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This Must Be The Place

Chapter Text

Visible only to the paragon heart,

I tried my sight on an apple-tree

That for eccentric knob and wart

Had all my love.

- Sylvia Plath

 

--

MARCH

--

 

Rey wants.

She wants, fiercely. It is a creature, a wiggly guy, gnawing at her belly, taking up all the space beneath her ribs.

-

She lives in her truck, because it’s better than the rat’s nest of future creepy uncles and chew-spitting sixteen-year-olds she’d lived in, and ran away from, for a hazy number of years before. Plutt’s was the last resort of frazzled caseworkers too overrun with more hopeful cases, and besides - he taught his wards real life skills .


Rey - the wanter, the gnawed-at - never meshed with the foster care system. She knew she had one set of parents, and they were out there somewhere, so she never bonded with those who might have tried to fill the void. She chewed them up, one after the other, spat them out and landed herself in an auto junkyard with a shitty set of tools and a single job: salvage.  

She is good at what she does. She wrests good gleaming parts from gnarled engines, pays her respects to the ghosts trapped in the daily wreckage set to be hauled away for recycling. Plutt pays her minimum wage plus a quarter of the value of whatever she brings him. It is a pittance, but it keeps her fed. Mostly.

Her personal possessions number in  the mid-10’s. They live in a leather knapsack that she keeps on her at all times, lest a Teedo try and fish around inside.

A knife. A headlamp. Chapstick. A sketchbook and a sandwich bag of pens and pencils. A thick, well-worn book bought at a library sale: “21st Century Sustainability”. A little string doll that she’s always had, faded white but once proudly orange. Pressed flowers, laminated at school, that she uses as bookmarks. A few other things, some essential, some not at all. And a phone, found in the glovebox of an old Corolla. It folds closed with a satisfying clack, and Rey likes that it can’t spy on her.

Teedos are her coworkers, the fellow foster children, the civilian junkers who leer and tell her she doesn’t know what she’s doing. They are the men who pester her, make her skin crawl. She cannot escape them. Their faces blur together so easily they cannot be told, one from another. But a Teedo gives her the idea in the first place.

-

Rey makes a constant effort to seem like she’s not from here - here is Jakku, New Mexico, less a town than a grease stain on a map of the state - but the Teedo plainly is. He seems pulled from the dirt and the oil pumps, a knobby boy who sucks his teeth at everything she says. She lets him give her half a burrito because she is fucking starving and in exchange, she listens to him. They sit perched on the shell of a wrecked Camry, Rey settled tensely, watching the sun sink down on the horizon.

He’s going to Thailand. Rey isn’t quite sure where that is. He’s going to teach English to the children.

“Good for you,” Rey says. Maybe not so great for the children. “How?”

He’s going to work in exchange for a spot to sleep on the floor at the elementary school. Rey can practically feel the muggy breeze on her forehead, see the palm fronds waving. There must be breezes and palms in Thailand.  She closes her eyes and practically salivates for it.

She sits in silence, contemplating the vast sand wastes just beyond the junkyard. The Teedo is talking, but she’s long since stopped listening.

The wastes have always loomed unknowable, unconquerable, but her truck can eat up the miles like nothing.

-

Rey spends a lot of her free time at the worse of the two gyms in town. The guy at the front desk lets her through for free. She knows he doesn’t pity her so much as he likes to watch her do deadlifts, and besides, it’s not like she’s the biggest charity case in Jakku.

She dumps the Teedo and heads over, showering after her workout in the slimy locker room. A vision percolates in her head.

It bubbles. Boils over.

Rey drives back to the junkyard on autopilot, street lights and neon open signs left on in restaurant windows smearing all together as she drives by. She parks and settles in, pulling her thrifted afghan over her head, thinking of how she’ll miss the taco trucks but not a damn thing else.

-

She dreams of verdant green and living things. It’s a little on the nose, but at least it’s not the same one she’s always had: her child self, tiny hands scrambling for purchase on crumbling sandstone, trying to scream but never able to give the growing thing in her a voice. She is stuck in a canyon, chasing forever after retreating figures that never once turn back to her.  

-

Rey hunches over a desperately outdated computer in the library, trawling through Workaway listings.

She’ll take anything. Despite how her life has played out thus far, she is optimistic to a fault.

The ad is concise. One grainy photo, a towering fir tree in a clearing, lit from above.

“Help needed on rural homestead. There is room on the property for a tent or yurt during the summer, and we will renovate my work shed into a cottage for the winter. I need someone to look after the animals and keep the garden growing. Handy skills and farm experience a plus. Long-term applicants only. Must not be allergic to bees.”

Not much information about the host, but a name: Ben.

It’s charmingly terrible, and she thinks to herself that it must have been posted by an older man, struggling to plink out a coherent sentence, much less upload good pictures.

She sends him a message, not expecting to hear back as quickly as she does.

-

“Are you still looking for help?”


“Yes. When can you come?”

-

It takes her a little less than a week. She doesn’t give notice to Plutt, and her entire life is already in her truck, so she just… goes.

She is freshly twenty years old, an adult charging headfirst into the rest of her life. It’s thrilling in a way she cannot exactly describe. It’s like uncovering a pristine engine but times maybe a billion?

Her truck rumbles along and it is New Mexico forever and ever and ever and ever, the highway one long strip that doesn’t end, cannot end, has no beginning and no middle and no end -

Life teems with possibilities, that week. It slips by. She thinks constantly, as she drives, of Oregon. Dreams of constant rain and so much green she gets sick of it. She hopes that her host will be kind and know card games, will want to tell her all about his life (his wife and kids, maybe, and then she starts to construct an entire idyllic family out of the ether). She will pull life from the earth with her bare hands, not pry pennies of value from wreckage.

She lives on gas station coffee and Slim Jims. She also discovers that it’s not too hard to heat a can of Spaghetti-O’s over the heater vents, once she suddenly hits Idaho and it’s chilly enough to keep it running. She sits at a rest stop scooping the soupy pasta out with her fingers because it tastes better, and because she can.

-

Rey’s never seen a forest in person. When the scrub desert gradually gives way to pines and moss and roadside waterfalls, she gapes.

-

Ben instructed her to call him once she passes through Chandrila, a sleepy town near the coast of Oregon, the closest to his homestead with a name and a permanent population.

She does so, shakily pressing the call button, having typed in the number hours ago in anticipation. It’s starting to dawn on her, after a week of isolation and yelling along with her single Talking Heads cassette, that she is about to move on to the rural isolated property of a man whose voice she has yet to hear, much less his face to see… his criminal record to search…

He picks up after a few rings. His voice is deep and scratchy, like hers gets when she hasn’t spoken to another living soul in days. She bites her lip, hoping he’ll come out and just say that he’s waiting impatiently to ax-murder her, but no dice. He only tells her how to navigate the winding road up a gentle mountain, to turn left at the seventh mailbox and keep going down the dirt road.

He’ll be there to guide her the rest of the way. She remembers her knife, is glad of it, and presses on.

-

The forest grows thicker, hugging closer and closer to the road. Rey wonders: if she keeps driving, will it swallow her up entirely? She passes the sixth mailbox. It, like the five before it, is caked with moss and cobwebs. It looks like it grew up along with the vegetation.

The seventh arrives, a rickety red thing, and her stomach clenches. There’s still time to turn back.

She is still determined. She turns left.

-

A man stands at the edge of the road, and Rey stops the truck to meet him.

He cuts a striking figure, tall and beefy, loosely curled black hair falling to his chin. At his side is a dog of nearly the same description: a leggy boy, shaggy, the tallest dog she’s ever seen. Her hands twitch, longing to bury themselves in long soft hair.

She rolls down her passenger-side window and gives an awkward wave. He mirrors her, face a mask of uncomfortable neutrality, and steps up to the cab of the truck, ducking down so she can see him.

“I’m looking for Ben?”

“Rey?”

She nods. A moment passes and she tries a smile. He nods back. A mirror. He is so much younger than she thought he would be. Nearly her age.

This is it. He is it.

He presses his lips together and folds himself back up, starting to turn back towards the road.

“Follow us, then.”

 

Chapter Text

by Bob Zheng

 

--

 

Rey drives her truck at a crawl down the dirt path behind Ben, whose strides are long and even. If she were on foot too, she’d be at a dead sprint. His dog lopes close behind, tongue lolling cartoonishly.

With the window still rolled down, the outside air drifts in, blowing away the truck’s stale odor of unwashed girl body and meat-in-stick-form, replacing it with the green tinge of lake and decay. Where the water is, she has no idea; pines and vines and ferns obstruct her view any more than a few feet beyond the road.

The effect is stunning.

And claustrophobic.

Rey clutches the steering wheel and tries not to let the panic bubble up. It makes her itchy, the thought of having no escape from the one other person for miles around. It’s not like she’s ever felt comfortable in social situations in the first place - she spent most of her formative years in a junkyard, alone at best or with old men and morons at worst. Things had never really called for warmth or pleasantries.  

They reach a clearing after a couple of minutes, and Ben rounds back, motions for her to park. There’s some scattered equipment and another car there, a badly-kept ‘82 Firebird with gold dice hanging off the rear-view mirror. Her heart skips a beat, it’s so beautifully in need of a tune-up, but she also can’t help herself.

“A little impractical, huh?”

He follows her line of sight, and shrugs.

“She does alright.”

Ben tells her that the Firebird is named “the Falcon”, and the greying wolfhound is Chewie: he inherited both from his father.

“What a legend.” Rey murmurs, imagining her father leaving her the detritus of his life. Having a glove box to sift through, little human secrets to discover.   

Ben's face pinches. He doesn’t elaborate any further.

Rey gets it; she’d hate telling a complete stranger about her parents, too. She hops out of her truck and stretches, a silent yawning tomcat, toothy and unembarrassed. She tries again.

“It’s funny that “Firebird” wasn’t a dramatic enough name for a car, isn’t it? ‘The Falcon’ doesn’t even sound that much cooler.”

He gives her a different look, a withering stare, like he's trying to decide if she's worth humoring or not. Like she's some kind of moron. It sears into her flesh. She flushes, beside herself. Okay, then.   

Rey straightens and he promptly turns, motioning for her to follow him, and hops up a path of stairs cut into the earth. She grabs her knapsack out of the passenger seat and hurries to catch up to him.

The path runs up a few dozen paces, the steps so wide with edges so rounded from erosion that it almost doesn’t qualify as a set of stairs at all. Reaching their crest, Rey’s jaw drops.


“Are you fucking kidding me?”

They stand on the highest point of the land. A small grey cabin and its scattered satellite structures form a loose semicircle; the land that would make up its other half falls away. Beyond the human creation and land and tree, is a lake. A whole entire lake, whose opposite banks Rey can see clearly, just... there. A lake. So much water. It glitters, like they do in movies.

He could have taken a picture of this view and Rey would have been so much happier to drive directly to her potential death, as long as she knew this would be her final resting place.

She gawks. She hopes she never gets used to the unbearable beauty.

Ben steps up behind her. He doesn’t smile, really, but his eyes are bright. Maybe this is his form of amusement - in any case, it's a vast improvement from just minutes ago. He starts pointing things out to her, beginning with the main cabin, taking Rey on the most blase tour of the most beautiful place she’s ever been.

The cabin itself is grey, and she notices with an inward bark of laughter that he’s deliberately painted the door and the accents on the windows and porch black. The wood pile sits to the side of the cabin. Its roof, too, is black. Such an odd and obstinate color, against all the green.

“That’s my house. And the shower.” He gestures towards a rickety structure, consisting mainly of a halved plastic barrel, some plumbing, and a black tarp, all balanced, in a vaguely shower-like way, up on a pole of rough-cut green wood. Worse than her gym back in Jakku, sure, but not by much.

A tin shack is the compost toilet, and a half-dozen hens (she, at least, thinks they must be hens, because they don’t have the big red rubber chin things) poke around a coop that looks a dozen times more lovingly made than anything built for himself.

Rey’s gaze slowly drifts up - and she nearly startles, like it’s snuck up on her. It’s the tree from the picture. She has no idea how she recognizes it, but she does. It has the thick trunk, bark all gnarled, branches bowing down under the weight of its needles.

It stands smack in the middle of everything. She doesn’t know how it wasn’t the very first thing she saw. It feels eerily familiar.

They pass by the cabin. Rey searches for anything it might reveal about the inner workings of her host, but solar panels and black curtains and a little porch with potted herbs and two black wood chairs reveals nothing.

They head due left of the main clearing, still parallel to the lake, down a sloping trail. So many varying elevations. Rey’s legs burn pleasantly with the exertion, unused to so much movement after a week of driving. She thinks about doing her morning lunges and high kicks and traveling squats while casually staring a lake in the face.

A faint buzzing noise starts to register, and she suddenly remembers: “must not be allergic to bees.”  

He keeps four hives a couple hundred yards away from the cabin, next to the garden and its accompanying little shed, where the land evens out again. Each little box is painted a different bright color.

“Meet the girls.”

He nods towards them, entirely serious.

“I sell honey and make soap and some other things, from their beeswax.” Ben turns to her, hands floating behind his back to clasp together. He meets her eyes. Rey lowers hers on instinct; a lifetime spent fighting shapeshifting shitheads does that to a girl. She watches as Chewie noses lazily at a bush.   

“I sell it at the farmer’s market, in Chandrila. Saturday mornings. And online, too. I don’t know if you’re afraid of bees. I hope you aren’t, they’re some of the best animals on Earth. But, anyway, I’ll take care of them myself. You won’t have to deal with that.”

Rey lifts her eyes, noticing a few fuzzy bodies bumbling around his head.

He just keeps looking steadily at her. One of the bees bumps off his head, confusing herself. If he knows they’re there, he doesn’t show it. It softens him. Just the tiniest bit. The bees must trust him so much.

“No, don’t worry. I’m not afraid.”

“Good. I know you haven’t seen everything yet, but if you’re still in, we’d like to have you stay. I think there’s a lot we can get done together.”

Rey thinks of her morning workout and watching the plants in the garden grow up tall and strong and reading inside her tent, rain pattering on the roof. Perfect solitude. This is the first job she’s ever taken, been able to take, of her own free will. This is the first thing she’s ever done entirely alone. She takes a deep breath.

Their eyes stay locked. His face, still as ever, is unreadable.

“Yeah. Count me in.”

Again, he doesn’t smile; she thinks, maybe he doesn’t know how ? He instead mashes his lips together in that way she’s never seen another human do, and then nods, appeased.

--

He shows her the work shed they’ll renovate into her winter home. It’s hardly bigger than the biggest bathroom Rey’s ever been in, separated from the apiary only by the modest-sized garden. At least the earth, freshly overturned and recently seeded, smells sweet, all wet and fertile.

Inside, light filters in from two small windows, the only spots on all four walls not taken up by cluttered shelves. His workbench, though, is remarkably tidy: a calligraphy set, a compass, some empty jars, and a portable Bluetooth speaker are all arranged neatly. He tells her he wants to move everything into his cabin, not have to trek back in darkness every night after working.

Is this a joke?  She thinks, staring up at the chunks of beeswax and unlabeled candles lining the shelves. I get to work for the privilege of maybe one day having this jail cell all to myself?

The tiny space, probably full of spiders, makes her feel itchy. She doesn’t want to deal with the thought of renovations and home-making and settling down, so she chooses not to. She turns with a flourish and steps out of the shed, breathing in the free mountain air.

“Sorry, but I’m starving.” Asking for things is so uncomfortable. She hates it. But it’s the lesser of two evils.

A deep breath, and bravery. “What’s for dinner?”

--

He builds a campfire in the pit in front of his cabin, while she stays behind and sets up the tent she’ll lodge in until the shed is finished. She figures that with the shed and the garden between them, the bees won’t bother her, and she can’t be seen from Ben’s cabin. It’s a fine place to settle, for now.  

Rey immediately tosses the instructions and fights with poles that refuse to snap into place. She has a good time working purely with her hands, with the physical logic of interlocking pieces coming together and breaking apart.

Finally, the whole thing pops up, and it’s bigger inside than the workshed, enough for a small family at least. This bear of a man must need a lot of room to stretch his legs, but even he and Chewie would have space to stretch out in here.

Rey tosses her knapsack inside and makes to go grab the rest of her things, retracing their steps back up past the cabin, the shower, the grove of trees. Ben is busy inside his cabin. Down again, the unfamiliar stairs threatening to trip her up in the quickly fading light.

Once she returns, arms laden with her afghan and pillow and extra pair of work boots, Ben’s crouched in front of the roaring fire, holding a pan on a metal rack over the flames. It sizzles with long pink strips of salmon, and Rey nearly wants to cry, it smells so good.

As she passes, he doesn’t raise his eyes, staring intently at the frying pan instead.

That’s fine. She’s got other things to worry about.

Rey focuses on arranging her things inside the tent, unfurling the bedroll he’d given her, tucking her afghan carefully over it. Her doll sits next to the pillow, the pressed flowers next to her, and her book and sketchbook too, one on top of the other. It’s nice, everything all spread out. She gets to make a mess of her things without sacrificing her ability to sleep. Or drive.

Satisfied, she ducks out the tent door and joins Ben, a long tall shadow of a man, by the fire.

--

He doesn’t try and force conversation with her. He hands her a plate of incredible food - shimmering strips of fish, and foil-wrapped roast potatoes -  and she tears into it.

They eat together in silence, the fire spitting and hissing its own private conversation. It’s like a bad parody version of a moment Rey had always dreamed of sharing with someone.

She wants to hear the ocean tides beating against a rocky shore, not the distant forest hum of birds and insects. She wants to be breathless with laughter, not hunched down awkwardly, avoiding any possible eye contact.  

She wants.

She wants.

She wants to feel like she belongs. To know that she belongs.

The trees loom above their heads, a benevolent blanket of sleeping ancient things. At least they bear witness.

Ben’s a man, like she’d usually pictured, at least. And maybe he’d qualify as handsome, though it’s not like she’s had a great long look at his face yet. But he’s so sullen.

She doesn’t know what to think of him. Or, really, what to even begin to think of him. He may just be weird from prolonged lack of human contact, but he also gave her that withering look when she tried to joke around with him. And he’s not exactly helping his own cause, all tight-lipped and uninterested, just sitting there. Nibbling on a bit of salmon skin. Asshole.

But when she stares up at the trees, turns to scratch Chewie behind the ears as he begs for a bite of her food, looks anywhere directly away from him, she thinks… maybe she feels eyes on her.

Whose, she couldn’t say.

She still has no idea what to do with that.

It gets late. The fire dies. Rey, courage fueled by a full stomach, tries to ask Ben about himself as he washes the dishes in a shallow tub, but he is so good at one-word shut-downs. She gives up, and tells him she’s going to bed, asking him to wake her when it’s time to start the day. He bids her a curt good night. She goes.

--

Rey is exceptionally glad that she never goes without a good supply of Wet Wipes.

Like hell she’d ask Ben how to use his shitty shower, no matter how desperately she needs to, after all that. She bathes as well as she can, spraying her hair down with dry shampoo, shaking it out. She runs a cleansing wipe over her face, slow enough to start to get lost in thought, and that’s when she starts to break.

Fucking hell, Rey.” She grinds out, dropping the cloth and pinching the bridge of her nose, as if it’ll stop her breakdown all together. She paces with the other hand on her hip as tears leak out, listening for signs that Ben might be within hearing range. Nothing. He’s stopped moving around outside, as far as she can tell.

Still, she presses fingers into her eyes, cursing over and over again, pacing the length of her tent, trying fruitlessly to get a hold of herself.

She can’t stop.

Growing up in foster care and group homes, she wore a shield of optimism and strength and rage. She clung to her daydreams like rafts in the torrential waves. The one about the island. The one about a bathtub, all to herself. The one in which her parents desperately regretted giving her up, right up until their dying breaths, and that she, modern Jane Eyre, was secretly the heir to the fortune and estate of a distant aunt. A nice old lesbian, maybe.  

Physicality works well enough to release the daily grind of hopelessness and the ever-present hollow of loss in her gut, but she must give in to the extremes of her emotions in the very dead of night.

She’s always been a crier. Her life has always necessitated crying.

Sobs shake her. What have I done what have I done what have I done what have I done.

Stuck, alone, on a fucking homestead with no running water or flushing toilet and miles between her and the next human that isn’t a strange, tight-lipped dickbag. Bears probably roam this land, cougars too, and coyotes. So it’s nice that at least when she is slaughtered, her body will be dragged into some dank flesh den to nourish some creature through the winter.

Rey takes deep shuddering breaths, trying to count down to calm like her old therapist taught her, but it doesn’t work, and she pushes the heels of her hands into her eyes until she sees stars.

She doesn’t know where to get Takis or how to wash her pants. Or, for that matter, how to care for chickens or grow a garden beyond what she’s learned from her outdated library book. That’s a start at least, and Ben will probably have his own opinions, but she hates not knowing.

She’s so desperately out of her depth. The panic in her belly builds, fed by the crying, not released by it.

Rey snaps painfully back to reality when she hears something rustling, out in the unexplored woods beyond her tent. Suddenly aware of the thin skin of nylon that is all that protects her from the violent unknown of the land, she hushes up and listens.

The sound of dead pine needles cracking underfoot. Someone walking. Some thing walking. She doesn’t see anything from inside the tent, but she has only her headlamp for a light. Can’t be sure.

Her heart thrums hard, even after the sound fades, whatever it was slipping further and further away. Towards Ben’s cabin or down to the lake, she has no idea.

She zips the door flap open as slowly as she can, trying not to make any noise, and ducks out. It’s so dark. Not the black of Jakku, where the land stretched out, empty of life and shape, but a teeming blackness that terrifies her, down to the animal core.

It’s more instinct, raw and profoundly stupid, than anything.

You’re not safe out here.

She snatches up her knife - and then, on second thought, her blanket - and sprints out the door, up past the hives and the lifeless cabin and the chicken coop, down through the line of trees that seem almost to reach down and touch her with their sharp fingers, and hops into the metal-and-electric safety of her truck.

Still in the ignition, her keys jostle with the sudden movement. Teasing her.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Someone’s knocking on her window.

Rey snaps awake, and immediately regrets it: her head throbs, neck stiff from the odd position she’d fallen asleep in.

Ben stares in at her. She stares right back at him. The point of awkwardness comes and goes, Rey trying the entire time to figure out who he could be if he’s not a police officer or an irate store manager or Plutt.  

She can’t put all the pieces together into something that works. Dark eyes framed by long lashes. Two thick eyebrows, knitted together in confusion. Fluffy hair, twisted up in a half-top knot. Nose a noble hawk’s beak. Plush lips that move up and down. Hm? Maybe he’s saying something?

What kind of Wal-Mart manager looks like a goddamn Boticelli —

Rey snaps back to reality with an almost audible gasp. She’s been drinking him in for nearly a solid silent minute. She struggles to roll the window down, heart racing, limbs still heavy with sleep.

Ben clears his throat. He’s bundled up in a black jacket, collar of his black flannel shirt peeking out; goth, by way of Cabela’s.

“I’m sorry, but - I want you to come help me at the market. We’ll be in town, so if you need anything, we can pick it up.”

“Oh. Yeah. Of course. I’ll be ready in a few minutes.”

She relaxes back. Picks a crusty bit from one eye, then the other. Ben does not move. He stands there, still a confused look on his face. Rey realizes she must explain herself. She’s not used to that.

“I… uh. I thought I heard something last night, outside the tent. I guess I kind of freaked out.”

“What do you think you heard?”

Rey shrugs, mortified. The taxonomy of the thing had not struck her as a major concern at the time. “I don’t know. Some creature.”   

“It’s a forest, Rey.”

He stares at her. He is always staring at her.

“Things live here.”

“Yeah. Thank you, I get that now.” Rey mutters. She busies herself by tying the rats nest of her hair back, staring stubbornly away from Ben. It's too early to start fighting. “What kinds of things, anyway?”

“Well. Chewie, for one. He wanders. Sometimes black bears, but he doesn’t let them get too close. Birds. Squirrels. Mice. Foxes. Plenty of things.”

“Great. I’ll make sure not to overreact the next time a potential bear happens to cross my path.”

He glances behind her, to the interior of the truck.

“You’re free to sleep wherever you want. I have no problem with this.”

Rey’s skin prickles with irritation and embarrassment and irritation at her embarrassment. She knows he knows this has been her home for months. It’s not hard to tell. The cab is too strategically organized, too lovingly decorated to be the result of just a week spent living in it.

She’s even got a little plant friend, a cactus, superglued to the dash. Back in Jakku, it was an inside joke with herself: she couldn’t escape the desert, even inside her tiny non-home. Now, it’s a jarring example of just how far away she is from the cough of dust that shaped her. A reminder of the irreversible, irresponsible thing she’s done.

Whatever his impression is, he doesn’t show it. Rey can’t decide if she’s glad he’s allowing her this shred of dignity, or if she wants to confront him directly, demand he acknowledge the reality of her. Of course the one person on Earth who would be willing to work for him would be a desperate, orphaned sand rat looking to experience precipitation for the first time in her life.

