It’s quiet. Uncomfortably so. Getting another roommate after Kaydel moved should have returned some noise to Rey's life to assure her she’s not alone, but Ben is much less loquacious in person than in his emails inquiring about the available space. Rey wouldn’t just call him the ‘quiet type.’ He’s more than that. Silent, observant, thoughtful, strong. . .okay, the last has more to do with his fridge-like size than his overall personality.
Brooding. That’s what she’d label him.
So, a month into their rooming situation, when his door cracks open and he emerges with his arms in the air—fingertips scant inches from the ceiling—and a victorious smile on his face, Rey doesn’t immediately know how to respond. It’s like the world has spun on its axis for a few moments.
“I got the job!”
Proclaiming the good news makes his chest swell. Her mind can hardly wrap around the instantaneous change in his attitude, though landing his first civilian job is, understandably, a big deal.
This is a kind of noise she could get used to: celebratory. Rey wants to encourage more of it, so she jumps up from the couch and claps her hands together. “You did it!”
He punctuates her exclamation with a whooping shout she can only guess is a leftover from his Marine days. It startles and excites her all at once. This quiet giant can be loud after all.
Caught up in his enthusiasm, Rey acts on autopilot. Kaydel always responded to good news with a congratulatory tackle-hug, so it’s basically reflex when Rey launches in his direction. Ben reacts quickly, but mistakes the move for a chest bump—an altogether different kind of collision.
It’s not a contest, really. Ben’s pecs are still rock solid even after his honorary discharge. They easily triple hers in size.
At least he catches her before she topples to the ground. “Sorry.”
One of his big hands supports her back which is all the help she really needs, but she grips his biceps as she corrects her footing. Yep, he hasn’t lost those either. A little sheepishly, she asks, “Try again?” The hand on her spine brings her forward, and she’s pressed against his warm, expansive chest. She’s happy for the gentler encounter with his muscles this time, though it’s still like being flush against a brick wall heated by the afternoon sun. “I’m so happy for you.”
He sags a little as she squeezes him, dropping Rey from her tiptoes to the balls of her feet. “It’s a relief.”
She understands. Being chosen and deemed worthy by someone else—especially when that someone else isn’t associated with the government—is monumentally important. That some principal could see past Ben’s scars and imposing frame must be a dizzying validation for him after endless hours of job searching. Maybe this giant is big and friendly and nurturing at heart.
She squeezes one last time, then releases him. “Just promise me you’ll try not to trample the five-year-olds in your class.”
His arms drop to his sides, too. “I stepped on your foot one time. I couldn’t see over the box I was holding.”
An exaggerated pout accompanies her memory of the day he moved in. “It hurt.”
“I massaged it, didn’t I?” He’s serious again. Too serious.
She laughs. “You did.” Following another impulse, she pushes onto her tiptoes and places a quick peck on his cheek in hopes of easing his lined brow with the surprise gesture. “Congratulations, Ben. I knew you could do it.”
His smile is hesitant—like he can’t be sure what just happened—but makes his dark eyes shine. The lines from his forehead vanish and reappear as a frame around his lips. His cheeks turn a delightful shade of pink. “Thanks.”
It’s the noise he makes after his comment that really gets her: an airy little thing that’s half dazed wonder and half mirth. That small noise. . .Rey thinks she'd like to hear it again.
The second time they celebrate together follows some more good news: he’s found a sponsor for his classroom. Public kindergartens, she’s learned, are woefully underfunded. Rey would volunteer to sponsor the class herself if she could. It’s simply bad timing. Summer trips and travel have ended, leaving her mechanic shop in one of its yearly downswings. Nothing to fret over, nothing she can’t survive, but it doesn’t leave her rolling around in extra money to lob at school supplies.
Turns out, one of his mother’s retired senator friends, whose late wife was also a teacher, has plenty of the green stuff and the urge to get re-elected.
“My students are going to have everything they need. Glue sticks, crayons, safety scissors, carpet squares for morning meetings, a fresh set of Newberry books. . .” He trails off, wiping his hand down his face and shaking his head. “I can’t believe it.”
