It's a blessing when everything dies down, when Poe's annual holiday-slash-finals-are-over party ends just after midnight on December 21st and people leave, no longer threatening to impose upon Ben's monastic lifestyle just because he's the only one who lives off-campus and doesn't have roommates. They might be his friends—and Ben doesn't use that term lightly—but he's spent the night dodging three attempted hugs from a red-cheeked and tipsy Rose, and he's heard an earful from Finn, who was fed up with his holiday playlist.
Was it really his fault if his idea of holiday music was Lindsey Stirling's string music, rather than the inane Christmas carols Finn swapped them over to?
At least Poe knew better. The man understood that Ben was less than pleased by his choice of venue, and thus left him alone to lurk in his own kitchen like an uninvited, but also unbothered guest, while the others made drinking games out of Christmas movies and complained about their finals.
They're good people. He cares about them, but they were in his space, and something about that made his skin crawl a little, made him pace around the kitchen like he was incapable of staying still.
And then there's Rey, who's still here. He sees her through the windowed opening in his kitchen wall over his sink, wandering through his living room, picking up stray paper plates and obnoxious red plastic cups (the sort required for any college party), while humming Carol of the Bells.
He thinks she might be an angel. Not an actual angel or anything, but she's been the only bearable part of the night. Unlike everyone else, she never tries to pull him into conversations. She doesn't comment on how reclusive he is, or on how he's content to sit back and listen. Her smiles are warm and genuine. When everyone was in his living room yelling over the deafening music Finn put on, Rey came into the kitchen and silently tipped a nice helping of rum into the eggnog he was nursing, then leaned against the counter next to him, a quiet, comforting presence.
Ben goes back to cleaning up his kitchen despite it being spotless, because all he did all night was either clean or pace. It's calming, more so now that the only sound he can hear is Rey's soft humming from the next room.
The humming stops, and her throat clears from the kitchen's open entry. Ben glances over in the middle of wasting Clorox wipes on an already-disinfected counter, and sees her, eyes bright and sweater a horrible, gaudy vermillion. Somehow it looks good on her.
"Hey," she murmurs in that beautiful accent of hers. "You know, you could have told Poe no. I don't think he gets it. He thinks you're just antisocial, or grumpy or something. He doesn't know it makes you anxious to have people here."
Ben shrugs. "I know, but it's better to have a party here than risk getting caught in the dorms." It's the most he's spoken all night. After a pause, he explains, "I know nobody would be upset if I said something, but it's only for one night."
"You could say no to me, too. I could go home with Poe and Finn, I don't need to intrude—"
"You're not intruding," he interrupts. "I like it when you're here."
When he catches what he's said, and when he sees Rey's expression soften, he flushes. With his luck, the tips of his ears might even be red. Ben turns back to the counter, feigning an excuse to look away.
Normally, or at least since they met Freshman year, Rey applies to stay in the dorms for every long break. Maybe it's too expensive to fly home, or maybe Rey, like him, doesn't enjoy going home. Whatever her reasoning, she hasn't offered it and he hasn't pried. This year she surprised him, asking if she could stay at his apartment. Maybe the dorms got lonely.
Rey moves to stand at his sink, starting to wash the plastic cutlery, cups, and dishes for reuse. "Is there anything I should do while you're gone? Get your mail? Anything like that?"
He stills, processing her words. After a minute he turns, resting back against the counter. "What?"
Her back is to him, a lock from her buns coming loose as she shrugs. "Well, I know some people put a halt on mail delivery, but if you forgot to and you don't want it building up, I can take care of it. If there's anything else, let me know. I haven't house-sat before. Or, apartment-sat, I guess."
Ben blinks. House-sat? It dawns on him, their misunderstanding.
"I'm not going home over break," he says, realizing he never clarified that. "I'm sorry, I thought you knew. My family isn't…" He pauses, seeing that she's turned and started drying her hands on his dishcloth, listening to him with rapt attention. "Well, they don't really do holidays."
Her lips part. "Oh."
"Is that okay?"
