The bar was already packed, and it was only 8:30. Ben would have turned around and left if Phasma hadn't promised to publish his internet history if he stood her up again. "You need to practice leaving the apartment. Make some friends, have a good time."
Ben snorted to himself. He had never been good at making friends or having a good time, even before the mess he had made of his life. And why did leaving his apartment have to involve this crowded bar? He turned sideways to squeeze between two women, feeling his anxiety spike and missing the longing gaze of the shorter brunette. A grocery store before noon would be better practice than this.
He finally spotted Phas's glinting platinum hair in the u-shaped booths along the back wall. As he got closer, he could see Poe and Rey curled together next to Phasma. That was an unholy union, he thought, a friendship between Phasma and his cousin, two opposing forces brought together by the "Let's Save Ben Solo" movement.
He winced in guilt at his cynical thought. "We are trying because we care about you," Rey had told him when he chided her. She admitted that they met up even when he couldn't, wouldn't, be there. "We've become friends. Not everything's about you."
He neared the table and spotted a red-headed man next to Phas. He was leaning back in the booth, wearing a crisp white shirt and expensive navy blazer. He seemed to glow in the dim bar light, with translucent skin and razor sharp cheekbones. Ben let out a gasp and hoped it hadn't been audible above the noise of the bar.
"Ben!" Phasma yelled, breaking the spell. She jumped up and hugged him over the table before shoving him into the booth beside the stranger. "You actually made it!"
"Your threats to humiliate me sounded pretty genuine," Ben told her dryly.
"Want a beer, Benny?" Poe asked, already standing to head to the bar. Ben nodded. He really wanted whiskey and knew Poe wouldn't bring him one even if he asked. "Not with your medication," he could hear Rey say. Had heard her say, on the nights when he had deliberately ignored their hints.
"Ben, this is Taj," Phasma said, gesturing to the beautiful man beside her, "My coworker from First Order Tech." Ben nodded at the man, not trusting himself to speak. Taj pursed his full lips in a slight smirk and slowly looked Ben up and down.
"Your boss, you mean," Taj said, turning to Phas with an amused look.
"He thinks we do what he says," Phas said to Ben in a stage whisper, and Rey laughed.
Ben looked at Taj to see how he took this, but the man still looked amused. "She does all the hard work convincing customers," he said to Ben. "I get to swoop in and get credit."
"I'm glad you recognize that," Phasma replied. "Next round's on you."
They fell into easy banter, talking about First Order's latest software and the best clubs in Chandrila. Rey was boasting of Poe's sales skills when Poe returned with drinks.
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Poe said to Rey with a smirk before setting a beer in front of Ben and sliding back in across from him.
Taj turned to Ben and asked, "What do you do?"
Phasma said "He's a writer," before Ben could do more than raise his shoulder defensively. More staring at the wall than writing, he thought. More like live on his grandmother's trust fund while the most creative thing he did was come up with excuses for why he couldn't leave the apartment.
"What genre?" Taj asked, interested.
"Magical realism," Ben mumbled.
Taj looked like he would ask another question when Poe jumped in. "Isn't that the label people use when they're too snobbish to call it fantasy?" he asked. Ben gave him a grateful look, despite the barb. Poe knew Ben didn't want to talk about his writing, knew that he didn't always consider himself a writer, not when his word count hadn't changed in a month, not when he stared at the walls because he couldn't bear to look at the blank pages.
The other four had a spirited discussion that lead from cultural appropriation and then into favorite fantasy novels, and "Would the final installment of Cosmic Battles really be the last?" and "Who do you ship?" Ben agreed that the General and the Warlock were the best ship and continued to nod and grimace at what he hoped were appropriate places. He let his attention roam around the room in an attempt to ignore the tractor beam pulling him toward the man next to him.
He felt his arm jostle and looked at said man. "I have to be heading out," Taj said, and Ben slid out of the booth to let him out. Taj slid past him, so close their chests nearly brushed. He paused, eye to eye with Ben. "Nice to meet you, Ben," he said quietly, pinning Ben with that direct gaze. Ben gulped and nodded, wishing he had anything clever or attractive to say.
He slumped back into the booth, trying to decide if Taj's eyes were green or blue or gray, while Phas eyed him speculatively.
"I went out last week," Ben blurted out as Dr. Andor listened attentively. "With friends," he clarified. "Not a scene." They hadn't discussed those trips yet.
"Did you have an enjoyable time?" Dr Andor asked.
Ben shrugged. "I didn't talk much."
"But you got out there, and I'm proud of you for that."
"I met someone new there," Ben said. Dr Andor smiled and waited patiently. "He was..." Gorgeous. Witty. Too good for me. "Okay," he finished lamely.
"Getting out there is important," Dr Andor said. "Connections will come later."
Ben leaned against the wall in one of the dim back hallways at Rogue One, black shirt half unbuttoned, sleeved rolled to his elbow to display the heavy leather cuffs around his wrists. Even back here, the heavy bass techno beat rattled his teeth. Ben pretended not to see the couples who tried to walk nonchalantly to the bathroom cubicles. Feet paused in front of him, and he looked up to see an attractive silver-haired man. The man tilted his head up in question, and Ben nodded and followed him into one of cubicles. As Ben sank to his knees in front of the man, he thought to himself that this really wasn't the kind of connection that Dr Andor meant.
"May I, sir?" Ben asked and wrapped his lips around the man's cock.
When Ben had first opened his eyes in the hospital, he was alone. When he opened his eyes again, a tiny, wizened woman, not much taller than the rails of his bed, peered at him through thick, coke-bottle glasses.
"Can you tell me your name?" She asked.
"Ben Solo," he tried to say, surprised at the rasping croak that came out of his throat.
"I'm Ms. Kanata, social worker for Coruscant General Hospital. Do you know what day it is?"
"February...4th?" He said uncertainly.
"Close, it's the fifth. You've been out awhile. Do you remember anything that happened?"
Ben's head was too muzzy to grasp any memories. "Where's Andrew?" he rasped.
"We think it's best that Mr. Noakes not see you at the present time," Ms. Kanata said.
Ben's eyes slid sideways towards her in alarm.
