected three yellow lilies and placed them in a cylindrical glass container. "I didn't want to ask for real." Strange how such a quiet voice could issue such blunt words, each syllable like an icepick to the heart. "I'm not interested in you in that way." He still wouldn't look at her, concentrating on the surgical task of surrounding the lilies with sprigs of blue viper's bugloss and acid-green dogbane leaves. "I apologize if I gave off any signals to the contrary." He peppered the arrangement with white cherry twigs. "That was not my intention."

 

"No need to apologize." Rey's brisk, falsely bright tones sounded like they were coming from a very long way off, even to her own ears. "It's all my fault for assuming. Sorry about that. I won't bother you again."

 

It was only her pride that stops her from fleeing out the door with her metaphorical tail tucked between her legs. Actually, her exit was very dignified, all things considered, even if her brain had to yell at her to slowly put one foot in front of the other. It's okay, she told herself. Everyone gets rejected at some point. It's simply one of the hazards of the dating scene. She'd watched one too many rom-coms, that was the problem— she'd thought a dramatic confrontation in a flower shop would result in her getting what she wanted. Real life didn't work like that.

 

*

 

Four days later, a boy in Rey's English class asked her out. His name was Seff and he had sandy hair, green eyes, and a nice smile. He was also wearing a Ramones shirt. It was so easy to say yes.

 

Seff took her to dinner at a cozy Italian restaurant and then to a party that his older brother was throwing at their parents' house in Belsavis, the kind of swanky neighborhood that Rey would have gleefully helped Rose torch if the opportunity ever came up. She got drunk enough to need a walk to clear her head, and Seff gallantly accompanied her to the twenty-four-hour deli on the corner, where they got beebleberry ice cream and, afterwards, made out against the lamppost.

 

Usually, Rey didn't like to kiss on the first date— she suspected she was a bit of a prude compared to her peers in this regard— but Seff was cute and her wounded ego cried out for soothing. People have kissed other people for less, haven't they? It was a drunken fumble of tongues and teeth, his hands slipping beneath her cropped leather jacket, and it wasn't nice, exactly, but it was what she needed right now.

 

In his eagerness, Seff pushed forward a bit too far and the back of Rey's head thumped against the lamppost. Her eyes flew open and he looked so shocked and contrite that she started laughing.

 

"Shit, sorry," he said, laughing as well after a while.

 

Rey opened her mouth to assure him that no harm had been done, and that was when she noticed that they weren't alone. Ben Solo was staring at them, in a hoodie and sweatpants, hair sticking up at odd angles like he'd just rolled out of bed, an empty reusable bag from the deli dangling on his arm. His dark eyes were wide amidst the inky shadows, in the yellow sodium glare of the streetlights, something like pain written all over his angular face.

 

Rey didn't know why, but she extricated herself from Seff as if she'd been caught red-handed while committing some minor felony. "Hi!" she bleated, her voice too loud, too cheerful.

 

Ben didn't respond. Instead, he turned around and went back the way he came. Perplexed, Rey watched him disappear around the corner, into the night.

 

*

 

Valentine's Day that year fell on a Saturday, barely a month later, and Rey spent the morning alone in the three-bedroom apartment on Crait Street. Finn's boyfriend Poe had whisked him away to a camping trip in the mountains and Rose was visiting her sister Paige in New York. Seff was... wherever, they hadn't made any plans and Rey was okay with that. They'd only gone on a couple more dates so far and it would have been weird to spend Valentine's together.

 

Not that Rey was particularly invested— she mostly agreed with Rose that it was a commercially manufactured holiday designed to capitalize off of society's preoccupation with the concept of romance. But she did like flowers, and so she grinned when the doorbell rang and she saw a colorful bouquet through the peephole, so massive that it obscured the delivery man's face.

 

Rey threw open the door, practically hopping in excitement. She was quick to still, however, her smile fading, when the delivery man lowered the bouquet and held it out to her.