He just backs up and hikes his thumb in the direction of the cabin.

 

“I have some hot water going. Come up when you’re ready. I can show you how the shower works.”

-

It works beautifully, the shower, but it’s such a tedious process. There’s a ladder propped up next to the makeshift structure; he pulls a pot of boiling water off of the fire, climbs the ladder with it balanced carefully in his hands, and dumps it in the mostly-full basin of cold water waiting. He tests the temperature. It is sufficient. He shows her how to operate the faucet, and where to hang the towel he’s brought out for her, then disappears back down the earthen staircase with Chewie close behind him.

Rey doesn’t dwell on the possibility that this unprompted show of hospitality may just be his way of telling her she stinks. She scrubs herself raw and brushes her teeth twice, anyway.

Ben told her he’d wait down by the cars until she came to help him, so she wouldn’t have to worry about “being interrupted”. Rey takes her time, inspecting his setup while she’s at her leisure. The air nips at her exposed skin, carrying with it the potent fragrance of pine and smoldering embers from the extinguished campfire. It's early, still dark, barely light enough out to see. 

He keeps a bar of solid shampoo, a black tub of shaving cream, and a straight razor, arranged on a rough plank of wood. A distorted version of her own face, reflected in a small tin mirror, mimics her as she sniffs each item in turn. She picks out a few scents she can recognize. Spearmint, something vaguely lemony, a hit of pepper.

All she's got is a toothbrush and a jumbo bottle of Old Spice 3-in-1. She sets her things next to his, because it's the only surface that isn't the ground, taking care to place them far enough away that they won’t get too cozy.

-

The first mother-figure Rey can remember is a nameless woman who must have loved her. At night, desperate for sleep, she has tried to recapture this first great Mamá, with whom she can’t even remember how long she lived.

This routine is a great comfort when she feels unmoored and scared of the world. She's done it for years. Rey turns over each memory, holding it like a breathing pulsing thing. The woman’s face morphs and flickers and refuses to be still in her mind’s eye. Only sweet little splinters of their life together return to her.  

Warm, thin arms holding her. Querida, querida. Voices murmuring in Spanish as efficient hands yanked Rey’s hair back into little buns. A single image, clear as day: brown feet on yellow linoleum, the smell of laundry hot in the air. She must have been about five. Bowls of pozole and endless quesadillas and so many stories. Always stories. Over dishes and in front of daytime TV, in line at the Department of Health and Welfare. 

Mamá told Rey that she was never alone. There were spirits that saw. Would always see. That counted each precious tear as it fell. Fairies. Elves. Little clever wispy things. They lived in corners and in people and clung to clothing especially, imbuing every article with love or unbearable nostalgia or bad luck.

Rey holds the old stories and superstitions close to her heart, her adherence to them as close as she’ll ever get to practicing religion. She no longer runs wild searching for fairies down rattlesnake holes, but she’s still never scratched an itchy palm or let her knapsack touch the ground or stepped on a crack in the sidewalk.

She is cold and lives in Oregon, now. She is so far away from Mamá. She wonders what the woman would think of her now. Rey dries herself quickly and pulls her favorite pair of pants (brown Dickies, extra crisp, cuffed once at the ankle) over her luckiest panties (the black boyshorts, functional and soft).

It’s not like she thinks she’ll ever be seen in the lucky panties, or that the way she feels about her pants really matters. It’s her first day of work, and she’s nervous. She just wants to hoard every little bit of magic that she can.

Her sports bra is white, utterly sexless. A pleasantly neutral item. She’d bought a cream-colored sweater at the Goodwill in Twin Falls, having realized she would need at least some cold weather clothing; she throws that on over a plain undershirt, tucking both into her pants, cinching both with her belt. Her wet hair she pulls back into the cheeky triple-bun style she’s always worn. On go thick socks and Dr. Martens, black and steel-toed and a half size too big.

She had no idea how cold it might be in Oregon, at least compared compared to how rainy. So, at the Goodwill and blinded by a wealth of choices, she grabbed what was, in retrospect, probably the dumbest option. A poncho. It’s warm and blankety, a grey swath of fabric brushing the tops of her ankles. Maybe a little too storybook heroine, but not bad.  

It had called out to her, sounding so lonely. Someone just abandoned it. A thing after her own heart. She couldn’t resist.

-

The Falcon really does do alright. Ugly though she is on the outside, and audibly in need of some poking around the engine (Rey’s fingers itch to do it), she’s immaculately clean on the inside, and runs as well as she needs to. The drive down to Chandrila should take twenty minutes or so, skimming over a wet highway that snakes through the hills.

Ben is silent, hunched over, driving stick almost as well as Rey can. Awkwardness stews in the air, now that they’re trapped in a small space together.

Rey is incapable of forcing conversation, so she draws on her well of audacity and makes to turn the radio on. Maybe he can tell her some of his edgy opinions about pop music.

Before Ben can say anything, she figures out what must be the right button.

She presses it.

The latter half of Can’t Fight This Feeling croons out of the blown speakers.

Rey is shocked silent for a moment, and then has to bite her tongue against a flood of jokes, of petty laughter.

He delivers on that front, anyway; Kevin Cronin can’t fight this feeling any longer. Apparently, neither can Ben.

“My father got it stuck in there.” He rushes to say, color rising up on the high planes of his cheeks. He grimaces.

“It’s been there for twenty years. Longer than the man himself stuck around.”

Rey wonders if she’s supposed to laugh. Probably not. She doesn’t. She is struck by how easy it is to remove a stuck cassette. How he must keep it in there on purpose, salting the wound whenever it threatens to scab over. Her laughter dies in her chest.

“At least you knew him at all.” She fires back, equally as melodramatic. She has no patience for this. 

He is silent, mollified. It feels a little like an apology. When Rey sinks back into her seat, offering no elaboration, he doesn’t demand one.  

The tape keeps playing, a relentless Dad Rock drone.

After a while, Chandrila dissolves into view, birthed suddenly from mist and forest. It’s not much more than a highway exit, a main street and some residential off-shoots, but there’s still population enough for a diner and a gas station, a salon called “Bushwhackers”. It’s seven in the morning, already a little light out, but the town is still dead asleep. Rey wonders how Chandrila has a farmer’s market at all, especially in the middle of March.

They rush into the gas station for coffee, on Rey’s request, and she tosses a pack of powdered donuts on the counter as an afterthought. A test. The last time she tried this, her peptual foster child’s gauge of the generosity of her guardian, was with Plutt. He’d threatened to beat her if she ever presumed to spend his money again.

Ben doesn’t react. When Rey is too busy warming her hands on her steaming cup of something to grab them on her way out, he remembers the donuts for her.

-

They set up the booth together. Before they begin, he puts on a pair of black leather gloves, and does not take them off until they are back home. 

-

It’s raining. Rey doesn’t remember when it began to rain. Oregon, in her limited experience, is a place where water is always precipitating on the windshield and the road ahead is always cloaked in unknowable wet blackness. Whether or not rain is actually falling from the sky is a secondary concern.

-

Ben patiently talks her through the different things he sells, the balms and waxes and hand-poured candles, more things than Rey even knew existed. Everything is packaged in recyclable black pots, with slashes of white calligraphy, names all single adjectives. Smooth; Slough; Heal. There are things to put on crusty elbows and fresh tattoos, to leave in the hair after washing it. He has solid perfumes too, notes of smoked tea and cedar and oak moss. She gives herself a headache smelling everything.

-

The market, once it gets going, is a cacophony of attractive young families with canvas tote bags and matching North Face jackets. Rey is stunned by how many people live near this speck of a town. The sun does not peek out until noon, but Rey is kept so busy she wonders if these people don’t even care that buckets of water are falling from the sky. They don’t wear hats or use umbrellas. They wander in, spend obscene (by Rey’s measure) amounts of money, and plunge back out into the weather without hesitation.

-

“Wow, this is so much rain, huh?”  

Rey is not very good at customer service. She’s counting out change for a purple-haired woman who furrows her brow, genuinely confused.

“Rain?”

Rey flushes. She wonders if she’s maybe crossed some sort of line. In Oregon, maybe, it rains so much that people don’t even talk about it oh my God Rey duh-

The woman glances up at the sky, as if she needs to confirm that what Rey’s just asserted is true.

“Yes, of course, rain. We love the rain here, don’t we?”

Rey glances across the booth at Ben, who glances back at her, and then to the woman. He smiles, a tight expression that dies an inch below his eyes. The Ben that must interact with humans, make them like him, is an odd creature.

“Rey is from New Mexico. Desert’s pretty dry compared to up here.”

Thank you, Rey thinks, before she remembers herself. After: don’t fucking rescue me from my own awkward situations.

“Ah, of course. I thought I had spotted a fresh face.” The woman lays a hand on Rey’s shoulder, a motherly gesture if her eyes weren’t suddenly so intense, if she weren’t just a centimeter too close for comfort.

Rey feels a shiver feather down her spine. She is otherwise completely transfixed, eyes locked with the woman’s.

“Welcome, Rey. We’re so glad you’re here.”

-

There is a lull in the crowd as the sun starts to filter through all the gloom, and everything becomes almost surreally bright. Rey takes the opportunity and snatches up her once-forgotten donuts, holy things now that the coffee’s effect has faded and she realizes she’s starving.

She shoves one in her mouth, glad of something familiar to help shake off the unnerved feeling the woman gave her. She thinks hard of other things.

“Do you like this?”

He blinks. She licks powdered sugar from her fingertips, half-surprised that the words actually escaped her mouth.

“Making these things, I mean. Do you like it?”

Does this make you happy, she wants to know. Does anything make you happy.

She is embarrassed even by the thought, that she wants to know this. She shoves another donut in her mouth because it’s a thing to do with her useless, stupid hands.

He shrugs. “It’s not really a matter of if I like it. It keeps me afloat.”  A thoughtful pause. “I like painting the labels. Taking care of the bees. I’m good at it. As far as one can be, I guess.”

--

They’re packing up. Finally. Rey has never been in such close proximity with so many people, felt so many eyes on her. The poor girl that Ben (“you know? The bee man? Always looks like someone’s just pissed in his Cheerios?”) duped into living with him. The girl whose shoulder you can just touch.

Suddenly, a voice. There are always voices.

“Is this Rey?”

Rey, back turned to the street as she inventories the sugar scrubs, hears her name, and an animal instinct prompts her to whip around to face the source of the threat.

It’s a girl. She’s short and round-faced and dark-haired, with flippant bangs and an impish grin, so stunningly pretty that Rey almost chokes on her own spit.

She takes a moment to remember herself. I am Rey, the Rey. I am suddenly a significant someone. She nods, her now-perfected response to that constant question.

“Oh my God, Ben was just telling us someone finally responded.”

The girl’s dark eyes flicker over to the aforementioned man, who is unmoved, still stacking lip balms in their box. She steps inside of the booth, sidling up to Rey as if she’s got an urgent secret to pass on.

“Honey, are you okay? That ad sounded like a serial killer wrote it.” She maintains a straight face for all of an entire second before she cracks herself up. Rey finds herself smiling too, the first grin she hasn’t forced in weeks.

“I’m Rose, by the way. I live across the lake from you. Seriously, though.”

“I’m still not sure a serial killer didn’t write that ad.”  

Rey warms with pleasure when Rose laughs. She never gets to make pretty, well-washed girls laugh. Rose asks how Rey finds Chandrila so far, as she browses over what’s left of their stock, what they haven’t packed up yet. She gleefully plucks a single tub up from the messy stacks.

“Ripe” is written on the label, with a minimal sketch of a flower, bulb just about to explode into bloom. Made from jojoba and sunflower and olive oil, if Rey remembers correctly, and a bunch of other things, to prevent stretch marks on pregnant bellies.

When she realizes what Rose has selected, Rey's eyes immediately zero in on her midsection, though it’s not like she's seen more than maybe three pregnant women in her entire life. Nobody gives birth in Jakku. They end up there, desert shrapnel, flung in from all over. The climate is near-incompatible with life.

Rose is too bundled up for Rey to tell what’s happening down there, anyway. 

“Ben, please?” She’s holding the tin up, an expectant smile on her face. Rey would give her the universe, if she could. Ben is not so generous.

“You already owe me for the hand mask. And the candles - what are you up to now? Three?”

“I’ve been begging you to let me work on the Falcon for months. This is all on you. I’m ready when you are.” Rose slips the balm into her bag. He allows it, powerless as Rey is to deny her anything. She winks triumphantly at Rey.

“What would you do to her? The Falcon, I mean.” Rey rushes to ask, before anyone can snatch the topic away. She’s never met another girl who likes to dig around in the dirty guts of cars, and by the way Rose’s face lights up, she hasn’t either.

“Break pads. Oil filter. Transmission fluid. He treats her like she’s garbage. I can’t think beyond that, it hurts too much. So much wasted potential.”

Rey, never a giggler, giggles. She is suddenly high on excitement; she hasn’t had a steady friend since her sophomore year of high school. And never one who could talk shop. Or one who had the miracle of life apparently sprouting inside of her, a fascinating thing on its own.

“You know where we live, Rose,” Ben cuts in. “You can come over whenever you want.”

“You don’t have poor Rey on a strict schedule?”

He presses his lips together, feathers ruffled. It’s barely been a day and a half; Rey has no idea how much work she’ll be expected to do, or if she’ll have any free time at all. But he sure as hell won’t have her on any kind of leash, she knows that much. She’d rather die. 

“No, of course not. Just don’t destroy my car.”

Rey grins giddily, feeling like a child who’s just been given permission to go play with her friend for the rest of the day, except she’s twenty years old and she doesn’t need anyone’s permission for anything. Especially not to perform thousands of dollars worth of free labor on his car.

That, and nothing can stop her from enjoying the company of a human who isn’t the one she’s stuck with. Not even the lake, a body of water surely deeper than she is tall, as good a place as any for her, unable to swim, to fall in and drown.

“We’ll have to start with the tape deck.”

Chapter Text

-

APRIL

-

“You don’t have to watch, Rey.”

She shakes her head. She must stay.

When Ben had told her, over breakfast, that they would be having chicken for dinner, Rey had been dumb enough to be excited. One of the great pleasures of her life was plunging her fingers into a steaming rotisserie chicken, burning them, in hot pursuit of the oysters, the two most tender bites on the entire bird.

She’d realized just a second later that meat meant death. Bringing death. She loves her stupid, stupid girl gang. She lets them out in the morning, after Ben knocks on the truck’s window to wake her; she feeds them, sneaks them treats, shovels their shit, and corrals them back in at night.

It would only make sense for her, their God in life, to bring them death, too. Rey’s stomach turns at the thought.

The speckled girl that’s always wandering down to the hives and snacking on bees hasn’t laid an egg in weeks. It’s her time. Ben has a milk jug nailed to the side of the compost heap, the bottom and the neck cut off, and she dangles upside down inside of it, perfectly serene.  

Chewie licks his chops and whines, excited for the thing to be done.

Ben glances back at her one more time, a knife in hand. He does not lord it over her, but the lesson is clear: this is the reality of pulling our livelihood straight from the earth.     

Rey nods.

“Goodbye, Admiral. Thank you.”

If there is any grace in killing, Ben has it. It is over in a second, just a smooth slice to the neck and a jab inside the mouth to split the brain. The chicken convulses a few times. After that, she is still.

-

Ben shows her how to scald and pluck and gut the bird, tossing feathers into a bucket for compost and the throw-away bits down to Chewie, who eats the head whole, crunching beak and bone and comb. Rey’s a little disappointed that they won’t eat the brain; she likes to make a point of always eating the worst-sounding thing.

The clinical dismantling of the body is much easier to stomach than the quiet ending of the life. Ben salts and peppers the skin, rubs it down with butter, stuffs the body cavity with lemon and garlic and thyme, and throws it in the Dutch oven. It is elegant, a thoroughly studied way of cooking. Rey fries up the feet with mashed garlic and chili powder and eats both while they’re still sizzling hot.      

She doesn’t share them with Ben; he doesn’t ask. The chicken emerges from the oven two hours later, and she discovers a new pleasure. She digs into the meat of a chicken she had once known, had treated well, had loved (in the way one loves chickens), burning her fingers as she plucks the tender little gems away from the cooked spine and pops them into her mouth.

Ben watches her, hands busy working apart the delicate feathers of flesh from one of the roasted wings, something like softness in his eyes. She allows it.

-

Ben never lingers long after dinner, does not deign to keep her company. He helps her wash the dishes and bids her and Chewie good night, leaving them to their own devices. Usually, Rey does not linger long up at camp, but tonight she does. She cannot move. She scratches Chewie between the ears, the way he likes, and tells him about herself.

Jakku. Mamá . Small things that have bubbled up in her mind over the past couple of weeks, but that have no outlet in Ben, who keeps his thoughts and life and memories and all other human things locked up tight.  

The cover of darkened pines is a comfort, now. She lays back in the packed dirt and pulls her shirt up, rubbing at her belly, sleepy. She feels the eyes, that odd forest feeling that never goes away. Always a little critter with its stare fixed on her. She does not mind them much anymore.

Rey eventually rises, stumbles down to her truck. She feels drunk, full of chicken, contented.

-      

A gentle tapping on the window wakes Rey, who snaps up, the same crick in her neck, same vague headache behind her eyes. Every single time Ben knocks on the window, around daybreak, she is momentarily terrified. Her mind darts to the junkyard, to self-defense, a holdout from what already feels like a different lifetime.

Then she remembers, as usual, and dresses and knots her hair and joins him for breakfast by the fire, as usual.  

Ben happens to be the one to breach tradition this morning.

“Is there something wrong with the tent?” He asks, not unkind, as he hands her a readied plate of eggs and toast.

Rey still keeps her books in the tent, makes a show of using it for her occasional mid-afternoon nap, but it remains mostly an ugly reminder of the terror and the cowardice of her first night. She’s thought about moving in, now that the forest is less of a monolithic terror, but she still clings to the truck’s familiarity. Its metal security, its token discomfort. How wonderfully creature-proof it is.

Rey shakes her plate, the yolks of her over-easy eggs jiggling. She pierces each, watching the golden liquid bleed out. She is thinking a thousand things. She is stopping herself from saying each of them.

Why do you demand I move closer to you? Do you understand how terrible it will be to give in, now?

“Rey?”

She looks up. It’s early and she’s barely alive. There are dozens of seedlings to get in the ground today, all of the corn, cucumbers, squash and peas. The mulch is full of slugs and snails, so she needs to solve that problem somehow, too. They've also yet to fix the chicken run, with its rotted-out boards, and her girls have been cooped up all week to keep them from wandering down to raze the sprouting garden. She feels their irritation as if it were her own. It pecks at her. Perhaps it is her own.

“Do you hunt, Ben? Like big game?”

“Usually a deer or an elk, in the fall. I don’t need more meat than that. Why?”

She purses her lips. This is a question that will sound like a trap no matter how she puts it. It will , however, get him off her back, a difficult feat.

“What kind of gun do you use?”

“I don’t.”

She searches his pretty face for any sign of deception. It is a waste of time. In the two weeks she has known Ben, he has proven himself uncomfortably honest, practically incapable of telling a lie.

“Why? What happens when a black bear tears into the flimsy little tent and eats me, and then it’s hungry for more and it starts going after you? Or Chewie?”

“Well. Rey... do you know how big a black bear is?”

She bristles, knowing he’s playing with her.

“They’re not as big as you think they are. I’d say one could eat, at most... maybe a leg and a half, before it’s done. Has to go to bed. That’s plenty of time for me to get to safety. You don't need a gun, when you play the long game.”

If Ben weren’t casually toying with her very real fear of being snatched away in the night, she might have laughed.

“So putting me in the tent as bear bait has been your idea this entire time? And you’re demanding I go back to it?”

“If that were the plan, I’d say it’s going very poorly.”

He stares at her over the rim of his mug as he takes a dramatically long sip of coffee. He French presses pots and pots of it every day. He tries to tell Rey, some mornings, about the different flavor notes - this one’s sweet and fruity, that one has notes of smoke and clove. She likes to dump whatever it is in a thermos and drink it long past it’s icy; she couldn’t care less about the “notes”.

“How do you know, anyway?” Rey asks. She shifts under his gaze. "About how much a bear can eat."

As a rule, they do not chat like this; Ben usually prefers to sit in silence and Rey prefers to stay behind a wall, where she is safe from the terror of being known. It is a morning full of surprises already. Rey’s superstitious heart can’t take it.

“I spent a year sleeping in a tent while I was building that heap,” he says, motioning up to his cabin. “And I had a lot of time to wonder about predators. But if you’re really worried, Rey, I have a bow. And a dog that’s very large and very protective of us.” He pauses, thoughtful. Like he’s letting his use of “us” linger in the air. Rey doesn’t like it. She is she and he is he. They bump against each other, in the same orbit, yes, they coexist, but they are not one. She cannot walk down that path.

“We can move the tent up here, if that helps. Or I can sleep with the door open. Lure the bears away from you.”

“What does it matter where I sleep?” She finally snaps, tired of this game. “I thought you said you had no problem with it.”

He looks like he wants to say something, but doesn’t. He is beating a hasty retreat back to his indifference. Good. Rey is glad.

-

She holds out for another three days. Three more days of knock knock knock and feeling increasingly stupid as she wakes in her uncomfortable cave. She fills with the desire to burn the sand-rat version of her that she left in Jakku, who clings to her like stale cigarette smoke, lingering unpleasantly. It's not like she's trying to leave any time soon, anyway; she has no money, and, deep in her heart of hearts, no real desire to. She's got a job and her girls and her projects and the sweet forest air. She would be an idiot to leave now.

Ben is smoking the hives, ridiculous in only his long sleeves and leather gloves. He must be more venom than man, to be able to live so utterly unafraid of the bees. Rey feels a phantom needle of pain where, days ago, she was stung on her elbow.

He watches her drag the tent awkwardly up the path to his cabin clearing. It’s slow going, but he doesn’t offer to help. Burning up with exertion and embarrassment, she wouldn’t take him up on it if he did.

-

Again, she settles in. She unpacks all of her clothes this time, and hangs a stem of bleeding heart flowers above her bed, the first blooms she’d found and plucked and dried since arriving in Oregon. She sets her knapsack near the door and lines up her two pairs of shoes just outside. All she needs is a welcome mat and a candle, and she's got a real little house, all to herself.  

There are no unexplained noises tonight, though she still takes comfort in Chewie, who keeps watch from his preferred spot on the porch. Rey sleeps hard. She drinks of sleep like she’s been living with a quietly unquenched thirst her whole life. The sleeping mat is made from memory foam, a vast improvement over the threadbare cushions of her truck, upholstery that countless owners before her had filled with farts and spilled Mountain Dew.

When Rey zips the tent flap open in the morning, she’s got a good view of the fire pit and the ancient tree.

Ben is crouched by the growing fire, a far-off look in his eyes. He snaps back to reality, looking over when he hears her.

“Slept alright, thanks.” She creaks out, squinting in the morning light.

“Good.” His lips twitch, in that way he has. “Sleeping in your truck, still. That was no way to live.”  

-

It’s Thursday. On Thursdays, she knows, he bakes the week’s bread. Will she help him today? Double the hands, double the output. No more stale bread from Tuesday on.

She agrees, a little too quickly. Helping him means finally getting to see inside of his cabin.  

Until now, he hasn’t offered a tour, and there’s no way to ask him to show her around inside - “Hey, Ben, I know we still barely talk and all, but I need to know how you decorate and if you’re clean or messy and also maybe if you have any scary murder weapons hanging around?”

Deep down, she’s been curious, insanely so, about the way he keeps his home. What he might have hiding in there, potential scary murder weapons foremost on her list. She will have nothing to do with the curiosity he occasionally directs at her, but he is the mysterious host, a demi-mythological figure to plumb at her leisure.

-

Ben is rummaging around in his stock pantry, a handmade shelving unit occupying most of the far kitchen wall. It is crammed full, like the shelves in his work shed, giant bags of flour and oats and mason jars of spices, an entire shelf dedicated to a dozen carefully labelled jars of coffee.

The cabin is essentially one large living room with a bed shoved in the corner near the fireplace, like an afterthought. Most of the home's space is occupied by a steel prep table that looks like it belongs in a professional kitchen. Its bottom shelf is stocked with boxes of packing materials and hot plates and giant steel pots, the guts of his business that require too much space to be done out in the shed.

He lives a plush life, she is irritated to find, when he isn’t busy making her work in the muck and sleep on the ground.

There’s the solar inverter installed near the kitchen, some spare batteries and the modem stacked on top of it. On another shelf there are stacks and stacks of books, a laptop, and a beat-up 160GB iPod. The Secret History sits next to Country Wisdom And Know-How which sits nexts to Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl which sits next to Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Organic Gardening.

