Rey had applied SPF 50++ sunscreen twice already, but she could still feel the skin just over her cheekbones beginning to burn. The line for Kanata Kones was long, the sun was merciless, and her friends had abandoned her long ago for the shade of a cabana two water slides away. "I'll cover your snow cone," Rose had said cheerfully, dumping a mishmash of paper bills and coins into Rey's hand before motioning to the others. "We'll be waiting near the ticket stands. Oh, and Ben, you'll stay and keep her company, won't you?" Before Rey could protest, Rose had walked away and was chatting animatedly with Jannah, her short legs working overtime to keep up with the taller girl's stride.
Now Rey was stuck beside Ben, who resembled some species of brooding swamp bird in his gray swim trunks and slightly hunched posture. How is he not sweltering right now? Rey wondered, eyeing the black t-shirt he wore. Maybe he was, though; it was damp and sticking to his back in a few places. He must have felt her looking at him, for he flicked his gaze down at her and she immediately jerked her eyes forward. Not today, Ben Solo, she said firmly to herself. He wouldn't catch her staring at him today or any other day.
With a start, she realized she hadn't any clue what flavor snow cones the others liked. "I'll be back in a moment," she said, turning to Ben. "I have to go ask them what flavors they want."
"No need," Ben replied, sparing her only a terse glance. "They told me their orders while you were in the bathroom."
"They told you their orders?" Rey repeated, much more rudely than she intended.
Ben nodded once. "Does that surprise you?"
"A little. They're not overly friendly with people they don't know well."
They moved forward a spot in line and Ben glanced at her again. "They're kind people."
Rey snorted. "Not that kind."
"Except Finn. Finn still hates me."
"He doesn't hate you, he…" Well, that wasn't quite true. "He doesn't trust you. Can you blame him?"
A pause, and then there it was again—that doleful, penitent look he tried to hide every time his past came up.
Rey had been so ready to say no when Mrs. Solo (her idol, her role model) had begged her to please please help her fresh-out-of-prison son assimilate back into society. Rey had heard the stories about Leia's son through the grapevine: his addiction, his struggles with anger (Leia called it passion), his disreputable friends, and his eventual arrest. He was reformed now, and looking to right his wrongs. Fat chance, Rey had thought. How much can someone like that truly change?
But then he walked through the doors and, seeing the fear in her eyes at the sight of his scars, looked at the floor with that same shameful expression and she knew at that moment she couldn't say no.
She didn't have to like him, but she just couldn't, for whatever reason, ignore him.
So they became…friends.
A bead of sweat rolled down her side and she chewed on her lip. She had to say something—anything to wipe that expression off his face. "I passed the chem final. Should have told you earlier."
He didn't turn to face her, but his shoulders straightened just a bit. "I knew you would."
"I thought you were a nutter when you said you'd help me revise. Still do, a bit."
"You're a fast learner when taught correctly." Was he complimenting her? Was this man, the king of angst and silence, actually complimenting- "And I'm an excellent teacher—probably the only teacher that could have helped you pass."
This git. Rey narrowed her eyes. "Remind me who it was that couldn't spell 'application' on a form with the words 'job application' at the top of the page." Ben started to retort, but she cut him off, tapping her sandaled foot on the concrete. "And who, O Great Teacher, made me go with him to pick out an interview suit because he hasn't worn any color other than black since primary school? I've seen your yearbooks."
This was news to him. "How did you get my yearbooks?" He hissed, turning to glare at her.
"Your mother showed me. My favorites were the years when you wouldn't take off that beastly hat." Rey fiddled with her bikini strap as she talked, trying to straighten the shoulder straps. "Just because your grandfather wore one like it doesn't make it cool, you know."
They had reached the front of the line now, so Ben tore his eyes away from Rey's fingers, shelved his outrage for the time being, and stepped up to the shop, which was staffed by what looked like the local high school's debate club. "We need six cones."
"SIX CONES!" The pimply kid behind the counter yelled over his shoulder. "What flavors would you like, sir?"