Rey's brows draw together, and she huffs a laugh. "What? Of course. It's great. If you're sure you don't mind me being here."
He shakes his head. "I don't mind at all." The words come out softer than intended. "I usually spend the holidays alone."
When he gazes over at her, her stare has gone unfocused, distant. Her grin's fallen. Ben tilts his head, frowning, and watches as she shakes herself out of the stupor. If he hadn't spent years watching and listening, maybe he wouldn't catch the profound look of sadness that crosses her face, but he does.
After a moment, she murmurs, "Yeah, me too."
"You aren't alone this year," he points out. It's not enough, not enough to comfort her, not enough to bring the smile back that he craves to see aimed at him. Ben doesn't know what more he can say.
Her mouth turns up into a hint of a smile, but it's not the smile that lights up rooms and brightens even the darkest corners he tends to hide in. Still, his heart pounds a little harder when hazel eyes meet his, and when she replies, "Neither are you."
Ben wakes not to the sound of his alarm, but to the smell of pancakes. At least he thinks that's pancakes. He hasn't had them in years, not since he was a little kid. Whatever it is smells good enough to force him from the comfort of fleece sheets before his usual alarm, and he pads down the hallway toward his kitchen searching for the source of the aroma. The blankets and pillows he left for her are folded and stacked on one side of his couch, as if she's made the bed. There's a soft nearby voice singing Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.
He gets to the entry of his little kitchen just in time to watch Rey flip a golden-brown pancake. The singing is interrupted when she makes a soft, happy squealing noise as the pancake lands perfectly in the middle of the pan. Maybe it's odd, but Ben finds himself entranced, and leans against the entry. He watches as she plates the pancake, covering it to keep it warm, and pours more thick batter from one of his rarely used mixing bowls. She takes another smaller bowl filled with a rich brown mixture and swirls it over the uncooked pancake.
That's when he recognizes the smell.
"Are those cinnamon-bun pancakes?"
Rey startles, turns quickly, and tosses a spatula at him. He dodges it, letting out an embarrassing yelp. It bounces off a cabinet and lands on the floor.
"Oh! Shit, sorry," she blurts, laughing into her hand. "You scared—"
Her words die as she pauses. Her widening eyes slide over him like a caress, over his chest and shoulders, and Ben watches curiously as her cheeks go pink.
It hits him that he's not wearing a shirt.
"Sorry, I, uh, I usually don't have company," he stammers, crossing his arms over his chest. That seems to just direct her attention to his arms. "I… I can go put a shirt on, if that'd be better."
Rey's eyes flick back to the stove. If she was blushing before, her cheeks are burning red now. "Ah, no, that's okay," she says under her breath. There's a chance—though Ben wonders if he's imagining things—that she adds, "Please don't."
He changes the subject, trying not to blush. "So, pancakes?"
"Mm. Cinnamon bun pancakes, you were right. Normally I'd put fruit in them, but this is more Christmas-y." She pauses, glancing back over at him. "Do you mind that I'm cooking? I'm sorry, I should have asked before commandeering your kitchen, but I didn't want to wake you."
"I don't mind," he shakes his head.
"Cooking us breakfast seemed like the least I could do."
When she smiles over at him it's the wide, blinding, perfect kind of smile. Ben swears his heart stops for a moment. The idea that she needs to thank him for being here makes little sense, but he doesn't say that. He only steps into the kitchen and gets out plates and silverware.
"I wanted to ask you something," she says, interrupting the silence. She lets out another approving hum as she flips another pancake without issue. "You don't have a tree, or decorations."
Ben frowns. "That's not a question."
"I mean to say, do you want help getting yours? This is silly, but I have this whole list of holiday stuff I've never done and I was hoping to cross off tree-decorating, if you don't mind me helping."
She's assuming he gets one every year, Ben realizes. The truth is, he can't remember if he's ever picked one out. It's much more likely that one of his mother's assistants or maybe the housekeeper had one delivered. Ben's sure he's never decorated one, not even as a child.
But the look she gives him is so hopeful.
"Yeah," he nods. "I'd like help. We can go today."
Her eyes light up.
