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can't you hear that scratching? (there's something at the door)

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Rey shivers as she walks into her new home. It may be warm for a November in Oregon, but she’s still freezing. Perks of being from desert people, she thinks ruefully.

She sighs, bracing her arms against the ridiculously tall stack of boxes on her new living room floor. It’s a nice space, though it’s painfully obvious that it’s someone’s rented hunting cabin. Bear skin rugs litter the floor of each room. Stuffed ducks in glass cases decorate an entire wall of the living room. If the owner hadn’t cleared the house of weapons for renters, she’s sure the empty hooks on the wall would be supporting a massive gun collection.

She unpacks for a while, blasting her music and taking advantage of the fact that she has no neighbors. It must be empty for at least a mile in any direction, nothing but her and the woods, and while the idea of that had seemed intimidating and serial killer-ish when she’d signed the lease, it’s oddly comforting now. The woods are quiet and the cabin is almost cozy once she lights the fireplace, using the leftover firewood stacked out on the porch outside, and adds some of her knickknacks to the living room.

Growing up, she rarely owned anything that she couldn’t stuff into a backpack and spare garbage bags—a side effect of growing up in foster care—but ever since Maz adopted her, that’s changed. Some days, it feels like she’s trying to collect everything she can, as though a certain amount of bric-a-brac will signify that she belongs. That she has a permanent home.

Rey surveys the cabin, filled with someone else’s things, then reminds herself that this is the opposite of permanent. It’s a job transfer, nothing more. She’ll likely get transferred again just as soon as she starts to settle in, though hopefully someplace warmer. There’s no use in getting attached.

It’s the same speech she gives herself every time she moves. Every time, she fails a bit more, makes a few more friends and establishes a few more ties. But she can try to convince herself that this time it will be different.

She sighs and starts tackling the boxes labeled ‘clothes.’

Her first night promises to be frigid, at least. Rey had hoped to explore the woods around her a bit, maybe find some hiking trails, but the temperature drops easily into the low thirties once the sun starts going down. She settles for wrapping herself in two of her fluffiest sweaters, then sitting outside on the porch to watch the sun set before it gets too cold to be outdoors.

It’s a beautiful area, she reflects. The porch itself is maybe fifty yards from the edges of the trees that turn into true woodlands. With only a crescent moon rising, she can’t see past their depths, only the shadowy promise of more and more trees. She shifts uncomfortably in the wooden chair set out here on the edge of the porch—handmade, she suspects from the splinters now lodged in her ass and thighs. She can’t rid herself of the thought that she’s being watched.

“Stop,” she scoffs to herself, glancing away from the foreboding trees. “It’s a forest. Of course you’re being watched. There’re squirrels and birds and… and all kinds of things that live in forests.”

Suddenly, she wishes she were someplace more familiar, more desertlike. Someplace warmer.

It’s not a thought she entertains for long. She got out of Jakku as fast as she could once Maz moved them out of there, and she doesn’t intend on going back. Maybe this place is strange to her, but it’s different. And different can only be a good thing.

A soft, quiet crunch gains her attention before she can get too far in her thoughts, and she looks up to find a wolf staring at her.

Part of her nearly jumps back on instinct, but the other part—the part that had paid attention when her landlord told her during the lease signing, in his gruff manner, not to approach or startle the wildlife—manages to stay perfectly still. Once her hindbrain stops screeching, thinking about every dumb horror movie she’s ever seen that had wolves mauling people in it, she manages to exhale and remind herself that wolves rarely ever attack people.

Right? She’s about eighty percent sure that she read that somewhere.

The wolf seems almost as startled as she is, having stopped in its tracks just past the edge of the trees. It would be nigh-invisible if the sun wasn’t still barely present. Its fur is pure black and thick, and it melts into the darkness with its color, nearly distracting her from just how huge it really is. If she were standing next to it, its head would probably reach above her hip.

“I didn’t realize wolves were so big,” she breathes.

She immediately wishes she hadn’t spoken, sure that it will either scare off or irritate the creature, but the wolf just huffs and locks eyes with her. He—for some reason she’s sure now that it’s a he—has yellow eyes, almost golden with the sunset reflecting in them. He doesn’t quite blink, as though scared to look away from her.

He’s probably had some bad experiences with humans before, she tries to reason with herself. But he doesn’t look timid. He looks… intelligent. As though he can understand her.

“Hello,” she says quietly, feeling stupid for doing so, but she forges ahead. “I’m Rey.”

The wolf cocks its head, looking so much like Maz’s old German Shepherd that Rey has to resist the urge to coo at him. Maybe wolves are just like really large dogs? She stretches forth a hand, even though he must be fifty feet away. “Wanna come sniff my hand?” she asks. “It’s okay, you can.”

He doesn’t move, either toward her or away, but he does blink slowly. Somehow, that feels like enough of a show of trust to spur her on.

“Come on,” she encourages. “I won’t hurt you.”

The wolf answers by lifting a paw, making as if to step forward. A branch snaps in the distance. He stiffens before suddenly bolting, disappearing behind the treeline within seconds.

Rey sits there for a minute, hoping he’ll come back, but eventually gives it up as the sun sets entirely. She stands, wincing at the splinters she’s accumulated, and heads inside. “Maybe he’ll come back,” she mutters to herself—hoping, though it seems like a silly thing to hope for. She slides the porch door shut behind her, embracing the warmth of the cabin, and settles on foraging for something to eat out of the few tinned cans and prepackaged foods she’d managed to pack.

“Grocery store,” she promises herself. “Tomorrow.”

Maybe she’ll pick up some beef. Her wolf would like that, right? If he comes back.

The next morning, she forces herself to get up early, groaning at the hour all the while. It’s freezing in the mornings around here, but hopefully the sun will warm things up soon. She shoves a sweatshirt over her head, prays that her car will start, and prepares to head into town.

Her car does start, thankfully, and she drives along the dirt driveway for at least a mile before she finally hits the real road. The driveway hadn’t felt so long when she was driving to move in, but the fact that it’s nice and quiet means she doesn’t have any traffic to navigate.

The town itself is quaint and cozy, sort of what she imagines from old episodes of Gilmore Girls and other small-town shows that Maz used to make her sit down and watch. There’s a Main Street, boasting barbers and boutiques and anything in-between, so she just coasts along it until she finds a grocery store.

There, she stocks up on everything she can imagine needing for a couple of weeks, asks about nearby coffee shops, and ducks back out before the nosy cashier can ask the obvious newcomer too many questions. She loads up her car with everything and makes for the independent café across the street, mindful of the frozen food in her trunk. “In and out,” she murmurs to herself, opening the door and hearing a tinkling little bell, the kind she only hears in Hallmark movies.