She didn’t even know he owned books. She longs to page through the Encyclopedia especially; there are quite a few topics her own reference guide does not cover with satisfying depth. The floor, unstained lumber, creaks under Rey’s sock feet. He’s got a black-and-grey braided rug that looks handmade, unfinished. She thinks of him tearing up his clothes when they wear out, adding them carefully to his little pet project.

She sits uneasily on his bed. It is neatly made with black sheets (because of course), a few afghans and an off-white sheepskin folded on top. She ignores the urge to draw one of the blankets up and inhale deeply, burying her face in it, finding out what the crook of his neck smells like.

So she looks around, distracting herself.

The cabin is decorated very minimalistically, in that it is not decorated at all. The only exception is a cheap-looking picture frame set up on the mantle of the fireplace, a black-and-white photo inside.

Rey turns to inspect it closer. A youngish woman and a youngish man are frozen forever mid-laugh, dorkily gleeful, both bundled up in huge jackets. The man holds her from above, hands clasped together in front of her neck, as comfortably intimate as a lover. Rey smiles.

“Are those your parents?”

A little tenderness . Maybe. At least it could run in the blood .

He doesn’t turn around to check what she’s referring to. He does not need to.

“No. My mother and her brother.”

He bites the words out, a warning in his tone: do not push this . Rey is unphased. She does not take her eyes off of the picture. It oozes joy. It warms her.   

-

He softens, in teaching her. They set up side-by-side on the counter, a few faded Pyrex bowls between them, full of yeast and flour and salt and water, enough for five loaves of white and five loaves of rye. He is bare-handed, forgoing his usual gloves; he is so rarely without them now that he seems naked. He tries to explain to her how the yeast works, because she is always demanding to know everything about everything, but this time she beats him to the punch.

“I know why. It’s because the yeast feeds on sugar and puts out carbon dioxide.” Rey finishes for him, victorious. Breadmaking is the focus of an entire chapter in her book. She’s just never had the actual ingredients in front of her.

He nods, no smile, no show of being impressed that she knows something. He continues to show her how it is done.

She watches as he kneads, pretending to study his technique. His big bare hands, caked in flour. Making the dough yield to him. Over and over. Burying those hands inside of the warm risen flesh. It offers no resistance. Would I? It is a pornographic process. A hot flush creeps up her neck.     

-

Rey begins with only the vaguest idea how to do any of this. How to live off the land, instead of out of convenience stores.

But she learns.

Like a dry sponge dropped in water, she absorbs. Ben is an infinitely patient, mostly kind teacher. She grows by him.

-

Rey learns how to start a campfire, and how to keep it going. She learns how to read the perpetual grey clouds, whether they’ll bring a pelting rain or a more gentle shower. She never learns to be tired of either one.

She learns when to tell which sprouts, gestated in recycled egg cartons, are ready for planting and which are not. She learns how to spot aphids and spider mites and signs of slugs, and how to kill them all.

Rey sets about the task of learning Ben, too. She wants to be able to decipher him. It seems a useful skill. He tries so hard to maintain a mask of somewhat-irritated neutrality, but she quickly realizes that, more often than not, his face is nakedly emotional.

If he bares his big front teeth when he speaks, he really means what he’s saying. He presses his lips together when he’s conflicted. He rarely smiles, so the data there is still inconclusive.    

She learns Ben’s routine, because she asks him about it. He lives like an ascetic monk lost in paradise.

He wakes around 5:30, when Chewie starts to whine for breakfast. He starts the campfire, puts the kettle on, and presses his first carafe of coffee. The chickens have learned already not to stir unless it’s Rey, whom they must recognize by her light footsteps, the way she taps politely on the door before opening it. Ben never gave them treats or stopped to pet them when he pillaged their eggs, like she does.

Rey isn’t sure when, exactly, Ben showers. She assumes it’s around this time. He dresses in all black and grey, a turtleneck under his flannel shirt if it’s especially nippy outside. He laces up his boots and comes down to wake her.

They begin their days together. He makes breakfast. They work all day, on the land or in the workshed or in the cabin or in town, and he makes lunch. Rey tends the garden and to the chickens; on the rare occasions where there is nothing else he needs help with, she is free to do as she pleases.  

Much of the forest on the property is undeveloped, and she doesn’t have a good knife for slashing away the undergrowth yet, so she cannot venture as far into the woods as she would like. She instead gets back into the habit of exercising, looking out at the lake, like she’d imagined. She chops wood in just a tank top until it’s soaked with sweat and every muscle in her body is spent.

He makes dinner. They eat, mostly silent. After that, he disappears again, until the next morning, always busy with emails and jarring and potting and pH testing and a thousand other tiny things. She offers to help, once, but he kindly refuses. He doesn’t seem to light his fireplace at night, and though he has electricity he does not use it, in either his cabin or his workshed. He disappears without a trace. Odd goth boy, he probably works by candlelight. Or turns into a bat and flies away.

The work is exhausting and constant and dirty, but no worse than it ever was in Jakku. It suits Rey just fine. She likes to work. Always has. She still gets to spend long lonely afternoons daydreaming, gets to scrabble around with only her wits and her hands and a hodgepodge of imperfect tools at her disposal. No two days are the same; only the cadence of life remains a constant. Waking and eating and Ben and Chewie and forest and earth and chickens and garden. She does not dread the morning as she hits the pillow at night. She wakes easily, ready to plunge back into life.

-

It’s been three weeks since the first farmer’s market, but Rey has still yet to see Rose again. She’d appeared like a mirage, a ghost made flesh, sent to tease Rey with the idea of friendship, but nothing more.

It’s not for lack of trying on Rey’s part. Bored, one afternoon, she’d poked around the shores of the lake and found a little canoe half-submerged, resting against a boulder. She dragged it back to land and repaired the plastic hull, using a lighter to melt each side of the long jagged scar that had beached the little thing, until it was whole again.

That was where she stopped. For all of its unreal beauty, up close, the lake terrifies her. Though it is no bigger than a pond, it has no gentle sand beaches; its shores are hellishly carved from slick sharp stones, ankle deep at the shallowest, too, black-deep pools close enough to spit at from the treeline.

An uprooted tree juts out of the water about twenty feet out, dark water and algae worrying at its bark. Its roots claw helplessly at the sky. Rey is scared to linger too close to the edge of the water; she cannot avoid staring at the dislodged trunk, sticking out where it doesn’t belong, like a broken bone. It speaks to her, just as the poncho did. It leaves faint impressions of its emotions. It is so lonely.  

Rey, repaired canoe at her feet, had taken a long look out at the water, past the tree. She was able to make out the colors of the wildflowers on Rose’s side. A swimmable distance, really , she’d thought. Nothing to be afraid of. Especially in a boat.

She couldn’t do it. She, still in possession of a scavenger’s and a survivor’s heart, had a mortal fear of it.

-

“Do you think Rose was lying?” She asks Ben, glancing over at him, her eyes still screwed up in their lake-looking squint. In the mid-afternoon sun, the light over the water dazzles painfully. “About wanting to come over?”

Ben shakes his head. Rey is pleased he’s still out with her, though they’ve long since caught dinner. The longer it takes for them to get back home, the later dinner will be over, and the longer she will have company. Even if it's just Ben.

“No, Rose doesn’t lie. I think she’s busy. Poe’s in town.”

“Who is Poe?”

“He’s a lawyer. He works in Portland. Flies down here on the weekends.”

She stares at him. You know what I’m asking, Ben. This is my first adult female friendship. It’s important.

He relents. Poe is her husband - “because of insurance, I think” - but she lives with her other partner Finn, and all of three of them are harmoniously and very happily in love. Somehow. The concept is so alien to Rey that she can’t even think of what to ask next.   

“Is Poe the father?”

He pauses. “I don’t know. They don’t know, I think.”

Rey picks up a stone and throws it in the water, chewing on the idea. It’s nice that they’re happy, she concludes, and decides to move on to the second biggest thing on her mind. She squats down, in search of a rock that’s round and flat and smallish. She finds one and offers it to Ben. He holds out his gloved hand, a massive black paw, and she drops it in.

“Show me how to skip rocks.”

He looks down at it, back up at her. He puts on an innocent face, raises his fuzzy brows like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It’s a joke; the Ben Solo version of “hey hungry, I’m dad!”.  

Rey won’t have it. “I know for a fact that a man that hunts with a bow and arrow knows how to skip a rock.”

Again, he relents. The stone skips a good three times before it is sucked violently into the water.

“Really? My perfect rock, and you only get three?” Rey teases, laughing as it gets him to twist his lips and search for another good-looking stone to throw.

He whips the next rock out. Three long hops, and this one, too, is pulled under. Rey finds another and does her best to copy his form, but hers splashes in without so much as skimming over the surface.

“You have to put your legs into it.”

He demonstrates for her, folding his limbs into a beefy model of Boy Scout rock-skipping perfection, and is unsatisfied until she copies him. She can’t get it to work, but the way the rocks just plop down in the water, such build-up for nothing, makes her laugh again.

Ben’s fourth attempt is dramatic, his lip twitching with the effort.

One, two, three. Down. A brief flash of gold in the water, like a massive goldfish slipping past just beneath the surface.

And then straight back. The stone is spat out of the water, and smacks Ben square in the chest. Rey, for the second time in under five minutes, is rendered speechless.

“Can… fish… do that?”

Ben is angry. She has never seen him so outraged. His nostrils flare and lips curl and his left eye twitches. He looks like a beast.

"My neighbor," he says. "He dives in the lake."

He grabs a rock the size of Rey's head and heaves it into the water. Another. Thick muscles rippling. Ben is throwing rocks into the water, as big as he can lift, and shouting at the lake. A perfectly reasonable reaction, given the perfectly unreasonable situation.

“CAN’T- HAVE -TOO MANY ROCKS! He practically screams , a melodramatic god raining vengeance on his already-vanquished enemy.

Rey, systems overloaded, looks on, wondering what kind of diver wears such a suit of such brilliant color.

Chapter Text

 

Ben Solo’s first memory is of a beach. He cannot be older than four or five. His mother carries him and he feels safe, despite the brutal waves beating against sand and rock, the whipping winds so cold and the spray so harsh Leia cannot get them closer than 100 feet away from the breaking surf. If he focuses on the memory, digs into it, he can hear the inflection of his uncle’s voice, and Leia’s too. They must be arguing. They never do anything but.

(He remebers so much; too much.)

He is so young that she still wears her horns proudly, like dark curling buns on either side of her head, and has the denim jacket with all the patches. He digs his face into her neck, the twin knobs on his skull itching, and from the safety of her warmth he stares out onto the violent water.

-

He has no need of a voice, his bearded uncle with the tall twisted horns who lives in a rickety cottage on a briny cliff overlooking the sea. Ben can hear the man’s thoughts in his head. Luke puts a large warm hand atop his smaller one and makes him see the most strange and beautiful things. He tells stories of great heroes and jealous and vengeful gods, of humans caught up in magnificent adventures, speaking aloud purely for the drama of it. Leia comes and goes. She fixes things around the house, brings paper bags of groceries, but never sits long enough to listen to the yarns her brother spins.

-

We know that the earth was made from Chaos and Eros, kid , but do you remember how we came to be?

From our mama’s tummies, uncle.

Luke chuckles. Leia has begot a small version of herself; the boy is all pluck and wit and steel, none of his father’s human slipperiness.

No, boy. How our kind came about.

The curly-haired, curly-horned child grins.

From the rocks and the plants and the dirt, uncle!

-

The world, as Ben comes to know it, is small and warm. He grows up in Portland, in a house with bourgeoise old bones but with parents who cannot scrape enough money together most months to keep it heated or cooled all the way through. Leia pretends they are arctic explorers when the temperature drops in the winter, and bundles Ben up in thick sweaters despite their genetic indifference to the cold. In the spring the roof leaks and they race to place pots under the new streams of water, floating little rubber ducks and wax paper boats in the runoff. She brings him along to readings at her feminist bookstores, to performances of The Vagina Monologues and poetry slams and protests. He is silent always, her obedient little shadow, absorbing everything.

Han comes and goes. Ben is never sure what he does. It always changes, anyway. Sometimes he doesn’t work at all and he and Leia fight behind the closed bedroom door. Sometimes he takes Ben to strange hazy houses that smell bad and are full of men that laze around and scruff his hair. Sometimes he drives a big truck all over the country, and brings back gifts: big tins of popcorn from Chicago, a snowglobe with the Empire State Building, tender pink seashells from the coast, the real coast, the one down south with its gentle waters and white sand beaches.

When Han is gone they spend hours driving in his car, the pristine silver Millennium Falcon. Leia gets a kick out of piling more and more miles on the precious vehicle, singing along tunelessly to Alanis Morissette. They drive to Luke’s house on the coast and to the family land: an undeveloped swathe of trees and rocky lakefront just outside of Chandrila, a dilapidated smattering of closed businesses and a single operational gas station masquerading as an independent township.

Leia brings Ben to visit her birth parents at their twin graves. They need no footpaths to reach them. Out in the teeming wilderness, Ben is just as sure of foot as his mother. They melt into the trees together, corporeal forms unnecessary. They are the mossy ground and ancient twisted oak bark and they feel everything, every pat of a foxes’ foot on the earth, every branch that falls.

They stop in a natural little clearing, far away from the lake shore and the road. Two granite stones mark the ground. It is unnaturally silent there, but it is peaceful all the same.

Leia has Ben gather kindling, and she lights a small fire. They sit together in companionable silence.

“Mama,” Ben begins, after a long contemplation of the distant bird calls and of a bug he sees marching along and of a Grandma and Grandpa he will never know. “Why doesn’t it hurt to cut firewood here?”

“If that sort of thing hurt us, Ben, we would be dead in days.” She laughs, and ruffles his hair fondly. At the brush of skin to skin, he catches glimpses of her thoughts: of her adoptive parents, back in New York, and of Grandma and Grandpa, too. They come to her as he has never known them. Leia must be remembering a picture, because they look very young, a blonde man and a small brunette woman with an elaborate hairstyle, and both stunningly beautiful.

“It’s like cutting your fingernails. No harm done. As long as nobody cuts up that big ugly tree in the center of the forest.”

His grandparents are dead. Ben, an anxious child, has a book about death because Leia thought maybe if he knew more about it, he wouldn’t fear it so much, but he instead thinks of Padme and Anakin with worms in them, in the ground, not two feet away. He pulls away from Leia like he’s been burned, so she doesn’t have to see his thoughts, and be saddened by them.

“Why that one?”

She looks confused at his abrupt withdrawl, but does not question him. Her child is an odd one. She knows that.

“We don’t know. It’s important to us, I suppose. Our life source. It's older, much older, than most of the forest. There’s a lot we don’t really know, Ben, I’m sorry to say.”

“I bet Uncle would know.”

Leia rolls her eyes.

“I bet Uncle would think he knows, too.”

-

When Ben comes of school age, Leia takes a job as a political aide and is never home at night, but they walk to school together every morning, side-by-side. It is always raining, or wet from a recent rain, and Ben is always wearing a hat. He never gets to leave home without it. Leia explains to him that they are different from everybody else, and when he walks in the street or goes to school or spends the night at his babysitter’s house, they must play a game and pretend to be like everybody else.

He learns early to adapt to his surroundings, never to expect them to adapt to him. It is maybe the most useful thing his parents leave him.

-

The question of what he is barely registers with Ben, but it seems to be very important to everyone else around him.

Leia asks him, more and more, to just be a normal boy, and he tries. He really does. He knows she makes the same effort every day and lives a good, full human life. He attempts to emulate her, but it does not go nearly as well. Denied freedom and sufficient exercise, he becomes destructive, like a puppy left in a kennel all day. 

Han found "that mythological mumbo-jumbo" exhilarating when he first met Leia, but as his son gets older and more unwieldy, he keeps himself busy, takes job after job after job, stays away from home for weeks at a time. When he sees Ben playing with the rose bushes in the front yard, making the petals open and close as he opens and closes his fist, he shakes his head tells him to go and play with “some normal kids”.

Ben does not. He plays alone. When he is cooped up in the company of other children, there is a kind of invisible membrane that prevents all successful contact between him and them. It has little to do with the fact that Ben is, by most definitions, a living breathing monster. Mostly it is because he is unpleasant and easily angered. He detests sticky fingers and playing any kind of make-believe that doesn’t have to do with samurai or medieval warlords.  

The less Ben sees of his father, the stricter his mother becomes. Han and Leia stop fighting. Eventually, they stop talking much at all.

And so, warm and happy as a young child but rarely so after that, Ben grows up stuck between a mother who shares his affliction but steadfastly rejects it, and a father, sometimes there but usually not, who can never understand them.

-

Eventually, the little game changes.

Leia’s bathroom smells of Shalimar and Aqua Net, a heady aroma that warms him as he sits wedged between the toilet and the bathtub, watching his mother from the cocooning safety of the small space.

“You know, Ben,” Leia says, pulling her hair out of piles of white curlers, “I loved to watch my mother get ready, too, when I was your age.”

She smiles to herself, remembering, but drops the expression when she looks over at him. He sinks back into the wall, but it is no use. She is quick and stern.

“Ben.” Leia points at her forehead, and then his. “You know the rules now.”

He rolls his eyes but pulls his horns back in, knowing there is no winning a fight with his mother. His skin stretches back into perfectly human place, and he winces against the headache that begins to bloom. She used to braid her hair over her horns, or decorate them with flowers like they were an elaborate costume piece, but now she keeps them hidden always.

He sorely misses their trips out to the forest and the coast, which, with Leia’s schedule, have become few and far between. When they do go to the coast, Leia leaves him with his uncle for days at a time, and the ache is different: he can be himself, horns grown out and body deeply rooted, and he can sit in the forest for hours meditating and reading (his uncle will accept nothing else), but then he misses his mother’s sparse attentions.

When Leia turns back to the mirror, fluffing her curls out, Ben stares up at the potted plant hanging near the tiny bathroom window, its fronds reaching for the dim light that filters through. He focuses on it. Slowly, the browning leaves begin to flutter in his direction.

It alleviates the headache, some.

-

He is eight when he is told the entire truth. He knows exactly how old he was, because he remembers overhearing Leia arguing with Luke, again - “he’s barely eight years old, still a child , Luke, don’t weigh him down with this bullshit about ‘who we are’, he doesn’t need to worry about it.”

And then, in a tone she thinks he cannot hear.

“I didn’t think he would turn out so much like me.”

Even softer still, so quiet he almost doesn’t catch it.

“I don’t know what to do with him.”

Maybe that is why she finally relents. She gathers Ben in her arms, a now-rare hug, and tells him that there’s something he must know; he thinks to say that he knows Santa isn’t real, and that the Tooth Fairy is really just her sneaking quarters under his pillow and pretending it’s from a tiny bone-gathering, money-giving witch, but he would of course not be so lucky.

“I know you must wonder why you’re not allowed to keep your horns out at home anymore -”

Her bare hand is on the skin of his neck, and he has no need to physically shake his head, but he does anyway. He does not wonder. He hates it, hates the constant headaches and the constricted feeling he gets when he sits indoors too long, but he does not wonder why Leia subjects him to it. He is still young and her word is law.

It is easier to live that way, anyway, between her and (sometimes) Han.

“Well. You will want to know why. And I want to get ahead on the subject.”

She presses her lips together, a pensive line.

“I know it isn’t pleasant, Ben. Trust me, I do.”

He does. Sometimes, late at night when she thinks he’s gone to sleep, she sits on the couch with a glass of wine, in total silence. Even in solitude, Leia does not grow free; she sits and rubs her temples and sighs occasionally. Her way seems painful. Perhaps necessarily so. Ben waits on her explanation, curious.

Luke picks up, sensing that his sister is flailing.

“There was a wood nymph who lived in Ancient Greece, named Echo. She attended Artemis in her hunt, and chatted all the while, because that was her gift: she could talk circles around anyone. But as it so often is, her gift was a curse, too. She always had to have the last word, and could never let an argument go unfinished.

“One fine day, Zeus was flirting with the women, because that was his curse - or just one of them, I suppose - his love of those who were not his jealous wife Hera. When Hera came down from the heavens to find her husband, she was met by Echo, the story-weaver, who distracted her long enough for Zeus to run away with a beautiful nymph.

“Hera discovered this and, unable to punish the King of the Heavens and Earth, instead took her rage out on poor Echo.”

Here Luke affects a terrible voice, high-pitched but still rumbly with righteous anger.

“'Echo! You used your voice to deceive me, the Mistress of the Heavens, and in doing so have bound your fate. You will keep your voice, and always have the last word, but you will never speak first again!'

“It was the worst fate imaginable for a bubbly young nymph. She fell away from Artemis, and all of her sisters in the hunt, and roamed the rocky hills, desperately lonely.

“It so happened one day, that as she kept watch over a quiet road, a young man and his company strode upon it, and he was so beautiful she fell in love instantly. Love comes so easily to us, you know. Even though she did not know anything of his character, she followed him endlessly, shifting the forest around her love until he was confused and separated from his men.

"‘Who’s here?’ The beautiful man, Narcissus, called out in fear.

“Echo had her chance! She took it, and responded in the only way she could.

"‘Here, here…’ She said, hoping desperately that he would come to her.

“He looked around, but saw nobody.

"‘Come out!’ He commanded, and she responded the same. She could see he was growing impatient and fearful, and so she stepped out of her hiding spot, and presented herself to him.

"Narcissus was already deeply in love with the man he saw in clear waters and streams; his very own reflection. He took one look at Echo and spat at her feet.
‘Witch! Why do you follow me and copy me so?’ He demanded, and she could only say ‘me so… me so…’

“Narcissus heard her desperate plea and chased her away. Echo ran into the hills and, so deeply heartbroken not only over Narcissus but over the thought that every other living being would react in the same way to her condition, lay in a cave until she was nothing but a sad, gnarled tree and her cursed voice, doomed forever only to repeat what others say before her.”

Ben blinks. He is more confused than ever. What does an old story about a lovesick girl have to  do with him?

Luke and Leia exchange a significant look, and Luke presses on, voice a bit gentler.

“Ben, we are among the last vestiges of creatures as old as human civilization itself. The gods are dormant, dead maybe, but the Earth never forgets. We live on. Different, surely. We have evolved, like all things of the Earth. But we were cursed, too, thousands of years ago, before dominion over everything slipped from the gods’ fingers.

“Our kind have always been… loving, always devoted followers of the gods, and have given birth to many of the greatest heroes in history. But as humans multiplied on the earth, and encroached on our forests and into our ancient dwellings, we went to them, and began to abandon the gods. Nymphs and humans fell in love. It was an aberration. We are still suffering for it.”

Leia jumps in.

“Ben, you will fall in love. You will be weak for humans, and you will allow them to do what they will. Hopefully they will accept you, like Papa did. But if they don’t... “ She chews her lip, considering. Luke looks on in silent encouragement.

“You just have to protect yourself, and honor yourself before everything else. That… is why I choose to be a human woman. That is why I want you to embrace your humanity before all else. When you command your own existence, and live in a state of constant self-control, it will be so much harder for you to give in.”

She looks down at her hands. Ben nods dumbly, taking it all in, feeling suddenly much too young for all of this - an emotion he has never felt before, being a wizened old man in a boy’s body.

Luke pats his sister’s shoulder, and takes the conversation back.

“I choose to embrace my form. But that means I must close myself off from humanity.”  He winks. “It’s not so bad. I have a lot of time to myself, nobody to bother me but you two.”

“Do I have to choose now?” Ben asks, after a minute’s consideration.

“Of course not, kid. I have gone my way, and your mother hers. We live with the same burden, the three of us. How you will carry it is your choice, and yours alone.”

Chapter Text

 

--

APRIL

--

 

Rose chooses to materialize out of the ether in a way that is so perfectly, casually dramatic that Rey (though already disposed to like her) cannot fault her for anything at all, no matter how long it’s been since she first promised to hang out.

She appears among the throngs of people at the farmer’s market with a jaw-droppingly handsome man on either arm, both of them staring at her like she’s a star made human.

Granted, that is also probably the way Rey looks at her. The way everybody should look at her.

Her timing, too, is perfect. It being the Saturday immediately following Ben’s rock-skipping meltdown, Rey desperately needs someone to help her digest the situation. She would prefer to talk to Ben about it, but she cannot find words that aren’t vaguely insulting or too probing to survive his defenses, so she hasn’t. It still hangs in the air between them, silent and oddly heavy.  

The morning itself has been long, and trying. Rey’s eagerness to have an excuse to put some space between her and Ben won out over her reluctance to talk to strangers, so she stood out in the pattering rain all morning, squinting and stretching her mouth into a grin that had become somewhat more like a toothy snarl over time. She enticed her poor victims to come in and try the soothing lavender lotion, the browned butter sugar scrub. She must have touched a hundred different hands, smelled every single stupid thing Ben makes ten times over. If they’d actually sold more, she wouldn’t know it, though. Ever since his insane display at the lake shore, he’d been making an obvious effort to return to his somewhat sour, mostly indifferent demeanor. That meant no conversation, no praise, no anything.

