Actions

Work Header

I’d Like My Obituary to Hint at a Sequel

Chapter Text

Chapter One.

The antique clock wakes Rey up at 9:00 AM on the dot.

She sits up so sharply in her camp bed that she almost topples it over, swinging her bare legs onto the cool, warped floors of the greenhouse’s little potting shed. The friendly smells of dirt and plants waft in the air, and Rey runs her hand against a rusted out watering can as she stretches her arms over her head.

Watery green light filters in through the vine-covered windows, and past the cheerfully rustling leaves she can just see the slightly-crumbly, slightly-faded glory of Alderaan House at the top of the hill. It is sundrenched and beautiful, its tall windows glinting in the morning light like they’re winking at her. She can hear scores of rooks and robins calling to each other from their nests in the house’s stone roof. It’s a little ecosystem, and Rey has managed to carve herself a place in it all.

She throws on a tank top at a random from her backpack, not caring that the stripes clash with the bright blue of her bike shorts. It’s not like anyone’s going to see her.

She shoves her feet in her shoes, grabs her laundry in her free hand, and pushes on the stubborn greenhouse door until it breaks free of the swollen threshold and hits the side of the tiny potting house with a bang.

Fresh air, free and clear, fills her lungs. Rey draws in a deep breath.

“Come on, feet,” she murmurs, her mind already full of projects.

The drew soaks through her sneakers as she walks up to the house, grinning, because today’s the day she’s finally going to get the fireplace working. Not that she really needs a fire. It’s early summer and the nights are warm and sweet. But the fireplace is a grand old thing, the kind with animals carved into the mantle, and she wants to see it shine again.

The lions and bear carvings might have creeped her out once, but like so many of the house’s other oddities, frm the squeaking stairs, the aging portraits of severely-cheekboned dead people, the overall air of neglect and abandonment, Rey feels at home among them.

Never mind what people say about its last occupant.  

Rey jogs up the stone steps to the back door, the one that leads into the kitchen instead of the back patio, and hangs her laundry on the balustrade. The hinges no longer squeak, and she enters the tomb-like silence of the main house with a familiar shiver of pleasure.

Despite the stillness, the kitchen is flooded with light from lattice glass windows that have warped and distorted with time. At night, their spindly fragility is a little unsettling, but in daylight the room is bright and open. The tile counters gleam, the grout freshly scrubbed.

She’d done her earliest projects in the kitchen since that was the first room she’d allowed herself to use when she came here.

She’d justified it by telling herself that, if she were going to break and enter, she would make up for it by fixing the leaky sink, scrubbing the grout, and re-caulking the window frames. Which had then turned into a small crusade of repairing other oddities of the house’s interior. All minor stuff, and nothing she hadn’t done back when she was still living with Plutt, but it had been almost addictive to see the kitchen come back to life.

And of course, the bathroom just off the kitchen had been a necessity. Who knew that fixing a tap could be so satisfying?

Rey grabs the kettle from where she’d left it the night before, turning on the farmhouse sink and filling it up. She pulls her packet of tea from her pocket as the water starts to boil, and grabs the enamel camping mug that is her favorite.

It’s quiet in the house, aside from the ticking of the grandfather clock. Figuring out how to get that thing going was one of Rey’s earliest projects, but in the end it had only needed a little winding and a good dusting to be ticking merrily on its way.

Granted, she never figured out how to change the time, but she doesn’t mind that the time is wrong. Time seems to move differently in the grand old house anyway, so who cares if the clock says it’s three thirty?

The water boils. Rey has her tea and gets to work.

X

The reading room fireplace is a mess of soot and ash, and Rey thinks grumpily that whoever last made a fire here did not clean up after themselves. She collects out the ashes into a trash bag for what feels like a small eternity and then rubs the whole hearth down with vinegar and water until the pale stone gleams.

It takes her an absurdly long time, but eventually she emerges, soot-soaked and grinning, to stand in the clean hearth with a flashlight in her hand.

Against the dark wood framing the mantle and the faded burgundy drapes that shield the bookshelves from the sunlight, the fireplace looks almost like bone.

She points the beam of light up the chimney and tries to decide if it would be safe to light a fire in here or not. She guesses it probably is. Not that she knows anything about fancy houses, but she has absent day dreams of lighting fires here in the winter and-

She stops herself.

She won’t be here that long. She’s only crashing here for a few weeks until the missing persons report has time to go stale. Then she’ll get a real job and… figure it out. Finn says he’ll vouch for her at the supermarket.

She shakes her head, getting dust into her eyes. It stings like hell.

“Right,” she says, turning to the portrait of Ben Solo on the wall as if in accusation as she scrubs soot out of her tear duct. “I bet it was you who made all this mess.”

His portrait looks back, blandly handsome and bored. A stray beam of light ghosts across the portrait, illuminating the faintest outline of a scar on his temple that she’d never noticed before. A chill runs up her back.

Rey clicks her flashlight off and scurries out of the room, wondering what sort of family has portraits painted, anyway.

X

Ten minutes later, she’s standing on the back patio in just her bra and bike shorts, letting the lukewarm water from the hose rinse the soot and dirt off her body. She scrubs at her skin with one hand and holds the hose with the other, pausing only to rinse off her laundry in the stream.

She’s got no fear of being seen, at least.

The house is remote, set almost half a mile back from the road by a dense forest of fragrant pines and climbing vines that obscure the view of any nosy passers-by. Plus, the whole property is fenced in, and even without that, the tragedy that befell the house’s previous owner keeps even the teenagers away.

Poor Leia Organa, they all say. Lost her son and her husband in one day. Must’ve been a shock. But with a grandfather like Anakin Skywalker, what could anyone really expect?

It’s gossip. She knows it’s gossip. But still. The portrait of the family, still and dark at the top of the grand marble staircase, makes Rey feel a kind of sweet, sympathetic sadness. The house is beautiful. It doesn’t deserve to be a place of fear.

The once-splendid gardens, the library full of worn books, the kitchen stocked with hand painted mugs, and the sunny studio full of half-finished paintings speaks to a family that was happy here, once.

The hose water turns cold on her skin and Rey bends down to cut the stream, her mind moving on to the comforting thought of a late afternoon meal instead. She pulls a clean tank top on, goosebumps running down her skin as the sun warms the water on her body.

X

The sun is hovering above the tree line at the edge of the sprawling back lawn, the pine trees swaying gently in the wind. Rey is humming to herself as she butters a sandwich, wiping the tarnishing steel butter knife off on the back of her hand.

It was a good day. She’ll need to go into town tomorrow to pick a few odds and ends. Some zip-ties for a makeshift repair on the chandelier, some new laces for her work boots, a plinth to finally level off that doorframe.

She reaches for the jar of pickles and struggles with it for a minute, twisting hard and allowing herself to wish there was someone else here to help her with this. Just for an instant.

But she’s alone, and that’s a good thing. And anyway, she’s almost got the god damn pickle jar open by herself when she hears the distant but very distinct sound of a key turning in front door.

It’s strange how instantly she recognizes the sound of it, considering that no one has unlocked that door in years.

Two things occur to her in quick, painful succession.

One, the only person with a key to Alderaan House is supposed to have died six months ago.

Two, she probably should have listened to crazy Maz when she insisted that Ben Solo survived that plane crash.

Rey sets the jar down on the countertop, quickly wiping her hands on her jeans and turning to the kitchen’s side door as she scrambles to think of a plan. The enormous lattice windows will give away her position long before she can make it back to the greenhouse. So, best plan is probably to sneak out around the side of the house and make for the road that way.

Her hand is reaching for the handle when she hears it.

“Wasn’t expecting a houseguest,” says a rich throaty voice from the kitchen door.

Every hair on Rey’s body stands on end. She never even heard him coming.

She turns slowly around, feeling a little like she’s about to pass out. She meets a set of wide, brown eyes set in a pale, aristocratic face. His lips part and he’s looking at her with a slightly skeptical, amused expression that she recognizes instantly.

No doubt, 100%, this is late Ben Solo. Ben Solo whose house she is currently squatting in. And he's decidedly not dead. 

He’s tall, dressed in a button down and pants, and resting a hand on the arched doorway that leads back to the main hall. He’s exactly right for a house like this. Architectural and piercing with a direct gaze and expensive, careworn clothes. She needs to say something, do something, but all her brain is giving her is that he’s just the same as his house. Which isn’t helpful. Like, at all.

She’s going to have to play really dumb for this to work.

“Welcome back,” she says breathlessly. “I wasn’t expecting you, either.”

Her heart skitters in her chest, because what the hell is she doing? She should just bolt, just run into the night, not pretend that she belongs here. But her hand on the door just won’t move, pinned to the spot as she is by his eye contact.

He blinks as the silence stretches. “Who the hell are you?” he murmurs. His voice is low and expressive.

“I’ve been looking after your house,” Rey blurts, gesturing at the lofty kitchen.

His arched brow is slightly accusatory, which, all things considered, she definitely doesn’t deserve. She’s repaired the cabinets in this room herself, never mind the dusting.

If he didn’t want his house to have fallen into disrepair, he shouldn’t have left it to rot for years.

“And who hired you to do this, exactly? Not Hux, I’m sure,” he murmurs, shifting the messenger bag on his broad shoulders. It looks heavy, and even from where she stands she can see it’s full of papers and various electronic gadgets that make Rey’s fingers itch.

An image of a portrait of a beautiful woman and a young boy with dark eyes flashes in her mind’s eye. The plaque beneath it comes to mind, and it’s as good as anything else.

She blurts, “Leia Organa. She hired me.”

His lips part, and he draws in a shallow breath, looking more startled by this than he did at finding her in his kitchen.

She wonders for a second if she’s just made a massive misstep, because he takes a step forward, eyes narrowed. Rey takes a step back, blinking as the fading light from the window strikes her face. He lifts a hand, pointing right at her chest with his lips parted like he’s about to rip her to pieces. She flinches and he stops, his eyes drifting down to her neck.

Rey’s hand flutters up to her throat, trying to cover the bruise there. When she looked at it this morning it had been an ugly yellow color, and she’d been pleased because it was healing. Now she wishes she’d thought to wear a scarf.

Then again, she hadn’t thought a dead man would be coming around to look at her. She suddenly remembers her strange outfit and feels exposed and vulnerable in a way that is familiar to her. And unpleasant.

“My mother hired you?” he murmurs, his eyes still on her neck. His finger hovers a few inches away from it, like he’s tracing it through the air. It’s… intimate. Rey steps back again until she bumps into the countertop.

“Yes, your mother,” Rey says. “The house needed seeing to, so…”

He acts like he hasn’t heard her. He drops his hand, finally looking into her eyes. “That must’ve hurt.”

“Sorry, I fell-” she starts. For a crazy second, she almost tells him the truth. Actually, I broke into your mansion because I needed a place to lay low and thought you were too dead to ever find out about it.

“You got a name?” he growls, cutting her off.

“My name's Rey,” she says, because that's the truth, at least. Then, too late, it occurs to her that she probably should have lied.

“Right,” he says. And then with no preamble, he unshoulders his bag and sets it squarely on her shoulder. Rey staggers under the weight of it and he just stands there, watching her with this sort of pleased expression on his face.

He gives her a small, half-formed smile and says, “Since you work for my family, take this to my room, will you?”

Rey is suddenly very pissed. She’s his fake-groundskeeper, not his fake servant.

She bites her cheek to stop the smart retort from slipping out. She nods, brushing past him, already cursing Ben Solo for having the absolute audacity not to have actually died. She’d just gotten settled, and now she’s going to have to move again? Damn him.

“And Rey,” he murmurs. She turns, gritting her teeth, feeling the faint brush of panic on her tongue. He smiles at her. “Don’t fall this time.”

“I’ll try,” she grinds out, and his smile widens a little bit, kind of smug, and oh hell no.

She turns woodenly and leaves the suddenly too-hot kitchen, feeling his eyes on her back the whole time.

X

The upstairs of Alderaan house is lined in faded red carpet, the wood paneled walls muffling the sound of her feet as she shuffles down to the very end of the hallway. She stops just outside the room that she always thought must have been his.

Back when Ben Solo was person she thought of in past tense.

She opens the door and sets the satchel down on the full size bed, glancing around the room and its soccer posters, ceiling-high bookshelves, and messy desk covered in stacks of composition notebooks. She’s only been in here once, too creeped out to linger.

The bed kicks up dust as the heavy bag settles, and Rey gingerly lifts the top flap of his book bag to see a few stuffed manila envelopes crammed in next to three tablets and what looks like a stack of passports.

Rey, who has never had even one passport, wonders if this is a normal thing for someone to have. Maybe if you’re rich, you get a bunch? She doesn’t flip through him, deciding she’s taken enough risks today.

She turns her back on the room and almost runs away from it.

X

She trots down the grand staircase, her eyes resting again on that damned family portrait hanging so it overlooks the entryway. There he is, Ben Solo, their town’s biggest urban legend. The Organa-Solos, a family of beautiful, tragic assholes.

She wonders if she should leave now or if she can risk grabbing her things from around the house without him noticing. The figures in the portrait stare moodily back and offer her no answers.

“Rey,” he calls, his deep voice echoing around the two story entryway. “Come in here.”

She walks into the kitchen, her heart pounding, dead sure he’s going to call her out. Her heart is in her throat when she emerges in the sunny kitchen she has spent hours making coffee, reading, and learning how to cook in. Her heart kind of breaks at the idea of leaving it.

His back is to her, and he looks out of place in the marble and iron grandeur of the kitchen. The windows above the sink frame the dark height of him, and he’s so backlit by the setting sun that he’s almost a shadow. He turns, and in his hand is the pickle jar she’d been trying to open.

“Yours?” he says, holding it out to her.

She takes it, careful not to brush his fingers with hers.

“Yeah.”

The lid is loose. He’s opened it for her.

“I hate pickles,” he says dismissively. “You’ll need to go to the store. I need actual food.”

Rey, who has been living on the cheapest food she can finds, grits her teeth. “I’m not your housekeeper.”

“Well, you’ve been living in and taking care of the place. Keeping house, you might say.”

“I haven’t been sleeping in here,” she blurts, kind of defensive that he thinks she’d do something like that. Because that’s apparently where she draws the line.

“Then why is your stuff everywhere?”

He points at one of Rey’s paperbacks, open at the big butcher-block island.

“I just come in to use the kitchen,” Rey mutters. “And the bathroom.”

He flexes his arms. “And the study, and the foyer, and the back patio, and the library.”

Rey bites her lip, a little chastened. “Well, yeah, but only to do repairs.”

He reaches behind him and pulls out her flashlight.

“Snooping?” he accuses.

Rey bristles. “No.”

Which is a damn lie, but still. She has her pride.

“And where have you been sleeping, if not in the house?” he presses. He looks grouchy, and Rey likes this a little better than the smugness.

Rey points out the window to the overgrown, emerald carpet of the back lawn. He follows her finger to the little shed attached to the absurdly overgrown greenhouse full of weeds and dead plants. Rey has been slowly slowly pulling the greenhouse into some semblance of order.

She was growing daisies to lay at Ben Solo’s graveside in their small town’s plot. Now that she’s facing the grown up and very much alive Ben Solo whose tomb she’d planned to decorate, the idea is almost funny.

“In the greenhouse,” she finishes, a little lamely.

“That building isn’t even insulated,” he says, glowering at her like this is even worse.

“It has a roof. It’s fine.”

More than fine. Better than where she’d come from. The summer is warm enough that she sleeps with the windows open most days, but she sort of wants him to think she’s stoic and tough, so she doesn’t clarify. He’s probably never even been camping.

“There are six bedrooms in this house,” he mutters. It’s not quite an offer.

“Well, I didn’t want to intrude.”

Another truth. Also, she’d fallen asleep at the kitchen table once and had a vivid dream about a boy with dark hair and chocolate eyes staring down at her. She hadn’t wanted to sleep in the house after that.

He crosses his arms again. “Fine. I’ll allow you to stay in the greenhouse on the condition that you run into town and get us some actual food.”

Rey’s about to protest but his car keys are suddenly flying through the air. Rey flinches, instinctively throwing up her hands to protect her head as she ducks. The keys skid to a harmless stop at her feet, and Rey bends to grab them without looking at him.

When she stands, he’s looking at her with that look of focused scrutiny on his face that she recognizes from the first instant they sized each other up.

She thinks he’s going to say something to address the enormous elephant in the room, because he has to at this point, doesn’t he?

But all he says is, “Get good food.”

And this time he hands her the wad of bills.

X

At the grocery store, Rey shoves what feels like a thousand dollars at Finn. He is staring at her haul of organic what-nots with widened eyes, a question forming on his lips. Rey puts both hands on the metal of the checkout lane, leaning over to speak right in her friend’s ear.

“He’s alive,” she whispers. “Ben Solo came home.”

Finn gasps.

“You’re joking.”

Rey shakes her head.

“He thinks I’m his, like, maidservant or something!” Rey hisses.

Finn’s frown deepens.

“He died in that plane crash. He has a cemetery plot, Rey. Everyone was talking, you remember all the stuff in the newspapers-”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Rey blurts, throwing her hands up in a fit of pique. “He’s back and he’s ordering me around. And I can’t tell him no because I told him I worked for him.”

Finn makes a thoughtful noise as he helps Rey bag the groceries.

“Maybe he’s an imposter,” Finn says, eyeing her avocado skeptically.

“Like me?”

“It would be appropriate,” Finn says, laughing a little.

“No, it’s definitely the real Ben Solo,” Rey says, glancing around the mostly store. “I’ve seen his photos all over the house.”

“You want to crash at my place?”

Rey shakes her head. “Your apartment is small enough for just you. I couldn’t do that.”

Finn reaches across the counter to press his hand over hers. “Better that than sharing space with a dead guy.”

Rey snorts a laugh and squeezes his hand back. But she has to swallow the lump in her throat before she can reply.

“Yeah. You’re right. Okay, just for a few days?”

Finn nods. “Of course. See you tonight?”

Rey nods, feeling kind of numb at the idea of burning yet another bridge.

“I’ll give him my fake notice tonight, I guess,” she mutters.

There’s a dull ache in her chest. She doesn’t want to leave the old house with its crumbling grandeur and dark hallways and flickering light bulbs. She wants to stay, but its owner has returned, and it’s just not going to go the way she wants it to.

They finish bagging the groceries and Finn turns to her with his serious expression on his face.

“Take care, okay? Those Organa-Solos have some skeletons in their closet.”

Rey picks up the grocery bags and shakes her head.

“I’m just worried he’s going to try and make me to clean them.”

X

When she returns with her arms full of groceries, he’s lounging in the study. She knows it’s a study because it matches every stereotype of every study she’s ever seen. Thick carpet, enormous fireplace, and a mahogany desk the size of a small country.

He’s lounging, all dark haired and moody, on one of the faded red velvet couches with a book open on his chest. Specifically, her copy of Jane Eyre.

Rey grips her paper bags full of food, glaring at him.

He’s looking at her, not smiling, just staring.

“You came back,” he says blandly. “What’s for dinner?”

Rey clears her throat. “Whatever you want to make. I’m going to work in gardens.”

He sets her book down on the coffee table, kicking up a little dust in the process. He sits up, all animated and alive.

“No,” he declares. “You’re cooking me dinner.”

Rey drops the bags on the floor, the cans at the bottom making a horrible metallic thud against the creaking parquet floors.

“I’m not your housekeeper,” she snaps. “I only helped with the groceries because I thought you were dead, and I felt sorry for you.”

He is unfazed. “Temper, temper.”

Rey considers lifting a can of beans and hurling it at his head. It’s totally irrational. It’s his stupid house, he has every right to order her around.

Regulating her tone, she says, “Look, here are your groceries. I’ll be outside if you need anything… arboreal,” she says, setting the change on the little mahogany table next to the door. It’s more money that she’s ever had to her name, and she wonders if he realized that he’d handed her something like 800 dollars to buy 70 bucks worth of groceries.

“Do you like grilled cheese?” he says, his tone serious.

“Everyone like grilled cheese,” she can’t help but reply.

“Perfect. Grill us some,” he says, getting to his feet with surprising agility for someone as… large as he is.

Rey bites back a groan, but he’s already walking right at her, stooping to pick up the bags like they weigh nothing. He breezes past her, and in the closeness she catches a scent of something kind of spicy and expensive that is right at home in the leather and wood of the study.

Feeling helpless and grouchy, she follows him to the kitchen. He’s set the groceries down on the island and is walking purposefully towards a cupboard.

“How’d you end up a groundskeeper, anyway?” he says, withdrawing a cast iron pan that is coated in rust. He looks at it questioningly, like it has something to tell him.

Rey ignores him and reaches for the non-stick skillet she’d cleaned and left on the stovetop this morning.

Rey thinks about Jane Eyre.

“I advertised,” she says. She’s trying to sound casual, but it comes out blunt, almost rude. “Like, in the newspaper,” Rey adds, grabbing bread and cheese and butter from the little fridge under the counter.

“And my mother answered?” he says. His tone is guarded, and he leans against the wall opposite from her, shifting the heavy cast iron pan experimentally from hand to hand.

“Yes,” Rey says, on unsteady footing now because she knows nothing about Leia Organa outside of what she looks like. Knowing this family, who knows if she’s even alive. But he hadn’t immediately thrown her out, so the lady must be alive.

Rey turns her gaze back to the task of cooking.

“Where have you, uh, been? Your mother didn’t say.”

He sits down on her favorite stool.

“That’s a secret,” he says coolly.

Rey turns on the gas, flicks her lighter, and watches the comforting ring of blue light spread out like a halo around the burner.

“Classified?” Rey guesses, glancing back at him. He’s watching her, his shirt sleeves riding up and his hair pushed back behind his ears. He’s handsome. He’s staring.

But his tone is blasé. “Oh, absolutely. What about you?”

Rey snorts. “Yeah. Same. Big secret.”

There’s a pause.

“What’s your last name?” he says. She hears a metallic click as he unlocks his phone, and Rey freezes.

“Smith,” she blurts. Which is a damn lie, but everything about her name and identity were made up by the court system anyway, so it’s not like she’s breaking anything that wasn’t already broken.

Another silence. The grilled cheeses start to sizzle.

“Smith,” he repeats, skeptically.

“What’s your name?” Rey counters, glaring back at him. “You have a lot of passports, so I wasn’t sure.”

He blinks. Frowns. “Little snoop.”

Rey flips the grilled cheese over, her back to him again. Forcing herself to keep her voice neutral and calm, she says, “Well, you have a gravestone in town, so I was a little skeptical of who you actually are.”

There’s another of those loaded moments of silence, and suddenly he laughs. He’s laughing hard and way too loud for a room full of metal and glass surfaces, and it’s so booming it’s like the entire house is laughing with him in the echoes. Rey turns, grilled cheese forgotten as gapes at him.

He pounds a hand on the table and gasps, “Hux actually did it, the asshole. Oh I’m going to kill him.”

But he doesn’t sound angry. He sounds totally thrilled at the idea.

Nervous, Rey adds, “There was an announcement in the paper-“

Then he’s laughing again, kicking his head back. Rey stares in wonder. Who knew that dead men could laugh?

When he finally calms down, he rubs his eyes and sits back, still grinning.

“Well if that’s how it is, I really am dead. That asshole never does anything halfway. I’m sure he had me legally declared dead,” he says, almost fondly.

He ducks his head, picking up what is undoubtedly the nicest cell phone Rey’s ever seen, and typing furiously.

“Um,” Rey starts. She’s totally lost.

“Grilled cheese, Rey,” he prompts without looking up at her.

She glances back at where their dinner is burning. She curses, scrambling for a plate and killing the gas.

Once they’re plated, she hands one to him, wary of this insane man with the beautiful hair.

“So,” Rey starts. “You’re going to have to explain some stuff to me, Mr. Solo.”

He sets his phone down and picks up the grilled cheese.

“Call me Kylo Ren,” he says. His eyes glint like he’s still laughing on the inside, though she can’t fathom why.

“Sorry?” Rey says, bewildered.

He grins. “Ben Solo is legally dead. I just checked. So I may as well use my favorite alias. That’ll piss Hux off, since he has to make me a new one.”

“Should you be… telling me this?” Rey murmurs, bewildered.

His grin is a little feral. “I’m not worried about you, Rey. You’ve got something to lose, just like me.”

“Is that a threat?” Rey says, bristling. She knows about threats.

He frowns, shoving his phone in his pocket.

“No, sorry, I just meant-”

“Look, I don’t know what is going on, but you can’t just-”

He holds his hands up as if in surrender, still holding the grilled cheese. Butter drips down his fingers. Rey glowers at him, confused. Angry.

Knowing it’s irrational, all she can think is that this guy is coming back here and ruining everything, and to make it worse, he’s being so weird about it. Laughing? Who laughs at being declared legally dead?

It means something to die. The twinkle in his eye fades as they lock eyes.

“Rey,” he says, a single strong syllable. “I’m sorry. I’m being a jerk.”

Yeah,” Rey says, still angry but placated, a little. She leans back against the tile counter, picking up her slightly burnt grilled cheese and biting into it. It occurs to her that a guy like him is probably used to eating with a fork and knife, but before she can offer him one he’s biting into his own sandwich.

“S’good,” he says, over a mouthful. It’s just American cheese and plain bread with butter and pepper, but he’s right, it is good. Rey’s hackles relax. Just slightly.

He leans forward, the chair creaking under his weight as his eyes find hers again.

“I’m not threatening you. I just meant you… clearly have something going on, and I doubt you’re going to go and snitch on me. I’m a pretty good judge of character,” he says, taking another bite. “And I’m just not worried about you giving away my secret.”

It’s not clear to her whether he means that as a compliment or not.

“Are you in the witness protection program?” Rey blurts, deciding she just has to say it.

His answering smile is a little too pleased for her taste.

“Yeah, Rey. I’m in the witness protection program.”

And there’s a note in his voice that makes her think that he’s lying, but really, what other option is there for how he’d he’d be dead but not… actually. And it’s not like she can really give him any grief for lying.

“Okay,” Rey says slowly, feeling an idea start to grow in her mind. There’s a chance this could work. She might not have to bolt into the night.

“So we’ll just… leave each other alone, I guess?” he says, his smirk fading. “I’m only home for a few weeks before I have to leave again. I could use a little help around the house, since I can’t go into town.”

“Because you’re dead,” Rey confirms. The hope from before trembles in her chest. She can stay. She can stay.

“Correct,” he says, nodding briskly. His posture is perfect.

“So I’ll look out for your secret, and you, Kylo Ren, won’t send me away,” Rey confirms.

He nods. “And I wouldn’t mind if next time, you didn’t burn the dinner.”

X

From her greenhouse, Rey glares up at the no-longer-abandoned Alderaan House, feeling a quiet sort of hope warring with her grouchiness.

There’s a light on in the study, and Rey pictures what it must look like in there with just the table lamp on. Warm and cozy, with the clock on the mantle ticking out a cheerful and irregular beat into the silence. Sometimes, the house will shift a little and the floorboards will creak and the wind will howl.

Kylo Ren is probably in there now, looking at the fireplace she’d spent the morning cleaning. She’d been thinking about him, feeling sorry for him.

Rey tries not to feel jealous of him for owning a house like this. She should be grateful. After all, she’s still here and not sleeping on Finn’s couch feeling dejected and miserable. And he said he would leave, so maybe once he’s gone he won’t mind if she just stays. Doubtful, but she can dream, right? 

She flicks off the kerosene lamp on the workbench, fluffing the pillow on her camp bed and trying to put Ben Solo, or Kylo Ren, or whatever the hell he wants to call himself, out of her damn mind.

Before she lies down for the night, she gives the house one last look. There is smoke coming from the chimney. He has lit a fire in her hearth. Bastard.

Chapter Text

Chapter two. 

Rey knows about forests, and the one that surrounds Alderaan House is the deep, silent kind. It’s the pine trees that do that, especially when they’re clustered together like ones here, their boughs brushing the acidic dirt and smothering most of the plant life under a dense layer of soft, crinkling needles. 

Rey knows this forest was probably cultivated intentionally, once, because in some places she can see that the trees form a kind of grid. If she looks at it from just the right spot, she can see what feels like an infinite amount of tall, thick trunks growing in a straight line.

But the forest is more than that. It’s the destruction that lives here. Dead branches, fallen brush decaying into moldering piles that disintegrate underfoot, flattened scrub in areas where deer have bedded down for the night. She finds bones, too, though not so many. Small animals, moddly, and the occasional antler. Once, an entire limb from…something. 

Rey doesn’t trek far into the woods and never past the stream. For all that this is a nice forest, there’s still something about it that tells her to keep her head up. It might be way it that pushes up against Alderaan’s back garden, tumbling over the once-manicured lawn like it’s hungry, or sentient, or just really enthusiastic. 

Rey, like all people who grow up in the woods, knows that the spirits in forests and farmlands are as much a part of the landscape as the hills and streams.

How else can she explain the feeling she sometimes gets, in this wood and in others, that something is walking right behind her, looking at the back of her head, and that she must not turn around and look at it? Or the faint taste of metal that fills her mouth when she stumbles unexpectedly across a stream reflecting moonlight? How else can she rationalize that faint, distant music that strums in the air only in the deepest, quietest parts of the forest? 

Spirits are real, and they live in the woods. They’re no more dangerous than any other wild thing, but Rey keeps her eyes keen and her senses alert. Up until recently, her main occupation in life had been avoiding attention, so she’s good at foresting.

Plus, she’s not scared. The forest is a friend to her. It has given her cottage a second roof of fallen maple leaves and pine needles, and the white pines send a soft fragrance into the air that is a delight to smell when the breeze stirs through the dense, dark foliage. The trees are tall and strong, and she has climbed them more than once.

This morning, it is an hour past dawn and Rey is walking to her favorite tree in the early morning light, running her hands against the apple in her pocket. She has a rope for climbing draped around her shoulders, and as she marches her silent way she imagines that she’s the only person in the entire world, climbing to a tree to see what she can find. 

X

Her pine tree is a great, fat thing with a bent trunk that forks luxuriously about a foot above her head when she stands at the base. As she loops her rope around the lowest branch and climbs inelegantly up the trunk, she glances down at the forest floor. 

The area around her tree is littered with fallen pine trees that are almost invisible on the ground, but whose falling has left a soft tawny scar on the earth. These were scrawny things that never got the chance, crowded out from the daylight by the bigger, stronger ones. Trees like hers.

Her hands already coated in sweet-smelling resin, Rey scrambles along the forked branch, feeling its solid weight under her feet as she holds a parallel branch above her head height for stability. It’s like she’s walking a very wide, very strong tight rope, and when she reaches the end of the branch she stops and looks out over the treetops. 

She can see the house in the distance, of course. Stately and elegant, from here she can’t see the decay, can’t hear the calling birds or the silence of the fountain. It’s just a beautiful house at the edge of the town, sloping and graceful.  

She can even see a bit of the unkempt lawn and the edge of the empty fountain, though her cottage is lost to the foliage. Rey draws in clear breaths, thinking, feeling. 

Then she pulls out her binoculars.  

Upon closer inspection, she can see that his curtains are closed, which isn’t a surprise given the generally shuttered nature of the house in general. She wonders if he’s one of those people who sleep pretty.

But spying on her new boss isn’t the reason Rey came here. Not really. She came here to see if she could pull a bigger picture of the place she’s come to call home, and maybe shake off the weird claustrophobia she’s been feeling ever since she woke up. She just wants to look at the house and commit it to memory before it gets all messed up by whatever nonsense this Kylo Ren person is planning.

The sun has cleared the top of the tree line, sending shafts of beaming light onto the back of the house. Something glints, catching the light, and Rey swings her binoculars up to an open window on the top floor.

It’s swinging in the wind. She’s too far away to hear it, but it must be banging against the side of the house. It hadn’t been open when she’d looked before. Rey lowers her binocs, squinting at the house as if seeing it from a further distance will make it less unsettling. 

She’s going to have to close that window, never mind how it opened in the first place. She feels a storm coming. She’s lifting the binocs up again when she feels the hair on the back of her neck rise.

Very slowly, she glances down at the forest floor as a strange sort of something brushes by her, a shadow she can’t see. The idea of a shadow.

Forest beings are quiet, watchful, and almost always harmless. Rey doesn’t believe in ghosts or anything like that, but she’s spent much of her life playing in the trees, hiding from her life, and she knows the feeling for what it is. 

“Forest spirit,” Rey murmurs quietly, like she’s teaching it its name.

She’s not scared of whatever thing is looking at her now, just takes it at as a sign that it’s time to go. Whatever thing lives around here doesn’t want her looking at the house, or standing on this branch, or climbing up this tree. 

Near her head, a crow she hadn’t seen takes off with a beat of wings and a harsh cry that is loud enough to startle her, and Rey snaps out a grouchy, “Okay, okay, I’m going.

Which is fine by Rey. She’s got a job to do, apparently. 

X  

Rey makes her way back up to the house, her binoculars slung in her back pocket and her apple core thrown onto her tiny compost pile as she passes. She walks through the kitchen and heads up the main staircase, hell bent on fixing whatever broken catch has let the window loose.

The murky foyer light filters through two story windows that need a good scrubbing, illuminating the hazy constellation of dust that always hovers in the air in these tall ceilinged rooms.  

At the top of the steps, she glances only briefly at the portrait. Man, woman, and boy are all accounted for. Then she hears the snoring.  

She turns, her eyes narrowing in on the mahogany double doors of the master bedroom. It’s a room that, at her last check, had been unoccupied. She glances down to the opposite end of the hallway and finds the door to Ben Solo’s room open. She pads down and glances in, noting that the bag she’d brought up for him is gone and all the lights are off.  

Irritated, she realizes that he’s moved into the master bedroom. Like he owns the place. She rolls her eyes and walks to the paneled door that conceals the servant stairs leading up to the narrow third floor where she’d seen the window hanging open. 

The staircase is creaky and narrow, and Rey holds her breath the whole time she’s climbing. It’s partly out of fear that the steps will collapse under her weight, but mostly because she doesn’t want to be caught up here if the new master of the house wakes up.

But he snores on, oblivious to her.

At the landing, Rey coughs the dust out of her lungs, eyes watering as they adjust to the dimmer light on the third story. The top floor is effectively one long hallway with three tiny rooms on each side running the length of the house but not quite the width. The rooms were servant quarters, mostly, with a large attic space at the end that she’s been meaning to poke around. 

She glances over her memory of the view from the tree and counts doors until she reaches the third one on the eastern side of the house. The door’s paint is chipping, but it opens easily. The room is empty. The window is shut. There’s nothing there at all.

Rey glances around, feeling uneasy and curious. There’s a freshness to the air here that makes her think that the window could have been opened; the air doesn’t have that oppressive feeling that old air sometimes has. 

She crosses to the window, tries the catch, and finds that it opens smoothly. There’s nothing visibly wrong with the mechanism. From the view, she can see her tree, even the very branch where she’d been standing. Her cottage, mossuary like a river stone, stands like a statue at the brink of the forest.

The fresh air is cool and sweet, and she leans out the window to take in a clear view of the rising sun to the east and the simmering haze of storm clouds encroaching from the north.

It’s a little surreal that less than a month ago, she’d been living in a mobile home with a foster parent she barely saw. And now she’s… here. In this amazing house.

She’ll need to get a tarp up over her cottage if she wants her stuff to weather the storm. The warped wood in the greenhouse is a testament to just now not-watertight the roof is. So she shuts the window firmly straightening up to turn around.

He’s standing in the doorway when she turns around, and Rey screams. He holds up his hands, his eyes wide, and takes a step back. 

“Easy,” he says, looking just as startled as she is. “Sorry, I heard footsteps and I thought-“ 

Rey’s shock turns immediately into outrage.  