Ben ticked off the orders on his fingers. "Banana for Poe, orange for Finn, pink lemonade for Rose, dreamsicle for Jannah…" He trailed off and looked expectantly at Rey.
"Strawberry for her, and cotton candy for me," Ben finished.
Rey laughed aloud before she could stop herself. "Cotton candy? Really?"
"Is something funny about that?" Ben asked acidly as they stepped to the side to wait for the snow cones.
Only everything, Rey thought, stifling her amusement into her fist. "I took you for a…Tiger's Blood sort of fellow. Or root beer." When his eyes only narrowed at her, she shrugged. "Everyone knows cotton candy is for children."
"I didn't realize flavors were age locked."
"They're not, but cotton candy is what kids order when they can't distinguish between tastes and just want a pretty color. There's no flavor in it besides sugar."
"It has a flavor," Ben argued, fidgeting as Rey adjusted her straps again.
"Really? What is it?"
"It's…" Ben scratched his nose to stall his answer. "…fruity."
Rey scoffed. "It isn't fruity at all! Take it from someone who ate loads of terrible cotton candy ice cream growing up."
"Well, it's…" His sunburnt nose was especially shiny now. "It's just cotton candy flavored. It tastes like blue."
"It tastes like blue," Rey repeated. "You're actually five years old."
A muscle twitched in his cheek. "I'm not a child."
Beside them, a father and his two young sons stepped up to the cash register. Rey motioned to Ben to hush and tried to stare at the counter nonchalantly. To Ben's intense irritation, the father ordered a piña colada and both children ordered…cotton candy. Rey slid her eyes over to Ben, who peevishly avoided her gaze and tightened his lips.
The kids making the snow cones were chuckling now, too, and the red on Ben's nose spread to his cheeks. "If you dislike it so much, why did you eat so much of it when you were young?"
"It was the most common flavor at the home. People came to put on programs sometimes and it was as if they thought cotton candy ice cream was orphan crack." Rey dropped her voice and picked at a hangnail on her thumb. "Not a parent to be found, but we all probably had diabetes."
One by one, cups of technicolored snow were packed into a tray on the counter in front of the two. Instead of looking to see Rey's expression, Ben kept his eyes trained on the treats. Once they were all present and paid for, he gave the bright red strawberry snow cone to Rey and pulled his own cone out of the tray before picking them all up for transport. "If you tried it again, you might like it. Try mine."
Rey stared at the neon blue cone, then wrinkled her nose. "I'll stick to strawberry, thanks."
His countenance a little wounded, Ben retracted his hand and took a defiant bite of his ice. "Delicious."
The two walked in silence for a moment, heading in the direction the others had gone. Not far from the stand was a covered locker hall that served as a shortcut between the food stands and the ticketing area. The shade was most welcome after the fierce sun, and Rey felt some of her energy return once the cooler air hit her face. "Now that I think of it, I'm not surprised you like cotton candy," she said, licking streams of escaped strawberry syrup off her fingers. "Didn't you have an imaginary friend until middle school? What was his name? Snope?"
"And don't you have a rather extensive collection of toy swords? Even some that light up?"
"They're collectibles, and—why do you know these things?" Ben asked, exasperated now.
Why did she know these things? Who had told her and, more importantly, why had she remembered? Maybe Leia had mentioned it. Maybe he'd told her himself during one of their late-night Skype calls when he couldn't sleep and she was the only person he could remotely consider a friend. "Sounds to me like there's still some childhood you're trying to reclaim. And to think you're the older of the two of us!" She was openly antagonizing him now, unable to stop.
"I'm not a child!" he repeated, his voice loud enough to reverberate off the walls of the hall.
"You just have the tongue of one," Rey retorted, stepping over a pair of flip-flops someone had left in the middle of the floor.
Ben slammed the tray of snow cones down on a nearby locker kiosk and whirled around to Rey, his eyes bright and sharp in the dimness of the shelter. "You seem to know so much about me and my tongue," he said in a low voice as he advanced toward her. "Let me tell you about yours. Your favorite is strawberry? The most basic of flavors? If I had a dollar for every empty-headed sycophant in this park whose favorite flavor is strawberry, I could pay off all my debts and buy my own Starbucks chain. It's a safe flavor for safe people leading safe lives. Dull. Predictable." He was nearly nose to nose with her now, one hand on the wall beside her head. "Boring."