 

"Flowers from Seff Hellin," Ben announced in the most ludicrously bored tone of voice, "for Rey Niima."

 

"You make your own deliveries?" was all Rey could manage to say. "That's... enterprising."

 

"It's Valentine's. We're short-staffed," Ben explained with a shrug. His black cardigan looked like it was made from real cashmere and, God, she wished she weren't standing there in knee socks and a ratty green, over-sized Dead Kennedys sweater that's slipping off one shoulder.

 

She took the bouquet from him. It was a beautiful arrangement of vivid crimson tulips, delicate peach blossoms, and toothy yellow tickseed, filled in with milk vetch and a backdrop of cedar leaves. It didn't seem like the kind of thing Seff would pick out, but maybe she should give him a little more credit.

 

After she'd affixed her signature to the clipboard Ben was carrying around, he offered her a terse nod and then made to leave.

 

And stopped.

 

Rey clutched the flowers to her chest, staring up wide-eyed at Ben's sharp profile. His jaw was clenched, his mouth drawn into a sullen line as if he were waging some sort of deeply tormented internal battle with himself. After several long moments, he turned to face her head-on, the hand that wasn't holding the clipboard balled into a fist. "Would you take my advice?" He didn't give her much choice in the matter, though, plunging forward before she could respond. "A relationship means giving a damn what your partner likes. This Hellin guy, he doesn't even know what your favorite color is. He just ordered— and I quote— 'something flashy and impressive, with lots of red.' You deserve more than that."

 

Suddenly unable to meet the intensity in Ben's dark eyes, Rey dropped her gaze to the bouquet, to the little rivers of tickweed scattered amidst the more expensive flowers. "How did you know I like yellow?" she asked quietly.

 

"The third time you came to the shop..." He hesitated as she winced at the memory, his own expression oddly haunted. "You looked at the lilies first. That's how I knew."

 

He was confessing to something, she was sure of it, but she'd already been burned once by him and it wasn't an experience she was willing to repeat. "What do you care who I date, anyway?" she scoffed. "It's not like you're interested in me. You said so yourself."

 

Ben leaned down and kissed her. It was quick and desperate and her eyes fluttered shut of their own volition— only to open again seconds later when he stepped back.

 

"I asked you," Rey snarled, suddenly incensed. She'd felt more sparks from that fleeting brush of lips than when any other boy had shoved his tongue down her throat. "I put myself out there and you said—"

 

"I know what I said," Ben interrupted. He had the nerve to sound angry, too, the jerk. "In case you haven't noticed, I don't exactly have the most amicable relationship with my family. Uncle Luke is one thing, but my father— I'm always left in this... sort of messed-up headspace every time he visits, and I'm not very good with people even on the best of days. You came on a bit strong. I panicked, all right? My brain sometimes does this thing where it—" He made a frustrated, ambiguous gesture with his free hand— "envisions all the worst possible outcomes of any given situation. But the connection I felt the moment our fingers touched— nothing like that has ever happened to me before. I knew the moment we touched hands that I wanted to be with you. Not a day has gone by that I don't regret... not following through on that." He swallowed. "I'm sorry."

 

Rey was aware that what she was about to do next was a very, very bad idea. She barely knew Ben and they were from completely different worlds. But, somehow, all practical considerations ceased to matter when he was looking at her like this, when she was still feeling the echoes of his lips pressed to hers.

 

There was something that Paige Tico told Rose once, that Rose had in turn told Rey: Every girl is entitled to the mistake. That one colossal fuck-up that permanently alters the terrain of who you are. You'll either learn from it or you won't, so might as well have the time of your life.

 

Rey breathed in the scent of the flowers and the electricity that charged the space between her and Ben, and she decided that this might as well be it.

 

"The thing you sensed when we touched hands," she said, "nothing like that has ever happened to me before, either. I felt it, too, Ben. So..." She retreated further into her living room without closing the door, wondering if he'll take her up on her challenge.