“You followed me?” Rey says, stomping forward. The jig is up, apparently. He’s wearing flannel pajama pants, old ones by the looks of them, and his hair is loose around his shoulders.

He crosses his arms. “I didn’t expect you to come into the house, let alone the third floor. It’s dangerous up here.” 

“I’m caretaking,” Rey snaps, pointing at the window frame like it needed her urgent attention. 

His eyes narrow. “Right. Caretaking that perfectly fine window frame.” 

She speaks before she thinks. “It was open this morning, I saw it, and I came up here to shut it before the storm and…” 

Then she trails off because she doesn’t want him to think she’s both crazy and bad at her fake job.  

He blinks. “This window? You’re sure?”   

Still defensive, Rey snaps, “Absolutely sure.” 

His face loses its hostility, and he makes a hmm noise.  

“Interesting,” he murmurs. Then turns around and walks out of the room. 

Rey stumbles after him, still itching for a fight and curious as all hell. 

He’s almost as tall as the ceiling, and he keeps ducking his head to avoid the hanging light fixtures. 

“Why did you ask me that?” Rey says, kind of jogging to keep up.  

“That was my uncle’s favorite room in the house,” he says tonelessly. 

Rey brightens. “You have an uncle?” 

He glances back, pausing in his step to throw her an inscrutable look. Rey colors, embarrassed, because why would she say something so weird? It’s just that she doesn’t have an uncle. 

“I had an uncle,” he mumbles. And turns back to his walk. 

“Oh,” Rey says, deflating. She can’t bring herself to feel stupid about it, but she’s sorry all the same. It strikes her that there’s a lot of death in this house.  

They descend the creaky stairs in silence, him walking in front of her without speaking. He clears the door and doesn’t hold it for her, disappearing into the red-carpeted hallway. The concealed door shuts with a bang, and Rey rolls her eyes as she jogs down the steps after him. 

“Ben,” she starts to call. 

Then a board gives way underneath her foot and Rey lets out her second scream of the morning. She drops three feet into the soft blackness underneath the rotting stairs before her hands catch on the railing and stop her fall. The staircase has swallowed her leg up to her knee, and she can feel the quick sting of fresh scrapes on the skin there. 

The door in front of her flies open and Kylo Ren appears, his face a mask of intense focus. 

Rey is already yanking her leg out of the hole and cursing to herself when he leans down and rips the board off the frame entirely. Rey’s leg comes free with the board, and then he leans down breaks the board trapping her leg in half. He does it so casually that it almost doesn’t seem possible.

“Thanks,” Rey starts. Then, without giving her anything even close to a heads up, he reaches forward and picks her up around the waist, lifting her free of the staircase and setting her down on the red carpeted second story hallway. In the half second she’s airborne, all she can think is that this is what ballerinas must feel like when they do those lifts.

He releases her, taking a step back to frown thunderously at her. 

“See, this is what I was saying,” he says. “It’s dangerous up there.”

He hadn’t said that, so she ignores him. Rey drops down on one knee to inspect her leg. The scrapes are shallow. The rotting board didn’t have the structural integrity to do much damage, but it’s still irritating. The wounds sting.

His voice comes a little softer. “You okay?”  

Rey stands. “Yeah, just need to get it cleaned off.” 

“I’ll help you,” he says, and then he’s off again, striding down the hallway toward the master bedroom. 

“You really don’t have to,” Rey protests weakly. But he ignores her, his long strides carrying him to the door, which he disappears behind. Rey huffs, annoyed, because she’s always preferred tending her own wounds to having someone fuss over her. She walks down the hallway, refusing to limp, and hesitates for a second outside the doors. 

“Rey, hurry up,” he calls from the inside, like he knows she’s stalling. 

The master bedroom must have been re-done in the 80’s, bexcuse the carpet underfoot is a plush, faded cream color. The four poster bed is heavy and dark, done up in dark linens. Large curtains brush the floor. It’s gothic in an 80’s way, and she likes it. It has a cozy vibe. The bathroom door is open, and, ignoring the messed up spot on the bed where he must have just been sleeping, she pads into the bathroom. 

He’s rummaging around in a cupboard, taking down dusty boxes of toiletries and supplies and setting them on the green marble counter top. His pajama pants hang low on his hips and Rey looks away as he reaches up to grab something easily from the highest shelf and his t-shirt lifts up. His lower back is pale and freckled.

He turns, a medical kit in hand, and gestures her closer. She makes to take the box from him, but he waves her hand away. 

“Sit,” he instructs, pointing to the counter.  

Bemused, Rey hops up and lets her legs dangle as he unpacks the med kit. With the precision of an army surgeon, he takes out bandages, antiseptic ointment, and sterile gauze. He washes his hands and then kneels in front of her, his eyes level with her bellybutton as he inspects the scrapes.  

But his gaze is assessing and professional, and she relaxes a little. He reaches for some sterile gauze and cleans the wound of the bits of wood and brown stuff that have collected in the tender scrapes, his movements practiced and gentle. Then he applies a bandage on top of antiseptic ointment, telling her to bend her knee to pull the skin taught.

She obeys him, silent and a little charmed by the vision of this giant on the ground in front of her, treating what is really just a minor injury with the seriousness of someone about to amputate a leg. 

When it’s all done, he stands. “That should do it. Keep an eye on it and tell me if you get a fever.” 

Rey smiles at him, trying not to laugh. “It’s just a scrape.” 

Ren scowls. “This house has caused so much grief in its time, I’m sure it’ll try to give you tetanus or send you into a septic shock or something.” 

Rey hops down from the counter as Ren reassembles the kit. She glances around the room, noting the hairbrush on the counter and the shampoo in the shower. New additions since her first and only foray into this room. 

The master bath has a domed skylight, and Rey squints up at it. It’s covered in dirt and grime. 

“Is there a way to get on the roof?” she asks. 

“You just got a serious injury from going above past the second floor, and now you want to go on the roof?” he says acidly. 

Rey puts a hand on her hip, ignoring him. “It would be a great view, I bet. And anyway, I could clean that skylight off. It would be nice.” 

“Roof’s off limits. Boss’ orders,” he says flatly. 

“Aw, come on,” she says, walking in a little circle to look up at it from all directions. “It’s such a shame it’s dirty when it would be so easy to fix.” 

There’s pause, and she glances back down from the skylight to find him looking at her with an odd expression on his face. 

“What?” Rey says, half-convinced she’s just said something that has blown her cover. 

He shakes his head. “Nothing. Now scram, kid, I need to shower.” 

But he’s giving her a small smile, and he looks almost sweet for a second. When she doesn’t immediately move, he grins wickedly at her and reaches down to pull his shirt off, and Rey squeaks in protest and turns hastily for the door.  

“Make us pancakes,” he calls after her.  

“Fine,” she shouts back, resolutely ignoring the blush on her cheeks. 

He emerges with wet hair and jeans on, a towel around his neck and color in his cheeks from the warm water. He looks fresh and clean in that model kind of way, and it’s… annoying. 

He walks wordlessly to the fridge, nudging her aside with his hip so he can reach in and take out the orange juice she’d bought yesterday. She ignores this, flipping the pancakes on the griddle. 

He pours himself a glass as Rey plates the pancakes, and when she turns to hand him a plate she realizes that he drank the whole glass in about two seconds. Fruit juice like that, freshly pressed and delicious, is something Rey would have savored, drinking it slowly and deeply.  

He catches her eye and raises an eyebrow. Rey shakes her head, thrusting a plate at him. It’s not her business how the man drinks his juice.

“Pancakes à la Rey,” she says. 

He grunts appreciatively and sits at the island stool, setting the plate in front of him. She remembers the fork and knife this time and hands him a set before she leans against the counter to eat her own stack. They’re good. Not her best, but not the worst, either.  

He doesn’t appear to care, devouring them in huge bites with the ferocity of a hungry dog. Rey’s a little startled that she has better table manners than he does. 

Catching her stare, he sits up a bit. “Sorry, I haven’t had real food in a long time, and these are damn good.” 

Rey nods, because she knows what that’s like.

“Ramen and granola bars?” she guesses. 

Around another bite, he mutters, “Nah, army rations mostly.” 

Rey sets her plate down, her sense of curiosity peaked.  

“You’re in the military?” she says. 

His motions still for just a second. Just enough that she sees that he hadn’t meant to tell her that. 

“Yeah,” he finally says. “Hand me the orange juice?” 

Rey obliges. He meets her eyes again and says, “And a new cup.” 

She gives him that, too, wondering if this is some rich people breakfast thing. Two cups for each glass of juice, just to make it more ridiculous and labor intensive. Keep the help busy so they don’t riot. But he hands the glass he pours to her, an expectant look on his face as she takes it. 

She sips. It’s good and she tells him so. They finish the meal in companionable silence. 

He leaves the kitchen abruptly after he finishes the food, not saying another word. He disappears upstairs, and Rey doesn’t follow him. She’d been expecting him to give her orders or something, since he’s her boss, but he hadn’t.  

So she scrubs the pan and dishes in the sink, the sun’s rays warming her hands in the light of the windows. She wishes they had a coffee machine, because she’d really like a cup after her surreal morning. But she makes another cup of tea instead, sipping it slowly as she debates her plans for the day.  

The air in the house is getting hotter and humid, heavy like summer days are, and it reminds her that she needs to prep for the storm. She sets her mug on the counter and shucks off her chucks to walk barefoot out onto the hot stone patio. She collects her dried laundry from the metal railing and pulls the faded canvas lawn chairs under the deck, scaring the daylights out of the orange tabby cat who hangs out under there.  

Rey crouches, calls to the cat, but she’s disappeared under the house again. Rey makes a mental note to set out a bowl of milk for her.  

Next, she goes in hunt of a tarp.

The old garage is dimly lit and kind of orange, shielded from the sun by the trees overhead. Rey would have slept in here rather than the greenhouse, but the roof here is even less secure than the greenhouse, and she hadn’t felt easy even in the presence of the terrific, rusted out hunk of car that is the garage’s only occupant. 

But she ignores the car today in favor of the bright blue folded tarp she’d seen on the workbench. Luckily for her, it’s in good shape and it’s huge, and she thinks it was supposed to cover the car up at one point. But the rust covering the body is a testament to the fact that no one had, and she feels kind of sad for the car. 

But the electric feeling on the back of her neck reminds her that weather is coming, and she won’t want to do this when it’s drizzling. 

Outside again, Rey treks back to the cottage with some stakes, her tarp, and a length nylon cord that she thinks will do the trick to secure the roof. Her feet are caked in mud and moss, but she doesn’t regret forgoing the shoes. She likes the feeling of her bare feet in the earth. It makes her feel calm.  

After hour and much cursing, she has successfully secured the tarp over the potting shed. She’d used the nylon cord to wrap the ends around the shutters, pulling and yanking until the rotting shingles are all covered up by a shock of blue plastic. Against the leafy grandeur of the trees overhead, the greenhouse’s new addition looks incredibly out of place, and the contrast makes her laugh, because this is exactly the sort of thing she would do. Take something grand and elegant and make it functional but strange. 

She double checks that both the windows are shut and turns back to the house. 

The hose water is cold today as Rey strips down to her bralette and bike shorts to wash the sweat and grime off. She’s completely soaked in freezing cold water when she realizes she’d left the soap at the kitchen sink, so she kills the tap and runs, dripping and chattering, up the steps to the back door. She explodes into the kitchen and almost runs into the dark figure of Kylo Ren, who is washing her coffee cup. 

His eyes run down the length of her and then snap up to her face. And then he turns his head away, making a noise that is some sort of half-strangled groan. 

“Sorry,” Rey says, glancing at the puddle at her feet. “I’ll clean it up, I just need the soap.” 

He hands it to her without a word, looking pissed off. Rey ducks back out, a little embarrassed she’d made a mess in the kitchen. She showers quickly, running the soap across her body as fast as she can.

She only slows down to avoid her bandage, which she’s been keeping out of the spray of water as much as possible. It’s a relief to cut the water line and wrap herself up in her towel, running the soft cotton over her body and trying not to think about Kylo Ren’s eyes on her face.  

Whatever, if he doesn’t think she’s fancy enough to live in his potting shed, he’s going to have to get over it. She pulls her tank top back on, wringing her hair out over her shoulder so the drips land on the warm pavement.  

He’s gone when she comes back into the house. She doesn’t know how she’s so certain he’s not in the building, but she just… is. There’s something magnetic and distracting that he carries around with him that’s missing from the air. Still, though, she holds still in the foyer for a good two minutes, listening for the sound of any footsteps.  

There’s nothing.

She wonders where he’s gone off to. Or how he got here. He probably has a car, somewhere, right? But he hadn’t parked it in the garage. 

Curious, Rey opens the front door and peers out. To the left, the curving circular driveway skirts the edge of the dilapidated garage, and to the right a wide slope of lawn slopes gently downward toward a line of once-manicured hedges. 

A faint breeze pulls at her hair, tickling her neck and face. The sky has taken on the faintly green-grey hue of a pre-storm sky, and she looks for any sign of tire tracks. Or human tracks. But there’s nothing, and she retreats back into the house before the faint rustling of the trees calls her to the forest again.  

The only thing more potent than a forest is a one on the brink of a storm. Rey’s not fool enough to venture, but she wonders if Kylo Ren is. 

A shadow at the corner of her eye draws her attention, and she turns, expecting to see a mouse or a person, but there’s nothing but the breeze blowing through the open door and the faint sound of the chandelier overhead, swaying gently. Rey swallows, staring up at the gentle, rocking movement, and tells herself that it’s just the wind, just the faint shift of the house on an old foundation and aging structural beams.  

She refuses to look at that damn portrait, knowing without looking that the figure of Ben Solo will be smirking. 

Something warm and soft brushes her feet, and Rey exhales with relief as the orange cat rubs herself against her foot, meowing in a friendly way. She’s apparently forgiven Rey for scaring her earlier, so Rey stoops to pet the furry animal.

She murmurs, “Good to see someone around here who’s not supposed to be dead.” 

The cat meows.  

“Good point,” Rey says, scratching the cat’s temple with her bitten nails. “You want something to drink?’ 

Rey brings the cat her milk in the library, because, with its high bookshelves and thick curtains that are good for curling up on or hiding in, it seems like the most feline room in the house. The couch beckons Rey as the cat makes herself at home with the bowl of milk on the Persian rug. Rey flops down, reaching for her book and relaxing against the dense, tufted velvet chaise long. She feels indolent and young.

Outside, the sky is darkening, and it feels much later than the three thirty that it actually is. 

Her mind flits uneasily back to Kylo Ren as she tries to relax into Jane Eyre, wondering where he went and if he’ll be back. After all, that’s what these people do, isn’t it? They disappear.  

The cat comes and sits on her lap after a time, and Rey wonders idly if she used to be someone’s pet. She seems comfortable indoors. With the warm heat of the cat, the soothing words of a book she’s ready many times before, and the heavy weight of the air around her, Rey falls into a light doze.  

She dreams of something vague and shadowy, a dark haired figure binding up a wound, a chandelier crashing to the ground, a door shutting in her face.  

And when she wakes up, it is because she can feel that forest feeling again, that sense that there is something, someone, looking at her and she must not turn around or be lost to it.  

She opens her eyes, and he’s sitting in an armchair across from her, his eyes fixed on her face. 

“Comfortable?” he murmurs.

Rey sits up, jarring the cat. “Where did you go?”

He arches a brow. “For a walk.”

It’s a normal enough thing to say. After all, that’s what she did this morning. She cranes her neck around, trying not to disturb the cat again, and looks at the darkened landscape of the backyard. The sky is almost black.

“I’ll go,” Rey says, realizing that she’s just hanging out in the house when that was the one thing she’d said she didn’t do.

“You want to see something creepy?” he says, with no preamble.

She wants to say no. She means to say no.

What comes out instead is, “Where?”

Chapter Text

Chapter three.

Rey stares and stares, one hand rubbing her cheek. She tilts her head one way, then the other, trying to understand how he could have blown her mind quite so thoroughly.

“No way,” Rey says. “I’ve been in here a hundred times. This is, like, new.”

“You think I built an entire secret passage way just to fuck with you?” he says, crossing his arms. There are faint scratches running down his forearms.  

Rey turns her gaze from the doorway that he has revealed in the library, glaring at him, because this is no time for jokes. There’s a secret tunnel in the study.  Does he not understand that the only thing that could make Rey fall even more in love with this house is a secret god damn tunnel?

“Kind of, yeah,” she says, trying to emulate that haughty tone of his, though inside she is giddy with excitement.

He points at the dark void of the doorway in accusing way, like he wasn’t the one who lifted the damn mahogany panel off its hinges with an obscene strain of his muscles and carried ten feet of wood straight off the wall.

That panel, harmless and unassuming now, leans against the fireplace and leaves a pitch black hole in the wall. It's so dark, it's almost like it’s stealing light from the room and crushing it into canvas of pure, dark black. It’s dark in the study itself, the study’s single lamp doing little to light the flat black darkness. Cool air wafts out from the tunnel, stirring a loose strand of her hair around her face.

He smiles. “You know that whistling noise you can hear in here? It’s because the tunnel has a draft.”

Rey, who had always taken that noise as the sort of thing that you just hear in wood-paneled studies, feels faintly embarrassed. Like she’s supposed to have guessed that there’s a hidden tunnel. Which, given everything...she maybe should have.  

Rey takes a step forward, eager to see the thing now that she’s sure it’s not some kind of trick.

“Hey,” he barks, his hand taking her wrist. “Nope.”

She turns to level him with a baleful stare, but he doesn’t let go of his hold on her. She points into the tunnel with her free hand.

“Your plan was to show me a secret tunnel, and you thought I wouldn't want to go into it?” she says flatly.

His lips quirk, and he lets go of her wrist. She rubs where his fingers had been, trying to rub the warm feeling out of them.

“No, my plan was to show you this and then show you where it lets out.”

“Or, we could just take the secret tunnel there instead,” Rey counters.

“I prefer to cut out the middle man,” he says flatly.

“But-”

“You remember when your leg went through that step up to the third floor? This staircase is older than that one. I’m saving us both the trouble of you breaking your leg.”

She flexes her toes, adjusts her stance, and says, “Fine.”

Thank you,” he starts to say, but then Rey bolts through the door and sprints up the staircase.

He’s calling her name and dashing up after her, apparently forgetting his concern about the stairs as Rey darts like a bird up the curving spiral steps. She has an impression of slats of narrow wood pressing close against the stairs and the sound of her feet pounding on narrow steps.

“God damn it, Rey,” he snarls, right behind her.

She stumbles when she emerges at the top, because it’s so dark that she doesn’t see the steps leveling out into a little fore-room until she’s staggering to a halt. It’s lit only by a gleam filtering through the slats of the clapboard walls, and as she takes a few gasping breaths her eyes adjust to the darkness. Ben doesn’t see her stop, apparently, because he runs into her.

He swears, crowding her body against the door, his chest pressed flat against her back as she scrabbles for a catch or a knob or something to get all two tons of muscle from… pressing against her like this. He straightens, righting both of them with a quick grip of his arms on her shoulders.

Apparently reclaiming his calm, Ren mutters something she doesn’t catch and brushes her hand away. She almost can’t see him, it’s so dark, but the touch of his hand as he brushes across the top of hers makes her pull her hand back like she’s been burned. Then the door swings open and Rey stumbles into-

A room. A study. A dimly lit attic study with bookshelves, a large table, and a narrow window pushing against a slanted ceiling that cuts into the room like the brim of a hat.

It’s utterly quiet. No, she mentally corrects, this room is hushed even with the sound of the wind buffeting against the roof right above them. It’s a masculine space, and in the watery night brightness that filters through a window to one side and a skylight above, she has the impression of a place that has been preserved from time. It feels like she’s walked into a memory of a place that no longer exists.

How sad, she thinks, out of nowhere. Then shakes herself, because what a strange, sentimental thing to think.

Rey pads forward, him and his muscles forgotten for the moment as the skylit room takes up every ounce of her concentration. The room has a sloping ceiling, and Rey realizes that in terms of size and layout, it’s basically just a more luxurious servant’s room. She recognizes the narrow window with the wooden casement from the room with the open window this morning.

With the mahogany desk, the bookshelves, the faded carpets, it’s straight out of a Christie novel. It looks a lot like the study downstairs, only more intimate and a little older.

Then Ben Solo starts to talk, and her reverie pops like a punctured balloon. 

“That was tremendously stupid.”

She ignores him, because he’s frowning at her and she’s not in the mood to be scolded when there’s a secret office right in front of her.

“This is amazing,” Rey breathes, padding over to the bookshelf to run her hands greedily across the smooth, dusty wood holding up dozens of leather bound books with faded covers and gold lettering. It’s exactly the sort of room she’d like for herself. Small, with a ceiling near to her head and a little window to give her a view of anyone who comes and goes. Safe and secure. A secret.

Apparently still snitty about her stairs stunt, he says, “Do you always look before you leap?”

But he doesn’t sound that annoyed. 

“Worked out fine for me so far,” she murmurs, almost whispers, because there is something sacred in the stillness of this space. Rey runs a finger across the spines of a series of books with titles in Latin and German.

“Good way to get yourself killed.”

She turns back and meets his eyes just as the first raindrops fall. The first drops are soft, hitting the metal roof with a delicate, thoughtful patter that reminds Rey of music.

“Whose office was this?” she finally thinks to ask.

Ben blinks, too, like he’s forgotten to explain.

“My grandfather’s study,” he says quietly.

“It’s amazing,” she breathes, taking a few quick steps to his side so she can look up at him to see if he’s still annoyed with her for the stairs thing. Plus, she likes being near him. She’d known he was a mystery from the minute he showed up, but as she folds him into her understanding of this place, these people, it feels a little like he’s right in the middle of it. Or maybe at the end of it.

A lonely person. She would know.

“Can I poke around?” she says when he doesn’t do anything except look at her.

“Whatever you want,” he says, and he sounds almost wistful. Which doesn’t really make sense. But then, neither does having a secret study accessible by a hidden spiral staircase.

Rey turns and almost runs over to the desk. It’s smooth and dusty, but not any more dusty than the rest of the house had been when Rey had first arrived here. She pulls out the chair, flicking her gaze to where Ben Solo stands, watching her. He hasn’t moved once, and she wonders if she’s being a little too gleeful about something he thought she’d be creeped out by.  

“Can I sit in the chair?” she asks, feeling a bit like she’s playing house in a tomb.

He nods, his gaze breaking off from her face to scan the room. Rey sits down in the chair, swinging her legs. She’s not short, but Ben’s grandfather must have been a tall man, because the chair is high off the ground. When she rests her forearms on the cool wood, she imagines a powerful business man sitting here, smoking a cigar with a glass of bourbon. In her mind's eye, he looks like Ben. 

Ren has turned to the window, looking at the front lawn with his back to her. While he’s distracted, Rey eyes the desk drawers. They’re locked, but Rey has that keyring she found in the shed. She reaches into her pocket and loops a finger around the smooth metal, debating the merits of subtly opening a drawer and rooting around while Ben broods. But his voice stops her.

“You don’t know about my family, do you?”

That… stops her mischief cold in its tracks. She sits up, glancing around the room anew, looking for that something Ben is seeing that she can’t. The house is full of spots like that, invisible patterns and histories that swirl in the air, written in a language she can’t read. In some rooms, the feeling is so thick it’s almost like some kind of emotional hangover from a lifetime she never lived.

It’s a little unsettling.

“Just know the rumors,” she says, trying to be careful. She’s not the best at talking about families. “Should I?”

He turns back to her, his eyes as stormy as the sky.

“I’d prefer it if you didn’t, but based on your reckless disregard for the structural integrity of this building, I'd rather you hear it from me.”

Rey, silent and suddenly a little nervous, raises an eyebrow. She’s desperate to hear anything he’ll share with her about these people, this place.  

“Why do you think someone would want a secret office, Rey?” he says, taking a few steps forward until his legs touch the side of the desk.

“I don't know,” she says, deciding that the truth is her best bet here.

He frowns even deeper, and she wonders how this tall wraith of a man could be the same person who’d teased her about her name and laughed at his own death pronouncement.

“Because he was a criminal,” he deadpans. She wants there to be a spark of amusement in the lines of his face, like there often has been in the short time she’s known him, but there's none. He’s serious now.

“What type of criminal?” Rey whispers, leaning forward to meet him halfway. In her chest, an answering thrill responds to the tendrils of intention that seem to spread out from him in all directions.

“He sold state secrets to an enemy government.”

Rey blinks, startled that he has given her such a massive truth with so little fuss.

“That’s not so bad,” she says, before she can stop herself.

She’s thinking of stories she’s heard about people locking other people in attics for years, or hacking their families to death with axes, or leaving their children at a supermarket when they’re very small, but not so small that they don’t remember the idea of their parents’ faces for the rest of their lives.

He rests one hand on the desk and leans down, bringing his great bulk into her space. She could touch her forehead into his if he moved a few inches closer. And he could.

“What do you mean, that’s not so bad? I bring you to a secret attic study and tell you my grandfather is a traitor, and you’re not… struck by that?”

She shrugs, turning herself a little in the chair by the tip of her booted foot. Mostly to distract herself from memories she’d rather have left downstairs. But, as she suspects Ben Solo knows, memories like that follow you around.

“Most people are criminals,” she points out. “You’re a criminal.”

He opens his mouth. Closes it.

“What do you mean by that?” 

“Pretty sure having yourself declared legally dead when you’re not is a crime,” Rey says, pointing an accusing finger at him.

He stands up, looking annoyed.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

But she’s gotten to him. Just a little. Rey stands up too, because it feels… strange to see him so tall and her so at a disadvantage. The rain on the roof is a steady beat now, a clattering of water that makes her feel small and protected. Bold.

“Well, are you a criminal?” Rey says, praying that her hope doesn’t leak through her voice. She’d like it if he was a criminal. Not an awful sort, of course, but maybe something elegant and white collar. Securities fraud, or something. Tax evasion. Parking tickets, even. Just something to make him seem a little more like a real person and less like a tall, handsome statue.

He turns around and the expression on his face is something approaching incredulous.

“Excuse me?”

She’s offended him. The great Ben Solo is leveling such a haughty expression at her that she almost wants to laugh.

“What did you do to get yourself killed?” she challenges over her amusement. “Or declared dead, that is. Because I sort of don’t think you’re in the witness protection program.”

He recovers his composure, maybe realizing that she’s not actually accusing him of anything. Or maybe just pulling the cloak of composure he wears like clothes a little closer.

He gestures at the space, his eyes on hers.

“None of your business.”

He turns and walks to the doorway. "Come on, time to go."

Protesting, Rey says, “We just got here.”

“Time’s a luxury,” he says, pausing at the door. When she doesn’t move, he adds, “I’ll carry you if I have to. Believe me, I wouldn’t hesitate.”

Rey believes him. She almost trips over the carpet to get to his side before he does something… rash.

“There were other rumors, too,” he says, almost absent-mindedly as she crosses to him. 

“True ones?” Rey presses, reaching his side.  

He reaches out and absently pulls a fleck of dust from her hair. How he’s seen it is beyond her.

“They say he killed my grandmother. Pushed her down the stairs,” he says quietly, his eyes on his fingers as they ghost across her hair.

Rey starts, because for some reason it’s…

He smiles a little. “Are you finally frightened? Have I finally daunted you?”

Rey narrows her eyes. “I don’t believe rumors.”

He glances to the rain, then at the dark and moody study.

“If you were a normal person, you’d be bolting down that staircase right now.”

There’s a silence that Rey doesn’t break. The weight of the words come down heavy in the room, and she tries to imagine what it would be like to kill someone. She recoils from it. She looks up at him instead, focusing on the dark shadows under his eyes, the faint hint of stubble on his jaw. Real person, she reminds herself. Not a ghost.

“Aren’t you going to ask?” he presses, his eyes glinting. “If it’s true.”

Rey stiffens. “Okay, is it true?”

“I don't know,” Ren says flatly. Rey flinches, because what a brutal thing to say.

She can feel her heart rate accelerate and her eyes flit for a second to the open doorway and the long, narrow staircase that separates her from a two story fall. She doesn’t like what’s happening here, this moody, distant version of guy who had, up until this point, been a nice and interesting human. It’s like being in here has taken something from him, and she wants it back.  

"It's not going to work," she says quietly. "I'm not scared."

He makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat.

“How are you not... like, running away from me right now?” he says. Like he’s legitimately annoyed.

And it shouldn’t sting that he wants her to leave, because it’s not like she likes him or anything.

“Oh,” she mumbles. “Sorry, I thought you wanted me up here.”

She makes to walk past him but he puts a hand on her shoulder, brushing the exposed skin at the top of her arm. His hand is warm and huge, and at the contact it feels suddenly like the paneled walls have all moved an inch or two closer to the center of the room.

She stares up at him. There’s a kind of… desperation in his eyes.

“No, there’s more, I have more to show you,” he says. Like he can’t not say it. “Don’t go just yet.”

She nods, wondering if he can feel the close-walls feeling, too, or if this is just another in a long series of emotions she’s felt in a vacuum, apart from other people.

“Okay,” she murmurs. “Got any other secrets to dramatically reveal?”

He hasn’t moved his hand. His lips quirk, and she’s so relieved to see that hint of a smirk back in his eyes that she exhales heavily.

“I have an infinite amount of secrets.”

“Well I want one of them as payment for you being an ass and trying to scare me with unfounded gossip,” Rey says. Challenging him and not caring how morbid it is. She loves this shit. Secrets and mysteries and old houses. And she wants to be around this strange man who seems to embody all of it.

Ben swallows. His hand trails down the side of her arm as he lets go of her. She feels that touch under her skin, like he’s left something behind where he’s touched her.

“Want to see her?”

“Your murdered grandmother?” Rey says, a little surprised. She closes her eyes for a second, wishing she was raised around normal people who could have taught her some god damn tact.

But he just nods, and Rey considers the offer. She’s seen a lot of portraits in this house, and every single one of them has been just a little too keen, a little too accurate for her taste. She’s not sure that she can handle another one. But equally, she doesn’t want to back down. If he’s trying to frighten her, she doesn’t want to let on that he easily could.

“Yes."

He turns and stalks across the room to an alcove in the bookshelf without any books. In the shadows, she hadn’t noticed the brown rectangle leaning against the wall. Rey inches closer as he removes what looks like fabric from around the rectangle to reveal a portrait. It’s small, about the size of a hardcover book, but striking.

A beautiful woman in a sage green blouse smiles faintly, looking slightly away, like someone just called her name and she’s on the brink of getting to her feet.

Transfixed, Rey walks a little closer, trying to see more detail in the low light.

“She’s beautiful,” Rey murmurs. The painting has a satin quality, and her fingers twitch at her side, itching to touch the surface, to brush against the smoothness there.

Ren’s voice is right at her ear, but there's a smile in it.

“Scared yet?”

Rey arches a brow and opens her mouth to retort something smart, but a crack of thunder overhead makes her jump. His hand brushes her lower back, steadying her as he hastily sets the portrait back before one or both of them knock it to the floor. Rey brings a hand up to cover her giggle.

“Sorry,” she blurts, knowing it’s hideously inappropriate to giggle in front of a portrait of Ren’s potentially-murdered grandmother.

He exhales noisily, his fingers curling for just a second at her lower back. Then they step apart, eyeing each other warily.

“I thought for sure that would do it,” he mumbles.

Rey shakes her head. “It’ll take more than that. Anyway, what’s wrong with you? Trying to scare me like that.”

If he were Finn or even Poe, she might have wacked his shoulder. But touching him feels significant, and she'd never abuse the privilege. 

She crosses her arms and tilts her head to one side in what she hopes is an accusing way. She tries on a pout and likes the way it feels.

Then out of nowhere, he says, “Your bruise looks better today.”

Rey blinks, her hand flying up to her neck. She’d forgotten it in the rush of the adventure and the teasing and the exasperating mysteries.

He looks like he hasn't forgotten it for a minute. She takes a few steps back, the closeness in this small, warm room suddenly too much.

“We should go back down,” she says, and it tastes a little like conceding defeat, but not enough that she can’t swallow it.

He doesn’t frown or smirk this time, just watches her. A flash of lightning strikes somewhere in the woods, and in the burst of light that streams through the window his face is all angles and structure. Aristocratic. Penetrating.

She stumbles for the door and descends the stairs back, feeling considerably less steady than she had on the way up.

X

Back in the warm, golden kitchen, the feeling is gone. He doesn’t say anything about her bruise, and whatever fit of melancholy that had overtaken him seems to have lifted. She wonders if this is what he’s always like, or if it’s just here. Or just in that room. 

Rey dangles her feet on the kitchen counter, a pint of ice cream in her hand and Ben Solo's eyes on her face. She’s eating directly from the pint, partly to annoy him but mostly because eating directly from a pint of ice cream is one of the more luxurious things Rey can think of. His hands are tented in front of his face and he’s smiling a little, leaning against the butcher block island.

“So, what does scare you, if not the ghost of my murderous grandfather and his abandoned secret study?”

Rey hmmms around her spoon, considering.

“I don’t like guns,” she says.

He doesn’t react. “Why not?”

“Just… too lethal, it’s not a fair fight.”

The clap of thunder rattles the windowpanes, sending the glass clattering where the sealant has come loose. Ben looks past her into the murky shadow of the back lawn.

“Life’s not fair, though,” he points out. Not upset, not like it’s even a bad thing. Just a fact.  

Rey stabs the ice cream with the spoon. “I know. But, you know, we can try at least.”

“Give me some,” he says, holding an expectant hand out to her.

Rey holds the ice cream behind her, guarding it.

“No way,” she says. “You tried to scare me. Ice cream’s mine.”

He gets to his feet, tall and glinting and amused. He crosses to her, coming right up next to the counter and reaching around. She leans back, trying to hold it out of his reach. He nudges her knees apart and stands right between them, reaching around to pluck it from her fingers. The feel of his legs pressed against her knees, her thighs, is a little like lighting. In its way.

And then he just stays there, giving her a smug little smile as he stands in her space and has a bite right from her spoon.

He looks unaffected by the thunder clap of physical sensation currently sending a little shiver up Rey's back. He smiles at her as he steps from between her thighs and takes a second, truly enormous bite of ice cream.

“Jerk,” she mutters. A little breathily, though.

“Be nice, and you can have it back,” he counters, licking the ice cream off his lips.

“I’d like you a lot better if you told me what your deal is.”

“All in good time, sweetness,” he says.

Rey almost chokes on the endearment. “Sweetness?”

“Yeah,” he says, taking another third bite. “Because, you know, you’re so delicate and mild mannered.”

She snorts a laugh, because he’s teasing her and she likes to be teased.

“Give me the ice cream,” she repeats, banging her foot against the side of the cabinet for emphasis.

He grins.

“Come and get it.”

And she might’ve, too, if the power hadn’t chosen that moment to go out.

There’s a sudden electrical buzzing noise like a Tesla coil at full power, followed by an enormous bang like a row of lockers slamming shut all at once. Then they’re plunged into darkness.

In the dim light from the kitchen windows, Rey sees his face flash for an instant. Just a second of some feral, predatory gleam that robs the joking young man she’d been talking to of his mirth. For a second, he’s someone she doesn't recognize. Someone new.

Oh, she thinks, this is Kylo Ren.

“Stay here,” he says, pulling a phone out of his pocket.

But before she can say anything, he’s setting the ice cream down on the counter and walking out of the room.

She hears his low, calm voice say, “I’ve lost power but not comm, you’re going to need to-“ before a door shuts and she’s alone in the dark kitchen.

X

Rey knows there’s not much she can do about a blown transformer, but she slips her feet into a pair of old rubber wellington boots anyway, thinking that with a storm like this, they’re going to need to get the generator. Who knows how long it will be before someone gets all the way out here to repair it. 