"Your injuries are consistent with domestic violence, Ben."
He shook his head, but stopped when the room began to spin. "No, no. It's...consensual," he said quietly.
"Did you consent to have your ribs broken?" She said sharply. "To be strangled until you lost consciousness?"
"It's my fault, I should have stopped him," Ben mumbled.
She took his hand and spoke in a softer tone. "It is never the victims fault."
Ben winced. Victim? Is that what he was?
"Do you have friends or family who can come to assist you?'
No, he didn't, not anymore. Andrew hadn't liked it when Ben went out without him. He didn't trust Ben's friends. His family was trying to take advantage of him, Andrew said, and didn't Ben really love him? Who would come for him when he had shut them out for so long?
"Gwen Phasma," he finally said. "Anything," she had said when he was discharged from the marines. "Call me if you need anything."
After the long silence enforced by Andrew, Ben had expected her to never speak to him again. Instead, she was on the next plane out. Instead, she rushed into the waiting room where he had huddled in donated clothes all day, took one look at the bruises and the marks around his neck and wrapped him in her strong arms. "Oh, Ben."
He didn't dare get his ID, as the police had already released Andrew, and Ben knew that all his will would dissolve if he were faced with Andrew's cold stare. "Why the hell doesn't Coruscant have a 24 hour hold," Phasma had muttered, and Ben had left everything behind. She rented a car and drove him for two days from Coruscant to her home in Chandrila. She bought him clothes and plied him with food, and never commented on the tears that streamed down his face.
He had lain in her guest bedroom for two weeks, letting his ribs heal and his bruises fade. Then Phasma had started forcing him to run with her every day at dawn, waking him with her drill sergeant's bellow, and he went because it was easier to go than argue with her.
After a month, his mother had arrived. He had braced himself for Leia's sharp criticism, but she had remained quiet and watchful. "I've arranged for you to draw on your trust fund three years early," she said. "I have all your documents so you can get your license and a bank account." She and Phasma set everything up for him.
Rey showed up on his doorstep next, dragging Poe behind her. "Jesus Christ," Ben said. "You must be the ghosts of Christmas Past."
"Hey, Benny!" Poe said.
Ben looked to Rey for explanations. "I just started grad school at the University of Chandrila," she said. "Poe and I are in a poly triad, so he and our boyfriend Finn moved with me."
Ben looked between them, wondering how his childhood friend and cousin and someone else ended up together. He didn't have the energy to ask. Practice being human, he thought. "What are you studying?"
"Astrophysics," she said.
That made Ben smile. "Still have that space shuttle model we built?"
She grinned. "You mean, the one I built while you mooned over Anthony Wesley?"
"I painted lots of parts while mooning, I'll have you know."
"Anthony Wesley, really?" Poe asked incredulously.
"I was fifteen!" Ben said defensively, glad that Rey hadn't mentioned the other person he spent his teen years crushing on.
It had taken him six months to move into his own studio apartment. Phasma, and later Rey, had kept pushing him until he felt he could inch forward on his own.
The apartment was in his mother's name, his phone in Phasma's. They didn't say it, but he knew it was to make it harder for Andrew to find him.
The first therapist his mother had arranged for him had paled noticeably when he mentioned his kinks. "No healthy relationship could ever exist in those conditions," she had said. Ben went to Rogue One for the first time that night, and never saw that therapist again.
His second therapist was psychologist Cassian Andor. "He's kink friendly," Leia said. Ben had simply stared at her, wondering what questions she had asked. "Do you think it's healthy for my son to only date men who'll tie him up and spank him? Can he have a healthy relationship with a dom who'll stuff their cock down his throat?" Ben imagined her saying in her assertive, professional voice. He would blush, the therapist may blush, but Leia never would.
Dr Andor had indeed been kink friendly. "The elements of a healthy relationship are the same whether a relationship is vanilla or 24/7 TPE. Trust, communication, authenticity, respect."
"I don't think I've ever seen a healthy relationship, kinky or not," Ben had said darkly.
Dr Andor smiled the calm little smile that Ben would see often in their sessions. "It's a skill that you can learn, in these sessions, in your own reading, and in group sessions."
"I'm afraid he's ruined it for me forever," Ben finally admitted quietly. "How can I trust another dom?"
The first time a boyfriend had tied him to the bed, Ben had felt his mind grow still. The gripping anxious pressure on his heart and stomach that had been there since he was forced to leave the military melted away. He had joined the Starkiller Club a week later.
When he filled out the membership application form, he had to come up with a club name. "Kylo," he'd written. He'd checked the bondage, edging, and begging boxes with an enthusiastic yes. Humiliation, flogging, and pet play, maybe. Scat, knife play, and diapers, hard no.
His first scenes had been frightening and thrilling. He had found himself on his knees, on one of Starkiller's stages, wearing nothing but a collar and a cock ring, and he felt like he'd found safety at last. He'd even been photographed by a renowned photographer documenting the club, and for once he truly belonged.
Then he'd met Andrew Noakes, club name, Snoke.
Andrew was new to Starkiller, but not to the scene. He was 55, severely attractive, with sleek, silvery blond hair, immaculate suits, and an iron sense of control that no one could shake.
He had looked at Ben as if he was the only person who existed. He had bought him extravagant watches, expensive vacations. He'd told him was beautiful, that he had so much potential, that Ben was his.
At the first session of the domestic violence survivors support group, the leader had handed out a worksheet of early warning signs of abuse.
"Part of recovering is learning to trust ourselves again," Ashoka said. "We have to know what to avoid so we can make healthier choices in the future."
Ben had agonized over whether to go to the group until Phasma had literally shoved him into the car and driven him there. Even now she was outside the door in case he tried to bolt. He might have, if he hadn't known that she could get him into a choke hold in three seconds flat.
It was a mixed group, men and women, queer and straight. Ben huddled in his chair, clutching his worksheet like a shield. He could see the sideways looks from the others, knew that they were wondering why he was here. How could a huge, strong man let this happen to himself? He glanced up and saw another large man across from him. Older, softer, but nearly as tall. Snap, he would later learn was his name. Snap nodded to him in recognition.