As skilled as Rey was at finding and pushing Ben's buttons, she'd never been good at taking having her own insecurities pressed, and his candor stung. "If I'm so boring—" Why do you sit in the library with me until four in the morning? Why did you agree to meet my friends when you know they think you're dangerous? Is it because you're lonely? Because I'm your mother's charity case? She refused to back down, letting the tip of her nose graze his. "If I'm so boring, why are you here?"
His eyes never left hers, the intensity of his gaze searing her breath in her lungs. "Why? You ask like you don't know, like you don't feel it too." She did feel it. She felt many things in this moment—his cool breath on her mouth, the tips of his dark hair tickling her cheeks, amusement at his blue-stained lips, the frantic thudding of her heart against her ribs. "You're not boring. Not to me."
"Well, finally! We were about to—what happened to the snow cones?" Poe took the tray from Ben's hands and frowned at the paper cones full of slush.
Rey tipped the remainder of her strawberry slush into her mouth and shrugged. "The line was long and it's nearly ninety-eight degrees today. What did you expect?" As she crumpled the cone in her hand, she stuck her tongue out at her friend. "Be glad we didn't eat yours on the way over."
Jannah and Finn, whose cones held identical orange water, tasted each other's treats. "This one is definitely yours," Finn said, switching cones with her.
Taking a swig of her snow cone, Jannah nodded. "For sugar water, it's not bad."
Rose pointed at Ben's mostly-empty cone. "What flavor did you get?"
"You got Rey to eat cotton candy?" Rose asked, eyebrows raised. "I thought you hate cotton candy, Rey!"
"I do hate it," Rey replied.
Ben scoffed at her quick response. "She wouldn't even try it. You can't say you hate something you haven't tried in years."
"I can say whatever I please," Rey rejoined.
Poe laughed, his mirth muffled as he licked the last drops of sugar out of his cone. "She's got you there. I don't like cotton candy, either, to be honest."
"Isn't cotton candy a flavor for children?" Finn asked.
Rey immediately snorted and Ben, his face blank, turned his back to her. "I'm going to the bathroom."
Finn watched him stalk away, confused. "What'd I say?"
"Nothing. Here," Rey said, holding her hand out. "Give me your trash and I'll throw it in the bin." Once she'd gathered all her friends' empty cones, she left the shade of the cabana once again and headed for the nearest trashcan, one hand shielding her eyes from the sun.
Rose followed behind at a trot. "So," she began, eyes twinkling. "You and Ben, right?"
Startled, Rey tripped over her own feet and nearly put herself in the trashcan instead of the actual trash. "Me and—what are you on about? That's ridiculous!"
"You don't have to hide it from me," Rose pouted, watching her friend scramble to pick up the scattered cones before they were stepped on. "Aren't we friends? Spill the tea."
"I'm not hiding anything. We're not together!"
"But you want to be."
Rose sighed heavily. "You're insulting me right now. I know you hate cotton candy."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"It means I know you'd never try his snowcone. He even said you refused."
Rey threw her hands in the air defensively. "So?"
"So how, Miss Strawberry Snowcone," Rose asked, leaning in and pointing at Rey's face. "did both of your tongues become purple?"
Rey instinctively clapped a hand over her mouth, mentally cursing kindergarten and every box of water paints ever created.
Rose nodded smugly. "Busted. Busted by science. Never underestimate an engineer." After a moment, her face softened, shadows deepening under her smile wrinkles. "I believe in second chances. Just…be careful, you know?"
"I will," Rey promised.
"Come on." Rose jerked her head and started walking back toward the rest, who were laughing at something Poe had said. "On the positive side, Mrs. Solo is going to be thrilled."
This is my first Reylo fic, so be gentle.
I refuse to acknowledge Ben's death. It does not happen.