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I'll Be Seeing You

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This particular Saturday was a beautiful late summer’s day, warm and peaceful, and the town of Naboo was quiet and relaxed. The Depression had brought hard times, but thankfully those seemed to be almost over. The most pressing topic of conversation was the imminent arrival of “The Wizard of Oz” at the local movie theatre. There were people strolling along Main Street and through the rest of the downtown area, but no one was in a hurry to get anywhere; they ambled along slowly, greeting friends, visiting storefront shops, and enjoying the summer air with gratitude.

At the moment Maz’s Café was empty, and Rey was savoring the downtime. The factory workers had come through for coffee and a quick bite on their way to the Falcon plant, but that had been about it so far for customers.

Rey liked this job --the busy times and the slow times, the smell of coffee and pie, the songs on the nickelodeon player in the corner. Most of all, she liked that it wasn’t the dirty shack behind Plutt’s Repair where she had her small room, or the shop out in front where she did whatever work Plutt gave her. The café was nice and clean and Maz was a kind, generous boss, unlike Rey’s guardian. The money she earned wasn’t really hers, of course – she had to turn all her wages over to Plutt – but the work itself was a nice change. It was one of her favorite escapes.

Rey was humming and wiping down the back counter when the bell on top of the front door jingled. She turned her head to welcome the new customer. When she saw who it was, she quickly turned back around without smiling.

It was Ben Solo. His father owned Falcon Industries and his mother was from one of the founding families of the town. Ben was wealthy and privileged in a way that she would never understand. He was also one of the rudest, most ill-mannered jerks she’d ever met. She couldn’t stand him.

It was his fault, really, given how he’d made her feel when they first met.

Rey had been early to school on her first day, because she was eager to begin learning and couldn’t wait to get out of Plutt’s shack. She was lucky he was even allowing her to go, and she wasn’t going to wait around for him to change his mind.

She wasn’t the first one to arrive at the high school. Two boys were outside, waiting in front of the locked doors. The redhead was standing ramrod-straight, wearing a pinched look of distaste; the black-haired one was lounging against the side of the building, bored and irritated. She began walking towards them, a smile on her face, ready to say hello and make new friends, when the redhead turned in her direction and narrowed his eyes.

“What is that?” He asked, his eyes taking in her torn, too-large dress and the holes in her stockings, his nose wrinkling as if he’d smelled something nasty. He’d been speaking only to his companion; had there had been other students around to make noise she would not have been able to hear him. As it was, his voice echoed off the building.

She slowed down as the black-haired boy gave her a quick and careless glance. “She’s just a train child,” he said contemptuously. “Don’t waste your time.” He didn’t bother to lower his voice. It didn’t seem to matter to him if she heard or not. He turned away without taking the trouble to see if his words had any effect on her.

Yes, she had come out from New York on the train with the other orphans, but it hadn’t been her choice. She’d had parents once, or so she’d been told, and it wasn’t her fault that she didn’t know who they were or what had happened to them. It wasn’t her fault that she’d had to work for her keep ever since that first family had picked her from the group of children at the station, or that she had to wear whatever she could find and eat whatever someone would give her.

This is what she told herself over and over again, but in the depths of her heart she wasn’t entirely sure that it wasn’t her fault. Maybe her parents had abandoned her because she wasn’t good enough, because she was too stupid or too ugly or too needy. She didn’t often allow herself to think about that, but here, in the warm sunshine of the first morning of high school, as Ben Solo looked at her like she was something he’d scraped off the bottom of his shoes, she couldn’t help but think about it and even believe it. She stopped walking towards them and leaned against the corner of the building, looking away so that they wouldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

Thankfully, she hadn’t had to see him much after that. He had left town not long into the school year, and there had been rumors about where he’d gone and why. Rey deliberately ignored them. She knew all she needed to know about Ben Solo.

But he was back in town, and right now he was a customer. Rey’s work was the only thing she had that was really hers and she took pride in it. She shook off her memories, straightened her back, and went over to the table where he sat with his face hidden behind a newspaper. She resisted the urge to smooth stray tendrils of hair back from her face.

“Good morning,” she said, her voice as chipper and professional as she could make it. “What can I get you?”

“Coffee.” His voice was tense and clipped. “And food.” The paper ruffled as he turned the page. A minute went by.

Do you want me to guess what food you want? Rey suspected maybe he did, or he was waiting for her to suggest something so he could tell her she was wrong and feel superior. I’m not joining your little dance, she thought defiantly. She kept her mouth shut and just waited, a smile on her lips but not in her eyes.

After a moment, a voice full of annoyance came from behind the newspaper. “Pie.”

He still wasn’t looking at her. Of course not.

“We have peach and cherry,” she rattled off, her voice bright with affected friendliness. “Which do you favor today?”

He sighed as if the question was an unbearable burden. “Peach.”

“Peach it is!” Rey gushed, writing it on the order pad. Then, because he was just too obnoxious, she opened her fingers and let the pad fall straight onto his newspaper, knocking it from his grasp.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, sir! My fingers must have slipped!” She reached to grab the pad, managing to rumple the paper and push it farther from him. Then she straightened up, pad in hand, and gave him another smile, one that was tauntingly innocent.

He’d been sporting a murderous expression, but that changed when he saw her face. His eyes widened in recognition and his mouth dropped open slightly.

So you actually remember me? She thought. Bet you’re afraid I’m going to give you cooties.

“I’ll be right back with your pie and coffee,” she assured him, then turned on her heel and strode back towards the counter. As she passed the nickelodeon, she paused to drop in a coin and select a song. She turned to see him watching her, still dumbfounded, and she gave him another cheerfully fake smile as “The Wabash Cannonball” began to play. It had been a silly, childish thing to do – she could have used that nickel for so many more important things – but she couldn’t help herself.

Her righteous anger began to fade as she fetched the cup for his coffee, and by the time she began pouring she had shaky hands and teary eyes. She set the pot down and went into the back kitchen, where Maz was rolling out pie dough while Finn washed dishes.

“Maz, could you please get this customer for me? He wants a cup of coffee and a slice of peach pie.”

The older lady glanced up, her eyes squinting behind her thick glasses. At the sight of Rey’s face, she sighed and handed off the rolling pin, wiping her hands on her apron as she went out into the dining area. Rey dropped the rolling pin onto the pie dough and began to flatten it more roughly than was necessary.

“Hey, Peanut,” Finn said from behind her, shutting off the water. “What happened? Someone get fresh with you?”

“No,” she scowled, rolling furiously. “It’s Ben Stupid Solo out there. He’d never get fresh. Everyone’s too far below him for that.” She knew Finn would understand; she’d spent the first few weeks of high school in a miserable daze, until it had been too much to bear and she’d broken down crying in front of him. He’d talked her through it and stood by her as she struggled to get her confidence back. He was a true friend.

“He’s back?” Finn asked. “I heard he’d be gone for the rest of high school, if not for good.”

She let out an angry chuckle. “See for yourself.”

“No, I believe you.” There was a pause, and she could tell he was watching her as she worked. “Isn’t pastry a delicate thing?” She dropped the rolling pin onto the dough and turned to glare at him. “Sorry,” he said, “but you’re destroying Maz’s reputation over there.”

She folded her arms across her chest and looked down at the floor, biting her lip fiercely. Out in the dining area, the bell jingled and a high voice called, “Hey, Maz!”

“Rey.” Finn’s voice was gentle, and she looked up at him. “Remember how much you’re really worth. His opinion doesn’t matter.”

Lusica burst into the back kitchen, giggling, her hand over her mouth. Her words came out in a rush. “Oh my goodness, did you see who Maz is talking to out there?” She looked from Rey to Finn and back again, taking a moment to build suspense and let them wonder before continuing. “Ben Solo!”

Finn shook his head and went back to washing the dishes, while Rey picked up the rolling pin again and hoped that Lusica would just stop talking.

She didn’t.

“I mean, of course she’s chatting with him, she’s friends with his parents and everything, but I didn’t know he was back!” Lusica’s mouth kept running as she took her apron from the peg and put it on. “I mean, I heard that he was kicked out of his uncle’s academy, they had a big fight or something, a real fight! Supposedly he broke his uncle’s jaw and everything! Although Katy said he’d stabbed him. Or maybe he shot him, I think that’s what Will said. I don’t know. I’ve heard a couple of different things. But I certainly didn’t think he’d come back here, Jane says his family disowned him. Do you suppose this means he’ll be back at school this year? Because if he is living at home….”

Rey interrupted her. “Lucie, we need to set up for the lunch rush. Can you brew some more coffee please?”

“Oh, right. Sure thing.” Lusica paused at the door of the back kitchen, staring out into the dining area, then turned and looked at Rey in gossipy glee and mouthed, “Ben Solo,” before leaving.

“Thank you,” Finn whispered, and Rey had to giggle.

 

After the café closed that afternoon and everything had been prepared for the next opening, Rey made her way down Main Street towards the outer edge of town. She had stayed in the back kitchen as long as possible, and by the time she appeared for the lunch rush Ben Solo was gone. Maz had tried to hand her an extra dime at the end of the day, saying that Ben had left it for her as a tip, but Rey had refused to take it. She hadn’t been the one to serve him, after all, and she definitely did not want his charity. She’d had to take so much of that from other people during her life, and she was tired of it. Not to mention how galling it would be to receive charity from the likes of him.

About a quarter mile out of the downtown area, she left the road to cut across a field, meeting up with Finn as she came to the middle of it. They didn’t walk out of town together most of the time. There were people living there who objected to a black boy walking together with a white girl, even in friendship. Those people could be dangerous to Finn. It was best to be cautious about appearing together.

They had become friends when she’d been with her first family, the Cawleys. Finn had been with them as well, although he’d had to sleep in a room out in the barn with their hired man while Rey had shared a tiny room (more like a closet, really) inside the home with an older ward named Penny. Rey and Finn were both orphans, both the same age, and both terrified of Mrs. Cawley. They’d spent five years there together, and it had bonded them closer than most siblings were.

“So what are you doing the rest of today?” Rey asked as they headed towards the woods along the banks of the stream.

He ticked off on his fingers. “Livestock, house chores, and help Mr. Easley in the fields. How about you?”

“I have to weed the garden, clean the house, work on the repairs that Plutt wants me to do, cook dinner and clean up.” She grimaced. “Hopefully I won’t have to wash his clothes until tomorrow afternoon, but maybe that too.”

“Is he going to let you go to school this year?” Finn asked.

“He said so. I’m better at repairs because of school, or so I tell him, and since that makes him money I think he’ll let me keep going.”

“I hope you do,” Finn said. “I know you like it, and you’re pretty smart too. It would be a waste if you didn’t go. You should go to college too.”

Rey thought so herself, but it wasn’t up to her, so she didn’t say anything else about it. They walked alongside the stream talking about “The Wizard of Oz” and this year’s Harvest Festival until they came to the footbridge.

“See you tomorrow!” Finn called as he crossed over, and Rey waved and headed back to the road leading towards Plutt’s shack. As she walked, she tilted her face to the sun and took deep breaths of the hot summer air, allowing herself to be cheerful. The sky was a beautiful deep blue with scattered puffy clouds, the air smelled like grass and trees and flowers, an amazing picture show was coming to town, and she was going to be back in school again soon. Life seemed almost good at the moment, despite the return of Ben Solo.

Chapter Text

September 11, 1939

Rey was thrilled to be back in school. It gave her more time to talk to Finn – although they still had to be careful not to seem too close – and she loved learning new things. The world was a fascinating place, and there was so much she didn’t know.

And she got to be away from Plutt for most of the day.

True, she had to make sure she crammed all of her regular chores and repair work in after school and at night, before starting her homework; but she wasn’t afraid to work hard, so that was all right. It was certainly a far sight better than spending her days walking on eggshells around her guardian.

Right up until last night, he’d been dangling school in front of her like a carrot, saying he’d let her go and then declaring he wouldn’t. Of course she could go, he’d tell her, she did repairs better every year she was at school. No, she was not going, he’d yell later, she was too stupid to get anything out of it and her first duty was to her chores and the work from his shop. She’d been bounced back and forth like that for weeks. It had gotten slightly better since Britain had declared war, because he'd had something else to rant and scream about. And as the first day of school drew nearer, she worked really hard to do everything right so he wouldn’t have any reason to hold her back.

He’d finally settled on allowing her to attend, and she’d scrambled out the door that morning as he snored away in his room. She’d made sure to get up early enough to make him a nice apple quick bread for breakfast, to keep him on her side.

So she was happy to finally get into the classroom and take the seat with her name on it. Literally, her name was on it. Rey Smith, on a small piece of paper taped to the desk. She’d had an idea where she’d sit, since students were almost always seated alphabetically, but she needed the paper to tell her the precise seat.

She hadn’t thought much about what the alphabetical seating might mean. And then Ben Solo walked into the room.

Smith. Solo. Damn.

Sure enough, he sat in the seat just in back of hers.

All day long.

The last time they’d been in school together, before he had left or been sent away (or whatever had happened), Virginia Snell had been sitting between them. But the Snells had moved away from Naboo, and now there he was, right behind her.

Rey ignored him as best she could unless she had to pass papers back down the row, in which case she’d turn her head as little as possible. Out of the corner of her eye she’d see him nod in her direction before abruptly turning to the person behind him. It was like that in every class, and that was fine.

They might be able to get through the year without any interaction. Rey sure hoped so, and judging by the way he refused to look at her, so did Ben.

September 23, 1939

Rey left her hair down when she went to work that Saturday morning, to hide the bruise just under her jaw near her ear. Plutt had come home drunk the day before and was angry that his evening meal hadn’t been ready yet. She had made the stupid mistake of mentioning that it was only three-thirty in the afternoon. She didn’t know why she’d done that; she knew better than to say anything except “Yes, sir” or “I’m sorry, sir” when he was stewed. She’d been clumsily back-handed and then shoved into the kitchen to start cooking.

At least the sleeves of her sweater covered the bruise on her arm from when she’d fallen into the cabinets after he pushed her.

Finn arrived shortly after she did. He whistled as he tied his apron on, calling a greeting down to Maz, who was in the cellar cataloging and organizing the food stores.

“How are you today, Peanut?” He turned to get the knives just as she removed her sweater to don her apron.

His eyes went wide, and he grabbed her forearm to inspect the purple area just above her elbow, pushing her sleeve back to see how far up it went.

“It’s nothing,” she said, pulling her arm away. “I fell.”

“Really?”

“Mostly.” She looked away from him. As she did, his eyes narrowed and he caught her chin and held it, brushing the hair away from her ear.

“It’s nothing,” she insisted, tugging her face away from his hand and smoothing the hair back over her ear. “This is nothing.” That was true. She’d had worse from Plutt when she’d first gone to live with him, back before she’d learned when and how to tiptoe around him. This time was really her fault, for not being more careful with what she said.

“That jerk,” Finn growled. “I have half a mind to…”.

“No, you can’t. You know what would happen to you if you did anything.”

They looked at each other for a moment, their gazes tense, then pleading, before Finn sighed.

“Rey,” he said. “This isn’t right.”

“It’s how it is,” she answered. “And I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I just want to work, okay?”

The front door jingled. Rey put on her sweater, patted Finn on the shoulder, and went out into the dining area with her order pad and pencil in hand.

They made it through the breakfast rush with little trouble, with Finn in the kitchen and Rey and Maz out in the dining area. Most customers were just grabbing a little something on the way to the plant, or using the coffee as an excuse to talk to Maz for a little while. Rey was busy on her feet the whole time, so she didn’t have to think about anything at all except the work.

After awhile the crowds thinned out, and then they disappeared. The diner got quiet, and Maz went back down to the cellar to finish her organizing. Rey started pacing around, looking for something to do, but she was having trouble finding anything in the dining area that needed attention. She was stooped over looking through the drawers along the back counter when the bell jingled, and she stood up to greet the new customer.

It was Ben Solo. Great. By now Rey was used to seeing him at school, but she hadn’t seen him in the café in weeks. He seated himself at the larger table in the middle; he had a newspaper with him again, but this time he made no move to open it. He'd better not be as much of a jerk this time, she thought. She put on a smile and went over to him. He looked up as she walked over, his jaw shifting.

“Good morning,” he said. His voice was rich and deep and not at all annoyed; he sounded almost conversational. He seemed to be stammering slightly, but she couldn’t be sure. He was bouncing his leg under the table, which could have made his voice waver like that.

She was speechless for a moment – Did he just greet me? – but quickly recovered and became professional. “Good morning to you. What can I get you?”

He cleared his throat. “Coffee, please.”

She wrote his order on the pad. “Anything else?”

He shook his head, running a hand through his thick, dark hair, uncovering one of his rather large ears. “I’ll wait. I’ve got people joining me.”

He’s socializing?

“Friends?” She could have kicked herself for the tone in her voice, the one that suggested she was surprised at the idea that anyone might want to be his friend. She didn’t want to be as openly rude as he was.