"Are there warning signs on this list that surprise you?" Ashoka asked.
"Why is it bad for my boyfriend to give me gifts or say nice things?" a wiry girl with fuchsia hair and multiple piercings, Candace, asked. "I thought treating me nice was a sign of a good partner."
"It is," Ashoka said. "But abusers use love bombing as a form of manipulation. Extravagant gifts too early in the relationship make you feel indebted, so you're more likely to concede to their wishes."
"Like when he spent so much money on our first date that I felt like I had to go on a second date," murmured a quiet, mousy girl named Molly.
"Yes," Ashoka nodded. "And compliments are meaningless when the person giving them doesn't know you at all. They just want you to feel really good so you don't stop and wonder about their bad traits."
Ben certainly hadn't. He had been so relieved that someone had found him beautiful and worthwhile that he'd jumped in before checking the water.
For a day or two after therapy or group, Ben would vow that he was done with the back hallways of Rogue One. Then the squeezing anxious feeling would begin building, until finally he was debating whether whiskey or cocksucking would be more self-destructive.
He found himself at the lounge bar at the Rogue, sipping Jameson's while whiskey temporarily won out.
He glanced up to see Taj at his left. The beautiful redhead pulled the next stool closer and said, "I'm glad to see you here."
"It's nice to see you again, too," Ben said, letting his eyes roam over the man. Full lips, pale collarbones just visible under his loosened shirt, strong hands.
"These are very sexy," Taj said, touching one of Ben's heavy leather cuffs, turning his forearm over to look at the locking device of the clasps, one with a quick release that Ben could easily operate. "Quite ingenious." He didn't let go. Ben downed the rest of his whiskey.
Twenty minutes later, Ben found himself not in Rogue's back hallway, but in Taj's swanky uptown foyer, pressed into the wall while Taj kissed him. Ben tried to stifle a moan when Taj fisted his hand into his hair and held Ben stationary while he pulled his lips away to speak.
"Safe word?" Taj asked.
"Red, yellow, green," Ben replied.
"Can I fuck you?" Taj said huskily.
"Yes." Oh, yes, Ben thought.
"Edging. I want to beg," Ben said breathlessly.
Taj lead him into the bedroom. "Strip and get on the bed," he ordered.
Ben removed his clothes and carefully folded them on a side chair, noticing Taj's slight nod of approval. When Ben stretched out on the bed, Taj pulled his arms above his head and fastened the locking clasps of his cuffs around one of the heavy wooden slats of his headboard.
"How are you feeling?" He asked Ben.
"Very good," Taj said, running a hand through Ben's hair.
The mattress dipped and soon Taj's mouth was on his cock. Just when all of his muscles had begun to tighten, he pulled away.
"No!" Ben had cried out.
"I think you can beg more prettily than that," Taj purred.
Taj brought him nearly to climax again, this time earning "No, please, sir, please."
And then his fingers had found Ben's prostate. "Fuck, yes, oh please, please, sir," Ben had cried, and when he was nearly sobbing, Taj had pulled Ben's legs onto his shoulders and fucked him into the mattress.
"Now you can come," he said, and Ben obeyed.
The first time Ben had safeworded out with Andrew, it was because a flogging had gone on for too long.
"Did he respect your safeword?' Dr Andor asked.
"He stopped and released me, but he wouldn't talk to me." His affectionate boyfriend was suddenly cold and tense.
"So he sulked when you gave him a boundary?"
"He kept acting strange, so I brought it up," Ben said.
"Opening communication is very good. How did that conversation go?"
Ben pictured it in his mind. "It's my fault," Andrew had said, "I should have known not to expect so much. Very few subs are strong enough for me."
Ben felt nauseous all over again as he described the conversation to Dr Andor.
"Do you see the manipulation in that?" The other man asked him.
"He always made me feel like it was my failing," Ben said. "I wanted to be good for him so badly." So the affection, and the loving caresses, and the acceptance didn't stop.
"And what happened to your boundaries after that?"
The next time it had hurt too much, he hadn't said anything. When Andrew occasionally neglected to make sure he finished, he had kept quiet. I get as much enjoyment from watching my partner's pleasure he had told himself. Eventually, his partner's pleasure was the only pleasure he ever got.
Ben had dinner with Phasma a few days after his first night with Taj.
"Do you want to talk about your writing, or should I avoid that topic right now?" She asked.
"Avoid," Ben said firmly. "Actually, I ran into Taj the other night."
"Did he take you home and fuck you?" she asked. Ben looked up in surprise, and Phasma shrugged. "He asked me for your number. I wasn't sure if you were up for dating yet."
"Is dating what he has in mind?" Ben asked.
"You'll have to ask him that," Phas said. "Where did you run into him?"
"Rogue One," Ben admitted.
"So maybe you're more ready to move on than I expected. Been going there often?"
"Won't go to a bar with me but you'll give old men blowjobs at the Rogue?" She said half jokingly.
"Remind me never to get drunk with you again."
"It's the only way to get you to communicate anything beyond a shrug."
"So, what about that personal trainer you'd been eyeing at the gym?" he asked. Phasma would see right through his redirection, but she was happy to talk about her crush.
"Unamo? She's asked me to come to her power lifting competition this weekend."
Ben asked Taj to dinner that weekend. "Take charge occasionally," Dr Andor had told him.
"Won't that scare off the serious doms?" Ben had asked.
"Well, it might drive off the ones looking for a 24/7 arrangement, and that's a good thing for you."
Taj had readily agreed to dinner, and Ben had agonized over restaurant choices. Finally, he picked a tiny, chef-owned Italian place with great food and little pretension.
When they were seated in a secluded corner of the patio, Taj looked around approvingly. "I've been wanting to try this place, Ben."
"The seafood lasagna is amazing," Ben told him, "but everything's good."
Taj ordered the lasagna, and Ben got ravioli bolognese.
"May I choose the wine?" Taj asked, and Ben enjoyed the crisp dry white he chose.
"So, how did you meet Gwen?" Taj asked him over their food.
"She was my sergeant in the marines," Ben told him.
"Was she as fearsome then as she is now?" Taj asked.