“That’s fantastic,” she tells him, squeezing his shoulders as she passes into the kitchen for some leftover pizza. She brings him a slice upon her return, and as they eat, she reflects, “It’s shitty you need sponsors at all.”
“It is,” he agrees. “I’m trying to find some for the other classes, too. Lando’s going to get me a list of names.”
It’s what he does: seek out solutions. It shouldn’t surprise her anymore. He’s already spoken to the landlord about the ice maker that sounds like it’s grinding glass together and their busted air conditioning unit. You pay too much a month to use an oscillating fan from Target. He’s alphabetized the bookshelf by author and publication date. He’s even replaced all the expired spices in the kitchen cabinets and swapped her Maxwell House for more cosmopolitan coffee.
Rey gets up, still hungry and wanting a second slice. On her way to the fridge, she pauses to drop a kiss on his temple, disturbing his thick hair with her nose. “You’re still a hero, you know that?”
She’s not sure if his blush is from her words or her gesture, but she likes the way his ears—big, goofy ears that peek out from his midnight locks—go red.
As the year progresses and his enthusiasm wanes under the compacting stress of lesson plans and parent conferences and data analysis, Ben’s Marine discipline truly takes over.
She’s never seen someone work so hard. He spends hours differentiating instruction for each of his students, finding the perfect tools to keep them engaged and learning. Not an easy task with little minds that have the attention span of a few minutes, max. While Rey’s always believed teachers are underappreciated and overworked, she didn’t think it would apply to someone who teaches kids who still eat their own boogers.
While he pulls away from their weekly Mario Kart races and trivia nights at the corner bar, he still manages to share a moment with her every morning. So you don’t miss me. Coupled with the scent of freshly brewed coffee, his toothy smile draws her into their kitchen hours earlier than she strictly has to be conscious. As she plods across the laminate with drool on her cheek and bedhead that would rival an ’80s band, she grumble-groans a greeting.
“Morning, sunshine,” he replies brightly, sliding a steaming mug across the granite.
She shimmies onto the island’s stool and dips her head to slurp her first sip. Pressing her lips together in satisfaction, she straightens and crooks her finger, indicating he should come closer. As soon as he does, morning breath and all, she asks, “How would I function without you?”
And since he’s already there, she kisses him. A theatrical smacker with wet lips and a hummed muah for extra pizzazz. It’s Friday. Pizzazz feels right. Rey’s only regret is misjudging the distance between them and kissing his chin because his cheek’s too far away.
“I think you’d get on just fine,” he says around a little laugh and a big grin. He ruffles her hopeless hair, then retracts his hand and glances away, pale cheeks turning ruddy.
He meets her gaze again. “You were doing fine before I moved in.”
She rolls her eyes and lifts her mug properly. “You’ve shown me the dark side,” she argues, sipping her brew. “I’ll never drink anything but dark roast again.”
He braces his arms on the island beside her. Rey briefly wonders how different it would feel if he bracketed her inside them instead. It’s been an increasingly common thought. She’s stopped trying to fight it because the ensuing fantasy isn't exactly unwanted.
“How about some eggs?” he asks, breaking up her daydream. “I made extra.”
It earns him another kiss, though this one lacks any razzle dazzle. It’s simple, understated, and only makes it to his throat. The stubble there feels rough and wonderful against her lips. Suddenly, there’s no need for the caffeine to hit her system: she’s wide awake. Then again, this feels like the start of one of her dreams, so maybe she’s still asleep.
She shifts until the stool’s edge digs into her rear painfully, confirming her state of consciousness. Good. This means food is actually only moments away. “If you made bacon too, it might just be love.”
Ben snorts. “Sorry, just eggs.” He sets a covered plate in front of her. Underneath, it’s piled with scrambled eggs just the way she likes them—doused in ketchup. “I’ll make you bacon this weekend.”
And he does.
He comes home in a mood right before Thanksgiving. All loud footfalls and deep breaths like a giant thundering down the beanstalk. He yanks off his coat and disappears into his room to change into his post-school athleisure wear.