“Something like that,” he mumbled, the tip of his exposed ear turning pink as his fingers drummed on the newspaper.

“Are there enough chairs here for all of you, or do you need more?”

“No, this is plenty,” he said, looking up at her.

Rey had known, vaguely, that his eyes were brown. But she hadn’t quite seen the kind of brown they were – sort of like dark caramel, or cinnamon, or chocolate cake, or maybe coffee with a tiny hint of milk.

Speaking of which, she really should be getting his coffee for him. She really should.

“I’ll be right back,” she said, and he nodded as she turned and went straight into the back kitchen.

Finn was chopping away as she darted up to him. “Ben Solo’s out there.”

He rolled his eyes. “That’s all you need. Want me to get Maz?”

She spoke without even considering his offer, sounding slightly amazed. “No. I mean, he’s actually being nice, sort of.”

“Is there something wrong with him today?” Finn asked sarcastically, and she gave his shoulder a little smack as the door jingle sounded again.

A voice called out, “Solo! How are you?” Rey scurried to the kitchen door and peeked around it to see who Ben Solo considered “something like” friends.

The voice had sounded familiar, and she recognized the speaker immediately. Poe Dameron was a year older than she was, and he was Mr. Popular at school. He was the friendliest person she’d ever seen and everyone loved him, especially the girls. His skin was slightly bronzed, as if he spent all his time in the sun, and his dark hair had a particularly nice wave to it. He moved with an effortless grace, as if there was nothing on Earth that could make him uncomfortable. As he came to the table he clapped Ben on the back before taking the chair next to him. Ben winced slightly.

Behind Poe came the Hux twins, Armitage and Francine. Rey scowled when she saw Armitage and his red hair – he had been the one who had asked “What is that?” on the first day of school last year and she couldn’t forget it. He was a prissy, irritating little brat, and Rey couldn’t bring herself to think anything positive about him.

His sister, Francine, was platinum blonde – probably not for real, Rey smirked to herself – and she was more intimidating than irritating. She was slightly taller than most people (including her twin brother) and always silently assessing the world with her cool, ice-blue eyes. Rey hadn’t had much to do with her in school. Francie scared her a little.

“You sure you don’t want me to get Maz?” Finn asked.

“Did I hear my name?” Maz called from the cellar.

“No no, I’ve got it!” Rey called back, smoothing her skirt and spiffing up the slight curl in her hair before going back to the dining area.

As she approached the table, all four looked up at her. She smiled tentatively at Francie, who gave her a slight half-nod, and Armie, who regarded her with narrowed eyes and a wrinkled nose. Then she turned towards Ben, who had been watching her movements as she came over to them, and Poe, who was scanning her up and down, and put on her cheery-waitress smile.

“Hi!” She pulled the order pad from her pocket and fetched the pencil from behind her ear. “What can I get you all?”

“What’s good here?” Poe asked, flashing her a grin. He had the whitest teeth Rey had ever seen, and for a moment she couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“The pie is excellent,” Ben told him, and there it was again, his usual irritated tone of voice, the one that had been missing when she’d been talking with him earlier. Poe barely glanced at Ben before leaning towards Rey with another blinding smile.

“What do you think, sweetie?”

“We do have apple pie, and it’s wonderful.” She returned his smile, because he obviously wanted her to. She wasn’t sure about the “sweetie” – that was usually the prelude to an unwanted grab – but he’d always struck her as friendly and trustworthy when she’d seen him in school. And he was kind of handsome, after all.

“Then I’ll do that!” He said definitively. “Actually, we’ll all do that. Coffee and pie for all of us, please!”

“I’ll get your coffees first,” Rey told them, tucking her pencil behind her ear and moving back towards the counter. She’d almost passed the nickelodeon when she heard Poe call to her.

“Hey, kewpie doll!”

She turned back in time to see Ben glare at Poe and mutter, “Her name is Rey.”

Poe tossed something towards her, and she managed to make the catch; it was a nickel. He applauded, grinning, then urged, “Play something for us. Your choice!”

She juggled the nickel in her hand for a moment before turning to make her decision.

Behind her, she heard Poe say, “Good catch,” to the rest of the table.

“Looks like Dameron won the kewpie doll,” Armie sniffed, and Poe chuckled.

“Her name,” said Ben, “is Rey. And she can wipe the floor with all of us in mathematics.”

She wondered how he knew she was good at math. Maybe he’d seen her quiz scores when the papers came down the row?

“A smart girl,” Poe mused. “I like smart girls. Especially smart girls that are pretty.”

“She can hear you, you know.” Francie said, her voice steely.

Rey’s face was hot as she selected “Moonlight Serenade”, and when she headed towards the back counter she kept her head turned away so they couldn’t see.

She’d never been flirted with before. Grabbed, yes. Leered at, yes. But not flirted with, like other girls were. She didn’t have the slightest idea how to respond correctly, especially because she was supposed to be their waitress. And they were the rich kids, and she was, well, nothing. Her hands were shaking as she retrieved the cups for their coffees.

She took a deep breath before beginning to pour. Poe Dameron flirts with everybody, she reminded herself. He’d flirt with a chicken if one happened to cross his path. The thought of him doing just that made her giggle to herself.

That helped, although she did wind up spilling a little coffee. By the time she had everything on the tray and had turned to serve them, her face was no longer flushed and her nerves were more or less tamed. She was still a bit on edge, but it was nothing she couldn’t handle.

They were no longer paying attention to her anyway; the boys were locked in deep conversation about the war as Francie watched them.

“It’s not our business,” Armie was saying. “It’s European.”

“He's invading countries,” Ben pointed out calmly.

“It’s Poland,” Armie scoffed. “They’ve always been invaded. They’re used to it.”

“Bullies don’t stop on their own,” Ben said. “They keep going until someone stops them.”

Hmph. I guess it takes one to know one, Rey thought, handing Francie a cup of coffee.

“Thank you.” Francie’s eyes were fixed on her brother as he continued.

“It’s not our place to stop them.” He sat forward, his cheeks reddening. “We went into a European war before, remember?”

“I know,” Ben answered, but Armie kept going.

“We lost how many American lives, spent how many American dollars, for what?” He ignored Rey when she set his cup down in front of him. “We weren’t even in jeopardy. All that was a waste. This isn’t our fight, Solo.”

“But it will be, eventually,” Ben countered, then looked up at Rey and said, “Thank you,” as she set his cup down.

“They’re an entire ocean away!” Armie was growing more agitated. “This will never touch us!”

“Yeah, I’m not sure about that, buddy,” Poe said, grinning briefly at Rey as he reached to take his cup from her hands. “Thanks. This guy Hitler might have delusions of empire. Why would he stop over there?”

“There’s an ocean between us,” Armie huffed as Rey set the sugar and creamer down on the table.

“True,” Poe answered, considering the point. “Very true.”

“There are such things as ships,” Ben contended mildly. “And airplanes.”

Their discussion continued as Rey returned to the back kitchen for the slices of pie.

“They sound riled up,” Finn said as Rey dished up the slices. “What’s it all about?”

“The war,” she shrugged. “If we should be in it.”

He smiled. “So what’s the score?”

“One for, one against, and one wavering in the middle,” she answered, gathering forks. “Francie’s just listening.”

“Francie Hux?” Finn shivered, then turned to whisper to her as she placed the dishes on the serving tray. “Does she scare you too?”

“Oh yes,” Rey whispered back, and she heard Finn laugh as she headed back out to the table.

“You know,” Poe was saying. “If there is a war, I’m going to be a flying ace or whatever they call them now. And so’s Solo, right buddy?” He bumped Ben’s shoulder with his own.

“I’ll serve,” Ben said. “But I’m not sure I’ll be flying. I might not meet the requirements.”

“Won’t matter,” Poe assured him as Rey distributed their pie. “In wartime, it doesn’t. They need all the bodies they can get. We fly already, right?”

“Jennys,” Ben answered. “Today’s military planes are different. Thank you,” he added as Rey set down his plate.

“Yeah, but we’re already ahead of most guys because we know some stuff. Come on, pal, think about it. We can spend every day being paid to soar through the clouds!”

“Being shot at,” Ben reminded him.

“That’s why it’s exciting!” Poe winked at him.

“You,” Armie told Poe, tapping his own temple, “are not right in the head. Besides, we’re not going to war. We are neutral. The President made that clear.”

Rey moved to the counter to wipe up where she’d spilled the coffee earlier, but she kept her ears open. This conversation was more interesting than any of Plutt’s rants on the same subject.

Ben turned his head towards Armie. “I thought you didn’t like Roosevelt.”

“I don’t.”

“I thought you didn’t like anything he did.”

“I don’t.”

“He’s a socialist and a threat to society. Nothing he does will ever be right.”

“He is and it won’t.”

“So declaring neutrality was wrong.”

Silence, and then Poe and Francie both chuckled. At the counter, Rey smiled, regretting that she couldn’t prolong her wiping long enough to hear more.

“Oh, fine,” Armie groused, and turned to his sister with a scowl. “Why are you joining in on this?”

“He’s got your number,” she said, her eyebrows raised as she lifted her coffee to her lips.

“Absolute statements are always a bad thing, Hux,” Ben said dryly. No one at the table seemed to get it, but Rey choked back a giggle as she went into the kitchen. Good one, Solo.

Finn was standing by the back windows, a glass of water in his hand, gazing out at the alley.

“Must be nice,” he said, “to be able to spend your time arguing about something that’s happening all the way around the world. Instead of worrying about what you’ve got to eat, or whether you’re going to get smacked, or if you might do the wrong thing and make someone in a white hood mad.”

Rey didn’t know what to say to that, so she picked up a towel and started drying the recently washed dishes. There was a long silence as Finn finished his water, the sounds of further conversation rising and falling in the dining area.

He set his empty glass down in the sink and said, “I don’t know if we’ll go to war or not. But if we do, I’m enlisting as soon as I can. It’s the only way I’ll ever get out of here.”

Her heart jumped uncomfortably. If Finn left, she’d be all alone. She didn’t want to be any more alone than she already was.

He was her friend, though, and she loved him. He definitely deserved to be treated better than he’d ever be treated here in Naboo. He deserved the chance to be able to show everyone what he was really made of.

But in combat? She frowned and rubbed the towel hard against the bowl.

“I don’t want to think about you going to war,” she admitted with a sigh. “I don’t want to think about war at all.”

He turned to her, a determined look on his face. “It would be an opportunity, Rey. We wouldn’t be stuck being this.” He gestured between the two of them. “Orphans. Nobodies. We could go anywhere and be anything.”

“Girls don’t fight,” she reminded him.

“You could be a nurse,” he countered helpfully. “Think about it. We could maybe see the rest of the world.”

“I can’t be a nurse,” she said. “I can’t handle all those people in pain.”

“Of course not,” he said, fixing her with a knowing glance. “You’ve got plenty enough of your own.”

“I told you I didn’t want to talk about it,” she snapped.

“Hey, kewpie doll!” Poe called from the dining area amid the sounds of chairs being pushed back.

Finn narrowed his eyes in the direction of the voice. “Does he know you have a name?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.” She waved off Finn’s comment and went back out.

“The pie was great!” Poe was beaming in her direction as she headed towards the table. “Here’s what we owe you. Keep the change.” He winked at her.

She heard Ben Solo’s voice, low and angry. “Were you raised in a barn? Clean that up.”

Rey turned to see that Armie’s plate was surrounded by piles of crumbs; there were more crumbs on the table than there were on the plate. If Rey hadn’t known better, she would have thought he’d scattered them there on purpose. Armie shrugged carelessly at Ben, who was glowering at him, and said, “That’s what Maz pays her for,” before strolling out onto the street.

Francie rolled her eyes as she followed him out, telling Ben, “You can go ahead and deck him any time.”

Ben clenched his jaw as Poe smiled at Rey and followed the others out of the café. Then he wiped the piles of crumbs from around his friend’s plate and dropped them on it.

She watched in amazement. He’s cleaning that up?

He looked up and saw her staring at him and quickly looked away. Without taking his eyes off the nearest wall, he nodded and said, “See you in school,” before hurrying out the door.

She opened her hand to inspect the money they’d given her.

They’d tipped her an entire dollar.

She decided to give half of it to Finn.

Chapter Text

October 11, 1939

Rey was working alone in the shop, her hair pulled back in a bun and a streak of oil across her forehead. She had a vacuum cleaner motor on the table in front of her, and as she worked on it she absently sang “Over the Rainbow”, which was her favorite song from “The Wizard of Oz”. She still didn’t know all the words, so she sang the ones she did know, bits and pieces of them throughout the song, and hummed the melody when she couldn’t remember the lyrics.

Rey stopped abruptly when the door to the shop opened. Plutt didn’t like it when she sang while she made repairs; he felt that if she could sing while she was working, then she wasn’t working very hard. She tried to look as if she was concentrating intently on the motor, sneaking a peek under her eyelashes to check on his mood.

But it wasn’t her guardian at the door.

A man with greying hair and a rugged face came in, removing his wide-brimmed hat as he crossed the threshold. He carried himself with an easy, secure confidence. His rumpled white shirt and well-worn brown leather jacket could have looked messy, but instead they seemed well lived-in and comfortable. He looked around curiously, examining the various parts strewn all over the shop. He stopped to pick up one of them, giving it a good once-over.

Rey wiped her hands on her apron. She didn’t know him, so she watched him carefully while she dropped one hand down to the tire iron that she always kept nearby in case of trouble when Plutt was out of the shop.

The man set the part back down and slowly turned, eyeing everything along the walls before catching sight of Rey and giving her a crooked, roguish smile.

“Oh, hello.” He took a couple of steps towards her, and Rey’s fingers closed around the tire iron.

“Hello,” she nodded. “Do you have something that needs to be repaired?”

He chuckled. “Lots of things. But right now I’m looking for somebody.”

“Mr. Plutt’s not here,” she said, and immediately wished that she hadn’t. Now he knew that she was alone.

“I know.” He looked towards the back door of the shop, as if checking for someone else. “He’s drinking his fill of rotgut over at Chuck’s bar.” He turned back towards her. “I’m not looking for him anyway.”

“Oh?” She tightened her grip and straightened her back, prepared to swing, if he came any closer.

“I’m looking for his apprentice.” He shrugged. “Well, maybe not apprentice. The one who does most of the repairs here, I think his name is Ray. Can you get him for me?”

Rey relaxed her grip slightly. “What do you need help with? Can you bring it in?”

He rubbed the back of his head with his hand, his jaw shifting in a way that was almost familiar. “Well, that’s the thing. It’s attached to something.”

She didn’t respond, and he continued. “It’s an airplane engine.”

Rey perked up – she’d never worked on an airplane engine before. She’d never even seen an airplane before. “Oh!”

He chuckled. “Yeah. Not exactly something I can bring in. I do take it down to St. Louis when it needs big work, but I’m not sure that’ll be necessary. For smaller problems I work on it, or sometimes my son does, but we’re having a disagreement about what’s wrong and we need another pair of eyes. I don’t want Plutt anywhere near it, but I’ve heard good things about this Ray and I thought maybe he could take a look.”

People are saying good things about me?

It was an unexpected but thrilling thought, and Rey felt a tingle of joy in her stomach. She released the tire iron and stepped out from the table. “I can definitely take a look at it.”

He attempted a polite smile, but it was obvious that he was uncomfortable. “I’m sure you could, but I was kind of hoping to speak to Ray.”

Oh. Rey wasn’t surprised by his reaction. Most people, when they came in the shop, thought she was just a helper, an order taker or something – almost no one knew she was the one doing the repairs. And if anyone had heard that someone named “Ray” did them, of course they’d think it was a man.

“I’m Rey,” she told him. “Not Ray with an ‘a’, Rey with an ‘e’.”

His eyes widened and his mouth just about dropped open. Rey almost giggled at his shock, but made herself keep a straight face so he wouldn’t take offense. She’d never see the plane or its engine if he did.

“But you’re a girl,” he said, then immediately groaned and scrunched his eyes in regret. “Aw, hell. Please don’t tell my wife I just said that. She’ll kill me.”

He looked so sheepish, Rey couldn’t help but smile.

“I mean,” he explained, “you’re a kid. I expected someone older.”

“I’m plenty old,” she declared. Good thing she hadn’t giggled – she would have seemed even younger.

“Really?” He examined her face for a moment. “You seem like you’re barely ready for high school.”

“I’m in high school!”

“Then you must know my son.” He chuckled ruefully. “Which means I probably need to apologize to you for something he’s said or done.”

Rey didn’t know what to say to that – she’d never met a parent who would automatically apologize for their child when meeting someone who might know him – so she just furrowed her brow.

“Oh, geez, I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Han Solo. My son’s name is….”

“Ben,” she said at the same time he did, and nodded tersely. She could tell by the twinkle in his eye that he’d noticed she hadn’t smiled in recognition.