 

He did. He looked a bit unhappy about it— or maybe that was just his default expression— but the glimmer of reluctant hope in his eyes, God, it pierced her heart.

 

The door closed behind him as he carelessly dropped his clipboard onto the floor. He kissed her again and this time it was not in the least bit chaste. It was a hot, open-mouthed kiss that she eagerly returned, his arms wrapping around her waist as the bouquet was crushed between their bodies.

 

"More where that came from," he muttered against her lips when she tried to twist away to save the flowers. "I have a whole shop—"

 

"I know," Rey said breathlessly even as she managed to extricate the bouquet and toss it onto a nearby beanbag chair.

 

There was no couch and her room seemed too woefully far away, but he— as she would learn in the months to come— wasn't anything if not creative, and soon he was walking her backwards into the kitchen, their lips still connected, her arms looped around his neck. He lifted her up onto the counter as if she didn't weigh anything at all, her head spinning at how effortlessly she was maneuvered around by his strong arms. He settled between her legs, wrenching his mouth away from hers to scatter kisses all the way down her neck to the watercolor galaxy tattoo on her exposed shoulder. Rey's toes curled within the confines of her socks. This man was more than she bargained for, his talented mouth and wandering hands flooding every inch of her being with an onslaught of dark, delicious heat. She felt wicked and glamorous, like those sophisticated older girls at her university who smile like they have a secret— of course, that illusion was dispelled when Ben's hand slid up her thigh, beneath the hem of her sweater, and Rey jumped because it had been months— perhaps a year— since she last let anyone get this far.

 

He pulled back to blink at her, his fingers tracing the waistband of her panties. "Is this okay?" His voice was rough and unsteady yet so gentle, somehow, that the flutter in her stomach felt like it had only a little to do with mere arousal.

 

"I don't know yet," Rey said. "Kiss me again."

 

Ben was happy to oblige. He didn't remove his hand from underneath her sweater but curled it, instead, at her hip. He slanted his mouth over hers, sensual and earnest, while his other hand palmed her clothed breast. She wasn't wearing a bra and her nipple hardened immediately at the warm pressure combined with the ribbed texture of the wool.

 

It took only a few more minutes of this before Rey decided that she wasn't a coward. Or maybe it had been seconds, or hours. Time had lost all meaning. The only thing she was sure of was that something inside her had been pulled so wonderfully, achingly taut and was begging for release. She kissed Ben with a renewed burst of urgency, clutching at his broad shoulders as she wiggled her hips in a silent plea. He got the message, his hand moving from her hipbone to her panties, but he didn't just shove his fingers in there as the couple of guys in her admittedly limited experience had been wont to do. Instead, he stroked up and down the growing damp spot between her legs in feather-light touches that she could barely register through the cotton fabric of her underwear. It drove her crazy.

 

"You bloody tease," she chided against his lips. She felt rather than saw him smile before he shifted to nibble at her neck, leaving her free to gasp in his ear.

 

And soon those gasps were turning into whimpers, needy little bursts of sound that Rey couldn't quite believe were coming from her, but she must be the culprit since Ben's mouth was occupied sucking bruises into the sensitive skin of her neck. His hand worked its way into her panties and she practically sobbed in relief when his fingers finally, finally glided against her bare skin. "Inside me, inside me, please," she babbled, tugging at his hair. She was so wet, so drenched and aching in a way that she'd never really been for anyone else.

 

Rey's spine arched when Ben slid a long, thick finger inside her. He cursed, seemingly as awed by the feeling as she was, and he lifted his head from her neck so that he could watch her, his expression rapt as he started to thrust.

 

"One more," Rey said.

 

*

 

She came with two of Ben's fingers inside her and his thumb rubbing her clit, his other hand palming her breasts through the sweater, his brow furrowed in concentration, and his eyes never leaving her face, gazing at her with such dark hunger that she was pushed over the edge far more quickly than she expected. She came with her thighs tightening around his hips, and he crushed his mouth against hers as she shivered in the aftershocks.

