At first, it was like Rey had lit his goddamn house on fire. Before Dameron had introduced her to him, before her scent had looped around his neck like a leash and pulled tight, he'd actually been in control. His work was a constant spiral toward perfection. The hospital staff was terrified of him, and thus terrified to make mistakes with his patients. His internal world was locked down tight as a submarine, the only leaks privy to Snoke, who’d publicly tapped Ben to become the youngest head of surgery in America after the old monster retired. Everything else was sublimated into becoming the perfect surgeon.
And then she’d arrived.
At first sight, he might have been interested in her if she'd been a Beta. She was pretty and shapely in a wiry way he liked, with eyes like a deer and a thoughtful air. But Omegas were too hard to keep at a distance, too distracting, too needy and breedy and passive. And then her scent—something like petrichor in the Rockies during wildflower season, mixed with home and love and absolutely nuclear fucking—drilled right into the core of his brain, magnetizing his attention to her in a way that was profoundly unacceptable. He’d instantly herded all the implications of that right into the territory where he kept everything else that wasn’t Doing The Work: anger corralled by hearty disdain.
Following their disastrous first conversation, though, her scent attacked him at every turn. Random hallways, the lounge, elevators and exam rooms, wherever she'd wafted at some point during her workday. It obliterated even the familiar tang of cleaning chemicals and the roil of sick patients, until the atmosphere was nothing but her. It made it so much fucking worse that she also turned out to be an impressive doc with a sly sense of humor and a knockout smile. His mind's eye started continually projecting her face and body into his brain, scorching his concentration and, finally, it seemed, his sanity. At one point, she’d brushed against his arm in a meeting and when he'd gone back to his office, he'd practically twisted the sleeve off his shirt trying to get his nose into the spot she'd touched.
Unfortunately, he'd had to tell the therapist most of this.
After the... physical incident... with that fucking redheaded spider, Hux, the hospital had mandated that he receive twice-weekly psychotherapy for three months, along with anger management classes, if they were going to consider rehiring him.
The therapist was a mated Omega named Ahsoka who specialized in, as she called them, "pissed off Alphas." In their first session, Ahsoka told him that her first goal for him was that he learn to feel his feelings.
"I already fucking feel my feelings," he'd snarled. "Why the hell do you think I'm in here?"
She'd lifted one grey eyebrow, presumably to ask, Are you finished, dumbass?
"You're not feeling them," she'd said. "You're reacting to them. And dramatizing them."
He'd stalked out the door at that.
In their second session, he was monosyllabic for 40 minutes, and then finally burst out with, "How the hell is a surgeon supposed to function if he feels?" His feelings weren't little trickles that he could control with his stupid fucking mind. They were a goddamn river that was always swamping him, always leaving him half drowned and scared to death and pissed. "People would die if I let myself emote when I cut them open, or when they start coding on the damn table. I have to focus. I can't feel."
She wasn't even slightly taken aback. "Yet you seem to feel anger."
He looks at her helplessly. "Because anger works. It keeps me focused. It makes me do better. It drives everyone to do better."
She looks at him again with that Really? look.
"Ben, managing your emotions while you're working is great. That's what successful people do. But I think you've somehow gotten wrapped around this idea that you're never allowed to feel anything, anywhere, unless it's rage. And then, you just choose to explode instead of letting your feelings evolve.”
He doesn’t look at her.
“Where do you think that idea came from?”
It was his first week at the hospital, and he’d muttered in Snoke’s office that he was pissed at himself for nicking the wrong tissue in a simple surgery. "Good," Snoke had hissed. "You should hate yourself for that. You should despise yourself." Ben had looked at him in shock. "A fumbled cut and your patient dies. A hesitant cut and they come back to surgery again and again, with a lawsuit against you and this hospital in between. There is no room for compassion in the surgical suite, you idiot boy." Snoke stepped up to him and slapped him hard across the face. Ben's whole body recoiled, but he didn’t step back. "No compassion for yourself. None for your patient. You have talent. Your medical pedigree is exquisite. If you tolerate less than that lineage is worthy of, then you have failed utterly." In the years since, he would hear what Snoke said next many more times, in many forms: "If you fail, then be ashamed. Then turn that shame into rage at your own incompetence, and that rage into a drive for perfection. If you want to inherit my place at the head of this surgical department, if you want to become a man with a dozen procedures named after you, you must tolerate only perfection, in you and everyone on this staff who serves us."
Snoke. Snoke, who had told Rey that she would never mean anything to him.