It isn’t just a café, she realizes as soon as she steps inside. There are books stacked on shelves and spread out across countertops, seemingly without any organization. Most of them look used but in good condition, and she guesses it must be on some sort of honor system for the customers to return their copies. Multiple people are sitting at counters or tables, clicking away at laptops or flipping through a book as they sip at their drinks. Absently, she stands at the counter by the register and thumbs through a copy of some historical romance bodice-ripper, waiting for the girl at the head of the line to get her coffee. When it’s her turn, Rey sets the book down and steps forward, flipping through her wallet to get her money ready.

“Can I help you?” a voice asks.

Still half-distracted in her quest to find cash, she looks up and immediately freezes. The man at the counter looks indescribably familiar, though she’s never seen him before. His dark hair is thick and wavy, almost curling where it reaches the midpoint of his neck. His eyes are brown and implacable, and his skin, dotted with moles and freckles, is perhaps even paler than hers. He’s beautiful.

Beautiful, and sweating like a pig. “Are you all right?” she blurts out. “You look… hot.”

He pinches self-consciously at the plain black turtleneck creeping up his throat, a slight blush overtaking the heat spots on his cheeks. Underneath the turtleneck, she can see a sweater peeking out at the hollow of his throat, and there’s possibly even another layer under that. “It was cold this morning,” he says awkwardly. “I hate the cold.”

She blinks, biting back a giggle at the stilted way he says the words—something tells her he wouldn’t like to be laughed at—and skims her eyes down his figure. He’s tall, though she’s not exactly short herself, and she’s at perfect height to see his name tag pinned sideways to his chest, which reads Ben. “I’m Rey,” she says, sticking a hand out. “It’s nice to meet you, Ben. I hate the cold, too.”

Extending his hand, he tentatively shakes hers. His palm is warm, almost too warm, but it encases hers easily, his fingers gripping hers securely. “You’re new,” Ben says. “Why would you move here if you hate the cold?”

Rey runs a hand over her own cream-colored cashmere sweater, smoothing out a wrinkle nervously. She’s not sure why she’s nervous. “I was transferred here for work,” she replies. “I was sort of hoping I’ll get used to it, but this morning was miserable. I think I got frostbite just from starting my car.”

“I’ve never gotten used to it,” Ben says honestly, and something about that being said aloud makes him shake his head, like he’s trying to physically distance himself from the conversation and reset their encounter to something less overly familiar. “Uh, what can I get for you?”

“Oh!” she says, realizing that there’s a small line rapidly forming behind her. She glances at the menu beside the cash register, reading the drinks along with the prices listed next to the items, and quickly chooses. “I’m sorry. Um, a frappe, please?”

“Coming right up,” he replies briskly, then takes the cash that she offers. She notices that he’s careful for their hands not to brush again. He tries to hand back her change, but she drops it into the tip jar. “Um, thanks.”

“Of course.”

She waits for a moment, watching as he prepares the drink, and then takes it when he slides it across the counter, again avoiding her touch. It feels like something minor—after all, they’ve only just met—something that shouldn’t sting, so she ignores that it does and flashes him a cheery grin. “Thanks!”

He looks at her, eyes searching for something, and she sees the slightest hint of humor in them. “If you hate the cold,” he remarks, “maybe don’t get a frozen drink next time.”

Heat rushes to her cheeks, and she stands there for an extra second or two, trying to process the words enough to respond. Is it a joke? He doesn’t seem like the type who jokes, but it sounds like a joke. When she fails to come up with a witty reply in time, she nods rapidly, choking out an, “I’ll do that,” as she rushes out the door without looking back to see his reaction.

She goes across the street and to her car, where she slumps into the driver’s seat, sighing to herself. “Idiot. He was probably joking. He might have even been flirting,” she chides herself. “And you had to go and make it weird.”

The drive back home is long and frigid.

She spends the next couple of days unpacking and learning her way around the kitchen—including the rickety old stove that she doesn’t quite trust—and by the time her first day of work rolls around, she’s familiarized herself with the house, if not the town itself.

The office she enters is remarkably like the last one she worked at, and she settles easily after being shown around by a coworker who introduces herself as Rose. “I’ve been here for two years,” she says cheerily, brushing her bangs back, “so ask me anything.”

“I’ll do that,” Rey promises. “Actually, I don’t suppose you could tell me a bit about the town? I’ve only driven around it a little, I’m not too familiar with everything just yet.”

That’s how Rose ends up sitting at her desk for another hour, explaining the history of the town and its various features while Rey pretends to type on her computer and actually do work. Eventually, two of Rose’s friends, guys named Finn and Poe, join them at Rey’s workstation and introduce themselves. The three are friendly and kind, inviting her out to a local bar/club that’s a popular hangout spot after work, and she accepts.

That evening, she and the other three go to the bar, a dank and dark building playing outdated pop music. Still, it seems oddly homey. She orders a rum and coke and settles on a barstool. Finn and Poe drag Rose off to dance, but Rey pleads off, content to do some people-watching. Rose was right, it is a popular spot. Rey doesn’t know anyone around, but she watches the drunken dancing, the tipsy flirtations, and the odd few sitting alone at the bar like her.

Amidst all of them, she sees the man from the café—Ben, she remembers—sipping at a beer, looking remarkably uncomfortable. She considers getting up and saying hi, trying to recover from how she made herself look like an asocial, tongue-tied fool at the café the other morning, but she doubts if he even remembers her. After all, he must see dozens of people a day.

Before she can make a conscious decision on getting up and going over there, he abruptly looks up and makes eye contact with her. She remembers his eyes being dark at the register the other morning, but now they seem to glow, even in the shitty bar lighting, almost a honey brown. He tugs at the turtleneck around his throat and stands. Rey takes in a breath, wondering if he’s going to come over to her end of the bar.

He does. He stands there, awkwardly, for a moment, before he blurts out, “I’m sorry if I was inappropriate the other morning,” at the same time she blurts out, “Sorry I was so awkward.”

“What?” she asks, once she realizes what he’s said. “You weren’t inappropriate.”

“I just—” he gestures in a way that’s probably intended to mean something, but it’s lost on her. “I, with the frappe joke. It doesn’t really matter if you buy cold drinks in the winter, I always think it’s so pretentious when people make jokes about coffee preferences. I don’t really care what you buy.”

“Oh,” Rey says. “Um, well, don’t worry about it. It didn’t bother me, promise. I’m just…” she shrugs helplessly. “Sometimes I forget how to talk to people outside of a script, that’s why I stumbled over my words and left so suddenly after you said that. I’ve lived alone for a long time and, um, I’m not much of a people person.”

“I’m not, either,” Ben says, voice low, and he seems to run out of things to say after that. “Uh, I just wanted to make sure there were no hard feelings. You can come in and order a frappe any time. So, um… anyway, I’ll let you finish your drink.”

“Oh,” she says again, wishing she knew more words that would come out of her mouth and sound casual. “Well, goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” he rushes out the word, and then he’s making long, steady strides to the front door, disappearing out into the wintry night.