But when he emerges, he's not in Under Armour. He's tugging his arms into the sleeves of his personal black raincloud. The Eeyore Sweater—so Rey calls it. He never wears it unless something is really troubling him. Like his dad's emergency appendectomy or when his uncle tried to make amends for calling him weak after being discharged or when his mom dropped by to tell him, in person, how proud he'd made her.
Rey knows that talking to him in his fluffy shell requires care and caution. “Ben, what happened?”
He’s pulled vodka from the freezer. Orange juice is the only mixer they have, but he doesn't bother with it. He grabs a glass and drinks it straight. Rey winces for him.
She sucks in a sharp breath. “His parents are going through with the divorce?”
Ben downs another shot and puts the glass in the sink. Then he joins her on the sofa, pulling her feet across his lap like he needs the anchor.
“Yeah. And it’s nasty. The principal called in a social worker today.” He continues, “Mika’s been so distant. Pushing the other kids during recess. Crying at lunchtime. Asking if his parents love him.”
Her heartstrings wind as tight as Ben's vocal cords while he speaks. "That's so messed up."
His hands rub her feet absentmindedly, and while she enjoys the feeling, she knows his hands need the distraction more than she needs the massage. Finally, he whispers, “Reminds me of my parents.”
It’s like she can hear the gear click into place that starts his tears. They build quickly, tumbling down his cheeks when he blinks.
“Oh, Ben,” she murmurs softly, shifting her legs beneath her and pressing up so she can open her arms wide. “C’mere.”
His glance lasts half a second before he falls into her offer. A sob escapes, though he cuts it off by clamping his lips together. She shushes him anyway, stroking his hair, kissing his temple. It takes a long time for the rigidness to ease from his shoulders. Rey wonders when he was last embraced in a moment of vulnerability by someone who truly cared for him. Years, probably.
Slowly, he turns his face from the wet spot on her shirt and props his chin on her sternum. “I should stop this.”
She strokes a finger down his long, perfect nose. “Expressing emotion?”
He rubs underneath one eye. “Making you a Kleenex.”
Rey clicks her tongue. “It’s your week for laundry,” she quips, combing out the stiff putty he wears to school with determined fingers. Only after he shuts his eyes does she add, “I don’t mind.”
So he settles. Ear against her chest, he relaxes into her embrace. His hairline, where she places sporadic kisses, is warm against her lips. Rey hooks one leg over his hip, running her other hand up and down his back as he trembles intermittently.
They stay entwined until she’s fluffed his hair back to its natural waves.
For once, she’s up earlier than he is. Does it really count, though, if she never managed to sleep? Unable to stand staring at the ceiling any longer, Rey ventured out for tea and a task. It’s why Ben finds her reorganizing the utensil drawer.
He freezes and lifts his hands up to his face, trying to erase the remnants of sleep and the illusion before him.
Rey confirms his eyes are functioning just fine. “Coffee’s made. A little stronger than yours, I admit.”
“I’ll go get dressed.”
Until he announces it, it doesn’t register that this is the first time she’s seen him in boxers. Only boxers. Maybe she’d smile or blush or laugh at the realization any other time, but those actions require energy she just doesn’t have. Not today.
Ben doesn’t move, despite his statement. “Bad dream?”
Rey fidgets with the teaspoons, shakes her head. “Bad memories. Bad day.” It’s been this way for the better part of two decades now, though he can’t know that. She’s never explained her past, never shared that part of her history with anyone else—not even Kaydel. This is the first anniversary of the accident with Ben as her roommate.
Even if she wanted to ease into it, lack of sleep inhibits her filter. All she’s left with is bluntness. Besides, she’s always been the type to rip off the Band-Aid. “My parents died today. Drunk driver. I was six.”
Laying out the truth gives her tunnel vision and makes her hearing fuzzy. She’s vaguely aware of her mouth moving, vomiting words she’s held inside long enough to be unhealthy. Her rambling is hardly coherent, but she thinks she strings together the key points: both parents lost at once; Rey, instantly orphaned, in the backseat and nearly frozen by the time paramedics found her; the foster system troubles that plagued her until she ran away and met Finn, the person who encouraged her to get her GED and her mechanic’s license.
She comes back to herself when something smooth and cozy stretches over her shoulders. A blanket. It must be from the living room, though she’s not sure when Ben left to retrieve it. The fleece molds to her curves, slipping slightly when Ben’s arms wrap around her midsection in a firm hug.