Rey appraises the two men flanking her first potential friend in this town, suddenly conscious that she must look as much like a drowned rat as she feels.

One is tall and well-muscled, with a tan leather jacket and a huge, infectious smile. He’s laughing with Rose, her hand clasped tight in his as she struggles to finish whatever she’s saying through her fits of giggles.

The other, laughing too, is curly-haired and roguish, wearing a smooth black windbreaker, the hood pulled up against the rain. Rey cannot help it - she stares. She’s grown so used to the groomed families in hoodless jackets, the young, classically Oregonian couples in their Tevas getting soaked in the spring showers. He sticks out as much as she knew she does in her big heroine’s poncho.

As soon as they finally come upon the booth, the taller of Rose’s companions sweeps her up into a big, lung-busting hug. He is strong, and excited, and against her will entraps her.

“Rey, huh? You’re the crazy girl who decided to go live with old Ben!”

She squirms her way out of the embrace without returning it, and laughs a little when she’s back on her feet. It’s more out of discomfort than because she actually finds it funny that she’s stuck living alone with the town’s evil witch, and everyone is constantly pointing it out. As if her desperation, borne of grinding poverty in a town with three gas stations and no hospital, is hilarious.

“Lucky you,” she says, only a little forced, “I am. And you’re… Finn?”

“Woah, lucky you, girl.” Rose wraps Rey in a hug that the latter takes all together differently. She accepts it, even returns it, noticing instantly the hard bump that keeps their torsos a few inches separated. She lets go of Rose before the little bean within jumps and Rey does something stupid, in her fascinated ignorance.

Rose, flushed with excitement, spots Ben ambling up from inside the booth, and rushes to accost him before she can offer Rey an introduction to her other partner.

Rey takes it upon herself to offer her hand with an overly-chipper, way-too-obvious, “I’m Rey,” before he can force more body contact on her.

Poe accepts it, his hand warm and smile charmingly crooked.
“I know. It’s a pleasure.” His tone is so sincere it disarms Rey, charms her in a heartbeat. The feeling is a woozy one, and she doesn’t like it. “I wish I could have seen more of you and that one. Next time, huh?”

She nods, in her sudden unsteady meekness, and follows Poe’s lead further into the booth. Finn and Rose are poking fun at Ben for some reason or other, and he’s putting on his usual show of impatience and irritation.
Poe walks straight into the middle of the fray and greets Ben like an old friend, same smile stuck on his face. Ben accepts the smaller man’s half-hug and Rey has to force herself not to stare in brow-furrowed wonderment at the casual physical affection that her host apparently allows.  

“I hear I owe you,” she overhears Poe saying. Rose playfully slugs his upper arm, protesting that she has a deal already in place - “We’re going to fix Ben’s car, do not give this man your money,” but he insists, digging a credit card out of a slim wallet and handing it over. Ben takes it without protest, and wanders back to find the tablet.

Rey thinks momentarily about how it would be nice to have a handsome man willing to pay for anything she could desire in the world. It seems too easy. Her favorite personal platitude reads like a poster in a high school gymnasium: no pain, no gain. Anything else would be unsatisfying. Unsettling. She’d live like a canary in a pretty cage, always waiting for the gas to seep in.

The moment passes. The thought floats on. Rose takes Rey’s hands, and Rey gives them gladly. She still can’t find the right words to describe the golden flash or the spontaneous reverse rock skipping or Ben’s fury. They lump in her throat, like wet paper.

Instead, they make a concrete plan to get together and finally dig into that heap of scrap, “now that I’ll only have the one dummy for company,” Rose jokes, motioning with her shoulder towards Finn. “But you’ll both have to come over sometime and let us feed you!”

The mere mention of food works its magic on Rey, and even after the trio eventually move on, more black pots with the slashes of white calligraphy in their hands, she thinks about it. Counting up inventory and folding black tablecloths and breaking down the card tables they so meticulously arrange Ben’s work upon, she wonders what their home must be like. They’re with a man who doesn’t even need to hear how much he owes before he hands his card over.

She thinks they must have a house , a real permanent structure, with pleasing rich-people textures in it: wool blankets from department stores and cool marble countertops and the kind of couch that changes colors when you run your hand over its soft flocked surface. No mud from their boots smearing all over their blankets, no backaches from stooping to dress and undress every day. It gains shape in Rey’s pleasantly distracted mind as a cozy, centrally-heated lovenest. She will probably never return, once invited in.

Ben’s voice, low and sardonic, breaks Rey from her wild inventions.

“If you need anything from the store, we’re heading there after this.”      

-

The store, by Ben’s standards, “is small and not too good”, but “it’s what’s close” and he doesn’t like driving the Falcon any further than he has to.

By Rey’s standards, it’s a theme park. Jakku had no grocery store like this - only fitting that a desert shit-stain of a town would be a food desert, too. She’d grown up well enough on the rotating daily offerings of the little mercado in town when there was nobody around to make sure she ate well every day, but even fresh tamales and tongue tacos got old. So did driving twenty minutes one way to the Wal-Mart over the state line, in Texas.

Ben grabs a basket and strides purposefully towards the dairy section, but Rey takes her sweet time. She runs her hand over floppy neon sale tags, and stops to admire every endcap display, pretending to consider whether she’d prefer brand-name or generic cold medicine, low-fat potato chips or the normal kind. She floats down the lonely expanse of the ice cream aisle, enjoying the cool air that comes without the dread and promise of rain.

Rey is trying to decide if it would be a bad idea to eat an entire pan of brownies by herself (Ben gets none, because assholes don’t get brownies) when she feels the familiar, intangible pin-pricking sensation of eyes on her. She glances around and, having spotted the source, plays it off like she’s just craning to see the gluten-free cake mixes. It’s a family, one she recognizes as regular patrons of the farmer’s market.

The blonde mother and stylishly bearded father and their glassy-eyed toddler are all looking at her, their faces blank. There’s something in the air, almost expectant, and then she gets it: maybe it’s a small-town thing, you have to say hi whenever you see someone. Tongue-tied with confusion and a deep desire to not have to make pleasantries with people she’s not about to make money off of, Rey waves awkwardly, smiling down at the baby.   

It doesn’t do the trick. Their eyes, even Baby’s, linger for a second longer, and then Dad says something to Mom about pancakes, and Rey hastily retreats.   
It’s just as well, she thinks, the same little shiver he purple-haired woman had given her coursing down her spine. We don’t have an oven anyway.

-

The exacting scavenger that still controls most of her says that she ought to grab her own basket and fill it up; Ben hasn’t shown aversion to the powdered donuts and coffee and Takis that she likes to grab every Saturday morning at the gas station, and it’s a part of his job as her host to provide for her needs, anyway.

But Rey wouldn’t even know where to begin. He does all of the cooking, and every meal is made to be hearty enough to keep him going, the massive beast of burden. By the time they sit down for meals she’s hungry enough to eat anything, and once they’re done she can’t even think of having another bite more.   

She gives up, and grabs a single apple, which is still a helluva choice to make - it’s one of six varieties available. And Ben thinks this place is “too small”.

Fluorescent white lights beat down on Rey as she wanders the length of the store, and then, when she somehow can’t find her Sasquatch among trim little Northwesterners, she threads up and down each aisle again.

So many varieties of instant rice and couscous and canned beans and soy sauce and popcorn and cooking oil and things she doesn’t even know the use or the taste of. She has to work hard not to be distracted further.

Rey is browsing through seed packets when she catches twin stares from two little girls in matching purple beanies as they roll by in the seat of their father’s shopping cart. He, too, throws her a long glance. Rey smiles at the babies, ignoring their father, then finally spots Ben’s dark curly mop from the inside of the walk-in beer case.

He doesn’t glance up from the IPAs when Rey trots in.

“You drink?”

At the very least, she would’ve thought he’d brew his own beer, among all of the things he chooses to do himself.

“Only when I have to go to the store. Do you want anything?”

“I’m not 21 yet.” Rey says, feeling like an idiot the minute it slides out of her mouth. “But, uh, nah. Thank you. I’m good. Never liked the taste.”       

He nods slowly, still not looking over at her. Did he know how old she is, before this? She can’t remember how old he is, if he’s ever told her. She only knows his last name because it was in his email address.

Ben finally chooses a pack of something with hops blossoms all over the labels, a brew probably so bitter Rey’s nose twists just to think of it. When she still lived at Plutt’s, there was a Teedo there too who loved IPAs. He’d tricked her into taking a swig of some, one hot boring insufferable night, and she was put off the stuff for good, right then and there.

They exit the cooler together, and Rey thinks of how closed off to each other they are, though they depend on each other for their lives. She more than him, of course. That thought is never very far from her mind. But since she’s started helping with the chickens and the garden and the water hauling, he’s been able to increase his production twofold. He told her that himself just the other night, and she’d chosen to take it as a compliment on all her hard work.

She’s an alright fisherman, too, and clever when things spring leaks or break or need fine-tuning. He knows that , because it concerns him. But he doesn’t know that she also draws, and presses flowers, and tailors her own clothes; that she loves David Byrne and Sleater-Kinney and Selena.

She cannot even begin to fathom all that she doesn’t know about him.

She would be a fine friend to him, if he’d let her. If he made himself the kind of person she would want to be friends with. If either of them were willing to cede just an inch or two.

-

Along with the beer, Ben has a basket full of bougie-looking food, along with a couple of plastic buckets, a spool of wire, and a bag of rubber bands.

“Rabbit trap.” He explains, without prompting. “I’m tired of fish.”

Rey glances longingly over at the meat section, all of the neatly-cut steaks packed in styrofoam and plastic, the pork and chicken and lamb, all arranged in a shrink-wrapped bacchanalia of endless, gluttonous choices.

No dog crunching through bone and gristle. No lifeless eyes staring up at her. No blood and gore.

Of course, it can’t be that easy. No pain, no gain, after all.

-

“This isn’t really the time of year to be working in cars, is it?”

Rey, bent over the Falcon’s engine, cranes her head awkwardly to squint up at the cover of low gray clouds. It’s not pouring down quite yet, but she knows she felt the telltale first drops of the afternoon shower on the skin of her lower back, exposed by her ill-fitting undershirt. It seems too early for it; they must have been working for hours. To Rey it’s felt like minutes at most.

The engine can’t handle any more rust as it is, so she extracts herself carefully and lowers the hood down. Her hands are slick with grease and oil, the inky black seeping into her nail beds. She’s missed her gearhead hands, their total un-softness. It makes her feel less like an overwhelmed girl in the woods.     
“If you’re going by rainfall, there’s only a couple months out of the entire year to get anything done,” Rose responds, tongue sticking out of her cheeky grin. “We deal with it, out here.”
Rose peels her gloves off and shoves them in the pockets of her jacket, one that looks ratty and too-small on her growing frame. She’s just barely three and a half months along, but her belly already prevents her from bending low enough to dig in to the engine herself. She had to content herself with holding the flashlight for Rey, and being the critical second opinion; the engine is far more perplexingly modified than either of them could have hoped - or dreamed.

They trek together up the earthen stairs to the campsite, where Rey cranks open the spigot of the rainwater barrel and washes up with the grease-cutting Fir soap. Ben is nowhere to be seen, having left promptly after breakfast for whatever dimension he spirits away to.

Rose had arrived just after that, and they got to work together, chatting like old friends - that was due mostly to Rose’s easygoing extroversion, and Rey’s excitement to be rebuilding an engine, not taking it apart. Rey has had only had one other friend with whom things felt so natural, but it’s been years since she and Elsa have talked like that.

There is a beat, right after Rose finishes washing her hands, and Rey is filled with anxiety that she might leave so soon. “Let me make you something,” she offers - demands, almost.
“I’m not in any position to turn down food.”

“Good,” Rey says, and feels giddy and warm despite the rain. “That’s a good way to live.”

-

It takes a bit of doing, but Rey gets the fire going. The pit stays dry under an old tarp slung over the branches of the big gnarled pine tree, and so do Rose and Rey, sitting next to each other in the low camp chairs usually occupied by Ben and Rey.

Never having had a kitchen, Rey is underprepared to cook anything that isn’t a throw-it-in-the-pan-and-let-it-sizzle sort of thing, but she does well enough with some fresh chicken eggs and thick slices of bacon from the fridge inside Ben’s cabin.

Finally, because she has something to train her eyes on that is not the face of her friend, wide and friendly, Rey is able to open up. She tells Rose all in a single long-winded monologue about the incident, and the heaviness between her and Ben, how he is so cold but also so tender sometimes, how he scares her, and leaves her constantly. The more she talks, the worse Rey feels, but she can’t stop, and what was once a wad of paper in her throat starts to feel like bile, like word vomit.

When she is done, she feels purged of some great darkness, and is immediately happier for it. Rose’s face, when Rey can finally look up and meet it, is kind.  

“We were wondering how long it would take you,” she starts. “Ben’s kind of like… a clam, I guess. You know. Likes to bury himself in the sand, gets a little pebble stuck in his craw, somehow produces a pearl.” She twists her lips, looking like she’s trying to find the right words.

Finally, she starts over again, idly playing with her half-crescent necklace. “We’ve lived out here two years, and Ben for three, I think; something like that. He was my only friend out here for a long time. Before you came along, really.”
Rey flushes with pleasure and pride at that, but keeps silent, knowing Rose isn’t done yet.
“When my sister died, he helped me a lot. Obviously, Finn and Poe were there, but there’s only so much coddling and comfort you can take before you need someone to sit you in front of a pot of melted oils and command you to stir. Nothing else. He put me to work until I couldn’t lift my arms anymore. He got it. He lost his mother too, a few years back.”

Rey chews on her thumbnail, not really knowing what to say.

“I’m sorry about your sister.” She offers at last, and Rose smiles sadly. “Thank you. You don’t need to say that, though.”

“I didn’t know that, about him. I think you’ve just told me three times what he’s ever told me about himself. I didn’t know he had friends.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t call us that. We just like to use him for his muscles. He’s also the greatest Dungeon Master we’ve ever played with.”

Rey doesn’t know what a Dungeon Master is, if it’s a sex thing or not, but she feels like she’d look stupid for asking. She smiles, instead, and finally snips the odd bit of oily skin off of her cuticle.
“How old is he, do you know?”

“Twenty-six. He’s a Cancer, isn’t that fitting?”

Six years older than her. Both so much younger than Rey would have ever guessed, but somehow also perfectly believable.

-

They sit together for a while longer, but eventually Rose excuses herself back down to her car - a Subaru, caked with mud but still only a couple of years old - because she “cannot stand the idea of peeing in that glorified bucket one more time, sorry.”
Rey walks her down, waves as she pulls away, and lingers a little while longer at the dirt road that first delivered her to Ben. She checks the mail. Nothing for her, of course. There’s nothing in there at all.

She’s probably still registered to Plutt’s address. Not that she would be receiving anything, anyway.

Slowly, she starts back up the forested path, a heavy but productive sort of sadness weighing on her. Now that she’s tasted friendship, she’s loathe to see it go, but the seed of understanding (as it were) has at least been planted in her. She sees the path to Ben’s friendship as terribly-lit and muddied with traps of his own design, but lain there for his own protection. It does not seem such a yawning chasm, as it did before.

Rey remembers then, too late, that Rose didn’t pick up at all on the story of the rocks and the gold in the water - odd, but then again, Rey didn’t think of it until now, either. She’ll just have to ask the man himself about it, with that brave audacity that crops up when she needs it most.

She lights on the top of the steps, back in camp, and Ben is rustling over in the trees at the opposite end of the clearing.

Rey comes upon him, and sees that he’s constructing some kind of a trap with the buckets and the wire and the rubber bands and some branches. The bucket lays on its side, held in place by three branches at all sides; its lid, hinged to the bucket with loops of wire, is suspended open with rubber bands and a tense balance of three branches. Inside the bucket, he’s laid some heels of their weekly bread.

“You don’t use a noose snare?” Rey asks. That was the preferred method of trapping pests in the Jakku junkyard. The animal, usually a ground squirrel or a raccoon, would die long before you came upon it, and you only had to toss it in the dumpster to be rid of the whole ugly ordeal.

“I like to make sure I only kill what I have to.” He squats back on his heels and shows Rey how the contraption works. The animal - a rabbit, hopefully - would wander into the bucket after the bread, would disturb the balance of the lid on top of the branches, and just like that - SNAP , the lid shuts and the critter is trapped, scared but perfectly alive.

“This is a lot easier to make, anyway.” He says, replacing the branches to their initial tension.

-

Dinner is the rest of the bacon, some potatoes. It is silent, as always. Rey’s understanding and audacity leave her, unfaithful friends that they are. She keeps glancing over to the trap, feeling sick to her stomach already for its inevitable victim. She has more empathy for a creature that has not even met its fate yet than she thinks she’ll ever feel for anything ever again. She, too, is just a tiny thing, a nothing thing, flung out into the world by an uncaring parent to fend for herself, waltzing directly into the nearest, easiest opportunity for food and shelter. The lid has snapped shut; she waits, trembling, in the dark.

Ben does the dishes, as always. He bids her good night and steps into his cabin. The lights do not come on. Rey can hardly stand it, the waiting, the tension of branch and rubber band and her and Ben. It occurs to her then, clear as day, that her loneliness has always been and always will be her greatest weakness. She is pining after the companionship of a man who cannot think to ask her about herself beyond her usefulness to him.

Chewie is lapping up the remains of her dinner from her plate, and she doesn’t have the energy to stop him.

Rey crawls into her tent, though it’s early yet. The sheer physical effort of bending for hours and unwedging rusted screws and walking walking walking the same well-trod path has finally caught up to her. She falls into a fitful sleep, and dreams the old dream of a crumbling crevice, a retreating back, her mouth stretched open in a perpetual unheard scream.

-

She wakes the next morning at the usual time, just after dawn. The chickens awaken at the sound of the tent flap unzipping, and she grins to see them follow her from behind the wire as she approaches their coop. She lets them out into the camp and sprinkles their feed all over the ground, dropping some on her bare feet just to feel them pecking at her. It tickles - they must know how not to hurt her, their benevolent mother goddess.

They make noises of indignation when Rey corralls them back into their enclosed run, and flutter around in agitation as she collects their eggs, still warm from a long night spent under their mothers’ feathered bellies. There are eight eggs for seven chickens, in all. A productive morning for everybody.

-

It is mid-afternoon and Rey is taking it easy, her body still sore, sitting in her camp chair under the cover of the tarp. She is trying to sketch her favorite of the birds, the biggest girl now that Admiral is gone. She can’t get the comb-to-beak ratio quite right, because Viceroy won’t hold still.

She’s about to give up on the whole thing and grab Chewie for her near-tenth portrait of him when the sound of plastic smacking plastic rings out like a gunshot, amplified by the unsettling dread of anticipation Rey didn’t know she was carrying until the very second it flares up.

She looks up, over at the little smear of vegetation where Ben planted the trap. The lid is closed. There should have been no mistaking the sound, but Rey hoped it wasn’t true.

It is. She half-limps past the cabin and the compost toilet, and bends down to pick up the bucket. It is heavy, and rustles. Whatever is trapped inside is fighting mightily to be free of it.

Rey tips the bucket so it’s right-side up, and she’ll have the advantage over the animal now huddled at the bottom, if it were to try and jump out. She lifts the lid slowly, peering inside so she can see in but the animal cannot get out.

It’s a bunny. Not just one of the mottled brown rabbits common to the area, but a bunny, a big white thing that would look more appropriate in a bin at a pet store than in a modified plastic bucket in the middle of a temperate rainforest. Rey marvels that she’s never seen him before, so pretty and so out of place.

She looks around, hoping by now it’s lunchtime and Ben will re-emerge from the forest, following the narrow path that disappears into the overgrowth. Rey has never been to wherever he goes; he’s never invited her, and the lack of a clear path disturbs her. She’s never been a great navigator, always forgetting how to tell directions by the position of the sun and the growth of moss. Of course, in this place, all dense with clouds and moss on every surface, that knowledge would be useless anyway.

As useless as Ben himself is. He doesn’t appear, and the longer Rey looks into the tiny black marble of the bunny’s eye, the worse it feels. She replaces the lid and seals it shut tight, hoping the rabbit will have enough air to breathe. The bucket jostles as all light is stolen from the hapless prisoner. Rey clutches it tighter to her chest.

If she puts the trap back on the ground, Chewie will go nuts trying to pry it open. If she lets the bunny go, she’ll just have to deal with this same ordeal later. And, knowing rabbits, he’ll just come back again for the free bread.

She bites her lip, and knows there is a single choice. She has to go find Ben. It’s not like she can get lost forever. Even if she just walks in a single direction in the forest, she’ll eventually happen upon the lake or a road or… something.

Bucket still flush to her chest, and with a confidence she has to fake for just herself, Rey shoves her feet inside her steel-toed boots, slips her folding knife into her pocket, and plunges into the thick line of trees.

Chapter Text

--

APRIL

--

 

Her boots are flopping.


Rey attempts to march on, but the charade is stupid because it’s just her, already-too-big boots squelching and catching in the undergrowth as the thin path into the forest proper disappears. She stops, hot and frustrated, despite the thin cold drizzle.

She sets the bucket down and plants a boot on top of it, pulling the laces almost painfully tight against her bare ankle. The bunny starts to thump mightily inside his plastic prison, and Rey has a momentary, paralyzing vision of Rose’s baby jerking around inside of her, and it’s almost too much, she feels sick -

Breathe.

The other boot.

Rey repeats the process until both shoes are secure. She takes another deep breath. Straightens up. Her hair is falling in damp strings about the sides of her head, so she undoes each of the three little knots and tugs it all back into a single tight topknot.

She’s fidgeting, she knows. She has a nasty habit of hyperfocusing on the tiny things she can control, losing track of the situation at large in favor of moment-to-moment occupation, the business of making it from one day to the next.

Again, she snaps herself out of it. She takes quick stock of her situation.

There’s the bucket. It knocks around in the wet foliage, a catalyst and hindrance both.

She has her knife, too. It’s good, but small and a little awkward to get to, what with a bucket in her arms and all.

And then, finally, eternally, she has herself. Just a girl, in a thin sweater and ill-fitting Dickies and boots that aren’t at all made for knocking around in the muck. Not even a pair of socks on her feet, because she was so swept up in fear and empathy she’d forgotten them entirely.

Rey grabs the bucket and cradles it back up to her chest. She starts off again before she can have further second thoughts about stalking Ben and shoving a rabbit in his face and telling him to kill it.

-

Rey peers awkwardly over the solid white bulk of the bucket to see where she’s stepping, and finds that the land is not as unforgiving, not nearly as confusing as it had seemed - it is generous, in tiny ways.

There’s a tamped-down branch of hemlock here, a flat rock stuck in a mud patch there. Just enough to pick her way a few hundred feet past the point where the little packed-dirt trail had fizzled out.

In Jakku, a few hundred feet was nothing. It was a place made of expanses, composed of great swathes of nothing. The only things that were just a few hundred feet apart were the houses, cheap clapboard structures from the 1950’s that had likely not been remodeled since. The trailers, too, were packed together so closely that family members rented next to each other, and strung clothes lines between them. Mamá had lived in one - it was the place with the yellow linoleum and the chattering aunties twisting her hair back tight, a white mobile home with a broken-out front window and an air conditioner that worked too well.  

Here, a few hundred feet has put her out of sight of camp, alone amongst great towering pines. Far away, there is a hint of the sound of running water, buried under the bird calls and ambient whoosh of wind billowing through the trees. Shafts of thin light stream through the upper canopy, replacing the misery of the afternoon rain, but the sun brings only the illusion of warmth with it.

This is what she had dreamt of, not even a month ago, cooped up in the truck and driving days on end to meet a man she’d thought would be a nice widower, with stories to tell and wisdom to pass on.

Though Ben turned out to be a creature of an entirely different sort, she supposes she has picked up a few things. Now she knows how to kill a chicken. How to start a fire. How to sell a woman three different types of moisturizer all in one go.

She hasn’t learned any sort of useful navigation skills yet, but she spent enough of her elementary school years alone reading Hardy Boys novels to know a thing or two about espionage, small-town intrigue, and general wilderness survival. All things that seem to have come in handy, as of late.

She decides to head towards the sound of running water. If she reaches the source and there’s no sign of Ben, she can follow it down to the lake and start back to camp from there.

At least the place is beautiful, if claustrophobic. The old-growth firs stand guard in their familiar way, that overhead blanket of impenetrability that transmutes to total blackness when the sun sets; dead trunks lay scattered, here and there, blanketed in ferns and creeping poison ivy, as if protected, beyond the grave, by the ecosystem that survived them.

Ben had tried to show her, very early on, before they’d even started work on the foundation of the shed’s addition, which plants were poisonous. Rey had shoved him off - she knew her stuff, had taken the teachings of 21st Century Sustainability very seriously.

She sees now that this wood has teeth. He was right to try and warn her .

The flat, even ground of the forest gives way, after a few hundred more paces, to a steep incline in the land. Big rocks sit as if stacked by some ancient giant thing, their black faces coated with moss and layered with soil, growing a beard of poison ivy and robust bushes of holly, with its plasticine green leaves and clumps of noxious little red berries.