Ben simply looked down at his hands and shifted his enormous feet. "It's... that’s surgeon culture."
Ahsoka was unimpressed. "I'm going to put that aside for a moment and simply say that I've worked with dozens of surgeons over the years, and there's only one facility in this town where that is the culture." She’d looked at him meaningfully. "But because our session time is at an end, I'm going to ask you a different question to think about until our Monday meeting: Whether it’s surgeon culture or not, what effect does that belief have on your relationships? You have a partner now, and you care enough about her that you nearly ended your career because a colleague hurt her. How has that attitude about feelings affected your relationship with her?"
Ben left Ahsoka’s office without even considering his answer. He went home and ensconced himself in all the old shelters of his life--he pulled Rian onto his lap and read Tolkein for four hours, barely looking up until his stomach started rumbling. Then he numbly ate a protein bar and went for a seven-mile run. When he got home, he ate some other tasteless thing, showered, read a few journal articles for his Continuing Medical Education requirements, and fell asleep with a case study in his hand.
He didn't call Rey. She was at a conference in Calgary through the weekend and would be at the opening reception with Dameron until late that night.
He woke up at dawn the next morning, raring to assault his neglected landscaping for some reason. The weeds had grown so aggressively in the corners of his yard that they were snarled into mats, and he resentfully enjoyed muscling the rootballs out of the dirt. He talked to Rey briefly and exchanged some dirty texts with her, but she had sessions all day and a dinner with colleagues until well past the time he wanted to be awake just now. He wondered if she was enjoying herself, if her hotel was safe, if she was staying warm. Was Dameron behaving himself around her? Should he buy her a self-defense class? Should he go to her place and wash her car for her while she was gone?
That night and the next morning, he rolled over onto what had instantly become her side of his bed on their first night together and jerked off to the filthy fantasies her scent painted inside his eyelids. He tentatively let himself feel the ache that permeated his cells when she wasn't there.
He'd volunteered to water her plants on Sunday, and when he let himself into her little apartment, he was bowled over by her lingering presence. Her little knickknacks, her secondhand furniture, the evidence of her taste and humor. And then her scent. Taking in the swirling vividness of it was like stepping into Oz from Kansas. The layers of emotion it created in him were almost architectural—slabs of lust and loneliness, flows of curiosity and wonder, and a glassy substratum of something that he was beginning to suspect was pure joy. It was all so bright, so colorful and real. He wanted to live inside it like a happy canary in a cage.
On Monday, he told Ahsoka the whole idiotic mess. That he'd instantly, instantly been taken with Rey, subsumed by her scent and drawn in by her fierce mind. That he'd obsessed over her for months, avoiding her at every turn but unable to keep from thinking of her when he was in the hospital or out of it. That despite wanting to hate her for stripping his brain down to its mammalian rebar, reminding him of every single thing he hated about being an Alpha and being Ben Solo, that he had almost immediately started thinking about mating her.
And how through all his longing, all his admiration, she'd thought he'd hated her and was disgusted with her scent. That even when they'd been sleeping together for months—the most magnificent, tender fucking Ben thought humanly possible (he did not say that)—that she'd thought he could barely stand her. Why? Because of a couple of misunderstandings, and the fact that he'd seemed pissed off at her all the time.
This work of feeling his feelings, it was like building a new room in his house. A greenhouse, maybe, where indistinguishable little seeds had space to become... other things.
"Good. Feel that feeling," Ahsoka would say, when in their sessions he would tell her that he felt pretty much anything at all—angry or sad or numb, curious or ambivalent. “Breathe,” she’d add. Then she would pause a long time. She would quirk her mouth and raise that damn grey eyebrow, and then ask, "Any changes?"
And then he would say, "Still pissed.... but less." " Or, "Sadder." Or "Relaxing." Or, "Hopeful?"
He was surprised at these developments. Most mornings for the past decade, he'd have latched onto one good resentment by 9:00 and then kept it like a little bird in his pocket, feeding it bitter scraps all day. It would fatten up until he screamed at a nurse or something, and then it was the old switcheroo into its inevitable twin, shame.
Now that he’d opened this floodgate, he was beset by new feelings, rushes of memory, flashes of fantasy, and complexities he has no idea what to do with. He was ambivalent and confused and filled with inchoate longings. It was like his body has become a damned home theatre with the volume too high, almost as bad as when he first met Rey. Ahsoka taught him to breathe with these intrusions, let them pass through him and then evolve into other things. “Don’t tussle with them,” she said. “Don’t fan the flames.”