“You do know him then.” He shrugged, his arms open slightly. “I hereby apologize for Ben.”

“That’s not necessary,” she assured him. Not that there wasn’t an apology owed, but it wasn’t owed by him. Rey wondered how Ben would feel, if he knew his father went around issuing blanket apologies on his behalf. She certainly wouldn’t like it, if she were in his shoes.

“Anyway, Rey with an ‘e’,” Han continued. “Would you be willing to come out and look at the engine for me? I don’t need you to fix anything, just give an opinion.”

“Yes!” She smiled eagerly, then her face fell slightly. “You’ll have to clear it with Mr. Plutt, though. He’s my guardian, as well as my boss.”

“I hate that guy,” he muttered. His eyebrows drew down in annoyance and his jaw shifted again, and his resemblance to his son was instantly recognizable. He put his hat back on his head and headed for the door. “Tell you what, I’ll negotiate terms with him, but unless you hear differently from me or Ben, I’ll be here to pick you up on Saturday afternoon. What time is good for you?”

“I work at Maz’s café until 2:30.”

“Hey, I know Maz. Friend of the family. I’ll pick you up from there at 2:30, and I’ll bring you back here afterwards. Deal?”

“Deal,” she smiled.

“See you then, kid,” he said, and the door swung shut behind him.

Rey took a moment to imagine what the airplane would look like, and how the engine was put together. She had a fleeting hope that maybe, if he liked her work, he might even take her up for a ride.

Then she shook her head. It was a silly thought; she was only hired for this one job, and only because he’d thought “Ray” was a man. She’d spend an hour looking at the engine, maybe two at most, and then she’d most likely never see Han Solo or his airplane again.

She sighed, then returned to her vacuum cleaner motor and her half-hummed song.

 

 

October 14, 1939

Han Solo picked her up at the café at 2:30 that Saturday, just as he said he would. Rey was ready to go, with her coat on and everything, but she wound up cooling her heels in the kitchen with Finn and Lusica for half an hour as Han chatted with Maz.

Once they left the café, Rey was surprised to find that she would be riding in a 1938 Plymouth driven by Han Solo, instead of in a fancier car driven by a chauffeur. She knew the Solos had a car and driver, as she’d seen Ben arrive at school in it once or twice. It seemed like the height of luxury, to have a fancy car and someone to drive it for you. Although Rey walked everywhere, so a ride in the 1938 Plymouth was a luxury for her anyway.

They rode most of the way in silence, although Han must have thought it was too quiet after a while, because he started a conversation.

“So, Rey with an ‘e’, you’re an orphan?” Rey’s shoulders tightened up, and even though Han wasn’t looking at her, he must have sensed the tension. He shook his head. “Sorry, kid, I’m not trying to pry. It’s just, I was too, from when I was young, so…just that we’ve got something in common.”

“Really?” Rey hadn’t known that.

“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “I made my way through life too, like you are now. There were some tough years, and some interesting years, but it all worked out. It usually does, you know.”

Rey nodded; she wasn’t sure what he was expecting her to say to that. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his jaw shift again before silence spread through the car once more. She didn’t mind the silence at all; it gave her time to try to remember everything she knew about automobile engines, in case the airplane engine was similar.

They turned onto a dirt lane that had a single large building at the end of it, which looked to Rey as if it had once been used as a barn. The wind blew Rey’s hair around her face as she got out of the car and followed Han to the barn, and she smoothed it back to keep it from going into her eyes.

Han undid a padlock on the barn door and pulled it open. “There she is!” It was a biplane, painted yellow on the fuselage and white on the wings and tail, with numbers and letters painted black along the side.

Rey wanted to run over to the airplane, but she approached it cautiously, not wanting to alarm Han by seeming too excited. She walked up to where the wings joined the fuselage and raised her hand to touch it, looking back at Han for permission. He nodded before pushing the other barn door open to let in more light, and Rey put her hand up on the side of the plane and kept it there as she walked along it from wing to tail, the paint slick under her hands.

“Gorgeous, isn’t she?” Han stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips, gazing at the plane with pride.

Rey nodded, coming around behind the tail to walk back up to the wing again along the other side. She noticed that there were two seats, one in back of the other. Maybe a ride one day isn’t that far out of the question. She could always hope, anyway.

Once she reached the wing again, she turned to take off her coat, laying it next to the barn wall as Han pulled a couple of step ladders over to the engine compartment and undid the hood straps to expose the engine.

As she went up one of the step ladders, she heard another car approaching, its tires crunching along the dirt. Han came down off his step ladder and looked out the door.

“All right, kid. My son and his friend are here,” Han announced. “Batten down the hatches!”

“Ben’s the one that needs to batten,” she muttered, intent on the engine. She didn’t think she’d been loud enough for Han to hear, but he gave a soft chuckle.

She could hear Ben talking as the boys approached the barn.

“Of course Chamberlain wouldn’t agree to peace with Germany. Hitler didn’t mean it anyway.”

Another voice, which Rey had heard before but couldn’t immediately place, responded. “He said he did.”

“Germany had a non-aggression pact with Poland once, remember?”

The discussion ended as they reached the door and the almost-familiar voice called out a greeting. “Hey, Mr. Solo!”

“Poe!” The sound of a hearty backslap echoed in the barn. “How are you?”

“Not bad, not bad,” Poe answered. “We came out to see what’s up with the plane.”

“Nothing’s up right now,” Han said. “The engine’s still out.”

“Ha! Good one!” Poe laughed.

“Geez, Dad,” Ben moaned.

“Hey there, Ben.” Rey could hear tension in Han’s voice as he greeted his son.

“Oh, hey sweetie!” Poe called to Rey. “Didn’t know we’d see you here!”

“What is she doing here?” Ben asked his father. He spoke loudly enough that Rey couldn’t help but hear him. She stubbornly clenched her jaw and refused to turn in his direction.

“I asked her to take a look at the engine,” Han told him, “seeing as you and I can’t agree on what the problem might be. I thought Rey here might be willing to give us a second opinion.”

“She’s a waitress,” Ben informed his father. “She doesn’t know anything about mechanics.”

All right, that’s enough, Rey thought. “Mr. Solo,” she called out, still looking at the aircraft’s engine, “what did your son think the problem was?”

“I’m right here, you know,” Ben said sharply.

“And so am I,” Rey snapped, popping her head up from the engine to glare at him. “If you have questions about me or for me, you can actually ask me. So go ahead and ask, although honestly I don’t think I owe you any answers.”

Poe rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably, his eyes flickering back and forth between them, while Han raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips in a silent whistle. Ben just stared at her with a dazed look on his face.

She turned back around, silently reminding herself that it probably wouldn't be good form to cuss out the son of the man who had hired her. She forced herself to concentrate on the engine again, which wasn’t really hard to do, since it was a fascinating piece of machinery. She was having an awful time seeing much of it in the dim light of the barn, though.

She felt a jostling as someone came up the step ladder next to hers, and then a steady beam from a flashlight shone out in front of her.

“Thank you,” she said. She turned, expecting to see Han, and was surprised to see Ben instead, his eyes fixed steadily on the engine.

“Dad thinks it’s the spark plug,” he told her, and she turned back to look as he leaned towards the engine, closer to her. “Which it isn’t, although spark plugs are known to be problematic on this engine. I think the exhaust valves are starting to warp. Those are also known to be problematic on this engine.”

“Or it could be both,” Poe offered from below them as a third step ladder was pushed up on the other side of Rey.

“These are really thin exhaust valves,” Rey noted. “This is how it was made?”

“Yeah,” Ben confirmed. “That’s part of the problem. This is the engine that was put into this plane originally. Earlier models of the Jenny had the OX5 engine, but this one has a Hisso V8.”

Rey nodded, even though she had no idea what those names meant.

“We could modify to get an OX5 put in, and I think we should,” Ben said, then looked across Rey to where Han stood atop the third step ladder. “But Dad wants to keep what came with the plane.”

“Nothing wrong with the original, Ben,” Han said. “There was a reason they went with the Hisso for this model. The amount of power available….”

“It was a bad decision,” Ben cut him off. “The way that these were designed and constructed…”.

“Hey,” Rey interrupted, and they stopped arguing and looked at her. “I’d like to just look at it, please. Can we do that?”

“Sure thing, kewpie doll,” Poe agreed. He was standing below Ben on the second step ladder, and as he spoke he poked his friend in the back. Ben shot a dirty look over his shoulder.

The three of them continued to hover over Rey from their step ladders as she went on with her examination. She had to struggle mightily to resist the urge to ask them to step down so she could have some air to breathe.

After a period of time with her head stuck in the engine and her ears ringing with male advice and bickering, Rey announced her findings. It was her opinion that both the spark plug and the exhaust valves were at fault. Han and Ben agreed reluctantly and with little grace, even though Poe pointed out that, since neither of them had won the bet, everyone got to keep their money.

Han stowed the three step ladders back where he’d gotten them, as Poe and Ben left the barn and Rey went to the side wall to pick up her coat. While she was putting it back on again, she heard Poe speak just outside the barn door.

“She’s smart and she’s pretty, and she knows engines,” he said. “Now I really like her.” There was silence. “What?” Poe asked, as if in response to a grimace.

Ben’s voice carried more than its usual level of irritation. “Why are you like this?”

Rey put her hands against her cheeks, which had become somewhat warmer at Poe’s declaration.

Han’s voice called from farther outside. “Hey, kid! Let’s get you back to Plutt so he doesn’t refuse to let you help me again!”

Rey walked out of the barn as quickly as she could, waving as she passed the two boys. Ben nodded, and Poe called after her as she climbed back into Han’s car. “See you in school!”

Han chuckled as he started the engine, and she looked at him questioningly.

“I really thought you were going to come down off that thing and slap him,” he told her as they pulled back onto the dirt road. “You’re the first one of his friends that I’ve seen push right back at him.”

“We’re not really friends,” Rey said, watching the nearly barren farm fields as they passed. “We just go to school together.”

“That’s too bad,” Han said, glancing over at her as he drove. “He needs more people his age to push back at him directly, lay down the law a little. Poe is the only one who even comes close, but he’s just pushing Ben’s buttons for amusement. You see Ben’s bet and raise him double, if you know what I mean.”

Rey thought about it for a moment. “I kind of don’t,” she admitted.

“That’s probably for the best,” he said, looking a little uncomfortable, “since it’s a gambling thing and you’re just a kid. Forget I said it that way.” He rubbed his jaw. “What I mean is, you challenge him.”

“I wasn’t trying to challenge him,” Rey explained. “I was mad at him.”

Han laughed. “Whatever you say, kid.”

They rode the rest of the way back to Plutt’s in silence, Han occasionally chuckling softly to himself and Rey thinking about how odd it was that she had felt so comfortable during those moments when she stood on the step ladder with Ben Solo discussing airplane engines.

Chapter Text

December 13, 1939

Rey was on her way home after school, her hand clutching the top of her coat closed where the button had fallen off. It was cold out this afternoon, but there hadn’t been any snow yet this winter, so at least her feet were dry today. That was something to be thankful for, anyway. She’d have to check and see if her old boots still fit and maybe line them with some rags, if there were too many holes.

As she passed Hill’s Drugs on her way through downtown Naboo, Rey remembered she was running out of soap. And as long as I’m going to be in there anyway, she thought, I might as well get a drink from the soda fountain. She was sure she had enough money with her. If she walked quickly enough, she could make up the time on her way home and not be too late.

Hill’s wasn’t as crowded as usual, but there were still a fair amount of people in there. Rey made her way down the center aisle, back by the pharmacy counter, to where the soap was shelved. She was just reaching for the Ivory when she heard a familiar voice grumble, “How long is it going to take?”

She knew who it was, even before a woman’s voice quietly said, “Ben, please,” but she turned to look anyway.

Ben Solo was there. He was with an older woman, who was most certainly his mother. They stood almost directly in line with her.

Leia Skywalker Solo cut an impressive figure, no question about it. She wore an olive-green coat with a black fur collar and black gloves. On her head was a matching cloche hat with a black ribbon accent at the side. She stood proud and tall at the pharmacy counter, not a hair out of place, her posture perfect and her eyes fixed firmly on the pharmacist. She exuded poise and command.

Ben leaned against the counter with a sullen slouch, watching his mother’s conversation with narrowed eyes, his hands shoved deep into his pants pockets.

Rey turned quickly to get her soap from the shelf, as the pharmacist disappeared into the back room.

“Remember, I want you to get your hair cut before Saturday,” Leia told Ben.

“Fine.”

“And not too long.”

“Okay.”

“Do I need to come to the barber with you to make sure it gets done correctly?”

“I don’t like it too short,” Ben grumbled. “It’s my hair.”

And it’s your big ears that need covering, Rey thought. Didn’t his mother realize that was why he wore his hair longer than most boys did?

“Sweetie, you need to show the world your face,” Leia explained. “No one can even see your eyes this way.”

Ben sounded like he was drowning in humiliated agony. “Mom. Stop!” Rey peeked over to see Leia brushing his hair from his forehead while Ben pulled away, scowling and flushed pink.

There was a pause while Leia watched him use his fingers to comb his hair back to where it had been before. Then she seemed to sigh a little and opened her purse to retrieve something from it.

“Oh, and I meant to tell you,” she began, “I’m going to ask Trudy to join us for Christmas dinner. Now I know you’re not fond of her…”.

Ben interrupted her. “No,” he said, in a voice that sent a shock of fear right through Rey’s chest.

Ben Solo’s temper was so legendary in Naboo that it was almost mythical. Though he didn’t sound angry or threatening in the slightest right now, she still felt afraid. There was just something in his tone −something deep and primal, like a snake that coils up when someone suddenly stumbles upon it in the grass.

Rey turned back to the soap shelf, her breath coming more quickly.

“Benjamin, honestly!” Rey heard the sound of a purse being slapped down on the counter.

“No,” he insisted again, getting louder. Rey heard a shushing noise from some of the other patrons and from the corner of her eye she saw heads turning towards the back of the shop.

“I cannot believe you,” Leia declared, her voice steady but crisp. “She practically raised you. She’s like family to us.”

“She’s a servant,” he responded bitterly. “You hired her and you paid her. She is not family, and she should not be at Christmas dinner with us!”

Typical Ben Solo, thinks he’s too good to have dinner with someone who worked for them, Rey thought, but then she second-guessed herself. She didn’t hear a sneer in his voice, the way she did when Armie Hux spoke. There was an edge to Ben’s tone, but it wasn’t superiority. It was something different, although for the life of her Rey couldn't quite name it.

He continued, his barely-controlled anger spilling out with every word. “And if you’d been doing your job as a mother, she wouldn’t have been the one to raise me!”

There were more shushing noises from the front of the shop. Rey knew everyone else had their eyes focused on the pharmacy counter, but she kept hers steadily trained on the Ivory soap. She knew what it was like to be the object of unwanted gazes. She wouldn’t wish that on anyone, and she wouldn’t contribute to it either.

In fact, right now she wanted to turn and walk directly out of drugstore, but she had learned the hard way that it was better not to call attention to herself when someone was angry. So she stayed frozen in place and hoped it would end soon.

“Ben.” Leia’s voice was getting lower and harder to hear, but Rey could feel the icy control of it from where she was standing. “We’ll discuss this at home.”

His mother may have been trying to stay quiet, but Ben got raised his voice even more. “We won’t, though, will we? You’ll just go on with what you want to do anyway, like you never even heard me!” There was a thumping noise, as if a foot had just collided with wood, and Rey startled. “Because what I say just doesn’t matter!”

“Ben.” Leia’s voice was steely, but Rey heard a hint of desperation in it.

“Fine!” He was full-out yelling now, and Rey heard a gasp or two from the front of the shop. “Go ahead and invite her! But you can forget about me! I won’t come!”

“Yes, you will!” Leia snapped back through gritted teeth.

“No. I won’t!” There was a pause. Then he spoke again, his voice quieter and deadly certain. “I won’t. So make a choice, Mother. Her or me.”

In the silence that followed, the only thing Rey heard was the rumble of a car engine as it passed by on the street outside. Then there was a banging noise and Ben spoke, sounding furious and miserable.

“Why the hell am I even waiting to see who you choose? I know it won’t be me.”

There were more quiet gasps from the front of the store. Rey heard heavy footsteps leave the pharmacy counter and head in her direction.

Belatedly, she realized she was standing directly between the Solos and the shop door. She tried to move out of the way, but Ben was going too fast. He barreled right into her. They both gasped as the impact knocked them into the shelves on opposite sides of the aisle. A cascade of soaps and other hygiene products spilled at their feet.

He looked up from the mess on the floor, directly into her eyes, and for one shocked moment they just stared at each other. He was absolutely incensed, she could tell, but there was something more. She had a flash of memory, of one time when she was younger and she’d caught a glimpse of her own face in the mirror just as Plutt’s hand swung in for a second slap. The look in his eyes reminded her of what she’d seen in her own.