Rey sits there for a minute, feeling as overwhelmed and tongue-tied as she had after their first meeting, and she barely ekes out a “hey” when Rose returns to the bar, cheeks flushed and hair messy from dancing.

“I saw you talking to Ben!” she says, a little louder than necessary, her eyes bright from the three ciders she had when they arrived.

“You know him?”

“Everyone knows everyone around here,” Rose says with a laugh. “Especially the guy who makes everyone’s coffee. He kind of keeps to himself, though. Like, he’ll disappear for a few days, or even a few weeks, and nobody knows where he goes. He just shows back up at the café again, without a word. I don’t really talk to him, you know, but he seems nice. Kind of serious.”

“Yeah,” Rey says as a placeholder response, absorbing the information she’s been given. Disappears?

In a town this small, where would he go?

That night, she returns home, a little tipsy but not drunk. Nothing much else exciting had happened—well, Finn dropped Poe during a dip while they danced, and Poe gave him so much shit about it that Rose cried laughing, but that was mostly it. She likes hanging out with the three of them, but it’s clear that they’ve been friends forever and she’s kind of the outsider for now, standing there smiling awkwardly during their inside jokes and meandering stories.

Rey turns the key in her lock, sighing a little, and stiffens when she hears a branch snap. She turns slowly, hoping that her mind is just playing tricks on her, only to immediately relax when she sees that it’s him. Her wolf.

(Which is ridiculous, her tipsy brain reminds her. First of all, he’s a wild animal, she shouldn’t be relaxing around him. Second of all, he isn’t hers, no matter how she thinks of him.)

“Hello,” she says softly, ignoring her brain scolding her to go inside. “How are you, my wolf?”

The wolf is closer this time, just a dozen feet or so from her front door. He dips his head, as if in acknowledgement, those eyes still golden and piercing.

“I need something to call you,” Rey says, then hesitates. Her mind, gone warm and pleasantly drowsy, searches for a name. “How about… hm, how about Kylo? That’s a character from one of my favorite books. You’d like it, Sky Walkers, it’s fantasy and science fiction. Space opera. Lots of sword fights and action and family drama. No wolves, though, sorry.”

The wolf tilts his head and snorts.

She decides that that must mean he likes the name. “Wonderful,” she says. “Well, goodnight, Kylo.”

Kylo blinks at her, slow and sleepy, and disappears, melting into the shadows of the woods.

Rey shivers and goes inside, ready for her warm bed.

After that, Kylo shows up almost every night. Rey goes to the bar with the others a few more times, though she makes sure to get home early enough to sit on the porch with her wolf. He gets closer and closer every time, listening as she talks. She talks about everything—her life, growing up in foster care, getting adopted by Maz, trying to make her own way in the world—and he only ever sits there and listens, sometimes perking up one ear like he’s also listening to the sounds of the forest.

“It’s strange,” she says one evening, “I feel like I can talk to you like I can’t talk to anybody else.”

The wolf looks at her impassively.

“Yeah,” she jokes, “it’s probably because you can’t tell me off for talking too much, huh? You just leave when you’ve had enough.”

Kylo huffs a sigh and lies down, shivering when a winter breeze whips past them.

“It is cold, isn’t it, boy?” she says, wrapping her shawl around herself. “It’ll snow soon. I think we’re overdue already, actually.”

The wolf whines, stretching out its paws.

“I know. I hate the cold, too.” She stands. “I think I’m going to go start a fire, actually. Want to come inside and join me?”

He levels her a look that she would swear is sarcastic, as if he’s telling her her own thoughts: that it’s stupid to invite a wild animal inside, and her landlord would kill her if he found out. “Sometimes I would swear that you’re human,” she mutters, moving for the door.

That becomes their pattern over the next several days, as she gets used to her new job and builds the new foundation of her life. She even makes her way back to the café a few times, determined to order another frappe and show Ben that she is actually an intelligent being that can string more than two sentences together. But he’s never there when she goes. He must be off on another of his disappearing acts, like Rose mentioned.

One morning, as she’s driving to work, she notices the trucks by the side of the road, near her driveway. Men stand beside them, wearing neon vests and checking their rifles. Rey looks away and keeps driving.

At work, she asks about it. Finn shrugs and turns back to the copier. “Hunters. It is the season, after all.”

“Do they hunt wolves?” she asks, chewing at her lip worriedly.

“They’re not supposed to,” he answers. “You’re only supposed to shoot a wolf if your life is at risk.”

“But…?” she presses. “It seems like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

“But sometimes it happens,” he says with a shrug. “By accident, or on purpose, or whatever. The Department of Fish and Wildlife might have a fit, or investigate, but some hunters will just say that they thought they were in physical danger. We have a pretty low wolf population around here, though. Why? Have you seen some around?”

“A few,” she lies. “I’m just at the edge of the woods, on the far side of town.”

Finn nods. “They tend to keep to themselves. I wouldn’t worry about the hunters too much, Rey. They’re mostly just there for deer.”

She bites her lip again and nods. That evening, she skips the bar, claiming a headache, and goes home. Kylo isn’t waiting by her porch when she steps out there, and she stands there for a moment, watching the wind whip the ends of her cardigan around her. “I hope you’re okay,” she whispers, feeling silly for being so worried, but unable to talk herself out of it.

The sound of a gunshot reverberates around her, maybe half a mile away, and she shudders and goes inside.

That night, lying in her bed, she hears wolf howls and more gunshots, though they don’t sound very close together. She still worries. Sleepless, she scrolls through her phone mindlessly, tensing at every little noise, until the gunshots stop and she feels, finally, like it’s safe to end her unofficial watch and sleep.

The next morning, Ben is back at the café. She stands there for a moment, almost surprised to see him, though she’d hoped he’d be there. He looks the same—too many layers, looking both flustered and implacable at the same time when she approaches the register—though she catches him wincing when he turns too quickly to make her drink.

What does he do when he’s gone, she wonders, what is it that makes him disappear then come back acting like he’s in pain? Her mind wanders to a bizarre fight club scenario, and she shakes it off as the ridiculousness that it is. He returns with her frappe and she smiles brightly at him. “I came into town early so I could drink my cold coffee in the very warm café before work,” she tells him exaggeratedly.

It is overly warm here. She hadn’t noticed it before, nervous as she was during their first meeting, but she can feel the heat causing a trickle of sweat on the back of her neck. It isn’t helped by how popular this place is during the morning rush. She wonders how he gets by with his various layers.

Ben rolls his eyes good-naturedly. He seems more relaxed today than he had either of the two times they’ve spoken before. “It’s still strange that you order cold coffee, in Oregon, in the middle of winter,” he points out, handing the frappe to her.

She feels their fingers brush, his too warm, and she clutches the drink to her chest dramatically. “And here I was promised a judgment-free zone the last time we talked!” she exclaims teasingly. “I’m hurt, Ben. Very hurt.”