 

It was a filthy kiss, all tongue, and Rey's hand darted to the tent in his jeans but he shook his head, angling his hips away from her as best as he could in their current position.

 

"Let me take you out to dinner first," he mumbled. "I mean— please— may I?"

 

Rey was too boneless from her orgasm, too lost in the lingering haze of pleasure, that she could do nothing but exhale a breathless giggle and nod. "Yes, okay."

 

*

 

It was about two months later when Rose took Rey out for iced coffee at Akim's Munch, the proudly fair trade place that had just opened in the Mos Espa district. The girls sat out on the balcony overlooking the vibrant maze of cheap shops and food trucks, and Rey had barely downed two sips of her macchiato when Rose asked, point-blank, "So, are you ever going to tell us about your boyfriend?"

 

Rey choked, sending milk and espresso splattering everywhere, which, yikes. She wasn't a neat eater even at the best of times. "I don't have a boyfriend," she said, dabbing at the mess with a napkin.

 

"Hmm." Rose pursed her lips, drumming her fingers on the table surface like some cheesy villainous mastermind.

 

"I don't," Rey insisted

 

"You were humming an Ed Sheeran song while doing dishes last night," Rose pointed out like it's some great betrayal. "Ed Sheeran, Rey."

 

Rey blushed. The song in question had been "Perfect," and, yeah, maybe it had made her think of Ben, but— "We've gone out a few times—"

 

"— Every other night, and that's only counting this past week—"

 

"— But we haven't really talked about it yet." Rey leaned forward, lowering her voice. "To tell you the truth, I'm not all that certain he's, y'know, into me."

 

"How can he not be into you?" Rose cried, immediately offended on Rey's behalf like the loyal friend that she was.

 

"We haven't— like— shagged."

 

"What have you done?"

 

"We make out, there's groping, but aside from that..." Rey trailed off helplessly. She'd always been pretty much ambivalent when it comes to sex. Her first time at seventeen had been awkward and painful, and the— grand total of three— times after that had been far from earth-shattering. She liked the feeling of being skin-to-skin with someone, of holding and being held, but the act itself? It was lying on her back and sort of just letting her partner go at it, something like pleasure slowly building but never coming to fruition until the guy collapsed on top of her and she had to use her fingers on herself or he did it for her, all guilty and concerned in a way that invariably made her feel like he was doing her a favor.

 

So, yeah. Sex was underwhelming and Rey could live without. But Ben had turned that completely upside down. Sex with him was all she could think about these days. How it would feel like, how he would sound like when he came—

 

Rose suddenly started laughing so hard she doubled over. "God, Rey, your expression right now— you're so thirsty. Okay, I have to know who this mystery man is."

 

The other girl looked so smug that it was with no small amount of vindictiveness that Rey answered, "Ben Solo."

 

It was Rose's turn to choke on her coffee.

 

*

 

The glass chimes of Tantive announced Rey's entrance, but Ben didn't turn around. He was hunched over a worktable, his back to the door, and Rey waltzed over to him and covered his eyes with her hands. She had to stand on tiptoe to do it, and her stomach fluttered at this little reminder of just how tall he was.

 

"Guess who," she chirped in his ear.

 

"I don't know, some girl," he deadpanned. But he peered at her over his shoulder, his full lips curved in a faint half-smile— which, for Ben, was the equivalent of a hundred-megawatt grin.

 

She released him but stayed close, leaning her head on the wide slab of his upper arm as she scrutinized what he was making. She sometimes worried that she was too clingy around him but, hell with it, Ben was clingy, too. Whenever they were together, hardly five minutes went by without him touching some part of her body— be it an arm draped over her shoulders, a hand pressed to the small of her back, or their fingers intertwined.

 

He was assembling a corsage— a rather spiky confection of wild licorice sprigs, gold leaf tansy, bright indigo lobelia, a cluster of pinkroot, and frothy rhododendron.