Rey's already pacing by the front door when he comes out of his bedroom, freshly showered and dressed in heavy jeans and a thick black sweater. She's decked out as though they're about to spend the day shoveling or sledding or something, bundled in her puffy white jacket, red knit hat complete with a white pom-pom a la Santa's hat, and red knit gloves. He guesses she's probably knit the hat and gloves herself. They're a little knobbly. It's… kind of adorable.
When she sees him, she practically vibrates with excitement. Ben can't remember the last time someone seemed so happy, just to see him.
"Do you have a usual place you go?" she prods, as he puts a jacket on and fishes gloves out of a bin by his door. "Or do you shop around for the best tree you can find? Ooh, do places let you cut your own down?"
Ben pauses. He hasn't told her this is a first for him, too. "I… shop around. Kind of. It, uh. It's late in the season, so we'll need to see what's still available."
"That sounds perfect," she breathes. "Think we could get hot cocoa?"
The way she looks up at him, it's like she's waiting on what she knows will the incredible news. Like he can somehow make her day amazing.
"Of course we can get hot cocoa," he says, a little blankly.
What happens next isn't something Ben could have predicted, even if he had a million years. Rey grabs his hand, just as he's taken his keys off the hook by his door. For a moment he curses her mitten and his glove, but maybe… maybe they're a blessing. Their hands meeting, even with layers separating them, jolts him. He blinks down at their hands, but then she's opening the door and pulling him out into the hall, and he only has enough sense of mind to turn and lock the door behind them.
On the way down the stairs, he yanks the glove off his free hand with his teeth and, one-handed, googles local tree farms.
It's a lucky thing Ben has a car. It's luckier that the guy at the tree farm offers to help them tie the tree Rey picked—after three hours in the freezing cold—to the top of his car. The man also sells them a tree stand, which Ben should have realized they'd need.
Rey is beaming.
"You'll need to wait a day once you get it set up," the tree-farmer guy huffs, brushing off his jacket. He pulls at the rope holding the tree on, making sure it's tight. "Set it up, then cut the ties and put water in the stand. The branches will need at least a few hours to settle."
Rey turns her grin on him, and Ben can only stare. "So we can decorate it tomorrow?" she asks excitedly. "Mind if I help?"
"Not at all," he blurts, then remembers he has no ornaments, or decorations of any kind. "Uh. You know, we should go buy some. Mine are… boring. Very boring. So boring I threw them out after last year. We can stop at Target on the way home."
The look she gives him is a little odd. "Oh, okay. Sounds great."
Half an hour later, they're walking down the aisles of Target, Ben pushing a bright red cart with one sticking wheel while Rey piles in festive garland and strings of garish multi-colored blinking lights. She sucks in a breath at the giant wall of ornaments.
Ben just can't help himself. "Can you pick a bunch out for me?" he asks. "I've been needing to buy all new ones, so get whatever you think will look good. It would be a huge help."
She hesitates, like a kid who's just been brought to a toy store and told they can get anything they want, no questions asked. She waits, as though she's expecting him to say just kidding. When he doesn't, she grins. This time, Rey loops her arm through his, making his eyes widen, and she pulls him away from the cart, taking him along with her as they pick out a forest's worth of ornaments.
He should be giving honest answers when she holds up each one, should be helping her pick them out, but all he can do is focus on the warmth of her arm against his.
"Maybe more to the left? No, no, sorry, your left. Uh. I think it's leaning forward too much?"
He sighs, or maybe groans, but adjusts the tree. The whole apartment smells like a pine-tree scented candle. Ben's laying on his stomach under the tree she picked out, twisting the screws from the tree stand one way or another.
After about five billion years, she says, "Wait! That's perfect! Don't adjust it anymore."
Ben pauses, ignoring the way his shoulders ache from the position he's been holding under the tree. He rolls over onto his side, sliding out from under it, and props up on an elbow, watching as she stares at the tree with a look of contentment on her face.
"I'm sorry we can't decorate yet," he murmurs, a little too caught up in gazing at her to be purely friendly.