"More so, she was armed," Ben joked.
"How long were you in?"
"Six years, and still would be if I hadn't invalided out," Ben said.
"You must enjoy taking orders," Taj said suggestively.
"Most of the time I do," Ben replied with a smirk.
That night, Taj pinned his arms behind his back and fucked him over the kitchen counter. Afterwards, they stood entwined together under the hot water of Ben's tiny shower for a long time.
Ben actually spoke up in the next group. "I'm trying dating again, but the uncertainty is really hard."
"Yeah," added Anna, a stocky woman in her 30s. "I always knew how much Ginger loved me, right from the beginning." Ben nodded in agreement.
"It's important to understand why that isn't a good thing," Ashoka said. "It takes time to make sure someone is compatible and to fall in love with them. Abusers want to speed up that process so they can lock you down and begin exerting control. The charming romantic who sweeps you off your feet is just a lure to hide the vicious nature underneath."
"My Ruby looked like she taught Sunday School," Snap rumbled. "She was half my size, and people only laughed when I tried to tell them what was happening. Or they questioned my manhood," Snap said quietly to his shoes. "I got enough of that at home. Every time I've tried to be with a new partner, her words keep ringing in my ears, and I can't..." Snap choked on his words and couldn't continue.
"I sometimes wonder which was worse, the words or the fists," Molly said in her quiet voice.
"I would encourage you to unpack that further with a therapist," Ahsoka said to Snap. "Dr Andor is taking new patients on a sliding fee scale."
"He's really good," Ben said to the other man. "He doesn't make me feel judged."
"Is therapy helping you have normal relationships?" Snap asked.
"I'll let you know when I find out," Ben replied.
Three months after the incident, Ben had been looking for stamps on Phas's desk when he found the records Phas and Leia had gathered for the restraining orders.
Ben reluctantly flipped the file folder open and scanned the documents.
Police call February 4th, 11:52pm, neighbors reported screaming from apartment 32c. Victim found unconscious and strapped to the bed. Bruising indicated long confinement. Handprints and bruising on throat. Welts and bruising indicated victim was struck repeatedly with a weapon. Andrew Noakes taken for questioning.
The hospital report stated that patient was incoherent at intake. Possible concussion. Simple rib fracture of the 7th and 8th ribs, marks of strangulation on the neck, rectal bleeding. Dilaudid administered via IV.
The next page was the police interview with Andrew. Ben hastily shut the folder.
"I saw the police and hospital reports," he told Dr Andor the next day. His doctor waited patiently while Ben gathered his thoughts. "I thought I just needed to convince him how much I loved him, that I would never leave him, and then the bad times would stop."
"You assumed he wanted to be reassured," Dr Andor said, and Ben looked up in surprise. "Abusers use their victims as pressure release valves, to release their anger and resentment and lack of control. That is the real relationship, the good times are just there to keep you from leaving. And the more control an abuser has over you, the less kind and charming they need to be."
"He was so sorry the first time I had to go to the emergency care center. He promised me that things would change, the sex was so good, and I was so happy when he asked me to move in."
Dr Andor nodded. "The cycle of violence. Did his behavior change after you moved in?"
"He was...harsher. He was using a belt instead of his hand and then even a cane. My coworkers started to notice that I was having trouble sitting down."
Ben could feel the tears beginning to run down his face. "Then he encouraged me to quit my job so I could write full time. God, I was so stupid."
"No, Ben. You acted the way most of us do in the clutches of an abusive manipulator," Dr Andor told him. "He used your yearning for love against you."
Ben hadn't wanted to admit it until then. It was just BDSM that got a little out of control, he had told himself. He had always wondered why those women wouldn't leave their abusers, and here he was. He started the support group a week later.
The following weekend, Taj invited him to the Chandrila Beer Festival. They had wandered through Hanna Park, sampling craft beers. Taj had carefully marked notes on his ballot for the People's Choice Award vote.
"You take the voting very seriously," Ben said with amusement.
"How will I know which is the best if I don't evaluate them all properly?" Taj had said with mock primness. They had tried nearly all of the samples, but Ben drew the line at the double chocolate stout.
"Do you eat the stuff that tastes like baker's chocolate, too?" Ben asked him.
"Yes, I prefer strong flavor with just a hint of sweetness," he said, and Ben thought Taj might have been describing himself.
Later that night, after sausages and pretzels and more beers than he could count, they wound up back at Taj's apartment. "I want to ride you for hours," Taj told him.
Ben tested the quick release cuffs Taj used to fasten his hands and feet to the bed, unfastening them a few times to make sure he could free himself. Taj waited patiently and then leaned in for a deep and lingering kiss.
Ben didn't think he'd ever seen anything as beautiful as the sight of Taj's lean, fit body, skin glowing in the low lights of the bedroom. Ben lifted his head to watch Taj sink slowly onto him, and he couldn't stop himself from groaning at the feeling of being inside this beautiful man. How could I have gone without this? he thought to himself, before giving himself over completely to the sensations.
He worried about how infrequent their dates were. "I see him two or three times a week," he told Dr Andor.
"That's a normal amount in the beginning stages of a relationship," the doctor told him. "We're recalibrating your normal meter, this is all part of the learning process."
"I stayed at Andrew's after our first date and practically lived with him even before I gave up my apartment," Ben said.
"Yes, let's talk about early warning signs that might have been there," Dr Andor said. "Did you have misgivings that you ignored?"
Ben thought back to the first heady months of his relationship with Andrew. "He wanted to spend every minute with me. Sometimes I just wanted to hang out with my friends, but I was just so happy to have someone really who wanted to be with me."
"Do you have trouble believing that people want to be with you?"
Ben raised his shoulder in his defensive shrug. "My parents were never around. My mom was a state senator, then governor, and politics took up all of her time. My father was off finding the next big scam to make to make a quick buck. I was always alone. It felt like nobody wanted me."
"Do you feel like Taj doesn't want you?" Dr Andor asked.
"Logically, I know that he does. We have a great time together, and Phas says he's much less uptight at the office since he's been dating me. But it's hard not to worry when I'm sitting alone at night, wondering if he's fucking anyone else, if he's losing interest in me," Ben admitted.