In the front foyer, Rey borrows an enormous man’s anorak and slips her arms into it, swamped by pale blue neoprene.

“Ben?” she calls, deciding that she’s not going to call him Kylo anymore, but there’s no answer. “I’m going to the garage!”

Again, nothing.

Rey glances up at the chandelier, a faint strain from her dream flashing in her mind’s eye. But it isn’t swinging today, just glimmering softly in the dim, storm-blue light.

"Sit tight," she tells it. It glints at her. 

Opening the front door lets in a torrent of sound and cool, humid air. It rushes into the stillness of the house, sending an electric thrill through her body as a roar of rain-sound chases out the hush, maybe for good this time.

Great storms, the really big ones with enormous clouds and thunder-rending air, send full body shivers through her. It's cosmic power let loose onto a chaotic world. The wind-whipped trees in the distance are almost black in the darkening sky, the poplars flashing silver in the wind.

From her position under the main awning of Alderaan House, Rey sees the cracked circular driveway flashing pale white under a torrent of rushing water that streams down from the roof, tunneling through the grass to the manicured shrubs at the edge of the front lawn.

Beyond that, the forest moves, swaying in a powerful undulation set to music on a meteorological tempo. Illuminated only by flashes of lighting and whatever pale gleam the moon must be sending through the deep clouds, Rey runs for the garage.

Halfway there, a thunder clap detonates overhead, and Rey bites her lip against the startled scream that slips out. In the open like this, the boom of thunder has an almost physical weight that presses against her in a warm dark shove of sound. 

She ducks her head lower and turns her run into an all-out sprint.

She runs into the garage door, shielded momentarily from the downpour by the sagging metal awning above the garage. A glint of her blue tarp through the trees makes her pause. She’d been expecting a heavy storm, but not a maelstrom. Her house could have collapsed. The idea sends a shock of fear through her that has her plunging back into the deluge, her boots sticking in the mud and coming loose again with a great squelches of sound.

Her steps slow and finally, irritated, she loosens her feet from the boots altogether and just leaves them there in the mud, sprinting across unsteady ground to the cottage on bare feet.

Her panic abates, because her house is alright. The white pine overhead sends a lot of the water sluicing overhead in a scatter of droplets that land sparkling on Rey’s hair and eyelashes. She reaches the door to the shed and opens it, peering inside the almost totally dark space.

Her cot is a little damp from the humidity, but there’s nothing to indicate a leak in the roof. Then she opens the door to the greenhouse, and the noise of the rain turns from a deep, rumbling thunder into the sharp staccato clatter of water on glass. She gives her plants a cursory check, finds them safe from any imminent danger, and turns her mind back to the task of the generator.

Her little home is safe. Her plants are safe.

The thunder that rattles the glass doesn’t startle her so bad this time.

X

She’s almost got the generator wrapped up in her anorak when a shadow falls across the open garage door.

Rey straightens, turning around and expecting to see the looming presence of Ben Solo in the door, but there’s nothing. No one.

Then the light resumes, and an uneasy feeling creeps across her scalp. Cold now without her jacket and boots, Rey pads quietly to the door and peers out at the front of the house. It’s dark now, really dark even without the storm, and she can’t see far. There’s still no power, but a sudden gleam of bright light flashes at the front of the house. 

Headlights.

A sleek black sedan rolls up the cracked, shiny driveway. It's a black, expensive thing with those LED headlights that throw bright, blue light onto everything. It reminds her of a UFO sighting in an old movie. The car comes to a stop in front of the house and just idles there, waiting.

Rey holds her breath, because who in the hell would be driving up to this house right now? Neither Rey nor Ben are expecting guests. Neither of them are supposed to be here. Every instinct in her body says to hide.

She’s about to recede farther into the garage when she sees the black rectangle of the front door open and a dark figure stride out. She blinks, because of course it’s Ben, but for a second she hadn’t recognized him.

A figure emerges from the car, dressed in a sharp suit and carrying a severe looking umbrella. But at this distance, she can’t see any identifying details. The figure doesn’t offer to share the umbrella, which makes Rey dislike whoever it is on principle. Ben’s going to catch a damn cold now, all because this asshole drove up in the biggest rainstorm in the history of time. It's a guy, she realizes, and he has coppery hair. Too pretty for someone with posture that severe. 

The two figures seem to speak, Ben makes some kind of sharp hand gesture, and the other figure walks stiffly back to the car. Ben just stands there in the pouring rain, crossing and uncrossing his arms, until the car kicks back to life and pulls smoothly away down the driveway.

Rey watches all this and only ducks out of view when Ben raises his hand to his eyes to scan the property. Hidden behind the garage door and out of view, her heart pounds in her chest. For a second there, he'd looked like he'd been hunting something. 

Chapter Text

Chapter four.

Rey’s tugging the heavy generator across the cracked, muddy driveway, and the rain is coming down so hard that the world is a gray haze in front of her. The generator’s wheels have long since gone flat, and the thing is heavy. It’s like towing a mini-fridge, except in a thunderstorm so severe that she almost can’t hear herself think. Not ideal.

Rey glances longingly at the shelter of the forest canopy. She just knows the dense foliage would protect her from the worst of the rain, wrap her in shadows that would hide her from headlights and the piercing gaze of the dark eyed man who haunts this house. But that way lies madness, and she shakes her head against the idea.

The fact is that the black sedan has robbed her of her peace. Even without Ben Solo skulking on the front stoop anymore, she feels the uneasy sense of being watched. Like he’s looking for her. Which is ridiculous, because he probably doesn’t care where she is.

As she tugs her prize up the driveway, her arms straining and her eyes blurring in the rain, she puts her back into the task and finally reaches the front steps, which are mercifully covered by the awning. Standing up and stretching her sopping wet limbs out over her head, Rey wipes the rain out of her eyes and checks under the anorak to see that the generator hasn’t gotten too wet. It’s fine, and she yanks it securely under the covering to keep it from the rain. It gurgles, the gas she’s filled it with sloshing around. It’s not much, but it’ll do in a tick. She’d rather have it handy in case they need it then wait for the roof to collapse on the garage or something.

She opens the front door a crack and slips through, shivering and cold in the cool air inside the house. She does a full body shake like a dog and immediately has goosebumps. Rubbing her shoulders, she gives the light switch an experimental flick, but nothing happens. The house is silent but for the drum of rain on the windows, and she’s about to make a cup of tea when she hears it.

A bang from upstairs. A thud, really. One of those noises that sounds like something but she can’t put her finger on what exactly.

Curious and more than a little nervous, Rey walks cautiously up the main steps, her bare feet leaving wet prints in the carpet. She thinks of Hansel and Gretel, and of bread crumbs, and of Ben’s dead grandmother. Her shiver takes on a different meaning.  

There’s a ghost of a breeze that brushes the back of her knees, as she clears the top landing and stands at the end of the long red hallway, her hair sending drips of water down her back.

“Ben?” she calls, her voice echoing. Thunder cracks outside, followed by an immediate flash of lightning that throws one wall into shadow and the other into bright, blood red starkness. It’s a little too Kubrick for Rey’s taste, but then there’s that loud thud again and her thoughts of movies and murder evaporate, because what is that?

Rubbing her eyes again, she walks to the discrete door that opens to the third floor staircase and stops in front of it, holding her breath. Her hand hesitates on the handle for one second. Two. She waits, listening.

Thud.

It’s right behind the door, or at least close to it, and Rey grits her teeth. She’s not scared. She’s not.

She yanks the door open. A rush of warm air whooshes out, and for a second her shivering ceases. And then she’s looking up the stairs at… nothing. There’s a whistling of wind, a clap of thunder, and silence.

“Ben?” Rey calls again, quieter this time. She’d feel stupid if she weren’t so sure of what she’d heard.

She leans forward into the dim space, peering up at the narrow stairs and the gleam of light striping across the top step from a narrow window on the third floor. Something seems to whisper, seems to call to her, and she wants to go to it, to find the source of the faint thrill in her veins that is warm and beckoning, asking her to-

“There you are,” says a male voice. An irritable male voice.

She flinches, turning around to see the great bulk of Ben Solo storming down the hallway.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he growls. His hair is as soaked as hers is, and he looks grouchy as all hell. “Where’ve you been?”

Rey points up the staircase, ignoring him.

“Did you hear that?” she murmurs.

He comes to a stop near the door, craning his neck to peer into the darkness.

“Hear what?” he grumbles.

Rey blinks. “The… thud.”

His eyes narrow, but in a thoughtful way this time.

“I was in the backyard till a minute ago, so, no,” he says, slowly.

“I need to check it out,” Rey murmurs, not quite sure why. But there’s that knowing feeling, that wanting feeling that she knows so well. She takes a step forward, reaching for the bannister.

His hand takes hers, tugs her gently back. She protests weakly as he pulls her away, his hand warm on hers. He shuts the door firmly.

“No,” he says, quietly commanding. “No traipsing around up there, I mean it. You could get hurt.”

Ah, getting hurt.

Rey’s hands flutter at her neck, remembering, unbidden, that last horrible day with her foster dad. The day that had sent her running away for good. Just a routine business. She’d been in the house when he’d been drinking. A mistake, always a mistake. But that had been the end of it. That had been the last time, and she knows now that she’s stronger, that it will never happen again.

But she remembers how Ben had asked her what she was afraid of, if not ghosts, and knows without a doubt that nothing on the third floor is a source of fear for her. Not really. This house has ghosts, but not monsters. She can tell the difference.

“Hey, snap out of it, sweetness,” Ben says.

Rey blinks up at him, remembering herself. She smiles. He’s still holding her hand, and the warmth of it is nice. He looks relieved as her eyes refocus, and he grins back at her, kind of soft. It’s a little less certain than his other smiles, and she likes him a little better for it.

“Come on,” he mumbles. “Let’s get you dried off.”                 

And she likes the sound of that. They walk away from the door together, him just holding her hand like she doesn’t know where they’re going. But she does.  
X

Ben doesn’t walk, she’s noticed, as much as prowl. Or, when he’s in a bad mood, he turns his prowl to turn into a full-on stalk. But tonight, they just walk wordlessly through his dark bedroom, still without any electric lights to guide their way, and into the grand bathroom. It’s dim in the light from the skylight, and kind of loud with all the rain.

Ben crosses to the closet and roots around until he emerges with a stack of towels.

He frowns at them, shaking them out one by one as Rey makes herself comfortable on the bathroom counter. She watches the dust puff off them in the dark air, and it’s kind of beautiful, in a funny way. Ben Solo shaking out towels as she shivers on his counter.

She says, “It would have been much easier to see in here if there wasn’t all that shit on the skylight,” Rey says. A little pointedly.

He gives her a withering look, still shaking out a towel with slightly more force than is probably necessary.

“Don’t you start on that again,” he says warningly. “I already lost track of you once tonight, I’m not in the mood to do it again.”

“Wait, what?” Rey says, leaning forward.

He blinks, like he hadn’t realized he’d spoken.

“Never mind.”

And he crosses to her with such purpose in his eyes that, for a crazy second, she thinks he’s going to kiss her. But he just drapes a towel over her shoulders, tugging it secure against her collarbone with deft movements. The pads of his fingers are warm where they brush her shoulder, the base of her neck, the skin just under her chin. She shivers again.

He looks satisfied only when she’s swaddled in the thing, his fingers hovering over the knot for a second. He gives her a little nod before he turns around to grab one for himself. He towels his hair off like a teenage boy, letting out a long groan.

“Fuckin hate being damp,” he mutters, standing back up. Then he turns to her, shadowy and skeptical and looking very old Hollywood. He says, “Wait, let me have a look at your bandage. You probably ruined it going outside.”

He crosses to her and kneels down in front of her. In the darkness, with the shadows cutting lines on his damp cheeks, he looks like a windswept medieval knight. But his hands are gentle, and he takes out a flashlight from his back pocket and inspects the bandage. It’s her flashlight, but she doesn’t mind that he’s using it. Kind of likes it, even.

“What were you doing outside, anyway?” he grumbles. “Where did you run off to? Not the forest, I hope.”

“I was getting the generator,” Rey says. She doesn’t mention seeing him come out and talk to that man. Maybe she’s scared to see him turn into that sharp-eyed man from before. She likes this one kneeling at her feet much better.

“Oh,” he says, clicking the flashlight off again. His teeth are very white and his hand rests on her knees. “Well, it looks fine, despite your best attempts to ruin it.”

“I’m very hard to injure,” Rey says, proudly. She’s almost never sick, rarely breaks bones. She’s tough, and she’s proud of that.

“Apparently,” he murmurs, and she can’t tell if his eyes flit to her neck because of the bruise or because of the water beading on her skin there. Feeling warm and self-conscious, Rey hops down from the counter, tugging the towel up to cover her neck. His gaze flits between Rey and the door, coming to rest again at the knot at her throat.

“Keep that on. Don’t get a cold,” he says, and his tone is blessedly normal.

Rey leans against the counter. “You know that I’m just going to get soaked again when I walk back to the cottage, right?”

He scoffs, drawing his own towel around his shoulders. “No way. You can sleep here.”

“The cottage is fine.”

“I know. Your tarp job was actually pretty good. Your items are fine, incidentally. I checked, so just… sleep here,” he says tonelessly. “It’s fine.”

“You checked?” Rey says, flushing with pleasure. He checked. No one has really checked up on her like that before.

His lips part, and he looks kind of embarrassed. It suits him,

“I couldn’t find you in the house, I thought you maybe went back to the cottage.”

And she could ask him why he cared that she wasn’t in the house, but the warm towel and the good feeling are making her feel sappy and a little giddy, and she doesn’t feel like questioning a good thing. Which is dangerous, and she knows it.

“Anyway,” he says, his usual brusque tone reasserting itself. “What the hell were you thinking, going out in that rain?”

“Didn’t stop you from doing the same,” Rey says, deciding that she’s just going to abandon her plan of being cool and mysterious. “Who was that guy who drove up to the house?”

He opens his mouth, shuts it. Then he takes a step closer.

“Nothing. Old friend.”

“That’s a damn lie,” Rey says primly, because she’s not stupid, for crying out loud. Everything about his body language had struck her as angular and upset.

He looks like he almost wants to smile. There’s a beat, a pause punctuated only by the sound of the rain drumming on the glass. In the low light, he looks ethereal and pale, almost like marble. She’s losing track of her metaphors. Is he a knight or a statue? Or a ghost?

“Come on,” he murmurs. “We need to get some heat going. You’re frozen.”

Then he stalks out of the room.

“You almost strangled me with a towel, so I’m good,” Rey calls after him, but he keeps walking like he hasn’t heard her.

X

Turns out that Ben’s pretty good at making fires. The downstairs study is dim and shadowy in the night air, and the rain runs in thick sheets down the windows. Layers of water drape across each other on the glass, distorting the dark forest and the lawn in the backyard into dark green and black smudges.

Ben Solo kneels at the hearth as Rey watches him work from the edge of that velvety couch.

He stacks the log in a careful tent shape, layering logs with practiced ease. The stack of wood next to the fireplace is new, and she wonders where it came from. There must be a wood pile somewhere in the house.

He crouches low in front of the fire, his back arched under the thin t-shirt he wears, and his dark hair is inky black in the light of the faintly glowing embers. The storm hasn’t let up at all, and Rey shivers in her towel, pulling her feet underneath her on the velvet couch.

He lights another match and blows softly on the embers to encourage the kindling to catch. When she hears the telltale sound of the wood start crackling, he sits back on his heels, watching the fire with evident satisfaction.

“You’re good at fires,” Rey observes. “That from your time in the military?”

He turns around and their gazes meet.

“Yeah,” he says, low and soft.

She can’t tell if it’s true or not. It could be a lie. She glances down at her watch to get away from the heat that seems trapped in his eyes. With the way he’s looking at her, she’s scared it might catch.

“You hungry?” Rey murmurs.

He just nods, his eyes drifting to her lips. She’s wondering what it would be like to kiss him, if his kiss would be soft like his hair or feverish like his eyes. She’s wondering if she could taste the lies that live on his tongue, or if he’d taste like how he smells. Kind of expensive and old fashioned.

She stands up, her breaths coming a little short.

“I’ll get us some food. Stay here,” she commands.

She doesn’t give him time to react. One second she’s standing up and the next she’s bolting to the door, pulling it open with shaking fingers, and then she’s through it.

Safe.

In the kitchen, Rey takes a minute to peer out the rain soaked window, trying to shake herself calm again. It’s like, ever since the rain started, she’s been in some kind of strange dream. A visceral dream full of dark strangers and panther cars and fires built for her by a man with secrets. But the calming-down doesn’t work, so she settles for rummaging around the cupboards for something to eat.

It’s hard to see in the half-light, and if she’d been in her right mind she’d have asked to borrow his flashlight. Still, she manages to find two sweet-smelling oranges, a carton of plump blueberries, and half a loaf of crispy French bread. She arranges them on a tray with a paring knife and two little plates and returns to the library. The task has calmed her, and when she elbows her way back into the study, she feels almost like herself again.

Then she sees him and her heart flips over.

He’s sprawled on the couch, one arm over his eyes against the fire that is really starting to get going in the fireplace. Standing at the edge of the couch, Rey lets herself look at him. It’s a greedy pleasure she takes in checking him out, because in the light of the fire he is striking. The contours of his muscles are thrown into relief, the faint veins on his arms are pale blue against the white of his skin. He’s too big for the couch, and he looks… good. Really good.

She notices the even in and out of his breathing, and wonders how he’s managed to fall asleep in the short time she’s been gone. He must be exhausted. Exhausted from what, though?

Rey sets her tray down on the coffee table and, on a whim, sits down on the floor next to the couch. Slowly, quietly, she leans her back against the armrest. His head is right above hers on the couch, breathing peacefully in and out. The carpet is scratchy against her thighs, but between the fire at her feet and the man sleeping pretty above her, she’s content.

She grabs a blanket off a nearby armchair and tosses her damp towel on the hearth to dry. She stuffs a pillow under her knees and leans back to read by the flickering firelight, watched over by a slumbering criminal and the quiet ticking of the clock.

X

It’s something like thirty minutes later when Rey sets her book back down and crawls quietly to the fire. It’s going dim, and she moves quietly to add some wood to the fire, leaving her blanket in a little nest on the floor. She picks up a crackling, dry piece of firewood and lays it carefully across the fragile structure of Ren’s fire, then sits back on her heels. The air is warm on her bare knees, and the wood burns quickly. It must be old. She wonders who cut the tree down, whether they used an axe or a chainsaw. Whether she would have liked to climb it before they cut it down and she lit it on fire.

But she doesn’t get too maudlin about it, because the fire accepts the new log and throws a renewed glow into the room that chases out the last of her uneasy feelings from the attic.

The storm is still raging, though she thinks the rain might have lessened fractionally. The clock on the mantle ticks on, unconcerned with their continued power outage. Rey wonders if she really needed to get that generator, when they’re living in a house that continues to function even without electricity.

“Rey.”

She turns, catching the soft brown of Ben’s sleepy, half-closed eyes. Her breath kind of catches in her throat. He looks sensitive and thoughtful with his hair fanning around his face in a soft wave, so different than the dark shadow from before.

She crawls back to her spot at the foot of the couch and looks up at him.

“Sleep okay?” she murmurs.

He nods around a yawn.

“Did you dream anything?” Rey murmurs. Every time she’s slept here, she’s had strange ones.

He blinks.

“No,” he says, and sounds a little surprised about it. But pleased. His eyes crinkle. “Didn’t dream a thing. You’re good luck, I think.”

Rey looks down at her fingers and considers the sorry state of her life at the moment.

“Yeah, maybe. Hey, uh, Ben?” she says.

“What is it, sweetness?” His voice is slurred as he adjusts his pillow and settles his huge body deeper into the cushions. The endearment sounds less like a tease now, all soft and knowing. A log settles in the fire, cracking loudly. Lighting strikes, but far off. The rumble is gentle, like the landscape is purring in the downpour.

“Where did you go, all that time people said you were dead?”

“Guess,” he instructs, sleepy and a little bossy.

Rey leans back against the couch like she’d been sitting before. She turns her gaze back to the fire.

“I think you were committing a crime,” she murmurs.

His laugh is buried in the pillow. Not mocking, but soft. She wishes she could see his face, but she doesn’t want to turn around.

“Why?”

“Because that guy who came to our house reminded me of a parole officer,” she says, still staring into the fire. It’s hypnotic, the way the flames dance.

There’s a beat. “Ah. I wish you hadn’t seen that.”

She leans her head back, peering up at him. He’s looking over the edge of the couch cushion, and upside down he is a collection of angles and glinting warm light.

“You don’t have to explain it,” Rey murmurs. “Can you just tell me what you did?”

His lips quirk. “I’m not a criminal.”

“Then why did you want me to know about your grandfather so bad? I thought you were trying to gauge my reaction.”

He frowns, though from her point of view it is a smile, and Rey gives up on leaning against the couch to turn around and meet his gaze directly. Right side up. She’s on her knees, her head level with his where he’s still leaning against the arm rest of the couch.

Face to face like this, her question suddenly feels a little inappropriate. She’s prying, and he opens his mouth, a cagey look in his eyes, but she cuts him off.

“It’s okay, you know,” Rey says. On an impulse, she reaches for his hand where it’s lying on the pillow and squeezes. His hand is warm from the fire, or from the sleep. His fingers move, twine with hers, and then just like that they’re holding hands again.

His lips part and he leans his head forward to touch his forehead to hers, exactly like she’d imagined him doing in the study. His hair brushes across her temple and he smells like coffee and Somewhere Else.

“I’m not a criminal,” he murmurs. She feels the vibration of his words in her own head. “You don’t need to worry.”

Rey stiffens, because then… what is he, exactly? The not knowing is much worse than thinking he’s a criminal just released from a foreign prison somewhere. She leans back, guarded again.

She glances out the window, tugging her hand free and making a show of smoothing her tank top down.

“The rain is letting up, I’m going to get to bed before it picks back up.”

His hand twitches slightly.

“That’s an objectively awful idea. Your stuff is probably all damp, it’s lighting out there, and probably muddy. Hell, you’ll probably get lost-”

“Thought you wanted me to get lost?” Rey says, teasing a little.

And he frowns again. “Knock that cute shit off,” he says, but not like he’s angry. It’s like they have a private joke. And she figures they do. Ignoring him, she gets to her feet.

“I brought some snacks out, if you’re hungry. I’ll see you in the morning,” she says.

When she walks past the couch to the door, he reaches out and grabs her hand, stopping her. She gives him a withering look.

“Ben, you said-”

He tugs on it, pulling her back by her own hand like it’s a rope she’s tied to the end of. Bemused, she lets herself be dragged until she’s kneeling again beside him.

His eyes find hers. “If you stay, I’ll tell you where I was.”

Rey’s eyes narrow, because this boy is tricky. “You will?”

“Scout’s honor,” he says, serious and low like this means something to him, too.

The heat from the fire is making her cheeks flush. He hasn’t let go of her hand.

“Okay,” she breathes, hating that he’s getting his way but a little pleased to have a new secret to store in her inventory. And, if she’s honest, the big warm house is a lot more inviting than her damp camp bed.

He grins, feral and lazy, and tugs her up so she’s sitting on the edge of the couch, her feet planted on the floor and her torso turned awkwardly to loom down over him. Her hair brushes her cheeks as she leans over him, curious and nervous.

“Come,” he says, patting the tiny space next to him on the couch. “Lay down.”

“What?” Rey says, stiffening. Startled. “No way.”

He is undaunted. “I never share secrets with someone I can look in the eye. Lay down with me, swear to god, no underhanded intentions.”

Wary, Rey glances at the soft couch, the inviting gleam of his arms, the smile on his handsome face. It’s a bad idea. And yet…

She lies down, her bare feet resting parallel to his and her head on his arm. Her back is pressed flush with his chest, and he wraps his arms around her. Outside, a distant clap of thunder sends a pleasant shiver through her body as the warmth of him seeps through her clothes, through her skin, and right down to her bones. She must have been more touch starved then she realized, because the contact sends a rush of pure endorphins through her body. It’s not good to be alone, she thinks dimly, as something in her chests expands a little.

His breath fans across her face, and his mouth is right at the shell of her ear. She can’t see him, but she can hear the cat-who-got-the-cream grin as he speaks.

“Now, where were we?”

“Secrets,” Rey says, a little breathily. “Secrets you couldn’t tell me without making me sacrifice my dignity.”

He grunts. “Nothing’s free.”

She elbows him in the chest, but not hard. He snorts a laugh.

“As you were saying,” she hedges.

“Right, my secret past,” he says. Then pauses, very dramatic and slow. His steady breathing thrums against her body, and she feels the great mass of him move in time, easy and graceful despite his size. He brushes his knee against the back of her leg and Rey shivers.

“You cold?” he says, apparently paying very close attention to her body, if not her question.

Rey just nods, because her throat feels kind of tight. He stretches up, grabs her blanket from the floor, and covers her with it. They settle back down, and she wants to point out that he has not answered her question. But she’s warm, and a beautiful man is holding her, and does she really, really want to know what exactly he did?

Yes, prompts her logical brain.

No, yells the part of her that is very much enjoying the feel of muscles and man surrounding her on all sides. It’s cozy. It’s dangerous.

He makes the decision for her.

“I was in the military, then I signed on as an FBI agent when my tour ended,” he murmurs. “The man you saw was my handler. I’m on… vacation.”

Rey squirms against him, suddenly bright and vivid as her imagination seizes on his words. It has the ring of truth to it, but there’s a note that’s wrong. She feels too warm, too comfortable to be able to tell which part of it is wrong.

“You’re a secret agent,” she accuses, struggling to sit up on the couch so she can look down at him. His lead lolls back against the pillow, his eyes hooded and sleepy. Lazy.

“In effect,” he says, and she likes the way he says it. Like it’s her secret now, too.

“So where were you?”  

“That’s highly classified, sweetness,” he says, rolling her eyes. “I’m a federal agent. I work for the government.”

“The plane crash was a cover up?” she guesses.

He nods. “Cover blown, bad guys after me, that kind of thing.”

“Do you have a license to kill?” she blurts, knowing she’s being nosy as all hell but unable to set aside the, frankly, awesome image of Ben Solo slinking around a Bavarian castle with a gun in his jacket pocket.

And she means it as a joke, but his face kind of freezes for a second. It’s half a heartbeat of stricken blankness that melts away into that smooth expression again almost before she registers the other look.

His smile returns. “No more secrets for you.”

And he tugs her back down by the back of the shirt, settling her against his arm. Rey bites her tongue, her mind whirring.

“How did you get into it?” Rey says, her eyes settling on the fire. She wants to be looking at him, but she can’t move. He won’t let her.

“Pleading the fifth,” he grumbles.

“Come on,” Rey says. Whines. “Quit having so many secrets.”

He snorts a laugh. “All I’ve done since meeting you is spill my guts.”

“What are two secrets in the face of about fifty thousand other, more interesting ones?”

His tone takes that sharp, outraged tone. It’s almost academic. “What could be more interesting than my secret job and my traitorous grandfather? All of this is intensely classified, for the record.”

“Don’t ask dumb questions,” Rey says, yawning. “Why did you move into your parents’ room? How’d you get those scars on your face? What’s the story about the car in the garage? How’d you get those scratches on your arm, and why don’t you like being damp?”

And she could go on but he presses his head against her neck and laughs, and she feels the rumble deep in her bones.

“That’s what you want to know?”

“Yeah,” she says, trailing off, because she really is sleepy, now. “And about your parents, and the upstairs window. All that stuff. You in general. And anyway, you could be lying. I think you might be.”

And he doesn’t say anything, and if she were a little more conscious she would have worried she’d offended him by dismissing his history and his job, but she’s losing track of the sense of back and forth that is supposed to flow in conversation. His silence blends in with the first stirrings of a dream, and the fireplace crackles as the embers die down in the bone-white hearth.

Ben says something, his voice low and contented.

“Dark and full of terrors, my ass.”

And Rey smiles, losing herself to the warmth and the dream.

X

Rey wakes up the next morning to the sound of a phone ringing. The vibration is right against her hip.

Sometime in the night they have gotten tangled up in each other. Really, it had to happen if they were ever going to make it through the night without falling on the floor, but it’s disorienting to find herself face down on Ben Solo’s chest, his hand on her lower back and her hand resting over his head. They look like lovers, twined up in each other like this.

The phone rings again, drumming a vibration into her hip, and Ben makes a grunting noise.

His eyes don’t open but he says, “So help me, do not move.”

Rey’s throat is thick with a bone-deep urge to just go back to sleep. One squinting glance out the window tells her it’s early morning, maybe, though it’s hard to say with the clouds obscuring the sky.

“Your phone,” she growls, when he doesn’t do anything to silence it. 

“Hux can fuck off,” he mutters, and snuggles his head into the crook of her neck. Which isn’t appropriate, but hell, Rey’s not complaining. His body is warm and strong, and that wanting feeling is making her inch her fingers a little closer to his neck, to the pulse beating there. She’d like to kiss that spot, she thinks.

The ring comes again, shrill and jarring and so out of place in a house this old and full of stories.

“So help me, Ben, I’ll answer it myself,” she rasps. She wants that quiet back, the feeling of his arms on her to be the only thing there is.

He grunts, snuggling against her. “Be my guest.”

And now she’s painted herself into a corner, because Rey hates backing down from a challenge. Especially one she set herself up for.

So she reaches her hand blindly back for his pocket, fumbling around and trying not to graze any… personal locations on his body. He laughs, low and rumbling, and offers no help as she finds his pocket and grabs the phone.

Then she has it in her hand, the screen showing a phone number with no name. She gives him one final chance to stop her, arching a brow. He just grins at her, his eyes half-open.

Then she lifts it to her ear.

“Hello?” she says.

There’s a beat of silence, then a cultured, female voice says, “Oh. You’re not Ben.”

Hux is a woman? She hadn’t seen that coming.

“Oh, no, I’m Rey but Ben’s right here,” she says. Ben lets out an exasperated sigh, and she realizes she could have just blown his cover. But he doesn’t seem mad.

The voice on the end sounds… taken aback. “You’re… are you a girlfriend, or?”

“Oh, no, just the grounds keeper,” Rey says. Underneath her, Ben Solo is laughing, his eyes cracking open as he watches her squirm with naked amusement on his face.

Trying to tamp down on her own grin, she says, “Is this Hux?”

“No, my name is Leia Organa,” the voice says, and Rey freezes in her tracks as a cold feeling fills her whole body. Oh shit. The voice is saying, “Could you hand the phone to my son?”

Oh,” Rey says, feeling the cold turn to tendrils of mortification. “Sure, one sec.”

Rey pulls the phone away from her ear, eyes widening.

Silently, she mouths “it’s your mother” to Ben. He frowns and plucks the phone from her fingers. He pushes a button and ends the call without another word.

Rey blinks, stunned. “Ben, that was your mom.”

He shoves the phone in his pocket without letting go of his hold on her lower back.

“Not a good time,” he mumbles. And she knows he’s lying.

She frowns. “You can’t treat your mom like that.”

“With respect,” he says coolly. “It’s not really your business.”

And he’s right, but it doesn’t make it sting any less. His hand on her back starts to feel too close, too tight. He makes a noise of protest as Rey squirms out of his arms and gets to her feet. She’s trying not to look hurt. Or like she cares.

But she does care, because if she had a mother who called her, who wanted to talk to her, Rey thinks she would drop pretty much everything to speak to her. Isn’t that how you’re supposed to treat your mother?

He’s sitting up now, looking… pained, but Rey’s already straightening her shirt and shorts. A glance out the window tells her that it’s damp and cloudy outside, though it seems the torrential beating from the night before has abated. Grey fog is creeping in from the forest, attracted by the lower pressures and the humid air. Rey walks to the window, collecting herself. She can see the edge of her potting shed, perfectly intact and glinting blue even through the vapory fog, and the relief that her little place is fine takes the edge of his cool remark.

She should go check on the roof, on her tree. After all, she has a job to do, doesn’t she?

“You’re right,” Rey says, feeling calm again. She gives him a bright smile when she turns around, and he actually winces.

“I’m going to go do some work in the yard. I brought the generator onto the front awning last night if you want any power today.”

He opens his mouth, shuts it, opens it again.

“Rey,” he starts, rubbing his neck. He looks embarrassed, or something close to it. “I-”

And then, from the front hall, they hear the unmistakable sound of the front door swinging open.

There's a heart-stopping beat of total silence, and then a rich, familiar voice calls, “Peanut? You, uh, home?”

“Oh,” Rey blurts. “Finn. I never called him, shit.”

Ben doesn’t move. “'Peanut'?” he quotes. 

“I was supposed to call him, and I don’t have a cell phone-” Rey whispers, frantically fixing her hair and striding for the door. Then she remembers Ben, who is sitting frozen in the chair, glaring at her.

“Stay here,” she growls at him. “You’re dead, remember?”

And she’s pacing to the door, and over the sound of Finn’s footsteps she hears Ben mutter, “I don't know. I’m not above a resurrection.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Five.

Rey shuts the door firmly behind her, not trusting Ben to stay out of sight even for a minute. Her hands flit to her pockets, and for just a second, she imagines locking Ben in there, Bluebeard style. She drops her hand. This house is getting to her.

Instead, she turns around, smiles briskly, and crosses the foyer to Finn’s open arms. He's backlit by the open front door, and in the austere space he looks out of place. 

“Hey,” she says, feeling warm again as he pulls her into a hug and kind of shakes her affectionately back and forth.

“You scared me,” he says, squeezing her tight. Tight and safe. Finn always smells like graham crackers, and she draws in a deep lungful.

“Sorry, I completely forgot to call,” she says.

“Yeah you did, I’ve been worried sick, thinking of you all alone out here with some dead dude. This is some house,” he says, his gaze turning to scan the room. "You weren't kidding."

"You drove all the way out here?" Rey says, feeling gooey and loved. 

"Of course!" Then he looks down at her face, scrutinizing her. “Soo... you decided to stay?”

Rey swallows. “Yeah, uh, I did.”

“To confirm," he says, frowning. "You’re going to stay here with some dead guy in a haunted as shit mansion in the middle of nowhere? Alone?”

"It's not haunted," Rey objects.

Finn points at the portrait of the Solo family above the stairs. "You look at that creepy ass portrait and tell me this house isn't haunted."

“Finn, it's a nice house, and Ben's alright," Rey says, rubbing her neck.

“But you’re supposed to be laying low,” Finn starts, giving her a stern look. “Plutt-”

“I know, I know,” Rey says, waving a hand in front of her face. “But everyone knows that this place is abandoned, so no one would expect me to be living here.”

“Yeah, something Ben Solo also knows,” he says, his voice dropping into a low whisper. “He probably wants to ravish you or murder you or lock you in a tower-”

“You’ve been reading too many novels,” Rey says, rolling her eyes. “It’s a job.”

“He’s supposed to be dead,” Finn insists, raising his voice a little. "How are you so zen about this?"

Rey puts a hand on his arm and leads him a little ways toward the door. “Finn, about that. You can’t tell anyone that Ben Solo’s alive.”

Finn blinks. “Why not?”

“Because he’s in the witness protection program,” Rey lies. But honestly, that’s as likely to be true as anything else Ben’s told her, so she doesn’t feel that bad. Not really.

Finn’s eyes go wide. “No way.”

“Yes way, so keep it to yourself, okay?”

“What happened to him? Why’s he in hiding?” Finn says, and the gleam in his eye is a lot less anxious than before. He loves a good ghost story as much as she does.

Rey looks down at her hands. “I don’t know.”

Finn groans. “He could be waiting to go to trial for murder or something, he could be a sociopath! Poe Dameron told me that Ben was a real jerk in high school, got sent away to military school or something-”

“No, Finn, he's actually pretty cool, and last night he showed- wait, wait, Poe Dameron?” Rey says, her thoughts yanked in a different direction. “Beautiful delivery man you’ve been in love with for months, Poe Dameron?”