Rey keeps her hands to herself and climbs ever-carefully up the little cliff face, thighs burning with the effort of climbing sans use of her upper body.

With the higher vantage point, Rey can see now she’s nearly reached her destination. A small stream cuts through the already-damp earth, small black rocks, like the babies of those that form the cliff, poking out of the shallow water. They look like jagged teeth, wet and glossy.

If she were to follow the stream down to the left, she would reach the lake in a few minutes, a half an hour, maybe, if she took her time and looked around.

She finds that she doesn't want to anymore.

She wants to go in further.

So she does.

-

At first, the bird calls had sounded like the babbling of the stream - far away, dampened by distance. She could pick out the distinct voices of mourning doves, and common thrush, and blackbirds, among others she couldn’t yet name.

Rey does not know where she’s going, only that she feels inexorably drawn further into the trees, and she cannot resist, like that skinny child peeling back page after page of a time-worn novel just to see what happens next.

It feels right -

But she hates relying on bare instinct, it’s a childish thing to do -

but Frank and Joe Hardy did it all the time -

The bunny stops his mad thumping. A glimmer of hope that it’s suffocated itself, and thus solved the problem entirely, crosses her mind and makes her feel even worse than she did when she began. What a terrible way to go. What a thing to wish on another living creature.

Rey sets the bucket down and again peels back the lid, less carefully than she did last time, and in a flash of white fur and fumbling and a brief struggle, the bunny is free, the bunny is out, the bunny is gone .

She watches dumbly as her dinner, her prisoner, disappears back into the undergrowth from which he came. He leaves no trace but the rustle of ivy and a bucket streaked with shit and stinking of fear.

She stares dumbly at that, too. As if the lid will suddenly start to flap of its own accord, turn into a mouth that will tell her what to do now. If she keeps on and finds Ben, somehow, maybe she’ll discover the big secret that keeps him distant and always gone. Maybe he’s got body parts strung up in some deep hidden cave, and goes there to work the hides into leather, boils the fat into his luscious soaps. Or he’s got a secret little concrete room with a whole family crammed inside. Or he could just be - fuck, she doesn’t know, maybe he goes out and just wants to be left alone, did she even think of that? Does she ever think ?

Of course. She does nothing but think, and wonder, and dream. The desire for a tangible answer, for some new morsel of information to chew on as she forms her final opinion of Ben, wins out over her temporary flush of embarrassed self-haranguing.  

Rey collects the empty bucket, wrinkling her nose at the stench, and trudges ahead.

-

The little string in her chest pulling her towards somewhere draws ever-tighter, and as it does, the bird calls get steadily louder.

She sees no more birds actually fluttering up in the trees than she did before, when their calls were soft and barely audible, but like someone took their little voices and cranked the divine volume knob up, and up, and up, and by the time Rey bursts through the trees the noise, the CHIRRUP and the SCREEE and the CHEE-CHEE-CHEE, is so loud and her ears are so full of the nearly intolerable din that she does not at first register the sound of a hammer hitting metal at all.

-

She blinks. They’re in a small clearing, not large enough to be a meadow, a few paces long by a few paces wide. Her foot brushes up against one of two granite stones, both white flecked with black where the twin surfaces aren’t overgrown with moss.  

It’s silent, now. Perfectly still. As if the divine knob-cranker has suddenly hit mute.  

The only sound left is the sharp ring of iron hitting steel, a steady metallic whack whack whack.

The hair stands up at the back of her neck. It feels wrong, this space. Eerie would be a word for it, if she could form words.

“Uh.”

-

Ben is Ben. His back is turned to her, but he looks more or less like Ben always looks.

Rey thinks again, for total lack of more relevant thoughts, of textures - how good flannel might feel, rolling between her fingers. How it would be to bury her hands in long soft hair. The oppression of thin little buttons, the only things holding a black, long-sleeved shirt together.

Ben is standing before a sketchy backyard forge made from a metal barrel, with an anvil on a raised bed of bricks before it. He is swinging a hammer at a long rod of steel, but after she shakes loose all thoughts of touch and sense, she notices that the iron is not red-hot and so it does not bend under the blows of the hammer.

“Ben?” She tries again, realizing that since he didn’t respond to her verbose first attempt at a greeting, he must not know he has company.

His response, though, is too graceful to be one of surprise.

He straightens, turns around and flips his hair and says “oh, Rey, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you there,” and Rey is struck dumb for not even the fifth time in an hour.

Her mouth opens and closes, but nothing comes out. Nothing even really forms in her mind. It feels like a drained quarry, suddenly free of bird noise and vague fear and the stress of navigation.

Ben Solo is holding a sword.

-

Rey looks down at what fills her hands - the bucket. She lifts it up in his direction, and he looks at it. Furrows his thick brows a bit. This seems to catch him off guard, of all things.

“Is that the trap?”

She nods.

“We caught a rabbit.” Bites her lip a bit, then drops the thing, lets him hear its empty plunk as it hits the packed grass below. “It escaped. I was trying to bring it to you.”

“Why?”

So you could finish it off with that sword, I guess.

“I couldn’t… I couldn’t do it.”

“What - slaughter it? You said you want to try it on the next chicken -”

Rey squeezes her eyes shut.

“That’s different.”

He gives her that look, the one from their very first meeting when she tried to make a joke at his junk heap’s expense. The one that tells her he’s trying very hard not to call her names.

That is what does it. Rey feels white-hot anger bloom in her gut, travel up her throat and out of her mouth before she can stop and consider what she’s saying, how she’s saying it, who she’s saying it to -

“I was alone and suddenly this stupid rabbit falls for the stupid trap and I looked at it and it was - I couldn’t just plunge a knife into its heart, it was looking at me! It saw right through me! You’re always leaving, and you left me alone to just… listen to it struggle and die alone in the dark, because who knows when you’d decide to show up again…”

His eyes cours up and down her body; taking her in, but not lingering. She trails off, feeling a telltale flush creeping up her cheeks. He looks confused - no anger at being shouted at, no sign of whatever his impression of her body may be.

Rey is suddenly, painfully aware of her bralessness, her thin soaked sweater, and shivers involuntarily. She bites her lip and goes on.
“Is this what you do, when you leave? Come out in the middle of nowhere and make swords?”

He glances down at the weapon in his hands. From what Rey can tell, it’s not done, still needs sharpening and polishing, but the hilt is squared off and shiny, and the handle is already braided with black and grey cords.

“It’s actually called a wakizashi.” He looks up at her, no real malice in those big black doe eyes, but her anger only flares hotter. “It’s one step down from the more commonly referenced katana-”

Rey’s first instinct is to turn tail and march straight back to camp through the woods, but the same draw she felt to go further into the woods pulls her towards Ben, and she thinks she should follow it.

She balls her fists up and marches the few steps it takes to put them chest-to-chest, nearly touching, and she thinks very hard of things other than her tits and his being just inches from brushing together.

She stares up at him with the frustration of an entire month cooped up alone with only a gangly old dog to talk to. He stares back, a thin veil of confusion on his face but an intensity in his eyes that unsettles her.  

“If you’re leaving all the time just to come out here, it’d be nice for you to just say so. At least if I break my leg, or - or, you know, a black bear wanders into camp, or something else, I’ll know where to find you.”

He is so close now that his breath is a warm breeze fluttering across her face.

“If you broke your leg and a black bear were after you, you think you could make it out here to ask for my help?”

“That’s not the point.”

“Right. Of course. I’m sorry I don’t keep you updated on my every move, Rey. I’ll have to be more careful about that.”

She hates how Ben uses her name. As if it’s his right. The only thing keeping her from settling the matter entirely with her fists alone is the stark fact of her dependence on him, his size be damned. She’s taken more than a few Teedos even bigger than he in a fair fight, and come out the victor.

“You’re such a dick, you know that?”

His eyes, still intense, drill into hers; his face twitches with the slightest hint of humor, as if to goad her on.

“You were the one who needed someone to help you, and now I’m here, and you act like it’s a personal insult every time I try and get to know you.”

“I…” He closes his mouth, presses his lips together. The humor fades from his face and he is a picture of perfect solemnity. When he takes a step back, Rey is glad and disappointed both. He is much easier to read from inches away; he does not tower over her, all that bulk and height, with the same intimidating air. She stands her ground, watching his every move.

“I don’t... find it very easy, talking with people.”

Rey resists the urge to stand there shocked at his sudden attempt at vulnerability, to accept his blithe explanation as reason enough for his behavior.

“You talk to people all the time. Customers. I’ve seen it.”  

“That’s different.”

She holds his gaze, matching his intensity. He steps forward and she does not move back. She lets the silence drag on. Makes it harder on him.

Let him speak for himself , she thinks. Of his own volition.

“I appreciate having you around. I do. You make things better. More than you know.”

Her eyes drift down to his lips. He’s mashing them together again, a tic she’s never seen on anyone else.

“And I don’t think we’re very different, you and I.”

She scoffs, head snapping up to meet his eyes again. He goes on: “You don’t like pleasantries any more than I do. You only try to be friendly to me because you think you need me. I’m sorry I’ve made you feel that way.”

“You think you know me!”

“Isn’t that what you want? Why you came out here in the first place?”

Rey stops, not wanting to admit he’s right, not wanting to give in to his penetrative gaze. Instead, she listens to the mad instincts of hers, the ones that tell her to get the hell away, to fly before she has to reveal any more of her bleeding heart.

“I’ll see you back at camp,” she mutters as a curt excuse for a goodbye, and turns tail, and flees.

Chapter Text

--
APRIL
--

He remembers to breathe, this time.

He’s already doing so much better than before. He doesn’t want to lose his progress. He just wants to go home already.

Ben focuses on emptying his mind.

One -

Nag Champa is thick as dust in the air, a pungent odor that he cannot remember ever finding pleasant.

Two -

It also smells like cheap, skunky weed. His eyes droop in sympathetic response, though he hasn’t smoked anything for the better part of a year.

Three -

Luke is still convinced smoking pot might help him, it being natural and all, but it just makes him anxious.

Four five six seven -

His uncle’s voice, that grating lilt punctuated by the occasional phlegmy cough, pierces right on  through the peaceful veil over his thoughts.

Eightnineteneleven -

Steps away from the battered walls of the cliffside shack, the ocean roars. The other students are supposed to be meditating, way out and down on the sandy beach, contemplating the enormity of the ocean and their tininess, relative to space.

In reality, two of the Knights are fighting with big pointy sticks they found on their morning walk, and the others are cheering them on. Ben wishes he were fighting, too. Instead, he sits on an Iranian prayer rug, cross-legged, in reluctant service of his ancient, razor-mouthed nereid uncle.

Luke has been translating the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta into ancient Greek for weeks now, and has chosen Ben of all his pupils to sit and be the audience to his final recitation. There is reason to this beyond punishment, of course. He catches on to languages like most kids do to playing with others. Greek is no exception.  

But today Ben cannot sit still; he cannot stand the voice, the message, how it’s all the key to “true mindfulness”. To transcendence. There cannot be an explanation to life that is really so simple, but also so stupidly complex.  

He picks apart Luke’s awkward sentence structures, corrects a misused word every now and then. But the entire lesson is not so much lost on him as it is successfully drilling in, with every word and rambling thought about the death of the Buddha, how deeply deeply deeply he hates this. He begins to drift in earnest, tuning in at random intervals just long enough to make a correction or two, make it seem like he’s actively listening.

When the weathered old hippie must pause to take a sip of water, Ben completely immerses himself in thought, drawing lines upon lines of loopy letters on the scratch paper set in front of him. The rare spots of peace and silence make his entire body momentarily cease its endless humming rage. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

He is enjoying one such silence when he looks up just a second too late, and realizes that Luke has stopped his recitation entirely. His uncle is just staring at him, green eyes bright with exasperation. Neither cedes their power by speaking for a long, long moment.

“You’re too old for this, Ben,” the old man concludes at last.

Ben’s hands, already loosely balled up and balanced on his knees, tighten into two tense fists. Clench and count , he reminds himself.

“I agree.”

Luke shakes his head, already looking away, towards his rolling tray or the Sutta he’s working on or anything else that isn’t his enormous problem of a nephew. His gills, cut into the side of his neck, flap with the force of another frustrated huff.  When he turns back, he’s still got that maddened look on his face.

“If you want this to work for you, you’re going to have to try.

-

Count and clench and breathe and count and breathe .

Ben remembers this less in words, more in the form of automatic reactions that crop up as a response to the sudden, cataclysmic disturbance to his ecosystem.

He clenches his fists, breathes belaboredly, and counts each of the footsteps that takes Rey further and further away from him. It all has the opposite of the intended effect. He trembles, straining to feel her meandering through the woods, but then she gets closer to camp and the pines are bigger, their roots all tangled and wired terribly and coated too densely with mycelium for him to continue any further.  

It takes a few more moments without sensing her for him to fully comprehend his aloneness. There’s only the half-dead forge and the empty rabbit trap bearing witness to him thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings now.

The mere comprehension is as far as he gets. That is about as far as his composure stretches.

He trembles harder and boils over and he is so dumb what the fuck, Solo, what was that, she was just trying to be nice and you had to fucking -  talk down to her? Pretend like you know her? “Wakizashi?” Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb -

It seizes Ben. It grips him like a seizure, at least, sudden and muscle-locking and mind-numbing and tongue-biting. The skin at his temples bursts, splits open into his heavy ram’s horns, a zap of pain for the satisfaction of release. The rest of his skin splits up too, stretches, makes room for ulna and and carpus and metacarpus turning to live boughs under his moss of forearm hair, for the toadstools that braid through his hair and the flowers that fill his lungs, the twigs that poke through his human canvas with bloody little pops at his knuckles and fingertips .  

It feels like the immediate aftermath of a good heaving sobbing session, but condensed in a sensation that rolls in intense waves all over his body. He does not settle into his final form, but lets his features morph as they please, get the need to do it out of them.

All he wanted was to never feel this way again, but he cannot bring himself to stop.

-

Rose had proofread the first draft of his Workaway advertisement, written in the earnest but hasty prose of a real farmer, and laughed in his face.

“Ben, you sound like a fucking lunatic.”

Rose crossed her arms, knitting her brows in confusion when Ben nodded his approval of her assessment.

“That’s the point. The only person who might bother responding is the only person who’s going to be right for me.”

“That’s not a strategy, Ben.”     
Rose stared at him, slowly shaking her head in disbelief. He stared silent hot daggers into her until she gave up, rolling her eyes. If she didn’t want to play nice, he wasn’t going to be fair either.

“You’re impossible. And insane. I want you to know that Finn can say whatever he wants, but we’re both against this idea.”

“So you’re not going to help me.”

“How am I supposed to support this thing? Huh? And yes, correct, we are against this, dummy, how about you try listening sometime? We don’t even want to be complicit in this. Help you? No. Shut the hell up.”

She held out a few moments longer, eyeing him, sizing up his intentions from what little of his thoughts he allowed her to read. He laid bare, in his mind, snippets of tender tiny fantasies, and all of the truths he possibly could: he did need help, yes. And he would be good. Of course he would. Everything would be fine. He’d thought it over a hundred times. Planned for every single possibility, every eventuality. If things got to be too much, he’d send her on her way, no harm done.

(Rose just needed some convincing; it was not so much manipulation as careful editing for the target audience.)

Her expression slowly began to morph from indignance to tolerance to barely veiled empathy, yet she still shook her head, firm.

-

He comes to what feels like seconds later, numb and stupefied as if waking from a nap he didn’t intend to take. The light hasn’t changed much; it hasn’t been too long, then.  

He is back in his human skin, or must be mostly back in it, which is good. Control must have flowed back at some point, after all the anger burnt up. He breathes heavily. His palms are sore, the braided cord of the sword handle having bitten little track marks up and down the raw pink skin. He is kneeling in the mud, feeling thoroughly spent. He makes the massive effort to lift his head and glance around.

Slashes scar the ground. His half-finished blade, tossed aside in his fervor, is caked with the violent splatter of it.

There is smoke, too.

Ah, yes, that makes sense .

The ground is on fire. He ought to address that.

Everything is still damp from the morning rain so the fire is having a tough time catching, but it exists to consume, and so it does. An orange blaze licks lazily across patches of fallen leaves and crushed grass, throwing up heavy smoke that chokes Ben as he stumbles to his feet and clumsily uses his hands to scoop clods dirt onto the flames.

It becomes apparent that in his black haze, he’d gone and destroyed the forge, and when he got tired of throwing bricks and kicking coals he’d grabbed his stupid ninja sword and made a mess using that, too. A few precious dry afternoons of work, gone, just like that, the only remnants just a mess of strewn bricks and a broken hair dryer and a portable gas generator toppled over on its squat side.

“Gods! Fuck this!”

It’s slow going, somehow, putting out this tiny bush fire of his own unconscious making. He sweats and swears, the effort distracting him so thoroughly that by the time he gets to stomping on the last few remaining blooms of flame, he feels empty but for the burn of humiliation and frustration, which singe like the fire, reborn within him.

He feeds it with more thoughts because he is Ben Solo and if he is not destroying things - such as his forge, Rey’s trust, and also everything else that has ever been good in his life - he is thinking about them, which is really just the phase right before destroying things properly begins.  

She had stood there, still damp from the morning rain, with that look of indignance and hurt and fury so plainly pasted on her face; then she penetrated through him, brushed past his pretension and manipulation and obscene shyness like it was all spiderwebs, worth nothing. He shivers, remembering it.

So Ben was barely able to keep it together to start, but then she began to dig in to him, called him a dick, a perfect vulgarity, used so precisely well that he’d had to bite his tongue to keep from genuinely congratulating her; she insulted his hobby, and accused him of - knowing her? As if it were a curse, and then she just - she just stood there in her boots and huffing and dirty - and he went blank. Back to default settings: his lingering teenage sullenness and sarcasm, coupled with his painfully ardent compliments delivered so scattershot and shitty that they turned out more like shockingly rude insults. Were shockingly rude insults.

He hadn’t spoken out of rage, or injured pride, or the desire to hurt her, like she’d come crashing in on his peaceful afternoon to do to him. He liked it when she said what she obviously had been wanting to say. The brutal honesty of it was thrilling. He only wished she’d been merciful, and stayed, and told him more.

And he’d tried to apologize. Truly, he did.

Once the fire is out and the smoke has dissipated, he gets right to fixing things. First he sets the bricks back in some semblance of their former shape; then he rights the generator, checking to make sure it still functions. It does. He is not so lucky with the blow dryer, the remains of which he stoops to gather, apologizing all the while for his recklessness.

He decides to bring it back to Rey. It’s worth a shot; the thing had served his mother well for many years, and him too. Maybe she can revive it. Ben is a literal agent of the Earth herself, and he cannot make things grow or work even half as well as she can.

He gathers all of the dirtied tools and lugs them down to the creek, his feet moving mechanically through the dense tangle of roots and rocks and other undergrowth. When he reaches the bank he falls down to his knees, exhausted, and breathes in and out, tasting the warm afternoon and the teasing cool approach of night in the air. Sun-warmed and stupefied, he feels a rush of pleasant docility. He drags each scent over his tongue the same way he might with all the flavors and textures of a good foie gras.

Once satisfied, he dunks his entire armful of tools into the rush of snowmelt and swishes it all around violently until most of the mud has melted off in big dirty ribbons. Going one by one would take far too long, and the water is so cold that it only takes a single sustained minute underwater for his hands to reach the point of total malfunction.

He washes his things first, and then splashes his face and neck, runs dripping hands through his hair. A couple of stray toadstools, dislodged from behind his ears, plop down onto the glossy surface of the creek. It’s getting too long, but Bushwackers is always booked out a week in advance and he can’t bring himself to bother calling for an appointment. He should just cut it himself. Or have Rey do it. She’d know how.

His shirt is soaked, the arms especially but most of the rest of it too. He didn’t think to take it off before his impromptu bath. It makes him think of Rey, in her sweater, with its spots of dirt and little moth holes and her perfect breasts right under the obscene layer of dampened fabric. He tries to toss the image out of his head the second it appears, but it boomerangs right back, stronger and brighter than before.

The wakizashi is washed last. It lays heavy in Ben’s hands, leaden with expectation and disappointment. There’s a chip on the blade where he was striking it before it was hot. Not even finished, just an unconsecrated length of steel, and it’s already served as an instrument of war.

-

Ben returns to his work site to discover that he has only finished half of what must really be done before he can allow himself to leave for the day. The thought of a disorganized and chaotic workspace just festering overnight will make him feel too bothered and itchy to be able sleep, anyway.

The bricks that construct his forge must be reset until they all lay perfectly uniform together. His first attempt at rearranging them was no good.

While he obsessively presses the cheap bricks together until they are flush and perfect and even, Ben daydreams of a forge with vermiculite insulation and a real blow torch and an anvil on a proper level surface. He imagines crafting a weapon for Rey, and watching her wield it.

Into a metal lockbox must go everything that will fit. His tools, unfinished projects, the three dollar fire bricks and on top of it all, his sword. He does not bother locking it, though, and leaves the kit inside the robuilt forge.

There finally comes a point where there’s nothing left to clean. He’s even picked up bits of firewood, ran his boots over the slashes he made in the wet mud. The whole site looks good. Better than it ever has. He covers it all with a tarp, which he anchors at each corner with a chunk of granite.

Afternoon is falling fast, sure to slink down soon into a soft, smoky dusk. His body aches for home, the warmth of a fire, but that seems like an impossibility. What will he do when he gets home? Pick another fight with Rey, just so they can go back to arguing chest-to-chest? Or should he fall down at her feet and beg her to forgive him, to stay, to give him another chance?

Thoughts of begging and apologizing and the scent of his shampoo wafting gently off of a sloppy wet braid threaten to become too much. The ground at his feet vibrates with the things he feels. The dirt starts to pop like popcorn with ferns, young fiddleheads thrusting out of the ground with the gusto of the nearly drowned. Gods.

He should only fall to his knees at the feet of a lover, his one proper conqueror. He cannot beg anything of anybody else. If he does, she will win a battle he has no interest in being party to in the first place.

But if he returns to camp and doesn’t apologize, they will never move past it. That one grievous insult will be forever stuck in the way of her trusting him, wanting to stay near him. He will have killed whatever is happening, or may happen, or is destined to happen if all things go well, or what might as well happen since they’re alone in such close proximity, right before it even has a chance to begin.

If he doesn’t return at all tonight? He chews the tender inside of his cheek. She’ll break into his cabin once she’s hungry and irritated enough to cook her own dinner, there’s nothing to worry about there. And she left angry enough to allow him a few unexplained hours away - not that it’s ever stopped him before. Or that he should be thinking about answering to anybody else, anyway. He can do as he pleases.

Ben must remind himself of this, over and over again. Nobody dictates his life to him now. It will never be that way again.  

No. There are a thousand and one things he would rather do than willingly give up his power now. Including addressing a nagging bit of unfinished business.

-

There is a small inlet that forms naturally in the rocky rim of the lake, just a few acres beyond the curve of shore that is visible from camp. It has the basic form of a pleasant little beach, but instead of inviting sand it is carpeted all in rock, pebbly and sharp under bare feet.

Ben charts a course right for it.

Because he has nothing better to do he thinks of Rey as he walks. So much for not giving his power up.

He wonders if she can swim.

(Probably not a lot of pools in southern New Mexico.)

That, or if she might even want to see the little inlet, if it were ever to come up in casual conversation.

(“Hey, Ben, do you know of any beautiful little beaches around here that are dark... and eerie… maybe a little romantic… “)

Or would she see it as another damp streak of rocks, licked by a the same pond she looks at every single day of her life? Rey could be bored of it already. She has no idea how dynamic it all is, how exciting the goings-on of all the living things crammed so close together are.

When he pops out of the darkness of the trees into the pre-dusk hush of early evening, he is agitated, restless, about to start pacing incessantly like a caged jungle cat. He marches down the noisy crunchy shore, flexing his fists, missing the soft black leather that usually encases them.

Hux does not appear immediately, as he usually takes particular pleasure in doing, but the threat of his imminent arrival hangs in the air. Back when Ben had just moved in and they were still hashing things out - back when there was no lonely pine standing roots-up out of the water, because Ben hadn’t gotten pissed off enough yet to unearth and throw it - Hux pulled that trick all the time, constantly scaring the shit out of his already harangued and agitated neighbor.

Ben crouches and picks up a stone, flat but jagged around the edges. He has to occupy his hands. He throws the stone so perfectly that at first it just whizzes over the surface of the water, sending up showers of fine mist in its wake, but then it successfully skips once, twice, three times, four. Then it sinks, like normal. Probably one of the best skips he’s whipped out in years.

It is a bitter truth that he can’t even enjoy that. He wallows instead, wishing Rey were here to see it.

From somewhere behind him, a sneer given a human face and a human voice decides to use it for the express purpose of being annoying and incredibly awful.