 

"Who's that for?" Rey asked.

 

"Mayor Organa. Fine, my mom," he grunted when she poked him in the ribs. "She's attending a charity event hosted by an old nemesis of hers. Former senator Tarkin? He's, like, a hundred, so she can't do anything that might actually kill him. However, she does want to make a statement, so—" He pointed out each element of the corsage as he explained it— "what you have here is a declaration of war, malevolence, aversion, and a warning to all to beware this man."

 

"You're such a nerd," Rey told him, fondly. "Before I met you, I had no idea you could say all that with flowers. I just think they're beautiful. Sometimes that's enough, isn't it? For something to be beautiful in and of itself?"

 

Ben paused. "I never thought of it like that before." He craned his neck like a blossom turning towards the sun and he nuzzled his nose against hers, a playful gesture that elicited a giggle from her before he pulled away and returned to his work.

 

Once he was done, he walked over to the front door and flipped the sign to read "Closed." Then he headed to the small break room at the back of the shop, catching Rey's wrist as he passed by and gently tugging her along.

 

"Mitaka came down with the flu so I sent him home," Ben explained, referring to his pasty-faced, perennially scared assistant. "It's just us."

 

Rey's heart did this... swoony, floppy thing in her chest that spread all the way to her toes. She'd already started daydreaming about ravishing Ben in his break room when he opened the mini-fridge, extracting a plastic container of baked ziti. "I'll heat this up for you," he said, holding the aforementioned object in one hand while the other rummaged around in the fridge. "What would you like to drink? There's cherry coke, cream soda—"

 

"You're always making sure I eat well," Rey mused in wonder.

 

"I mean— yes—?" Ben looked adorably confused for a second before he shrugged it off and sat down, having retrieved a cherry coke from the fridge. He reached over to pop the pasta into the microwave and then he patted the chair next to his in an unspoken invitation to sit down. The mouthwatering smell of cheese and tomato sauce filled the room as the microwave worked its magic.

 

Rey sat. Not on the chair, but in Ben's lap. He didn't seem to mind, his arm automatically curling around her waist. She kissed him— sweetly at first, with all the warm affection that she felt for him in that moment— but she was so pent up that it wasn't long before she swung her legs around to straddle him, dragging her fingers through his lusciously soft hair. She'd orgasmed like this once, her skirt riding up her thighs as she rubbed herself against the rock-hard, rather impressive bulge in his trousers, but she was wearing denim cutoffs today, which made it more difficult.

 

The microwave beeped to announce that the pasta had finished reheating. However, food was the last thing on Rey's mind right now. After finally coming to terms with the fact that her roommate was dating Ben freaking Solo, Rose had suggested that maybe it was time to be more proactive— time for Rey to let Ben know, in no uncertain terms, that sex at this stage was an ask-and-ye-shall-receive kind of deal.

 

He whined a little when she broke the kiss, and then he watched in a stupor as she slowly sank down to the floor on her knees, her eyes locked onto his the whole time she was positioning herself between his legs. He moved only when she started to unzip him, stopping her with a rough shake of his head.

 

"Rey," he grated out, "you don't have to—"

 

"I want to." And, okay, she couldn't help the suddenly vulnerable note in her voice because, God, whoever heard of a guy turning down a blowjob, maybe he did think she was hideous— "Why don't you want me to?"

 

Ben exhaled a quiet, choked laugh. The sound has a quality of surrender to it. "It's not that I don't want you to. Believe me, it's the complete opposite. But I just... I'm afraid of taking advantage. You're so much younger than I am— hell, you're still in school— we should go at your own pace."

 

In response, Rey took off her shirt, chucking it aside. Ben's eyes widened as he drank in the sight of her scant cleavage nestled between the tiny silk ribbons of her second-nicest bra. She knew that he had a thing for her breasts— he was always pawing at them, always kissing them through her top.