Finn grins, “I was going to tell you when you came over. We’ve been texting. It’s nothing serious, but-”

“Finn! That’s amazing,” Rey whispers back. 

Finn makes a chagrined face. “Yeah but, uh, he drove me here. So... I told him about Ben.”

“Finn,” Rey repeats, and it’s her turn to whine now.

“I thought you were dead! I was freaking out and he offered me a ride, and-“ he gestures behind him to the open door.

Rey glances around him and notices the rusted but beautiful muscle car waiting in the driveway. She’s torn between her annoyance that she’s blown Ben’s cover again and fascination to see the car.

Her mechanical impulses win out, and she takes a few steps forward toward the door. But before she can approach, the driver’s side door swings open, and a man with dark hair gets out, smiling.

He has curly hair and friendly lines around his eyes, and even from a few feet away, he radiates energy and stamina. He gives her a wave.

“You Rey?”

Finn appears at Rey’s elbow as she hovers in the doorway.

She says, “Yes, I am!”

“And you’re not dead?” he calls back, loud and clear.

“Very alive!”

“And so is Ben Solo, I hear” he yells.

At her elbow, Finn makes a slashing gesture across her throat. Rey leans against the door frame, sighing heavily. Damn, Ben’s gonna kill her.

“That’s a secret,” Rey whisper-screams back.

Poe’s eyes go wide. “Wait, what?”

Finn calls, “I’ll explain later, but don’t worry, it makes zero sense, so-”

“Finn, really, he’s-” Rey grumbles, turning around to point a finger at him. But she stops, because as-per-fucking-usual, Ben Solo is leaning against something and watching her with a smile on his handsome, smug as shit face.

“Oh, shit,” Rey whispers. Then Finn follows her gaze, sees Ben, and instinctively takes a step back. Like he’s seen a ghost.

Ben’s voice is low and dangerous. “Nicely done, Rey. That’s three times you’ve blown my cover.”

“When was the third time?” Rey starts, frowning.

But Finn takes a step forward. “Hey, it’s my fault, okay? Rey didn’t know it was a secret.”

Ben doesn’t move, which is almost more unnerving. “I’ve since enlightened her.”

Finn is undaunted. “Where have you been, dude? The whole town-”

“Is better off without me,” Ben says coolly.

Rey hears the sound of a car door slamming shut and booted feet jogging up the front steps. Then Poe Dameron’s clear, easy voice says, “Oh, fuck me, there he is. Hey, Ben.”

Rey doesn’t turn around, because can’t look away from the sight of Ben’s expression as he stares at the three of them at the threshold of his house. He looks… well, he looks the way he always looks, which is sort of inscrutable and pouty and hot.

“It’s been a while, Poe,” Ren says, cool and collected.

Poe’s voice is still aggressively jocular, friendly, but it softens slightly.

“Yeah. I’m sorry about your dad.”

Ben shakes his head. “Unnecessary.”

Rey feels herself tense at the dismissal, but Poe is unflappably good tempered, it seems. He just smiles back, and shrugs his shoulders in an ah, well,  kind of way that Rey could never pull off.

Ben’s eyes flit to Rey’s, and she knows she’s glaring at him a little. Why does he have to be so rude about his parents? Ben lets out a sharp little sigh, and his eyes don’t leave Rey’s as he says, “But thank you for the thought.”

Poe grins. “No worries. We just came-”

“To check on Rey. I heard.”

Rey snaps, “I asked you to wait.”

Finn makes a slightly strangled noise and mutters something that sounds like are you crazy in her ear.

Ben’s gaze turns absolutely icy. “Not accustomed to taking orders about where I can and can’t go in my own home.”

Rey clenches her fist. He’s right, but man is he being a dick about it.

“Whatever, it’s your cover,” Rey mutters, crossing her arms.

“It was my cover,” he says acidly.

“Rey can come back with us, if you want,” Finn tells Ben, like it’s his call where she goes or lives.

Rey glares at him. “No way. I’m doing my job. I’m not leaving.”

When she looks back at Ben, she expects him to be wearing his sulky expression. Or the serious, chilly one he’d leveled at her this morning. But there’s only a kind of surprise there, a faint lifting of his eyebrows.

“I’d expect nothing less,” he says. “Anyway, as your employer, you have a contract and I need you here.”

“You’re not my employer,” Rey says, forgetting for a moment that no one is her employer. “Your-”

“Yes, my mother,” he says easily. “You said.”

Rey swallows, because there’s a look in his eyes that makes her intensely nervous. And she tries to get at the meaning, tries to guess why he would look at her like that, all knowing and pleased, but the more her brain whirs at the task the further away the answer seems.

Ben turns his gaze back to Finn. “I think it’s best you go. Provided, of course, that Rey is in agreement.”

Though he doesn’t look like he expects her to argue. Which is annoying, because she doesn’t argue. Instead she turns around and takes Finn by the hand.

“Let’s go out for a movie sometime. I’ll call you,” Rey says, trying to soothe him. She looks at Poe, too. “You should join us.”

“You don’t have a phone,” Finn points out, not looking at ease at all.

Rey gestures back at Ren. “I can borrow his.”

“Dead boy has a phone?” Poe mutters.

“And functional ears,” Ben snaps.

All Rey can think is that men are stupid. This is the most people she’s spoken to at once in months, and it’s exhausting. She wants to go trekking in the woods, wants to lose herself to that fog and song and rustle. She wants to curl back up on Ben’s stupid pecs on his couch and go back to sleep.

“I’ll get in touch,” she says.

“Please do,” Finn says, squeezing her hand back. “Or I’ll be worried.”

Rey softens and pulls him into an impulsive hug, and his hands wrap around her, and they just stand like that for a few seconds. And she feels better.

“Talk soon,” Rey says, promising.

He nods. “Take care.”

And he gives Ben one last uneasy look and walks to the door. Poe hesitates, looking like he wants to say something.

“See you around, Poe?” Rey says.

His gaze snaps back to her. “Oh, yeah. Hey, here, take this.”

And he takes out a business card with his name and phone number on it. He leans forward, his head close to hers, and murmurs, “Call me if you need an exit plan.”

Rey clenches the paper in her hand, annoyed. As if she’d need his help. As if Ben would ever put her in that position. And Ben must agree, because he’s prowling up stand next to her at the door with a scowl on his face that could curdle milk. Poe actually holds his hands up in surrender, backing away slowly.

“See you around, Ben. Rey.”

And they both just stand there as the two men get back in Poe’s car. Finn waves at her out the window as the engine kicks to life and Poe guns it down the driveway.

A flock of birds call their displeasure at being disturbed, black smudges that peel off from the fog into the cloudy sky. The grandfather clock chimes four PM, though she knows it is still something like nine forty five.

Rey turns around and Ben is looking at her, and they’re alone again. And she feels… relief. She smiles, and she’s about to crack a joke but he speaks instead.

“Did you call for a rescue? Was it something I did?”

And he looks… upset at the idea. Not angry but… something. Rey shakes her head, bewildered by the frustration that is naked on his face.

“No, it was when you sent me to get groceries,” she blurts. She’s already pissed him off. She may as well tell the truth. “I was surprised to see you. Finn’s my best friend, I was alone out here, I wanted someone to know…”

His expression softens. “I thought you called them. Because-”

Rey crosses his arms. “You thought I was, what, scared of you? Why would I be scared of someone who goes out of his way to scare me? I’m still annoyed about that, by the way. And you didn’t have to be cold to Finn and Poe, they were just worried about me.”

And she’s rambling, scolding him because she needs to nag him, needs to get that feeling like she knows where she is and who she is and who he is. Never mind that she has no business feeling like she knows him, because he’s a liar. He’s a beautiful, lying rich boy who was rude to her friends and she doesn’t even like him.

Grey light washes across his face. His lips are soft, and he’s looking at her with some emotion that hovers between annoyance and fondness. The confused look is gone. She feels warm all over, despite the lack of sun.   

“I could have done much worse by them,” he says. “I could have faked a haunting.”

Rey rolls her eyes. “That would have been very wrong.”

“Why not? He thought I was going to, what, murder you? Ravish you?” And he arches a brow and Rey feels her cheeks go hot.

“Why would he think that, when you were so perfectly charming?” she says.

She brushes past him, feeling the soft fabric of his sweater brush the hairs on her arms. The easy stillness of the house has settled back down, blanketing everything in comforting, heavy air. She feels easy again, by degrees, because this is familiar to her already. Bantering, bickering, the house and its mysteries humming like something alive around them.

“Where are you going?” he says, trailing behind her.

“I have work to do, as you so helpfully pointed out.”

“Don’t be annoyed,” he says, but she’s already walking down the hallway to the kitchen.

“Too late!” she calls. Even though she isn’t annoyed. And then that in and of itself is annoying, because she should be. She should resent him for a lot of things that she’s giving him a pass on. She has every right to be annoyed.

“Where are you going?”

“To the woods,” she tosses over one shoulder.

Really, where else was she going to go?

He follows her to the kitchen and out the back door, because of course he does.

She’s stomping down the lawn, her bare feet coming down on the soft, damp grass as she treks down the slope toward where she abandoned her rain boots. Outside, the air is heavy with the fog spilling out from the damp forest and creeping across the mud and leaves scattered on the grass. The horizon is obscured by a white wall of mist.

Rey thinks there’s a difference between mist and fog, but she’s not sure.

His tread is heavy on the ground as he trails behind her, and the skin exposed to the air prickles where she’s almost certain he’s looking.

“Ben, I have stuff to do.”

“Let me help,” he says.

Rey stops when she reaches the place she’d abandoned her boots the other night and bends down to yank them up from the mud. It takes a second, but with a terrific squelch they come free, leaving a boot shaped imprint in the mud. She upends them, unceremoniously emptying it the water that has filled it overnight.

When she finally looks back at Ben, he’s biting back a smile.

“What?” she says.

He shakes his head. “Nothing.”

Rey rolls her eyes and sets the boots down, pushing her foot into the damp blackness. The cold and wet on the soles of her feet make her want to recoil, but he’s watching her closely and she doesn’t dare. She just stands there on the brink of shivering.

“I’m going to go into the woods,” Rey says, tugging the plastic sides up securely. They brush the skin on her calves. “I’ll only be a minute, and I can’t keep track of you in the mist.”

Ben blinks. Glances to the shadowy, misty forest. “You’re going in there?”

She straightens. “I’ve got to check on something. I’ll only be a minute.”

“What could possibly need your attention? Rey, it’s misty as all hell, you’ll get lost, you know what that forest is like,” he says, trailing off to run a hand through his hair. And she stares at him, because the way he says it. It’s like he knows.

She’d forgotten, of course, that he grew up here and probably knows all about it himself. He probably wouldn’t get lost, might even know the woods better than she does. She adds that thought to her mental picture of Ben Solo, but it doesn’t give her any ideas for what to say to him now. So she says nothing, which is a good trick.

Rey turns and walks down the slope yet further until she reaches the potting shed. She’s a little nervous to open the door, but the sodden frame yields to her, and she sticks her head in to find everything snug as a rug. The greenhouse roof is covered in pine needles and sodden leaves, but it’s alright. She can fix it.

She pushes inside and casts around for supplies and her jacket, because the water in the air is cool where it condenses on her skin. She turns to the workbench, hunting for her rope.

His voice comes from inside the shed and she looks up, startled, as he says, “You didn’t answer my question.”

He’s almost bumping his head against the roof. She grins, because he’s too tall for the space and it makes her laugh.

“What?” he says, irritable.

“You’re tall. And grumpy.”

“Those facts usually work in my favor when it comes to extracting information,” he grumbles.

“Well you’ll have to try a different tactic,” she says.

And she turns back to the workbench to hide her smile. There’s no reason to make a mystery of her task. She just wants to see how her tree fared, to climb up and see the mists from a higher height. But he has so many secrets that it makes her want some of her own, enough to wrap around herself like a veil. Just enough to hide behind, like he does.  

“Different tactic. Okay,” he says, and the sound of the floorboards under his feet tells her he’s taken a step closer. She would have felt it without that, though. His breath is on her neck, and she can feel the nerves in her body agitate toward him, straining their attention to where he is standing just behind her. “I’ve got other tricks.”

Rey closes her eyes, because holy shit his voice is so close to her ear. She can feel his words like he’s reached out and touched her with them, and they seem to brush across her skin like ghostly fingers, starting at the nape of her neck and trailing cool, energetic lines down her arms, back, thighs.

“Rey, tell me what you’re doing in the woods,” he murmurs, and this time he really does touch her. His hand brushes the space between her shoulder blade, thumbing gently down the cotton of her shirt and stopping at the small of her back. "Tell me where you go."

“Cheap trick,” she mumbles.

Her voice is unsteady, and Christ, it’s embarrassing. He’s doing this on purpose, he’s toying with her to get information but still.

“Nothing cheap about it,” he murmurs.

“I’m just going for a walk,” she says, and stops, because his fingers open on her lower back, and even through the cotton of her tank top, she feels each point of contact between his fingers and her skin like a starburst blooming low and warm.

“Can’t it wait?”

“I’ll stay if you tell me something true,” she says. “Something true about you.”

“Hmm,” he says. She’s leaning back into that hand. Chasing it. “Would you accept a counter offer?”

Rey closes her eyes. His fingers are slipping around, reaching for her waist. And if he puts his hand on her hip she’ll be totally helpless. So she turns around, thinking he’ll be surprised and step back, but he doesn’t. He stays right where he is, and they’re nose to nose, him looking down at her and just so close.

And she can smell him even through the sweet earthy air, even though the mist, even through the secrets.

“No deal,” she whispers.

He doesn’t react for a moment, just looking at her with those eyes.

“There’s nothing you want more?” he says, finally, tilting his face down. Rey is leaning against the workbench, and he moves one hand to brace himself against it.

She can’t speak, can’t talk.

He's looking at her lips. “I could kiss you. If that’s what it would take.”

And the ragged edge of the sentence nearly undoes her, because holy shit. This can’t just be manipulation. He’s not just flirting with her to distract her or scare her or tease her. And maybe that’s even worse, but she doesn’t care because the look on his face is so hopeful, so hellbent. She could fall into those eyes the way she could get lost in the woods or fall asleep in the snow, and it would be just as dangerous.

“I’m sure you could,” Rey breathes. But she doesn’t move, doesn’t close the distance, doesn’t look at his lips. She just holds his gaze and mentally dares him to ask her again, because she wants to know what she’ll say about as much as he does. The moment stretches, tense and long, until the weight of it bends it down and flattens it out.

Ben sighs, straightening up to his full height again.

“I guess that was a long shot,” he says. And he looks like he did when he was watching the three of them on his doorstep, and she doesn’t know what it means.

If he had laughed and said something snarky, she could have laughed it off. Might have scolded him or rolled her eyes. But there’s just the confusion and the wanting, and it makes her words dry up.

He says, “Don’t stay away too long.”

“I won’t,” she finally says, turning back around to finally grab her rope. She’s going to need a good hard climb, after this. Her eyes flit out the murky window at the overcast sky that the pines overhead obscure. She tries to think about practicalities, about jackets, about pocket knives. But what she’s thinking about is Ben’s hand on her lower back, and why she hadn’t asked him to kiss her.

“You’re awfully familiar with strangers,” she adds, mostly to stop herself from thinking too much. She’s scared he can hear her heart beating.

“But you’re not a stranger. You were vetted by my mother, after all,” he says, low and silky. Rey’s hands falter on the rope she’s looping around her hand.

“Right. Well, I’ve got to head out.”

She turns for the door. His voice trails behind her.

“Does Finn know your real last name? Or do you lie to him, too?”

Her walk turns into a run.

X

She’s not hiding from him. She’s not. She hadn’t, isn’t, hiding from him, because she doesn’t care that he watched her disappear into the trees. That she turned back twice to see him just standing there, frowning at the whole damn forest. That for all she knows, he’s still there waiting for her to get back.

So, no, she’s not hiding from him, because she doesn’t care.

And even if that weren’t total bullshit, she should have known better than to come to the woods. The ferns, pines, and brush are dense even clear days, but in the fog the trees are just tall silhouettes, and beyond those, they are just the idea of silhouettes.

Rey treks down a path made unfamiliar to her by the creeping tendrils of ghosting, opaque fog. It dews on her eyelashes, coats her hair, sticks to her skin. To make it even harder to navigate, the water in the mist diffuses the light, stripping the forest of its usual shadows and replacing them with an all-over, ethereal glow. It would be beautiful if it weren’t just a little unsettling. The cardinal directions are reduced to faint suggestions that tug on the corners of her mind, and she’d be instantly lost if she didn’t know the route to her tree fairly well.

But in the mist… Rey loses track of things. Like the trail.

One minute she’s on a familiar path, thinking about the sound of Ben’s mother’s voice and his hands brushing on her thighs, and then all at once she can’t find the trail.

Rey’s not one of those people who wastes time denying that she’s lost. There is the feeling of knowing where you’re going and there is feeling of losing your way, and they are mutually exclusive sensations.

Irritated by not afraid, keeps her face neutral and treks purposefully forward, because she doesn’t want anything in these woods to sense that she’s misplaced her path and tempt her with a new one.

Instead, she finds a pine tree that looks sturdy and tall enough to climb up and get a sense of where she is. It’s tall, not as tall as her tree, of course, but it will do to reacquaint her with her directions.  

She slings her rope up, catches it on the other side, and pulls herself up onto the lowest branch. She tests the weight, finds it sturdy, and reaches up for the next one. Climbing a new tree is dangerous even when the branches aren’t saturated from a recent rainstorm, so Rey proceeds with extreme caution.

It’s slow going, and her hand slips twice as she ascends, scraping on the loud, crackling bark. She sends showers of loose tree bark to the forest floor and interrupts a crow at work disemboweling a pinecone. But she climbs and climbs until she clears the treetops, emerging on a branch that’s just wide enough for her to sit down on.

From this height, she can the top of the house, and she’s surprised how deep in the woods she’s advanced. Her usual route takes her straight south of the house, but she’s veered further than that, and to the west slightly, so she sees it from a different angle. Below her, the mists bathe the ground in a grey white haze.

Everything is misted over. Lost.

The ground might have disappeared completely and she wouldn’t be able to tell. A bird in the distance spirals in the air, hunting something. The mist has seeped through her clothes by now, and she’s shivering a little from the damp, despite the warm air. But for all her discomfort, Rey feels calm return to her. Sure, she’d almost kissed Ben Solo. Sure, he’d looked at her like she was beautiful and wanted. And yeah, she’d wanted to kiss him back. But she hadn’t kissed him back, and that’s a victory.

It has to be, because if it isn’t, then she’s just… hiding. Alone for no reason except fear.

Never mind that she’s lying through her teeth about her whole justification for being here, and that he might be some kind of special agent with contacts in the FBI, which is really the last thing she needs, and also that his house is probably haunted or something. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that beautiful, and he nuzzled her neck with a look on his face like he was only doing it for the pleasure of it.  

Rey leans her head back against the bark of the tree, indulging in a groan.

“Damn that Ben Solo,” she says. And then claps a hand over her mouth, because something could have heard her say it. It’s time to get out of the woods.

It’s right then that she hears it: a faint, muffled sound. A thud. She freezes. Ten Mississippi’s pass in total silence, and then-

Thunk.

The window hits the side of the house, loud like a dropped object even through the insulating fog.

“Oh come on,” Rey groans.

X

In the end, it’s that faint, distant thump that gets her back to familiar terrirotyr. Like clockwork, the thump comes every ten seconds or so, clear and loud in the still air. She walks, listens, and course corrects, and slowly the trees get less dense. It’s like following a beacon in the mist, or listening to a friend calling her home.

Still, it takes her a long time to make it through the brush, and she gets turned around more than once and has to scale a tree or two to course-correct and regain her direction. By all accounts, she shouldn’t have been able to walk so far in so little time, but the trees are in fine form and in no hurry to release her, so it’s slow going.

But she’s just starting to feel that close-to-home-again feeling again when she sees the outline of a new trail appear. One second she is squinting her eyes to see if that faint lessening in the mist is a real path, or just another trick of the light, and the next she is standing at a dead halt, her eyes following the little pebble lined path which starts just to her left. Beckoning ferns wave softly in a wind she cannot feel. She’s close to the house and coming at it from a different direction, and she knows this must be the reason she’s never seen it before, but still.

“I’m not going in there,” she tells the forest. “How stupid do you think I am?”

Nothing happens. No birds call, no shadows fall across her face, nothing laughs. It’s just still and murky. She listens for the window thump noise, but nothing comes. The wind has gone, and she knows that’s the reason it’s stopped banging against the side of the house, but the silence feels…portentous. Intentional. And if she were smart she’d keep walking, would heed the advice she’s always followed. Keep your head down, don’t go hunting for trouble, don’t attract attention.

And yet…

“God damn it,” Rey mutters, and turns around to follow where it takes her.

It’s cool and quiet on this trail, more wooded and less travelled than any of the others that crisscross through the woods. If it weren’t for the stone markers, she’d be hard pressed to keep track of the damn thing. Ferns grow over the edges, brushing against her ankles and leaving wet, cold trails on her skin. A press of pines makes the air a shade darker, too, and she feels uneasy.

But that goes away when she sees the statue.

The marble figure is elegant and life sized, her face carved softly out of granite. She’s standing in a clearing, her arms folded in front of her. She’s facing the house, and although the features aren’t clearly etched, Rey knows those cheekbones and that satin smile from the portrait. This must be a memorial to Ben’s grandmother.  

Requiesce in pace, says the statue’s base.

There’s a track of cleared ground around the statue, like someone has beaten a trail with pacing a long time ago and nothing has wanted to grow there since. She knows this place for what it is. Of course the forest would protect something like this, would grow a ring of dense trees around it and hide the memory. That’s the thing about forests. They may play tricks, but they keep secrets. They bury things.

Rey bows her head and wishes she had a flower to lay down at the base.

But there’s nothing she can add to this scene, no way to change it or add meaning to it, so she backs up the way she came in, and leaves behind only her silence for an offering.

X

Rey reaches the edge of the forest feeling different, somehow. Older. It’s midday, and the distant sun has burnt off some of the mist in the air, so by the time she reaches the edge of the lawn the spaces between the trees are clear enough to see about thirty feet into. A vast improvement.

It would be better if there were a little wind to move the mist, but the air is still. Terribly still. If the atmosphere hadn’t just deluged them with the biggest rainstorm of the year, she’d think there was a storm coming.

Rey is hungry, so she walks up the house. She trains her eyes on the third story window. It’s sitting open, jutting out into the air like it’s waving at her. Rey shakes her head fondly.

“I’m going to get a zip tie,” she threatens, pointing at it. But the window doesn’t move.

She jogs into the house, grabs an apple and a piece of cheese from the counter, and sits at the island to eat. She listens for Ben, but there’s no noise. She wonders if he’s out of the house. She doesn’t bother to try the light switches. The power’s still out.

She tosses her apple core and finishes the last of her cheese, licking the nutty oil off her fingers as she pads out into the foyer and to the grand staircase, listening for him. Maybe he needed to hide, too. She could understand that. But if he’s gone, then at least he won’t be here to stop her.

X

The third floor is as still and murky as always, and Rey makes it up the rickety staircase with no trouble. The door to the third floor room with the loose window is ajar, and she remembers standing in here yesterday, being scared out of her mind by a boy she didn’t know yet. She thinks that if he surprised her here this time, she wouldn’t scream.

But she crosses to the open window and leans her elbows on the sill, looking out into the bright grey-blue sky. The house’s elevated position means that she can see for miles and miles, and if it weren’t so misty she could probably see the mountains in the distance. She likes this view. Always has. And she imagines Ben’s uncle as a young man. She thinks he must have been handsome, probably, like Ben, maybe with kind eyes like the ones in Padme’s portrait.

Did he lean here, look out over the landscape and long for something?  

Rey smiles, and looks at the catch on the window again. Time to get back to work.

She closes the window. Opens it again. Closes it. But nothing happens. She turns her gaze around the room, looking for some environmental factor, something that could push the catch loose. But it’s just squeaky floorboards, white walls, and the angled ceiling.

Rey thinks about that statue. She’d like to see the portrait of Padme again, to look at her face and see what she could make of it. Whoever put that statue up must have loved her a great deal. But there’s no way she can get into the study again without Ben to lift that ten-foot tall mahogany panel off the wall.

On a whim, Rey walks out of the room and back into the hallway. She walks to the very end, trying to see where the door to the secret study must be. Surely there’s a second egress point besides that staircase? Pressing her face against the wall, she can see the faint outline of a door. It’s the slimmest of gaps between one panel and another, but it’s there. There’s no handle, nothing to latch onto, and even when Rey jimmies her pocket knife into the thin gap, she finds it doesn’t budge.

“A room with no doors. Has to be a fire hazard,” she mutters to no one in particular. The house creaks, like it’s agreeing with her.

Defeated but curious, Rey sticks her head back into the little room, half expecting to see the window open again. But it’s just as she left it, clean and shiny and shut fast. For lack of any better ideas, she crosses to the latch and pulls the hair tie off her wrist. She’s wrapping the elastic around the catch, hoping this will do to hold it tight against whatever unseen wind keeps knocking it open, when the first rays of sun break through the clouds. The window is set against the slant of the roof, interrupting the slope like a headstone on a hillside, and the sunlight makes it gleam slightly.

An idea presses against the side of her mind. Something excited and tremulous.

Hardly daring to breathe, Rey opens the window, lifts herself up on the sill, and looks to the side of the window at the roof.

And there it is. A ladder.

It’s a series of metal rungs, really, fastened right onto the roof like the ones on the side of enormous navy ships that go far out to sea. It leads all the way up the sharp incline up to the flat part at the very top, where chimneys jut up into the air like statues.

And she gets a firm grip on the window sill and hauls herself up, knowing the roof has to be slippery as all hell and that Ben Solo is going to be absolutely livid she’s disobeying the only two rules he’s given her. No roof. No third floor.

Well, he should know better than to leave her alone by now. He really should.

So she stands, her booted feet wedged down against the wood of the windowsill and one hand gripping the a metal hand hold, and looks out over the backyard. She sees the trees where she’d tried to lose Ben Solo and found something else instead.

She turns her body, gets a firm grip on the first rung, and starts to climb.

X

As far as ladders go, metal ones like this are narrow and slippery. Rey’s halfway to the top, and although the climb isn’t far, she’s quickly realizing that her boots aren’t helping her. The thin soles don’t add to her grip, and her hands are doing most of the work.

So, being a practical sort of person, she lifts her foot off and shakes and shakes until the rainboot comes all the way loose and slides off her foot. It bangs hard against the roof, and Rey winces, holding very still. Then, slowly, it flops off the edge of the roof and hits the ground with a soft thunk. Rey’s better on the second try, and this boot clears the roof and sails over the edge, hitting the ground several seconds later with a hard thunk.

And she takes a moment to center herself around the idea that what she’s doing is very dangerous, and maybe Ben knew what he was talking about when he said she should stay off the roof? But equally so, she wants this. She wants to stand right at the top and look out over everything, because that’s what she does. She’s a climber. If she can get to the top of this house, then she’s earned her right to explore it. Or that’s how it seems, suspended halfway between the safety of Ben’s uncle’s favorite room and the tip top of the house.

She grits her teeth, swallows her fear back, and resumes her climb. It’s easier with bare feet, if a bit more slippery. She keeps one hand on the rung, and never lets go before she’s got her foot on the next one. The metal is warm in her hands, and after a tense few minutes of climbing, Rey reaches the top. There’s a flat part, and Rey crawls onto it on all fours, and then turns around to sit with her feet hanging on the slanted roof.

It looks the same as the view from the window, except now she feels that view all the way down to her toes. The distance rises to meet her, thrumming and blue in the distance and green and shifting up close. The forest is a green carpet, the sky a pale blue scarf thrown across the world. Up here, she can feel a light breeze tug at her hair, carrying the scent of the hot metal, the friendly dirt, the mist from the ground. It thrills through her, strong and potent.

Rey sits back, wrapping her arms around her knees, and holds her breath for wonder. There isn’t anything more beautiful. How could there be? She’s free and unafraid.

She never wants to leave, never wants to get down, and she sends a quick thank you to the window with the busted catch for showing her how to get here. She wipes a quick tear from her eye and smiles at the landscape.

When she hears her name drifting up to her, and at first she thinks it’s just wishful thinking. Like the landscape is thrilling in her, too, and calling her name out. But it comes again, and she shakes herself out of her reverie because it’s a mortal voice that calls to her, not some personified landscape deity.

“Rey,” it comes again, and this time she knows it’s Ben’s voice calling up from the backyard. She holds her breath, looking down the roof and waiting for a few long seconds until the dark shape of him comes into view. He’s striding down the lawn, arms crossed, calling for her in the direction of the woods.

Her heart… scrunches. It’s a new feeling, to have someone look for her.

“Rey,” he calls again, and even from up here she can detect a note of anxiety in it.

He pauses at the edge of the forest, and Rey knows what will happen next. He will barge in there to find her, get horribly lost in the dense foliage, and she’ll have to barge in and save him, because she left a curse for him up that tree, and it’ll be her damn fault if he trips and breaks his ankle.

She crawls to the edge of the flat part of the roof, and rises on her knees on the edge.

“Ben,” she yells.

He stops, turns, scanning the ground first, because of course that’s where he’s expecting her. Then she sees his head lift, and he holds a hand to his brow.

“I’m… up here?” she yells, almost apologetically.

“For the love of-“ he says, dropping his hand. He sounds pissed. “I swear to god, Rey!”

“I’m fine,” Rey hollers back, but he’s already prowling up the lawn, his eyes trained up on her.

“You stay right fucking there,” he calls. “I’m coming to get you.”

Chapter Text

Chapter 6

Five minutes later and she sees him stick his head out the window, craning his neck around the frame to peer up to where she’s still sitting. His hair is in his eyes and he has that pointy, imperious expression on his face that annoys her. She flexes her bare toes, pressing them down on the warm heat of the concrete as she stands as tall as she can.

“Come down,” he yells. From this point of view, he looks almost normal sized.

Rey grins, mostly to bug him, and shakes her head. “No way.”

“Yes way,” he calls, and it’s so undisguisedly disgruntled that she wants to laugh. She wonders if he knows how easy he is to rile up.

“No,” Rey counters, more firmly and still grinning. “Come up here.”

“I was very clear about the roof,” he yells.

Rey shrugs her shoulders, big and exaggerated so he can see it.

“Scared of heights? Weird.”

“Rey,” he growls, eyes narrowing. “Don’t try it.”

She gives him a little wave. “Enjoy hanging out in the windowsill. I am going to sit up here and watch the sunset.”

“The sunset is in five hours.”

“Perfect, I can practice my yoga,” Rey calls, stretching her arms over her head in the first pose of a sun salutation and pointedly turning her back on him.

“For fuck’s sake,” she hears him grumble, but when she doesn’t do anything to come down, she hears the sound of a boot hitting the metal rung. Then another. She turns around to see all seventy feet of Ben Solo climbing up the latter, his steps confident and strong as he mutters very lazy curses under his breath. She can’t help it. She smiles.

He reaches the top way faster than she had, and Rey has a moment of appreciation for the muscles in his arms, the lines on his hands, the strength of his step. He climbs the slippery metal ladder like he’s been doing it all his life.

So, he’s not scared of heights. Huh. Well, neither is she. 

Feeling a little giddy that she’d bossed him around, she looms over Ben Solo as he hovers at the top of the ladder. He rests his forearms on the flat part of the roof, but he doesn’t come up yet. His fingers grip the metal and he glowers up at her.

“Come down.”

Rey crosses her arms. “Nope. I’m appreciating the sun.”

He shifts his weight slightly on the ladder, blowing a strand of hair out of his face.

“You’re three stories off the ground-”

We’re three stories off the ground.”

“-and taking a wildly unnecessary risk,” he says. “Come down, I’m literally begging you.”

Rey taps a finger against her chin. “Hmm, no.”

His expression turns crafty, and then he grabs for her foot. She squawks, leaping backwards and away from his reach. If she fell flat backwards, she wouldn’t be far from the edge of the roof.  

“You’re gonna make me fall off,” she says, but for some reason she’s laughing.

“You’re too good at climbing for that,” he says, lunging again.

“I’ll kick you,” Rey threatens, stifling her grin and pointing her foot at him menacingly.

He takes one look at her, balanced one on foot on the top of the house, and leans back, his jaw clenching. But then he just gives her an exasperated look and she just knows she’s won.

“What’ll it take to get you down?”

She lowers her foot, preening. “You have to sit with me.”

She’s not sure why exactly, but she wants him to. She wants to sit here on this beautiful roof with a beautiful boy and have this memory in her arsenal for the rest of time.

He hesitates, his eyes bright and uneasy for a second, and then he shakes his head and puts his strong arms on the flat roof to haul himself up over the edge. Just like that, he’s sitting on the roof, his eyes trained grouchily up on her face. He’s more agile than he looks, his legs bent over the seam between the concrete at and the metal, his normally perfect posture a little hunched and wary.

“You have to sit too, to keep your end of the deal.”

Rey rolls her eyes, but she sits down next to him in an easy cross-legged position, her legs underneath her. 

“You take all the wrong risks,” Rey informs him. He gives her a look, so she adds, “You travel the world and do god knows what for work, but you won’t even sneak onto the roof to appreciate the sunset?”

“I prefer it when my risks don't flirt with the idea of me ending up a pancake,” he says, cool and steady. And for some reason Rey’s breath kind of hitches at the word flirt. And then she feels dumb, because for god’s sakes, he’s Ben Solo. It doesn’t mean anything.

Except, she thinks, that it does to her. To sleep in his arms, to almost kiss in her shed, to share meals and bandages. It’s the most human intimacy she’s ever experienced, and even more than that, it feels so natural, like touching him or talking to him is how things should be, and she's just now noticing. 

He runs a hand through his hair. “What are the rest of your conditions for avoiding our certain death?”

She clears her throat, not sure what to do with him now that he’s being very docile.

“You have to appreciate the view.”

His eyes don’t leave her face. “Sure. Easy.”

Rey leans forward, craning her body over to his to gently turn his face so he’s looking out at the trees, the mountains, the sunset.

“No, look,” she commands, letting her hand fall back into her lap as he blinks and looks. His eyes rove over the trees, down to the mossy grass and her cottage and right over the statue keeping a silent vigil in the lonely woods.

His pupils dilate slightly, and she wonders if he can feel the stirring, thrilled feeling, too, the one when you’re in a moment and you already know that it’s special, and it won’t ever be quite like this again, and you already kind of miss it even as it’s happening. She's been feeling that a lot, lately.

They just sit at the top of the house, the sun on their faces and everything else rendered pointless and irrelevant.

If he can’t appreciate this, she’s not sure she can really ever understand him.

“It’s beautiful,” he says, very quietly, and she sends a silent blessing into the sky.

Rey throws her hands up in the air. “Okay, thank you. I swear, you have like, zero appreciation for the place you grew up. If I were you, I’d be up here all the time.”

His lips quirk but he doesn’t look at her. “I’ve no doubt. How’d you find the ladder? I was hoping you wouldn't notice it.”

Rey looks down at her hands on her knees, running a finger lightly across the hair on her legs.

“The catch on that window is broken,” she says, and stops. Can she tell him her theory without sounding absolutely crazy?

“I’m surprised. You run a pretty tight ship around here,” he says, giving her that crooked smile.

Then the whole thing just tumbles out. “Your uncle helped me,” she blurts. Then winces, because if he rejects her here she will feel it.