“Terribly impressive, Solo.” Sarcasm and self-satisfaction and an obviously fake but very well-done British accent drip off of each syllable.   

Ben forces out an irritated grunt in place of the insult he wants to fire back. He cannot afford to lose his temper this early on. Instead, he gets straight to the point.

“Thanks. What the fuck was that the other day, huh?”

Hux materializes at last, a few yards out on the water, forming a humanoid thorax and some humanoid limbs, ridged with spiny fins. He is naked, of course; not like he’s got a wardrobe hiding in the algae. Or a cabin in the woods stuffed with human garbage.

Water sluices down his long lean body, the droplets joining in with the drippy flow of his fluid golden scales. The pale white skin splits and stretches and reforms perfectly, over just-visible ribs over round shoulder over ropy neck, a lava lamp of fish and man meeting.

“What was what ? If you’re talking about defending my own territory, that’s allowed, you can bugger off right now.”

He slicks his perpetually wet mop of red back away from his pinched face, his eyes two chips of unnatural blue always flickering around, searching for threats and opportunities. He doesn’t seem to care for what he finds, and furrows his brows in an obvious show of it.  

Ben draws himself up to his full height and steps into the water, boots and all. His head throbs with the effort of containing his horns, which long with humanlike intensity to emerge, intimidate and impress. There will be no fighting, he must remind himself, no upending of trees or cleaving of rocks or any of his other melodramatic tricks. Rey might hear. He lives with the specter of her even when she is not near. He charts his path around her immaterial form.

Hux is more beautiful a creature than Ben, which is to be expected. Naiads were given sharper teeth and functioning gills and the trademark hollow cheekbones, the thick brows, the beauty that invites and invites until it snaps shut in brutal victory. Dryads were awarded the land and the humans and the absurdly useful ability to sustain minor shape-shifting over long periods of time. They were also given big horns for the express purpose of being beautiful but useless and egregiously noticeable appendages, there for no reason at all but to fight each other and maybe attract the odd human or two.

As the massive dryad approaches, sloshing inelegantly in the shallow water, Hux rolls his eyes and forms the rest of his body, as if put off by the disturbance and the inconvenience.

By the time Ben is within five paces, Hux is cutting him down with a look from nearly the exact same height. Each of his limbs is tipped with the same slick spines as his arms, and more rolling waves of gold scales trace up and down his body. His top lip hooks up at the corner, revealing a shiny white shark’s tooth.

Ben remains intact, striding forward at the same pace to close the distance between them.

“Come on, Solo, this is dramatic, even for you.” Hux sputters as the other’s hand suddenly closes in around his throat - tight enough to make a statement, but not so tight as to entirely cut off air.

“No.” Ben’s voice is low. Husky. Each word sounds as if it’s been bitten out, choked and harsh. He is beyond theatrics now. “If I wanted to make a scene, you’d be dead.”

Ben hedges in closer. Over the years he has had a hundred chances to close a gap such as this, where the other’s pert but excellently-formed lips are just a single wild impulse away from his own. He is just as aware of this chance as every other.

Yet every one of the hundred impulses, every bit of the lazily focused erotic energy mixed up with his endless rage, is a fart in the wind in comparison to his earlier encounter with Rey. Her soft warm goodness so close, her frame so small, her anger so pointed and potent and focused all on him. He knows that now.

She dislikes him, sure, but still she wonders about him. She cares, in a way. Or perhaps she is such a savage survivalist that she is willing to perform flustered preoccupation as a means to her own calculated ends. He thinks he would be equally delighted if it were either.

Ben remains there, standing in a shallow inlet of the lake that is his neighbor whom he hates but must live with because that is how his life works, chest practically brushing said neighbor’s, for a breath.

“Don’t fuck this up for me.” He spits out, at last.    

Hux, flushing even redder than before with all of his unfettered rage, attempts to grab on to Ben’s wrist and wrench it off his neck, but Ben easily outmuscles him, stopping the effort cold. It is a slow, violent ballet. They draw together, have a skirmish, and leap apart, again and again and again. They remain locked together until Hux stops, struggles once more against Ben’s hold on his neck, then decides to finally pick a different approach.

“You know we won’t do anything without giving you a fair head start. That is only civilized. But we cannot be polite for long.”

Such logic does not deter Ben. Nothing ever has. Defiance runs in his blood as thick as the dirt and the earth. The threat merely enrages him. Head start? She is no prize to be won.

He is already as close to Hux as he can get, so he tightens his grip around the naiad’s throat, only for the flesh to become water and the threat to become an awkward fumble as his balance is thrown off with the unexpected change in states of matter.

Just like that, he is alone in the dark drizzling rain. Hux must not have been feeling a real fight, either, and retreated back home without another word. Though it’s good that he chose to leave instead of escalating things, Ben floods with white hot indignation anyway. No matter how vile the other personality, being left still hits him like a punch to the gut.  

He bites out a profanity for profanity’s sake, but it only makes him feel the slightest bit better.

-

Ben has a memory, long-since buried deep within him, of watching cartoons with both of his parents, the entire loveseat to himself, a paper plate with toasted PopTarts balanced carefully in his lap. He glances up to see Papa running a hand over Mama’s “simmon buns”, as he had called them. It looked nice. They were playing nice. Even then, he was perceptive and reluctant enough to make the conscious decision not to interrupt them.

-

Hux will reappear again, surely. If not to confront Ben for some future slight, then it will be so he might try and make his claim on Rey.

He was serious about not waiting much longer. He would have no reason not to be serious about that. Ben thinks of Hux’s milk-pale hands on Rey, his sharp teeth dragging along her skin, and is seized by another full-body shiver, of protective rage and an embarrassing amount of jealousy.

But then he thinks of his life: hauling water, chopping wood, hunching over his laptop answering emails late into the night, obsessively checking the temperature of cooling solid serums, stirring stirring stirring things. Who wants to chain themselves to that, when there’s a glimmering golden flash, an otherworldly beautiful fish-man, a chance to rest forever under the peaceful non-waves of a pond in the middle of the Oregon rainforest?

Trudging silently through the purple dark, he is like a ghost, haunted by his own vivid imagination. He feels his resolve and fear both leak out of him, as if through a shallow but persistent wound. The walk, though, is a jarringly pleasant one, the lower boughs of pine trees drizzling fragrant rainwater all over him, the ground exhaling the moderate heat of the day in plumes of low, thin fog.

While on the way he again attempts to sense her presence through the land, but he cannot keep calm long enough to focus. When he finally does gain some control over himself, and with his emotions calls out into the land for any answer at all, nothing responds.

It is merely a rehash of one of his worst nightmares, wherein he awakes to find his tongue has been sliced out of his head and he cannot cry out for help, or in rage, or make any kind of noise at all.

It dawns on him that he’s been so distracted all afternoon that she could have finally come to her senses, packed her things, and peeled away in that ancient gas guzzler and he would have been none the wiser.

He must see for himself. Perhaps she’s been merciful and left something behind, given him a reason to contact her one last time. Or perhaps she hasn’t left at all. He could be wrong, mistranslating things, not listening closely enough. Anything is possible.

He begins to hope against hope, too wild with it to register the emotional whiplash. The hope allows Ben to hold himself together just long enough to break through the thin line of trees, and to see that the fire pit is nothing but a pile of smoldering ashes when the temperature and time of night call for more of a roaring hearth.

He does not see Rey. She’s probably hours gone by now. He feels the tender skin at the tips of his fingers begin to break apart. His head feels full of ants; he works his jaw but it does nothing to relieve the tension.

He wants to die. Up and down and up and down he paces the length of the creaky cabin porch, not looking up to search for signs of her until enough time passes and he’s begun to break a sweat, started breathing in deep huffs.

It’s when he’s leaning against the porch railing that he realizes, and only because he’s staring it down directly:  the ancient tree blocks the view of the latrine and the shower. He is such an idiot. Or perhaps she could even be napping down in her truck, for old time’s sake.

Moron.

Ben’s never been a believer in anything, but he believes in mercy now. He rushes around the tree, sliding on a patch of wet leaves. He skids like an idiot, but it’s fine, because she’s still there, yes , he was right, there she is.

But.

Ah.

(He wonders first if she was able to get the water to the right temperature, the way he does.)

Rey is sitting in her chair, in her usual way, casually taking up a man’s share of space, legs spread and body balanced back on her elbows with an air of detached calm. It is only that this time, she is fresh from a shower.

His view of her, what with his eyes automatically cast down polite deference to her, is mostly dominated by the long curves of her muscular thighs, her disproportionately slim calves, her bare feet casually arching and flexing.

 

Once he brings his eyes up to meet hers, dragging them first over her freckled skin and bony sternum and wet pink mouth, it feels like things begin to change very quickly, although Rey does nothing but stare straight back at him.

In fact, her face does not change a single shade, despite the fact that she is naked, and he, though currently taking his turn as the one clothed in skin-tight, soaking-wet apparel, is not.

The look in her eyes is not one of anger at his intrusion. Or even one of embarrassment.

It is a challenge.

Ben cannot even pretend to fight back. He folds immediately.

He grew up into manhood living with half a dozen women and saw them in all states, dressed and undressed, but now all he can do is fall to his knees while raising his hands up in self-defense, as if to proclaim that he had no idea what he was staring at until it was too late and he is sorry and he is not guilty and please do not leave, please

He decides to be the one to break the thick silence, too. At this point, he might as well just beg her to stay. There is really no further for him to fall.

“I should have made more noise,” Ben says, voice shivering, eye twitching. “I didn’t know you were still here.”  

There. Not an apology, yet still an apology. He may very well choke on his tongue if he has to speak one more word. If things weren’t so solid around the edges, he’d begin to slide into the comfort of the knowledge that this is all a nightmare that he’s going to wake from very soon.

“I thought you wouldn’t be home tonight,” she responds, dry and flat.

This is all your fault, she is saying. You deserved that.

This is where he is supposed to apologize to her. She will never understand, but he cannot do it.

He is rendered near nauseous with the force of all the unspent chaotic energy beginning to thrum through his veins. He grinds his molars and clenches each muscle that will respond to him, trembling with the pain and effort of staying entirely human shaped.

She stares him down, big eyes full of hurt and rage. She huffs when he does not respond, and fills the silence herself instead.

“What, were you hoping I’d have left already? Without saying a word?”

He shakes his head, hoping the motion covers all the throat-clearing he must do in order to speak intelligibly. It fails, of course.

“No, Rey.” Ben still chokes on her name. Audibly. He can hardly bear to go on. But she seems almost amused by him, and his mouth is certainly more in control than he himself is, so he does anyway.

“I’ll say it again: I hope you’ll stay. Things can change. But if you don’t want to, I can help you on your way. We’re far from everything out here.”

Rey drops the rag and stands, slowly and deliberately. Though Ben decides to remain on his knees, figuring that to be the safest of all possible positions, he finally lowers his hands to rest innocently on his thighs.

His eyes follow her up. It is so deep into the evening now that she is lit entirely blue, many of her features cast in stark black shadow. She is a goddess, looking down at him from her new vantage point, the joy of triumph radiating from her, a half-smirk on her face. She is trying to play it cool, yes, but she is about as nakedly emotional as he is, and so she wears the initial reaction for a full second before wiping her face clean.

“I’m not leaving,” she pronounces, suffusing each word with a very firm sense of finality, as if that and her standing up combine to make the statement ironclad, a non-negotiable reality. As if there is any version of reality where he would say “no” to her staying with him longer. Her gaze hesitantly flicks down from his face and runs all over his body, as if for the first time.

It is only then that he realizes he is hard, and that it must be incredibly obvious.  

He doesn't care. His eyes will not leave her face. If they go anywhere else, his dick will only begin to cause more problems. Straight ahead, for example? His eyes are on the same level as her crotch, which is the word he must use for it because it sounds the least appetizing.

He studies her face like he’s never been able to before. She’s got the soft beginnings of a unibrow, he discovers, and a little freckle by her left nostril, only a couple of shades darker than the rest of her skin.

Rey takes a deep breath, and it’s as if she’s pulled all of the air straight from his lungs to hers.

“I want to stay out here. I like it. Despite the way you act, even.”

She looks away, into the middle distance, making a show of chewing her lip as if suddenly deep in thought.

“I don’t know what I want to do next, anyway. If I can stay until then…”

Her gaze comes back to him and she smiles, just the slightest bit.

“I’d appreciate it.”

He must look like an idiot, all out of breath and blushing and tenting his pants like puberty’s just begun to hit him and she’s the first naked girl he’s ever seen in his life. Gods. The humiliation causes such an unexpectedly potent shock to his entire system that instead of processing it properly, and cumming in his pants at the next slight breeze, he snaps back to reality and abandons the train of thought entirely.

When he responds to her, his voice is all softness.

“This place is Eden in the summer. Stay for that, at least.”

He disgusts himself. She has done nothing but insult him and stretch the limit of his kindness.

“I will. It sounds nice,” she says thoughtfully, as if that particular perk hadn’t really occurred to her. He must stop himself from wondering what is inspiring her to stay, instead. That line of thought leads to bad, bad places.

She looks him up and down one last time, catches her lower lip in her teeth, and turns almost reluctantly in the direction of her tent.  

“Anyway, uh. I’m going to get dressed now.”  

The angle she’s at affords him an excellent view of her ass, but it feels wrong to take advantage of it. He glances down just once, just barely, just to scratch the itch, and regrets it instantly because then she turns her head to look back at him, and not glancing down just one more time becomes the most difficult thing he’s ever done in his life.  

“Right. Right.”

Under her eye he stands up and turns around, still sweaty and embarrassed, and retreats back to the cabin. There is no time for looking back or waiting for her response. He makes it inside and wrangles the front door shut, falling down to his hands and knees before he loses control entirely.

Ben gulps in air as he collapses down fully to the floor. He curls up in the fetal position, too overwhelmed to do anything else. For several moments he is entirely motionless, and then he starts to rub a freshly exposed horn on the hardwood, loving how the pine feels against both the appendage and his cheek.     

There are a precious few things he thinks to remember about her. She looked soft all over. She has an incredibly faded bikini tan, but it’s there: her breasts, both barely a single handful each, are quite a few shades paler than her taut golden ribcage. A thin trail of dark hair invites the eye down from her belly button to the thicket of dark curls below.

It’s like coming down from a mushroom: being dumped back onto planet Earth has all the consequences of actual rapid atmospheric pressure changes. Reality feels hazy, at once sickeningly unreal and also way, way too real.

All he knows for sure is that right now he is safe on the loving and forgiving ground.

That, and his cock is hard again. He palms himself over his jeans without really committing, just to let off the tiniest bit of steam; he has suddenly lost all interest in getting himself off alone.  

It feels so good to be on the floor. Too good. He would happily die here. His head brims with thoughts. There are too many to even process properly.

Is she out there right now, regretting everything? Was she displeased with his performance? Maybe she wanted him to take her right then, bury his head between her thighs and taste her. He could have. Absolutely. She had stood in front of him with her pussy at exactly his head’s height for an extended amount of time, for the Gods’ sake.

He groans a little, digging his horn even harder into the wood floor, knowing that he is beginning to wallow in what-ifs and regrets. His stomach growls softly. It will not do. The time for fantasies and self-flagellation is after their basic needs are taken care of.

Ben wills his body first to recover;

Up .

Then to stand;

Up.

More than anything just to prove that his dominion over himself is not all gone yet.

Up.

He rises.

If he does not peel the potatoes and debone the fish and get the vegetables roasting, they won’t eat. The constant stream of tasks required just to stay alive were part of the reason he decided to move out here. They get him out of his head.

First: his shirt is still damp, and where it’s stuck to his skin it’s itchy and annoying, even more so than usual. He peels it off and selects a different dark plaid flannel to replace it, buttoning the cuffs over his wrists and the front right up to the collar. Though still not at all comfortable, at least he looks somewhat presentable.   

Then there is the campfire. He dreads dealing with any more fucking fire today, but again, it must be done. Ben steps back out onto the porch, making sure to stomp and slam the door closed in doing so.

“You’re fine,” he hears her respond, voice deadpan, a little annoyed. “I’m decent.”

Her assurances do not, in fact, make him want to move any faster. Quite the opposite. He wishes he could retreat back inside the cabin and not have to face whatever she might be getting ready to say next.

Regardless, he presses his lips together, steels his singed nerves, and walks out to meet her.

She has built the fire herself and is sitting in her chair beside it, clothed in a completely sexless combination of too-big sleeping shorts and a faded shirt from some 1990’s Albuquerque fun run. The curve where her golden neck turns into her smooth, round shoulder is cruelly covered up, but her head is twisted so she can stare listlessly into the flames, and he is able to at least admire the elegant line of her ear and jaw and chin.

He notices again the soft drizzle of rain, and the accompanying wind that sounds like the ocean as it blows through the upper boughs of the pine trees. All is pitch black but for what the fire illuminates. It throws warm light all over Rey, who looks up at him as he steps slowly down the porch stairs, and smiles.

She gathers her knees up to her chest and signals, with a jerk of her head, for him to come closer. He obeys, stopping a few feet away from her, shoving his hands in his pockets as if he feels even remotely natural.  

“I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable,” she not-apologizes, face contorting awkwardly. “I grew up in group homes. Privacy was never much of an issue, I guess.”

He shrugs. As long as she thinks he thought nothing of it, she’ll… want to do it again? Be impressed that he’s so nonplussed when confronted with a beautiful naked woman? No, no. This is a chance to finally reveal a bit about himself to her.

“I boarded in high school,” he decides to say at last, keeping his tone overtly casual. “I know what it’s like. It’ll happen, I guess. Out here.”

His eye twitches. He presses his lips together. Every single tic of his is bound to have its turn. So he has graduated from a slobbering school boy to a rambling twitching mess. On the inside, he is wincing with his entire being. He wanted to sound mysterious and interesting, not just like a rich kid who got shipped off to prep school in the country.

Rey nods, still generously accepting his mess of a response. She sticks out her hand.

“Okay. Truce?”

Ben’s heart begins to race. He reaches out and takes her hand - engulfs it, really - in his own.

He has thought once or twice about how those calloused fingers, the one feature of hers that betray her past as a hard laborer, might feel. Turns out her skin feels less rough, more hot and dry. Her handshake is also much firmer than his, with a tighter upswing and more power, more control. It is a precise, practiced thing.

His gaze jumps from where their naked palms are pressed together to her face, where her eyes are black and intense as they drill right back into his in the jumping firelight.

He knows that she openly despises casual physical contact. This gesture is larger than she wants him to know.

But he does. Ah, he does.

Chapter Text

 

--

APRIL

--

His palm slides over hers and she feels an animal shiver run up her arm, like her veins have suddenly turned to live wires and they’re crackling, overloaded with the electricity. Rey must resist the urge to withdraw her hand in panic, as if she’s been burned by a red-hot iron.

She focuses on his face instead. Their eyes meet.

A rock drops straight down from her heart through her asshole and it becomes very clear that not listening to her instinctual urge to stay away from him and his devil hands was the wrong choice to have made.

She drops his hand, after a long moment, and snaps her attention forcefully away, towards the fire. It took a while to get the flames to catch; should she tell him about it? Are they friends now? Is that what they’re going to start doing, having empty conversations about the same things every single day for the rest of however long it takes until she’s on her feet and able to run away from him?

Rey has no idea whether she should speak, or wait for him to be the one to initiate things. She was not raised for nuanced interpersonal play, does not have the tools for this kind of situation. Apparently, neither does he. An awkward silence descends, the both of them flushed and deeply uncomfortable, until Ben excuses himself back to the cabin to finish peeling potatoes for dinner.

Her gaze flickers to the doorway as he disappears into it, and lingers for an extra second before she turns back to the campfire, suddenly more ravenous than she’s ever been in her life.

--

Rey has taken showers in many different places: locker rooms, women’s shelters, group homes, youth centers. She has split rooms with herds of fellow foster sisters and brothers and bathrooms with entire floors of other orphans. Shady patches of dirt have been her toilet, her circumstances always seeming to leave her with no other choice, more times than she can possibly count. Growing up in state care really has eradicated her sense of privacy. That part of her hasty excuse was true.

--

The extent of Rey’s forethought was that she did not want to get dressed after her shower.

So she didn’t.

--

A part of her knew, of course, that Ben comes and goes as he pleases and could have shown up at any time. There was some small part of that part of her that shrugged at the eventuality of his discovering her - “I’ll cover my boobs and he’ll cover his eyes until I can get into the tent”, she’d half-reasoned. Or it was something along those lines.

Rey’s vague approximation of a plan, then, had certainly not included her standing up before him, wielding her naked body like a weapon. She was so sure he’d be his usual difficult self, that he required a truly cunning counterpart, she’d blown her one trump card on a boy who ended up cowering before her unshaven bush and her B-cups and her withering stare. He'd cracked open and oozed out all over the place. 

--

When Ben did look up at her, she’d felt prickly wherever his eyes trailed. He carved trails of little shivers all up and down her body, same as the one that passed between their palms. It was not arousal that the sensation elicited, really, but some cousin of it. Despite everything, the humiliation and the fear and the logic, she couldn’t help but be thrilled to the core at her own audacity, at revealing the secret of her body to a man, for him and his eyes alone, for the first time in her life. She had struck out for Oregon seeking newness. Here it was. 

It was not the act of being nude or being seen that felt different. Feels different. It was him. Ben. How he fell down at first sight, so deeply embarrassed was he of witnessing her, even accidentally, in such a vulnerable state. How he was so desperate, in his way, for her to know that he did not mean to do it.

And then there was the bulge in his pants that eventually became too obvious to ignore.

She chews on her thumbnail, making use of the mouth that threatens to betray her thoughts the further she wanders down that trail of thought. Her own body embarrasses her. She has become too bored out here, if that’s how she going to react to all the speculative thoughts she suddenly has about Ben’s pants and the contents therein.  

The springs on his cabin’s screen door screech in their usual way as the man himself pushes though it shoulder first, his hands busy with a mixing bowl and a plate of bloody strip steaks. His shirt sticks to his body like paper mache. Rey wonders if he knows. Had he smelled the dirty thoughts on her?

It would be a clever comeback, if wearing a skintight shirt in retaliation at her were a conscious choice of his. Biological warfare seems not to be off the table here, but it would also be terribly presumptive of him.

Rey wouldn’t have approached him naked if she liked him, wanted to date or fuck or make the little herd of children she’s always dreamed of with him. Inexperienced desert rat though she may be, she is at least roughly familiar with the politics of sex. And, anyway, she’s always planned on having a much more romantic first time with a man.

No, there is no chance that she committed the sin of having a body in the hopes of seducing or enchanting or doing anything other than utterly shocking him. If anything, she reasons - it proves that she’s nothing but a coworker.

Rey is so focused on their mutual survival that she cannot be bothered about modesty. The secret of her body is no secret at all, but a plain fact of their existence. Her body builds things and digs into the earth and plucks out their food. It is no field of pleasures or landscape dotted with hidden places. It is merely a flesh prison; a tool.

Over everything else, she wants him to see her like nothing more than a friendly boarder.

She needs him to.  

(With enough repetition this will cement in her mind, and become true.)

--

The Ben of present reality cooks, silent and focused, with nothing but a few soft and familiarly terse requests of her to pass him the salt, to taste some of the potatoes, to grind the pepper.

When it's all done they eat together, both of them sloppy but too famished to care.

“We’re running out of meat,” he says eventually, between more reasonably sized bites of potato and mushroom and bloody steak. “I was thinking of hunting for quail this weekend.”

“Early?”

“Not too early. A little after dawn, maybe.”

Rey cocks her head to the side. She know why he’s telling her this. It’s his form of an invitation.

“You want me to come?”

Your games are so exhausting. Say it.

His lips tighten into an uncomfortable, nearly undetectable smile. He admits defeat with two words, soft and low in his chest.

“I do.”  

--

Darkness descends. Ben is repairing one of his flannel shirts with a needle that seems impossibly small in his giant hands, but the stitching turns out neat and deft when she asks to see a row.

Rey attempts to read, but thoughts of Ben as he was just hours before, his cock hard under his many layers of clothes, kneeling on the ground before her, keep flashing through her mind. The audacity of thinking back to his form feels, disgustingly, as thrilling as did the exposure of her body.

It doesn’t matter if she’s glancing up at his face, cast in orange light and dramatic shadow, or if she’s staring down at her copy of The Handmaid’s Tale   - which should be more than enough of a downer to distract her, but alas - it happens no matter what she does. The curve of his neck to his windsail ear to his hands, raised in surrender, haunts her. The image feels burnt into her retinas like a painful copy of the sun.

There is nothing left to do about the situation. Rey exhales, and excuses herself to bed.

Ben nods, mumbling a "good night", much more focused on tying off a row of stitches than he is on caring to see her off.

--

Rey does not dream, the first half of the night.

Every lump in the ground feels sharp against her skin. Inside of her sleeping bag, she sweats too much, but laying outside of it she starts to shiver. When she sleeps it is the shallow sleep of an afternoon siesta, and she wakes up at the intrusion of even the most benign nighttime forest noises.