He adjusts the blanket after pulling away. “Let me make a call. Give me a minute.”
It’s three before he returns. Rey knows because she counts herself through several breathing cycles to stay calm. This time, Ben’s in sweats.
She squints at his attire. “Aren’t you going to school?”
“No. Took a sick day.”
One eyebrow arches. “You’re not sick.”
“Neither are you,” he replies in a gentle voice. “But you’re taking a sick day, too.” At her distressed squawk, he holds up his palms. “You were up all night. Heavy machinery is not a good idea.”
He's right, a voice inside her head agrees. Operating the shop’s equipment would be an unnecessary risk in her current state. But that's not what concerns her. “Did Poe. . .did he ask?”
“I only told him you needed sleep. And you do.”
She huffs. "He bought that?"
Ben cups the back of his neck, rolling his head to one side. "It does help your business partner and I were in the same unit."
Rey looks down at the drawer, realizing that she didn’t reorganize anything; all of the utensils have found their way back to their designated spaces. Everything from midnight to now has been a big blur, but the fog feels like it is starting to lift. It’s the first time she hasn’t had to face this day alone.
Ben approaches from behind, delicately removing her hand from the drawer and rolling it shut. He tucks her arm against her chest, and Rey sags back against him with a confession: “I’m exhausted.”
In a blink, his left arm swoops beneath her knees. He picks her up, blanket and all, and carries her to her bedroom. It’s like she weighs nothing, and it really isn’t fair that he gets to be so strong and so gentle with her all at once. It makes her feel dizzy. Though that could be the fatigue.
When he sets her down, she catches his hand and channels her strength into one deliberate squeeze. “Stay?”
Ben doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t stammer, doesn’t question. He just settles down beside her, leaving hardly any space between them. Rey still needs more and pats his chest. “Turn over. I’m the big spoon.”
His laugh is muted in the confines of her dark bedroom, the sound oddly intimate. “Really?”
She kisses the side of his jaw. Even in the dark, she can see his teeth flash. His smile does wonders for the ache in her heart. “Please?”
He adjusts to her request without another word, holding onto the arm she secures across his torso. Rey roots her nose into the space between his shoulders, breathes deep, and smiles. Then she sleeps.
It’s four o’clock and hedging toward sunset. The door closes, and she hears her favorite phrase: “Look what the kids”—by January they are no longer ‘students’ in his conversations—“gave me!”
Throughout the year, that opener has been followed with a variety of items. Sometimes it’s macaroni necklaces the children forgot to take home or a flower crown they wanted him to wear. Other times, he’s returned with sticks or bottle caps or feathers from a diverse set of fowl. Anything a tiny human considers cool has made it into his possession at one point or another.
Ben nestles the more unique items into a cardboard box lined with tissue paper he keeps under his desk: uninflated balloons, baseball caps, bits of colorful yarn, a kazoo, Matchbox cars, and Barbie heads. Rey can’t help but laugh over his collection of worthless junk.
“They’re my treasures,” he responds anytime she teases him about it.
The first time he’d whispered the defense with tender affection was also the first time Rey realized she loved him. Not just a little. Not in part. She loved her soft-hearted roommate a whole lot more. Heaps.
Now, whenever he adds a new item to the box, Rey’s heart thuds as if asking to be released so it can be delicately wrapped in tissue paper and cherished the way his other gifts are. Moreso. She wants to be his favorite treasure of them all: a ruby among diamonds, a sun among stars.
“Another one!” Ben announces as he hangs up his coat. “Lilah’s been busy.”
Rey's sure he'd never admit he has a favorite student—teachers aren't supposed to, of course—but Ben, nevertheless, gushes over Lilah's gifts more than the others. Shared interests will do that.
With a grin, he pulls the item in question from his pocket. The rock is pale, oblong, and smooth. A river stone if she had to guess. “It'll stack nicely.”
A wide terracotta pot sits in the apartment's living room window. At least now it has a trio of succulents growing in the soil. Rey had planted them when she first caught Ben taking pictures of the miniature rock cairn he’d built from Lilah’s weekly findings. You can’t just show her a picture of rocks and dirt. It needs greenery!