His eyes, golden-brown, flicker with laughter. “Well, we can’t have that,” he says. He gestures to an open table near the register. “Why don’t you sit down and nurse your wounds, and I’ll check on them when the line dies down.”

She sits without thinking too much about it, grinning to herself like an idiot while she drinks her coffee, when it occurs to her that they’re flirting. Oh, she so rarely flirts, and even more rarely receives it in kind. It had been almost hard to notice—he doesn’t smile very much, but she could see it in his eyes, the way he’d been almost… fond of her. His eyes seem so familiar that it’s killing her—she’d swear she knows him. Maybe it’s just the teeny-tiny crush she’s nursing.

Rey flicks through the book resting on the tiny table she’s sitting at, some cheesy paranormal romance novel, and she has it set to the side by the time Ben comes to check on her. “Not your type of book?” he asks, nodding to it.

She shrugs her shoulders. “I don’t mind a good romance, but I like a good fantasy or sci-fi novel more.”

He stands on the other side of the table, where someone would be sitting across from her if she weren’t here alone, and crosses his arms, tilting his head at her. It’s an absurdly endearing gesture, she thinks, and it reminds her of her wolf. Like he’s studying her.

“Have you ever heard of Sky Walkers?” he asks finally. “It seems like your type of book.”

She nearly shoots out of her chair. “Oh, I love that one!” she exclaims. “I used to read it all the time as a kid.”

“I only read it for the first time recently,” he says quietly, his voice almost lost in the coffee shop chatter and bustle. “A friend recommended it.”

“It’s the best,” she says fervently. “I used to carry it with me from foster home to foster home. I must have lost my copy in-between moves, and I probably borrowed the local libraries’ copies at least a dozen times after that. Maz—my adopted mother—always suggested getting me another one, but it just didn’t feel the same without my dog-eared pages and my underlined paragraphs, you know?”

He smiles then, a small ghost of a smile, but it warms her up inside. “We make books our own,” he replies. “It’s how you can tell a book is well-loved.”

“I guess that’s true,” she says, glancing casually down at her phone for the time. She does a double take and swears under her breath. “I’m sorry, I’m going to be late for work if I don’t go right now!”

Ben watches as she stands and jogs to the door. She feels his eyes linger on her all the way to her car, though she doesn’t look back to check if he’s really looking. She smiles all the way to work.

After that, things fall into another kind of rhythm. She spends her mornings—and some of her lunch breaks—at the café, making conversation with Ben about books and movies and any other topic under the sun they share an interest in. At work, she talks with Rose and Finn and Poe, commiserating over workloads and deadlines, then sometimes goes out to the bar with them afterwards. Sometimes, though, she goes straight home and spends the evening with her wolf, who now lies down a mere foot away from the porch’s edge.

One Friday morning, she wakes to the first snow of the season. She feels the biting cold more than usual, and she shivers the whole way to the café. Her disappointments stack up when she sees that Ben isn’t there. Getting her coffee, she decides not to sit and just to head straight to work.

Work is dull, and she heads to the bar after, wanting some sort of human contact that isn’t in the office. She laughs and drinks with Rose, finds herself persuaded into dancing by Poe, and watches Finn down shots of Fireball while the others cheer him on. The bar is full, as usual, and she scans the crowd restlessly.

Some part of her, she realizes, had been hoping that he would be here, like that very first time. Only a couple of weeks ago, but it feels strange to go the day without seeing him at all.

She pleads off early, driving home after only one drink, and she sees that Kylo isn’t waiting for her in their usual spot, either. The light of the full moon is bright and revealing, and there are no wolves to be seen.

Rey slams the porch screen door, mad without knowing why she’s mad, and reheats some stew, shoving it into her mouth quickly. Being awake has no appeal tonight, and she just wants to finish her dinner and go to bed. “Bunch of no-shows,” she finds herself muttering uncharitably as she flops under the covers and closes her eyes.

She must sleep, despite not planning on it, because she wakes to gunshots that sound incredibly close. She fumbles for her phone, watching the screen light up in the total darkness of her bedroom. 10:13pm. Okay, so she hasn’t even been asleep for a couple of hours.

Her sleep-addled brain considers going out onto the porch and keeping watch. Keeping watch for what, Rey? Some hunters that (probably) aren’t even doing anything wrong? she thinks. Go back to sleep.

But she doesn’t. She lies in the dark, huddled under her covers, waiting. Waiting for what, she isn’t sure.

Until she hears the scratching at the door.

Instantly—as if some part of her anticipated this, had known it was coming—Rey throws the covers back and runs for the back porch. The house is freezing, and she nearly skids in her socks, but she makes it there without falling nonetheless, throwing open the screen door and looking down to what she already knew she’d find.

From the ground, Kylo whines. He’s slumped against the wooden porch, eyes dimly lit by the moon and nothing else. She can barely make out the edges of his dark black fur, damp with melting snowflakes. She can barely see the blood on his leg, too, but the sight of it makes her own blood freeze in her veins.

She kneels, careful not to get too close. He may trust her—enough, even, to come to her door when he’s hurt—but she’s never tried to touch him before, and she doesn’t want him to snap at her. “I’m just trying to help,” she says softly, voice rough with sleep. “So don’t bite me, okay?”

Kylo looks at her mournfully and lets out a low noise in his throat, harsh with pain.

“I know, boy, I know,” she whispers. She reaches a hand out tentatively and runs it through his fur, rough and thick. “Can you walk for me? I can’t carry you, big guy.”

He regards her solemnly, with those eyes that seem far too intelligent for an animal, and then he stands as she beckons him. He moves, slow and jerky, shuffling into the house and dropping down just in front of the fireplace, on top of a bearskin rug, with a sigh.

“Good job,” she says, shutting the porch door. “Now, let’s get you cleaned up, huh?”

She finds the cabin’s first aid kit underneath the kitchen sink like she’d hoped, though it holds more bandages than anything actually helpful. Still, she approaches Kylo with it, holding back her trepidation with the reminder that he came to her. He trusted her.

“I’m going to take a look at it, okay?” she asks, kneeling first to strike up a fire. It’s cold, and she needs the light to see. “So, again, no biting.”

Kylo gives her a huff and lies down on his side, exposing his leg where she can see it. The wound is small, little more than a nick where the bullet grazed him, but bleeding steadily, and she sacrifices a kitchen rag to clean it up enough for a good look. He doesn’t growl or snap when she presses the towel to his leg, only flinches then settles back down.

“It looks like the bullet went straight through,” she says in a soft, gentle voice, keeping them both calm. “Which is good. And I don’t think it hit anything important, or you’d be bleeding a lot more. I’m gonna put some stuff on it, okay?”

Staying very still, he lets her apply some Neosporin to the entry and exit wounds, then wrap some gauze around his leg.