She scoffs. "I think I can wait until morning." She hesitates, worrying her lip between her teeth as her gaze goes from the tree to the three giant bags sitting on his coffee table, filled with decorations. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
He nods, then waits for her to continue. Her expression wavers between cautious and… maybe amused. "You didn't throw out your old ornaments, did you? You didn't have any, right?" Her eyes flick up to his as he stands. "There were at least three closer places to get a tree. Cheaper, too. You… don't usually do this stuff, do you?"
Ben flip-flops between two types of panic—he's worried she'll be mad at him for lying, but worse, what if she figures out why he's been lying?
As if Rey can tell what's running through his mind, she steps closer and closer, and then wraps him in a hug. For a minute he's too stunned to react to her warmth, her closeness.
When's the last time anyone hugged him?
Rose has tried, Poe and Finn have too, but they've all been joking while attempting it, and Ben always dodges their attempts.
He blinks down at the woman who's resting her head against his chest, sighing as though she doesn't care that he's frozen in place. Slowly, as though he's just remembering how hugs work, he puts his hands at her waist, and then slides them to her back. Something in him aches for this closeness. Barely daring to breathe for fear the spell might break, Ben tightens his grip around her, crushing her to him, because he's not sure he can bear to have her pull away. It's desperate, the way he grips her, the way he buries his face in her hair, but Rey only seems to relax into it.
Softly, he hears her whisper, "Thanks, Ben. I needed this."
He's not sure whether she's talking about the tree, or the hug.
But maybe he's needed this, too.
When he comes out of his bedroom the next morning, he remembers to put on a t-shirt, which is probably a good thing considering the hug Rey greets him with when he gets to the living room. It doesn't catch him off-guard as her hug did the day before, and he welcomes her into his arms. She's still wearing pajamas, a cozy matching flannel set covered in little snowmen.
Rey stills in his arms, and her words are muffled against his shoulder. "This is okay, right? I should have asked, I shouldn't just keep—"
"It's great," he interrupts. He hugs her a little closer, soothing a hand down her flannel-covered back. "It's nice. I don't really do this."
"What, hug?" When he hums in response, glad she's not yet pulled out of his arms, Rey huffs. "You should. You're good at it." Her tone is almost teasing as she adds, "You'd be an excellent cuddle-buddy. Award winning, I'm sure."
"Cuddle-buddy? Is that a thing?"
She sighs, nuzzling into him. "I don't think so, but it should be. I'm sorry I'm so… touchy-feely. Hugging and touching and stuff are things I like, things that help me relax, and I don't get to do much of it. There should be a Tinder just for people who want to cuddle."
The corners of his lips tug up, and he glances down at her. He's not sure he should ask, not sure he's reading the situation correctly, but he still asks, "Is that something you want? Someone to… do this with?"
Her laugh is, confusingly, a little bitter. "Why, are you offering?"
"Yeah, of course I am," he murmurs. The idea that she might want him to do this, just hold her, makes him wonder if he's still asleep and dreaming. He curls around her, hooking his chin over her shoulder and sliding his hand over her in a way he hopes is comforting. "I'd love to."
"Oh," she whispers. "Okay. I'd like that, too."
When she pulls away, quite some time later, he somehow feels more relaxed. Happier. More at peace. Rey doesn't meet his eyes, but her cheeks are flushed. With a pause, she asks, "So, um. What do you want to do first? Decorate, or eat breakfast?"
The hopeful way she says decorate indicates which of those things she wants to do. Ben laughs. "You unpack the decorations, I'll make coffee and put that quiche we picked up in the oven. It might take a while to cook, anyway."
Upon her excited nod, Ben heads to the kitchen. He pauses, just before he goes in, and turns back to look at her. She's distracted, unpacking the bags of decoration, and must not notice him. His eyes track the way she tucks her hair back behind her ear. The way she bites at her bottom lip while trying to figure out the best way to open up the strings of lights. The way she glances up to the tree, the corners of her lips curling up.
There's an ache in his chest, a desperate longing feeling, an overwhelming yearning, but it's all so familiar, because it's what he feels every time he looks at her.