He looks like a frightened little boy, Rey thought, and she could feel herself beginning to shake.

He turned and moved towards the door, first walking quickly and then running, the other customers backing fearfully out of his way. He pushed the door open and ran outside and away. As soon as he left, the shop was full of murmurs and exclamations.

Behind her, Leia told the pharmacist calmly, “You know what, Bill, why don’t you just have that delivered to our house. And I’ll pay for any breakage, of course.”

Rey took a deep breath and went up front to the cash register to purchase her soap. She no longer felt like staying for a soda.

 

December 23, 1939

Rey and Finn were eager to finish cleaning and setting up the café after closing, so they could exchange Christmas gifts with each other. This was the only Christmas celebration that either of them would have. The Easleys were Quakers and didn’t celebrate Christmas, and Plutt just plain didn’t care about it.

Maz had given each of them some bonus cash, which Rey for her part was intent on hiding from Plutt. She’d given Maz a couple of potholders that she’d sewn together from cloth she’d found around home. Finn’s gift to their boss had been a wooden figurine of Maz herself, which he’d carved out of some scrap lumber he’d found around the farm.

Lusica hadn’t given Maz anything. She’d also been out sick with the flu the weekend before and seemed to have forgotten how to do any work. She’d mostly lounged against the front counter or talked Finn’s ear off in the kitchen all day. Maz had had to give her a sharp word once or twice.

Rey knew it was only polite to wait until Lusica left before exchanging gifts with Finn, seeing as they didn’t have any for her. As the day went on and Lusica continued to do next to nothing, however, Rey was becoming less willing to be polite. Rey’s irritation only increased when Lusica decided to treat her to a heaping helping of gossip.

“Oh my goodness, did you hear?”

Rey mentally rolled her eyes as Lusica took her customary ten-second pause for anticipation.

“No. You’re about to tell me though, right?” Rey didn’t even look at her, just continued putting the clean coffee cups away on the back counter.

“A couple of weeks ago, Ben Solo destroyed the inside of Hill’s Drugs!” Lusica's eyes were bright as she waited for Rey's reaction to the news.

Rey stilled. “What?”

“He and Mrs. Solo got in a big fight, and he cursed real loud and pushed over shelves and everything.” Lusica’s words were spilling out of her like a waterfall, and Rey was too stunned to stop her. “That’s what Jane said. He pulled over two entire shelves and kicked a giant hole in the pharmacist’s counter and…”.

“No,” said Rey, finally finding her voice. “No, he didn’t.”

“Yes, he did,” Lusica nodded. “Will told Jane about it, and he heard it from someone who was there. Ben Solo got mad at his mom and went crazy! He even knocked some old lady over as he ran from the store so the cops wouldn’t get him!”

“No.” Rey glared at Lusica and took a step closer to her. “No. That’s not what happened.”

Lusica took half a step backwards, her chin jutting forward defiantly. “Well, Katy said…”.

“Katy wasn’t there,” Rey informed her. “But I was. I saw what happened.”

Lusica’s eyes widened. “You did?” She squeaked eagerly.

“Yes.” Rey took another step towards Lusica, who took another half-step backwards. “I’m the old lady that Ben bumped into as he left the drugstore. Which made both of us fall into the shelves and knock a few things onto the floor. Which was an accident.”

“Oh!” Lusica breathed, and went quiet.

Rey turned back to the coffee cups, her shoulders taut with tension. Lusica was talking like Ben was some raging storm of destruction, and Rey was sure that others were as well. He’d seemed more scared to Rey, and she’d actually been there. It was none of anyone’s business anyway, so why pass around these stupid stories?

Lusica sidled in closer to her. “So? What was he fighting with his mother about?”

“Unbelievable!” Rey muttered, shoving the last coffee cup into place and stalking around Lusica into the kitchen.

Lusica followed her. “Did he curse? And yell? He kicked the counter, right?”

Finn saw the look on Rey’s face as she rounded on Lusica and stepped between them. “Hey, Lucie,” he offered easily, “I can finish up for you here so you can go home and be with your family.” He turned as Maz came back in from taking out the trash. “That’s okay, right Maz? I can finish Lucie’s work so she can leave early?”

“Oh, would you?” Lusica forgot all about Ben Solo’s rampage, as she looked at Maz pleadingly.

“She’s not doing anything anyway,” Maz responded grumpily, waving her hand at Lusica in dismissal.

“Thank you so much!” Lusica hurried to take off her apron and put on her coat before anyone could change their mind. “We’ll catch up later, Rey, okay? Merry Christmas everyone!”

“Merry Christmas!” Finn called back. Then he turned to Rey. “What did she say to you? I thought you were going to slap her!”

“No hitting in my café,” Maz warned Rey.

“I didn’t! But she’s such an annoying, gossipy little child,” Rey growled. “She had this whole story about how Ben Solo tore apart Hill’s Drugs during a fight with his mother, and it was a complete load of baloney. I was there. I saw it and it was nothing like that!”

Maz sighed. “I wish folks would mind their own business. I know that boy, and while he does have a mighty temper, he’d never be that destructive.”

“Tell that to Lusica,” Rey snarled.

“Rey,” Finn said evenly. “Why are you upset about this? You know half of what comes out of that girl’s mouth is baloney. So does the whole town, for that matter.”

“Why am I…,” Rey stuttered for a moment before finding the words, “because she’s making Ben sound like some sort of deranged criminal!”

Finn gave a confused chuckle as he wiped down the sink. “He’s not exactly your favorite person. Why do you care what he sounds like?”

“Because like Maz said, it’s not true!”

Finn tilted his head slightly as Maz left the kitchen to go lock the front door.

“Look, he’s bad enough as it is,” Rey told Finn. “There’s no need to make it worse, and you know, it’s just not right, making up stories about people. And she does it all the time! I mean, how much of what she’s already said about him is even close to being true?”

“How much of what she said today is true?” He asked.

“He was angry. He was loud. He said one curse word. He bumped into me. And he probably should have shown his mother more respect.” Rey stopped for a minute, wondering if she’d missed anything. “But Finn, it…it wasn’t anything like what she was saying.”

“Well, it is now,” he said, hanging up the towel and reaching for his coat. “And you know she’s going to be going around town saying, ‘Well, Rey told me…’.”

Rey had to giggle at his high-pitched, breathless imitation of Lusica, then she groaned. “She better not. She had just better not.”

“Oh, she will, child.” Maz had re-entered the kitchen.

“Why do you even let her still work here?” Rey demanded. “Especially seeing as how she doesn’t work.”

“Because she needs a job, and a place to be,” Maz told her. “And I’m hoping I can help her learn a little more maturity. Are you two ready to leave yet?”

“Wait,” Finn said. “Can we just give each other our Christmas presents? It’s cold outside and we can’t do it at our houses.”

Maz smiled. “Of course!”

“Oh wait!” Rey squeaked and ran to her coat to retrieve a package wrapped in newspaper, as Finn pulled a smaller one from his coat pocket.

They switched packages and then counted down together. “One…two…three…Merry Christmas!” Newspaper scraps went flying as they ripped into their gifts.

Maz sighed and bent over to pick up the scraps as Rey and Finn examined their gifts.

“Aww,” Finn said, looking at the scarf. “It looks so warm! Did you knit this?”

“Yeah,” Rey laughed as he held the ends and unfurled it. “Can’t you tell?”

“Well, yes,” he wiggled the section with the misshapen row at her, “but it looks warm, and I love it. Thank you! Oh, and that’s supposed to be Dorothy, from ‘The Wizard of Oz’,” he said nervously as she looked over the whittled and carved wooden figure.

“I know,” she told him. She wasn’t lying – she could tell it was Dorothy. “I love it,” she assured him seriously, holding it up. “I know you don’t think you’re good at this, but you are. You’re really good.”

“Yes, he is,” Maz agreed, looking fondly at her wooden figurine, which she’d placed on the windowsill.

“I’m not, but thanks anyway,” he said. “Merry Christmas, Rey!”

“Merry Christmas, Finn!” She held out her arms and they shared a quick hug, before Maz opened the alley door and shooed them towards it.

As Rey walked home, her little wooden Dorothy and her extra cash in her pocket, she felt warm all over despite the cold weather. Christmas with Plutt was just like every other day, but that was fine. She’d had a pretty good Christmas already. She thought Finn had as well, even if they had to celebrate on a different day. She’d never had a happy and loving family at Christmas anyway, so who’s to say she was even missing anything?

Not all families were happy together. Rey couldn’t help but think of everything that had happened in the drugstore earlier that month. She’d wanted to explain to Finn what she’d seen in Ben’s expression, but she hadn’t been able to put it into words.

Christmas was two days away. She wondered if Ben would be having dinner with his parents or if Mrs. Solo had chosen to include their former servant instead. Rey couldn’t believe that anyone would do that, but maybe Mrs. Solo had. Though she hoped not. It was sad to be rejected by your own family.

Rey hoped that Ben’s family had chosen him.

Chapter Text

January 18, 1940

It was almost time for lunch, and the class was engrossed in a review worksheet when they heard the door to the classroom open. Every head in the room perked up and watched as their principal, Dr. Scott, made his way to Miss Miller’s desk. He had an unusually grave expression on his face, and as he whispered to the teacher Rey looked around to see if anyone seemed to know what was going on. Several of her classmates were staring in her direction, but she knew they weren’t looking at her. They were looking behind her, at Ben Solo.

Of course they thought Ben had done something, and Rey had to admit that she wondered about that too. Not everything that people said about him was true – she’d learned that firsthand – but some of it was. Sure enough, the principal turned in their direction once he was finished speaking with the teacher.

Rey was sure he was going to call for Ben, so she jolted in shock when he called her instead. “Miss Smith.” He held out his hand, beckoning to her. “Would you please come with me? Bring your things, please.”

Rey took a breath so quickly that she coughed, then stood and collected everything together. From the corner of her eye, she could see Finn watching, worried, from the other side of the room. Behind her, Ben sat completely still, his eyes tracing her every movement.

She kept her head down as she left the classroom, her face uncomfortably hot and her heart jumping around in her chest. Dr. Scott walked slightly ahead of her through the halls, but did not speak. Any other students that were out of class stopped whatever they were doing to watch Rey go by, and she tried to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible.

She was brought into a small room near the principal’s inner office, which contained a table and two chairs which sat side by side. There was also a police officer waiting for her. As the Dr. Scott closed the door behind them, she began to shake.

“Please take a seat,” Dr. Scott said, and the fact that he sounded kind made her even more nervous. She nodded and sat, and the principal took the other chair next to hers.

“Miss Smith, I’m Officer Albert, from the Naboo Police Department,” the policeman started, then paused. His eyes drifted to Dr. Scott, who nodded and pulled his seat closer to Rey’s. Officer Albert pursed his lips and continued. “I have some unfortunate news.”

Her thoughts were racing. Did I do something wrong? Or is it something bad about someone else? Finn is in class, so he’s all right, who else could it be? Maz? There’s really no one else….

“Your guardian, Oscar Plutt, was found this morning in a field just out of town.”

Officer Albert stopped, shifting in place, as the principal watched her cautiously. She cleared her throat. “Is he hurt?”

The two men traded a look, and then Dr. Scott leaned closer to her. “Rey.” He put his hand on top of the table in front of her in a gentle motion. “He has passed away.”

Her mouth open, she looked from him to the policeman. “What?”

Officer Albert stepped closer to her, his eyes full of sympathy.

“Wait,” she stuttered. “What happened?”

The policeman’s voice was gentle and placating. “He seems to have passed out on the way home from Chuck’s bar, and he never woke up. It was awful cold last night, and we think he froze to death.”

Rey lowered her eyes to the table and took it all in. She wanted to believe it, but she couldn’t let herself. He was a tough man, her guardian; he could very well have survived a night in the cold. She whispered, “Are you sure he’s dead? Are you really sure?””

“Yes, Miss,” Officer Albert said quietly. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

She felt relief sweep through her, so sudden and violent that she almost cried out. He’ll never hit me again, she thought, her hand stealing to her jaw where the deep purple of her latest bruise was beginning to fade. Never again. A fierce joy swelled within her.

And then she hated herself. He’d been a mean soul — cruel even — but he was still a human being, and the end of a human life was nothing to rejoice in. I’m not a nice person, she thought. Nice people didn’t celebrate when others died. Nice people mourned the loss of any earthly soul, but Rey couldn’t find it in her heart to mourn Plutt — not at all.

Now she was safe and the comfort of that thought was overwhelming.

I’m safe.

“Miss Smith?” Officer Albert sounded a bit hesitant, and his change in tone caused her to look up warily. “I’m afraid we can’t let you stay at the house alone.”

She stared at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he meant. And then she understood, and her heart began pounding in her chest, crazy and out of rhythm. “What…where will I go? Everything I have is in the house, I don’t have anywhere…”.

“We’re trying to find a place for you right now,” he assured her.

Dr. Scott turned to nod through the door to someone in the main office, then said to the policeman, “If you’ll excuse me?” Officer Albert nodded, and the principal laid his hand on her arm as he stood. “It will be alright, Rey. You know we’re all here for you.” He left the two of them alone. Rey could hear snippets of conversation, and the closing of Dr. Scott’s inner office door, but it was all so far away. The sound of her own heartbeat was louder to her.

She could barely breathe. “What if you can’t find somewhere for me? What happens then?” Her words tumbled out of her mouth almost as fast as her thoughts raced through her mind.

“I’m sure we’ll find something.” He was smiling soothingly, but Rey could barely tell through her blurry eyes.

“Miss Smith?” He leaned towards her with concern. “Are you all right?”

She couldn’t answer. She was dizzy, and she was afraid that if she opened her mouth to speak she might throw up or collapse in tears.

“Honey?” He moved his head into her line of sight. “Do you have anyone you could stay with?”

She shook her head, her eyes wet and prickly. “No.” Her voice cracked. “I don’t have anyone.”

He put his hand on her shoulder in an attempt at comfort and said, “I don’t want to leave you like this, but I’ve got to call the station and see what they’ve found.”

She nodded, barely hanging on to her emotions. He clumsily patted her shoulder before departing the room, leaving the door slightly ajar behind him.

Rey gasped as the tears began flowing.

Where will I go? What if they can’t find anyone? What if they find someone who’s like Plutt? What if they find someone who’s worse? What if they find someone who lives in a different town and I never see Finn again? I don’t know any other town. I don’t want to leave, I don’t, I can’t….

She put her hand over her mouth to try to hold back the sobs, but it didn’t work. She shook and cried, her eyes closed, until she heard the door creak behind her.

She clenched her eyes even tighter and took a deep breath, because she hadn’t broken down in front of anyone before in her life – except for Finn – and she wasn’t going to start now, even if it was hard to get the panic under control.

Someone was standing at her side, and when she opened her eyes she saw a handkerchief held out in front of her. The small kindness almost undid her all over again, and she choked back another sob.

“Go ahead,” a voice said, “It’s okay.” She inhaled sharply and darted a shocked look up at Ben Solo. He wiggled the handkerchief. “It’s clean. I promise.”

Feeling numb, she reached up and took it, wiping her face as Ben sat in the chair next to her. She sniffled and held it back out to him.

He wrinkled his brow. “Just blow your nose and then keep it.”

“But I don’t want to leave you without a handkerchief.”

“Don’t worry about that. I always carry two.”

The surprise chased away some of the numbness, and she looked at him curiously.

He scowled. “My mother has specific ideas about proper gentlemanly comportment.”

She let out the ghost of a giggle at the cranky look on his face. “I’ll wash it out and give it back to you.”

“Go ahead and keep it. I swear she buys them by the truckload.”

A question occurred to her, so she blew her nose and asked. “Why are you here?”

He hesitated, then shrugged. “I’m nosy.”

“Rey! What’s going on?” Finn rushed into the room, full of anxiety, but came to abrupt stop when he saw Ben. The two boys regarded each other with cool and measuring stares. Their focus only shifted to Rey when she blew her nose a second time.

“What happened?” Finn asked, more gently this time.

“Plutt’s dead,” she sniffled. “He passed out last night on the way home and froze to death somewhere.”

“Good.” Finn’s voice was cold, and she glanced at Ben, worried about his reaction to Finn’s attitude.

Ben was looking at the bruise on her jaw. She instinctively started to move her hand to cover it, but stopped when he raised his eyes to hers.

Few people besides Finn had ever noticed her bruises. For one thing, she’d learned how best to handle Plutt so he wouldn’t lash out at her much; for another, she’d gotten very good at covering them up. Those who did notice her injuries always reacted with pity. They’d give her a particular kind of sad-eyed look and then avert their gazes, as if her misfortune might be contagious or she was not worthy of normal interaction. Rey hated that.