“Don’t chew at that,” she warns. “Or I’ll have to go to the pet store and get you a cone. Not fun, trust me.”

He flattens his ears and gives her an irritated look, blowing out a huge sigh.

Rey rolls her eyes, smiling. “You must be feeling okay if you can give me attitude,” she murmurs. “Am I okay to leave any other first aid until the morning? You seem okay, other than… well, that,” she gestures to his wrapped leg.

Kylo does nothing, only stares up at her with those big golden eyes, and she resists the urge to run a hand through his fur comfortingly. He’s not a dog, after all. “Okay,” she murmurs, and she goes over to the couch, drawing up her legs into a ball and pulling her afghan over her to keep her warm. “Goodnight.”

The next morning, she wakes from a doze to a knock at her door. She stands, stretching wearily, and checks on Kylo—he’s still asleep, curled up in front of the dying embers of the fire, and she figures he must really need the sleep if he didn’t wake to the knocking.

At the door, there’s a man she barely recognizes. He’s definitely been to the bar a few times, usually to hang out with the hunter crowd, but he isn’t wearing the usual neon vest now. “Morning,” he says politely, then gestures to the bloodstain on the porch, just outside the screen door. She hadn’t noticed it last night. “Miss, last night I shot an animal and lost the trail. I came back to see if the morning light would help me out, and it seems to have come to your door. You didn’t let any wild animals in last night, did you?”

“No, sir,” she answers warily, keeping the door mostly closed so he won’t see Kylo inside. “I didn’t let anything wild in last night.”

She justifies to herself that it’s not really a lie. Whatever Kylo is, he’s not wild.

“Hm,” he says, seeming suspicious. “It’s just that, well, there’s no blood trail of it getting off the porch.”

“That’s interesting,” she says, feigning wide-eyed innocence. “It wouldn’t happen to have been a wolf, would it? I see lots of wolves around here. I’m new to the state, you see, and I like doing research about the places I live. Did you know it’s illegal to shoot wolves in this state?”

The man narrows his eyes at her. “You have a good day, miss,” he finally grinds out through gritted teeth, turning and stalking off the porch.

“You too!” she calls out, and when she shuts the door and turns around, she finds Kylo awake and watching her from his spot by the fireplace, eyes wary but calm. “Sorry,” she says at a normal volume, “just getting the guy off your trail. Well, actually, now he probably thinks even more that you’re in here, but I don’t think he can do anything about it. If my landlord shows up, though, we’re in trouble. Are you feeling okay?”

He yawns, slowly, eyes closed in a show of trust.

“Hungry?” she tries, and his ears snap up. “You must be one of those half-wolf, half-dog things,” she muses. “Did you live with people before? Is that why you know so many words, because you’ve been trained? Huh, boy?”

Kylo stares at her, blinking without comprehension.

“Or maybe I’m just getting too used to talking to myself,” she mutters, making her way to the kitchen. “I don’t have any dog food or any, uh, raw meat. Will microwave bacon do?”

As it turns out, Kylo will eat microwave bacon. And leftover hashbrowns, and scrambled eggs, and any other table scraps she’ll give him. He rests by the fireplace for most of the day, not moving too much unless she’s letting him out and back in to do his business. Whether that’s because he’s still healing, or so they don’t startle each other, she’s not sure, but she appreciates it all the same.

The rest of the weekend flies by. She reads on the couch while Kylo rests on the floor. Occasionally, she’ll check his gauze or apply more Neosporin. Without even thinking about it, she sleeps on the couch again. It would probably be safer to sleep in her bed and lock her bedroom door, but there’s no part of her that feels unsafe, so it simply doesn’t occur to her.

Sunday night, though, Kylo paces the floor, and she realizes with a start that he probably has a pack that he wants to return to in the woods. His leg seems much better, and there’s really no reason for him to stay any longer. “I’m sorry,” she says guiltily. “I didn’t mean to keep you from your family.”

He ducks his head with a low whine.

“Yes, you’re all healed up,” she murmurs. Before she can talk herself out of it, she runs a hand through the thick, soft fur of his neck, her fingers tangling in it. He stills and lets her. After a long moment, she opens the screen door and watches him bound out into the woods, into the dark.

Monday morning, they enjoy a bit warmer weather than they’ve had lately, and she returns to the café. She hasn’t been in since Friday, too wrapped up in her wolf drama at home, and she’s pleasantly surprised to find that Ben’s back. He gives her a tiny wave and a smile from the register—the most outward reaction he’s ever shown to her presence—and she grins from the doorway.

As usual, she sits at her table, drinks her coffee, and skims through whatever book is sitting there at the moment. After a while, he comes over to say hi while they’re not busy, and she takes in the limp he’s trying to hide. “Did you hurt yourself?” she asks, nodding to his leg.

“Oh,” his hand darts to his thigh, and he rubs his palm against his slacks absently. “Twisted my ankle on a hiking trail. It was stupid of me.”

“Are you okay?” she asks, concerned.

“I’m fine. I had a—a friend take me to urgent care. I’m good now.”

She nods and sips at her coffee. “I’m glad. Well, then, this kind of puts a damper on what I was going to ask you, since you can’t dance, but what the hell. Do you want to come to the cantina with me and some of my work friends tonight?”

Ben’s eyes widen. “Are you sure?” he asks.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t,” she points out. “Don’t feel obligated to say yes, but—”

“Sure,” he interrupts, then looks away. “Um, sure. Just so long as you know I can’t dance, with my leg.”

Rey grins. “I won’t make you do a foxtrot or anything, don’t worry.”

He smiles back at her, tentative, and she almost skips to work.

That night, Ben joins them at the bar. Rey kind of worried that he wouldn’t show, but he’s there when she arrives, still wearing his many layers, but now with an awkward smile.

Rose had expressed dismay and excitement when Rey had confessed that morning who she’d invited. Since apparently Ben never went out with other people, Rose wanted to see what he’d be like without his barista persona.

“I don’t think he has a ‘persona,’” Rey said.

“You’re right,” Rose wrinkled her nose. “Too awkward.”

“Not awkward!” she protested. “Just… not fake.”

“Awkward,” Rose repeated with a “just-being-honest” shrug.

Now, sitting at the bar, Rey wonders if Rose was right. Ben sits at the bar next to her, absently swishing his half-empty drink in its glass. They haven’t spoken since he arrived, only sat here wordlessly as Rose, Finn, and Poe dance.

“Oh!” Ben starts, reaching into his jacket pocket, and he pulls out a tattered, tiny paperback, almost dwarfed by his huge hand. “I forgot. I meant to give you this.”

She takes it, flipping it over to see the cover. “Sky Walkers!” she blurts. “I—where did you find it?”

“It was at a used bookstore a few towns over from here,” he says. “I go to different bookstores when they have sales, to get stuff for the café. I saw this and… well, I thought you might want it. Not the café. Just you."