He wonders if this is what love feels like.
Within an hour the tree is holding more weight than it would after a heavy heaping of snow. It's wrapped in both twinkling lights and silver garland. There must be an ornament hanging from every single branch, most Disney-themed, though there are plenty of classic snowflake-shaped ones and plain, shiny spheres.
Rey reaches up with the last ornament, intent on hanging from a high branch near the top, and he sees the moment she falters—the brief second she goes up on her toes and loses her balance. It's instinctive, grasping her hips. She lets out a surprised laugh, but he holds her steady before she can fall into the tree. With a relieved sigh, she leans back against him, and as he holds her, his thumb soothes over one of her hips.
"It looks perfect," she breathes, staring at the verdant tree. The lights are on, brightening the room and casting pretty hues over her face. When he doesn't respond, she turns in his arms, flattening her palms over his chest. She smiles up at him in a way that makes him tongue-tied, and asks, "Want to watch a movie with me? I hope you don't mind, but I brought a few Christmas movies I've been wanting to see that Rose let me borrow. Do you have something that plays DVDs?"
He's slow to answer, but finally works out, "Sure. What are we watching?"
"Is It's a Wonderful Life too cliche?"
"I wouldn't know," Ben admits. "I've never seen it."
She looks astounded. "How is that possible? Isn't it like, the quintessential Christmas movie?"
"Haven't you also not seen it?"
Ben laughs. "You set it up. I'll get our breakfast and coffee."
He's halfway to the kitchen when she asks, her voice small, "Hey, Ben? After we eat, would… would you want to cuddle? Like, lay down on the couch with me? I've got the pillows, and the blanket I've been using, and—" her words are coming out quickly, like she thinks he might say no, "And we don't need to, but if you want to, I—it could be nice, maybe..."
Stunned is still his primary emotion, but he manages a nod.
The couch isn't a large one. It's not small either, but with his frame, it feels that way. Ben's not sure how they'll do this, but since it was her idea, he's letting her figure it out while the movie's paused, a little less than halfway through.
Rey pauses again, sitting still on one end. "You're kind of… tall." Her head tilts as though she's measuring him up. "Can you lay on the couch? Like, on your back? Is that comfortable for you, or is the couch too short?"
He glances at the couch they're sitting on. "Too short, I think. But if I sit up a bit, put a pillow behind me, that works." He pauses, frowning. "Where are you in this scenario?"
If he lies on his back, there's no way the couch is wide enough for her to be next to him, and—
That's when it hits him, that he's a moron, because the only logical position for cuddling on this couch with him laying down is if she's… if she's…
"Oh, uh. Never mind," he stammers. "I figured it out."
Rey stands, looking nervous, but he moves quickly—probably giving away just how much he loves this idea. He puts a pillow between his upper back and the couch's arm, resting so he's vertical with his legs stretched out across the length of the couch. Tentatively, he reaches a hand to Rey, offering to help her onto the couch.
She hesitates. It takes a moment, during which Ben prepares to be embarrassed if he misunderstood, but she ends up taking his hand, and rests a knee between his thighs on the couch. At first, she almost falls onto him, and while he wouldn't admit it, he's a little concerned over the placement of her knee, but finally, she settles on top of him, stretched over him with her head on his shoulder.
His hands find her waist, brushing at the soft fabric of her pajamas. It takes a few small adjustments before they find a perfect position they're both comfortable in, with her hips cradled against his, and his arms wrapped around her.
Ben pulls the blanket over them, and neither of them turn the movie back on. At least not right way.
"Are you sure this isn't weird?"
"Why would it be?" he murmurs. "It's… like hugging."
It's not at all like hugging. The only thing this has in common with hugging is that he loves it, and he only wants to do this with her. This is something different, though—something that won't be over in a minute or two, something he wouldn't do with Poe or Finn or Rose, even with a little reluctance. This is so perfect, he could cry.
Rey presses the side of her head to his chest, whispering so quietly he almost misses it, "I can hear your heartbeat."