Ben wasn’t looking at her that way. His expression was gentle, and he met her gaze directly. His eyes were a clearer brown in this lighting than they’d been anywhere else – honey chocolate, she thought, they look like honey chocolate. There wasn’t an ounce of pity in them. There was something else.

He understands. Rey knew it as surely as she knew her multiplication tables. Last month, in the drugstore, she’d recognized the frightened little boy in him. Now the tables had turned, and he was seeing the frightened little girl in her.

He understands.

She’d never seen anyone look at her like that before.

“Why are you crying, though?” Finn asked. “Rey, it’s over. He can’t hurt you anymore. You’re free.”

Her chin began to tremble again.

Ben shook his head, keeping his gaze on Rey, as he answered Finn. “It’s not that simple.” Then he asked Rey, so quietly that she could barely hear him, “Better to have the devil you know, right?”

She nodded.

“How come it’s not simple?” Finn asked.

Rey blew her nose once more, then looked up at her best friend. “I have nowhere else to go, Finn. I’ll be sent to another home and I don’t know where that’ll be.”

Finn clenched his jaw. “I’ve told you before, I can talk to the Easleys. I’ll go home and do it right now.”

“No.” Her voice was firm. “You know they barely have the money to keep you, and the state doesn’t give enough of a payment for me. They can’t do it, Finn.”

“There’s got to be somewhere,” he responded. “We just need to think…”

“Excuse me!” They jumped as Officer Albert came up behind Finn. “What is going on in here?” He regarded Finn with narrowed eyes. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, boy?”

Finn ducked his head. “Yes, sir.”

Rey burned with a sudden anger at the policeman, but she knew better than to say anything. This was not a man who would take kindly to being corrected, and chances were that Finn would bear the consequences.

Finn turned and left the office without looking at Rey again, and Officer Albert watched him go with a scowl. Rey turned back to Ben, only to see him slowly rising to his feet.

Ben was very tall. Rey had known this, of course, but it was quite something else to be sitting and looking up at him. He towered over the policeman, too.

When Officer Albert turned back to them, Ben was looming right in front of him. The policeman startled in surprise, then pressed his lips together into a tight, thin line. “Mr. Solo,” he nodded.

“Officer Albert,” Ben nodded back. “We meet again.”

He slowly sidled past the officer, sliding by as if there wasn’t enough room to walk around him even though there was plenty. Ben didn’t take his eyes from Officer Albert’s face until he was well into the main office, at which point he turned and abruptly strode out. The policeman glared after Ben, then rearranged his face into something approaching kindness and turned to Rey.

“Honey, we’re going to have you come down to the station for a bit,” he said. “Just while we look for some folks to take you in. It’ll be easier to send you home with someone from there.”

Rey nodded and stood to leave, clutching Ben’s handkerchief and willing herself not to cry again.

*** 

Rey sat shivering in the back room of the police station. It looked like a place where they might bring criminals to question them. The only furniture was a single table and three chairs, one of which was on the opposite side of the table from the others. There were transom windows high up along one wall, too small for anyone to climb through; one of them was cracked, which was probably why the room was so cold.

They’d been nice to her so far. Everyone had spoken kindly, and the chief’s secretary had brought Rey a glass of water and some Oreo cookies a couple of hours ago. She’d never had them before – they tasted good, although she suspected they were meant to be slightly crisper than they were. She hadn’t eaten all of them, and she hadn’t finished her water – she wasn’t sure how long she would be here, so to be on the safe side she’d been rationing them. She hadn’t had lunch and it was now dark outside, but that was fine. She’d been hungrier before in her life.

The last time Rey had spoken to another human being was when the cookies were brought in, and since then she hadn’t had anything to do but stare at the dirty white walls and worry about what was going to happen to her. She was beginning to wonder if they’d forgotten she was back there.

There was a single knock on the door, and then it opened and another policeman, one she hadn’t met yet, poked his head into the room.

“We’ve got someone here for you, Miss Smith,” he informed her, before disappearing again as Maz stepped into the room. Rey stared at her, stunned.

“Oh, Rey.” Maz sighed as she took a seat across the table. “How are you doing?”

“I’m fine,” she said, but her voice broke as she said it and she reached for her glass of water. “They gave me cookies.”

“Hmmm.” Maz frowned at the Oreos. “That’s all?”

Rey shrugged and drank a bit more of the water.

Maz watched her silently until the glass was back on the table. “You remember that I own the rooming house across from the park?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I was hoping you’d want to come and stay there. It’s clean and it’s safe, and it’s closer to school and work. You’d have your own room, too. There’s a bathroom between that room and mine, so you and I would have to share it, but we already get along well and I’m confident that we could handle it.”

Rey was blinking furiously as she thought about the offer. It was a good place to stay. It was in the town proper. She liked Maz, and she knew Maz cooked dinner for the residents every night. It solved her immediate problems, certainly. There was just one obstacle, a big one.

Rey looked down at the table, running her finger along the side of the glass. “I don’t have the money. I can’t afford to pay for the room.”

“It’s empty right now. No one is paying for it anyway.” Maz put her hand over Rey’s. “I know there’s some money that comes from the state if I’m your guardian, and we can just call that enough.”

Rey looked up at her. “It won’t be enough for the whole room and board, though, will it?”

Maz patted her hand. “Close enough.”

Rey shook her head. “I don’t want to do ‘close enough’,” she blurted out. “I want to pay my way. I work for you at the café, I can use that money.”

Maz sighed. “Child…”.

“And I can help you around the building,” Rey offered. “I can help you make dinner and clean up at night, and I can fix things…”.

“Rey,” Maz interrupted sternly, and Rey fell silent. “I don’t mean for you to live in my home as you lived in Plutt’s. I am more than happy to give you a place, and I do not expect you to run yourself ragged in return. Your most important job will be to go to school and earn good marks. Well, that and keep your room clean.”

Rey swallowed. “I have to do something,” she insisted. “I don’t know any other way to be. And I don’t want charity.”

“I appreciate that.” Maz patted her hand again. “We can work out the particulars later. For now, if you agree with my idea, we’ll have one of the officers take us to Plutt’s so you can get your things before going back to the rooming house. How does that sound?”

Rey was unable to speak, so she just nodded.

“Good.” Maz smiled at her, then stood up briskly. “Now, let’s get this show on the road.”

  ***

Rey stood motionless in the center of her room – her old room – looking around, flashlight in hand. It was all so strange. She’d awakened this morning in this very bed, gotten dressed, picked up her school things, and left the shack, never thinking it was the last morning that she’d ever do so.

She had so little to bring with her. A few clothes, some scattered tools, a couple of books, her knitting needles, soap and shampoo and such – there really wasn’t much else that she could claim as hers. Oh, and her hidden money. She had close to ten dollars stashed in a hole in the wall under her bed. That was definitely going to come in handy, now that she was going to be paying room and board.

The police officer who had brought them out to the shack, whose name Rey didn’t remember, had brought a few crates with him. When the first one was loaded up, he took it out to the police car. Maz took the second, and Rey followed with the third.

Three crates. Her life with Plutt fit into three crates.

As she left the shack for the very last time, she overheard the policeman talking to Maz.

“Poor little thing,” he said.

Rey lifted her chin fiercely, as she walked towards them.

Don’t pity me.

They put her last crate into the car, and then she and Maz climbed into the back seat to be driven away.

Rey didn’t look back.

  ***

“It’s usually quiet around here, except in the front room downstairs when they’re playing cards or talking.” Maz turned the key to unlock the door of the last room on the hall. “It may even be quieter for you here than it was at that man’s.” Her distaste for Plutt was clear in the way she said the last two words.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Rey said.

Maz pushed open the door, then gave the key to Rey. “This is yours, child,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “Just yours. Now don’t forget, you’ll want to lock the room whenever you’re out, and at night while you’re sleeping. No one here will bother you, I’ll make sure of that, but just to be safe, hmmm?”

Rey nodded. She began to follow Maz into the room but hesitated in the doorway, holding her crate tightly and clutching the key in her hand. The policeman waited behind her with the last crate.

Maz flipped a switch on the wall, and the room lit up.

“The room has electricity!” Rey breathed.

“Of course,” Maz chuckled, then stopped and looked at Rey solemnly, perhaps remembering how dark the room in Plutt's shack had been.

Rey’s eyes were wide as she looked around.

It was a corner room and the two outer walls had windows. There was a single bed with a quilt and pillow, a large nightstand with a small lamp on it, and a metal garment rack along the far wall to Rey’s right. To her immediate left was an open door, through which Rey could see a bathtub, and along the bedroom wall just beyond to the door was a cabinet with a hot plate on the countertop. A worn wooden table and two matching chairs were placed against the window directly opposite from where Rey stood. The only other piece of furniture in the room was an old armchair along the wall next to her, its upholstery covered with a pattern of roses and vines. The walls were a peachy off-white color, and the gauzy curtains at the windows were white.

It was the biggest, brightest, prettiest room that Rey had ever had. She found it hard to believe that she would actually be living here.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

Rey shook herself out of her daze, stepping out of the way so the policeman could bring in the third crate. “Oh, sorry.”

He set the crate down on the table as Maz placed hers on one of the chairs. Rey moved towards the bed, still holding her crate, as the two adults held a quick conversation. When she heard Maz thank the policeman for his help, she turned and added her own thanks. He tipped his cap and left the room, and Maz watched Rey as she looked around again.

“Do you need anything else?” Maz asked, and Rey shook her head. “Well, then, I’ll be going to my room. I’m right through there,” she indicated the open bathroom door, “and in the hallway I’m the door just to the side, so come and get me if you need anything.”

“Wait,” Rey called, and Maz stopped at the hallway door to look back at her.

There were so many things that Rey wanted to say, but she couldn’t find enough words. She finally said, “Thank you. I don’t know how you knew about everything, but I’m so grateful that you did, and for your help, and for all of this. Thanks, Maz.”

“You’re welcome, child. I’m happy to help. You’re a bright, wonderful girl. I’m just glad Ben found me this afternoon and let me know what was happening so I could step in for you.”

“Ben? Ben Solo?” Rey blinked in confusion. “He went to see you about me?”

“Of course he did,” Maz answered. “He knew you worked for me and that I had a rooming house, and he put two and two together. I’ve known the Solos for years, you know.” She gave Rey an impish smile. “Although he did ask me not to tell you about his part in this, so please don’t give me away.”

“No, of course not,” Rey said faintly.

Maz nodded. “Thank you, child. Now good night. Remember to let me know if you need anything.”

Then she was gone. The hallway door was closed, and Rey was alone in the silent room with her head full of loudly buzzing thoughts.

She set her crate down on the bed to begin the process of unpacking her old life to fit it into her new life. Her hands kept busy with the work, sorting and stowing her few possessions, but all she felt was the strangeness of the place.

This was her new home. This warm, brightly lit, softly-colored room was where she was going to live now. But it didn’t feel like home and it didn’t smell like home. It was far too nice. She didn’t really belong in a place like this.

Enough, she thought, and shook her head. I may not belong yet, but I will with time, if I work hard enough at it. I can do this. I will do this.

She had a chance at a brand-new life and she was determined to take it, no matter how out-of-place she felt.

Chapter Text

January – February, 1940

Rey did not sleep well the first night in her new home.

The bed was comfortable and she was tired enough, but the way the light fell in her room was so different from Plutt’s that Rey couldn’t be sure if she was awake or if she was dreaming. The creaks of the rooming house were different from those of Plutt’s shack, too. When Rey did finally drift off early in the morning, she bolted awake in fear when she heard unfamiliar voices and footsteps in the hallway outside of her room.

She slept soundly on the second night, thoroughly exhausted from the upheaval of the last couple of days and the lack of sleep the night before.

The nightmares started on the third night.

In the dream she is strolling along a road in bright summer sunshine, humming a happy tune. Then something clutches her foot in an iron grip and nearly pulls her down. She turns to see Plutt, his face decayed and enraged, growling like a wild animal. He’s trying to drag her into the ditch with him. He snarls, “You thought you’d gotten away, girl,” and yanks on her leg again. Rey crashes down onto her stomach, desperately scrabbling at the road while the gravel scrapes along her face. His pull is inexorable; there is no escape. Sometimes, there is no one around to hear her screams. Sometimes there is a group of people nearby as she screams and fights; they turn to look at her, then calmly go back to their conversation, as if she isn’t even there.

It always ended at that point. She would jerk awake covered in sweat, with her heart pounding so hard it hurt.

The first several times she had the dream, she had to bolt out of bed and run to the bathroom to be sick. That was embarrassing, since Maz always heard her and came in to see if she needed help. Rey didn’t want any help. She just wanted to lie on the cold tile floor until she could breathe again.

Eventually she stopped having to throw up. Regardless, she still fought to get back to sleep afterwards. She had heard somewhere warm milk was helpful for sleep, so she developed a routine around that. Whenever she woke from the nightmare with a scream choking in her chest, she’d pad down to the kitchen and warm up some milk in a pot on the stove.

She drank it in the front room by the big window, staring out at the park across the street and willing her muscles to relax. Looking at the park helped.

There were trees and flowerbeds there; there were no flowers blooming because it was wintertime, but she could see where they would be in the spring, and that was enough. Plutt’s property had contained one small, sickly tree and no flowers.The presence of flora in the park reminded her she was somewhere different.

Somewhere safe.

One night as she sat sipping her milk and watching the tree branches sway in the wind, she caught a hint of movement out of the corner of her eye.

Someone was running down the street. They didn’t seem to be running away from anything, or running to anywhere in particular; they were just running down the center of the street at a steady pace. Out of curiosity, she checked the clock on the wall.

Why is someone running about at 3:20 in the morning? Of all the ridiculous things.

It was when he passed under the streetlight in front of the rooming house that she saw his face. It was Ben Solo.

This made some sense, because Ben Solo was an odd duck. It also made no sense at all - running in the middle of a winter night was stranger than normal, even for him. He didn’t seem to be having any fun doing it – from what she could see in the low lighting, his expression was grim – and he wasn’t on any of the sports teams. He ran past, his eyes focused straight ahead of him, and Rey watched him as he disappeared again into the night.

She much preferred a cup of hot milk in a warm house to running down the street in the cold.

 

March 7, 1940

Rey was used to sitting by herself in the lunchroom. She couldn’t sit with Finn; the lunchroom wasn’t officially segregated, but the white students sat in their section and the black students sat in a different section. Sitting by herself was easier than trying to come up with things to say to people she didn’t know very well, so it was fine. She’d never expected anything different.

As she made her way to her usual spot, she passed the table where Ben, Poe, and the Huxes liked to sit, and from behind her she heard, “Hey! Kewpie doll!”

That’s what Poe called her sometimes.

Rey wondered if he was talking to someone else – it could be that “kewpie doll” was a general flirtation he used. She kept walking, since it would be embarrassing to presume he was talking to her, if he wasn’t.

“Rey!”

He did mean her.

Rey hesitated and turned to look back at him.

Poe was wearing an electric smile. “Come join us!”

Armie was paying no attention to her whatsoever, but Francie raised her hand and waved Rey over. “Come here,” she commanded. She seemed firm about it, so Rey crept back to the table and sat down next to her.

“How are you, sweetie?” Poe asked.

“Fine,” she answered. “And yourself?”

“Doing well, doing well,” Poe said.

“You can eat, you know,” Francie told her. “We’re all going to.” Rey opened her lunch tin to take out the sandwich she’d made the night before. She helped Maz make all the sandwiches for the residents’ lunch tins.

Maz had made it clear that Rey did not need to help out around the rooming house. She had also been firm about not accepting funds for Rey’s room and board other than the subsidy the state paid to Maz, since she was acting as Rey’s guardian. Despite her new guardian's insistence, Rey wasn’t comfortable with the arrangement. She didn’t like taking charity, and she certainly didn’t want to owe anything to anyone, ever.

“You still work at the café?” Poe asked her, but before she could answer he called out, “Hey, Solo! We’ve got a new friend at the table!”

Rey looked up and saw Ben approaching; he stopped when he caught sight of her. His jaw shifted a little, and then he resumed his stride, sitting next to Poe. He gave her the briefest of nods before turning his attention to his lunch tin.

She’d been having a devil of a time thinking of a way to pay him back for his help. She had promised Maz she wouldn’t give away that she knew about Ben’s involvement, so she couldn’t exactly come right out and say “thank you”.

Also, she couldn’t imagine any way to subtly bring it up in conversation without things becoming supremely awkward, especially since Ben hadn’t done much more than nod in her direction since the day Plutt died.

She still had Ben’s handkerchief. It was washed and cleaned. Maybe she should have given it back, but he’d insisted she keep it. Any conversation about its return was bound to be awkward as well, especially since time had passed.

Of course, if she’d been trying to avoid awkwardness altogether, she wouldn’t have agreed to sit at this table. She had no idea what to say to anyone here.