Ben blinks, suddenly very focused. “My uncle was here? Rey why didn't-”

“It's just a theory, but that catch isn't broken. It just keeps opening, and I felt like there was a presence, or an intention or something. I don't believe in ghosts really, but-”

"His ghost," Ben confirms, his eyes intent. And she's not sure if he believes her but he doesn't laugh or roll his eyes. He focuses on her like he's listening very intently.

She wrings her hand. "I don't know. It felt...when I was lost in the woods I heard it banging against the house and it kind of, kind of guided me home-

“You were lost in the woods?” he says, his frown deepening even further. 

“Not for long,” Rey says distractedly. “And I think… I know it sounds crazy, but I sort of felt like he was helping or something. Banging the window so I would have a beacon.”

Ben looks back at the landscape, his mouth set in a hard line. She's not sure what he's thinking, but he looks sort of chagrined, somehow. She wonders if bringing his uncle up was a mistake, because maybe he wishes that he were the one who'd felt Luke's ghost. Or maybe he's realizing she's a crazy person.

But all he says is, “That would be like him.”

His voice thick and full of emotion. She thinks it must be grief, but there's something else there, too. Guilt, maybe? Maybe there was some bad blood. 

“Sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said that. It must be hard to…”

And she trails off, because she has no idea. She has no fucking clue what it’s like to lose an uncle and a father and own a mysterious house in the woods with a potentially murderous grandfather and several secret passageways. She so profoundly can’t relate, and she’s not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

His voice startles her, vehement and almost angry. “People leave you, but they don’t ever go away.”

“That’s not true,” Rey says, thinking of her own parents who have never, not even once, felt close to her. He falls silent, both of them lapsing into the deep kind of silence that comes from intense mental preoccupation.

She’s thinking about her parents.

The days that made Rey the saddest weren’t ones everyone thought would. The father-daughter dances, the mommy and me brunches, parent-themed holidays, all of those she could prepare for. She knew they were coming, and her friends would look out for her.

Little stuff hurt her the deepest. Laying alone with a fever and no one to bring her water, cutting off her own crusts in the morning, walking home from soccer games by herself. She felt those losses like a cold hand wrapped around her heart, and they never happened in moments where she felt like she could talk to anyone about it. Her whole childhood was punctuated by moments of intense, private loneliness in completely everyday situations.

She thinks about Ben and the way he'd talked about his parents, about the steady beauty of the life he has here, and realizes that the impact of her parent's death has affected her more than she’s admitted to herself. Not that she ever thought it didn’t affect her, but she’d always thought their total absence was, in some ways, easier.

Ben had been an example of that, she thought.

But now, looking at him all angry and miserable in one of the most beautiful places on earth, his mother waiting on a call from him and him just choosing not to... It’s a pain she’d give a lot to have for herself.

He is staring, silent and frowning, at a landscape he’s not really seeing. She envies him even though she kind of hates him.  

His eyes flit over to hers, and he says, “Aren’t you scared of anything?”

Rey lifts her head, feeling the sun on her shoulders and his eyes on her face again as the weight of her sudden bout of introspection lifts. She tosses her hair over her shoulder, just to feel the wind take the strands and make them fly.

“Scared of what?”

He gestures vaguely, his expression troubled. “All of this. The house, the woods, the height, the ghosts.” And then, more quietly, he adds, “Me?”

Rey snorts. “No, no, and no. Least of all you. And quit asking me, it’s self-indulgent.”

He opens his mouth but then the sound of his phone vibrating cuts into the air, electronic and jarring, and he stops. The noise cuts off as he silences it in one swift, brutal move. He looks blandly back at her, like nothing has happened.

Ben says, “Tell me what should we do with the rest of our mandatory roof time.”

Rey tilts her head up to let the warmth bathe her face. She debates asking him about the call, about asking him a lot of things, but then decides that she doesn’t want to think about anything anymore. Today it is sunny, and tomorrow it might not be. She’s grateful for both of those things, and asking too many questions will only ruin it.

“We’re going to sit and enjoy the sun until the clouds come back. It’s called relaxing, Ben. It’s what we mere mortals do when we’re not working in the coal mines.

He smiles, one cheek dimpling.

“You never worked in a coal mine.”

Rey shifts her weight slightly, distributing it between her palms as she lifts herself up a little. Just to deposit herself a little closer to him.

“Nah, but I worked at a lumber yard.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Rey mumbles, thinking of that time. “I was small and quick, so I was the one who got to take all the measurements for the growth reports. The guys had these huge cherry-pickers that they had to use, but I could just climb up.”

Rey had spent years with the trees, taking measurements, carving tiny, unnoticeable markings into each one like little talismans of protection. She'd given some of them names, had seen generations of birds nest and learn to fly. It wasn't a bad place to grow up, honestly. 

“I used to cry and cry when they would cut them down,” she murmurs, almost wistfully. She glances over and he’s staring at her so intently that she suddenly wants to apologize for making it weird, for getting too intense. But then he puts a hand on her knee and gives her a look that isn’t a smile or anything like true understanding, but it is solid and steady.

“You’re a really nice person, you know that?” he says. Just like it’s as plain a fact. “You didn’t have to turn out nice, but you did.”

She could kiss him.

“You should try it,” she says around her grin.

“I am nice,” he says, sitting up a bit straighter. But she can see he’s pleased, somehow. Maybe he likes making her feel better, or maybe he just likes being teased, but the look suits him.

“You’re nice to me,” she corrects.

And he grins. “That’s the damn truth. Hey, I have an idea.”

“What is it?”

“You should put your head on my shoulder.”

She gives him one half-assed, skeptical eyebrow raise. And then she just… does. She leans her head against his shoulder and his arm goes around her waist and he kind of scoots her over so she’s nestled against his side. They could be at a drive in movie or something, it’s that classic.

“How’s this?” she murmurs.

“It’s perfect,” he mumbles into her hair, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out again.

Rey’s eyes flutter closed. “Any time.”

And they don’t say anything for a long time. His body is strong against hers, and she doesn’t open her eyes. The shadow of the landscape is imprinted on her eyelids, and as she slowly nuzzles her face against his shoulder it fades into a bright black-red blur. It doesn’t matter; she’ll never forget it.

Enough time passes that her body feels sleepy and content, all drowsy and warm like the afternoon has gotten inside her body and turned everything golden brown.

He murmurs, “We should get down.”

“Not yet. Just a little longer,” she says, eyes closed and voice sleepy. “Please.”

His hand twitches on her waist, and then they sit like that for a long time. Eventually she gets too drowsy to hold her body up anymore, so she slides her head down to rest on his thigh instead, her back pressed flat against the warm concrete as he runs his hands through her hair.

Very quietly, and much later, he says, “I feel like I dreamed you up.”

“Maybe you did,” she murmurs back, half asleep.

He starts to braid her hair and he says, “My dad used to go to this lumber yard to get wood for the house. Plutt’s, I think it was called. It wasn’t far from here.”

She opens her eyes, forcing herself to hold still. The bright sky blue pours into her, and she knows he’s waiting for a response. Nothing comes to her. How is she supposed to lie to a guy like Ben Solo?

Her voice is a rasp, “I know the one.”

There’s a long pause.

“I wonder if I ever saw you,” he says quietly, and his hand gently running through her hair are the only thing that stop her from flinching. She debates the merits of lying, but she’s never been all that great at denying the obvious.  

“I would have remembered you.”

A kind of vertigo settles in at the idea that he could have seen here there, covered in sawdust and running around, hauling wood or driving the truck or repairing the broken machinery. Cutting down trees. They could have met, but they didn’t.

She says, “To think you were right here the whole time.”

“Yeah. I guess we didn’t get far,” he says quietly. And it should be a dick thing to say, but it’s not. It’s kind of gentle, for a Ben Solo sentence.

She flexes her toes again, feeling the air moving between each one. “I guess not.”

Ben thumbs her cheek, the skin hypersensitive and baked by the sun.

“Starting to think we could do a lot worse.”

“Then why’d you leave?” Rey says. “If it’s so great?”

“Because I was a dumbass,” he says, blunt and unhesitating. She has to tilt her neck back to see at his face, a dark shadow against the blue sky.

“I bet you were,” she says, mostly to break the tension, but also because she believes it.

He half-smiles at her. “Not gonna ask me more?”

Rey exhales shakily. The sun is making her dizzy.

“I think it would just piss me off.”

His eyes trace the lines of her face, like he’s committing them to memory. “You’re probably right.”

Rey has the odd feeling that she’s going to remember this moment for the rest of her life, and she turns her face to the side, inhaling the smell of his clothes. She wants to be sure that that when she thinks about this later, she won’t have wasted a single second.

X

And later, when the sun is nearly set and the mountains are halfway obscured by distant clouds that are so high and distant they look almost like smoke, they get to their feet and climb down to the second story roof over the master suite. He helps her clean the skylight of debris and gunk. His fingers brush hers a couple times, and she can’t tell if it’s intentional or not, just that she likes it. She likes it a lot.

Ben tells Rey about different bird calls and she tells him about trees, and they decide they’re going to go for a run together sometime on a path he knows in the woods. They complain loudly about how hungry they are, but neither of them make any move to actually get down. He doesn't bring up leaving, and the sun overhead slips heavily down the dome of the sky.

When they finally do climb back down, it’s mostly because Ben says he’s going to pass out if he doesn't get something to eat. Though Rey wonders if it’s really because they’re both starting to get a little sunburnt.

When she climbs the ladder, she tries to do it the way Ben had, all strong movements and controlled grace. The faster speed is exhilarating, and she ignores the fact that if her hands slip, she’ll fall three stories and probably break her neck. She vows that if that happens, she'll become a ghost and haunt this house just so she can sit up here all the time.

“Jesus, Rey, you trying to kill me?” Ben calls from the top.

She sticks her tongue out at him, and even from ten feet below him she can see his eyes roll.

X

In the kitchen, they finally get something to eat. There’s still no power, so she makes them what she can from the pantry as the backyard slips from golden tan into a bluer colored light. The green grass and the hazy clouds overhead make the world look a little watery and gem-like, like she’s seeing everything through sea glass.  

She cuts up some of the crunchy bread and the crisp apples, plating them with cheese and crackers and olives in a little green bowl. He pours them water into big thick cups, and they go outside to eat their dinner together on the back patio. Rey flops down on one of the fading rattan chairs, the coarse texture pressing lines into the skin of her thighs. The air is heavier and more humid down here than the air blowing across the trees, and she takes a long sip of the water, still a little drowsy.

Ben sits right at her feet, his dark hair brushing her knees as they watch the forest sway and shift in the dimming light. The sun has finally gone down, at least from their point of view on the ground, and they’re bathed in a blue green twilight. Rey’s hoping for fireflies, but none have come out yet. She thinks it’s the static from those far off clouds in the air, but Ben says that’s not a thing.

“Like you’d know. When was the last time you went firefly hunting?”

She runs her hand through his hair, trying to imitate the way he’d done that to her up on the roof. He lets out a little hum of pleasure that makes Rey grin.

He leans his head into her touch and drums his fingers on the stone of the patio. “I think it was with my uncle Luke. I was ten, maybe.”

He stops, settings his plate down on the ground next to his hip. When he stands up she makes a noise of protest that is a little embarrassing.

“Don’t worry,” he says, looking smug as all hell. “I’ll be back.”

She rolls her eyes at him but stops when she realizes what he’s doing. He grabs some firewood from the stack under the deck, arranging it in a perfect a-frame in the stone fire pit sunk at the edge of the patio.

“It’s like 70 degrees out,” Rey points out, even as she gets to her feet to help him.

He ignores this, taking a little box of matches out of his pocket and striking one as she arranges the kindling. It takes a few tries for the fire to catch, but he’s patient, striking again and again on the match until the tinder catches, slowly working up from a leaf sized flame till it grows big enough to consume the larger sticks. Then it latches onto the logs and they both sit back, their part in the exchange complete.

Ben leans against the chair, his legs open and stretched out on the pavers toward the fire. When he reaches for her, he only has to exert the slightest pressure on her hand and she’s crawling over to sit between his legs. He wraps his arms around her, and he’s so warm that it feels like being cuddled by a space heater.

She feels every point of contact, and she shivers as a bone deep wanting feeling curls in her stomach. It's pointless and agitating, and she leans her cheek against his bicep and closes her eyes against the feeling.

They can hear the sound of the sunset birds, the frogs croaking, the crickets thrilling their songs into the air. Everything is all noise and thickening darkness, and it’s dark enough that she can’t see the haze of those high clouds anymore. The air is heavy and thick, and she is dark and warm.

There are his arms around her, the fire in front of her, and the forest beyond. She doesn’t think about anything else. Ben’s phone vibrates and he reaches into his pocket to silence it again. 

There’s a pause, and she has to ask this time.

“Your mom?”

“No.” He says the words right into her hair.

“If she called again, would you take it?” Rey says, yawning even though it’s not late.

“Not with you in my arms,” he says, a little grouchy. He draws her a little nearer.

Rey leans her cheek against his forearm. “You should call her.”

“Probably,” though it doesn't sound like he believes her.

He leans over slightly and grabs one of her apple slices, then skewers it on a stick with his arm still crossed over her chest. Leaning forward slightly, he holds it over the flames.

She cranes her neck to look back at him. “You’re roasting an apple.”

Very serious, he says, “We don't have marshmallows.”

His phone vibrates again, and she can feel it . She thinks he’s going to silence it a third time, but instead he sighs and presses the stick with the apple slice impaled on it into Rey’s hands. She wraps her fingers around it as he tugs his phone out from his pocket. Then, to her profound annoyance, he gets to his feet and starts walking toward the house.

“Ben?” Rey says, hating how plaintive she sounds but not wanting him to go.  

He smiles at her. “I’ve got to take this. Apple was always for you.”

And then he jogs up the stairs with the phone to his ear, opens the door, and disappears behind it.

In the ringing silence, the apple sizzles as the water inside it starts boiling the structure into something soft and sweet. She withdraws it from the fire and tests the temperature on the pads of her fingers.

She blows on it, feeling the heat from the fire starting to singe her toes a little. She draws back, her face too warm and her back too cold without him here. The apple is warm on her tongue, sweet and soft.

Rey waits twenty minutes for him to come back, but when he doesn’t, she eats the last bit she’d been saving for him, trying not to feel sullen that he must have gone in for the night.

A quiet, lying little voice asks her, why would he come back? All she’d done the whole day was ask prying questions and make him do shit. And anyway, he’s leaving soon, and she doesn’t know when, and he’s probably just flirting with her because he’s basically on house arrest and has nothing better to do.

But that's not quite right. 

Rey leans her head back and stares at the moon, trying to get her head straight. He’d touched her every chance she let him. He’d wanted to be where she was, had almost followed her straight into the woods this morning and spent nearly the entire afternoon on the roof with her. He’d roasted her an apple and kissed the back of her head.

But it’s confusing, sitting here alone with the apple taste in her mouth and him not being where he should be. Another fifteen minutes of this pass, and only her pride stops her from walking into the house to demand he come back and put his arms around her again, like before.

Giving herself permission to feel sullen, she takes the stick he’d roasted the apple with and uses it to turn the logs over, separating the fire from the wood as best she can. She can feel the smoke on her skin mixing with the humidity in the air, and the whole thing is just beginning to verge on oppressive. She debates hosing off before bed, but decides she’ll just do it first thing in the morning instead. She’s already felt enough things today, she doesn’t need to add freezing cold water to the mix.

An owl hoots, and Rey looks up at the mass of shadows and green-black forest-darkness seeping from the woods. She hears, in some distant, ancient part of her brain, the faint stirrings of silvery music. The fire cracks as a log falls in on itself, sending a shower of bright sparks into the air.

“I’ll come to the river soon,” she murmurs. The trees sway.

Rey looks up at the house, past the kitchen window, past the second story with the long red hallway, all the way up to the third story. The open window, the stubborn one, glints the twilight, moving gently open in a wind she can’t feel. It goes still.  

“Yeah,” she agrees, and she knows that her voice will carry. “And thank you.”

And, wrapping her arms around herself, she gets to her feet and walks over the green grass and the good earth to her house at the edge of the woods. The air in her potting shed is warm and damp, enveloping her like a hug from a friend.

She lays down on her camp bed under a sheet draped over her torso, and she doesn’t feel lonely anymore.

X

When she wakes up, he’s carrying her.

Her feet are in the air, her head is against his shoulder, and his arms are warm around her body. She wonders if she’s dreaming. He smells like the moon, and she's a silver bird in the air. She’s a ghost. She’s a warm apple. They are in blue, sparkling space.  

“Sorry,” he whispers, his voice low and ardent as she turns her face a little to look up at the moon. “Sorry, sorry.”

She parts her lips and lets the stars pour into her.

X

She wakes up again to the sound of a door shutting. 

She’s inside, the cooler air stealing the bone-deep heat of the sun from her body, and laid on top of a pristinely made twin bed. Moonlight streams through the window, illuminating the glossy surface of the soccer posters on the wall and the faded paperbacks in stacks on the bookshelf.

She’s in Ben’s old room, and it’s so dark except for the moonlight that she sees everything in black and white, like she’s woken up in an old movie. Except she’s still in her tank top and her feet are dirty, and she can smell the smoke on her skin and her hair.

She sits up to rub the sleep out of her eyes. The house is so silent, so still and tomb-like that she feels a little unnerved. She gets to her feet, because she can’t stay here, not when she could be with him instead.

She reaches the door, and then she’s drifting silently down the hallway with the soft carpet, the concealed doorway to the third story, the unlit wall sconces waiting patiently for electricity. The shadows are like black felt against the carpet, and she sees them skitter in the light of the trees waving outside. The black lines are ink blots, are the shadows of people standing in a line, are black silk ribbons.

They let her pass.

She doesn’t knock, and he doesn't look at all surprised to see her. He’s sitting at the edge of his bed, rubbing his temples. 

“Rey,” he says, his lips parted and his eyes half-lidded. 

She crosses to him, and he just sits there, watching her the way he might look at a ghost.

“It was too quiet in your room,” is all she can say.

He nods, like he understands.

She says, “Can I lay on you bed,” and forgets to turn it into a question.

He tilts his head to one side, and he might be smiling, but it’s awfully dark and she can’t tell. Sleep laps at the edges of her mind, patient and steady. None of this is quite real.

“Yes. Can I join you?” he murmurs.

“Yeah.”

And he jerks his chin in the direction of the pillow, and Rey moves like he’s tugged a string tied to her chest. She climbs up on the side he’s sitting on, and he puts a hand on her lower back like he thinks she’ll fall, which is unnecessary. And she might have pointed that out if the moon weren’t out and if things made sense, but his bed is the softest thing in the entire world and she falls into it and forgets her own name. 

Her eyes close. Into the pillow she says, “I get it. I would sleep in here too.”

“And you should,” he says softly as his weight comes down heavy on the bed next to her. Her fingers brush his bicep. She doesn’t pull them back.

“I accept your offer,” she mumbles, rolling over. “And I may never leave.”

Something about that nudges at her brain. Leaving. She’ll have to leave, soon. So will he. She pulls away from the idea, and then his hand twines in hers, and she is fading, fading.

“Can I hold you?” he says, his voice hitching like the answer is very important to him.

She’s halfway into his arms before he finishes the sentence, and he makes a space for her in the cave of his body and she flows into it, feeling molten and wiped out and safe. It’s just as good as last night, only this time there’s a real bed and the silence and the warmth of the day pressing against her skin.

She shivers. Drifts.

Into the night, he murmurs, “I didn’t know it would feel like this.”

And she knows what he means. 

X

When she wakes up again, it must be something like three am. The air has that witchy, unreal feeling that time of night always seems to have, and he’s getting out of bed. The sheets move silkily against her bare arms, and she struggles to make sense of it.

“Ben?” she mumbles, watching the dark shadow of his body as it moves across the room. Not to the bathroom, but to the hallway. He opens it and walks through, leaving it wide open behind him. Everything about that feels wrong and not like him.

She sits up, her head clearing for what feels like the first time in days. There’s no movement beyond the door, just the faint ticking of the clock and the silence of everything else.

Rey slips her feet off the bed and makes for the door, already knowing what’s happening. Already dreading trying to wake him up.

The hallway’s red wallpaper looks almost black in the dark, and when her eyes adjust she finds Ben stopped at the door to the third floor. Rey watches from a few feet away. His eyes are open and glassy, and he opens the door with a precise, controlled lift of his hand. There’s none of the lazy, sneaky grace he has during the day.

She knows he’s sleepwalking, but it’s…unsettling. He’s Ben but not Ben. Someone else is at the wheel.

“Ben. Come back to bed, I’m cold.”

He looks right at her, but there’s no hint of recognition in his eyes. He stares at her, blinks once, and then walks through the door. He disappears.

Rey swallows, hesitates for exactly one second, and then strides after him.

“Ben, don’t go,” she calls.

She reaches the stairs just in time to see the dark shape of his body flit out of view at the top.

“You’re the one who always lectured me about the third floor,” Rey mutters, picking her way up the old staircase with extreme care. The wood creaks underfoot, and each step makes her more nervous.

She turns down the hallway at the top, expecting to see him slipping into the attic or into the room with the creaky window. Only there’s no one. The hallway, long and lined with bare, unlit bulbs, is totally empty.

She comes to a dead halt, feeling her eyes water and the hair on her arms stand on end, because where the hell is Ben Solo? He was right there, she'd seen him. 

She clears her throat. “Ben?”

Nothing. Silence. She crosses to Luke’s room, the one with the secret window, but the window is firmly shut and the room is empty. She tries the other doors, and each one opens into another empty room, another view over the dark forest. She tries all five rooms, each open door making her heart thump a little faster.

He isn't in any of them.

She returns to the hallway and yells his name into the air, and it echoes around but yields nothing. She walks to the door at the very end, the one that leads into the attic, but the handle is firmly shut. She tries the handle but it's locked fast.

Which leaves the last option, the inset panel that leads into the study, and she frowns because she hadn’t been able to get it open. She feels herself start to panic.

Her fingers slip into the slight gap between the door and the wall and tries again to pull it open, but she can’t find purchase and it won’t move. Then she hammers on it, battering it with her fists as the fear that he has somehow disappeared into the very fabric of the damn house comes clawing up her throat.

What if he never comes back? What if she doesn't get to tell him the all the things she'd stopped herself from saying? She knows it's irrational, but it feels too soon, she's not ready for this to be done.

“Ben Solo, you come out right now,” she calls, forcing her fear into anger, forcing it to come out of her mouth instead of sitting in her stomach like a silent weight. “If you don't, I will jump rope blindfolded on the roof, I swear to god.”

She gives the door another good hard bang, and then, deciding she might as well go all in, throws her weight against the door and yells.

Finally, finally she hears something. There’s a thud, and the sound of a bewildered curse as something heavy drops.

“Ben?” Rey calls, her voice thick with strangled hope.

“Rey,” he says, and he sounds freaked out and very far away. “Where are you?”

“I’m out here. Ben open the door, please.” She throws her weight against the door again, too relieved to think.

“Rey stop,” he barks, his voice muffled. “It opens outward. Let me-”

And then it’s swings toward her and she jumps back, and he’s standing there in his pajamas, one hand on his head and the half outstretched. They lock eyes, and his face is confused and a little frightened, and she barrels into him, wrapping her arms around his chest. 

“Why the hell didn’t you tell me you sleep walk?” She scolds, so relieved she can barely talk, clutching him so hard that he'll probably feel it tomorrow. 

His arms go around her, hesitant at first, and then strong, and her relief makes her feel brave. She gets on her tiptoes, takes his face in her hands, and presses a furious kiss against his jaw. She's so wired that it's not even a sweet kiss. It's an exclamation mark of a gesture, hopped on fear and adrenaline and a strange, panicked anger that she doesn’t understand.

“I was scared,” she mutters into his cheek, kissing his cheek again as her fingers grip him tight, tight.

His eyes find hers as she releases his face. She’s almost glaring at him, and she considers apologizing as she goes back down off the balls of her feet. Ben looks floored, and his hands are around her shoulders and he leans down and says, “I slept walked up here?”

Rey nods, and she sees the wheels turning in his head as he struggles to catch up with the moment.

“Wait, you kissed me,” he says, like it's just hitting him. 

And Rey nods again, because she did. His brows furrow and he looks like he doesn’t quite believe her.

“I didn’t think you wanted to do that,” he says, frowning.

“I didn’t think you were going to leave me alone twice in one night and get away with it,” she says, rubbing her neck now and kind of embarrassed. His smile comes back, slow and sly.

“You slept in my bed.”

“Until you scared the shit out of me,” she says, disentangling her fingers and pointing at him accusingly, feeling hot and shy and… good. His grins.

“No way, you actually like me,” he states.

Rey crosses her arms and doesn’t deny it, because arguing with reality isn't a bad habit she's going to fall into. She points at the door instead. “How did you get in here? How does that door work?”

Ben acts like he hasn’t even heard her, his grin as wide as the horizon.

“You wouldn’t kiss me in the shed, not even when I all but bent you over the workbench, but the minute I sleepwalk upstairs-”

“Oh my god get over yourself,” Rey groans, walking past him, looking up at the skylight, at the books, at-

She comes to a stop.

“Ben.”

“Miss me already? Really- Oh, fuck,” he says, his sleepy tones cutting off. 

He walks up behind her and they’re both standing there, looking at the painting of Padmé Amidala on the floor. The frame is cracked, the bottom piece hanging loose among the splintered wood from where someone has dropped it.

It must have hit the bit of exposed hardwood between the rug and the bookshelf. The painting rests at a jaunty angle, the bottom corner bent awkwardly and the canvas of the painting itself a little loose in the frame.

Rey thinks of the sharp, muffled thud she’d heard and turns to look up at Ben.

“I must have…” Ben murmurs, and his face is ashen, he looks totally stricken. She grips his hand.

“You were asleep, Ben, it was probably an accident-“

“It has a stand, it’s set away from the edge, there’s no way-”

“We can have it re-framed,” Rey interrupts, trying to fight off the self-loathing she can see flaring in his eyes. She kneels in front of the portrait, but Ben just turns and walks to the window with one hand rubbing his jaw. His back to her and she hears him taking deep breaths.

She can’t help him. He won’t let her. So instead, Rey gingerly lifts the frame up, and finds that the canvas of the painting itself is undamaged, it’s just the frame that has come apart at the seams. She tugs at the canvas, and it shifts, which is a good sign.

“Ben, the painting is fine, it’s just the frame. We can just take it off, no big,” she says, gritting her teeth as she tugs on the loose piece. There’s an empty frame in one of the downstairs bedrooms, and she’s pretty sure she can just loosen the back panel and get the canvas into it.

Something flutters out from behind the canvas as she lifts up the corners, and it lands with a soft brush of paper on the ground. Then another one slips out.

Rey feels her heart stutter, and she picks up the paper without even daring to breathe. They’re both charcoal sketches. One was clearly a reference drawing for the portrait, because it’s Padmé Amidala same pose with that same smile. But the other drawing is much more casual, just a sketch of Padmé pouring two cups of coffee at a little table. The strokes are fast and thick, like whoever drew them was trying to preserve a moment exactly as it happened.

Rey stares at the tender, focused expression on Padmé's face, and then at the little “AS” scribbled in the corner.

Ben hasn’t moved. He could be a statue.

She sets the sketches down and turns back to the canvas, gingerly prying the painting itself from the wooden back of the frame. A whole packet of little pieces of paper falls out this time.

“Ben,” Rey whispers.

“You should leave,” he murmurs to the window. “Find someone better.”

She flips through the sheets. Padmé reading a book. Padmé with her feet bare, leaning against the base of a marble statue.

“Christ, what is wrong with me,” Ben growls. “I’m just like him.”

Padmé holding a baby. Padmé cutting an apple. Padmé in front of the greenhouse, a posy of daisies in her hand.

“Ben, come here,” she murmurs.

“I’m leaving again soon anyway,” he mumbles. “I should never have come here.”

Rey snaps her head up, feeling the sting of his words like a burn on her skin. She shouts, “Ben Solo, could you look up from your own self-pity for five seconds, please? I need you.”

And her anger does the trick, because he looks back at her with the start of an argument in his eyes that she likes so much better than the sick, haunted look.

He sees the drawings and the anger dies right there, his defensiveness abandoned in the face of this new, much more important thing.

He crosses to her, then kneels down as Rey gently sets out drawing after drawing after drawing on the ground. Ten charcoal sketches of a Padmé Amidala as she must have looked in life.

Ben looks stunned, picking them up one by one and pouring over them.

“Where did you find these?”

“Behind the canvas. You’ve never seen them before?” Though she already knows he hasn’t.

“No. That’s my grandfather’s signature,” he murmurs, pointing at the little “AS” in the corner of each drawing.

Rey’s anger fades, and she smiles at him.

“Lucky you dropped it, or we never would have known.”

Ben meets her gaze and looks so terribly, awfully pained that she wonders if she should have just tucked the drawings back without telling him, maybe. Maybe he needed his grandfather to be a villain to excuse his own moodiness. Maybe he hates change. Maybe-

“Christ, Rey. I’m sorry.”

He's not joking.

Thrown, she leans back. “Uh, for what?”

“For being the most self-involved asshole this side of the Atlantic.”

She nods, because he is, sometimes. But then other times he roasts her an apple and carries her through the stars.

“It’s okay,” she whispers. And he grins at her, kind of a shaky version of his usual smile. There’s a long pause, and he just looks at her with something burning in his expression. A shaft of moonlight cuts across his shoulder like a scar of bright white light.

When he speaks, his voice is so quiet she almost doesn’t hear it.

“How’d you get so good?”

Rey looks down at the drawing of Padmé, at how each one captures something different about her. Some are better than others but all of them were made with so much love that Rey can almost feel it radiating off them like heat.

“Hard to have an ego when you’re a nobody.” And she tries for one of his crooked smiles, but he doesn’t return it. She clears her throat. “But this is good, right? I mean, he must have loved her, to draw like this. I think he must have, because he drew her so carefully and she looks so happy. He couldn’t have pushed her down the stairs.”

And she leans forward a little, eager now that the idea has taken a hold of her.

“We could prove his innocence,” she adds. “When did she die? These are dated, maybe there’s evidence in the house, or…” but she trails off as the idea seems more and more far fetched.

He just shakes his head. “I should call my mom, shouldn’t I?”

“Yeah, you should,” she says, grinning. “She'll want to see these.”

And then she thinks about what will happen when he tells her about how their new "groundskeeper" helped him discover them, and she feels her joy turn into a sharp stab of regret and loss.

His voice is quiet. “Would you be angry if I said I wanted to wait a little while to call her?”

“No,” Rey says, clutching at his words. "No I wouldn't."

He looks at the drawings. "I'm... I'm not ready for things to change."

Rey takes a shuddering breath. “Yeah. Me neither.”

A clock chimes. The moon slips behind a cloud.

They go back downstairs and curl up into each other, sleeping silently through what little remains of the night. 

Chapter Text

They sleep in, but mostly because Ben physically will not let Rey get out of bed when she wakes up at her usual nine AM.

Ben’s arm is draped over her torso, and he sleeps on his stomach, his face turned toward her. In the light filtering between the crack in the dark curtains, he looks younger. His lips are parted and his breathing is slow and even. She slips the heavy comforter off her legs and sits up, but Ben’s hand wraps around her waist and pulls her back down.

Bemused, Rey tries again. She only manages to get her shoulders off the bed this time, and then he’s pulling her back down, this time slightly closer to him. He lets out the grouchiest sigh Rey’s ever heard, and she rolls her eyes as the intense heat of his body renders the comforter redundant.

She closes her eyes and lays there a long time, and drifts back into a light doze.

The second time they wake up, it’s to his damn phone again. Rey blinks, brushing her hair out of her face as the sound of vibrating metal on wood rends the morning. Ben lifts his head off the pillow and, without moving his hand from her torso, silences it without looking.

“Hasn’t that thing run out of battery yet?” Rey mumbles into her pillow as Ben flops back down on the bed.

“Portable chargers,” he grumbles, tugging Rey a little closer.

“Remind me to bury them in the woods,” Rey mutters, annoyed. She’d been having a nice dream, but already it’s fading away, slipping into the recesses of her mind like shadows in the dawn.

Ben settles her against his body and mutters, “You’re a menace.”

She struggles into an upright position, Ben’s arms still loosely holding onto her waist. He presses his face into the softness of her hip

“Christ, last night was weird,” Ben says, and she feels his lips against her skin.

Rey starts to braid her hair, feeling smoky and gritty.

“Did you know that you sleepwalk?” 

Ben blows out a long breath and that tickles her. Finally, his eyes open and he releases her to roll over onto his back, his hands propped underneath his head.

“I haven’t since I was a kid. My dad used to find me in random places. They were divorcing and the therapist said it was a stress thing. Guess it just started back up again.”

Finished with her braid, Rey turns back to Ben.

“You’re stressed out now?” she says.

He blinks. Frowns. “No. I feel…really good.”

Rey turns her head so he can’t see her smile.

Clearing her throat a little, she says, “I’m making food. Want some?”

Ben turns his head a little, and a beam of sunlight falls across his face. She could count every freckle there if she wanted to.

He says, “Hell yeah.”

X

Dressed her usual spandex shorts and an oversized t-shirt of Ben’s that comes down to her knees, Rey fries some eggs. They still don’t have power and she wants to eat them before they go bad, so... eggs. 

Ben, yawning constantly, deftly slices a few oranges and arranges them on two plates. Rey slides the eggs off the pan, and they take their plates out onto the back patio and plop down onto the sunbaked patio chairs and eat in companionable, exhausted silence.

Rey wishes Ben would sit at her feet like he had last night, but he’s leaning back in his rattan chaise-longe with his eyes closed, and they could be on two different planets. But it’s not lonely. The morning is bright and heavy, and already, the day is hot. Around them, birds send sharp, clear songs into the warm air, and Rey lets the heat bake off the last of her lingering unease from last night.

Above them in the high distance of the sky, she can see the faintest suggestion of a brownish haze of distant clouds. Rey bites into the sweet, tart orange and lets the sparkling taste cut through her fog.

Ben’s hair is a dark mop around his face, his cheeks a little pink from their time on the roof yesterday, and Rey knows she’s covered in smoke and dirt.

“I’m gonna hose off,” Rey announces, setting her plate down.

Ben’s eyes snap open.

He gives her a serious look, one brow arched and his hand gripping the chair.

“If I have to watch you hose off one more time I’m going to physically die, Rey.”

She blinks at him. “It bothers you?”

Ben sets his jaw and looks up at the sky, frowning thunderously. Rey glances at the hose. And then she gets it.

“Oh,” Rey says, lifting a hand to one cheek. Oh.

“It’s like 80’s porn or something,” he mutters, and he sounds so annoyed about it that it’s almost not a weird thing to say. Is this flirting? Or is he just trying to manage his libido?

It doesn’t feel like flirting as much of an act of desperation.

“I’ll wash off in the creek instead.”

Ben looks at her again, relief and amusement warring on his face.

“Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Rey says. “I don’t like washing inside in the summer if I can help it.”

She doesn’t like showering inside at all, really.

“Why?” he says, sitting up.

Now it’s Rey’s turn to look away. “My foster dad would, like, push me in a really hot shower when he was angry at me.”

Ben is silent for a second. “Jesus.”

She shakes her head. “It’s over. I just never really liked showers after that.”

When she looks up again she’s smiling, but he doesn’t return it.

“You don’t have to minimize it,” he says softly.

Rey reaches down and picks up another orange slice, letting it roll from side to side in her cupped palm.

“I know. But thanks,” she says, and means it. “I never told anyone that.”

Ben’s grin is slow and kind of sweet. “Does this mean I’m finally the proud owner of a Rey secret?”

She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, just don’t sell it to your boss, okay? Highly classified.”

Ben’s smile fades slightly, but he says, “You got it. So, creek bath?”