She peers at it, flipping through the pages. The book is definitely old and well-loved, with the edges yellowing and the spine thoroughly bent. Someone took the time to highlight particular passages and underline certain phrases in faded ink. “These bookstores—it’s where you go when you’re not in town?” she wonders aloud. That solves that particular mystery.

Ben shifts in his seat. “Yeah, sometimes.”

“Wait,” her brain catches up to what he said last. “Just me? You’re giving it to me?”

He shrugs. “You said you didn’t want another copy because it wouldn’t have your dog ears or your underlined notes. I thought… well, this copy’s been broken in, for sure, with someone else’s thoughts and folded pages. And I, uh,” he scratches the back of his neck, “put a few notes of my own in the margins, and I underlined the passages I liked. It’s not the same but, I don’t know, I thought it might be good enough.”

Rey looks down at the book, then at him, and beams. “Thank you.”

Shifting in his seat again, Ben sips at his drink. “Um, you’re welcome.”

She studies the way he won’t look directly at her, how he can’t seem to get comfortable, and something about that and the gift overwhelms her with affection. “Come on,” she says decisively, standing up and slipping the book into her purse. She takes him by the hand, forcing him to stand, too.

He follows, bewildered. “Where are we going?”

“My place,” she calls out over the din of the bar. “It’s too loud and crowded here, and we can drink in my kitchen for free. Is that okay?”

She can practically hear him gulp, even though it’s too noisy for her to actually hear it. “Are you sure?” he asks.

“Yes.”

He swallows again, visibly. “Okay.”

Rey takes him out to the freezing parking lot, drafting a text to Rose: Taking Ben back to my place, see u tomorrow. At her car, she stops and looks at Ben. “Is it okay if we leave your car here?” she asks. “I can drive you back later.”

He’s shivering in the night air, wrapping his free arm—the one not attached to the hand holding hers—around his middle to keep warm. “It’s fine. But—”

Before he can finish his sentence, she’s leaning up and kissing him.

The kiss is slow and gentle. She brings a hand up to his face, guiding his lips to hers, and closes her eyes. His lips are warm and soft, and he tastes like coffee, and she can’t help grinning into the kiss. He presses back, tentatively at first, then cupping a hand around the back of her head, his fingers weaving through her hair.

When she pulls back, his eyes are still closed. “I’m sorry,” she giggles. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I just couldn’t wait to get you home before I could do that.”

His eyes finally open, a bright, honey brown in the streetlamp light, and he gives a violent shudder. “I—I have to go,” he says thickly. “I’m sorry.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, his words choking out of him like his throat is damaged. “I have to go.” He turns and flees the parking lot, disappearing into the shadowy night.

Rey stands there for a moment, frozen in confusion and mortification. Eventually, she leans against her car with a groan, shielding a hand over her eyes. “Way to go, Rey,” she mumbles. “Way to go and ruin it.”

She deletes the text she’d been composing to Rose, types up a new Heading home for the night, see u, and drives herself home.

Alone.

Ben isn’t at the café the next time she goes. Or the time after that, or the one after that. Almost a week passes after their kiss, and she hasn’t seen him once. She’s regretting never getting his phone number, if only to text and make sure she hasn’t driven him out of town. He was practically running out of the parking lot, after all.

Kylo hasn’t shown up again, either, since she patched him up. The weekend comes around and, short of hanging out at the bar with Rose and the gang, she’s short on things to do.

“This is ridiculous,” she tells herself on her couch, flipping through her copy of Sky Walkers. She had wanted to read it, but looking at Ben’s neat handwriting in the margins is just making her annoyed and regretful. “You’re a grown woman! Find something to do!”

She decides to take a walk. She hasn’t explored much of the woodlands near her house, after all, and there haven’t been any hunting parties around since Kylo was shot. As long as she sticks to the trails, she should be fine. The air around her is crisp and frigid with the snow littering the ground, and she’s so absorbed in the beauty of it all during her walk that she almost doesn’t hear the footsteps behind her.

When she turns, half-expecting a hunter or hiker, she’s surprised to find a wolf.

It’s not her wolf, not Kylo. This wolf’s fur is pure white, almost invisible against the snowy ground, and its lips are peeled back against its teeth in a near-silent growl.

Rey raises her hands defensively in reflex, stepping backward. The growling intensifies, and she stills. “Easy,” she says in an even, steady voice. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

The wolf steps forward, growling loudly.

“Fuck,” Rey says passionately.

The wolf bursts into motion, coming at her in a run. Rey braces herself, eyes shut automatically, and hopes that maybe someone—a distant neighbor—will hear her scream.

But nothing ever hits her.

She opens her eyes when she hears another growl join in, just in time to see Kylo tackle the other wolf, knocking it into the snow. The other wolf snarls at him and swipes a paw at his eye, leaving blood dotting the frozen whiteness surrounding them. Kylo snarls back, snapping at the other wolf’s throat, heedless of how much he’s bleeding.

Rey lingers for a moment, standing still with shock, before she realizes the opportunity he’s given her. “Thank you,” she whispers, watching the two of them locked in their struggle, and she turns and runs back home while they’re distracted.

She waits, but Kylo never shows up on her porch after the fight. She doesn’t know if that means he wasn’t seriously hurt, or if it means he might be… might be…

It doesn’t bear thinking about. She refuses to contemplate it, because he has to be fine.

A few days after that, nearly out of her mind with worry that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, she steps into the café, expecting the girl that usually replaces Ben to be there. That’s why it’s such a surprise when he turns and looks straight at her.

That, and the enormous, fresh scar over his right eye. Exactly where Kylo had been scratched.

Their eyes lock, and she’s aware that her jaw has dropped slightly, but she can’t bring herself to move or speak. He doesn’t seem inclined to talk, either, though he stares at her with eyes that seem to be bursting with emotion. She can’t decipher what it is. Does he want her to approach? To ask the question hanging wordlessly between them, air so heavy and thick she doesn’t even notice the other people around them?

She walks out robotically, without ordering any coffee.

At work, she forces herself to focus more than she ever has before, eyes trained on her assignments but her mind quietly racing. Rose has to get her attention to make her take a lunch break.

As soon as the clock hits five, she races to her car and drives home. She doesn’t stop to see if Kylo is waiting on the back porch. Slamming the door shut, she locks it and drops into her bed, falling into a bewildered, exhausted sleep.

Her sleep isn’t dreamless. She sees Kylo, then Ben, then Kylo morphing into Ben and vice versa. Ben’s lips press against hers, warm and human, but when she goes to touch him, her fingers run through fur. When she looks into his eyes, they’re not brown, but golden. He opens his mouth and his teeth are elongated and sharp, like a wild animal’s.

What are you?” she whispers in the dream.

He doesn’t respond, only rakes his claws down her back and muffles a howl into her neck.