Rey kept quiet as she ate, observing the rest of the group. Poe drove the conversation, taking frequent breaks to call greetings to various people in other areas of the cafeteria. Francie interjected short remarks, mostly dry observations on what the others had said. Armie spent most of his energy arguing politics with Poe and trying to get a rise out of Ben. Ben kept his head down, his eyes on his lunch, and barely spoke at all.

Finally, Poe turned to Ben. “What’s wrong with you today, Solo? Didn’t you get enough sleep last night?”

Probably not, Rey thought, remembering Ben running through the town early in the morning. It hadn’t been only one time, either. She’d watched him run by on many nights, as she nursed her cup of warm milk.

“We can’t all be frantically social,” Ben responded with a pointed look. Poe appeared as if he might press further, but the lunch period came to an end.

As they were rising from their seats, Poe winked at Rey and said, “Listen, don’t go to your lonely little corner tomorrow. Sit here with us again! I promise Hux and Solo will be more sociable.”

“Speak for yourself, Dameron. I’d rather not talk to any of you, especially you,” Armie said, pointing at his sister.

“Put that finger away before I bite it off,” Francie warned him.

Rey turned to say something to Ben – she didn’t know what, simply something to be polite – but he was already halfway across the room, headed back to class. She gathered her lunch tin and trailed behind him.

She didn’t understand him. Not at all. To be so kind and helpful one day and then closed off and barely sociable the next made no sense to her. Perhaps he was worried she would take his comfort the wrong way and expect them to be friends, so he stayed aloof to keep her in her place.

Because of course he thought he was better than she was. Didn’t he?

 

April 12, 1940

Armie and Ben were the only ones already at the table when Rey showed up for lunch. They were huddled together, which was somewhat unusual, and they both had composition notebooks open in front of them. Rey didn’t bother to greet them, since they were preoccupied. The most greeting she’d get from them would be a nod from Ben anyway. She put her lunch tin down on the table and sat across from them, looking up to see if Poe or Francie were coming over to provide her with friendly company.

“No, that’s not it,” Armie said. The little patience he had was clearly being worn thin. “Just use the intercept from the original problem.”

“You can’t do that,” Ben insisted. “It’s not on the line you need. You need the slope and the midpoint.”

This caught Rey’s attention. She knew Ben struggled with math, and apparently Armie did too. She let her eyes scan over the upside-down calculations as she chewed a bite of her sandwich.

Oh, for goodness sake.

Rey couldn’t help herself. She swallowed her mouthful and spoke up. “You’re both wrong.”

Ben looked up at her immediately, his gaze startled. Armie lifted his head more slowly, his eyes narrowed, as if she’d interrupted one of the most important moments of his life. Rey calmly took another bite of her sandwich.

“What was that?” Armie was trying to sound intimidating, but she knew math far better than he did, so she wasn’t impressed. She chewed thoughtfully as Francie slid into the seat next to hers.

“You’re both wrong,” she repeated after swallowing her second bite.

She heard Francie whisper an almost eager “Oooh.”

“How?” Ben asked. Armie rolled his eyes and sat back.

Rey couldn’t tell if Ben was challenging her statement or asking for her opinion. Well, she wasn’t going to answer unless he was truly asking. She didn’t respond, merely took another bite of her sandwich.

“Hey! How is everyone?” Poe came up to the table, loudly greeting them. Francie shushed him, and he put his finger to his lips and pantomimed sitting gingerly.

“What are we doing wrong?” Ben asked, turning the notebook so it faced Rey. “Can you show me?”

He was asking.

“You’re right about one thing.” Rey didn’t bother looking at his work. Ben was smart, and she was pretty sure she could get him to understand without actually showing him. “You do need the midpoint, but you don’t want to use just the slope, because what are you trying to find?”

“The perpendicular bisector of the radius,” he answered. Rey looked at him, her eyebrows raised. “Oh.” He shut his eyes and shook his head, groaning.

“What?” Armie asked.

“It’s right there in the name,” Ben told him.

Armie stared at him blankly.

“Perpendicular,” Ben said again. “We need the perpendicular slope, not the original one.” When Armie’s face did not change expression, Ben said, “Opposite reciprocal.”

Armie gave an annoyed huff and turned to his lunch tin. “Whatever that is,” he scoffed.

Ben rolled his eyes and pulled his notebook back to finish the problem.

“So, you like math, sweetie?” Poe asked.

Rey shrugged. “I suppose. I’ve never really thought about it. I just do it.”

“Would you take a look at this?” Ben interrupted, turning his notebook around. “Let me know if it’s right?”

She refrained from reminding him that “please” was an actual word, as she pulled the notebook closer. “That looks good.” She pushed it back across the table to him.

“Thank you,” Ben said, closing his notebook and opening his lunch tin.

“You’re welcome,” she responded, because if he was going to be polite then she should be as well.

“You know what you should do, Solo?” Poe leaned in towards Ben. “You should ask Rey to help you with math. She’s very good at it, and you…well, you’re not, buddy. You’re kind of dismal at it.”

“And thank you, Poe,” Ben answered dryly.

Rey thought for a moment.

She’d been trying to figure out how to pay Ben back somehow, for the handkerchief and talking to Maz and everything. Helping him with math might be a good way to do just that.

“Well, now that’s finished,” Armie said, “it’s time for Solo to once again start telling us how we have to go to war against Germany.”

“I told you, Hitler’s a bully,” Ben turned towards Armie. “Now he’s in Denmark and Norway.”

“It does look like he’s trying to take all of Europe,” Poe agreed.

“No,” Armie argued. “It’s a defensive move. He needs control of the coastline to prevent Britain from using it. That’s if the British ever do decide to go ahead and fight, which they don’t seem interested in doing anyway.”

“Yeah, I don’t understand why they’re not actually fighting,” Poe shook his head. “I mean, war means fighting, doesn’t it?”

“Germany will have to invade other countries before our government even thinks about it,” Francie noted. “We’re all the way across the ocean, so we’re safe for now. But I do think Solo’s right, we’ll be joining sooner or later.”

The discussion continued for the rest of the lunch period. Rey only listened, she didn’t say anything. She didn’t know nearly as much about the situation as they did, and she didn’t want to seem like an idiot.

She was going to have to start paying more attention to what was happening across the Atlantic. She resolved to listen to the radio news more closely. It probably wouldn’t hurt to watch the newsreels at the movies more carefully, either.

After lunch, when she was back in her seat in the classroom, she screwed up her courage and turned to face Ben. He was staring down at his desktop.

“About Poe’s idea,” she said, and his head jerked up. “I mean, I’m happy to look at any math work, if you’d like me to. Not that you’d want that, or need that…”.

“No, I do,” he admitted quickly, his eyes wide. Dark caramel, she thought, then shifted her glance away from him. Why did she keep tabs on his eye color? It was ridiculous.

“Well, anyway,” she shrugged, “I can review your problems at lunch or whenever. Just let me know if you want me to.”

“All right,” he nodded. He didn’t say anything else, so Rey turned towards the front of the room again.

What did I just do? Did I just offer to help Ben Solo?

And he’d accepted. Well, at least now she could start to pay him back for his kindness.

She felt better knowing that she wouldn’t be beholden to him any longer.

Chapter Text

April 22, 1940

Rey was able to give Ben short bursts of math help at the lunch table, and that was all he needed for the first week or so. As Rey had expected, he wasn’t always easy to work with.

When he was frustrated he would get snappish and rude. Rey would have to grit her teeth to stay focused on math and not fly off the handle and snap back at him. When he finally did understand a concept, he’d abruptly close his notebook and turn his attention elsewhere. Rey couldn’t help her aggravating suspicion that he saw her as merely another servant.

Sometimes she was tempted to stop helping him altogether. But if she wasn’t able to help him with math, she wouldn’t be able to pay him back for everything she owed him.

She owed him a lot. She was living with Maz because of him. Who knew where she would be otherwise?

Rey was pleased when Ben managed to get an ‘A’ on his chapter test, and she thought perhaps her work with him was done. Unfortunately, for some reason he struggled even more with the following chapter. This made him even more disagreeable to work with than he had been. He certainly didn’t handle frustration very well.

The atmosphere at the lunch table grew tense for everyone as the days went on, and Rey knew they were getting on their companions’ last nerves.

There was an obvious solution. Rey wasn’t thrilled about it, so she held off on proposing it.

Then came one particularly bad lunch period. Poe and the Huxes plowed through their meals in record time so they could move to a different table, abandoning Ben and Rey to their little bubble of tutoring hell. That was when Rey decided it was time to bite the bullet.

If she were ever to pay back her obligation, it would have to be done.

As soon as they were back in the classroom, she turned in her seat and firmly told him, “Lunch isn’t working. They all hate us and it’s not helping you anyway. I think we’ll have to meet after school so we have more time and we don’t drive everyone away.”

Ben stared at her for a moment, as if he needed time to understand what she was saying. Then he nodded. “That’s probably a good idea.”

“So,” Rey started, trying to sound brisk and business-like, “shall we meet after school at the library?”

“We can’t at the library,” Ben told her.

Rey stared at him in confusion. The library was open to everyone, and there were plenty of tables and chairs. “Why not?”

“I’ve been banned,” he told her. “It lasts for another five months.”

Now it was Rey’s turn to try to understand what he was saying. “You were banned. From the library.”

“Yes.” He was staring at her defiantly, but his cheeks were turning bright red.

“What…?”

“I got angry at someone,” he shrugged, attempting to appear casual. “Things got thrown. The librarians were displeased.”

“Oh,” Rey replied. She’d seen his angry outburst in the drugstore in December, but nothing had been thrown then and he certainly hadn’t acted in a way that would get him banned. “When?”

“About a year and a half ago,” he answered. So, right before he’d left town. Rey couldn’t figure out if he wanted to tell her about it or if he wanted to pretend it never happened, so she wasn’t sure how to respond.

Which didn’t matter, because Mrs. Miller called the class to attention and began teaching so the conversation was over anyway.

Rey spent the rest of the school day wondering where she and Ben could meet. If they couldn’t use the library, the obvious thing to do would be to invite him to the rooming house. Maz would be happy to see him. However, if the other residents were using the front room, she’d have to bring him up to her own room, and she didn’t want to do that.

Not because it would be inappropriate – there was no way that anything unbefitting would ever occur between her and Ben Solo, and she’d leave the door open anyway – it was because she didn’t want to see the critical look on his face when he saw the room where she lived.

It was the nicest, biggest, most normal place she’d ever had, but he was used to so much better. She didn’t need yet another reminder of how far below everyone he thought she was.

But she had no other ideas. She might have to bring it up and hope that the front room was unoccupied.

When school ended, she was preparing to do just that, but Ben spoke up first.

“You could just come over to my parents’ house,” he suggested as he gathered his belongings. “The dining room table is big enough.”

Dining room table. That meant there was a dining room. Rey was already overwhelmed by the size of his home and she hadn’t even seen it yet.

“Um, sure,” she shrugged. “That would work.”

“All right then,” he took a deep breath. “Now? Or….”

“Now’s fine,” she nodded.

He cleared his throat. “So…follow me.”

It was an awkward journey from the school to the Solo house. Neither Ben nor Rey said much of anything or even looked at one another. The only good thing about it was that Ben didn’t actually expect Rey to follow him – he walked next to her. Or rather, she walked as quickly as possible to keep up with him, since he had long legs and walked fast.

Technically the Solo home didn’t seem too much larger than the rooming house. Of course, there were a lot of people living in the rooming house, and only three people at Ben’s, so Rey felt it could be accurately described as a mansion.

It was a white house with a big front porch and a dormer window sticking out from the roof (which meant it was actually three stories, not two). There was a large front lawn with knee-high white pots of newly-planted flowers lining the walkway. Plutt’s shack and repair shop would have taken up only a part of that front lawn, and Rey was sure there was even more yard in the back.

She hesitated for a moment as Ben turned onto the front walkway. He made it halfway to the house before realizing she wasn’t with him.

He looked back and waved her forward impatiently. “Come on.” She swallowed hard, straightened her back, and followed him.

He led the way into the house, turning left past the entry and into the dining room, where he dropped his books on the table.

“Well,” He waved around the room, “this is the dining room.”

Rey nodded. “Where should I…?”

“Probably there,” he pointed to the seat next to his. “So…do you…can I get you something to drink?”

“Sure. Water would be nice.”

He nodded. “Yeah.” He went through the arched opening into the kitchen. Rey walked slowly to her seat, glancing around the room. It was fancier than any place she’d ever been in her life.

The table was large and wooden, with carved legs, and the eight chairs around it had similar carvings along the frames of the padded seat and back. There were heavy velvet curtains hanging at the sides of the large windows, and a chandelier of gold with crystals dangling from it over the table. There were even paintings on the walls. Multiple paintings.

Rey was afraid to touch anything.

Ben re-emerged with two glasses of water. “You can sit down,” he told her. She sat as he put one glass of water at his seat and one in front of her. He started to sit, but jumped up again and went back out into what appeared to be a sitting room or living room across from them.

He returned with two wooden circles. He put one under his glass, then lifted Rey’s glass and put one underneath it, muttering “My mother would have my head if I forgot,” before sitting.

As far as learning math, their session seemed to go better than it had during lunch time. Ben was far more focused and slightly less snippy. Rey thought maybe it was because he was in his own environment, or maybe because they weren’t surrounded by the noise and chaos of the lunchroom. Whatever the reason, working together was almost bearable.

After a good deal of time had passed, she heard the sound of a car outside of the window. The Solos had a very long driveway which stretched back past the dining room and around to the back of the house. The car engine stopped, a car door slammed, and another door opened somewhere out past the kitchen.

Ben became noticeably tense, his face drawn down in a sullen expression.

She heard Han Solo’s voice from within the kitchen, sounding somewhat restrained as he greeted his son. “Hello, Ben.”

Ben kept his eyes on his paper as he responded. “Dad.”

When Han entered the room and saw Rey, his face brightened and his voice became lighter. “Rey-with-an-e! It’s been a long time! How are you, kid?”

“I’m fine, sir. How are you?” Rey smiled. She had liked Mr. Solo when she met him all those months ago, and it was good to see him again. He was dressed differently this time, wearing something that was more of a business suit (although it was still somewhat rumpled and he wore no tie).

“Pretty good. What are you all working on?”

“Math,” Rey informed him.

He chuckled. “You must be helping him then.”

Ben grimaced. “Dad. We’re busy.”

“All right, all right!” Han took a step backwards, holding both hands up in mock surrender. “I need to go get out of this monkey suit anyway.” He left the dining room and headed up the stairs, calling down to Rey as he went. “Nice to see you again, kid! Don’t be a stranger!”

“Thanks! I won’t!” Rey responded, watching Ben. His eyes were still on his notebook, and he looked like he was positively simmering. The Solos certainly had an odd family dynamic. Granted, Rey didn’t know much about families, but she was pretty sure this wasn’t how they normally interacted.

“You know, we’ve been at this awhile,” Ben mumbled. “Let’s just call it a day, huh?”

“Sure,” Rey nodded. She closed her notebook and stacked her books together. “Did it help at all?” she asked.

“Yeah,” Ben answered. “I think it did. So thank you.”

“Well, if you need to do this again…,” Rey offered, then stopped herself when she realized it might be presumptuous.

“I think that might be a good idea,” Ben replied. “But always right after school.”

So your parents aren’t home yet? She thought, wanting to tease him about it but knowing better. She was 100% sure Ben didn’t have anything improper in mind. He was just trying to avoid being embarrassed again.

“I can do that,” she promised him. “Just let me know….”

“How’s Wednesday?” he asked. “The quiz is on Friday, so….”

“Oh, good idea. Okay, Wednesday.” She picked up her things and headed for the door. All in all, it wasn’t too bad, she thought. He concentrated on math and he was polite enough, for him. I might be able to keep this up for the rest of the year.

“Hold up,” Ben said from behind her. “I have to walk you home.”

Oh, no.

Rey did not want another silent, hurried walk.

“You don’t have to,” she assured him. “It’s fine. I can walk myself.”

“I do have to,” he insisted, looking sour. “Or my mother will kill me.”

“She’s not here,” Rey pointed out, desperate to be free from awkwardness as soon as possible. “She won’t know.”

Ben nodded up at the ceiling. “He’ll tell her.”

Rey couldn’t help her smart mouth. “Who, God?”

He blinked at her, then pursed his lips. She could tell he was fighting back a smile.

“No, my father. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if she did get her information straight from God.”

Rey remembered Leia Skywalker Solo from the drugstore. I wouldn’t be surprised either, she thought.

Ben went to the foot of the stairs and yelled up, “Dad, I’m going to walk Rey home.”

“Good boy!” Han answered from the second floor.

She heard Ben mutter under his breath, “Like I’m a dog.” He stalked past Rey towards the door. “Come on, let’s go.”

The walk back to the rooming house was every bit as uncomfortable as the one from school. Ben barely spoke, just jammed his hands into his pockets and walked quickly. Rey walked quickly too -- because she absolutely refused to lag behind – and she didn’t bother looking at him.