“Yep. You don’t have to come-”

Ben yawns loudly, stretching his arms over his head and straightening himself on his chair.

“Since you insist, I will accompany you,” Ben says, planting both feet firmly on the ground.

Rey throws her orange peel at him and he laughs.

X

Late morning sunlight stripes across the narrow trail they’re following. The creek is deeper into the woods, but the trail is marked and the sun is out, so she’s not worried about too much mischief. Plus, she has Ben with her, and with his height and booming voice she’s fairly confident there’s a 0% chance she could lose him in these woods.

Rey is clutching the recycled plastic ice cream tub that serves as her shower caddy, and Ben is eating his orange slices in between the questions Rey is pestering him with.

“But they must have talked about him. I mean, he’s your grandfather,” she points out.

“I don’t know. No one ever talked about their marriage. I assumed they didn’t get married for love.”

Ben sounds… perturbed. Like he doesn’t like what he’s telling her.

“Rich people,” Rey mutters, kicking a stick out of her way. “If I got married, it would only be for love, and only to someone who wanted to sketch me while I drank coffee.”

“You want a love like my grandfather’s for my grandmother?” Ben says, almost sarcastically.

She narrows her eyes. “Minus the treason.”

“Wouldn’t have pegged you as a romantic.”

“I don’t think wanting someone to love and be loved by is stupid,” Rey says, glancing over her shoulder at him. She always thought Cinderella was a good story, for all that the prince had no personality. But Ben isn’t mocking her.

“I don’t think that’s stupid.”

Rey nods, looking back at the trail.

Her boots make satisfying crunching noises on the twigs lining the path, and around them songbirds trill sporadically. It’s a beautiful morning, hazy and warm with sun the color of butter making the forest look faintly autumnal even though it’s still high summer.

If she were the gambling sort, though, she'd say this type of sunshine is deceptive. There's another one of those rainstorms coming. She can just sort of... tell. It makes her feel small and a little ancient. 

Rey says, “Didn’t your mom ever talk about her?”

“He hated talking about her, apparently. Took all her photos down. I know it was really hard for my mom.”

“And your uncle,” Rey adds.

Ben sighs. “Yeah, him too.”

“What was he like?” Rey murmurs, since Ben is apparently in a reflective mood.

The path turns to swerve around an enormous oak tree growing straight up. In the distance, Rey can just hear the sound of the creek filtering through the trees.

Ben blows out a long breath. “He was… idealistic. A pacifist.”

Rey bites a lip. “So, when you joined the military...?”

“He wasn’t thrilled. Grandfather pretty thoroughly soured him on public service, you know? He bailed on us completely. Just left my mom alone to sort everything out when dad died. Just... left.”

The anger in his voice strikes Rey as sort of hypocritical, and she looks sharply up at him. He sees her expression and frowns.

“Don’t look at me like that. I came back here, didn’t I? I could have gone to a beach or something. I thought maybe someone would be home, which was stupid. There was just you here, and you…”

He stops walking, turning his face up toward the leaf-green sunlight. Rey waits, because she knows what the expression on his face means. He has to say his bit the way he needs to say it. She digs the toe of her tennis shoe into the dirt and waits.

“Look, I was a good son my whole adult life. I would fly them out to visit me and I came home whenever I could, but their marriage was falling apart and they were always so angry-”

He cuts off again, and this time the silence takes a long, long time. And he looks so unhappy, so sad, that she finally has to say something.

“Is that why you enlisted?”

Ben ducks down to grab a stick in their path, the motion smooth and easy and not breaking his stride at all. He starts to slowly break little twigs off it as they walk along. He turns the one big stick into many smaller sticks that mark their way like fairtyale breadcrumbs. 

“It was after 9/11, I wanted to get away, and it felt like something to...do. I went to an officer training program, and then got my assignment from there.” He stops, frowning. “You’re good at this.”

Rey grins, not at all embarrassed. “I like secrets, too.”

Rey ducks her head to avoid a low hanging branch but Ben is lost in thought and runs right into it. He swears, and Rey bites down on a smile.

“Rookie,” she snarks. He rolls his eyes, rubbing his cheek where the stick struck it.

The brush thins out a little on either side of them as the soil underfoot gets rockier, and Rey can just see the dip in the earth that leads down to the creek bed. The creek is about five or so feet wide, deep and overgrown with little clumps of grasses and fallen branches from the trees arching overhead.

“We’re here,” Rey declares grandly.

“Christ, it’s gotten overgrown,” Ben says.

Rey nods, because it has. “I’ve been meaning to come through and clean up some of the rocks, but I didn’t have time and then you showed up.”

The tease does its job, because Ben loses the faintly startled expression and slides right back into his sneaky, amused one.

“What am I paying you for, anyway?”

He leans against the tree as Rey sets her wash pail down on the rise just above the creek.

Avoiding his gaze, Rey tugs her shirt off, exposing her sports bra to the air. For the first time, she feels faintly embarrassed about being half naked. She’d never really cared before; her sports bra covers almost as much as her shirt did, really, just exposes a little of her stomach, but she feels abruptly self-conscious.

“Last one in’s a rotten egg,” Rey chimes, and jumps feet first into the creek.

“Rey,” Ben groans, but she doesn’t hear him over the sudden explosion of sensation as the water comes up to her shoulders. At its deepest spot, the comes up to the small of her waist.

Lined with gravel and prickly green weeds that tickle her shins, it’s not the prettiest creek in the world. But the water is clear and so cold that she has a hunch they aren’t too far from some kind of spring or something, and it’s really nice to sit in and cool off on a hot day.

Or to cool off from the intense gaze of the guy whose house you’re pretending to be the housekeeper of. Whatever.

Today is already hot, but she’s not ready to dunk her head yet, so she stands there in the water with her hands skimming the surface.

Ben walks to the edge of the water, his shoes off and his eyes narrowed in amusement. Waist deep in icy cold creek water, Rey beckons him forward.

“It’s nice,” Rey insists, wanting him to get in, damn it.

Eyes half-lidded, Ben arches one brow. “Nope.”

“It’s good for you.”

“That’s patently false.”

Rey lets her beckoning hand drop to the surface of the water with an aquatic little slap as it hits the surface.

Underfoot, mud and tiny river rocks squish up between her freezing cold toes. If she stands still just a little longer, curious minnows will come and investigate her feet. If she stands still for a lot longer, river weeds will grow over her toes and anchor her to the spot until she is as muddy and slick as the creek sticks.

“I’m going to wash off,” Rey hedges.

He doesn’t react.

Rey clarifies. “So I’m going to take my top off.”

It takes one heartbeat for her meaning to sink in. And then his eyes go wide.

“You already did that,” he sputters. "You're not wearing a shirt."

Smirking, Rey crosses her arms. “It’s a sports bra. It’s plenty conservative.”

Ben’s gaze slips down to the neon green sports bra and then (guiltily, she thinks) back up to her face. But he hesitates, and Rey has to stop herself from grinning like an idiot.

“Do you want me to leave?” he says, slowly.

Rey just shakes her head. “Just close your eyes.”

Ben inhales and exhales very, very slowly. “Okay.”

She wades over to the bank, climbing out of the deeper until she’s standing right in front of him in calf-deep water.

“Keep your eyes closed,” Rey repeats.

Ben is standing absolutely still on the riverbank, his chest rising and falling, and she reaches out to take his hand. His eyelids flutter.

“Ben,” Rey says, keeping her voice low and throaty. “Do you trust me?”

“Yeah,” he says, his voice strained.

She lifts his hand up, cradling it in hers, and hovers it under her lips for a moment, letting him feel the warmth of her breath on his knuckles. Then she lowers his hand, letting him just graze her collar bone. He swallows, and the tendons in his arm jump and twitch as his hand spasms there like he can’t quite stop himself from touching her.

Rey feels his touch on her skin like a shiver of starlight. She swallows, a little taken aback by how nice it feels to have Ben Solo at her mercy.

His thumb grazes the base of her neck and now it’s Rey’s turn to tremble. The leaf-dappled sun on her back is making her whole body feel hot even with the feeling of the water evaporating off her skin. They stand there, Ben with his hand pressed against the skin of her neck, eyes closed, Rey breathing fast.

Ben’s hand moves just slightly, his fingers brushing the side of her face, then up until his fingers reach her chin and his palm is grazing her neck. Rey’s breaths are coming short as he traces a gentle line up her throat with his thumb. His fingers skim the back of her neck.

This close, she can see the fine texture of his skin, the faint shadows under his eyes, the freckles on his temple. In the house, he is shadowy and dark, his eyes look almost black. But in this sunlight, Ben is brown and luminescent.

Pressing her hand against his on her neck, Rey takes a step back, deeper into the creek, and he goes with her.

“Rey,” Ben says, leaning a little closer. She takes another step back. The water swells over his toes.

“Yeah?”

“Are you trying to drown me in the creek like some kind of siren?”

His voice is so light she almost doesn’t interpret his meaning. Then she can’t help the strangled laugh that slips out. Ben opens his eyes as the laugh tumbles out anyway. She drops her hand from its loose grip around his wrist but he doesn’t let go, just slips his hand down from her neck to skim the side of her arm. His touch is so warm.

“Not drown you.”

 

Ben hmmms around that lazy smile and Rey takes a step back just to clear her head. The water

“Well, I really am going to wash off,” Rey adds.

“I’m not closing my eyes this time. If you want to go topless, that’s fine by me,” he drawls, his body relaxing.

Rey knows she is about to blush down to her toes, so she does the only thing she can. She bends her knees and falls into the water, bra and all. It closes over her head as her knees come down on the bottom of the creek bed.

She’s never been one of those people who can open her eyes underwater; she’s a tree person, not a water person, but she lets the instant of pure, cold-water shock rob her of her embarrassment. It slips from her chilling body into the stream, carried away from her.

When she surfaces again, she draws in a deep breath and throws her hair out of her face. Shivering, she turns to Ben. She grins.

“See, not so bad!”

But he’s just staring at her, his lips parted slightly. She feels beautiful in her sports bra and her shorts, covered in creek water and shivering down to her toes. She feels damn beautiful. 

The branches overarching the creek shake in the faintest stirring of a wind. Rey feels the breeze on her wet skin in a patch of intense cold.

Ben looks like he's in physical pain. 

“Jesus. You’re… something, you know?”

“Get in the water,” Rey says, teeth chattering.

“What would you give me if I did?” he says.

Rey sinks down to her knees again, letting the water come up to her shoulders. It reflects the sunlight, sending golden shapes flitting in front of her vision. She doesn’t say anything.

Ben grunts, getting to his feet and casting his long shadow over the stream. And then he reaches down and tugs his t-shirt over his head, tossing it onto a nearby tree where it catches on a stick. Rey keeps her eyes focused on that t-shirt, because Ben is reaching down to unzip his pants and she suddenly gets why he didn’t like watching her hose off.

He tosses his onto the branch too, standing there almost naked but for his boxers. Rey ducks her head under the water and blows a long stream of bubbles out, squeezing her eyes shut to make herself snap out of it.

The water explodes around her as Ben jumps in, and she surfaces to see an aquatic crater smoothing itself over around Ben Solo’s shirtless form. He’s standing in the deepest part, and the water comes just up to the top of his boxers, and Rey does not let her eyes linger. His hair is wet and slicked back and he’s just staring at her challengingly.

“Well?” he says, smooth and unaffected by what she knows must be intense cold hitting his nervous system.

Rey’s jaw drops. “You just jumped in? After all that?”

He rubs the back of his neck, not in an embarrassed way but in an “I’m totally unaffected by this situation” sort of way. She doesn’t buy it.

“What will you give me?” he repeats.

Rey exhales. The look on his face could boil water.

“I’ll wash your hair,” Rey says.

He looks surprised. Then pleased. “Okay.”

“Come here,” Rey says, because her legs aren’t really working and she don’t want him to see.

He wades through the water until he’s right in front of her, and he's just so...tall, and muscled. 

“Kneel down,” Rey says. And he does, right in front of her with his eyes never leaving her face. Now he’s looking up at her, and she can see those eyelashes, dark and smokey, as they brush the top of his cheekbones.

Rey takes a deep breath and reaches behind her to her shower caddy. She takes the shampoo bottle in her hand and when she turns back around his eyes snap up from where he was absolutely checking out her ass. She smirks at him and he looks pointedly up at the trees above in an expression of studied virtue.

“Tilt your head down,” Rey instructs, and he does. She pours some shampoo onto the palm of her hand and tosses the bottle back onto the riverbank. It lands in a clump of river grass with a little rustling noise.

When she works it into a lather, she puts her fingers in his hair and the groan he lets out makes her feel…a couple things. Her fingers work through the damp mess of his slightly wavy hair, scrubbing and gentling.

On his knees in front of her, chest deep in freezing cold creek water, Ben’s hand goes to the back of her knee. Almost like he’s supporting himself on her body, except she knows that he isn’t. He’s just touching her because he wants to, and she inches her foot a little closer to him until the front of her knee is nearly brushing his chest.

And her fingers work and work in his hair until long after she knows she should stop, but she doesn’t want to stop, because Ben is opening and closing his fingers on the soft spot behind her knee, drawing little circles with one thumb. It feels like her body is slowly liquefying under his touch.

How is it possible to be so cold and yet so hot at the same time?

Rey’s breaths are shallow.

“Your hair,” she starts to say, and then cuts off when she hears how breathless and ridiculous she sounds. “It’s really dirty. I need, um, I need more shampoo.”

“Right, yeah, I’ll get it for you,” he says, his voice husky.

He leans around her, reaching for the shampoo bottle, brushing his arm across the side of her leg, pressing his cheek into her hip bone. He takes a long time finding that bottle, and when he brings it back his hand is still on her leg.

“Thanks,” Rey says, feeling like she’s about to pass the fuck out. She pours shampoo onto her hand, snaps the bottle shut, holding it down to him.

“Could you?” Rey says, almost whispering. He smiles up at her, not sly or sneaky just pleased pleased pleased, and takes the bottle. He leans around her again, and this time his hand goes a little higher to the back of her thigh as he reaches around her. Rey closes her eyes and breathes in.

Ben settles back in front of her and she looks down at him, his eyes hooded and intent.

“Tilt your head down,” Rey says.

Ben groans again as her hands find his hair, and this time she is shameless. Her hands slip down to stroke the shell of his ear, finding the soft skin just behind it and tracing a line down to his neck. She lets her fingers work at the muscles there, her thumbs drawing straight strokes as Ben groans through his lips and leans his head into her, resting his forehead on the swell of her body. She can feel the outline of his nose brushing her skin and his breath fanning across her body.

Her toes clench. Hell, every part of her clenches.

“Fuck,” Ben says, his teeth gritted. She stops, thinking for a second she must be hurting him or something, but his hands go fractionally tighter on her thigh and he says. “Fuck, this is good.”

Rey can only nod.

It has to end. She can’t stand here washing his hair for the next ten years.

“Okay, you’re all clean,” Rey murmurs.

He doesn’t move from his position against her. “No, I’m not.”

“You have to rinse off,” Rey insists weakly.

He looks up, meeting her eyes over the swell of her breasts.

“Fine,” he sighs, straightening up again. He reaches his arms over his head like he’s stretching, and Rey has one second to notice the sudden wicked gleam in his eyes before those arms go around her legs and pull her down with him as he flops back into the water. The creek water goes rushing over their heads, cold and wet and bubbling.

The warmth of Ben’s body protects her from the worst of the shock, but she lets out an underwater yell of protest anyway. Ben still holding her as they breach the surface. He’s laughing long and loud, and Rey doesn’t see why she has to take that shit at all, so she throws herself on top of him and sends them both under the water again with a cry of feral triumph.

Ben flails in the water and when they come up again he’s laughing so hard she’s pretty sure people can hear it a mile away. The shampoo in his hair is floating on the surface, sending little rainbow bubbles into the air and around their legs.

She stumbles away from him, anticipating a retaliation, but he just sinks back down to his knees in the water and grins at her, running fingers through his hair to dislodge the shampoo.

“Let me help,” Rey offers, because hell, she wants to.

He holds a dripping hand out to stop her. “If you come over here and do that shit again, we’re going to be here all day.”

Not opposed to that idea at all, Rey sloshes through the water, Ben’s eyes trained on her, his lips parted and something nervous and hopeful on his face.

A new voice cuts across the water. “Good afternoon.”

Rey and Ben snap their heads up, noticing for the first time the figure of a red-haired man standing about ten feet away. Ben is on his feet in two seconds as Rey presses her hand flat against her chest, startled as shit that she hadn’t seen him there.

Her shock turns to anger pretty much immediately. She's half-naked and freezing cold and this dude is trespassing and ruining her damn morning. 

Rey gets to her feet, snarling, “Who are you?”

Ben’s words overlap hers. “Jesus, Hux, what are you doing here?”

“You missed our meeting. I’m not opposed to paying housecalls,” he says.

She’d been imagining Hux as someone smooth, but this guy screams tension in every line of his body. His face is pinched and his posture is so correct it’s like someone has attached a steel rod to his back. Just looking at him makes Rey feel like she’s forgotten a deadline.

Ben crosses to Rey’s side, and she has a strong impulse to grab his hand and face this new threat as a unified front. But Hux’s eyes are flitting between them like he’s seeing something distasteful, and something tells her she should hold off.

“Go back to the house,” Ben says to the other man, his tone so frigid and distant she has to force herself not to have a reaction to it. He’s not talking to her like that. He’d never talk to her like that.

Hux is unmoved. “Oh, right, since you’re clearly busy.”

Ben takes one menacing step forward, the water sloshing around his calves. He says nothing.

Hux clears his throat. “The girl will need to come too.”

“My name is Rey,” she snaps, at the same time that Ben says, “Absolutely not.”

Hux looks back at the trail. Then back to them. Like he can’t make up his mind if he’ll stay or go.

“Hux,” Rey says sweetly, “Would you hand Ben his shirt?”

Hux frowns, waits a long second, and then reaches over to the pile of clothes. While he’s crouching Rey takes two steps forward, scooping up a handful of water and getting ready to splash the ever living shit out of Hux. Ben grabs her wrist and she glares back at him, annoyed, but he just shakes his head.

Hux looks up, sees his hand on hers, and scowls. He tosses Ben his shirt, and Ben catches it easily, dropping Rey’s hand. She runs her fingers where he’d touched her as she clambers for the shore.

“Here,” Ben says, not far behind her as they make for the land. The water is around her calves now, and Ben hands Rey her shirt. She gives him a look, but he just shakes his head and mutters something she can’t catch.

She tugs it over her head, the sun-warmed fabric doing very little to thaw the chill in her chest. Her bike shorts, sopping wet now, peek out underneath. She can feel Hux watching her, and she doesn’t like it. Not in a lewd way or anything, but with a cold, calculating expression on his face that makes her intensely uncomfortable.

She turns to them. “I’m not going back with you.”

Ben nods but Hux blinks. “No, we need to-”

Rey climbs up the embankment opposite to his, wringing her hair out over one shoulder. Ben and Hux stand together across the creek, a look of intense displeasure on both their faces as Rey walks away.

“See you around,” she calls, walking through the trees into a deeper part of the forest.

“Wait-” Hux yells, but Ben just sighs.

She walks straight forward until she can’t feel his eyes on her back anymore.

X

Keeping her eyes peeled for any poison ivy, Rey walks barefoot through the forest until she gets through the scrubby woodland until she emerges in the pine forest. The needles are a soft blanket underfoot, and she’s almost soundless on her bare feet.

Rey has a good sense of her location and she walks until she finds her tree again.

She gets her hands on the bottom most branch. Her thought is that she can just get to the top and wait for the sun to sink. Maybe practice some of her bird calls. But she doesn’t even get off the ground.

She keeps thinking of that calculated look on Hux’s face. She feels deep in her bones that this guy means trouble for Ben, and the more she thinks about it, the less she likes it.

Why’s he here? What does he want? Ben had seemed so different the second he noticed him, so reserved and uneasy. She wants this Hux person out.

And it’s strange how much of a sense of ownership she feels over the house, given that two weeks ago she’d never laid eyes on the place, but she doesn’t think about it too hard. She drops her hand from the branch and wipes it off, turning around. She charges through the woods and nothing, not even the forest itself, tries to stop her. 

X

Ben and Hux are in the study. She knows this because she can hear them arguing even through the thick paneled door and the words an angry blur of noise.

Even with one hot cheek pressed flat against the wood, and she can’t really make anything out. She can hear Hux’s higher tones and Ben’s lower ones, and they seem to be talking over each other a great deal.

Then she hears the door handle turning and Rey scrambles back, managing to get out of striking range just in time to see Ben stomping out. Rey, pressed flat against the thick wood column at the bottom of the stairs, grips the wood and stares at Ben’s blazing eyes and angry stance. He’s looks pissed.

“Ben?” Rey says, because he hasn’t seen her.

When he turns, his eyes are hot and angry. They soften marginally when his gaze lands on her, but only just.

“Oh,” he says. “Rey.”

“You okay?” Rey says, eyes flitting to the open door to the library.

Ben grits his teeth, holding her gaze like it’s physically painful. “No. I’m fine.”

“You’re such a liar,” Rey mutters.

Hux emerges in the library doors, arms crossed.

“Don’t be a child,” he says.

She’s not sure who Hux is talking to, but she doesn’t like it.

“What is your deal?” Rey snarls.

Ben exhales noisily and says, “Rey, enough.”

She turns to him, stung. “He’s being an asshole!”

Hux says, “Do you typically let your groundskeeper insult your house guests?”

"No one should treat you like that," Rey says, fists clenched, hating that Ben just stands there and lets this guy talk to him like this. But Ben doesn't say anything. 

Rey takes one step forward, ready to get this Hux person out of their damn house.

Ben puts an arm on her shoulder and stops her. He drops his hand immediately, like he doesn’t want to touch her, and she turns around to glare at him.

“You’re fine with this?” Rey says, pointing back at Hux.

Ben doesn’t say anything, his eyes unhappy and his face hard. One of his stupid locks of hair is falling into his face and she wants to push it away. But apparently they only do that when they’re alone. Rey shakes her head, exasperated and a little hurt, but masters it before she can embarrass herself even further.

“Fine,” she says. She turns back to Hux. He has that same faintly unsettling look on his face. She decides it would be smarter not to say anything, so she walks stiffly to the stairs, no plan in mind really except to get out of their line of sight.

The creaking wood stairs sound especially loud today. She makes it all the way to the top without looking behind her.

When she clears the landing, Rey walks to the door to the master bedroom, for some reason. She pulls the door open, and then stops.

There’s total silence downstairs, and she’s dead sure they’re waiting for her to leave before they resume their conversation. Rey shuts the door to the master without going in and holds very still.

Listening hard, she inches toward the top of the stairs. She’s out of sight of foyer, but she can still hear their voices.

Ben speaks first. “You heard the lady. Fuck off, Hux.”

“As if I was the badly behaving one in that little exchange,” Hux says coolly. “And for the record, you’re being an ass.”

“I’m not-”

“You’re facing a six-month assignment, Ren. You can’t have a normal relationship. Don’t lead her on.”

Rey digs her fingers into the red carpet and winces.

Ben sounds pissed. “Get out.”

“Fine. But so help me, you won’t send the next repair crew away, understand? If I can’t reach you, then I can’t tell the boss how well you’re recovering. And if I can’t do that, then we’re both stuck here longer than we have to be.”

Rey hears boots on the floor and the sound of the front door opening.

Ben says, “Leave Rey out of it.”

There’s a pause, and through the open door the faintest sound of bird song wafts in.

“You know she’s not really a-”

Stomping feet. The sound of a hard shove on a fine cotton shirt. Hux lets out one last noise of protest and then the sound of the door slamming in his face silences it.

Then comes a cavernous, thundering silence.

She hears Ben let out a long breath.

“Ben?” Rey says, getting to her feet. “Is he gone?”

“Yeah, you can come down,” Ben says.

Rey stands back up and pads down the steps, not at all interested in delaying this particular conversation. He’s standing in the middle of the foyer, the dusty chandelier overhead right at Rey’s eye level as she hesitates halfway down the steps.

“You should quit,” Rey says flatly. “He’s awful.”

Ben looks up from where he’s been staring abstractedly at the door.

“I have a contract,” he says tonelessly.

“When does it expire?”

“After this last assignment. I’m up for renewal.”

Rey just stands there, waiting for him to tell her that he’s not going to renew it, that he’s going to make a decision that will improve his quality of life. But he doesn’t, so she just nods, shifting her weight from foot to foot.

Ben takes a step forward. “Are you angry at me?”

“I’m annoyed at you for snapping at me. And for losing your temper.”

He nods. “I know. I’m an asshole.”

“No, you’re not,” Rey snaps. “Don’t minimize it like that. Like you can’t help it or something. You’re a nice person.”

“But?”

Rey looks at her feet, trying to swallow back the words.

“If you’re unhappy, you should change things. You can. You have power and family and money, so why do you just sit around and let the world treat you like that? I don’t get it.”

“It just so felt unchangeable,” he says.

Rey’s head snaps up, annoyed all over again. “It’s not. That’s a self-defeating attitude.” Then she registers his use of the past tense and stops. Ben is looking at her with an expression of such conflicted, hungry hope that she has to lean a hand out to touch the banister for support.

He looks so beautiful, so hopeful and scared, that she could almost forget his complications. She takes two steps down the stairs, drawing a little nearer.

“You’re leaving,” Rey points out. And fuck it, she sounds so hopeful too. 

He nods. “In less than a week.”

Something in her twists, sharp and fresh. 

“That… sucks,” Rey says. “That really, really sucks.”

Ben clears his throat and looks kind of choked up, too.

“I’ve been having… a really nice time with you,” he says quietly. He says it in a way that makes Rey so afraid that he’s going to keep talking, just finally tell her outright that they can’t be a thing, that he’s leaving and she has no money or friends, that he knows that she lied about working for his mom, just… all of it.

But even though all of that is probably true, he doesn’t.

“Same,” Rey says, thinking of how he’d looked when she’d run her hands through his hair, his skin wet and gleaming and his eyes closed under her touch. How badly she’d wanted to just lean down and kiss the high point of his cheek.

Ben looks down. “Well. I should get back to work. They’ll be here to fix the power so...”

“Right, great,” Rey says, feeling a bit like her heart is falling into her stomach.

Ben’s jaw works. And then he turns away and walks back to the office.

X

Around three PM, some guys in a white van pull up in the front driveway, and Ben goes out and talks to them for a minute. They’re electricians, Rey realizes, here to fix the power.

Ben scowls at them from the front porch, and Rey, watching from the upstairs balcony, feels a strange kind of loss as they get in their big lift truck and start work on the blown transformer.

She’s not sure why she doesn’t want the electricity back, exactly. But she doesn’t.

Since it’s been way too long since she’s done her actual job, she heads into the backyard to do some work in the greenhouse.

She passes a comfortable hour with her hands covered in dirt and moldering potting soil. She pulls all the weeds that have grown up in the ceramic pots and little plastic planters lining the walls. The great wooden table that runs the length of the greenhouse is covered in overturned pots and rusting spades, and Rey shoves her dirty fingers into a holey pair of gloves to tackle some of the thistles that have somehow made a small colony in the greenhouse’s northernmost corner.

She hums to herself as she works, letting the late afternoon sun creep across the glass. Time passes slow and sweet as she loses herself to the work. The clouds are pressing lower now, and the early evening sunlight is diffused through the cloud cover. She pauses every so often to wipe the sweat from her brows, the humidity swelling in the air.

When she’s done, most of the weeds have been scattered in little brown clumps on the floor, and she doesn’t feel angry anymore. Straightening, Rey glances back at the house.

Rey trains her eyes on study window, hoping to see a glimpse of Ben. Her eye catches on the third floor. Something passes in the window. Just a shadow. Just a trick of the light. Maybe it's Ben dressed all in black.

Rey looks back down at her hands and doesn’t look up again.

X

When Rey comes back inside, she just grabs a frying pan from the drying rack and sets it down on the burner. There are still people working in the front yard, and she savors her last evening without electricity.

She grabs the eggs, milk, and bread as the pan heats up, and slices a thick piece of butter onto the metal. It melts quickly, and Rey cracks the eggs and smiles as they start sizzling. Soon the smell of butter and eggs fills the kitchen, and that must be what finally draws Ben out of the study.

“Dinner?” he says hopefully from the doorway. Rey tries not to wince at the sight of him. He looks tall and drawn, his eyes a little red.

One hand on the spatula and the other braced against the counter, Rey says, “Lower your expectations, it’s just eggs and toast.”

Ben smiles. “No, that’s great.”

And he looks so sincere. Couldn’t he have said something sarcastic? Where is that asshole from earlier when she needs him?

“Did you get some work done?” Rey says, turning back to dinner and trying to sound casual. Ben crosses the room to take down their dishes for the evening.

“Yeah,” Ben says. “Just some, fuckin paperwork.”

She hears the sound of the wooden stool scooting across the floor as Ben settles his body onto it. She feels his eyes on her back and has to take a few deep breaths just to calm her racing heart. She’s going for sanity here. They’d all but broken up their little flirtation today.

At last that’s kind of what it felt like.

Gripping the spatula, Rey flips Ben’s egg over so hard the yoke breaks.

“Damn,” Rey mutters, freshly annoyed.

She hears Ben get up and walk over to her. “Burn yourself?”

“No, just the egg, sit down, I’ve got it,” Rey says, squeezing her eyes shut for half a second to try and control herself. But it’s no good. He’s standing right behind her, peering down over her shoulder at the pan, and it’s all she can do to turn the burner off before his hand reaches around hers to take the spatula from her unresisting fingers.

Her back is flush against his chest and his arm is brushing hers.

“Ben what are you doing?”

They both have to know she’s not talking about the spatula.

His breaths are shallow as he flips the egg back over on the pan, and Rey clears her throat as the rough denim of his jeans brushes against the exposed skin on her leg, and she braces her hand on the edge of the counter, willing herself to get it together, to remember this is a horrible idea.

One of his hands brushes softly against the top of her shorts. Not the skin, just the fabric, but she feels that touch. His breath catches.

“You’re a good cook,” he rasps, and the words brush past the shell of her ear as he leans his head down a little, and she swears he’s smelling her hair.

“Don’t you have work to do?” Rey murmurs, closing her eyes, losing herself to the feeling of him touching her.

“I’m on vacation,” Ben mutters.

“Well, I’m not,” Rey whispers. "And-"

Then, with a whir of electricity and noise, every light in the kitchen flicks back on. Rey starts, nearly knocking the spatula off the counter as Ben flinches behind her. He takes two steps back and Rey turns around to stare at him, and their eyes wide and startled.

Which is stupid, because of course it’s just that the electricians have finished their electrical repairs.

Ben runs a hand through his hair and looks up at the ceiling.

“Christ.”

“It’s just like last time,” Rey says, laughing a little. “What are the odds?”

“Odds were pretty good,” Ben grunts. And then Rey turns around, burning and confused as hell, because she thought they’d come to some sort of understanding today and now… there just isn’t one.

She scoops the egg onto a plate and hands it to him, forcing a little distance between them. He takes the plate with two hands and looks at Rey with an expression on his face that is as hot and melting as the pan on the stove.

“I’m going to get some work done,” Rey says.

Ben frowns. “No.”

Rey gives him an even look. “Take it up with your mother if you have a problem.”

And his frown turns into a scowl. Rey flicks the kitchen light off with a little snap. 

X

Rey pads across the cool expanse of the back lawn, the twilight air pulling heat from where it lingers on her skin like a light sunburn. Legs, back, thighs, shoulders, all warm and aglow because he’d touched her there. The backyard is blue and green, lush and overgrown at the height of summer. The colors look so saturated that Rey stops halfway to the greenhouse just to look at it, knowing it won’t last. Behind her, the house sends warm yellow light into the air like an enormous lantern, and high in the sky, the suggestion of clouds churns. 

Rey pulls her shed door open and stumbles into the greenhouse, feeling a little insane.

She has her copy of Jane Eyre in one hand, and she walks into the warm air of the greenhouse. It’s dark and silent, and Rey sits on the long wooden table with the glass roof above her, the dark outline of overhanging tree branches that definitely should have been pruned at some point making stripes of shadow on the glass. She leans her back against a support beam and presses her feet flat against the rough wood, her eyes flipping between the page in front of her and the house up on the hill.

She reads -the day its fervent fire had wasted-

Rey looks up at the study, at the little light gleaming in the window, and feels a sense of nagging, irritating longing that she’s supposed to be in there, not in here. And that sense of pull is unwanted and inconvenient and distracting.

Rey’s eyes glaze over. She leans her head back and looks at the sky.

She could go back in there and tell him that they should either just hook up and get this over with or call it off altogether for their mutual sanity. But she doesn’t like either of those options, and he’s leaving and he’s such a dumbass and he’s not nice to his family and-

She shuts the book and sets it down next to her, abandoning all pretense of reading. The crickets have started chirping, their creaky calls muted by the glass but still songlike and rhythmic in the air. An owl hoots, and Rey turns around to search the nearby trees for any sign of it.

The forest is dark around her. The sun has gone down.

When she turns back to the house, her eyes go instinctively to the third floor. It’s dark as ever, Luke’s window firmly shut.

Then she sees it.

A light flips on. It’s the window at the furthest end of the third story, and Rey stares up at it, confused. Ben’s upstairs?

And then the light in the next room comes on. And then the next one, just seconds after. Light after light until the top floor of the house is dotted like someone has hung up a string of enormous Christmas lights. Every single room on the third floor radiates an incandescent gleam into the blue-dark night.

Rey jumps down from the table and crosses to the glass of the greenhouse, pushing one of the hinged panes open with a scream of rusting metal. She stares up at the lights, chills running down her back. It had happened so fast. Some kind of electrical glitch from the storm? Some fluke?

The light in Luke’s bedroom flickers once. Bright gold to black. By the time it flicks back on, Rey is halfway to the door of the greenhouse, running for the house.

XX

She slams the back door open, her feet sodden with grass and mud, and doesn’t even care that she leaves dirty footprints on the tile. Rey flicks on every light switch she can find, sending the kitchen, the pantry, the breakfast nook, the hallway to the front foyer into brilliant light. She even turns on the chandelier lights, throwing cloudy yellow light into the recesses of the front foyer. The house hums with electricity and sharp yellow light.

Rey comes to a skidding stop at the base of the main staircase.

“Ben!” Rey calls, half hoping she’s wrong. “Ben!”

The door to the library opens with a bang and Ben, a glass of amber liquid in his hand, emerges.

“Rey, are you-”

She points at the ceiling, taking two steps forward. He sets his glass down on the top of one of the glass front cabinets because he’s so fucking tall he can reach up that high without even blinking.

Rey bites her cheek to focus herself.

She says, “You didn’t turn the lights on in the attic, did you?”

Ben looks up at the ceiling like he can somehow see it through the house. His gaze is professional.

“No. Why?”

“The lights- all the lights came on, one by one,” Rey repeats, her eyes watering. Not out of fear, just out of a kind of creeping, uneasy sensation that is sending her whole body tingling with a sense of Not Rightness that she has no word for.

Ben studies her for a second, then nods.

“Okay. Stay here,” Ben says, making for the stairs.

That little command does for her what no amount of soothing words could ever have done. Rey is annoyed, and that feeling is strong enough to chase out the paralyzing, otherworldly unease she’s feeling.

“No way,” she says, hot on his heels.

Ben turns, frowning. “If someone’s in the house, I am the best person to deal with it.”

Rey shakes her head. “No one’s in the house.”

“But you said-”

Rey bites her lip and Ben cuts off, understanding flicking in his eyes.

“You think it was…” he says, not mocking, not scared, just… edgy.

Rey shrugs. “Probably just an electrical glitch. Or… I don’t know. They came on too fast for someone to have been doing it and-”

Ben exhales. “Okay. Well just sit tight for a minute-”

“I’m going up there.”