Ben wants to spare Rey all this nonsense. She should get only the best of him, not his weakness and reeling. But that feels… lonely, he notices. And breathes through that. And as he notices his breath more these days, he also notices the nuances of Rey’s scent more. Mysterious surges of flowers and fresh bread and maybe engine oil swirl through their shared air, and he intuits that this means that she’s oftentimes still shy and sad with him, that her excellent poker face belies secrets he’s now hungry to know.
"You have to use actual words, Ben. You can’t read her mind. And no one can read yours—not even an Omega who's totally attuned to your scent. And especially no one with Rey's background. You say she was surrendered to the foster system by her parents?”
"I think that's the sanitized version of it."
"Well, then to her, lack of positive information will equal negative information. Any time she doesn't know what you're thinking, she'll assume the worst. And since neither of you feel safe talking about big issues yet, you need to practice on the small stuff.”
So first fucking feelings, and now words.
Words are for books. And consults. He’s a man of action. Violent action, lately.
“Now, how does that make you feel?”
He ground out, "Reluctant. Fucking resentful." He waited. He absorbed Ahsoka’s calming, mated scent. He massaged his temples and then the back of his neck. He waited. He breathed. He dropped his hands into his lap. "OK, I'm afraid. That I’ll fuck this thing up again."
"This thing with Rey?"
"This thing with Rey."
"Then make the choice to not fuck it up through neglect. Ask her about herself. Open-ended questions. Here's a good one to start with: 'What was your life like when you were fill-in-the-blank?’ And then just listen. Breathe while she answers you. And then respond authentically."
He sat in the chair with his hands tented in his lap. He flexed his fingers, made fists and released them.
For Rey. He would do this bullshit for Rey.
Ben and Rey are sitting at his coffee table after a late breakfast, flipping slowly through an ancient box of photos Rey had pulled off a shelf. Now that Ben was talking a bit more, she had a thousand questions for him. She'd look at him with those big eyes and ask, "Do you have cousins?" "Do you ever visit your father's grave?" What was your first concert? "Your first car?" “Which countries have you been to?” "Why'd you go into medicine?" “Why all the hiking?” "Did you have friends growing up?" "Did you have a dog, a horse, a bird?" "Can I see pictures?"
She always wanted to see the pictures. Him in medical school, his school pictures, snapshots his mom had taken. Like she was doing now, she'd gently hold just the edges of the photos, careful never to put a fingerprint on the image, barely flexing the paper.
She'd pore over them, looking at each flattened fragment of his life, not seeming to differentiate between bad pictures and good ones, and lingering probably longest on the least flattering ones. She loved the pictures of his through-hikes of the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the ones where he was wearing pompom beanies and massive sunhats, where his legs were mud-spattered and his nose was streaked with sunblock. Those few she'd actually touch, running her fingertips over his stupidly long arms, tracing his almost-smiling face with a short, unpainted nail.
Today, as she sits between his thighs on the couch, she’s leaning over a picture of him stretched out on a red pool lounger at the Vineyard house. He was probably fourteen then, humiliatingly bony and lanky at that age, hair cut short enough that his sunburned ears stuck out like open taxi cab doors on the sides of his head. The white columns of the house rose three stories behind him, with the acres of lawn rolling off to his right. His teenage self was reading The Alpha Boy, the book his mother had given him right after he'd presented.
Rey had been talkative all morning, funny and snarky and sweet, but now she’s silent again, fingertip stroking his knobby Kodachrome knees.
He clears his throat. "What was..." Christ, he sounds moronic. But. OK. "Where did you live when you presented?"
He's been lightly stroking her back, feeling the line of her spine under her shirt, unencumbered by a bra strap. Her back under his hand stops moving. Then it rocks slightly as she swallows. He taps her to get her breathing again, thinking he’s pulling her from a moment of reverie. He expects her turn to him and tell him something a little sad, and then he'll kiss her still maple-syrupy mouth and stroke her shining hair, and maybe take her back to bed.
She turns her face away from him, though, quickly, her neck stiff.
Her scent is doing something weird. Something metallic.
She raises her hands together and moves them in front of her face where he can't see them, maybe pressing them against her lips. Then she pulls them away just long enough to say, "A wrecked fridge lorry."
Was that gibberish? Arect frijjlaurie? Erect fridgilorey?" The sequence of words didn't sound like English, or maybe they were some jokey sequence of Britishisms, like "pebble-dash semi." He almost-smiles. Last week she'd said that she'd sprung fully armed from the forehead of Athena when he asked if she knew where she'd been born. Yesterday, she'd said that during grammar school she was raised by wolves.