They walked past the other mansions in Ben’s neighborhood, down the cross street to the business area, and then through the park across from Maz’s rooming house. There were a lot of people in the park, strolling or sitting on benches and talking, and there were quite a few children at the playground. Rey smiled at everyone as they passed by; from what she could tell, Ben kept his face stony and didn’t acknowledge anyone.

When they reached the sidewalk in front of the rooming house, Ben abruptly said, “Thanks for the help. See you in school.” Then he turned and strode back the same way they had come.

Rey let out a sigh of relief, glad it was finally over. She’d make sure to walk home by herself next time, that was for certain.

April 24, 1940

Francie was eyeing Rey in the mirror, her eyes squinting critically. “You don’t wear makeup, do you?”

Rey saw her own startled expression as she met Francie’s gaze. They’d run into each other in the ladies’ room on the way to lunch, and Francie was nice enough to wait for Rey to finish washing her hands. She should have known Francie would be inspecting her while she waited.

“Well, not that you need it,” Francie mused. “Your complexion is gorgeous. And lipstick never hurt anybody, but you don’t really need that either. The only thing is….” She considered Rey for a moment, her head tilted in thought. “Goodness, what color are your eyes?”

“Um,” Rey breathed. “Hazel?”

“Oh.” Francie nodded knowingly. She pulled her purse to the front of her body and began rifling through it. “Well, they’re stunning. And you could make them even more noticeable – there it is.” She held up a red metal tin for Rey’s approval. “Mascara, hmmm? Ever tried it?”

“No.” Rey shook her head. “I haven’t really tried any makeup, ever.” She almost said that she’d never been able to afford it, but stopped herself because that wasn’t really Francie’s business.

“Oh, this will be fun!” Francie smiled, and Rey was surprised to see that the girl was capable of delight. It was a cool and detached sort of delight, but it was delight nonetheless and it made Rey want to try the mascara.

She watched as Francie opened the tin and extracted a little brush. She held the brush up for Rey’s examination, one eyebrow raised, and when Rey nodded she turned the tap of the sink and quickly ran the brush underneath the water. She shook the excess water off the brush and smoothed it across the surface of the black substance inside the tin.

“Now,” Francie instructed, brush at the ready, “don’t blink your eyes.”

That was harder than it seemed, since the brush seemed to be on a path directly into her eye.

“Rey.” Francie’s voice was disapproving.

“Sorry.”

It worked better when Francie tried again. Rey made a point of concentrating on how Francie moved the brush, because it helped her to keep from blinking.

“There!” Francie cried, a note of triumph in her voice. “Look at it now.”

Rey turned to the mirror and examined herself cautiously.

It was odd, how just the addition of a little color to her eyelashes made the hazel of her eyes stand out more. The eye Francie hadn’t touched faded into background of her face, but the eye with the mascara was there, bold and brilliant and shining.

This is me? She thought. I’m…almost pretty.

“Told you,” Francie smirked, taking in Rey’s expression. “Now,” she continued, the tone of her voice pulling Rey’s attention away from her reflection, “you do the other eye. You need to know how to do it for yourself.”

Rey did exactly as Francie had done – wet the brush under the tap, shake it off, rub it in the tin – but her hand was shaking as she raised it to her eye. Francie took ahold of her forearm.

“It’s fine,” Francie told her. “You’re fine. But you need to look in the mirror when you do this, otherwise you won’t be able to see what you’re doing.”

Rey flushed. Of course she had to watch herself in the mirror. Why hadn’t she thought of that?

She turned and took a moment to steady herself, then carefully brushed the mascara onto her eyelashes. It was easier doing it for herself; she knew she had control of the brush, so she didn’t have to fight the urge to shut her eye so it wouldn’t get poked. Once she thought she had all of her lashes covered, she dropped her hand and glanced over at Francie for approval.

Francie nodded. “Nicely done. Just….” She tapped her finger on the side of her own eye. Rey turned to look in the mirror and saw a slight smear of mascara, so she rubbed it away. “Always check for smearing,” Francie advised, and held out her hand. Rey surrendered the brush and tin. “Well, now.” Francie snapped her purse shut briskly. “Let’s go to lunch!”

As they walked down the halls towards the cafeteria, Rey wondered if everyone they passed noticed she looked different. She definitely felt different – more confident, more feminine, prettier.

And nervous.

Especially when she and Francie approached the lunch table, where Ben and Armie sat eating and ignoring each other.

“Hello, gentlemen.” Francie slid into her seat with grace, while Rey tried to do the same.

Armie raised his eyebrow at his sister; he did not look at Rey. She felt slightly defeated, but still hopeful.

“What did you do to your eyes?” Ben asked suspiciously. He did not sound at all like he thought she was pretty.

Rey’s heart dropped.

“Honestly, Solo,” Francie sighed, her voice weary with annoyance.

“Oh, you did that?” Ben demanded, switching his attention to Francie. Armie snickered, darting a look at Rey.

“Shut up.” Francie snapped irritably.

He did not shut up. “It doesn’t look like the kind of thing Rey would do for herself.”

Okay, that’s it.

Rey tapped harshly on the table in front of Ben to get his attention back. He turned to look at her. “She showed me how to do it, but I finished it myself. I like it this way, and I don’t care if you like it or not.” She narrowed her eyes at him, newly-darkened lashes and all. “Your opinion on the subject doesn’t matter.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Francie smirk.

“Hey, everyone!” Poe plopped himself down next to Ben. “So how are we all doing? Oh.” He paused when he took a look at Rey, staring as if he’d never seen her before. “Wow. Your eyes are the most interesting color.” He tilted his head slightly. “I don’t think I ever noticed them before. They’re really pretty.”

Rey gifted him a big smile, pleased he’d reacted the way she was hoping someone would.

Ben abruptly grabbed his lunch tin, got up from the table, and left the cafeteria.

Poe’s eyes followed Ben in confusion. “What’s he doing?”

Francie rolled her eyes. “Just Solo being Solo,” she commented, opening her lunch tin.

That was the signal for everyone to forget about Ben and eat lunch instead. Rey was determined to ignore his reaction, but she found it more challenging than usual. Even the fact that Poe couldn’t seem to tear his eyes off her for more than a few minutes at a time didn’t make her feel any better.

I don’t know why I should worry about him, she thought fiercely, picking at the crust of her sandwich. I don’t need his approval. I did this for me, not for Ben Solo.

And of course, this would be a day when she had to meet Ben after school to work on math. She wasn’t quite sure how well that would go, since they seemed to be fighting again.

She was not looking forward to it.

 

Ben and Rey sat next to each other at the table in the dining room, doing their best to interact as little as possible. Their communication was limited to Ben’s curt questions and Rey’s monosyllabic answers. Tension was percolating through the room. Every so often when she sent a glare his way, she’d catch him giving her a quick glance with a sullen expression on this face.

She was seething with anger from his earlier comments about the mascara and his superior, judgmental, critical, infuriating tone.

And for some reason, he seemed to be angry too. She hadn’t said anything out of bounds, hadn’t done anything but remind him that she made her own decisions and didn’t care what he thought of them. That should have been obvious to anyone with half a brain, and Ben Solo had a full and intelligent brain.

So what is his problem, anyway?

They’d been working for little over an hour when Ben broke the tense silence. “You know Poe flirts with everybody, right?”

The question caught her by surprise, since it came out of nowhere and had nothing to do with math. She stared up at him, eyes wide in astonishment.

“It’s true,” he continued, his eyebrows pulled down in a scowl. “He plays the date and rate game. It’s all about popularity with him, how many girls he can make swoon.”

I’m far from swooning, she wanted to tell him, but she was speechless in the face of his sheer presumptuousness.

“His intention is to have as many dates, with as many different girls, as he possibly can.” He shifted slightly in his chair, his eyes never leaving hers. “He doesn't care about anything other than showing off how many girls are interested in him to prove how popular he is. It’s the amount of people that he values. Not the individual person.”

I know that, you idiot, she thought, but didn’t say it. Instead, she replied, “I thought he was your friend.”

Ben kept going, his face intense. “He is my friend, and I know him. You don’t. You don’t know anything about guys. Poe’s smooth and he calls you little pet names and tells you your eyes are pretty, but he isn’t saying it because he really means it.”

“This is none of your business,” she muttered.

“I’m just warning you,” he responded, his shoulders taut and his eyes narrowed, “he’d do the same for any other girl. So don’t get excited. Don’t think you’re special, because you’re not.”

Rey stared at him for a moment, frozen in place, hurt and rage rising in equal amounts. She couldn’t form words, which was probably for the best. Anything she’d say in this moment would only bring her down to his level.

She stood upright, so violently the chair almost tipped backwards behind her, and began gathering her books and papers together without sparing him a glance.

“Going somewhere?” He sounded bored, as if he didn’t care about her answer.

Her head snapped up and she glared at him. If looks could kill, Ben Solo would have been six feet under. No, twelve. No, six hundred.

“You’re not interested in studying,” she huffed through gritted teeth, hefting her pile of books into her arms. “I’m not interested in staying.”

“I’m only telling you the truth, you know,” he declared. “I’m sorry if it breaks your heart.”

“Do you have any other truths you need to tell me before I leave?” she snarled at him.

“It doesn’t seem like you can handle much more,” he responded, his eyes on the table rather than on her.

“Then I’m going to tell you some truths, Ben Solo.” The words began tumbling out and Rey couldn’t stop them. “You are a stuck-up, snobby little boy who thinks he’s better than everyone else when we all know you’re not. You have a nice big house and lots of money and parents who love you….”

“That’s debatable,” he muttered.

I. Am. Talking.” Rey was irate. “You have all these wonderful things that an unspecial person like me would thank God for and you don’t even have the sense to have manners about it. Poe is nice to me, he’s kind, and I appreciate that. He doesn’t care what I have or where I come from, and he certainly doesn’t say nasty things to me and then make the excuse that it’s okay because it’s the truth! I am so tired of your snobbishness and your complete lack of common politeness!”

Ben seemed calm, but his chest was rising and falling far too quickly, and the muscle under his left eye twitched as he retorted, “I’m not the one standing in someone else’s house yelling at them.”

“Well, what else could you expect from an ill-mannered train child who is obviously a waste of your time?” Rey flung his own words at him, her voice like acid, and was thrilled to see him flinch involuntarily. “I’m sorry I’m not good enough for someone of your greatness. I’d better leave before I infect you or something!”

She turned to stride out of the room, and was almost to the front door when she heard his voice behind her, sharp and sarcastic. “Thank you for all of your help today!”

Rey paused for a second, knowing she should just leave – but she was too wounded to think about what she should do. She turned on her heel and marched right back into the dining room. He was sitting upright, his hands spread on the table in front of him and his eyes darker than she remembered.

You are a jerk!” She yelled at full volume, and didn’t add anything else because that pretty much said it all.

He leaned forward, rising out of his chair, his arms trembling with tension.

“Yes,” he confirmed, his voice harsh. “Yes I am.”

He spoke with a biting defiance, but his eyes – licorice, or coal, they’re so black, she thought – were showing something else. Rey knew that look, had seen it in her own eyes in the mirror on bad days when it was clear to her that she would never measure up or fit in.

Misery. Self-loathing. Loneliness.

She swiftly turned her head away from him, looking out the front window at the vast green lawn, because she didn’t want him to see the tears which were suddenly blooming in the corners of her eyes. She heard the chair creak under him as he sat down again, exhaling loudly.

She remembered the boy in the principal’s office, who had given her a handkerchief and his understanding and who had gone out of his way to help her when he didn’t have to do. He hadn’t walked away from her then.

Maybe she shouldn’t walk away from him now.

Rey deliberated her next move for a moment, but the truth was that she’d made her decision the instant she’d recognized the look in his eyes.

I’m such a fool, she thought. But I have to do this.

She took a deep breath and blinked rapidly to hold the tears in, then turned and spoke in the most business-like voice she could muster. “This is not a good time to continue. Are you willing to try again tomorrow?”

He startled, looking up at her in shock. It took a moment for him to speak. “You…you’re willing to come back?”

She nodded, lifting her head boldly.

He seemed reluctant to ask the next question, but he did anyway. “Why?”

Rey squared her shoulders and gave him the simplest answer she could. “Because I’m not a quitter,” she said fiercely, and without even thinking about it she added, “and neither are you.”

He stared at her for a moment, wide-eyed, and then nodded. “Tomorrow is fine.”

“Good. See you in school.” She turned and marched towards the front door.

“Wait,” he called. “I have to walk you home.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No you don’t!” She slammed the door behind her and took off down the walkway as fast as she could. The door didn’t open again behind her, and she was glad that for once Ben Solo seemed to have taken a hint. Rey didn’t want him around; she was trembling too hard and breathing too fast and overall was a complete mess.

She couldn’t wait to get back to her room at Maz’s. She needed to be alone for a while, to think about everything that had just happened, and to try to figure out exactly how she was going to handle working with Ben tomorrow.

But on the way home, she was going to stop at the drugstore and buy her own mascara.

Chapter Text

April 25, 1940

Before she left the rooming house for school, Rey made sure to put her new mascara on, because they were her eyes and she would do as she pleased with them. Ben could disapprove all he wanted; it wasn’t her problem.

Except that it was, because after yesterday’s argument she had no idea how Ben was going to react when they saw each other again, even without mascara being involved.

She barely looked at him when she entered the classroom and sat down, but that was fine because he was barely looking at her either. Or it should have been fine. It actually made her even more anxious.

Lunch was more subdued than usual, even though Poe did his very best to involve both of them in conversation. More than once, Rey looked up from the table to see Francie and Armie trading a significant look, or Poe raising his eyebrows quizzically in the twins’ direction.

In all honesty, for most of the school day, Rey felt like she was going to jump clean out of her skin.

The walk to the Solo house was as awkward and silent as ever. The only difference was Ben didn’t hurry as much as he had the first couple of times they had strolled together. Rey was grateful for that – she’d almost had to trot to keep up with him before.

Thankfully they were able to work together effectively. Nevertheless, they said only as much as was necessary and talked only about the business at hand. After an hour and a half both Ben and Rey felt confident about his ability to do well on the quiz, and she began pulling her books together to leave.

He watched her for a moment, then said, “I will walk you home today.” His voice was firm.

Here we go again, Rey thought. She shook her head and bit out a response without looking at him. “No.”

He stood, his voice equally sharp. “Yes.”

Rey’s nerves had been winding tighter and tighter all day, and she could sense herself nearing the breaking point. “Ben! I am completely capable of walking myself home in broad daylight!”

“That’s not the point.”

“The point is that I’ve told you that you don’t need to do it!” She blustered at him.

“And I have told you that I do need to do it!” he retorted.

Rey let out a sharp yelp of frustration. “Why?”

“Because,” he growled, his eyes black, “I am a God-damn gentleman!”

Rey blinked at him. Then the absurdity of what he’d just said hit her, and she began to laugh. She put her hand to her mouth to muffle the sound, because she didn’t want to appear undignified. Although dignity had already flown straight out the window, given how hard she was cackling.

“It’s not funny,” he protested, shaking his head and looking disgruntled.

She nodded, tears in her eyes, and between peals of laughter she responded, “Yes, it is!”

His voice lost a bit of its angry edge. “All right, I will admit that it’s ironic, but that doesn’t automatically make it funny. Those are two separate things.”

“But it is funny,” she declared breathlessly, her laughter beginning to die down to a giggle.

He pursed his lips again, the way he’d done the other day when he’d been fighting not to smile. “Maybe it’s a little funny.”

“It’s a lot funny,” she persisted, and burst out in a flurry of chortles again. It probably wasn’t as humorous as she thought it was, but she’d been on edge all day and it felt really good to let all of her tension go and just laugh.

“Well, now I have to walk you home, in case you faint from lack of oxygen from laughing so hard,” he grumbled, but Rey could tell he wasn’t really complaining. His lips were still pressed together and he kept having to look away from her; he was obviously trying not to laugh.

That, more than anything, caused Rey to relent. She nodded in the direction of the front door and managed to say, “Come on then.”

The walk back to the rooming house was surprisingly less uncomfortable than she had expected. She’d more or less calmed down by the time they reached the end of the block, but fits of the giggles continued to burst out of her at random moments during the rest of their journey. Once or twice she heard a noise from Ben, something between a cough and an exhalation, and she was sure it was a stifled chuckle.

When they got to the rooming house, Rey turned to him.

“Thank you,” she said. She managed to keep from laughing, but she couldn’t help grinning as she said it.

He nodded, then turned abruptly and walked back towards the park.

At the last moment, just as he was turning, Rey saw the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.

 

April 27, 1940

It had been a typical Saturday morning at the café. Lusica tried several times to ask Rey about why she was now sitting at Poe’s table during lunch and why she was suddenly wearing makeup. Rey managed to side-step the inquiries and keep busy.