“No, you’re not.”

“It’s my house too,” Rey snaps.

Ben’s serious expression cracks. “Is it now?”

Rey clears her throat. “In a purely professional sense.”

“Right,” he says, nodding like this makes any sense. But he’s almost smiling.

“So I’m coming with you.”

Ben’s grin turns into a grimace. He considers her, sighs, and shakes his head. Finally, he walks over to the cabinet and lifts the glass from the top, pulling it down to take a long drink.

“Okay,” Ben says, though he doesn’t sound pleased.

Rey reaches for the glass and he gives it up without question. She takes a long drink, wincing as the taste of whiskey burns her throat a little.

“Okay. Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Rey holds her breath, watching the air from the hallway send small clouds of dust into the long, dimly lit attic. It runs the length of half the house, and the sloped ceiling angles down over stacks of boxes, rolled up rugs in corners, and dusty furniture covered by cloths. It’s the best attic Rey’s ever seen, one of those creaky old ones that live above families who don’t know how to get rid of their antiques.

Rey draws in a deep breath, and the air tastes like nighttime and old paper.

“We have to go in there,” she whispers.

Ben, hovering over her, shakes his head. “No way.”

"This is a good attic," she insists, taking a step forward.

Ben catches her wrist. "Let me go first."

Rey turns around. "It's alright, Ben. The ghost wanted us to come up here."

Ben, still holding her wrist, frowns. "I don't entirely trust our ghost."

“Scared?” she murmurs, turning to look up at him. His jaw ticks, and the look he sends her way is equal parts genuine annoyance and fond challenge.

And then he just walks in. Part of her is expecting something to happen, like the ghost will… show them something or burst a glass bulb or knock something over. But nothing happens, and Ben just turns around with one brow arched. He's almost as tall as the room itself, and in this light he could be a silent film star. 

“Told you,” Rey says.

“Do what you need to do so we can leave,” he says flatly, crossing his arms. His forearms are muscled and smooth, and she wants to reach out and press a kiss right on the freckle on his jaw. Rey clears her throat and takes the single step down into the attic, shutting the door behind her with a soft click.

Ben’s gaze flicks between her in the middle of the room and the door shut behind her. 

Rey clears her throat, finding her courage again. “Help me look.”

The floorboards creak a little when she walks across them, and it sounds a little like the house is groaning at her. Or maybe just humming.

She’s walking to a neat stack of cardboard boxes on the far wall when he says, “Look for what?”

Rey crouches when she reaches the boxes, because there are little labels on each card written out in fine, narrow script, and she figures they’re as good a place as any to start

“I’m sure we’ll know it when we see it,” Rey says distractedly. She turns around to face the room’s only window, which is round window thing high up on the wall behind her. Dusting off her dusty knees, she gets on her tip toes and pulls at the little catch holding the door shut.

Ben sighs disapprovingly and comes up behind her, his hand on the small of her back as he easily reaches up and undoes the catch. A stream of dim moonlight illuminates the far end of the attic, and it’s just enough to highlight the startling brown color of his eyes.

She feels that hand. Like always. 

“Thanks,” she says, and walks a little self-consciously back to her boxes.

Ben just stands there, watching her, his face impassive.

Rey squints at the cards and finds them much easier to read. “It’s books, I think. This one says ‘poetry’ and this one says ‘light fiction.’”

Ben grunts. “Checks out. Probably overflow from the library.”

His footsteps are loud and creaking on the slightly loose floorboards. Rey stands up, digging her fingers under the smooth cardboard of the topmost box. Pausing to give Ben a chance to stop her, she waits for two heartbeats before tugging the box open with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas.

Just as she suspected, the box is filled with books, and Rey reaches in and grabs one at random. It’s a pretty green volume the color of green tea with cream, and she runs a thumb over the soft leather. The bent corners and faded cover remind Rey of her own favorite volumes.

She flips open to the title page, curious, and nearly drops the thing.

Padme Amidala.

At her elbow, Ben sucks in a breath.

“Oh,” Rey says, suddenly understanding. “So… not overflow, then.”

Ben turns sharply away and walks deeper into the attic, his shoulders tense.

“Ben?”

Rey runs her hands over the book, feeling strangely protective of it. The boxes seem so carefully packed, so neatly stowed and labeled, that it feels like they were being saved for someone. For him, maybe. There might even be an old copy of Jane Eyre in here.

When he doesn’t turn around, Rey clears her throat. “We could move them downstairs. Put them in the library.”

She’s always liked the idea of putting a bookshelf in the kitchen. Just some familiars to read over a solitary dinner. Maybe some cookbooks. Nothing too fancy.

Ben’s voice is as cold as black ice, and he still doesn’t look at her. “I’m surprised he didn’t have them burned.”

“Well, he obviously didn’t,” Rey grumbles.

“My uncle told me that he did,” Ben says stiffly. And when he turns around there’s a frigid look on her face that makes her feel both sad and a little lonely. “They told me he had her things destroyed.”

Rey is thoroughly out of her depth.

“Maybe they thought it was…easier,” she suggests.

Ben glowers at the ground. “It wasn’t. It wasn’t easier.”

And then, because she can’t help it, she goes over to him, putting one hand on that freckled forearm.

“Ben, he kept all those drawings, he saved her things, he hung her portrait so he could always see it from his desk-”

Ben’s eyes flash. “Don’t. Don’t try and put an upbeat spin on this.”

She feels herself flare up as that little pilot light of anger that has kept her warm for years kicks into life.

“I’m not,” she snaps. And then stops. Forces herself to count to ten.

This is what Ben does. He gets angry and defensive and snaps, rearing for a fight, wanting to do something else with his anger besides just feeling it like a normal, healthy person. But that’s Ben’s problem, and she refuses to feed it.

“I’m not putting a spin on it,” she repeats, more calmly this time. “I just think you’re hurting and can’t see your family clearly.”

He opens his mouth to snap something back, but she doesn’t react. Rey can almost see him counting to five in his head.

"You really don't believe the rumors, do you?"

“I stopped believing rumors the minute you turned up here and started bossing me around,” Rey says.

He takes two steps towards her and she's setting the book down to meet him.

"Why do you always assume the worst about people? About yourself?"

Ben's jaw works. "Because I come from an unbroken line of shitty men and terrible fathers."

And he sounds so bitter that it stops her words up. They just stand there in silence for a while. Startled and staring each other. He’s the one who breaks it.

“Sorry,” he grumbles. “I know that’s…kind of a cop out answer.”

“Yeah. It is.” She shifts her weight from foot to foot, and the loose floorboards underneath sounds more like they're complaining.

"You know what I think you're really scared of, Ben?"

He works his jaw. "I really don't."

"I think you're scared that maybe he wasn't evil. That maybe he was just complicated and you don't get to put him in a box."

There’s a retaliatory glint in his eyes, his jaw working as he takes a step forward.

"You don't know-"

She holds up her hands, glowering at him.

"Ben. I'm not about to get into a shouting match with you about this. I'm not trying to attack you or get in some dramatic...like...attic argument," Rey mutters, gesturing at the space around them.

His frown deepens. "You're not?"

"No. I kind of get the impression your family, like...argued sort of dramatically?"

His shoulders tense. "Yeah."

"Well, I don't. I'm trying to be your friend. You and me versus the problem, right?"

And she can hear the hope in her voice, sugary and pastel like Easter candy. She wants him to want this. Wants him to look at the world differently. Ben's jaw clenches, and he closes his eyes for a second and exhales. 

“You’re right,” he concedes. And then, on another big exhale, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”

“No one ever does. You’ve just got terrible impulse control.”

Rey gives him a little smile, because this is good. They’re getting somewhere, and she turns around and walks back to the books.

Behind her, Ben says, “I’ve been developing self-control. Lately.”

Rey, opening another box at random, says, “Oh yeah? Was this before or after you tried to scare me with a secret attic study? Or slept walked upstairs in the middle of the night? Or carried me from-”

“Before that,” he says quickly. “It just… took a while.”

“I’ll say. You’re like a feral cat,” Rey says fondly, picking up another volume. “Oh, Ben, look it’s The Odyssey. Can we bring this one downstairs at least? Look, it has bookmark ribbons!”

When she turns to show him, he’s just staring at her, his expression so sad that she loses her train of thought entirely.

“Hey,” Rey says quietly. “What’s wrong? Something’s been on your mind the past few days.”

He does that thing where he rubs his neck like he’s trying to unscrew his head from the rest of his body. It looks like it must hurt, but he just blows out a third long breath and looks at the floor.

“I’ve got to call my mother.”

Oh.

This is another good thing. It’s a good thing, Rey tells herself. It was an inevitability.

But the words come out thick and a little slurred.

“Yeah, you do.”

The silence that follows is one of those insulating ones that get under your skin, hunting through you for words that just don’t exist, generating nothing but hot static instead. What is she supposed to say? Don't do that? 

Rey turns back to the books and forces herself to stay right here, right now. To not waste a single minute.

She starts by deciding that if Ben won’t bring these books downstairs, she’s going to come up here and read them herself. It’ll be hot up here in the day, but she can lie down on that sofa in the corner near the moon window and read. She’ll curl up with a book and a glass of lemonade and never leave, never lose sight of this place, or herself, or him.

“Rey,” he says softly.

Rey doesn’t turn around. “We haven’t found the thing yet. We should keep looking.”

A beat of silence follows, and then he sighs and Rey's hands grip the cardboard hard enough to dent it.

The sound of squeaking hinges interrupts the silence, and Rey turns back around to see the great bulk of Ben Solo kneeling in front of a wooden chest.

Her curiosity overcoming her melancholy, Rey puts her books down and walks over to him. He’s on his knees in front of the box, and he’s pulling things out. More books, a stack of crumbling papers tied together with twine, a dusty glass bottle.

Rey leans against his back, resting her chin on the top of his head. She feels the muscles of his back through her thin tank top with painful clarity. 

He brushes one hand against her leg and holds the bottle up so she can inspect it.

His voice is throaty and deep. “How old d’you think this is?”

Rey plucks it from his hand, leaning her body on his broad back. The bottle is heavy, with dark green glass and a liquid inside that looks nearly black.

“Hmm, too old. Probably turned to vinegar.”

“We should drink it,” he says. “Can you uncover the couch? I want to do this right.”

Rey, not in any hurry to abandon her spot leaning on him, says, “Is this a celebratory bottle of wine, then?”

Ben doesn’t look at her. “No. It’s for courage.”

There’s a lump in her throat.

Finally, she says, “Okay, but I think this is a stupid idea and we should just go back downstairs and get something to eat.”

“I’ll bring all those books downstairs for you if you humor me,” Ben suggests.

Hope. So much hope. She feels like she might choke on it, so she leans down and presses a kiss on the side of his cheek so fast that he doesn’t have time to react, and then she’s floating across the room. Ben scrambles around, one hand pressed to his cheek.

“Stop that,” he says grouchily. “You always kiss me so fast I don’t have time to kiss you back.”

Rey, bare feet tripping across the rough hewn floors, grins lazily back at him.

“Get faster reflexes,” she says, tugging at the canvas drop cloth covering the couch. It kicks up a small constellation of dust into the air.

Ben, fiddling with the the cork, says, “I was top of my class at the academy.”

The couch, she realizes, is a sister to the one in the library, plush and velvety and ridiculous, and Rey tugs it out from underneath a rolled up rug and stacks of gleaming antiques.

“Then maybe you need to go back to school,” Rey calls, pulling up a wooden crate to function as an ottoman and grabbing a tarnished candelabra on the floor for more of a “living room” feeling. There aren’t really design principles for decorating a make-shift attic living room, but hell, she has enough expensive silver and fading rugs to furnish an entire house up here.

“Wait, on second thought, I take it back. Don’t go back, stay here instead,” Rey says, flopping back on the couch to appreciate the fruit of her work. The couch is stiff with age, and the dust in the air makes her feel a little asthmatic, but the effect is good. Cozy.

His voice is very low. "Can I kiss you back?"  

Rey pulls her shoulders back and resists the urge to bury her face in her hands.

"Yeah," she says. Grinning up at him. He gives her that sweet smile and it feels so nice that she can't keep looking at it anymore. So instead she lets her eyes roam around the room, surveying her domain like this is all perfectly normal and she's so casual that-

There’s a cloth covered rectangle leaning on the wall next to the door. 

In her peripheral vision, Rey sees Ben set the bottle down and walk to her, but it only registers dimly because she realizes suddenly that knows that shape. Rising to her feet, she pads over to it, feeling a little like she’s dreaming. How many paintings does this family have?

“Rey, wait,” Ben murmurs. 

“Wait a sec,” Rey says distractedly, kneeling down in front of the rectangle and running her hands across the coarse cloth covering it. The portrait comes up to her knees, and she can’t help it. This is it. This is the thing, she just knows it.

"Rey," Ben says, a note of anxiety in his voice. "I want to talk to you about something."

She grips the cloth and tugs.

It's a painting of two children, one blonde and one brunette. They’re little, maybe one or two, with round faces and shining, intelligent eyes. Rey looks to the corner of the canvas and sees the familiar signature of Ben’s grandfather.

“Your mom and uncle,” Rey murmurs reverently.

“Yeah,” Ben mutters, walking over to her with an unhappy look in his eyes.

“They’re adorable.”

Rey wonders what it would be like to have someone love her this much? To paint her with so much love in every stroke that Rey can almost feel it.

And part of her knows that she's projecting, that it's possible to paint a lovely portrait even if you have no real feeling for the subject. That horrible people often make good art and it doesn't mean they're not bad people. But still.

Rey peers into the smiling, cherubic face of the little boy. It seems unfathomable that one person could have caused so much grief.

“Ben, why did you hate your uncle?”

Ben looks at the ceiling, his mouth a hard line.

“Yeah, I suppose I should just... tell you. Part of the reason I didn't is that it’s so mundane. He renounced the family. Left and never came back. Then my parents had this awful divorce, and I showed up on his doorstep one day, just… I don’t know, I was depressed, I thought I was going to turn into my dad. I was angry at him.”

Rey doesn’t even breathe, doesn’t dare to interrupt him now that he’s talking.

“He sent me away. Said I was running from my problems. Said I was a coward,” he mutters. His hands are shaking. “Said a lot of things.”

“Oh,” Rey says, closing her eyes and imagining Ben as a young man, vulnerable and afraid, showing up unannounced and bribing his baggage with him. She could almost smile, because that's apparently a specialty of his. But then she imagines the sting of that rejection and a quiet anger starts to boil in her chest.

Ben mutters, “He never did anything to help my mom, then he didn’t even come to dad’s funeral. Just never fucking showed up. And you know what? He’s doing great, I hear. Just walked away from everything and never had kids. Mom said once that the best thing our family could do would be to die out.”

Rey feels the anger spark into white rage in her chest.

“That’s such bullshit. That’s an awful thing to say,” Rey says hotly. “They never should have said that. Someone should have done something, should have protected you.”

“If you’d have been there, you would never have allowed it,” Ben says, smiling gently, and she can tell he’s trying for a joke, trying to lighten the mood, but Rey isn’t having it. She’s too angry. Suddenly, this uncle Luke is every father who ever neglected a kid, every parent who ever walked away, every door ever shut in her face.

She digs her toes into the ground, everything hyperreal and oversensitive.

And then she’s talking again, without really consciously deciding to. It just pours out, the words boiling under her skin like if she doesn’t say this right now, she’s going to catch on literal fire.

“You know, my whole life, nobody really looked out for me. Nobody paid attention. But if I had a kid and someone said something like that to them, I’d punch them in the jaw. Hell, if someone said that to you, I’d punch them in the jaw.”

His eyes go a little soft. “I’ve no doubt.”

“I get why you’re so angry at him,” Rey says, crossing her arms, forcing herself to take a few deep breaths. She’s projecting. Fuck, she knows she’s projecting, but she can’t help it. A few centering breaths later and she adds, “Though, for the record, I don’t think running off to join the circus was the healthiest reaction.”

“Military,” he corrects.

“Whatever,” Rey says, waving her hand in the air and contemplating this uncle again with a slightly calmer head. The pacifist who abandoned his family.

“Does your mom know about this?” Rey says, pointing at the portrait. She reaches for the frame, wanting to bring it into the light to see it better. Her fingers brush against a second frame behind the first.

“Oh, there’s one more,” Rey says.

“Rey, don’t,” Ben says, his voice suddenly urgent.

She sets the first painting aside and nearly falls over when she sees the one behind it.

“Holy shit,” Rey gasps.

“Damn it,” Ben mutters.

It’s a portrait. It’s horrible. A gaunt man with haunted eyes painted in harsh, abstracted lines. He’s all shoulders, all sharp knees outlined in a black suit. Where his mouth should be is only a harsh black line painted in one stroke.

Rey yanks her hand back like the painting has physical heat, and Ben crouches down next to her and puts a warm hand on her back to steady her.

“Sorry, sorry,” he’s saying, already reaching for the cloth to cover it up. She stops him.

“Why?” Rey murmurs.

Ben grunts. “It was his self-portrait. So.”

“He hated himself,” Rey whispers, looking up at him.

Ben's voice is tired. "Yeah. Christ, Rey, I'm tired."

"Want to call it a night?" Rey says, though her horror, her anger, her hope are still mixing in her chest.

"No," he says, exhaling heavily. "No, I need to call my mother."

Rey fixes her eyes on the paintings. Right. This is what he should do, communicate with his family, heal old wounds. She might not be able to have the same thing, but it's good that he does. Rey's eyes prickle with unexpected tears.

"Now?"

"I can't...put it off any longer. She'll still be up. Or, at least she used to stay up pretty late."

"Good idea," she says. Lying through her teeth. "I'll leave you to it."

She stands up, her mind wooden, her heart hurting. Should she...pack her things? Leave before he asks her to leave? Would he do that?

Her eyes move back to the painting.

No. No, Ben wouldn't throw her out. He would be kind to her, and part of her thinks that's almost worst. She walks stiffly to the door.

"Rey?" he says.

Rey's hand is on the doorknob. She blinks back the mistiness in her eyes and turns around with a bright smile on her face.

He's standing there, one hand half limp at his side and the other in his pocket. Behind him, the length of the attic, soft and dusty, spreads back until it reaches the open window. Her little scavenged living room is empty, the bottle still waiting expectantly for a toast that might not ever happen.

His expression is tentative, like he's asking her for permission.

"I'm really happy for you," Rey whispers.

Ben is frozen there, his lips parted, his expression unhappy.

Rey opens the creaking wooden door and walks into the hallway. All the lights have gone off again, and the house is as dark and still as if the whole thing never happened.

X

Logically, the best thing to do would be to go down to the cottage. Take her sleeping bag and just... leave. Run back to town. Go to Finn's place. Hell, go back to her own place and just face her life again. But she doesn't want to do that, and anyway, the smarter part of her brain knows that running off into the woods is an objectively terrible idea. It's going to rain. The woods are dangerous 

So instead, she goes to his uncle's painting studio and unlocks the familiar latch to climb onto the gleaming metal roof, barefoot in the cooling night. The moon is high in the sky now, just a faint suggestion of brightness through the clouds, and the forest around the house is alive with the swell of frogs and birds and crickets singing bleatingly into the night.

Rey gets to the top and sits with her legs pressed against the metal, her hair down around her shoulders. The faint breeze lifts and stirs it around her face and back, and it’s soothing.

Rey sits like that for a long time, watching the night move above her, the slight breeze cooling her heated body down until it’s just a little too cold. Rey takes deep breaths in and out, in and out, until she feels calmer.

She wraps her arms around her knees and rests her cheek against her legs, pulling herself into a little ball. Not in a pathetic way, she tells herself, but like the pieces of her body have been coming loose and she’s trying to hold them together. Hold them close.

And then, deciding that she doesn't care, that she's in too deep now anyway, she untangles herself and lays back flat on the roof with her face to the sky. She can’t see any stars through the haze of clouds. Time passes in that strange nighttime way where a minute could be an hour, and it could be midnight or it could be three am. She just lays there, watching the clouds pass her by, 

She knows these are lightning conditions and that she should really get off this enormous metal three-story death platform, and yet-

“Rey?”

His voice coming from the window below sounds very far away, and she doesn’t move.

“Hey,” she says.

“Rey, come down,” he says, and she can’t see him but his voice is very controlled. She’s on high alert for anger, but he just sounds like his usual self.

“Just a little longer,” Rey pleads.

There’s a little pause. “Can I come up?”

“It’s your house,” Rey says.

And then she hears the sound of his boots hitting the first metal rung and her heart leaps in her chest and she sits sharply up, half elated, half terrified.

When he reaches the top of the ladder, he keeps one hand firmly on the ladder and the other on the roof, his fingers calloused and rough. His hooded eyes are gentle, and the faint breeze tugging his hair makes him like a Byronic hero standing on the moors.

“Come on,” he says. “It’s going storm. You can’t stay up here.”

Rey scoots backward a little.

“How was the call?” She fails utterly at keeping the nerves out of her voice. If she looks half as much like a cornered animal as she feels, she’ll call it a victory.

He shrugs. “She was surprised to hear from me.”

Rey smiles. “I bet.”

He smiles, and there's something in his gaze that wasn't there the last time she saw him. It's hard to put a name on it, but he looks less tense. More calm.  

“I’d really like to tell you about it,” he says, his eyes tracing her bare legs. Her knees. Ankles. Christ, why is that so intimate?

“But not up here?” Rey guesses.

His voice is hoarse. “I’m getting predictable.”

“That’s… that’s never a word I’d use for you,” she whispers.

“I thought we could go to the library. Before it rains. I still want to try that wine,” he says, giving her that little crooked smile.

Rey draws in a sharp breath. “It’s not… a good idea.”

“Because I’m leaving?” he says flatly.

“Yeah.”

His mouth twists, and then his voice drops even lower. “Rey. Please.”

Christ. Who is this vulnerable person hanging onto her words as tightly as he hangs onto the ladder?

His eyes linger on her lips and when he reaches a hand out to stroke the sole of her foot she gives up all her half-made plans. Whatever happens, she can see this through. Ben is her friend, among other things, and she trusts him.

Good thing, too, given all the secrets in this house.

“Ah, fuck it,” she sighs.

His answering smile is as good as the dawn.

X

Downstairs, Ben walks around the library lighting candles as Rey puts away the handful of paperbacks, blankets, and pillows that have accumulated comfortably on the couch and armchairs. Evidence they’ve been here, lived here, been happy.

Neither of them make any move to use the perfectly functional lamps scattered tastefully around the enormous library. In the flickering candle light, the space feels more lived in. The shadows in the corners ease the sense of vastness, cozying the room into the center of flickering light at their usual spot in front of the fireplace.

Rey flops back on the plush couch, tucking her legs under her body so she’s folded up on herself. Ben, lighting candles in a silver candelabra Rey wouldn’t have dared to light in a million years, grins at her over the flame.

“I always wanted to light these.”

Then he bends down and picks up the wine bottle, tossing it to her with an easy flex of his damn forearms. She catches it, the glass cool under her fingertips, and leans back on the couch again. Her nervousness is a fluttering thing in her chest.

“I'm really not much of a drinker," Rey murmurs, eyeing the thick cork stopper skeptically.

Ben walks past her. There's a little cabinet attached to the wall, and he reaches into it and withdraws a bottle opener and two glasses.

He tosses the bottle opener to Rey. "You're better with your hands than I am."

Rey catches it. "Fine, but if I mess this up, I am not liable for ruining a priceless antique rug."

Rey stands up and holds the bottle inelegantly under one arm, working the corkscrew into the dense, dark cork. Finally, she pulls the cork free with a pop and hands the bottle triumphantly to Ben. He takes it and smiles.

"It’s a Merlot, I think," he observes, his fingers brushing hers as he draws the bottle back.

"Doesn’t ring a bell. Your fancy education is wasted on me, I guess," Rey says.

At her elbow, he smiles.

"Nothing's lost on you, remember?" He sets the bottle down heavily on the mantle and adds, “That reminds me, I was going to tell you about my phone call."

Rey feels a little cold. "Yeah, you were."

Ben drums his finger on the mahogany mantle, and Rey sits on the arm of the couch to wait.

He clears his throat. "She was happy to hear from me, but surprised, too."

"I bet," Rey says, feeling the walls inch a little closer. "You're pretty good at that."

This earns her a wan smile. "She asked me who you were."

The earth stops spinning.

"Oh yeah?"

He rubs his hand over his jaw and says, “So I told her, and she asked me if I thought you were doing a good job."

“What did you say?” Rey says, her fingers digging into the cushion.

"I said that you were a terrible snoop and the best person I know."

Rey can’t breathe. "And she said?"

"That she never hired a groundskeeper," Ben says, his eyes fixed on her face, the shadows on his face moving in the flickering candlelight.

Rey doesn’t make any sharp movements. "Ben-"

He cuts her off, that sly, pleased smile spreading on his lips.

"Don’t worry, she’s not mad. She's mailing your paycheck to the house, but you'll have to fill in your own name, since the one you gave me is a fake."

Rey actually gasps. "She doesn't even know me."

Ben grabs the open bottle and the glasses and pours the dark red liquid into them with a sound like the creek on a windless day.

"Come on," he says. "I'm a great judge of character."

“I really have been looking after the house,” Rey blurts.

He hands her a glass. “I know. You made everything here better. So, so much better.”

"You're not... mad?"

He exhales, his grip on the glass tight. "Be pretty hypocritical if I was mad at you for, uh, omitting."

She's not sure what she's supposed to say to that.

"Yeah. It would."

Ben is just standing there, his jaw working.

“Look, this matters to me. You matter to me. I don’t want to do this if you’re thinking I'm just-”

“A liar?” Rey supplies. “With a loving family and a bad attitude?”

She can almost see the bluster, what little of it had been left, go out of his sails.

“Yeah, basically.”

She crosses her arms, watching the red liquid move in the glass.

Ben draws in a deep breath. “Can I ask you something?”

Rey swirls her glass. “Okay.”

“You were in foster care,” Ben says, eyes hooded.

Rey frowns, jarred by the subject change.

“That’s not a question.”

Ben puffs out his cheeks. “Hux looked into you. I'm sorry, I didn't ask him to do it. He got rid of that missing person’s case, incidentally. Since you’re…found.”

Rey blinks, trying to decide how she feels about this. “I cut off contact with my foster dad. He was a piece of shit. I don’t know why I stayed there for as long as I did.”

Ben goes black in the eyes. “He looking for you?”

Rey shakes her head. “No.”

A messed up part of her would have liked it if he had. She’d stuck around after she turned eighteen, working at the lumber yard and taking classes. He’d gotten too drunk. Gotten out of control.

“I left and never came back. I thought he was looking for me when I heard about the missing person’s report, but I don’t think he actually is.” She shakes her head, trying to clear it of this line of thought. "I think he just put it out so he could say that he tried."

“I can have Hux look into him, if you want,” Ben says. “I can help.”

She just shakes her head. “No. That…that part of my life is over. So, you told Hux the truth about me?”

He blinks at the subject change, and when he opens his mouth to push further she narrows her eyes at him, and he frowns.

He says, "Yeah, he flipped a shit. Thought you might be another agent. Honeypot situation or something."

Rey’s eyes narrow. "And you thought that too?"

Ben snorts. "No. I knew from the minute I met you that you were harmless. Part of me thought Hux sent you as some kind of...test of commitment. Pretty girl, the lure of home."

“That's messed up,” Rey points out. 

Ben’s smile is a little sly.

“I guess it was. But was before you got your little conscience fingers into my brain.”

Rey sets her glass down on the table. “Look, I’m not here to fix you, Ben Solo. I’m not your therapist, I never set out to change you, I just said what’s on my mind, and it was-”

“Honest. True. Compassionate.”

He takes a step forward, his eyes sparking like this fire from her is what he wants. 

Rey’s voice dies, her anger dies, it all just…dies. Something hot and warm and good is left behind, a kind of knowing feeling. A string between his heart and hers.

“I’m not asking you to change,” Rey repeats, because it feels important.

He shakes his head, one step closer now. “You never asked me for anything. You made me want things instead. All on my own.”

Her heart is hammering in her chest, generating heat in the stampede. He’s so close now, and that same feeling kicks up that she felt every time they have shared a bed, touched hands, locked eyes. The alone in a crowded room feeling.

“Like what?”

“Like dealing with my own shit instead of just…putting it on other people,” he says, his mouth a hard line.

Rey shakes her head. “One person can’t make someone want that.”

“You were the last straw,” he murmurs, lifting one hand up to cup her cheek, tilting her face back. “After everything, you’re the only person I felt…”

“Felt...?” Rey whispers.

Ben licks his lips. “I don’t know. I don’t know anything except I want to be someone who you could love someday.”

Rey feels like she’s about to pass out.

“Ben.”

His words come out fast now. “I’m going to be better. I'm going to come back after my assignment, I don't want to take another one, okay? I want to come back here and build my actual life.”

Rey smiles at him, hell, she beams. Everything is going to be okay. He's going to come back. 

“Then we should have that toast,” Rey says, nuzzling into his hand, practically shimmering with joy. 

He blinks, his finger stilling on her cheek like he’d forgotten the wine glasses they’re both still holding. He gives her a smile that is joyful, too, but nervous. 

“Alright," he says, his voice so tender she's sure he's about to kiss her. "Will you do the honors? I’m drawing a blank.”

Rey takes a self-conscious step back, lifting her glass up to him.

“To your next assignment,” Rey says, voice unsteady, heart singing. “May it be short. May you come home safe.”

She gets one taste of the wine and then Ben is pulling the glass from her fingers, setting it onto the table where it probably falls over or something, but she has no clue, because he’s closing the distance between them, his eyes locked onto hers.

She reaches for him too, and then his mouth comes down onto hers, and Rey reaches the end of the rope she’d been holding on to and falls.

His mouth touches hers and it is a fierce kiss, a hangman’s kiss, an end of the road kiss. His hands wrap around her waist and she’s tangling her fingers in her hair as they both fight to get close enough to each other to crush whatever darkness or insecurity burns between them.

Then he’s lifting her up by the waist and carrying her to the couch, her legs around him, his fingers gripping her ass as they break apart only to fall back on the couch. He catches his great body before it damn near crushes her into the velvet, his eyes molten and shadowed above her.

She reaches a hand up to trace the line of his jaw with her hand, brushing against the stubble, and he turns his head to catch her finger with his mouth, kissing it so gently that it’s damn near unbearable.

She tilts her face up and catches his mouth again, and then they’re both moving, bodies frantic. Her fingers grab at his collar, his tongue is in her mouth, and nothing has ever felt like this. Nothing should feel like this, because this is dangerous.

He’s making a low noise in his throat, almost a purr, almost a growl but not quite either.

He says, “Rey, please, I need-”

“Yeah, I know,” Rey murmurs, fumbling for her shirt as he lowers his head to press kisses onto the skin of her stomach.

“Fuck,” he says reverently, tracing one freckle. “So beautiful.”

She colors, which feels silly, given everything else they’ve done.

His voice is low and throaty. “I want to taste you. I want you to taste me. I want you, just, every way I can have you.”

Yes.

And he looks up the length of her body, and they lock eyes for one second.

Something falls over his face, a kind of shadow, and then he’s closing his eyes and drawing in a breath. He presses a kiss into her hip, one hand stroking the skin of her side.

“Rey,” he says. His tone makes her stop.

“Yeah?”

“I have to tell you something,” he says.

“Can’t it wait?” Rey says, her voice hitching, because she doesn’t want to know. She doesn’t. This is the first and only Ben Solo secret she wants to put into a box and lock in the attic and never dig up again.

“No. Look,” he sighs, lifting himself off her. She lets out a tiny cry at the absence.

“Ben, don’t.”

“This is important,” he says, coming to rest above her. “Rey, it's about my uncle-”

That’s when they hear it. A door is unlocking. The front door is unlocking. The hinges squeak in that familiar, friendly way, and they hear the sound of a heavy foot coming down. For a second Rey is back in the kitchen on the first day she met Ben, registering the sound of the door opening. She feels that same panic that she did then. 

Something is about to change. 

Ben is already getting to his feet, and Rey is getting to hers, grabbing frantically for her tank top and pulling it down over her sports bra to head for the door. 

“Rey, wait,” Ben barks, but she ignores him. If this is the ghost, then this could be it. This could be how they give peace to his grandfather, could help him finally let the whole thing go. They can end this right here and go back to the couch and make out like teenagers and everything will be okay-

“Rey, stop,” Ben yells, but she’s faster than him and pulls open the heavy double doors to the foyer. And screams.

No ghost, but the figure of a fully formed, actual man stands there. His light eyes are wide and startled in agrizzled face, and he’s carrying an umbrella in one hand and a key ring in the other. His mouth is a perfect O of surprise.

The moment they lock eyes takes, realistically, about one second. But it feels like a small eternity, because she knows exactly who this is. 

And then Ben slams into the room, one hand tugging her away from the man in the foyer. And then Ben goes very still.

The stranger gives them both a thin smile.

“Hey, kid.”

Ben’s hand on her body is as rigid as a stone, and Rey, fighting down her adrenaline, looks between them. Something grim and sad settles on Ben’s face.

“Hey, uncle Luke.”

One second. Another. Rey clenches her fist and tries to count to ten. She only gets to two and then gives up. 

“You son of a bitch,” Rey says, stomping forward to the man in the hallway. “Do you have any idea what you put him through?”

“Wait, Rey,” Ben says. She ignores him, getting right up in the guy’s face to jab a finger into his chest. The man looks back, unresistant and looking not surprised.

Rey snarls, “Jesus, you were alive the whole time? He’s been mourning you for years-”

“Rey,” Ben says, and he sounds so miserable that she turns around. The look of stricken, panicked guilt on his face doesn’t make any sense, and her brain struggles to catch up, grinding and whirring until all at once she understands.

She turns around, and Ben’s not-dead uncle Luke has an expression of dumbfounded, gentle sympathy on his lined face.

“Oh, no,” Luke says, his voice a gentle reproach. “Ben.”

Rey locks eyes with Ben Solo, the biggest liar on earth. Her jaw quivers. God damn it. God damn it.

“Ben?”

Where is that anger from before? Her voice is tiny.

He takes a step forward, “I was trying to tell you. Literally just now-”

“Is anyone in your family actually dead?” Rey says, a note of hysteria creeping into her voice, because what the actual hell is wrong with these people? Her eyes flick, unbidden, to the portrait on the wall.

Ben says, “Rey, I’m sorry, I’ve been sorry the whole time-”

“You…you suck,” Rey says, and then she stops saying anything, because if she says another word she’s going to burst into tears. And she won’t give him the satisfaction. A mean, kicking part of her is screaming in her head, petulant and flailing at this new example of Ben throwing something away that she would give half her heart for.

And he looks so sorry, so very sorry all at the exact moment when she needs that spoiled rotten man to come back to her so she can hate him.

Ben Solo is a lying liar who lies.

“Rey, please,” he says. “When you assumed he was dead I felt- god I felt so stupid about the truth, which was just that I was angry at him and-”

“Please stop talking,” Rey says raggedly. “Please. You don’t have to explain. You should just do whatever the hell you want.”

And it’s petty as hell, but she turns on her heel to storm off, but his uncle is standing there, pity and shock on his features. Rey gives him one final glower and says, “Just so you know, you also suck. Both of you just...suck.”

The tears come. She walks out the open door, hearing two voices calling her name, but she’s already running. Ahead of her, the poplar trees are whipping in a slight breeze, the undersides of their foliage flashing silver in the black dark night. They look almost like stars.

 

Chapter Text

X

Sprinting off into the woods might not have been Rey’s best idea. Yeah, she’s pissed as all hell that Ben lied about his uncle being dead, and yes, that anger does feel righteous. How many family members is Ben Solo going to throw away, exactly? Her heart throbs in her chest as she walks through the dark woods, the moon flicking in and out of brightness overhead as she passes under the late summer tree-cover.