"I have no idea what you just said, London," he says, and slumps into the back of the couch, squeezing her with his thighs. "But these deflections will get you nowhere. Now you have to tell me both."
"Both?" She says. Now the weird scent was spiking. He instantly comes to attention. Her scent, that bombastically delicious scent of hers, suddenly has a ferrous edge to it that he vaguely recognizes from the beginning of their relationship.
He flounders. "I meant... that you'd have to tell me what a wrecked fridge lorry is, and where you actually lived. Because," he now realizes, "I think you just said you were living in a... truck."
"A broken down refrigerator truck," she translates, very quietly, looking at the empty street outside his front window. "It was a grocery delivery lorry that had T-boned a car. The front end was smashed, but the electrical system that ran the equipment in back still worked. The back box was insulated. So it was warm."
He freezes. His heart freezes.
"You... were homeless? When you were..." He can barely get the words out. "...13? I thought you were in foster care."
She snorts a little huff of breath. "That was the foster care I was in." She suddenly tries to leap to her feet, to escape the room as she sometimes does when she smells this way, so that he can't witness her in pain. His hands lightly catch the backs of her arms, though, and she stays between his legs. He despises himself in this moment. He'd been showing her pictures of the fucking mansion that was their summer house, of their Olympic-sized pool.
The smell mingling with her base scent now is like iridescent swirls on the surface of a pond—not unpleasant, but still the clear signature of a poison. It hits him like a brick. That sharp, aching edge on her: it's shame.
Like the huge, shambling animal he is, he darts forward to lay a firm lick on her left neck gland. She shudders and takes a breath. He licks again, more softly. Her head droops down, shoulders hunch. That painful scent that he suddenly needs to get off her now is moved, just slightly, like a steel walkway being buckled by tree roots. He presses his chest against her back, pushing himself into her mating gland.
He licks her neck thoroughly now, one side then the other, wholly centered on her, only noticing vaguely that below his own collarbone is a terrible heat of some kind. As her breathing eases, his becomes denser. He stops licking her and just strokes her arms, grateful in some distant, still-human part of his brain that a surgeon's hands stay always in control, even if every other molecule of his body is surging chaotically. He can still hold her gently, move those sane, reasonable hands forward to take hers from in front of her mouth. She must tell him, now, this story he's dreading to hear.
She accepts the wordless request and says, "I'd been living in it for two years by the time I presented. When I was 11, the last home I was in sent me away because I called their daughter a bitch for stealing my markers, and so she lit the rest of my stuff on fire. Which, if you think about it, was a real clue that I was right. The only local foster parents who had an opening lived beside a junkyard they owned. Unkar and Harriet Plutt. When the social worker dropped me off at the junkyard with Unkar, she told him that foster reimbursements were about to be cut twenty percent, so he should expect that his pay for me was going to be lower than he’d contracted. And then she just drove away. He was so mad it looked like he was going to stroke out. And then he looked at me, at how little I was, and looked like he'd gotten the best idea in the history of the world, like he was going to win a Nobel prize and then get knighted. He said that nobody stayed for free in his house, so I could either work in the junkyard for four hours every day to make up for the money he was going to lose on me, or I could play 'special games' with him and his friends and then go do whatever I liked."
"Jesus Christ," Ben whispers.
"I told him I'd take the work."
Ben breathes, but barely. That, that is obviously not the end of this story.
"Then Unkar said people pay rent in advance, everyone knows that, so if I was going to live in his house, I'd have make a payment first. If I played a game that day, it would hold me over 'til the end of the week.”
Rey's scent now is a horrible garden of rotting beauty, decaying flowers over wet soil. It's a blood-covered shovel in a bedroom.
Ben's vision is going red around the edges, and he wonders if this Unkar is still alive. Because if he is, it will be a very, very temporary state.
"So I just ran out into the junkyard until I found an old Ford Anglia that had manual locks and window cranks, and I climbed in the backseat. I locked myself in and cracked the windows and started doing my homework. He followed me, but I told him to leave me alone because I had a maths quiz the next day, and that I'd start work in the morning." She breathes out a shaky sigh. "He was apoplectic. It hadn't occurred to him that I'd say no. He told me I'd have to sleep in the junkyard for the whole month if I wasn't going to pay my rent."
Ben wraps his arms all the way around her and presses in with his thighs, surrounding her as much as humanly possible, looming over her with his head so that he is a roof for her, he is her walls, and only she can open her door. He notices vaguely that his eyes hurt. They burn.