He can feel her breathing, can feel the way she rises and falls, just a little, each time he breathes. He can feel her warmth through her flannel pajamas and his t-shirt. She must be able to feel those things, too, he realizes.
Ben wonders if she can also feel him trembling.
When Ben wakes, it's because Rey's yelped and started squirming in her sleep. The clock on his ancient DVD player says it's not even 6 AM, and while he grips her, trying to wake her and calm her down, it registers that they must have fallen asleep during their fourth and final movie—Home Alone.
"Rey? Rey, wake up," he says, voice thick. Gently, he shakes one of her shoulders. "C'mon, it's just a dream."
She comes out of it with a shuddering breath and breaks down into tears while he holds her to him. She doesn't say anything, doesn't offer any explanation, so he only holds her, hushing her. Tears soak through his shirt, and after a minute, Ben decides this position—while decent for cuddling and, apparently, sleeping—isn't great for wrapping around her and comforting her the way he wants to right now.
When he sits up, adjusting her, she doesn't complain or do anything but continue crying. She buries her face in her hands, and her breaths come in gasps. Ben picks her up and starts walking, whispering it'll be okay, and he's here, she doesn't need to be afraid, but the more she sobs, the more he wonders if she's maybe not afraid, and possibly just very upset.
He puts her down in his own bed, pulling the comforter back so he can tuck it up over her, and Rey's eyes open, damp and wide. "You're staying, right? You're not leaving?" A little panic is lacing in at the edges of her voice.
"No, no, of course not," he hushes, cupping her face and brushing tears off her cheeks. "I'm not leaving, I promise. I just thought we'd be more comfortable here."
She relaxes a little at that and nods faintly, snuggling around one of his pillows. Whatever she dreamed about must have either terrified her or made her hopelessly sad, because she keeps crying, though it's softer now. Ben joins her in bed, sliding under the covers so he can wrap around her, spooning her. Her hand finds his splayed across her belly, and one of her fingers caresses over the back of his hand, like she's thankful he's there.
"Do you want to talk about it?" he whispers.
Rey scoots back, pressing her body flush to his. He hears her throat clear. "Sorry. You'd think I should be better at handling this by now. This… usually happens. It always goes on longer, though. You woke me up right at the beginning."
His frown deepens, as does his concern. "You have this nightmare often? Can I ask what—"
Ben's no stranger to parental issues, but as bad as his have been (though, his parents have only been a little absent, not specifically bad), he's never had recurring nightmares about them.
Before he can ask, she continues in a quiet voice, "It's them leaving. Driving away. I never want the dream to stop—I always think if it keeps going…" Her voice cracks with emotion. "I wonder if eventually I'll remember more of the license plate or something… maybe I'll be able to find them."
It's like all the air leaves his lungs and the whole apartment all at once.
They left her? Who could ever leave her?
She turns then, with a little difficulty, until she's pressed to his front, gazing up at him with shining, wet eyes. And oh, he just wants to kiss her. Kiss her until she stops crying, until she believes he could never leave her, not in a million years.
Ben holds her face, keeping her close. "If they left," he says carefully, "Then they missed out on something incredible. If they left you, and missed out on you, then I pity them. Anyone who has a chance to know you and willingly throws away the opportunity doesn't deserve your tears."
More tears flow while she stares at him, seeming surprised by his words.
Softly, she says, "Thanks, Ben."
His only response is to wipe another tear from her cheek.
It takes a little while, but she tucks back against him and falls back to sleep.
They wake again, almost four hours later, to a snowstorm outside. Even though her tears are dried, Rey's a little more subdued—not that he's surprised, given her rough start to the day.
Once he's had coffee, he processes the new information, and realizes she's spent holidays and winter breaks alone not because it was too expensive to go home but… but maybe because she didn't have anyone to go home to. It makes his heart ache in a way he didn't know was possible.
The light in her eyes has dimmed a little. She seems distant. Lost in her thoughts.
He hesitates, and then clears his throat, getting her attention. "Since it's snowing, I thought of some things we could do. I have baking ingredients left from the time Rose needed to use the kitchen, plus milk and eggs. Maybe we could make sugar cookies? Watch another movie?"