But the woods are dark, and she has a creeping feeling that she shouldn’t be here. Shadows jump at the edges of her vision, and as she pushes through branches and twigs, she feels out of place and easy to spot. Unsettled, angry, and embarrassingly out of breath, Rey comes to a stop and leans heavily against the gnarled trunk of an ancient oak tree.

Luke is alive. Ben’s uncle Luke is alive. Ben let her think he was dead, but he’s… not. He’s an old man with a beard and sad eyes, and he’s alive.

Rey runs a hand through her hair, letting this new, critical piece of information slot itself into her understanding of this place.

Being with him felt like living in a place outside of time, like the summer would never end and he would never leave, and nothing would ever change. Rey let herself buy into that lie, and now she feels like a damn fool.

She knew Ben was hiding something; he never pretended he wasn’t. And yet she stayed here, let herself be lured in by his soft voice and his clever words, and now that the truth is out, she’s going to have to leave him. Just when they were finally getting somewhere, reality has finally caught up with them.

Why’d he have to be such a goddamn liar?

She needs to leave. Tonight.

And that thought sends a shard of pain into her chest, remembering that he’s leaving too, and he’ll never come back again, knowing him. She feels suddenly stupid for storming out like that and essentially running away. Hell, she wants to hear what he has to say for himself, at least. Even if it doesn’t change anything, she can give him that. Taking a few centering breaths, she balls up a fist and turns back to the house.

Even in the dark, she knows the way.

Somewhere after her heartrate returns to normal, Rey hears the distant sound of Ben Solo crunching through the forest, and before she even hears him yell her name she just knows he’s totally lost.

“Rey? Where are you?” He calls. The close-set trees do strange things to sound, and his voice seems to echo for a long time. She can’t get a read on exactly where he is relative to her, and for an unnerving second it sounds like he’s everywhere, calling her name mournfully from all directions.

Figures that he would manage to find a broody way to be broody and lost at the same time. Figures that he would have no idea how to navigate the woods. He’s such an amateur. It’s obvious why he seems to have been mostly deployed in cities.

Rey hears another distant, but slightly closer crashing noise, and comes to a stop to listen. It sounds like a bear rumbling through the woods, and she narrows her eyes, trying to track down any movement that would give his position away.

Another huge crashing sound. It’s like he’d ripped a tree in half.

His voice cuts through the silky-soft silence of the forest again.

“Rey!” he hollers. It isn’t dignified. It isn’t even romantic. He just sounds…

“Rey!” he calls, more plaintively this time. “I just want to talk. To apologize.”

“God,” she mutters, torn between laughing and rolling her eyes.  

She could just leave him, of course. It would be karma. Let him find his own way out covered in bug bites and poison ivy.

There’s a thwacking, crunching noise, and this time it’s closer to her. Something snaps and thwacks, and she hears the unmistakable sound of Ben Solo cursing.

“I fucking hate the woods,” he snarls to no one in particular, and then there is another crunching noise.

She shouldn’t laugh. She shouldn’t.

“Rey?”

“You’re walking through a bramble patch,” Rey informs him, trying not to sound too smug.

“Oh there you are,” he says, and he sounds so relieved she has to fight hard not to be charmed. She’s so mad at him.

“You followed me and got lost,” she says flatly.

“I can’t see anything,” he grumbles. “It’s pitch black and you’re fast.”

Rey crosses her arms. “That was sort of the idea.”

“You could have just-” he cuts off for a second, and by this point Rey can see the branches moving in the dim moonlight. And then with one final lurch, he emerges out of the prickly briars, covered in tiny scratches and his hair full of sticks. He looks absurd.

Rey stands there, a few feet away from him, trying to decide what she should do here. Logically, she should turn around and huff back to the house. She should make a big scene and tell him exactly what she thinks of him.

But underneath that is the sure, certain knowledge that she would never have left him stumbling around in these woods, even if she is pissed. After all, he would never leave her.

“What were you thinking?” Rey murmurs, her chin dipping and her eyes pricking.

“I was lost,” he whispers, one hand reaching up to rub his neck. “So lost, Rey.”

Rey swallows hard. The silence stretches between them.

Finally, Ben seems to recover himself. Clearing his throat, he says, “I should have told you sooner. I’m sorry. I let you believe something that wasn’t true, because it was inconvenient to me and I didn’t know what to say to you. It was shitty.”

Rey feels the heat in her chest cool slightly. Very slightly.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

He blows out a long breath. “I was afraid.”

“Of what?”

Ben looks down at his boots, and then, very quietly so that she almost can’t hear it, he says, “Of this.”

Rey swallows, a lump in her throat. Above them, the branches sway, blinking the moon in and out of existence. The forest feels very quiet around them.

Rey takes a deep breath. “Could you just…could you explain it a little more? That really sucked…finding out like that. God, it sounds so stupid, but I thought it was the ghost-”

“It wasn’t stupid. I was stupid.”

Rey bites down on a smile. “No questioning that.”

“Yeah. Look, do we have to do this here?” He gestures at the woods around them, saturated with unsteady darkness. There’s only a little wind, and the trees around them seem to stretch upward in lines of black ink that go on forever, interrupted only by the faint dusting of stars in the sky.

 Rey shivers slightly.

“I don’t want to go back there until you explain it.”

Ben starts to pace in a wide circle, his steps slow and aimless. She watches him pick his words from the air, his mouth set in a frown. Finally, coming to an abrupt stop, he turns to face her.

“You came out of nowhere. It can’t be overstated how unprepared I was for you.”

The way he says it is something between a revelation and an accusation.

Rey waits.

Ben continues, gesturing vaguely like he can’t get his thoughts in order.

“I came home just wanting to be alone. I was still so angry, I just wanted to leave. And then you were there, standing in my kitchen with your huge eyes and your- your total transparency. Christ, it was like I could breathe again. Just being around you made me feel better.”

Rey remembers the first day they met, the way he’d smiled at her, the smirk on his lips.

“I didn’t like you at first,” she hears herself murmur.

He looks up at her, eyes shining. “That was the best part. You had no preconceived notions about me except that I was dead. You didn’t like me. You wanted to be alone. And then for some reason, you let me stick around.”

“It was your house.”

He shakes his head. “Not in any true sense of the word. You were the one who knew how the stove worked, how to clean the chimney, who the ghost was. I’d been gone for years. You’d made yourself at home there, and seeing you do that gave me some kind of permission to enjoy myself. You made me look at my life through someone else’s perspective. You didn’t take any of my shit, and you didn’t feel sorry for me.”

Rey sniffs. “Didn’t you want people to feel sorry for you?”

“Probably,” he says, his voice almost a chuckle. But when he looks at her again his face is kind of desperate. “But then suddenly all I wanted was you.”

Now it’s Rey’s turn to look down at her boots, unabashedly hiding from the look of naked longing on his face.

“I don’t trust you,” she sighs. Because it’s true, and-  “And you’re leaving.”

Ben blows out a long breath. “Yeah.”

“So there’s no reason we should keep this up.”

And then, before she can start to cry, she strides purposefully back to the house, praying to every god there is that her path will be true and she can make it back to her shed. Then, she can pack her bags and get the hell out of here before she gets in even deeper.

She hears Ben groan.

“Rey, c’mon,” he calls. “Don't storm off again.”

Rey doesn’t look back at him.

“You don’t get to lecture me about dramatics, Ben Solo!”

“Alright, fair, fair,” he grumbles. “But adults talk about things. That’s what you said. So, let’s talk about it.”

“We did talk about it. I don’t see this working out, so I’m electing to leave before everything gets worse,” Rey says, accelerating her pace slightly as she picks up the weaving and bobbing tempo of striding along a forest floor. Her gaze darts between the ground and the sightline, but her ears strain behind her, listening for the sound of Ben Solo running into tree branches behind her.

“But it might… it might get better!”

Is that… optimism? From cynical, jaded Ben? She’s tempted to turn around and see if his face matches his tone of voice.

“You’ll be gone, and I’ll be…” Rey trails off, unsure exactly what her life is going to look like. She has no plan, really. The roofline comes into view, and suddenly she can orient herself. Even in the dark, she has a faint sense of direction, like there’s a gossamer thread tugging on her collar bone gently in the direction of what she’d thought of as home for a few precious months.

“You’re mad because I’m leaving,” he says, his voice hesitant even as his steps are confident and loud as he crashes through branches behind her. No wonder he got lost; he has no respect for the foliage.

“Maybe,” Rey mutters, not caring that it’s immature.

“What if I didn’t leave?”

She comes to a dead halt and whirls around, heart pounding as his words rattle around in her brain. He’s way closer to her than she realized, and in the part of her that isn’t flaring into white, hot fury, she wonders if he isn’t just a little better at creeping through the woods than she’d given him credit for.

But Rey is in no mood to cut Ben any slack.

“Don’t,” she snarls. “Don’t you dare go making promises you can’t keep. It’s mean. Maybe you can do that to your parents and your uncle and everyone else, but don’t you dare do that to me.”

He seems taken aback by her fury. “Rey, I’m serious.”

“You were very clear. Ironclad contract. You didn’t like your job before me, and you kept at it. You kept living a life you didn’t even like to prove wrong an assumption that no one was making. Just out of spite, from what I can tell. So why would you quit now?”

Her chest heaves, and she truly doesn't think he’ll have any kind of answer. But he does.

“Because for the first time I want something else. Something more,” he says, staring down at her.

Can someone lie with their whole body? With their whole heart? Or is Ben Solo telling her the truth?

Ben murmurs, “You made the future seem like a place I’d want to live in. A place I’d like to build.”

Rey’s heart might crack in two, because god damn it, why would he drop a line on her like that? Why would he say this now that she most needs to hate him?

“I don’t believe you,” Rey rasps.

Ben winces. Rey’s heart throbs. In the corner of her vision, she can just make out the dim silhouette of Padme Amidala’s statue, standing in silent witness between the shadows of the trees.

“Let’s get out of here.”

He nods, his eyes distressed and abstracted.

They walk in silence back to the house, Ben following Rey meekly for once in his life. He looks like he’s deep in thought as she winds them deftly through the trees, confident in her route even at the darkest point of the night. They stop at the greenhouse so Rey can pick up her duffel bag, and though Ben’s eyes darken when he sees her things packed up, he doesn’t say anything.

In truth, she’s grateful for it. There’s a lot she needs to say, but she can’t do it when he has that haunted look in his eyes. When they get back into the house, neither of them turns on the lights. It’s easier somehow, in the dark.

In the library, Ben watches silently as Rey sets her bag down, the edgy look on his face morphing into something thoughtful and dissatisfied.

That’s fine by her. She has one last job to do.

Moving around the room, Rey begins to pull the books that are hers from the various nooks and crannies and return the volumes she’d borrowed to their spots. Ben leans against the arm of the red velvet sofa, his jaw set.

Finally, he says, “What if you didn’t leave?”

Rey blows out a long breath, feeling that sinking feeling she always gets when she approaches the end of a good thing.

“We’d stay together for three days and then you’d leave,” she says irritably.

He looks up, his eyes blazing. “I would come back.”

She doesn't hear him.

“And for the record, you have the privilege of leaving whenever you want because you have money and your parents are generous, but I don’t, and I wouldn’t do that to you anyway.”

Ben pinches the bridge of his nose. “Why not?”

Her annoyance flares up again.

“Because that’s not how I treat people I love,“ Rey snaps.

She absently shoves another book into her bag, her eyes burning slightly. Then she notices Ben’s sudden stillness and looks up at him.

“You love me,” he murmurs, like he can’t quite believe it.

Rey brings a hand to her mouth, startled, and maybe she’s more like him than she wanted to admit, because the only thought she has is to flee. To skip town and never look back. 

“I have to go.”

“Rey, wait,” he says, and he’s back on his feet and thundering toward her, all tall and intent with his eyes on her face like he suddenly has a new reason to breathe. It’s all way, way too much. She backs up, nearly running into the wall with his damn portrait hanging on it.

“Stay,” he orders, his voice a throaty command.

Rey shakes her head. “No.”

“Rey,” he says, and Rey is sliding sideways, her heart hammering in her chest and her fear and longing a living thing in her throat. His eyes catch hers and she corrects her previous thought: he’s begging.

Her hands find the catch to the library door and with one tug she is nearly falling through it, the duffel bag full of books heavy on her shoulder. Ben is right on her heels, advancing toward her for every inch she gives way.

“How can I make this right?” His voice breaks “Tell me how I can fix this.”

Her knees buckle a little. “I need space. I need to think.”

“I’ll sleep in the shed; you can have the whole house-”

“I have to leave,” she breathes.

He stops his prowling for her, his jaw clenching. Rey blinks at his silence, his intent expression. She’s half expecting him to make her a counter-offer, to argue with her, to tempt her with the one thing she wants most in the world.

But all he says is, “Let me carry your bag. I’ll drive you. Don’t run off into the woods alone.”

Rey nods, and he crosses to her, lifting the burden of the heady bag off her shoulder as he pats his pocket for car keys. Pulling them out, he pauses at the front door and looks back at her with a hesitant expression on his face.

“I’m going to make it up to you,” he murmurs.

Rey gives him a weak smile and tells him the truth.

“I’d really like that.”

He holds her gaze for two long heartbeats, nods once, and pushes out into the velvet black night for his car.

Rey stands alone in the great house for a few seconds. She hears a light step on the grand staircase and turns, expecting to see Luke with his sad eyes standing there watching them.

But the faintly transparent woman at the top of the stairs is a stranger she’d know anywhere. The faint suggestion of Padme Amidala wears the kind expression from her portrait, one hand resting on the railing and the other lifted in a gesture of greeting and a goodbye all at once.  

Her heart goes still.

“It was you,” Rey whispers. “The whole time, it was you.”

The memory of Padme Amidala nods her beautiful head and smiles. A warm breeze blows in through the door, and Rey backs out the way she came in.

X

Ben drops her at Finn’s house before dawn, and Rey nearly tumbles out of the car to get out before he can say something that makes her want to stay. She doesn’t mention Padme. She doesn’t say anything at all.

After nearly leaping out of Ben’s car, she lurches to the front of Finn’s house and knocks until he answers. Her duffel on her shoulder and a serious case of the sniffles slowly making it difficult for her to breathe. Finn opens the door in his pajamas, bleary eyed and stunned to see her.

“Peanut?”

She bursts into tears.

Ten minutes later and she has a cup of hot tea and a blanket around her shoulders as she tells the whole sorry tale to him.

“So he… he said he’d quit his job for you?”

Rey scowls at her mug. “He was lying.”

“The contract thing seems…difficult to get out of. But he’s some kind of secret agent, right? Maybe he has ways.”

“He’s a federal agent,” she corrects, mostly because she knows how much Ben would love to hear himself called a secret agent. “Which isn’t nearly as cool.”

Finn blinks. “Right. Well, it all sounds sort of insane. Long lost family members, ancestral estates, people coming back from the dead… ghosts.

Rey blinks. “It sounds sort of unbelievable when you put it like that.”

“Your life, not mine,” Finn says, taking a long drink of his tea. “But it sounds like some kind of crazy dream. Want to crash here for a while?”

Rey blows out a long breath. “Yeah, would you mind? Just for a few days until he ships out again.”

“Fine by me. Oh, but I should mention-”

The kitchen door opens and Poe Dameron, wearing a towel and tousled hair, saunters into the room.

He is unconcerned at seeing Rey. “Hey, ace, how’s it going?”

“Hey Poe,” Rey says wearily, too sleepy to even be surprised by his sudden appearance.

Poe takes in her leaf-covered clothes, the dark circles under her eyes, and the look on her face.

“Ben break your heart?”

Rey lays her head flat on the table and groans. “Don’t ask.”

Poe stretches his arms over his head, exposing a concerning amount of hip and lower torso, and yawns.

“Want me to give him a purple nurple?”

Rey snorts, not entirely disposed to tell him no.

“He’ll be gone soon enough. I just have to kill a few days and then…”

“And then…?” Finn says, leaning his head forward because Finn is, fundamentally, a total dad.

“And then I’ll figure something else out.”

The idea of “something else” makes her feel kind of depressed.

Poe and Finn exchange concerned looks over her head.

Shrugging, Poe turns to put the coffee pot on, tossing over his shoulder a casual, “Well, if he comes over here, I’m giving him a purple nurple.”

Rey smiles.

x

Time does pass. Rey sleeps poorly on Finn’s couch, tossing and turning between unsettling dreams and waking up at 3 AM convinced someone is sitting by her bedside. But no one ever is, and Rey takes to going on long runs around the little town she’ll be living in again when she figures out her plans.

The days pass slowly. She hadn’t planned on emerging from her hiding place till the cold weather started and her job at the library started up again, but now, forced into the world again unexpectedly, she revisits her old haunts and says hello to a few old friends.

She starts doing repairs on Finn’s house. Just little things like oiling hinges and touching up the trim. Anything to keep herself from thinking about the heartache gnawing a hole in her chest.

Just a few more days, she reminds herself, and then he’ll be gone. Launched back into his work in Europe, never to be seen again.

The day he’s scheduled to leave arrives, and Rey stays inside, half-convinced he’s going to pull some sort of dramatic stunt to win her back at the last possible second. But nothing happens. He doesn’t come.

Rey finally unpacks her duffel bag, pulling out her clothes to wash them and stacking her books neatly on Finn’s coffee table. One by one, she tugs them out, running her hands over the covers.

“The more friendless, the more solitary, the more I will care for myself,” she mutters, holding up the copy of Jane Eyre she’d read so many times in the library.  

“Peanut?” Finn calls.

“Hm?”
Finn appears in the living room, an envelope in his hand.

“A card came for you.”

She sits straight up. She’s reaching for it before he’s even held it out for her, and with shaking hands she tears open the envelope and pulls out a piece of plain, yellowed paper with a message scrawled on it in a slanted, masculine handwriting. Not Ben’s neat penmanship, but someone else’s. The disappointment of that is bitter enough to make her sit heavily back on the couch, but her curiosity keeps her focused.

It’s addressed to her at Finn’s address, which is strange in and of itself, but the contents are even stranger.

Rey,

Thanks for all your hard work. And for the repairs to the house.

Luke Skywalker

There’s a check inside that would pay her rent for three months, but the envelope is blank, with no stamps or anything on it. Rey stares at it, the hair on the back of her neck standing up.

Finn reaches for the note and the check and Rey lets him take them without protest.

How did he get her address? What the hell does it mean? Why is his whole family like this?

Holding the check up, Finn whistles. “Not a bad gig for three weeks of grounds keeping and a broken heart.”

Why would Luke send her money? Is he trying to… to bribe her? Does he think he can…pay her off? She didn’t do it for money. If it was about money, she would have taken Ben’s check when he tried to bribe her into going.

To accept money for the strange, beautiful, painful events of the past month would be to cheapen them. Maybe she’d sensed that even back at the start.

Glancing out the window, Rey takes in the bright summer day, a little cooler now as September looms on her calendar. Before she can overthink it, she gets to her feet

“I’m going for a walk,” she growls, shoving her feet into her shoes and double knotting her laces, just to be safe.

Finn is watching her with a fond, bemused look on his face.

“Don’t get kidnapped by forest spirits.”

Rey’s pretty sure it would be a bad idea to laugh.

Chapter Text

By the time Rey has gotten out of the city and down the treelined sidewalk path leading to that big, hidden house in the woods, she feels a little enchanted. Her feelings swirl inside her, heavy and sticky and distracting, but she obeys the driving, comfortable familiar instinct to move. To go.

The trees overhead sway, green and waxy in their late summer glory. A wind kicks up, and tendrils of air move against her legs, pushing her on. The concrete under foot gives way to raw woods as she takes the shortcut through the trees. The closer she gets to the house, the more heightened her feelings seem. It’s like slipping back into a familiar half-dream, her heartbeat slowing down as her thoughts turn silky and determined.

Soft air brushes against her exposed calves, and when she pushes through the tree cover, she has to fight off the sudden impulse to cry when she sees that familiar, crumbling façade come into view.

She glances up at the house, half-hoping to catch a glimpse of a shadowy figure disappearing out of view, but sees only mossy windows glinting pale green in the sun. The wind pushes at her back. Rey begins to march.

She doesn’t knock when she gets to the front door, feeling like it would be easier for everyone if she can just slip in and out without disturbing…anything.

The door swings open on hinges she’d carefully oiled herself, and the thick, cool air of the house rushes out to meet her. She inhales the familiar oaky, bookish smell of the air and feels simultaneously at home and very out of place.

Slipping underneath the glinting chandelier, Rey shuts the door behind her and pads forward. Halfway to the narrow hallway that leads to the kitchen, Rey pauses.

Someone’s in the library.

She can hear the faint sound of pages turning, and the slightly ajar mahogany door lets a faint tune slip through the crack. Someone is playing soft music.

Heart in her throat, Rey pads softly to the door. So he didn’t leave after all. He didn’t come and see her. Will he be angry she’s here? Is she angry he’s here?

“Hello? Someone there?”

The raspy, calm voice that comes from inside is not Ben Solo, and for a moment the disappointment is so bitter that Rey considers sprinting from the room rather than face her grief head on.

But Rey isn't a coward.

“Luke?”

There’s a pause. A sigh.

When she hears the sound of a body getting up from the velvet sofa, Rey pushes the door open to reveal Luke Skywalker, shabby and tired but smiling. He has a blanket wrapped around his shoulders despite the last gasps of summer heat baking the ground outside.

“I figured you’d turn up,” he says, not unkindly. “Come in, won’t you?”

Feeling weird, Rey pads through the threshold and feels the familiar sensation of the soft carpets pushing up between her bare toes.

“I brought-”

“The check,” he says, smiling slightly. “I wondered if you’d accept it.”

She holds it out to him. “Thanks for the gesture.”

Luke crosses his arms, and for a second he reminds her of Ben.

“Pride doesn't pay the rent, Rey. I know you have bills to pay.”

She swallows. “It… it’s not really about that.”

A long silence falls over them, and he stares at the piece of paper.

“I thought it might help you feel better. We owe you, you know. You’re not the first woman to pay the price for a Skywalker man’s…”

“Cowardice?” Rey supplies.

Luke blinks. “That’s…fair.”

Rey glances down at the check.

“You’re saying I should keep it.”

“I’m insisting that you keep it,” he says firmly.

“No, thanks,” she snaps, and the lack of graciousness in her voice is definitely rude, but she can't help it. 

“You’re angry with me,” Luke blurts out. “For leaving Ben.”

And suddenly, Rey is angry. Furious. It fills her whole body just looking at him. She’s not sure how she hadn’t noticed it before.

Shaking her head, she gestures at the paintings on the wall. All the people he rejected.

“For leaving all of them,” Rey snaps.

And in her heart of hearts, she knows she’s not really mad at Luke. She doesn’t even know Luke. But- “You had everything. Family and a beautiful house and you-”

She cuts off, forcing her hands to unclench.

“I walked away from it,” he agrees, seeming almost to welcome the criticism. The venom. He glances around at the room. “Ran as fast as I could.”

“Why? Why do all of you just…just throw away something so precious? I would give anything-” she cuts off, gripping the check in her hand so tight that it’s flattened into a rough ball in her hands.

Luke makes a soft noise, something sympathetic. “Ah. I didn’t realize.”

“What?” she snaps.

“You’re an orphan too.”

Rey turns around, heat flooding her face, hand on the door knob. She doesn’t turn the handle, though, she just stands there with her breaths coming hot and quick between her clenched teeth. She wants to tell him to fuck right off, to remind him that he doesn’t know her at all, that he has no right to see straight through her.

But he doesn’t say anything, and neither does she. Finally, the great tide of emotion goes out, and Rey leans her head against the door. She doesn’t cry. It feels like she’s made of stone.

Without saying anything, she walks over to the red velvet couch and throws herself into her usual corner, staring at the unlit fireplace with not a damn thing to say.

Luke watches her for a minute, and then sits down at the other end. 

After a long pause, Rey says, “I should go.”

Luke glances at the door. At his hands. At her.

“Would you… would you like some iced tea?”

She looks at him, at the look of profound empathy on his face.

Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing she’s done in this house.

“Yeah, actually. I would.”

X

Rey leans against the counter, a glass of iced tea in her hands, trying to think of the right thing to say.

“I don’t even know how it happened,” she murmurs.

Luke spoons sugar into his glass from the ceramic sugar bowl, the little spoon making his glass chime as he stirs it in. “Love is a strange being.”

She shakes her head. “And it’s like, god, I could kill him, you know?”

Luke nods. “He really can be a little shit.”

Rey absently stirs her own glass, the cool liquid beading condensation against her fingers. “Yeah.”

“You miss him?”

Rey blows out her breath. “Like hell. It’s… it’s annoying.”

Luke takes a long sip and sets his glass on the counter.

“You know, it’s the first time I’ve been back in years,” he murmurs.

Rey glances around the room, trying to imagine what it must look like to him.

“Why did you leave? Ben never said.”

Luke sighs. “My mother was the one who kept our family together, and when she was gone there was no one to do it. The house fell apart. I was afraid. I ran away. Leia was furious at me. She passed that anger on to her son, and he was the one who ultimately confronted me about it.”

“And that…went badly?”

He chuckles. “Spectacularly.”

A comfortable silence falls between them. Outside, a bird trills a low song.

Rey drains the last of her tea and murmurs. “Your family produces headstrong young men.”

Luke looks at her. “Understatement.”

She smiles. He smiles.

“So why did you finally come back?” Rey says.

His smile warms slightly. “Leia asked me. She said she heard from Ben, and she thought maybe there was…” He glances out the window and smiles faintly. Then glances back to her. “Maybe there was half a chance.”

Rey takes a long drag from her glass. “Well, that didn’t end up being true.”

Luke glances around the room, his eyes lingering on the clock on the wall. When he looks back to her, there’s something sort of playful and careworn in the look he gives her.

“I don’t know. People are complicated. Might still work out.”

Unable to think of anything to say, she takes a long drink before replying. It tastes acrid and satisfying. She likes it.

Finally, Rey murmurs, “Do you think they’ll forgive you?”

“I hope so. When Leia told me Ben wasn’t really dead, it felt like… like getting a second chance. Do you know how rare that is?”

Rey sets her glass down, feeling agitated and hurt and…pent up. Like if anything happens to interrupt this moment she’ll lose her mind or something.

“You think I should give Ben one? Is that what you’re saying?”

Luke shakes his head, one finger running gently along the edge of his glass.

“I think you should do whatever feels true and brave.”

“How am I supposed to do that, exactly? He’s gone. He left,” she says. Her voice is throaty and raw, and it must be obvious how close she is to tears. 

“No one’s ever really gone for good.”

Rey scowls. “That’s new-age bullshit.”

Luke's unexpected grin exposes a set of very white teeth.

“Right as always, Rey. Well,” he says, standing up a little straighter, “I’d better be going.”

Rey blinks at him. He stands, stretches his arms over his head, and begins walking to the door.

“Wait,” Rey blurts, startled out of her reverie. “Where are you going? I wasn't done!”

He just grins.

That’s when she hears it. The sound of a key turning in the lock. The thump of the front door as it runs into the doorstop. The creak of wood as someone walks into the foyer.

Rey freezes, her heart beginning to race again.

“You knew,” Rey whisper-accuses.

Luke chuckles. “Good luck, Rey.”

“Wait,” she says, lurching forward as if to grab him and stop him, but he slips out the back door.

Turning around, she has just enough time to rearrange her features into something close to social acceptability, and then he’s standing there.

Rey opens her mouth and tries to say something, anything, but nothing comes out. She just stands there, taking in his broad shoulders, the stubble on his jaw, the shadows under his eyes.

He stares at her, slack-jawed, and she stares right back.

“Are you real?” he murmurs. “Not a ghost?”

“Real person,” she says. “You?”

Ben snaps his jaw shut, dropping his duffel bag to the floor with a soft thud of canvas on tile. He holds up one hand to the light.

“Same,” he says, and she can’t help but smile a little. He smiles too, and for a second it feels almost normal. Skirting around the elephant of their attraction, banter in the kitchen, the promise of a hot summer day in front of them.

“I thought you were gone,” she murmurs. “I wouldn’t have come, I’m sorry, I just had to drop something off.”

“Did you see Luke?” he says, eyes hooded. She can’t interpret his tone of voice.

Rey nods. “He was here, yeah.”

Ben’s eyes flit to the window. “He leave?”

“Yeah.”

Ben shakes his head. “Coward.”

Rey presses her hands together. “He’ll be back.”

Ben smiles, faintly. “Yeah. Guess for some people it just…it takes a minute.”

Looking down at her shoes, Rey imagines that time has stopped, and that she and Ben are standing in this great old house together in a moment of their very own.

“I have to go,” she manages, but her feet feel like they’re made of lead.

“Wait, wait,” Ben says, taking a step forward and nearly knocking her iced tea over in his haste. He catches the glass, curses, and looks up at her beseechingly. “I have all this stuff to tell you.”

“You’ll miss your flight,” Rey says, gesturing pointedly at his duffel bag.

He looks down at it, frowning, and then looks back up at her.

“Oh, no, I just got back, actually.”

She blinks.

“You were gone?”

Suddenly, the days of no contact make sense. He couldn’t come groveling to her door because he left early. As early as possible, it sounds like.

“Oh,” she says, stung.

“Hey. Look at me for a sec,” he says, his voice low and earnest.

Rey meets his eyes dark and sincere.

“I’m out. I quit my job.”

The words fall heavy in that still, silent room. Dimly, Rey realizes that she’s literally holding her breath. Ben gestures at the bag on the ground, his eyes growing a little manic. There’s that Ben-intensity, an energy that verges on desperation when he’s serious.

His voice is rough, like he’s out of practice talking. “I just got back from New York. I put in my notice. I’m out. For good.”

Rey stares.

“I’m out. I’m out and I’m never going back,” he says, leaning down slightly.

Rey stares at him, shock roiling against disbelief. Part of her thinks that she should doubt him, that after his lies she should mistrust this vision of lopsided, disheveled sincerity standing before her in a button down and jeans.

Trying to sound firm, Rey says, “Your contract is iron-clad, you were quite clear about that.”

He shakes his head, the afternoon light accentuating the dark smudges under his eyes.

“Hux had me declared legally dead,” he says, cocking his head slightly to one side in his old way, “Dead people aren’t allowed work for the government.”

Rey remembers Ben in the kitchen on that first day, laughing hard as he looked at something on his phone.

It all unwinds in her head. The contract. Ben’s legal death. His boss’ attention to regulation. Ben doesn’t legally exist; in the eyes of the law, he’s a dead man walking.

A free, dead man.

“He did it. The bastard actually had me declared dead.”

At the time she’d wondered what about that was so funny, exactly.

“Did you know that you were gonna do this the whole time?” Rey whispers. “You… this isn’t supposed to be some kind of…big gesture, twist kind of thing, is it? Because that’s a fucked up thing to do to a person, if you let me think you were leaving when you knew the whole time you had a way out-”

He takes a quick step forward, looking alarmed.

“Jesus, no, I didn’t plan it. I’m not that fucked up,” Ben says. “It all got so simple. I slept in my own damn bedroom and it was the worst. I was so miserable about it that I went out on the roof and just stared at the moon like a fucking lovestruck idiot-”

Rey presses a hand to her mouth.

“-and it didn’t even mean anything to me, because I only really like being on the roof when you were there. I felt like I’d never… like I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t try and get you back. But you wanted something I didn’t know how to give you.”

“So what did you do?”

“I called my mom.”

Rey stares at him, almost more shocked by this than anything else.

“You did?”

Ben nods.

“I apologized, incidentally, but that’s not relevant right now.”

“It’s extremely relevant.”

Ben ignores this.

“She pointed out how all this trouble started because someone lied about me being dead, and then it just kind of hit me.”

Ben starts to pace.

“I got on the first flight out of town that morning. Drove straight to the main office. Told Hux he could have fun telling the IRS he was paying a salary to a dead man and spent the next three days getting screamed at. Hux is a shrill bastard when he’s outsmarted, turns out,” Ben says.

“And?”

“And then I came home. Came here.”

Rey stares at him. “Prove it. Prove you’re really free.”

Ben nods, all business. “I have the contract. It’s voided, you can see it.”

“Not good enough.”

He blinks. “What…what would be good enough?”

“Give me your phone,” she says, holding out one hand.

Ben reaches into his pocket and all but throws the phone into her palm. It’s like he can’t get it to her fast enough, and only after her fingers close around it does he seem to question it

“Why?”

“Just wait,” Rey murmurs, pulling up his contacts and typing in the name she needs. She holds a silencing finger up at Ben, who is looking very pained.

Leia Organa picks up on the first ring.

“Oh, Ben. That was quick,” she says smoothly, and Rey can imagine the smile on the lips of the woman speaking, the kindness in her eyes. “I thought she’d take much longer to-”

“Mrs. Organa,” Rey says breathily. “My name is Rey, and I’m here with your son. I’m wondering if you could confirm something for me.”

There’s a beat of silence on the line, and when Leia speaks again, her voice is steady and calm.

“Of course, how can I help?”

“Can you please tell me what Ben has been doing the past three days?”

Leia’s voice is warm and sincere. Kind of raspy like wool. “He’s been in New York negotiating an exit from his contract.”

Ben’s eyes are shining, and his breaths are shallow.

Rey keeps talking. “And was he successful?”

“Very successful. Did you know it’s a crime to falsify death documents?”

Her throat kind of feels like it might close up.

Joy feels like the first bite of a grilled cheese. Like sleeping next to someone you love. Like staring at a sunny sky.  

“Thank you,” she manages to say.

Ben crosses to her.

Lightly, Leia adds, “I can provide photographic evidence, if you like. Ben stayed with me while he was in town.”

Rey lets out a shaking laugh. “No, I believe you.” She looks into his eyes. “I believe you.”

He crushes her to him, his arms around her waist, her face pressed into his chest. Through the tinny speaker of his phone, she hears Leia saying, “Are you reconciling? Ben? For god’s sake, tell her to come for Christmas!”

Ben pulls the phone from her fingers and says, “I’ll call you back, mom.”

With a decisive click, he ends the call and all but tosses it across the room.

“You,” Rey says, her voice thick, “are the most ridiculous person I’ve ever met.”

“You should have seen Hux’s face. I thought it was going to melt clean off,” he whispers, a ghost of a laugh in his voice. His eyes are wet. He smiles.

“He had it coming,” Rey laughs, wiping her eyes. And then, hesitantly, she adds, “So…you’re staying here?”

“Not even a hoard of ghosts could get me to leave,” he says, his eyes flitting to the corners of the room as if in challenge.

“But what will you do?”

He quirks a smile. “Find some honest work, I suppose.”

She kisses him. Impulsive and sweet, she’s up on her toes and pressing her mouth to his, and it feels like the sun has come out from behind a cloud when his arms wrap around her again. It’s Ben, her, and the house around them. No ghosts, no secrets. Plenty of baggage and a few broken floorboards, sure, but Rey’s not afraid of that kind of work.

They pull apart, chests heaving. Ben’s still holding her up, her feet skimming the ground as he nuzzles against her, inhaling greedily, the faint stubble on his cheeks brushing against the sensitive skin of her neck.

Rey laughs for sheer joy, the sound loud and clear. It rings throughout the sunny kitchen, down the long hallway, into the lofty foyer. The chandelier glints in the sun, moving just slightly in an unseen breeze.

They have so much work to do, so much to build. And so much time.

She leans into his warmth and closes her eyes.

Rey murmurs, “You? Work? Can’t wait to see that.”

He smiles back, the crooked grin she loves so much.

His voice is soft and low and full of hope.

“Stranger things have happened, right?”