After long moments of swapping and rebalancing stones, Ben steps away from the ever-changing puzzle with a smile. “How does it look?”
She stands and inspects the formation that’s now twice as tall as the plants. “Looks like you’re ready for a picture.”
He poses while she snaps a photo on his phone, laughing at the stupid-big, exaggerated expression on his face. She wonders if he’s always this excited when he’s at school teaching, especially when he’s so quiet in his off hours.
As he takes the phone, she stretches up and gives him a kiss. He’s gotten used to her little tokens, she thinks, from the way he leans his cheek toward her at the last second. His blushes still haven’t stopped. If anything, they’ve gotten more pronounced.
Which is adorable. Then again, so is her roommate. A big adorable giant with a big adorable heart.
Could it grow just a little more to hold her within it, too?
He leaves one morning in a graduation gown that barely reaches his knees, and she has to chuckle at the khakis he’s chosen to wear underneath.
“I’ll be kneeling on the ground for pictures,” he explains as he stuffs a protein bar and banana into his work bag. “Today’s the day!”
The pure joy behind his smile could stop her heart. It certainly makes it tumble over itself for a moment. Rey has never seen him so proud or openly excited, bouncing on the balls of his feet, unable to stay still—just like the little ones he's educated this year. She wishes she could go to the ceremony to watch him as his kids hold up paper certificates with gold stars and rolled mock-diplomas before skipping across the stage in their tiny caps and robes.
But that would probably be dangerous for her cardiovascular system, given how it’s acting up already.
He texts her pictures before, during, and after the assembly, then goes quiet for several hours, leaving her last message on “Read.”
When she gets back to the apartment, she finds him still in his gown, sitting on the floor in front of the couch. There’s a box filled with gift bags and mini balloons on sticks sitting beside him. Several cards lay scattered, open to outpourings of love and appreciation. A box of Cosmic Brownies with the Sharpie’d message, “For an Out-of-This-World Teacher, thank you!” is propped on one thigh. He’s three snacks in by the looks of things.
His head rolls and tips back, and oh. Oh. This is bad. Worse than Eeyore Sweater bad.
She’s on her knees beside him immediately, catching a whiff of alcohol on his warm breath. There’s a tumbler with a scant amount of liquid in the hand by his far leg.
“They’re gone, Rey,” he informs her. His tone isn’t quite right for a funeral, but it is plenty melancholic. “I’m never going to see them again.”
The kids. His kids. She knew he’d become attached—how could he not?—but it still hurts to see him in pain like this. Gently, she reminds him, “They’ll be in the same building next year. You can check on them.”
He hiccups. “They were so happy. And so was I. Until the end when they were leaving. I managed to carry this stuff to my car.” He waves at the gifts and sniffles back a sob. “I had to pull over on 65 because I couldn’t see anything.”
She reaches up and wraps her hands around his head, pulling him down. He collapses against her, fingers clutching the fabric at her waist and burying his wet face into her chest. Rey leaves him there several moments, rocking slightly, attempting a few soothing sounds. One hand stays firm against his head while the other roams, strokes his back, his shoulders, his hair. It doesn’t seem to be helping like it did at Thanksgiving.
“I didn’t think I’d miss them so much.”
While she wasn’t expecting this level of distress, Rey understands his upset. She tries more reassurance: “You took good care of them. You loved them. It’s natural to miss them.”
His hand drops from her waist to her lap, using her thigh to press himself up and stare at her. “I did love them. Do you think they knew that?”
Rey shakes her head and tuts. “You’ve been reading their cards, haven’t you?”
He nods, glancing at the box of goodies. Then his eyes go wide. “Oh.”
“You’re an idiot, Ben Solo.” Rey softens the jab with a peck on his cheek. It leaves behind a faint outline of her tinted chapstick. With her thumb, she tries to rub it away, but it only smears more. “Whoops.”
Ben giggles—honest to goodness giggles—and Rey abandons her clean up. Instead, she gives him another kiss, this time on his nose. The faint pink matches the color coming to life on his pale cheeks. The third time her lips descend, they draw out another smile, another little sound of mirth. That’s what she’s after. He needs some cheering up.