"There are a few things you might do," Dr Andor said. "You could ask him if he's seeing anyone else."
"I don't think I'd want to know if he was."
"It's possible he might want to be reassured that you're not seeing anyone else, either."
Ben hadn't thought of that. When his imaginings of Taj's dates with other men got to be too much for him, he'd find himself once again on his knees in the back of the Rogue.
"Do you want to be with anyone else?" Dr Andor asked.
Ben shook his head and shrugged. "No, but it makes me feel better that someone else wants me, that I'm not sitting on my couch alone imagining him with someone else."
"Perhaps there are other, healthier ways you can spend your time," the doctor said. "Let's brainstorm some ideas."
Ben shrugged. "I just don't want to talk to people most of the time."
"You don't have to be in company to get out of the house. What about taking your laptop to the library and writing there a few days a week?" Dr Andor suggested.
"I could head there after I go to the gym in the morning."
"Are there any group classes you could take at the gym?" the doctor asked.
"I mostly just lift, but I could check the schedule."
"Very good. What about other classes you could take? Any hobbies you'd like to try?"
"I used to like to paint and draw," Ben said after thinking about it for a while. "I could ask my cousin about it, her boyfriend's an art therapist."
Ben called Rey later that evening.
"Ben!" she exclaimed. "How are you doing? I've heard through the grapevine that you're seeing someone. What's he like?"
"You've met him, actually," Ben told her. "Phas's boss."
"The gorgeous redhead? Go Ben."
Ben laughed. "I actually called to ask Finn about art classes."
His first class was a Tuesday evening class at the community arts center. Ben took a seat at the large table and waited as other students wandered in. Several women, two men, and a half dozen teenagers seated themselves. Ben fidgeted with the sketchbook and drawing pencils he had brought and stared at the assortment of spheres grouped in the middle of the table.
A small Asian woman stepped to the large office chair at the head of the table and smiled brightly at the class. "I'm Rose, your instructor. Let's go around and introduce ourselves. As I said, I'm Rose Tico. I'm an MFA student at the Art Institute of Chandrila, and I focus primarily on sculpture. I spend more time with a welder these days, but I still know my way around a pencil."
Rose nodded enthusiastically to a timid man to her left, and he introduced himself as Mitaka. "I've always loved design, but my parents made me go into engineering. I'm trying to get back to what I love," he said shyly.
A harried looking woman in her mid 30s said, "I'm Kaydel, I'm a stay at home mom to three, and I had to find a reason to get out of the house."
"I'm Ben," he said when his turn came around. "I used to love drawing and painting when I was a kid, so I thought I'd give it a try again. I'm a writer, and I also need a reason to get out of the house." Low chuckles sounded around the room, and Kaydel gave him a comradely grin. Maybe this class wouldn't be so bad after all.
A beautiful Asian woman next to him introduced herself as Paige. "I'm Rose's big sister. I'm an accountant at a big four firm, and she's convinced me that I need to take up a relaxing hobby. I'm a complete novice."
"Let's get started," Rose said after they'd all introduced themselves, and she turned on an overhead spotlight that threw harsh shadows on the spheres on the table. "We're going to work on shading, so pick one or two of the spheres to draw. Study the contrast of light and dark and try to replicate it on the page."
Ben began work on his sketch in quick, sure strokes. "You look like you know what you're doing," Paige said to him.
"What?" he said surprised. Practice being human, he thought. "I wouldn't say that," he replied. He glanced at her paper, watching her slowly trace a circle, erase it, then draw it again. "I don't think it's important that it be perfect, just that we practice seeing," he said.
"There's a reason I'm an accountant not an artist," she said.
"That's where the relaxing part comes in," Rose said as she approached the pair. "This is a place where you don't need to be perfect."
"Don't you feel the need for perfection in your writing though, Ben?" Paige asked him.
He laughed softly. "Nothing is more paralyzing," he replied. "You have to be willing to write hundreds of pages of bullshit, and eventually you get good enough to produce something decent."
Ben noticed a missed call from Taj when he got out of his class. "Hi," he said, trying not to sound breathless when Taj picked up on the first ring.
"I managed to get a reservation at Aerie on Thursday at 9:30. Are you free? I'd love if you could join me," Taj said.
"How'd you manage that?" Ben had asked. Aerie was the exclusive new restaurant at the top of the Palpatine building. The views were said to be spectacular, and the young superstar chef's food was innovative.
"I know people. You should be awed at my social currency," Taj said sarcastically.
"I am always awed by you," Ben said, aiming for sarcastic, but it was closer to the truth than he wanted to admit.
Taj was silent for a minute, and Ben began to wonder if he had scared him away. His mental spiral had just started on the downward journey when Taj spoke again.
"I hate the Endor project, it's keeping me at work until one or two in the morning. I'd rather spend it with you."
"Can you have visitors at the office? I could come and cheer you up for a few minutes," Ben had said, dropping his voice to its most seductive octaves.
"I shouldn't. But, oh yes, please," Taj said.
An hour later, Taj was pulling Ben's clothes down his thighs and bending him over his desk. He growled when he saw the butt plug Ben was wearing. Ben smiled at him over his shoulder. "I'm all ready for you, sir."
Today was a good day. A key piece of his novel had finally fallen into place, and he'd gotten three thousand words written. Group had been encouraging and uplifting. And he had a date with Taj tonight.
He heard the two crisp raps on the door that announced Taj. He opened the door to see Taj looking gorgeous in a grey suit and crisp white shirt. He looked Ben up and down and smiled. "You look handsome," Taj told him. "I need to take you out on fancy dates more often so I can see you in a suit."
Ben smiled shyly. "Phas helped me pick it out," he said, glancing down at the sleek black suit, black shirt and silver tie.
"I'll be sure to thank her."
The restaurant had the hushed, solemn atmosphere of an art gallery. Quiet waiters moved smoothly around them, delivering the prix fixe menu.
A waiter delivered the first course, one that looked like a terrarium. Taj looked questioningly at the flat board covered in small plants and moss, then at Ben.
"It's probably all edible," Ben said. "I had something like this once at Tauntaun in Coruscant."