She wakes in the middle of the night, hair clinging to her neck with sweat, and half-expects to find claw marks down her back, breasts, thighs. She’s almost disappointed when they’re not there, and she doesn’t know how to feel about that.

Rey realizes, dreamlike and hazy still, that she’s wet between her legs. She thumps her head against the pillows with a groan.

This is insane.

The next day, she accepts Rose’s invitation to the bar after work, gulping down rum and cokes like they’re water. Rose watches her nervously—Rey hadn’t made a secret of her distress yesterday, and she knows she’s being weird today, too—but lets her, though she shoves water glasses in front of Rey and makes her drink them in addition to the alcohol. They dance, Rey feeling overheated among the crowd of mingling bodies, but she wants her body so exhausted that her brain can’t come up with any more weird ideas or, God forbid, dreams.

“Do you believe in the supernatural?” she shouts over the music, a few hours into their stay at the cantina. She’s tipsy and feeling surreal enough that the words fly past her lips before she can stop them.

“What?” Rose shouts back.

She can’t bring herself to repeat it. It sounds too ridiculous. A familiar sight catches her eye before she can, anyway. “I’ll be right back,” she says, trancelike, making her way back to the bar, and Rose lets her go.

Ben stands, watching her, body language tense with nervousness. “Hey,” he says. He sounds infuriatingly normal.

“What the fuck are you?” she demands, instead of the vague, acceptable wording she’d been planning in her head. You can’t just go around accusing people of being werewolves, Rey, her brain reminds her. 

Ben swallows and stands up straighter, hands shoved in his coat pockets. “Maybe we could go somewhere and… talk?” he asks.

She studies him for a moment. He seems… scared of her. Not angry, not upset. He’s clearly afraid that she’s going to freak out and try to hurt him, or try to tell other people about… whatever the hell it is that’s going on. She straightens her shoulders, digs her hand in her purse, and tosses him her keys. “Fine, but you’re driving.”

He catches them wordlessly and follows her out to the parking lot. She rubs at her mouth nervously, thinking of the last time they were out here together, and watches him clamber into her tiny car with his too-long limbs. She sits in the passenger seat, eyes transfixed on him as he cranks up the heating and drives back to her place.

Moments pass in silence, growing closer to her house, and she studies him. His scar looks better, healing quickly, and she wonders if, in a month, it’ll be there at all. Had it originally been even worse than she’d thought? …Had he been blinded?

“So,” she blows out a breath eventually, tired of the quiet, “werewolves, huh?”

The steering wheel jerks under his hands, but he keeps the car steady, gaze fixed on the road. He doesn’t say a word.

“This is insane,” she declares. “I’ve stepped into every cheesy paranormal romance I’ve ever read.”

His eyes flicker uncertainly toward her, then back to the twisty driveway. “Romance?”

“Of course that’s what you’d hone in on,” she says with a groan. “Fucking werewolves, Ben!”

“I can explain—” he starts, but she’s watching the road, too, when the white wolf from earlier steps out into it. “Phasma —!” he half-shouts, but there’s no time for anything else before he’s jerking the steering wheel to avoid the wolf, which is staring directly at them and very intentionally not moving.

They skid on the ice, the truck coming to a juddering halt when it smacks headfirst into one of the trees just a dozen yards from her house.

The impact is light—he hadn’t been going very fast—but it still knocks the air out of her when the seatbelt strains against her breastbone. Rey gasps for breath a few times, glancing at Ben, who slowly pulls his head back from the steering wheel, where he’d hit it. His eyes are glazed, and there’s a tiny trail of blood coming off his forehead. “Are you okay?” she says loudly, trying to focus his gaze toward her.

He looks over at her blearily and shivers. “Come on,” he chokes out, “we have to get inside. We have to—”

She watches as he bends forward and gasps, eyes shut in concentration as he prevents… something, from happening. “Are you okay?” she repeats.

“I need to get inside,” he rasps out, and his eyes flicker inhumanly golden when he opens them again. “Now.”

She stumbles out of the car and over to his side, pulling his arm over her shoulders and fairly dragging him the remaining few yards to her house. She grabs her keyring from his shaking hand, twisting the house key into the lock and pulling him indoors.

Once inside, Ben drops to his hands and knees on the living room floor, panting for breath on all fours as the muscles of his back twist and rip under his clothes. “Lock the door,” he says in a choked voice.

She does so, double-checking the screen door, too. “Is Phasma—?” she asks worriedly.

“She won’t come in,” he says. “She—Snoke wouldn’t let her. He has rules.”

Snoke? She doesn’t have the time to ask—he’s clearly in pain, struggling against something, and she drops to a crouch and braces a hand on his back. “What do you need?” she asks, all the anger and fear she’d been holding inside her melting in the face of his agony.

He shakes his head. “It’s gonna happen, I’m—” he twists under her hand, crying out with pain. “Sorry,” he heaves out in a breath, then his muscles twitch, elongating and stretching in inhuman ways, and she has to shut her eyes and stand back because it’s just not natural

When she opens them again, Ben is gone, and Kylo is there. He stares up at her with pleading, sorrowful eyes. “Ben,” she breathes. It had been one thing to suspect, but to see the transformation for herself... “I—are you—?” she reaches out a hand.

He flinches and whines. When she withdraws her hand reflexively, he walks over to the screen door and scratches at it. Mechanically, she stands up and lets him outside, watching him run for the woods. She waits for a long time, but he doesn’t come back.

She doesn’t sleep much that night.

The next day, still feeling muddled and confused, she calls out of work. She calls a towing service to take her car to the mechanic to be fixed. Then, out of calls to make, she sits on the couch and waits for… something. She flips through Sky Walkers, her eyes scanning the words but her brain absorbing nothing.

By late afternoon, she gets tired of waiting and moves onto the porch, shivering in her nightclothes. “I’m sitting out here until you come back,” she calls out, making sure her voice carries into the trees. “I’ll wait all night if I have to!”

It doesn’t take that long. Before sunset, Kylo pads out from behind the trees and stares up at her, ears pinned back and fur risen against his back. He looks rough, with scratches and bite marks leaving bare patches on his legs and sides, and she wonders if he got into another fight with Phasma. Did he win?

He follows her when she gets up and walks into the house, and when she turns back from shutting the porch door he’s melting back into a man. The transformation seems just as painful this way around, too, and the inhuman whines he emits make her ache. She averts her eyes until it’s over and she can hear his unsteady, heaving, human breathing.

Now human, and with hair and clothes that look a ragged mess, Ben stands and moves over to the couch, where he takes her afghan and wraps it around himself. They sit together, neither of them sure how to start the conversation that needs to happen.

“What the hell,” she says flatly.

“I was going to explain,” he says hoarsely. His voice sounds like he was screaming or—her brain considers—howling all night. “Before Phasma.”

“Who is Phasma?”