Rey's expression softens, but her reply is tired. "Ben, we don't need to do all of this holiday stuff just because I wanted to… just because I wanted to have some sort of… I don't know," she shrugs, and then sighs. "Some sort of perfect Christmas."
The disappointment on her face is so obvious it hurts. It only makes him more determined.
"Well I want to."
Her eyes flick to his.
"I want to," he repeats. "I'm going to. Look, I have Christmas traditions and you being here won't change that, so I'm going to bake cookies, and ice them, and they're going to be a mess, but hopefully they'll taste good. Then I'm going to watch a stupid, sappy movie, and I'm going to turn the tree lights on, and probably go to the store before it closes and buy stuff for a big brunch tomorrow, or maybe I'll just google which Chinese food places are doing deliveries."
Ben can tell from her expression that she knows what he's doing. She knows he doesn't do any of this—never has, probably never would if she wasn't here.
"And I'm going to put on a playlist of Christmas music," he continues, his voice soft. "And I'll hang more lights and turn them all on and read The Night Before Christmas."
He watches her bottom lip tremble, watches her blink a few times, and he knows she's trying not to cry.
"You don't need to join me for any of it. You don't need to eat any cookies or watch any movies, and if you want earplugs to avoid the Christmas music, I won't be mad. But this is what I want to do." He crosses his arms over his chest and works his mouth. "I hope you don't mind keeping me company, because I think… I think everything is better with you. I'm sure Christmas will be, too."
Rey stares at him for a minute, then sniffs and wipes at her eye with the sleeve of her pajamas.
"Okay," she finally nods. "Okay. I'll keep you company."
The cookies are a disaster, but Rey laughs and leans into his hand when he wipes smeared frosting off her face. The movie is sappy and cliche, but her head rests on his shoulder for the whole hour and forty-two minutes. The blinking lights give him a headache, but she grins at them, and he thinks maybe they aren't so bad. The Christmas music drives him insane, but when she starts singing along, he thinks it might be the most beautiful thing he's heard.
The day is far from how he would normally spend December 24th.
Every single second of it is worth the smile on her face.
After their night on the couch, Ben insisted they sleep in his bed instead. That's why, when he wakes on Christmas morning, her head is on his chest, her hair splayed out over him. His arms are wrapped around her, just as they were when they fell asleep.
He's never—not for a minute in his life—believed that magic exists. Santa is a myth, Christmas magic is a thing told to little kids, reindeer can't fly, and Christmas wishes don't come true. Nothing is ever perfect, and things are hardly ever even good. Most people are terrible, the world is terrible, and Christmas is just a reason for people to go into debt and be stressed about how they'll ever pay off their credit cards.
He believed every bit of that, firmly.
Right up until now.
Now, she's there, she's in his arms, she's holding him like she never plans to let go. The room is silent and peaceful, and how can any of this be happening if the world isn't at least a little magical? Ben caresses a hand down her side, glancing down at her in wonder, because seeing her there is as unbelievable as seeing proof that magic really does exist.
The movement wakes her. Rey sighs, nuzzling into him, and murmurs, "Merry Christmas."
He should say it back, should say good morning, should say anything except what he actually says.
"I think I love you," he whispers.
For a moment, what he's just done doesn't even cross his mind. He doesn't panic and doesn't worry that she might panic. It comes out naturally, like he's already said it a hundred times and it's no big deal. But then he freezes. His eyes go wide, and there's no chance she can't hear the way his heart—
"I know," she replies simply, leaving Ben to process what the hell that means.
"Oh. You… know?"
Rey hums. "You talk in your sleep." She pauses, and her eyes study his face. The corners of her mouth tug up. "I love you, too. I have for a while."
She laughs at that, sitting up next to him, and when she smiles down at him, it might be the best thing he's ever seen. Her hand slides up to ruffle through his hair, and Ben shuts his eyes just as her expression turns soft.
"I got you a present," she mumbles. "I know we didn't plan to exchange gifts or anything, but I got you something. We'll need to get out of bed, though."