Taking his head in both hands, she holds him still while she plants kiss after kiss after kiss across his face, marking it until there’s no chapstick left on her lips. His temples, his eyebrows, his chin, his dimples, his eyelids. She moves her mouth from cheek to cheek and forehead to chin, pouring out kisses like confetti, smiling herself as his pout and furrowed brow relax into a grin.
She starts in on kissing his laugh lines, and that’s when it happens. Ben’s head angles just slightly, and she’s kissing the one thing she’s avoided, the one thing she’s secretly wanted to get her mouth on for the better part of the year.
Just as pillowy and warm and amazing as she always imagined them. But electric too. They must be. Because one second they’re there, and the next, they’re gone, leaving a tingling sensation behind. It must be a shock to his system, too, because his mouth opens, and she can feel his breath mingling with hers in the scant space between them. Their foreheads have melded together, noses brushing.
Rey’s hands cup his jaw, thumbs tracing around his mouth and pressing into the dip of his dimples. They’re the perfect shape. Just like the rest of him. She inches back, not sure if he moved on purpose. Maybe this isn’t what he wanted.
She had no reason to doubt. His mouth chases hers immediately, a hand finding its way to her lower spine and encouraging her to return.
Rey's happy too, practically giddy. She goes in with another short kiss, then one that lingers. His hands thread into her hair and cut off any further retreat, sealing their lips together for an endless moment, both searing and sweet.
Finally, she edges her swollen mouth away. She’s not sure when she ended up in his lap, but it makes looping her arm around his neck more natural. “Feel better?”
He slants his lips across her temple. “Much.”
Ben visits his parents for a week after the school year is over. It’s seven days Rey spends doing everything she can to stop thinking about their kiss. Kisses. It was just a way to help him through a rough moment. They didn’t say anything else, didn’t take things any further. They kissed—and kissed some more—but that was it.
She cleans the apartment from top to bottom. Buys ten new plants. Learns how to do a proper warrior pose. She tries to work through her frustrations, but all she can imagine are his life-changing lips on hers and how they could be in other places. When he texts her every morning, she tells the butterflies in her stomach to chase a different flower. And when he signs off every night, she covers her eyes with a mask so she won’t picture him staring back from the empty pillow next to her head.
By the time he comes home, she’s ready to admit she’d taken the kissing too far. She’ll tell him she enjoyed it but it can’t happen again because. . .well, reasons. Reasons she hasn’t pinned down yet because the truth is she can’t think of a reason not to kiss him.
Ben beats her to it. He abandons his bags at the door and strides into the kitchen with purpose. Rey’s elbow deep in suds, but that doesn’t deter him. He crowds her against the sink like in one of her less innocent fantasies, giving her just enough space to turn around. The gleam in his eyes is different than in her daydreams, though; it's more desperate than hungry, more intense than she ever fathomed.
“Hey,” she pants. Why is she out of breath? Why is her heart punching into her throat? Does he feel this, too?
“I missed you,” he says, equally breathless.
"I missed you."
Though the words are made up of the same consonants and vowels, they sound entirely different. The meaning has deepened into something that makes her blurt out her response. "I love you."
One hand rises to caress her cheek as he whispers, "I know."
Then he leans down and shows her how ardently the sentiment is returned. It’s different than before. Still sweet, but with a sense of yearning, the same kind she’s felt growing in her chest for months now. It's echoed back to her through his kiss.
Ben lifts her, placing her on the counter, and narrowly avoids plopping her in the sink full of water. Rey secures herself by locking her ankles over his lower back. She grins and outlines his mouth with tiny, eager kisses.
When he pulls away, a long finger runs down her nose. “You’re so cute when you blush like that. I missed it.”
Confused, she touches her cheek. It doesn’t feel warm. “When did you ever know me to blush?”
He sweeps hair from her face. “Every time you kissed me, sunshine.”
Her eyes widen. “What do you mean? That was you! You were the one blushing.”
Ben’s nose strokes the side of hers. “Maybe so," he agrees, then persists, "but I wasn’t alone.”