She goes on, "I just asked him what time work started in the morning. So every day for the first month I worked an hour before school and then three after in the junkyard."
"And you slept in a fucking car."
"The first week. Then I found the lorry. It was insulated, it locked from the inside, and it took a long time for the air to get bad in it because it was so big. When I was 12, I figured out that I could nick batteries from the new junked cars that came in and hook them up to the wiring to have electricity in it."
But no bed, he thinks. No windows, no bathroom, no closet, no desk. Nothing. Nothing a little girl should have. No soft touch of a mother's hand. No protective father to kiss her goodnight. No one and nothing but a ruined truck to keep Rey safe.
"Why didn't you call the police? Why didn't you tell someone at school?" He realizes he sounds as angry as he is, and he's holding her too tight.
She turns around in his grip and says flatly, "Because that works for kids like this.” She flicks up the forgotten picture of him by the pool. He realizes that the whole time she's been telling this story she's been looking down at that spoiled little shit in front of the mansion. "Because the only cop in the neighborhood was Unkar’s brother-in-law. Because every single place I'd been moved to was shittier than the one before it, and I didn't want know what would come after Unkar Plutt. The truck was warm and it locked from the inside. There was a bathroom with hot water in the junkyard office, and I could shower in the school gym before first period. It could have been a lot worse, so, no. I decided pretty fast I was never going to live in Unkar's house, so I made the truck my place. It was safe."
But it wasn't a home.
Ben is vibrating. "What did you eat? Did they even fucking feed you?" He maneuvers around her so they're facing, finally.
She looks so pale and wrung out that he wants to leap up and feed her right now, feed her by hand until she's soft and happy again, rosy and round as a peach. But he breathes. She smells like the moss on a lonely pond.
She says, "Unkar kept a mini fridge in the office that he filled with frozen burritos and takeout curries once a week. If I rationed myself, it was enough to last through the weekends."
His stupid brain makes the connection. "That's why you presented a year late for being a girl. Because you didn't have enough calories."
His mind goes absolutely black. And he breathes that blackness in. “What did he do when you presented?” Ben wishes he was entirely insensate, so he wouldn’t have to hear what comes next.
To his endless relief, she smiles, just slightly. "Nothing,” she says, “because he never knew. I burned the paperwork the school nurse sent home, and he was a Beta who hated Alphas like death so they were almost never around the junkyard. He never found out.”
"Is he alive?" Ben grinds out. "Plutt. Is he alive?"
Rey shakes her head. "No. A school friend sent me the death notice when I was at Cambridge."
"What about his wife."
"She was barely conscious when I lived there, she was so drunk. I don't think I ever once saw her walking, or talking intelligibly. She's probably dead, too."
How am I an Alpha? Ben wonders. How could he have lived his whole life in this monstrous tyrant of a body for it to be so useless right now? He can't save that little girl. He’s doing nothing to comfort her now. He can't even fly to England to vivisect Unkar and his slug of a wife, or burn down the British foster care system. He can't fix it. What is an Alpha for if not this?
He breathes deep of her scent, and even now her angry, ashamed essence smells like home to him, like the one place that is beautiful and vivid, and where he will always want to rest. And then he remembers what an Alpha is for.
He presses his hand to her mating gland, and then firmly licks her neck. '"There will never, ever be a time again when you don't have a home,” he says. He breathes deep.
Yes. “I want this to be your home. This house. Or some other house, if you don't like this one. I'll buy you a different one, or ten of them. I don't care, whatever you want. But you'll never, ever be without protection again."
Now she does bolt up from the couch, furious. "You’re asking me to move in because you pity me?!"
He reaches out slowly. She backs away, but he catches one of her hands to gently tether her. He feels the structure of her bones, the warmth of her skin. He breathes.
"I don't pity you. I love you. I’ve been wanting this for months and I didn’t have the guts to say it. You are my home now. Let me be yours. Please."
She whimpers a little sob, her face twisted in pain. He stands, towering over her like he does, but sheltering. He feels his rage still simmering, but fading into pure tenderness. He can be here for her. He can do this, always this, for her. He envelops her in his arms, in his Alpha strength, tucking her into the places on his body where she fits him so perfectly.
She shudders against him and slowly lets him calm her. After long minutes, her arms creep around his waist. "Yes," she finally whispers. "Yes, I'll move in." And then he can just breathe, breathe in himself, breathe in her. She is safe, and in his arms. She is full of him, of his love for her. And they are home.