“She’s… like me. We’ve all been bitten, and once a month we turn into wolves.” The corner of his mouth pulls up into a wry half-smile. “The stories aren’t all wrong. It is during the full moon.”

“It’s not a full moon right now,” she points out, crossing her arms over her chest. She wishes she’d thought to have this discussion in something other than her warmest pajamas, with their silly panda pattern.

Ben shrugs. “It’s not just then. When we’re hurt, or angry, too. But the cold is the worst,” he wraps the afghan tighter around himself, warding off phantom chills. “When it gets colder, we’re more prone to transforming.”

She studies the rapidly healing scar over his eye, the leg that hasn’t shown signs of a limp since that one day—the day after he was healing from being shot. “That’s why you would miss days at the café,” she realizes. “It was always the coldest days.”

“Yeah,” he says uncomfortably. “It—self-control helps, but it can only do so much. I can stand out in the cold sometimes if I’m keeping myself calm, but if I’m overwhelmed, or emotional, or surprised, it can still take over.”

She thinks back to their kiss in the parking lot. Oh.

“So you didn’t hate that I kissed you,” she says dryly. “You just couldn’t stop yourself from turning into a furry animal.”

Ben blushes deep red, down to where his sweater meets his collarbones. The blush makes his freckles and moles stand out even more.

“And the white wolf?” she asks. “Phasma?”

His eyes darken. “Part of my pack,” he spits out. “She and Hux—another wolf—they’ve been threatening recently. I think they knew I was distancing myself from the pack. Growing closer to you. She’s attacked you twice now, but she won’t come near you again,” he promises. “I made sure of it last night.”

Rey drops her head into her hands and sighs. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” she mutters.

A large hand drops onto her shoulder tentatively. “I know the feeling,” he confesses. “I know it’s unbelievable, but… well, you’ve seen.”

“Yeah.”

“But,” he continues, “it doesn’t have to… stay that way. I’ve uprooted before. It’s not hard, as a wolf,” he smiles halfheartedly. “I can get out of your hair, you won’t be bothered by us again. I’ll make sure before I leave that none of them will be a threat to you anymore.”

She sits up ramrod straight and glares at him. “You’re talking about leaving?”

Ben stares back, bewildered. “Well—yes, I—”

“You can’t just drop this bombshell and leave,” she says. “You have to stay!”

“But you just said—” he tries.

“I don’t care what I said,” she says forcefully, gripped with fear at the thought of him leaving. “You have to stay. Please.”

He looks at her warily, his hair a mess from his night out in the woods, dark circles under his eyes. The cut over his forehead from the car crash has already healed, but he still looks confused, like he can’t quite understand why on earth she wouldn’t want him to leave and get as far away from her as possible.

Watching him, her eyes soften. She rests a hand on his arm. “Stay. Please,” she repeats in a gentler voice.

His eyes meet hers, so brown they’re nearly black, and he seems to suddenly understand the weight of the moment, the reason why she doesn’t want him to go. “Okay,” he whispers, and then she kisses him.

This time, he kisses back immediately, lips warm and passionate against hers. She had imagined him forceful, animalistic even, but he’s surprisingly tender as he pushes her back against the couch and puts his hands on her waist. For a long moment, she relaxes into the embrace, content with just this before she eventually finds herself wanting more.

“Bed,” she murmurs against his mouth, breaking them apart when the kissing has gone on long enough.

He goes still, like a woodland creature that’s been spooked. “Bed?” he repeats carefully.

She presses her hand to his jaw, rubbing her thumb against his bottom lip. “Bed,” she says firmly, and without another word he swings her up into his arms and carries her down the hall.

He kicks the bedroom door shut behind them, gently setting her on the bed, then pulls his black sweater over his head and drops it to the floor. Meanwhile, she turns on the lamp and rips off her pajamas, glad to find that her unpremeditated choice of panties aren’t completely unattractive. She fumbles for her nightstand drawer and digs out the box of condoms she’d blushingly bought at the grocery store when she first moved here, just in case, and she sets a few to the side.

Done, she stretches mostly-naked on the bed, watching as he toes off his socks and yanks down his jeans. “How does the whole clothes-reappearing-thing work when you change?” she asks curiously.

Ben laughs, the sound warm and inviting. “I have no idea,” he answers, bending down to kiss her. It’s a low bed, and he ends up getting on his knees on the floor as he cradles her face in his large hands and presses their lips together. “It’s magic,” he whispers when they break apart, the air thick with tension and their desire.

“It is,” she agrees breathlessly.

Abruptly, he shivers, then looks up at her when she makes a curious sound. “I’m cold,” he explains, his eyes flashing golden brown in the lamplight.

“Oh. Well, we can’t have that,” Rey says softly. She tugs him up onto the bed, watching as he crawls up on his hands and knees and rests his body alongside hers on top of the covers. “I’ll keep you warm,” she promises, running a hand down the firmness of his chest and the sensitive area between his navel and the edge of his boxers.

He smiles and shivers again, this time not from the cold.

Before she even realizes it, her hand reaches for his boxers, tugging them down in her eagerness and tossing them over the side of the bed. Quickly, she shimmies out of her own panties and throws them, too. She ducks in for another kiss, running her fingers through his long, dark curls. “I have lots of questions,” she says against his mouth.

“I don’t have all the answers. I never have,” he says, voice loaded with vulnerability but overshadowed by lust. He turns his face into her hair, hands stroking along her waist as he kisses her neck. Unlike her dream, there is no biting, no scratching—just tenderness.

Her fingers, meanwhile, are digging hard enough into his sides that she wonders if he’ll bruise. Would the bruises even have time to form before they healed? “That’s okay,” she murmurs, cupping the back of his head close to her as he kisses the side of her throat. Her hand is trembling, but not out of fear or stress—out of need. “We’ll figure it out together. Right now it’s just us.”

He smiles into her neck, and she reaches for the condoms. What follows is passionate and warm and loving, and everything she’d never dared to let herself imagine with anyone. More than anything, she’s grateful that it’s with him.

Hours later, she wakes to find him still there, naked and otherworldly beautiful and in her bed. He’s blazing hot underneath the covers, in no danger of transforming, and she presses a brief kiss to his forehead. Under her touch, Ben wakes briefly and curls closer into her side, his head resting on her chest as he quickly falls back to sleep, limbs haphazardly strewn over hers. She wonders idly if it’s snowing outside.

There are still problems to deal with. His pack and their dangerous possessiveness, and the hunters that stalk these woods. Her trust issues and his fears. But in this moment, she can only consider how much they belong here, together. After all, in so many ways, they’re the same.

This is the first time anyone has ever stayed for her.

This is the first time anyone has ever known the truth about him and asked him to stay.

Everything else, they can figure out. Here, now, in this warm bed, they have everything they need.

Rey closes her eyes, wraps an arm over his back, and smiles.