"That place was legendary!" Taj exclaimed. "When did you go?"
Ben stilled. It had been on one of his first dates with Andrew, when Andrew was still in the 'I'll show you the world' phase. "My last partner took me," he said finally.
Taj gave him a long and searching look. "I've pieced together some of what happened. We don't have to talk about it."
Ben shrugged. "I'll have to talk about some of it, eventually, if this," he said gesturing between them, "is going to be real."
"I want it to be real," Taj said.
"I do, too. I just hope I'm not too damaged for that."
Later that night, Taj slowly undressed Ben and then straddled him on one of his dining chairs. "I want every part of you," he said, trailing his lips along Ben's jaw to his lips. "The whole and the damaged, the dark and the light." Their lips moved in tandem with their hips as Taj rode him slowly, and for the first time Ben thought he might understand what making love meant.
"I think I'm falling in love with him," he said to Dr Andor immediately upon sitting on his couch.
"You seem nervous about this," Dr Andor replied.
"I'm afraid. Won't that mean I have to tell him about...what happened. What if he's disgusted that I let that happen to me?"
"Are you disgusted by the people in your group?" Dr Andor asked.
Ben shook his head.
"Why not?" Dr Andor continued.
"They were manipulated. All their weaknesses used against them by monsters."
"And does this not apply to you, too?"
Ben stared at his feet stretched out before him. "Yes," he admitted.
"If Taj can't see that, can't be empathetic, is he worth loving?"
"Is this my weakness staring me in the face again?" Ben asked. "That I want to be accepted so badly that I'll overlook anything?"
"Now that you know that it's there, you know how to avoid it. But don't borrow trouble. Give Taj a chance to show his empathy and understanding. If he doesn't, you are strong enough to walk away."
"You escaped from a supreme manipulator, Ben. You made it out."
"But only because I was put in the hospital. Only because Phasma rescued me."
Dr Andor was shaking his head. "No, Ben. You could have called Andrew from the hospital. It was the easier way to go. You didn't. You were willing to give up everything to save yourself. You could have called him any time when you were feeling lost and alone in the last nine months, and you didn't."
"The social worker at the hospital told me that strangulation was the biggest warning sign that he would go on to kill me. I just didn't want to die."
"You say that as if it were a weakness! You saved yourself! You. Saved. Yourself." Dr Andor said, punctuating his words by tapping on his desk. "Now you're in a place with a good support system, and you can certainly survive walking away from a budding relationship if it doesn't work out."
Ben walked away from Dr Andor's office in a daze. He had always thought that he'd crawled away in humiliation. But maybe it was like soldiers who lived through a battle. What did it matter if they crawled out under fire or marched out in glory? They lived to tell the tale either way.
"I have a conference in Arkanis next Friday," Taj had said. "Would you be interested in going with me and spending a long weekend away?"
"That sounds good. Have anything in mind?" Ben asked.
"Arkanis is my home town," Taj said. "I could show you around. And I should have dinner with my half-siblings. I could find the courage to do that if you were with me."
"Complicated family situation?"
"You could say that," Taj huffed.
"Good thing I'm used to those, then."
The plane left early Friday morning for the short flight up the coast. Taj hurried to his conference ("a fascinating look at user interfaces," he said, endearingly unsarcastically), while Ben found a cafe to while away his day reviewing proofs for the first fifteen chapters of his novel. He could see an end in sight, and he had begun looking for an agent.
Late in the afternoon, he checked into the hotel, took a long shower, and lounged peacefully before dinner. Taj bounced in at 6:30, excited by talk of adaptive technologies and eye scanners.
"And I heard about a great new Alderaanian restaurant that we should try tonight. What do you think?"
"My mother was from Alderaan," Ben said. "Some of my only good childhood memories involved Alderaanian food."
At the restaurant, Ben ordered a herbed stew and flatbread, while Taj ordered spiced meats and ruica. He noticed Ben wrinkle his nose at the ruica. "Not a fan?" He asked.
"No," Ben said flatly. "So, what are our plans for tomorrow?"
"Well, between waiting around for me today, and sacrificing tomorrow evening to my family, I think tomorrow morning should be for you," Taj said. "I thought you'd like to see the Kamino Road market."
Ben's eyes lit up. "That's supposed to be one of the best places for secondhand books in the country."
"Books and antiques, rare finds, drugs, pickpockets, and all the range of humanity you can imagine," Taj replied.
"Sounds perfect," Ben said with a grin. Then he asked, "Do you expect dinner tomorrow to be so very bad?"
Taj sighed. "Not bad, just awkward. I was the bastard son, you see. Bren and Ciara are several years younger than me, and their mother always resented me. They are kind, and want to have a relationship, but they don't understand what my childhood was really like, how different it was from theirs."
"What was it like?" Ben asked quietly.
"My father was embarrassed to have a child with a mere secretary," he said, "And it was made even worse that I was quiet and sensitive. He sent me to military school to 'toughen me up,' and he threatened to take me away from my mother any time she tried to protect me.
"You can only imagine how well it went over when I was forced out of the closet." Taj smiled a twisted smile. "He completely disinherited me. At least I had graduated college and started my career, so he couldn't hurt me, but I never spoke to him again."
Ben squeezed his hand. That night, he made love to Taj, and held him close as they both fell asleep.
The Kamino Road Market was a wonderful, jumbled mess, with exquisite stalls of rare books next to stalls full of reproduced fakes and mass-produced plastic junk. It was an entertaining treasure hunt, and Ben came away with two volumes he'd been searching for and a worn, black leather coat that Taj wholeheartedly approved. In amongst a pile of how to books, he spotted a familiar volume. He paid for it and quickly tucked it away before Taj noticed. This would be a nice surprise.
He caught up with Taj, who was picking through a selection of silk scarves, and raised his eyebrows. "You'll have to wait and see," Taj said with a seductive smile. Ben shivered and finished his shopping earlier than he might have otherwise. They ate a quick lunch at the Mon Calamari seafood market and headed back to the hotel.
"Are you going to show me what the scarves are for?" Ben asked as soon as they got back to their hotel room.