Eventually, the campfire smolders out and the cabin door creaks open and Chewie groans as he arranges his old bones to keep watch from the porch.

Rey settles down, breathes deeply, and dreams.

--

She is down by the beehives. The girls are hard at work, humming all together inside of the supers. 

Judging by the hazy blue light and the cold, wet bite of the air, it’s around dawn. A little before, maybe. She is barefoot, night-cooled mud squishing up from between her toes, arms folded, shoulders pressed up to her neck to preserve some of her body heat.

There’s no sign of Ben, or Chewie, or even any of her chickens.

Fortunately, Rey knows how to be alone better than she knows anything else.

She surveys her garden. What little of it she can see -  what is brushed by light and not down in the teeming darkness that is full of rot and slugs and ladybugs yet to be revealed by the morning sun - fills her with pride.

Though she’s a novice, unfamiliar with the land and still incredibly out of her depth, the entire plot is exploding with life. The tomatoes have bloomed already, their spindly vines blanketed in yellow blossoms, while the kale and broccoli and cauliflower and spinach and cabbage combined look like a great big salad spilled out over the dirt, the shocking green and tender-looking leaves just barely poking out of the earth.

Rey has been itching to break ground on some more land, to make room for squash and melons. The ground they have chosen is decently soft, but rocky. Too much of a pain to cut by hand. She digs out a chip of volcanic rock with her big toe.

In her over-large shirt and almost nothing else, Rey is not dressed whatsoever for the cold. The shivering is doing nothing to help. She marvels at how all of the shoots and stalks and vines can survive this pre-dawn cold at all. And she waits outside with them, away from her pile of warm blankets, for what?

Ah. 

She is waiting for Ben. Of course; this is her perpetual state of being. Rey wants, always, but most of the time Rey is merely kept waiting.

When he finally comes home to her, he brings a gift. Her heart leaps when she sees the both of them.

Towering at Ben’s side, following his lead with a lowered head, is a draft horse. Black hair falls in front of his glassy black eyes. Each black fringed hoof, which he places one in front of the other in an endless elegant plod, looks to be the size of a dinner plate. She approaches with cautious respect for both large, volatile creatures.

The horse keeps steady and watchful as Rey reaches out and runs her fingers across his nose to feel the velveteen skin. He could make a break for it, if he wanted. Surely he knows that. He is merely bound at th e mouth with thin leather straps, and attached to a man who is in no way a match for him. Yet he bows his head and does not move an inch.

Ben says nothing. He knows Rey needs to warning on how to treat such a beast. She has a way with every living thing.

“What’s he for?”

Rey would love to free him now and watch him gallop into the woods, disappearing forever. That is what he’s for. She approaches him slowly, with her whole body now. After a few patient moments she threads her arms around his enormous neck and leans into his warmth.

“The garden. We need to break ground.”

Rey is stunned. “I didn’t know you remembered.”

“Of course I remember. You told me about it.”

If this were real he would be speaking in his “you’re an idiot for needing this to be spelled out” voice. Instead, he is soft and searches her face as if memorizing it, as if trying to learn it in its entirety all at once. A bullet of warmth hits her and the feeling shoots all through her veins.

Unfortunately, even in her dreams she can't string together a set of words for her life.

“That’s… very nice. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet.”

Ben kneels down and holds his hands out to form a step so Rey might mount the horse. To ride him.

A loud breath escapes her as she fully considers the intimidating height and heft of him. Ben looks up at her, expectant.

“What? He’s too tall.”

“Nonsense.”

Rey bites down on her bottom lip to prevent the deep purr of his voice from getting through to her. As if it doesn’t have a direct connection with her guts anyway. She looks from Ben to the wide plain of the horse’s back and over to Ben again. Both sit steady still and watch her, two intimidating walls of muscle, shrouded in black, that radiate the most palpable tenderness.  

What the hell, dream-her reasons. She has only ever ridden wiry little ranch horses, when Elsa’s father would let them.  

This is fine. 

Ben can manage both of her feet with just one hand, he’s so big. Still, he uses both to give her a platform on which to hop. He lifts her, the motion seemingly so easy for him he doesn’t make any sounds of effort at all. She falls front-first against the horse’s flank, elbows locked securely across his back.

Ben holds one leg fast as Rey swings the other around and shimmies up to a stable position. Even when she is seated comfortably, he does not let go of her foot, and then the horse is so large that her legs must rest spread wide apart to accommodate him. The combination of the two sensations releases a rolling shiver from her very basest parts, up her spine, and throughout the rest of her.    

Electrified, Rey looks down to Ben, awaiting further instructions.

He is even more handsome from this angle, where she towers over him; her foot is near his mouth, which lingers close to her flesh despite all the dirt, and the impropriety. He draws in closer. She breathes, still, somehow. If she were awake her better instincts would have kicked in and she would have kicked him by now.

Ben pauses, looks lost in thought. A hand floats up to pat the horse’s flank, and Rey’s heart drops: he just wants to lay his head on the horse after all. Not on her. Of course.  She is sickened by disappointment until he closes his eyes, turns his face and tips his head forward.

His forehead comes to rest gently against her knee. It is a kiss: flesh-to-flesh contact done entirely for the pleasure of it. They stay like this, Rey transfixed and Ben silent, unmoving, until he opens his eyes and pulls away a few moments later.

After the last neat gash is drawn through the virgin earth, Ben unyokes the horse, but stops before he offers Rey help down. She straightens, uncomfortable with the sudden pause, the loss of momentum.

Ben looks up at her, his eyes big and soft, the hint of a smile on his lips lending an incredible amount of boyish charm to his features. She reaches out with a foot to nudge his shoulder, in the same way she might reach out and nudge a drugged circus tiger - just to see what he might do.

A big white paw reaches up and catches her foot before she can snatch it back. His lips part, as if he almost wants to say something. His eyes are bright, fervent almost. The horse’s reins cut into her hands, she’s holding onto them so tight.

When it comes down to questions of fight or flight, Rey has always been torn, equally inclined towards both. She makes to kick her foot out of Ben’s grip, and does so; then she grips the reins, thrusts her hips forward, and with a giant lurch the horse breaks into a brisk trot --

-- and Rey lurches up in her sleeping bag, sucking in a giant breath to relieve the wave of adrenaline-induced nausea. It is too dark to see anything, but instead of stifling, the blackness soothes.

For a second, she wants to call out to Ben, thinking that the skin-to-skin contact beyond their handshake had been real. She needs that connection more than anything she has ever needed in her life. More than her school lunches during the summer or a drink of water out in the junkyard. There is no logic to the feeling. It is a void that has opened up within her. The first must have scooted over to make room for its new friend.

She stops herself from vocalizing just in time. It takes a few extra seconds for her to catch up to the fact that the warmth and intimacy and enthusiastic openness from Ben was all a useless, pointless dream. 

This is how it always goes, but it’s never fails to feel like an unwarranted punch to the guts. For most of her life these soft, tender dreams have involved the ghosts of her birth parents, her Mam á , her Elsa, but now - there is Ben, butting right in, when he is supposed to be nothing to her.

Her phone has been dead for two days, so she has no idea what time it is and no way to check. Rey feels wrung out, like a limp towel, but laying down any longer would be a waste. Her proverbial hackles are still raised; there will be no more sleep this morning.  

The tent’s front zipper makes noise no matter how slowly or carefully she tries to pull it open, so she yanks it. Rey pokes her head out and waits, breath held. She hears the familiar sound of baby pine branches cracking under a heavy boot. Should she call out a greeting? It’s not something she’s ever done before. Nothing she’s felt compelled to do. She stays silent, comfortable with the routine of it, and keeps listening.

She can hear the crackling of a fire, but detects no further human movement. If Ben is out there, he makes no pains to greet her , either.

The air outside is as cold as it was in her dream. Everything is cast in deep blue pre-dawn light. Rey steps out of her tent and searches with one foot for her knock-off Adidas sandals. When she happens upon them, she shoves her feet inside and hurries towards the warmth of the fire, like a moth drawn magnetically to a street lamp.

Ben is nowhere to be seen, but Rey shrugs off his absence automatically. He'll return at some point. He’s always there by the time she normally wakes up, dependable as gravity in that way.

The other part of her is thinking about how much she doesn’t want to stand up and tend to the chickens. Doing one chore means she’ll feel compelled to do another, and she doesn’t even have the energy to think about starting the day.

She slides down into her camp chair instead, shoving her toes in the dirt that lines the fire pit so they’ll get to roasting, reviving them from their dead frozen state. Still in only shorts and her breezy hand-me-down shirt, her flesh flocks with goosebumps. Her body only begins to relax in long, slow waves the longer she basks in the glow of the fire.

--

“Cold?”

It’s that deep, rumbling voice. Rey thinks she is still dreaming until the sudden weight of an afghan falling on her ignites an adrenaline rush that comes and goes with such force she thinks she’s never been so awake, and so not cold, in her life.

She cranes her head around and spots him. Ben is fully clothed, thank God. If he were to pull her own stunt on her, she would absolutely deserve it; still, the thought revives the storm in the belly which she barely managed to overpower just minutes ago. But he is wearing only a black undershirt, and it’s not only his feet he’s left out for the ogling - she can see the dark hair coating the tops of his bare forearms, too. As if he becomes conscious of the them at the exact same time as her, Ben tucks his hands into the back pockets of his jeans.

“Where were you?”

His hair is wet and he has a towel draped around his neck, which pretty much answers her question, and he is barefoot, which draws her curious attention. He’s got long toes stuck on big paddle feet, but he maintains his facial hair and fingernails and whatnot impeccably, so his toes are, of course, no exception.

Rey’s never seen a man’s bare foot that hasn’t instantly repelled her. Perhaps it’s only because he doesn’t repel her. He’s the first man not to do so.  

Her eyes float back up to his face. In her sleepy haze they are still out-of-focus, so she must squint in order to see him clearly. Is that a smile?

It may be his version of a smile: there’s just the barest hint of an upward tilt to one corner of his mouth, his eyes dancing with all of the emotion the rest of his face seems incapable of expressing. But yes, he is smiling, still.

“It’s early. Why are you awake?”

Rey self-consciously drapes herself in the blanket, burning with humiliation but greedy for the cover. Her toes feel like they’re about to start actually roasting, though, so she pulls them from the dirt and realizes too late that her legs are covered in it.

“I had a dream.”

She looks back up at him and jumps, startled to see that his face has changed from a bemused smile to a stare so intense it feels like he’s pinning her to her place with the needle of his gaze.

“A dream,” he repeats. He pauses, long enough for Rey to realize that he wants her to pick up the conversation. When she does not, he asks, as if she’s deliberately wasting his time: “about what?”

“A horse.” It feels wrong to say the words aloud. She bites her lip, struggling against the urge to not continue. His eyes do not soften, though she visibly struggles to make sense of her suddenly scattered memories of her dream.

“We cleared more space for squash and melons with a plow.” She laughs, dry and almost humorless in her defensive sarcasm. “I guess I dream about garden improvements now.”

“Ah.” He finally backs off, brows furrowed more in confusion than anything else. “That’s not a bad idea.”

She can almost feel the warmth of the horse working underneath her. And Ben’s hand wrapped protectively around her ankle. Rey can’t help but crack a smile. It is as small as his, but just as genuine.

“I know.”

--

Once she makes a show of settling in to sleepily observe his early morning rituals, Ben, surprisingly enough, gives up the fight. He goes about his business with a chagrined air and an overt will to ignore her instead. From her observations, and the questions she peppers him with, Rey begins to piece together a picture of at least some of the time he spends without her there.

--

He has no alarm set for exactly 5:30 in the morning. Rey prompts him to tell her this because she is curious and wants to dig in to the reason why his lights are never on and he never seems to move around after he goes to bed at night. Apparently, he wakes when he wakes and it is always the right time. He refuses to delve any further into the subject.

She is undeterred. There are many other methods of extracting information. She has seen all of the intrigue and action and romantic comedy movies available through the Jakku Public Library and all of them were in preparation for this unpredictable challenge of a man.

Immediately after he wakes up, Ben takes a shower, ice-cold and only by natural light. If there is none, he goes without.

He dresses, then, all in black. After her weeks of observing him, that particular style choice seems to be more for convenience than anything - or it would be, if not for the gaudy black paint on his cabin and the black everything else he owns.

Once suitably cloaked in darkness, he builds their morning fire and tops it with a soup pot full of rainwater to boil, for her shower and for his coffee. Chewie is fed, breakfast is made, and eventually she wakes to the sound of oil popping or the dog whining or Ben cursing as he burns his fingers hauling the stock pot up the ladder to the shower barrel, and from then on the routine is her life as she knows it.

--

“Why don’t you take the hot shower?” She asks him over soft-boiled eggs and sausage. The idea has pestered her for the past half-hour. There is no conceivable situation in which she would not fend for herself first, take the best things when she can get them. This is his home, his life. He hardly knows her, but feeds and homes and gives her preferential treatment anyway.

The question earns her a classic “what do you think?”-sort of stare, but his abrasive body language does not enrage her, like usual.

He just told her, in not as many words, that he is a rainforest hermit who has no idea how to handle her. It was not an apology: it was an explanation of self. And in return, she heard him, and shared her dream with him. In much the same way, it was not forgiveness, but an explanation of herself. She’s never given and taken like that, done anything of the sort.

Instead of being disarmed and hurt by him, his words slide right off of her freshly Ben-repellent surface. He makes her want to laugh instead.

Ben looks stricken when she actually lets out a throaty little laugh, her grin now big and delirious and short-lived with the early hour and lack of coffee. He shoves a big bite of egg in his mouth to cover the momentary shift in his expression.

“You’re sacrificing all of them for me?”

He shrugs, pulling an overtly flippant face, as if she’s asking the most obvious question in the world.  

“It’s not a sacrifice. I prefer cold showers.”

Rey shakes her head, emphasizing her point with her fork, a glistening sausage speared helplessly upon it. “It does! You still heat up the water for me. That’s not nothing.”

“I would have to boil water, anyway.”

A savage bite releases her sausage from this mortal coil. Rey speaks with her mouth full, too fervent, and badly taught, to care about table manners. “And you climb the
Ladder To Hell with it in your hands.”

“You couldn’t if you wanted to. I have no choice. Unless you want cold showers too.”

Rey narrows her eyes at him, her frustration growing but not nearly outmatched by her determination. He has a point, but she doesn’t want to see it. She wants him to admit that he does a nice thing for he because he wants to. That single, simple acknowledgement. She needs to see if he’s capable of it.

While Ben busies himself by wolfing down his massive breakfast, Rey picks at the few remaining crumbs of hers. Chewie sighs overdramatically, slumping over in his own post-dinner haze.

The fire grows low. They stew in their mutual gridlock, neither willing to budge.

When Ben finishes, he stacks their plates on the ground in front of him but does not get up to begin the long process of washing them. He does not stand or move or do much of anything but sit there, chin balanced on a fist.  

They will die here, Rey realizes, and the silence has long since lost its teeming subtext. She’s moved on to wondering what fresh honeycomb will taste like. He’s probably lost to thoughts of his unanswered emails or the orders he’ll have to drop off at the post office tomorrow or some other bureaucratic drivel like that.

She swallows her pride, and chooses to be the one to give in.

“You’re making this so much more difficult than it has to be, you know.”

(Not that she wouldn’t do it without a little something in it for her.)

The barb hits its target dead-on. His left eye twitches. His jaw works as if he’s chewing on nothing, a habit he’s prone to when working on a particularly difficult problem.

A little white moth flutters towards the pale light of his face, bonking against his head like one of the bumble bees. Ben takes no notice of it, and it settles on top of his hair, a white fleck on a sea of black.

Rey watches him. Everything she has learned in her life has told her that she should waste her precious energy for nothing, and especially for no man. She has benefited so richly from that single lesson. 

“Fine.” He bites it out with lips curled, exposing his buck teeth and the tiny gap between them.   

Rey waits. He does, too, with an expectant look on his face.

“Oh.” She blinks, after a full minute. Maybe even two. “Was that it?”

His chair groans as he leans back in it, crossing his arms over his massive chest. Power-posing. Rey knows this ritual well. She does the same, entirely indifferent to the slobby streak of grease on her chin and to the inherent risk of the maneuver.

The moth, still atop his head, twitches its wings. Rey has to clamp down hard on the urge to giggle at the juxtaposition of her stone-faced host and his tiny friend.

“I want you to feel comfortable,” he declares at last, his voice a verbal eye roll but yet, satisfyingly, as low and rumbling as it was in her dream. “That’s all.”

“Thank you,” she gloats, at last cracking and releasing a cheeky grin. He tucks his chin down to his chest and stares up at her, his pose submissive and eyes like a wounded deers’ - big, black, and pleading. For what, she cannot quite gather.

The anger she was having so much trouble containing before dissipates into something somehow warmer, more unmanageable. It feels like she’s standing at a crossroads, where neither path is more or less inviting. She could release him from this torturous exchange, or get up and go about her business, releasing him from her surveillance of his.

Each has its own innate magnetism, luring her in two entirely different ways.

A third call, the one for her to stand silent and safe, is the loudest. Purely by dumb instinct, it is the one she chooses.

Perhaps aware of the intensity of the moment, the little white moth suddenly takes flight, up and away, into the breeze. Rey watches until it is not longer visible. Ben unglues his eyes from her and stands to start the dishes. The moment, like some sort of frail but palpable thing, snaps in half with a near audible crunch.

Rey breathes deeply, and tries not to think. She refuses to form emotions in response to this, the latest of his usual callous, breezy exits.

She’s never had a problem clearing her head of the clutter of feelings and attachments and all of the things she’d read about in the half-dozen books on Buddhism she was able to find during the precious few “religious” weeks of her twelfth year of life. It is much more difficult now.  

An idea takes hold in her mind. It germinates into a question that pesters her until she cannot stand it, and she finally entertains the question: what will their days look like, now that he can’t reason his way away from her?

Hunching down in the cramped privacy of her tent, Rey strips her pajamas off and nearly trips while yanking on her last clean pair of panties. She thinks of having company for lunch, and having a helping hand around when she’s always in need of one. The thoughts alone feel a touch too good to be true. 

Ben is gone when she re-emerges, red-cheeked and panting from the exertion of changing while doubled over and in a hurry. She can hear him banging around in his cabin as she sits to lace up her boots.

Of course her fantasy was too good to be real. Such radioactive thoughts cast mushroom clouds of one kind or another. He must be more sensitive to environmental changes than she first anticipated.

Chewie, at least, notices that she’s come back. His head had snapped up at the sound of the tent’s zipper catching, and Rey muttering curses to herself, and he only relaxed when she hopped up the cabin’s porch steps and patted him down his matted brown flank. His tail thumps on the wooden slats, but he does not get up to amble after her, like he usually would. There is a ray of sunlight shining down on him, and that is too precious a kind of spot for him to give up.

Rey knocks cautiously on Ben’s door, and waits. She presses it open when he calls for her to do so.

--

“I’m, uh. Going to the library, do you want anything?”

She meant to ask if he would come with her. And for some quarters, to pay off a late fee; disappointment in herself would flood her near to death if she weren’t so distracted by his setup. Last bread day was just a couple of days ago, and his cabin workstation was clean as ever then. It was all nearly gathering dust, from the looks of it.

Today, three burners bloom with flames under three large stock pots, all of them about to boil from the looks of the steam rising from the liquid inside. The entire house is hotboxed with the fragrance of lavender and smoked tea and fresh-cut boughs of cedar, the source plant material, both dried and fresh, covering the rest of the table.

“You work fast,” she mumbles, forgetting herself. “Damn.”

“Sorry, not today. If you need to buy anything, you know where the wallet is.”

If he heard her muttering, he does not indicate it. He is overly gracious, though he is in the middle of chopping something sort of stick-like, his neck shining with sweat from the effort of it. It’s as if he doesn’t know how to treat her anymore, as a friend or an employee or whatever he considers her to be in relation to him.

Rey nods, tamping down the beginnings of bitter feelings with a dissection of his use of “the” in relation to his wallet. (It was more friendly than “my wallet”, but not as familiar as “our wallet”. She finds herself feeling glad that he didn’t go too far into overly familiar territory. Ben’s respect for her - in this instance, at least - is refreshing.)

Does she thank him?

No.

He would hate that.

Almost as much as he must be hating that she is lingering.

Unsure what else to do, she turns to leave. His lips twitch but he turns down to his work and that is that. They do not exchange verbal goodbyes, opting for curt nods instead.

Per his instructions, she fishes the cash for her appointment out of his car’s unlocked glove box. She shimmies up to the driver’s seat of a truck that was once her home but that no longer feels anything like home. The imprint of her ass in the driver’s seat is the same, though, and her cactus is as bright and stubborn as ever.

As she stomps her foot on the gas pedal, forcing the ignition to catch, she thinks of the moth that landed on Ben’s head, and how it fled at the first sign of trouble.

A shining specimen of evolutionary adaptation, that bug.  

--

Empty of other cars, the highway is a parched ribbon of gray, the damp of the morning’s first drizzle baked away already by the rare warmth of the sun. So used to each twist and turn by now, Rey coasts down its dizzy length more focused on adjusting the radio than paying particular attention to her driving.

--

Chandrila always appears first as the gas station where they always stop for coffee and snacks on Saturday mornings. On autopilot, Rey pulls into the parking lot, stopping only once she’s halfway through the creaking automatic door to blink away the mild confusion caused by her unintentional side-quest.

The cashier is the same ambiguously middle-aged, balding man that always serves her. He smiles at her in the same way, too: half a leer, half an expression of genuine affection for the scraggly desert girl that’s suddenly his number one purchaser of snacks nobody else in town was ever willing to buy. She gets herself a bag of day-old glazed donuts to serve as the day’s provisions, polishing off one by the time she reaches the parking lot, then another before she’s back in her truck.

Her sanctuary of aloneness. The engine is rumbling softly now, and the weather outside doesn’t quite call for the too-functional heater. She hums along to the same songs on the radio that she’s grown beyond used to hearing, feeling something like a hum of an entirely different sort thread down through her guts.

It would be only a slight exaggeration to call it a thrill of excitement - of wonder, even - in the face of the little blip of a town she now tentatively calls her home. Rey cranks a window down and hangs one arm out, trying the casual motion on for size as Chandrila proper dissolves into view.

--

Because it is so densely guarded by old-growth pines, the entire town seems perpetually cast in a thin veil of mist. The sidewalks, even along the town’s one main street, are cracked and puffy with moss; all of the street signs are caked in the stuff. Chandrila’s one traffic light flicks through its pattern with sometimes audible clicks, the street remains so still and silent during the day.

There are no postmen or children or teenagers or families walking to or from school. When it’s laundry day or market day, there are floods of people, but now only the occasional shop owner appears in the window of their store as Rey rumbles by (in the truck she never knew was so loud to others) on her way to the library. No others occupy the town’s handful of streets.

She does not feel entirely casual with her arm hanging out of the car any more, but she can’t quite put her finger on any one reason why she should pull it back in. So it stays out, and the radio stays playing, and Rey stays cheerful, but the effects of the town weigh on her still.

She avoids the eyes of the baker, the wan face of the receptionist at Bushwhackers. It does not help that Chandrila appears to have been constructed all in one burst in the mid-sixties, and then never re-touched. Each government agency has their office, and each business has their storefront, erected inside the bones of what once was. The signs, all neon and most of them flickering out pathetically, read like a children’s picture book: “DRUGGIST” “GROCER” “OREGON DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION: LICENSING AND ID CARDS”.  

The macabre show never fails to give Rey the impression that the whole town is haunted, and not only by the googly-eyed Northwesterners that stare her down wherever she goes.

---

By the time she was twelve, Rey had read all 1,178 pages The Lord Of The Rings twice over.

Before that, she’d kept herself to a strict schedule: one book per week, no matter what. She cleared through the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High and Harry Potter and every other series she could get her paws on before she entered middle school.

Before that, when she was living with Mama and had a brain still working in Spanglish, she read something new every single day. Her case worker, when she was able to stop and check on Rey at all, occasionally brought with her boxes full of slim paperbacks - all of them in English, cruelly or not - and flimsy picture books about puppies and witches and children without parents.

Rey took quickly to the former two types of story, though more often than not they scared her into staying up well past her bedtime.

The latter never quite clicked. What did those children, who were surrounded by kind adults telling them that their parents “weren’t able to care for them at the moment but their new families would love them just as much” have in common with her?

‘Those children’ are like you, the worker had huffed in response to this question. She was already halfway back to her car, sweating under the gaze of the merciless, unblinking sun. Rey remembers standing on the porch, clutching the book to her chest, aching with regret at having left her chanclas inside. The packed earth and cement that lay between her and her only connection to her own past was a burning hot, widening chasm which she could not cross.

--

What would have running after the woman done?

Rey thinks about this often, and will never stop. This is one of many moments that occupies her mind almost constantly. The wanting that kicks around inside of her feeds off of it: she cannot stop.