 

"We've been going out for two months. You're my boyfriend," she said firmly. She dragged down the zipper of his jeans. "I want to make you come." She watched his Adam's apple bob along the pale column of his throat. "With my mouth," she added in case that wasn't clear yet.

 

He hunched over, tipping her chin up with one hand so that he could claim her lips in a fierce, possessive kiss. "I'm your boyfriend?" he asked when they broke apart for air, and he sounded so hopeful that she didn't hesitate before confirming, "Yes."

 

*

 

Rey had only ever done this once in her life. She couldn't say she was eager to repeat the experience, but something about Ben made her want to make him happy, and it was the prospect of that that caused her heart to race as she worked him free of his jeans and boxers. He was already hard— and, frankly, big enough that she had to wonder how this was ever going to fit inside her. But that was a problem for another time.

 

She started with a tentative, experimental lick. His hips jerked towards her mouth as he let out a strangled expletive, one heavy hand dropping to the crown of her head. Encouraged, she gripped the base of his shaft and took the tip into her mouth. At first, it was just a series of gentle sucks because she didn't really know what she was doing, but soon she was able to strike up some kind of rhythm, to take him a little deeper on each downstroke, and, oh, it was so— hot, in a way she hadn't expected, his large fingers twisting in her hair, her tongue lapping up the smooth texture and the clean taste of his skin mingled with the faint tang of precome. He was murmuring her praises in a voice rich with dark heat, he was calling her beautiful, his body was straining with the effort of keeping still and not fucking her mouth like he so obviously wanted to do.

 

There was this one moment when Rey got a little overambitious and gagged around him— "Jesus Christ," Ben whispered, tightening his hold on her hair. She peeked up at him through her lashes; he was slack-jawed, pupils blown wide with lust, and the ache between her legs could no longer be ignored.

 

He whimpered when she slipped her free hand down her shorts. He twitched violently in her mouth when she moaned.

 

"I'm close," he warned her through gritted teeth.

 

Rey was seized by a deliciously wicked idea, pulling her head off of him but still pumping his length in her fist. "Do you want to come on me?" she asked, her voice husky and ruined, every nerve ending in her body alight with the shocking thrill of talking dirty like this.

 

"Please," Ben gasped, his normally pale face flushed with arousal as he threw all inhibitions to the wind. "God, baby, let me—"

 

*

 

The sensation of Ben's come spurting onto the tops of her breasts in thick white ropes, combined with the glide of her fingertips against her clit, was enough to send Rey over the edge. No longer able to support herself, she collapsed against Ben's leg with a sigh, burying her face in the rough fabric of his jeans. He folded practically in half, throwing his arms around her and resting his chin atop her head, stroking her mussed hair and kissing her temple and crooning about how amazing she is, about how there were so many things that he wanted to do to her, if she would only let him. "Yes," she murmured, yes to everything, her breathing labored as she basked in his afterglow.

 

*

 

He sent her home with another hastily-constructed, tightly-gathered nosegay of American cowslips and scarlet lychnis surrounding one perfect, red-gold Austrian rose. She contemplated looking up what the individual flowers meant, but then decided that she didn't need to. Whatever Ben was trying to say with them, it had already been written all over his face when he kissed her goodbye.

 

Back in her apartment, she placed the nosegay in a small copper vase that she set on her windowsill. When the flowers inevitably wilt, she was going to press each one in a scrapbook, to join the petals from the other little bouquets that he'd plied her with these past two months, and hopefully by that time she'd have mustered the courage to tell Finn that her casual hookup with the legendary jackass had somehow bloomed into a steady, committed relationship. Finn might sulk about it for a while— and, in all honesty, it was probably going to raise more than a few eyebrows around town— but she was so very prepared to fight for what she and Ben had.

 

That night, as the starlight filtered in through the window and gilded the Austrian rose's petals in a web of silver, Rey curled up in bed and fell asleep with a smile on her face, already dreaming about her and Ben's date tomorrow. She was going to wear her nicest bra.