"I don't know," Taj said with a smirk. "Do you deserve it?"
"I could earn it," Ben said, looking down at Taj's belt and then back up to his face. "Sir."
"Strip and then on your knees," Taj ordered. Ben hurried to comply, neatly folding his clothes on a bench before sinking to his knees. "Arms clasped behind your back," Taj said, and he unbuckled his pants and pulled out his already hard cock. "Open," he said, placing the tip to Ben's lips.
Ben opened his mouth and relaxed his throat as Taj gripped his hair and pushed all the way to the back of his throat. Ben whimpered and gagged, and Taj pulled back out to his lips. "Red, yellow, or green?" he asked.
"Green," Ben said, pulling back to look him in the eyes. Taj smiled and began fucking his face enthusiastically. Ben loved the noises Taj made, the low grunts, and Taj began to thrust more and more erratically. He pulled out and came all over Ben's face and chest.
Taj stood for a moment, running his hands through Ben's hair while he recovered. "Go wash up, and then you'll get your reward."
When Ben came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, Taj had cleaned off the large heavy desk that stood on the far side of their suite. "On your stomach on the edge of the desk," he ordered. He used the scarves to tie Ben's wrists to the front legs of the desk. He pulled each ankle to the floor next to the rear legs and securely fastened each ankle to a leg so his legs were spread wide apart.
"How are you feeling?" Taj asked.
Ben tried to move his arms and legs. He was immobilized and at Taj's mercy, and he found he trusted him enough to shiver only with anticipation. "Green, sir," he said, voice already husky.
Taj chuckled and ran his hands up and down Ben's back and ass. Ben closed his eyes and sank into the sensation. "So magnificent," Taj murmured.
Ben heard the snap of the opening of a bottle of lube, and soon Taj's fingers were circling around his asshole while his other hand massaged his balls and perineum. Ben stifled a moan.
"I want to hear you," Taj told him. Soon he was sliding in two fingers to open Ben up, and Ben was moaning enthusiastically. When Taj slid a curved prostate wand into him and turned it on, Ben yelled, "fuck!"
He groaned when Taj placed the other end of the wand at his perineum and massaged his prostate from both sides. It didn't take long before Ben was cursing and quivering as his orgasm shook through him.
Taj turned the vibrator down, but didn't remove it.
He ran his free hand up and down Ben's back for a minute, then cranked the massager back up again. "Oh god, oh fuck, fuck, fuck" Ben chanted as another orgasm gripped him. He sprawled on the desk, unable to hold himself up any longer.
Taj rubbed his back again and purred, "I think you can take another."
"No. No, sir, I can't take another. Please," Ben pleaded. Taj looked at him carefully, so Ben whispered, "green." Taj gave a small smile and turned the vibrator up again. The contractions spread from his pelvis to every part of his body as he gave himself over to yelling. No, no, no, or yes, yes, yes, he didn't know which.
Then Taj cranked the massager to its highest setting and reached under him to stroke his cock, and Ben screamed as he came once more.
Taj removed the massager and untied the scarves. He eased Ben's arms back and began to deeply massage his sore back and limbs. Ben babbled incoherently, and Taj laughed softly. "You're so beautiful when you're wrecked," he whispered into his ear, and Ben smiled.
Taj ran a hot bath in the large garden tub and helped Ben into it, then removed his own clothes and slipped in behind him, Ben's back to his chest, rubbing Ben's abdomen as the larger man melted into his embrace.
"You're going to have to wheel me to dinner," Ben said when he had finally come out of subspace.
"I will if I need to," Taj said amusedly. "I hope it was worth it?"
"That was the most intense experience of my life," Ben whispered.
"Then it is definitely worth the hassle to find a wheelchair and make up a story about a mugging at Kamino Road."
Ben laughed, then groaned at the ache in his sore abs. Taj held him tighter, and kept adding hot water until their fingers and toes were wrinkled like raisins.
By dinner time, Ben was steady enough on his feet that Taj didn't have to get the threatened wheelchair, though he did keep an arm around Ben, who was happy for the excuse for closeness.
They made their way to the restaurant Bren and Ciara had chosen. "Expect expensive mediocrity," Taj said when they stood before the black marble entrance to the Rathtar.
"Hux party," Taj told the maitre d', and soon they were being led through the plush, over lit restaurant.
Ben recognized the two Huxes immediately. The boy had Taj's bright red hair, though his was much longer, and looked to be in his mid twenties. The girl, who looked a few years younger, had very long, strawberry blond hair that rippled down her back. They both had the same willowy, ethereal beauty that Taj had.
"Taj!" the girl shouted when she saw them approach, and she sprang up to give him a quick hug. "Ciara," he said, "this is my boyfriend, Ben. Ben, this is my sister, Ciara Hux. She sprang into Ben's arms and surprised him with a hug, too. Taj rolled his eyes. "The more subdued creature is my brother, Brendol Hux, Jr."
Now it was the other Hux's turn to roll his eyes. "Call me Bren, please."
Soon they were all giving their orders. Taj ordered the filet, rare, along with roasted potatoes and root vegetables."
"I'll have the same," Ben said, "With the seasonal veggies instead."
"Choose the wine, Taj?" Bren asked, and Taj ordered a good cab. Ben smiled to himself. These two certainly knew how to appeal to Taj.
"So, what do you do, Ben?" Ciara asked.
"I'm a writer," he replied.
"Anything we'd recognize?" Bren asked.
"Not yet," Ben said, and he saw Ciara's eyes wander over his perfectly fitted blazer and expensive cashmere sweater. He could practically see her wonder if he was Taj's sugar baby. Taj squeezed his hand, the corner of his mouth just slightly twitching.
Ciara worked in an art gallery, where wealthy girls go to find husbands, Ben thought. Bren mentioned something about investment portfolios, but Ben got the impression that he mostly just lived off his father's money. Who am I to sneer, Ben thought wryly.
"Taj definitely fumbled the introductions. What was your full name, dear?" Ciara asked.
"Benjamin Organa-Solo," he told her, and watched her eyes go wide.
"Any relation to the senator?" Bren asked.