She thinks of her own birth.

(How she wishes she could have held on to her mother and not let go.)

Of the moment of her own conception.

(Not about her parents fucking, though she has come to wonder what attracted them to each other, but more to prevent this entire fucking headache.)

And now of the moment she chose to leave Jakku, once and for all.

(To leave in a single direction, untracked, unknown. If she were so difficult to find before, she’s downright impossible now.)

She picks these moments apart, reimagines them, but in her heart of hearts, she already knows the answer to her own question:

Nothing. Running after the woman in a beat-up Camry with an Albuquerque plate would do nothing for her. It never did.

--

There is no avoiding an empathetic punch to her gut when she ducks into the library, which still uses the Mid-Century shelves and desks and potted plastic plants of an old, family-run bookstore. They feel to her more like undusted trophies than proper tributes. But there is no other library within a reasonable distance, and so she is this one’s reluctantly enthusiastic patron.

While driving to Oregon, Rey had imagined the library. Not only that, she’d fantasized about it.  From what she had been able to get ahold of over the years, she knew exactly what she was missing out on by living out in the middle of nowhere. There were libraries with massive online catalogs and multiple branches and extensive archives on modern topics with controversial, challenging literature. Certainly, Oregon had to have them. Even in their own version of a middle of nowhere type town, she assured herself, there would be Kerouac and Popular Mechanics from years other than 2009.

Instead, in Chandrila, Rey has an immense selection of Harlequin romances, Tom Clancy novels, and books on survival and horticulture and other things that she, luckily enough, finds incredibly absorbing. Otherwise, the catalog is mostly patched together from donations and the results of a librarian’s spending spree in what seems to have been the mid-80’s.   

But there are the fish, too.

In the middle of the stacks, as if the architecture were built around the inescapable fact of its existence, is a massive freshwater fish tank. Its aquarium’s LED lighting bounces unnaturally off of the books, their covers all weathered with age, each volume’s pages worn by the fingers of dozens of townspeople over the past two decades. She shuffles towards it, passing her usual aisles - the ones that contain the automotive manuals and nonfiction biographies - without even a passing glance. 

--

The librarian is an old man in a “Navy Veteran”-printed baseball cap with bulging, watery eyes and a thick tongue or a speech impediment or an otherwise very strange foreign accent that renders him mostly incomprehensible, but no less likeable to Rey. Of the half-dozen pleasant chats they’ve had over her piles of books, she has only caught that his name (or one of his names) is Ackbar, and that he’s from “the coast”.  

His schedule changes about as much as the guy at the gas station changes his post from in front of the picked-over packs of cigarettes and condoms and rolling papers, in that he does not do it much, if at all. He seems to be napping when Rey drifts in his direction, but perks his head up when she stops so close to the glass of the tank that her breath collects in a cloud of condensation on its surface.

This aquarium in the middle of the Oregon forest reminds Rey of the cactus she had planted and still has stuck to her dash - it is planted as densely as the forest outside, and is as wet and green and crawling with bug-eyed creatures that all seem to be perpetually glancing away from her. Even the briefest thought of all the effort and money and thought it must take to merely maintain this little mirror world’s homeostasis staggers her.

Her favorite resident of the tank, Aguirre, is out to say “hello”. He’s a pebbled black plecostomus, nearly a foot long in his ripe old age. His catfish lips suck away at the algae-covered surface of the rock beneath him.

She stares into Aguirre's eyes. They stare back, unblinking, but lit with a spark of warmth.    

 “Getting up to trouble there, girl?”

Rey whirls around, already so unused to being addressed as merely “girl”, and being snapped at in a rough old man's voice, though such treatment was her baseline for normality for the past few years of her life. She pulls a sheepish face, as if she’s never been here before, and never been chastised for posting up too close to the glass.

The librarian’s face does not change, but at least his expression is one of old-man amusement. His fuzzy brows shoot up, a signal for her to go on, to explain herself.

“They just seem so at-home in there.”

The man laughs, a sound that is more bark and cough than laugh at all. It does not make Rey feel any more at home.

“Takes a lot of work to keep them happy, you know.”

“I’m sure.”

The eyes of the plecostomus bulge like the old librarian’s, but the fish has large black irises and a white ring around them. She feels stuck in the line of Aguirre's gaze, pinned there, and stares hard back.

Her head begins to ache with the effort of attempting to understand this creature who exists above the constricts of language.

“Very picky. But worth it, hm?”

Rey shrugs. She’s never had a pet at all, much less a stationary tank full of fish she doesn’t even intend to eat. The ability to just randomly take on the care of another creature, and for fun, no less, has been unimaginable up until this very strange turn in her life.

She thinks her big dinosaur of a friend in the tank would make a terrible pet, anyway. He has not moved his eyes once, and so neither has she. Rey thinks of dumping him in a river and her headache disappears instantly. The thought of icemelt from an unseen source soothes her as if the water were actually running over her skin.

“I wouldn’t know.”

The librarian’s brows shoot up impressively far, a show of surprise as comic an overstatement as his bellowing laugh. She wishes she were ensconced in the dark coziness of the bottom of a sun-warmed pond. This incredibly specific thought leaves her with the impression of disgusting fuzziness all over her skin.  

“No? I always thought that Solo would be a handful.”

The first response that jumps to her mind is yes, he is, thank you for the goddamn recognition.

Rey possesses neither the time nor emotional bandwidth to deal with the implications of her thoughts automatically landing in that territory. Her arms are itchy from the algae. The second response that jumps to her mind is the one she actually blurts out.

“I wouldn’t know, actually. I just work for him.”

The bellowing laugh returns, and then a customer wanders up and the old man is distracted from further thoughts of her flippant response. Rey doesn’t know what she’d do if he were to expel her, leaving her without access to this hall of once-truths and weathered novels and out-of-date almanacs and encyclopedias.

Though thankful, Rey still has a sour feeling in her stomach about the whole thing. She cannot focus long enough to decide on what book she wants to check out next.

Again, her prevailing instinct is to choose nothing at all. She goes with that. All she really wants in the world, anyway, is a long swim down to the muddy depths of the lake, where she can bury herself under the muck and not be bothered with it ever again.

Or a shower. A long, cold shower will do.  

--

--

--

I’m blaming Rey’s sexy horse dream entirely on the Nice For What video because ummm how am I supposed to see this and NOT insert the imagery into my fic? Hm?

Anyway I love comments and questions and ideas and all of that good stuff! Thank you so much for all of your kind words and for reading and sticking with me. Things are looking muuuuch clearer from here on out, I'm H E L L A psyched.

Chapter Text

"Keepin' up is hard to do
Even harder feeling heavy, steady chasin' you
Baby baby, why are you lookin' around, you lonely?
I feel you comin' down like honey"

SZA, "Anything"  

--

APRIL

--

On Tuesday, a wall of storm clouds gathers before dawn, blotting out the light of the breaking sun. It pours and pours and pours all day, not letting up until well after what might as well have been sunset, for all Ben knows. Or cares.

He only knows for sure that breakfast is dark, Rey the kind of tranquil quiet she’s only capable of when either sleepy, eating, or both; then lunch is dark, the clouds low enough still to reach out and touch, if only he could shimmy up to the top of one of the trees without arousing her suspicion, and she grumbles that there are seedlings to put in the ground if they still want to eat come October (she says the word “October” and his mind goes blank, throat constricting with the thrill of the threat and the promise); dinner is dark, too, because he realizes far too late that the dry kindling’s out and has to spend an hour nudging a cooking fire into life, Rey glowering from her camp chair at the injustice of her meal being delivered late.

Ben spends the majority of the day bent over a massive batch of base lotion, whipping together jojoba and almond and coconut and shea oil with an immersion blender, making a sport of keeping the temperature of the stewing ingredients an even 139 °F. He keeps the windows curtained, though more out of laziness than anything else. After all, the plants are the ones that need time in the sun to photosynthesize. He only starts to undergo the process if he forgets to eat for too long.  

Rey shuts herself up in the shed with her plants but emerges come what feels like afternoon, her intent apparently to perform her own version of a caged jungle cat’s anxious pace: round after round of burpees, her hands and the knees of her Dickies muddying with the effort. Ben glances out of the front window exactly once and watches as Rey stares out at the lake, its surface roughened by wind and freckled with raindrops. He reels internally with a flare of instinctual embarrassment: fuck, I’m sorry, my bad, let me leave and forget this ever happened. You two get back to it.

In her relentless pursuit of tension relief, Rey gets soaked to the skin but seems to come out utterly revitalized. In her excitement she forgets her usual civil self and raps on his door more forcefully than usual, then steps inside without hesitation when he responds.

The door thumps shut behind her. It’s not pitch black inside, but Ben’s one work lamp doesn’t cast near enough light, making it seem more like a hermit's cave than he was aware of.  The smell of her wet hair, washed recently with his own shampoo, fills the air. Ben would recognize it anywhere. The sharp, citrusy ambiguity of lemon at the top, drifting down through a cloud of lavender, cardamom, that hit of crushed black pepper, cushioned by oak and the lightest touch of patchouli on the base.  

His personal blend is the product of nearly six months’ work. He was never quite satisfied with the source of his jasmine, the intensity of the oak, the right proportion of patchouli to pepper. When he’d opened a tincture of lemon that had been soaking for three months, only to find it had been contaminated with mold, the rage had nearly driven him to smash his entire collection of essential oils. In his newfound era of self-control, he’d only destroyed half   of it  that day.

He inhales only once, so as not to arouse suspicion, but it’s undeniable: his personal blend suits her even better than it could ever suit him.

The thought makes him feel like a seventeen-year-old boy again. Hit in the head with memories of being just as tall and just as awkward as he is now, but having no bulk or instinct for self-preservation, he does not - cannot - look at her.

Do not sniff her do not sniff her Jesus Christ don’t -

Ben already knew that, though, somewhere deep inside. He and Rey and Rey’s Incredibly Fragrant Hair (And Neck Too Probably) spend their Thursday mornings crammed together in his tiny cabin kitchen, he and she both suddenly fixated on maintaining a constant wealth of sourdough and baguettes and croissants and proper brioche and cinnamon breakfast bread and muffins; with so much to do, their baking sometimes takes up nearly the entire day, Ben’s stove being an old piece of garbage with a single rack inside and shoddy-at-best temperature control.

While things bake slowly in those conveniently small batches, they putter around together. Rey might occasionally get him to talk in stilted phrases about his soap-making or the chickens or the weather outside, but more often than not, they don’t speak at all. Those are the times Ben likes best, when they can actually maintain a humming companionable silence, Rey unwilling to wander away in pursuit of something more interesting, and he standing stiff at the kitchen counter, trying desperately not to give in to his instinct to inhale her smell like it’s the only thing keeping him alive. He always ends up doing exactly that, hating himself the entire time, doing everything he can not to break apart entirely.  

Thursday is now exactly forty-eight hours away. She stands only a few feet away from him now,  and he’s still vividly, painfully aware of when next he knows she’ll be this close to him again.

“I need to take another shower,” Rey says at last, sniffing a bit, an awkwardly polite pinch now in her voice. The jovial brusqueness was nice. He wants that back.

Ben lifts his head and half-glances back at her. She’s soaking wet and shivering, tendrils of wet hair clinging to her neck, to her muscular shoulder, and her arms are crossed tight over her chest, veins visible with the effort she’s putting forth to stay warm. He wants to towel-dry her head and set her in front of a fire and lecture her about how people get colds for doing this shit! … Right?

Instead, he nods dumbly. "Of course."

Of course. Of course. I’m sorry. Anything.

Though tiptoeing right up to the line of perfect emulsification, he sets his gunked-up blender down and squats to rummage under the work table for a stock pot. As soon as he grabs one, Rey reaches out to take it from him. He would very gladly be the one to step out of this hotbox of unsaid things and ever-present disquiet into the rain, but Rey insists she fill it from the massive barrel out on the side of the cabin, “it being my shower and all.”

She lets the screen door thwap closed behind her, leaving in her wake a gasp of wet evening air that slaps him in the face. As soon as he knows for sure that she’s gone, Ben doubles over and takes a shaky deep breath, working mightily to maintain his physical composure. It’s like keeping a litter of puppies in a box, though: as soon as he gets his foot in line, remembers how many toes he has (is supposed to have), his hand threatens to break apart and he has to think up a dozen or so fingers , too, along with toes, and it’s…

It’s a lot.

Being around Rey all evening was difficult enough last night, let alone now, let alone the rest of tonight. And then... tomorrow will be another night. After that, another. And another and another and another.

The logical side of him demands that he remember that this was his plan. He wanted this. He took to the internet, bore his soul (in the way of Solo men), and begged for literally anybody to come and ruin his life. He sought this out. 

The rest of him cannot stop thinking about how many nights he’ll have to be alone with Rey and how much he desperately wants to vomit. But, instead of something that simple, that easy, his arms seize up until they start to spasm in earnest, and he completely loses composure of his hands. So many fingers to keep track of. One, two, tria, tessera, cinq, six...  they take to branching too forcefully, so much so that the bones in his hands crack with the strain of it.

At the same time, a euphoric rush shocks up his immobile limbs as his fingers split apart, forming five little branches lined with hard, unopened blossoms. The searing pain melts down into it, the potent mix hitting him all at once.

Ben bites his lip to keep from crying out, and the automatic flinch of a reaction is luckily all he needs to snap back to reality and back to his usual human skin. He prefers not to bear direct witness to many of the things his body does, and this is one of them. If he were to hold his arm out and look, though, he’d see it threaded with cords that move snake-like under the surface of his skin, the revolting visual evidence of a complex organism rapidly returning to itself.

By some mercy, his little attack has left behind less blood than usual. He still has to grab the first old shirt he sees, though, and wipe the floor clean of his emotional splatter. It does not go very well; his hands shake with violent, uncontrollable tremors. Just a minor side effect of complete corporal reformation.

Humiliation at his lack of control burns him up now, like it always does. He probably hasn’t dropped below a steady 103of since Rey arrived. Shaky as a newborn goat, Ben stands, maintaining a white-knuckle grip on the counter in order to accomplish just that. He does his best to focus on breathing, and only that.

His control doesn’t last long at all.

You are weak, and that very weakness will ruin her .

When she had just arrived and he could hardly tolerate her nearness at all, the sentiment rang with the sound of his uncle’s voice, that scratchy sea-nymph cadence: “ You will be weak for them.”

By now, this is less a conscious thought than a deep imprint in his mind. It’s a path he travels down so frequently it’s been worried smooth. He’s been careful, and nothing has happened to her. They cannot get to her; he’s made sure of that. No, anything happening to Rey is out of the question.

His face may twitch with the residual effort, but he collects himself impressively quickly, and right on time, it sounds like. He hears the sound of Rey’s terrible knock-off slides clomping up the porch steps; she nudges the cabin door open with her hip a second later, her arms already quivering with the weight of the too-full stock pot. Straight-faced and stupidly quick on the draw, Ben takes it from her and turns to set the thing to boil. There are five steps between the door and the work table. He swallows back tears the entire way, testing his newborn hands and arms against 41 pounds of water sloshing around in a crude metal pot.

When he’s gotten things situated and his face somewhat under control, he turns back around. Rey is lingering in the doorway, bright-eyed and expectant, traces of a polite smile still on her face.

Should he smile back? Is that what they do now?

He takes the rest of a breath to think it over, and comes to a swift conclusion - no. Small talk has never come easy to him, and it especially doesn’t now that his brain is operating at half capacity, the rest of it committed to the Herculean task of keeping his corporeal form whole.

If he were to try, he’d end up looking maniacal anyway. In times of the greatest stress, he has a tendency to rip through conversations with wildly dark, inappropriate jokes, making everyone involved uncomfortable and desperate for an excuse to get away from him. The last thing he wants is to subject Rey to that.

She says nothing, and it’s all he can do to not react at all. Instead he watches, powerless, as Rey visibly grows bored of him and h er gaze drifts from him over to the measly collection on his bookshelf. Without so much as a wink or an awkward smile, so does she. 

It hits Ben that his collection would be much more impressive if his teenage self hadn’t told Leia to just fucking burn it all , then over the phone one night, and if Leia hadn’t been exasperated enough with his constant calls begging her to let him come home to actually go through with it.  But then, what would Rey think of his extensive reference library, anyway? All it had ever done was serve as a physical reminder of all the things he’d been obsessed with, and had eventually lost interest in: dark magic, Nordic mythology, stage magic, Latin, Greek, the theory of evolution…

A goal clearly in her mind, Rey scans the shelf, reaching for his iPod a touch too quickly and much too casually for the motion not to have been long-premeditated. Ben freezes, unsure if he wants to stop her or not. He’s thought of this exact scenario playing out, yes, maybe once or twice or many many many times, but he’d always imagined being excited about her discovering more of him. "Excited" is nowhere near how he feels now.

It takes Rey no time at all to zero in on something of interest. Whatever it is, it makes her smile with the radiance of a hard-won victory.

A powerful stir surges like a wave through Ben's belly. It’s hot and nearly intolerable. Yes. That’s it. Fight me.

“You have so much Cocteau Twins,” she produces at last, an edge of begrudging respect in her voice.

He stops just short of snorting aloud. He’d expected more from her, for all of the anticipatory triumph in her voice. That, and he has to do anything to keep from thinking about whether or not she also loves his favorite band, or if she hates them, if she thinks they’re overrated. 

The stress feels white hot in his head, at his temples. His response is dry and shaped somewhat like a sneer. “Yes, I guess their entire discography can be described as ‘much’.”

Rey doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t take the bait. “So you’re completionist, huh?”

As soon as Ben loads an appropriately coquettish response, her attention is already back on his iPod, and it’s too late to react without coming off as pathetic as he feels. He goes quiet, shoving the thought back, and searches her face for any further reactions. She gives nothing away, her bemused smile set in stone as she casually scans through the most thorough archive of his life that exists, other than the one that lives in his bad, unreliable head.

It’s like having his skin casually unzipped and thrown open. He imagines giving her the grand tour: here is my liver. Look closely. You may notice it’s been torn apart by wild eagles. (“Wild eagles” is what I like to call “my reckless teenage alcoholism”.) Now, up here is my heart. It thumps like mad all day because it’s dumb and can’t do anything else. Behind are my lungs. I see you and they fill with brambles. So many of them. I can never catch a breath.

Ben bites his tongue and feels the tips of his ears burn, bristling at his own desperation for her approval. His hunger to be petted and coddled and told he’s been doing right has satisfied itself thus far by consuming every other part of him. It’s awakening fully now, stirring mightily.

Did she smell it on him the first time they met? Is that why she’s dragging this dull knife across his flesh now?

Rey hums thoughtfully, her calloused thumb tracing increasingly slower circles around the click wheel. He can’t stop staring at her hands, her fastidiously clean fingernails, her slender thumb moving dexterously, as if alive in its own right.

Each tiny clicking noise his iPod makes pings around Ben’s skull, echoing with a mounting sense of ominousness. She’s taking notes, filing things away for later. He can tell. Dread, panic’s precursor, spreads through him. If his memory holds up, he’s got nearly all 256GB worth of music on there, some of it he hasn’t listened to, hasn’t even thought about, in years.

“Bauhaus…” Click, click, click. Is she being plain merciful, or brilliantly cruel? He cannot tell. He wouldn’t care, either way.

Her eyebrows keep going up. “Beach Boys, Beastie Boys…”   

The big batch of lotion must be cooled entirely by now, all in open air and uncontrolled; a fact which would normally would bother him so intensely he’d have to throw the whole batch out and start anew. There is no way he can get back to it now. He doesn’t even care. He is wholly transfixed. She’s forming the final few judgements that will seal her opinion of him, and thus his fate, forever. The weight of his world sits so elegantly on those shoulders of hers.

Rey looks up. He is staring daggers at her, Ben knows, but he doesn’t feel like looking away, pretending he wasn’t. At least in this one way, he can be as honest with her as he wishes.

Her eyes are burning with an eager thrill of energy as they come to hold his gaze. When they lock on to each other, neither lets go, both once again unwilling to abandon, or to cede to, the other.

Like his very own chest-burster, teeth and violence and endless appetite and all, the hunger crawls up from behind his liver and kicks at him, except instead of exploding out through his ribs (which would be preferable, if for no other reason but the drama of it), the thing threatens to push up out of his throat.  It wants Rey to give him something. It is unimaginably greedy. It will do anything to achieve its means, to include unleashing the torrent of questions that run through his head on a constant loop whenever he’s around Rey, lately, if Ben doesn’t get ahead if it.

What do you think of me? Why are you still here? What are you afraid of? Why don’t you have anything to go back to?

By the time Ben draws his next breath, a full eternity has passed. He would rather live in that single moment forever than continue on, but his body does a ruthlessly efficient job of dragging him back to Earth.

He clears his throat, not knowing what’s about to happen, what he might say. He doesn’t even know what to do with the phlegm that he’s just produced. Rey raises her eyebrows, attention still focused on him until something over his shoulder catches her eye. Her face falls by a degree or two. He turns to look for the source of her disappointment, ready to fight, only to see that steam is billowing from the stock pot’s wide mouth. Any longer on the hotplate and it’ll boil over. He reaches to turn it off and fumbles with the cheap temperature gauge, nearly knocking the plastic cap off.

She does not move to help but keeps watching him, faint traces of a question beginning to cloud the expectant look on her face.

“The water is ready,” he tells her at last, mush-mouthed, wanting to die.

--

On Wednesday, Rey wakes before sunrise for the second time in a single week. Once she sees a snippet of clear violet sky in between the pines, she inhales a crusty pain au chocolat and disappears into her tent to ready herself for the day. There’s still a smudge of chocolate on her upper lip by the time she emerges, but she’s waving “good morning” and “goodbye” to him with the same gesture, her back already turned to him, by the time he can think to say anything.

Having known only scarcity in her life, Rey wastes no time at all. Ben leans against the campfire pine and watches as she races barefoot down the slope towards the garden plot, ripping through the night’s gathered quiet and startling Chewie awake with a throaty, victorious whoop. He sprints off after her, bounding to her side with more springy ease than he’s shown in the better part of a year.

Chewie barks and Rey shrieks and they skid to a stop at the bottom of the slope together, the two of them an oddly matched pair of uncoordinated limbs and endless energy. Ben feels a traitorous stab of hope that she’ll turn around and see him seeing her - that maybe she’ll look back with the exact same interest, even from so far away. Especially from so far away.

She does not turn. He is more-or-less nothing to her, as he ought to be. She dives into the dirt with the enthusiasm of a schoolgirl seeing her friend for the first time since Friday.

He spends the rest of the morning alone, out in the wide bed of the forest, melted into the grove that shades his forge and his grandparents’ graves.

It’s always enormously still out here. Perfect for brooding. Today’s silence is a weighted blanket that soothes him, until it doesn’t. The bliss is short-lived, was too good for him, triggered the switch in his brain labeled “RUIN EVERYTHING” in big, bold letters: he does what he can to fall asleep, but right when he needs it the most all he can manage is a series of short, restless naps.

He has one dream suspended throughout them all, bitten off in ragged, unsatisfying chunks. Whenever he wakes, he’s more desperate than the last time to fall back asleep and land right back where he was, but it can’t be that easy. Nothing ever is, with his brain.

In this hybrid dream and nightmare, he is trying to find Rey. He is always trying to find Rey . He lives his life in a constant state of hyper-awareness of her location, her mood, her well-being. Just her name gets stuck in his head, sometimes, a byproduct of his anxious vigilance.

Rey.

He tries to call out to her, but his tongue is gone. Never there when he needs it.

She’s just a few feet ahead of him, he can tell, but it feels like she’s been swallowed up by the void. He’s chasing her into the crust of the earth, passing through narrow hallways of red carved canyon stone, straining to latch on to any trace of her she may have left behind.

Rey.

His tongue is a stump already sucked dry of blood. It’s a wet wad of meat now, sitting there behind his horses’ teeth.

Sheets of unstable stones rocks slip around under his unwieldy hiking boots; his shoulders scrape against an enclosing sandstone wall; Rey keeps calling his name, her voice not panicked in the slightest, but rather full of glee and wonder. He can hear her, just a little further ahead, but he cannot see her.

Rey!

The next thing he hears is a splash: the sound of a body (that cannot swim) hitting water. Deep water. Ben wakes himself up shouting her name, then snapping his mouth shut against it so quickly that his teeth clack and he startles himself wide awake. So there is to be no relief from her, even in his dreams.

He’s never been known for his emotional stoicism, no, but this may be an entirely new low. Too weak to walk in his state of sudden physical rebirth, Ben crawls on his hands and knees to the roots of a particularly welcoming ponderosa. He curls up right there, making no effort to pat down the pine needles that stick out or to check for nests of mice first. What’s the point? Ben is barely back in his tender human skin, yet he’s half-covered in mud already.

His breaths come hard, rattling the castoff foliage in front of his face as he gathers the strength to stand up again, and find her.

--