His brow quirks and he opens his eyes again to glance at her. "We said we weren't giving gifts."
"Mm. Maybe this is more a gift to myself."
Ben tilts his head curiously, watching with a little confusion as she turns and hops out of bed. "Okay…"
Rey pauses at the door. "Maybe brush your teeth first."
But she's out of the room before he's even gotten up or had the chance to ask, so Ben shoves his feet in slippers and tugs on a cozy sweater, then thinks over her request for the dozenth time and shrugs it off. He heads to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
Was his breath just particularly bad? Did she invite someone over or something, and assume he'd want to freshen up? It's an odd request, he thinks.
After a few minutes he wanders out into the apartment to see where she's gone. He stops in the living room, frowning when he doesn't see her, but then a throat clears from the kitchen entry.
Rey's there with a fluffy red flannel robe around her, a wide smile on her face, standing under…
"There's one more Christmas tradition on my to-do list," she grins, pointing up at the little green sprig she's hung over his kitchen entry. "If you don't mind."
Oh. Oh. Ben stares for a moment, and then, like an idiot, bursts out laughing. He only stops when he notices how red she's gone.
She looks mortified. "Sorry, I guess I misunderstood, I thought… I thought you'd want to, I—"
"I do," he interrupts, unable to keep the smile off his face. "I wasn't laughing at that," he promises, walking over to her. He cups her face, noticing how nervous she seems, and explains, "I was wracking my brain trying to figure out why you asked me to brush my teeth first. I couldn't figure out what kind of present required that." He glances up at the mistletoe above them. "When did you even set this up?"
Relief floods her face. "Oh, okay, that's good. I hung it a couple hours ago, while you were sleeping. I hung it and brushed my teeth, then went back to bed, and—"
Ben hears some of what she's said, but he's a little too distracted now, staring at her mouth. He's not even sure if he's interrupting her when he asks in a whisper, "Can I really kiss you?"
Whatever she was saying dies in her throat, and her eyes widen. She nods.
He leans down, pressing his mouth to hers. It's a little dry, a little awkward, and completely perfect. But then she pulls back and she licks her lips, wrapping her arms around his neck to kiss him again. The second time, she tilts her head, running her tongue along the seam of his mouth. Ben's… not sure what to do, but he works his jaw, holding her tight with an arm around her waist.
Every second feels like magic.
When Rey pulls away again, dropping from being on her toes, she looks up at him with a blush covering her cheeks. "Was that… have you…" she hesitates. "You haven't done that before, have you?"
Ben's head is spinning a little too much to worry if it's obvious that he hasn't, so he only shakes his head. "You're the first person who's even hugged me in… years, probably. So, no," he admits. "I hadn't done this before. Is that weird?"
He worries there's a good chance it's too weird, but Rey snorts. "Of course not," she huffs. When his eyes go wide with surprise, she shakes her head and laughs. "You're ridiculous, you know, it's—"
On a whim, he leans in and catches her mouth in another kiss before she can scold him or tease him or do whatever she was about to do. She stills, and then smiles against his lips, kissing him back with a sigh. Rey cups his jaw, slowing his movements, and slides her mouth over his.
It's over too quickly, but when it ends, he rests his forehead on hers and whispers, "I think I know what I want to do today."
"Mm. I want to spend the day in bed, with you in my arms, doing that, and I don't want to stop unless it's to order food," he says. Rey laughs lightly, and Ben meets her lips again, only for a second. Against her mouth, he murmurs, "That's what I want for Christmas."
She hums. "That sounds perfect."
"I think so. But what do you want?"
Hazel eyes meet his, and her smile turns into something fond. "I wanted to not be alone."
His grip on her tightens. "You won't spend another holiday alone," he promises in a whisper. "Neither will I. We can do this every year. Make our own traditions."
For a moment she just stares up at him and takes in a soft, shuddering breath. Then she kisses him again, holding his face and moving her mouth so slowly and tenderly against his.
She pulls away, blinking tears from her eyes. "I was hoping you'd say that."