He nodded. "My mother." He watched these two new-money snobs absorb that information. Yes, my grandmother was a queen, he thought, as these two suddenly became much more attentive.
The waiters began placing plates before them, and Taj took the opportunity to lean over and whisper in his ear, "I was going to leave that part out. These two are rather excitable." Ben smirked and gave him a chaste kiss.
"Oh, you two are so cute!" Ciara bubbled at them. The two siblings may be snobs, but they were also energetic and outgoing, and Ben found himself talking more than was normal for him. He had traveled far more than even Taj knew, and he found himself talking about his favorite cities, museums, and restaurants.
"I can't recommend any shopping to you," he told Ciara when she asked about Bespin, "unless you're looking for rare books."
He and Taj ordered another bottle of wine with dessert, and Ben was feelingly pleasantly bubbly when Bren shifted nervously and said, "There is something I wanted to tell you while you're here, Taj."
Immediately, the atmosphere at the table became more serious, and Taj looked up attentively.
"I'm gay," Bren said. "I know that probably doesn't surprise you, but I am out to everyone now."
"Even to Maratelle?" Taj asked. "How'd she take it?"
Bren rolled his eyes. "Mother reacted about like you'd expect. At least since she's not really a Hux, I didn't get the 'continuing the family name' line. I can only imagine what father's speech on that topic would have been like."
Taj stilled. "I got the speech. Screaming tirade, really, and trust me, the family name was not what he was worried about." Taj tried, and failed, to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
When they got back to the hotel, Taj detoured to the hotel bar. "I need a drink."
Taj downed two whiskeys while Ben waited quietly, wondering how best to help him.
Finally, Taj started speaking and the words just poured out. "I was thrown out of the family, cut out of the will, for something that's just fine and dandy for Bren. Of course, he waited until the old man died. I had planned to. Maratelle found out and made sure he knew."
Taj grimaced. "Not that he was ever planning to leave me much. I was always just the bastard. After he found out, he tried to sue me to make me repay him for my college tuition. By then, I was established enough that I had some lawyer friends who could write him a strongly worded letter. He dropped that, but he still got a restraining order so I couldn't contact Bren and Ciara. A restraining order," Taj said contemptuously. "So many people can't get ones they legitimately need, and he pays off some judge and pretends I'm a threat.
"Bren contacted me in college, but they kept it secret from the old man. I still don't know if Maratelle knows." He tossed back another drink, and Ben took his hands.
"Let's go upstairs so I can hold you," Ben said quietly, and it was his turn to help Taj to the elevator on shaking legs.
The next morning, Taj was still subdued, so they stayed in bed all morning, making love and then ordering room service. "I guess you've seen part of the ugly underbelly of my life," Taj said as he lounged back against the headboard, Ben's head resting on his chest.
"It's only fair that I tell you about mine," Ben said.
Taj ran his hands through Ben's hair. "Of course I want you to feel safe enough to open up to me," he said, "But you don't have to tell me anything."
"I want to. I need to." Ben took a deep breath. "My last relationship was really abusive. I know you've gathered some of it."
He felt Taj nod. "Phasma's emergency time off, and then she was so protective, refusing to give me your number."
"Yeah. She came and got me when he put me in the hospital. Neighbors called the police when they heard me..." Ben trailed off. "Neighbors called the police. In Coruscant," he continued flatly.
Taj gathered him into a tight embrace. "He must have really hurt you," he said, and he felt Ben nod. "I had broken ribs, and he tried to strangle me, and..." he choked out with a sob. "But the physical stuff was easy compared to..." he dropped off again.
When he got himself under control again, he continued. "My parents were always so busy saving the world that they had no time for me. I was raised by a succession of nannies, and I was always alone. I started acting out just to get them to notice me, and they'd just send an assistant to handle it, and I just got...reckless. They didn't care, I didn't care. I got caught taking money to suck a guy's cock, and my mom cut me off. My dad was already disgusted by the gay thing, and that sent them over the edge.
"I went into the military and found some discipline, and my life seemed on track until I was injured. BDSM filled the void, until Andrew found me. He loved bombed me harder than Baghdad, and I completely fell for it."
Ben flipped onto his back, staring at the ceiling. Taj nudged him. "Come on, let's take a shower and then go for a walk to find lunch."
They were on their way back, walking through the drizzle with their hands tightly clasped, before Ben felt like he could go on.
"He was my Dom, and before I knew it, I was in a 24/7 relationship than I never asked for, and he'd encouraged me to quit my job and drive off my friends and I was trapped. Every time I was ready to leave, he'd turn over a new leaf, and everything was going to be perfect, and he was so wonderful and then he was worse than ever. I finally left because I thought he would kill me if I stayed. I left everything."
Taj stopped and stroked his cheek. "You are so brave," he said, and he held Ben tightly, standing in the rain until the larger man had stopped shaking.
Finally Ben pulled back, keeping a tight hold on Taj's hand. "Lets head back to the hotel. I have something for you."
When they were dry and curled up in bed, Ben pulled out the glossy volume he had found at the Kamino market.
'Starkiller,' was printed in red lettering over a stylized photo of a heavily-muscled back, with black leather elbow cuffs pinning strong arms. Taj traced his finger over the moles scattered over the pictured form. "This is you, isn't it? Photographed by Revan himself."
Ben nodded. "Me, and others at the club." Taj opened the cover, flipping past a lithe young woman spread before the camera, and other photos of two young men in bondage gear. He paused at a picture of Ben in profile, on his knees with his wrists cuffed and suspended above him.
"So beautiful," Taj murmured. "Thank you for showing this to me." He flipped through more pages, coming to a complete stop at a picture of Ben bent over a metal stand, being penetrated by a shadowy figure behind him. "Is that..." Taj gestured to the shadowy figure.
Ben shook his head. "No, these were taken before the bad times."
"You can have good times again," Taj told him.
"You would want to do this with me?" Ben asked.
Taj caressed his face. "I'd like to take you in clubs, and make love to you in my bed, and argue about whose turn it is to do the dishes in my kitchen, and go on double dates with Phasma and Unamo. I want everything with you, Ben."
Ben sighed, "This is real," and let himself sink into his lover's embrace.