It was after closing, when they were just about finished cleaning and setting up for the next opening, when Lusica asked a question that Rey hadn’t expected.

“So why do you walk home with Ben Solo after school sometimes?”

There was a clatter and splash from the area of the sink, as Finn dropped the pot that he was washing.

“We were studying together,” Rey answered, keeping her tone neutral and her eyes on the plates she was stacking.

“You study alone with him?” Lusica sounded horrified.

Rey turned and gave her the dirtiest possible look.

“I don’t mean like that,” Lusica corrected hastily. “Because, ugh, Ben Solo. I just mean, aren’t you afraid to be alone with him? He’s kind of violent, isn’t he?”

Out of the corner of her eye, Rey saw Finn turn to look at her, his eyebrows raised.

“I think he should be afraid to be alone with me,” Rey smiled and tried to keep her tone light, despite how much Lusica’s “ugh” had irritated her. “I’m scary too.”

Finn snorted and turned back to the sink.

Lusica was silent, clearly hoping that Rey would keep talking. When Rey went back to stacking plates without offering any more information, she brought up another topic. “Katy says that she’s seen Ben walking in the park with you a couple of times too.”

It was none of Lusica’s business, really, but Rey thought she’d better have some kind of answer so Lusica wouldn’t make up one of her own.

“He walked me home after studying.” There was a finality to her voice.

Lusica did not pick up on Rey’s tone. “Why would he walk you home?”

Because he’s a God-damn gentleman.

She stifled a giggle, then turned to face Lusica and shrugged.

“He just did. It’s how he was raised.”

“Oh.” Lusica didn’t seem completely satisfied, but Rey turned back to shelving the plates. Finn wiped down the sink, as Maz returned from taking the garbage to the alley.

“Are we all finished up?” Maz asked.

Rey took a quick look around the room. “Yes, we are.”

As usual, Lusica had her apron off and back on the hook before Rey had even begun to untie hers. “Okay, well, I’m going to get going now. See you all later!”

They all said goodbye to her, and Maz turned to Rey and Finn. “How long has it been since you two have been able to visit properly?” She asked. “Finn, why don’t you come by the rooming house with us, unless you have to get back home soon. You two can sit in the kitchen and have some lunch and a nice chat.”

“Finn, will you?” Rey looked at him pleadingly. There were very few downsides to living at Maz’s, but a big one was the fact Rey no longer walked home with Finn. It had been about the only time they’d been able to talk alone, and they’d lost that when she moved into town.

“I think I can, for a little while,” he answered. “Besides, there’s some things I want to ask you about, Peanut.” He looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

Oh, now he’s going to ask about Ben too, Rey thought, and she braced herself for the questions she was sure would be coming her way on the walk home.

 

To Rey’s surprise (and relief), she and Finn managed to get back to the rooming house and make lunches for themselves without any talk of Rey’s new study partner. Rey was beginning to think Finn had forgotten, but as she took a bite of stewed rhubarb with whipped cream on top he finally spoke up.

“So, Rey, why were you studying with Ben Solo?”

Rey took her time chewing and swallowing before speaking. “Well, he needed help with math, so we went to his house after school a couple of times.”

“How long have you been doing this for?”

“We only went to his house a couple of times, and only this week,” Rey explained. “We worked at lunch before, but everyone was getting sick of it.”

Finn thought for a moment, then objected, “But you don’t like him. Why would you help him?”

“Because it’s better to help people than not,” she responded, which was something she really did believe.

“Yeah, but this is more than just picking up a paper someone dropped,” Finn contended. “You went to his house. More than once.”

Rey wasn’t sure what to say. How could she tell Finn about how Ben had helped her when she wasn’t even supposed to know about it herself?

She finally went with telling him part of the story. “Because he was kind to me, Finn. I don’t want to go into it, but it was a big kindness. And I want to be kind back to him.”

Finn seemed utterly confused. “He was kind to you? Ben Solo?”

Rey nodded and took another bite of rhubarb while he pondered the startling development.

Finn shook his head. “The things he said last year, he really hurt you…”

“I know,” she defended, “but he’s different now, kind of.”

“Kind of? Come on, Rey.”

“Well, he’s not easy to get along with, but I can handle him.” She smiled mischievously. “Like I told Lucie, I think he’s almost afraid of me sometimes.”

“That just means he’s not stupid,” Finn pointed out. “That doesn’t mean he’s a nice person.”

Rey absently poked at the whipped cream in her bowl as she thought about Finn’s statement. It was true, but it also wasn’t. “I think he’s nicer than everyone believes he is,” she finally told him, “although he doesn’t show it much.”

“Listen, just be careful,” Finn warned earnestly, his forehead creased in worry. “Rey, I’m serious. Watch yourself around him.”

“I will! I am!”

Finn did not look reassured in the least. “You’re going to go ahead and do what you want, aren’t you?”

Rey didn’t answer. She simply smiled and took another spoonful.

“That’s what I thought,” Finn sighed.

 

May 16, 1940

After a couple of weeks, Rey discovered that she was no longer dreading the long, silent walks she took with Ben each time they went to his house after school to study.

She’d realized Ben wasn’t one for aimless chatter. Either he didn’t know how to make small talk, or he didn’t care to make it. When he did speak, it was only because he needed or wanted to say something. Rey had never found it easy to simply chit-chat with other people, and knowing Ben didn’t expect her to do so was oddly liberating.

She didn’t have to be witty or charming or funny or smart when she was with him. She could simply be.

Sometimes it would have been better if he hadn’t talked. Once or twice in the last couple of weeks his words or his tone – or both – had infuriated Rey, and she had snapped back at him. In turn, he’d retreated into bitter silence for a while. Yet she never walked away, and he never raised his voice to her.

On this day, the silence was comfortable. Rey suspected the lack of conversation was due to Ben being all talked out. The last week had been consumed with discussions about the invasion of France and what effect the new leadership of Winston Churchill in Britain might have on the war.

The lunch table had been chaotic, as Armie argued for neutrality, Ben argued for an end to neutrality, and Poe talked of his serious plans to become a Navy fighter pilot. Francie played devil’s advocate on both sides of the neutrality question, which enraged her brother, amused Poe, and helped Ben sharpen his arguments. Rey had watched it all unfold in front of her, and had been struck by how eloquent Ben could be when he was pursuing a point. He kept his own counsel much of the time; when he did jump into passionate debate, it felt to Rey as if she were watching a series of lightning strikes.

As they strolled amiably towards the Solo house, Rey huddled inside her thin jacket. The weather was on the chilly side, despite the bright sunshine.

“I can’t wait for it to be summer and warm again,” Rey grumbled.

Ben frowned. “I used to spend the summer going back and forth to the library getting books to read, but then I was an idiot and got banned.”

“You could have someone borrow the books for you,” Rey suggested. “You know, someone who goes to the library anyway.”

“Not a bad idea,” he mused, giving her a sideways glance. “Do you go to the library often?”

“Not really,” she answered. “I never had much reading time.”

Actually, Rey had never had any reading time. If she wasn’t in school or working at the café, she’d be fixing things in Plutt’s repair shop or taking care of household chores and cooking meals. She’d barely been able to do the reading she’d been assigned in school.

“Never?”

She shook her head.

They walked a bit in silence before Ben remarked, “Your life is different now, though.”

Completely, Rey thought, and she wanted to thank him for it. But she couldn’t. So all she said was, “Yes.”

“So you might actually have some reading time this summer,” he stated.

She giggled at what she presumed was his roundabout request. “I’ll go to the library and get books for you, Ben, even if I don’t mean to get any myself.”

“No,” he explained seriously. “No, not for that reason. I mean, yes, I’d like it if you did, but I think you might enjoy reading. It would be good for you to do it, you’d have fun. I mean, you deserve to enjoy things and have fun.”

Rey felt her cheeks getting pink. “I have no idea what to even read,” she confessed. “I’ve only read what I needed to for school.”

“Oh, there’s so much out there, you’ll…” he started excitedly, but then stopped himself. Rey looked at him in surprise, but he was staring down at his feet, his lips pressed together.

Why in the world he tended to shut himself down like this, she’d never understand.

“If you have any suggestions…” she prompted tentatively.

He shrugged in an attempt to seem casual. “I’ll see what I can think of.”

They walked the rest of the way to Ben’s house, which wasn’t far, in an easy quiet.

As they came through the door, a woman’s voice called from upstairs, “Ben? Is that you?”

He froze, then clenched his jaw and darted a quick look at Rey.

“My mother,” he whispered.

Rey looked back at him, her gaze steady. “Okay,” she said. She couldn’t figure out what the problem with that might be.

Ben shook his head. “Hi, Mom,” he called out.

Rey heard the sound of heels clicking along the wooden floor of the hallway upstairs.

“How did school go today? Did you…oh. Hello!”

Rey looked up at Leia Skywalker Solo, who was gazing down at them from the top of the stairs.

“Hello, Mrs. Solo,” Rey nodded shyly.

Leia smiled and started down the stairs towards them. “It’s nice to meet you….” She paused, her eyebrows raised expectantly.

“Mother, this is Rey,” Ben said. “Rey, this is my mother.”

“Oh, you’re Rey!” Leia smiled in recognition as she descended the rest of the way. “My husband has mentioned you. It’s so nice to finally meet you! May I offer you something to eat or drink?”

“We have to work, Mom,” Ben muttered.

“She can eat and drink while she works, Benjamin,” Leia told him.

“It’s fine, really,” Rey assured Leia.

Ben went into the dining room and dropped his books on the table before heading into the kitchen.

“You’re the girl who lives with Maz, am I right?” Leia inquired.

Rey was about to answer when Ben’s voice rang out from the other room.

“Mom, why does Dad have the car out?”

Leia rolled her eyes at Rey. “Oh, that old car.” She called out to Ben in the kitchen, “He’s working on it, although I don’t know what exactly he’s fixing.”

“The Plymouth?” Rey was confused – the car he’d used to drive her out to the airplane was a 1938 model. Even by rich people’s standards, that couldn’t be considered an old car.

Ben popped his head out of the kitchen archway. “No, the Speedster,” he clarified, then raised his eyebrows. “Got a moment?”

It took less than a second for Rey to get his meaning. “Yes, please!” She dropped her books on the table and bounded after Ben as he went through the kitchen to a short hallway, down a few stairs, and out the back door.

The car was parked outside of the garage, on the sunlit driveway. The body looked somewhat the worse for wear, with faded yellow paint and several dents and dings. There was no roof, so Rey could see the upholstery was faded, and it was torn in a couple of places. Han was bent with his head almost inside the engine.

“Hey, Dad,” Ben said, as they approached the car.

“Ben, could you get me the socket wrench from over there?” Han didn’t lift his head at all, just waved his hand in the direction of a pile of tools at the edge of the lawn. Before Ben could even move, Rey skittered over to the tools and grabbed the socket wrench.

“Thanks,” Han said as she nudged his arm and handed it to him, then looked up and did a double take. His surprised expression made her giggle.

“Rey!” A big grin spilled over Han’s face. “I didn’t expect to see you here!”

“We have to work,” Ben moved around the car to where Rey and Han stood. “But I thought Rey would like to see the car first, since you’ve got it out.”

“Absolutely!” Han pulled back slightly to let the teenagers move in a bit closer. “This is a 1928 Auburn 8-88 Boat Tail Speedster. You can see she hasn’t been treated well in the past, but she’s mine now and I’m going to take care of her. The engine is a Lycoming inline eight-cylinder engine, and her top speed is 85 miles per hour…”.

Rey spent a happy half hour in the sunshine looking at the Speedster’s engine with Ben and listening to Han’s plans for the car. He probably could have talked about it for much longer, but just as Rey’s fingers started to get too cold Ben reminded his father that he and Rey had work to do. Han reluctantly let them go back inside.

Leia was standing by the back windows in the kitchen, as if she’d been watching them pore over the car. “You didn’t get anything on your clothes, did you, Rey?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. Thank you,” Rey responded as she continued into the dining room. As she hung her jacket on the back of her chair, she heard cabinets opening and water running.

Then she heard Leia suggest quietly, “Don’t you think she might want something nicer than water?”

“This is what she always asks for, Mom,” Ben grumbled.

“Don’t forget the coasters,” Leia reminded him as he came back into the dining room and handed the glass to Rey.

Rey smirked at Ben as he rolled his eyes and went to the living room to fetch the coasters.

They managed to get a lot done during the next hour or so, despite the fact they were distracted by Leia slowly passing back and forth through the dining room multiple times on one errand or another. When Rey gathered her books to leave, Ben began writing something on a sheet of composition paper, then folded it and stuck it inside one of her books.

“Suggestions,” he explained.

“You’re going to walk Rey home, right?” Leia confirmed, appearing around the corner yet again.

Ben gave Rey a momentary glance, which she interpreted as I told you so, before nodding.

“Well, it was nice to meet you, Rey,” Leia smiled. “I hope we see you again soon.”

Ben was already out the door as Rey said her goodbyes. She had to scramble a bit to catch up with him, but when she did they fell into an easy pace. For once the conversation kept going, all the way back to the rooming house, mostly about the Speedster.

After he’d dropped her off and headed back across the park, Rey went up to her room and unlocked the door. As she set her books down on the table, the paper he’d written on fell to the floor.

Suggestions, he’d said.

She picked up the paper and unfolded it.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll was the first thing he’d written. It’s odd but it’s fun.

Under that, he’d written West Running Brook by Robert Frost, and New Hampshire by him too. These are poetry collections, not just single poems. You have to read poetry.

Rey had the feeling she was going to be reading a lot this summer.

Chapter Text

June 20, 1940

“All right, now, press your foot on the other pedal and move the gear stick.”

Rey focused and started to move her foot and hand. The car shrieked and shuddered, and she shoved the gear back into first and pulled her hand away.

“No, no, it’s okay, sweetie,” Poe assured her, but his visible wince made her cringe inside. “Remember the pedal has to go down first.”

“I’m going to break your car,” Rey told him, “but I promise I’ll fix it again.”

“I’m sure you will,” he said, and gave her a grin that practically lit up the inside of the car.

Poe had heard Rey and Ben talking about the Speedster over lunch on one of the last days of school, and had elbowed his way into the conversation. When he discovered that she’d never learned how to drive, he immediately offered to give her private lessons.

He was disarmingly insistent about it, so Rey had said yes. She might have to drive someday, after all. Before they could make arrangements, Ben had interrupted to ask how Rey liked Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland so far, and she almost fell off her chair in surprise when Armie joined the conversation. It was apparently one of the Huxs’ favorite books, and the twins spent the remainder of the lunch period reminding each other of various scenes.

They were careful to be vague, so as not to give away any part that Rey hadn’t yet read, but it didn’t stop Ben from glowering at them. Poe, who had never read the book, was effectively shut out of the conversation.

A week or so after school ended, Rey had forgotten about the driving lessons. She’d been surprised, when Poe showed up all by himself at the café one morning for pie, coffee, and a renewal of his offer. The only time which worked for both of them was after dinner.

So here they were on a quiet road outside of town, surrounded by summer twilight, with the car radio humming in the background as Rey ground the transmission of Poe’s car down into dust.

“Let’s go again,” he prodded. “Foot on the pedal, hand on the gear stick.”

Rey complied. This time, when she took hold of the gear stick, Poe laid his hand firmly on top of hers. She didn’t know quite what to do about that.

He’s just making sure I don’t destroy his car, she reminded herself. He’s just trying to teach me.

“Ready?” Poe’s voice was slightly breathless. “Okay, sweetie. Foot down. Hit the gas a little.”

He pressed down too hard when he moved the gear stick, and Rey bit back a yelp as he squashed her fingers at a strange angle.

His guidance helped, though. She had a much better idea of how to move her feet and arm in relation to each other. They drove down the dirt road, switching back and forth between higher and lower gears, until Rey was fairly sure she had the hang of it. She couldn’t be completely sure until she tried it on her own, without Poe’s assistance. But he didn’t seem inclined to let go of her hand.

She began to ask him if she could try it without his help, but he interrupted.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, listen a minute.” He leaned over to turn up the radio.

“…and according to a United Press dispatch from Berlin, the armistice will probably be signed tomorrow…”

“They’re going to surrender,” Rey breathed.

“Here, pull over.” Poe motioned to the side of the road. She did as he asked, and they continued to listen.

“…Hitler will be there in person. There is still no official information as to the terms, but the general belief is that this will be only a preliminary to a general peace to be concluded at the end of the war, and that meanwhile France will be totally disarmed and at least parts of the country occupied with the Channel ports to be used as bases for the attack on England…”

“He’s got France,” Poe mused. “If it’s still even going to be France.”

“He said ‘parts of the country occupied’,” Rey pointed out. “Not all of it?”

“Most of it.” Poe’s jaw was tight. “And anything that isn’t occupied will have a tightly controlled German-led government. There may be pieces of the French government outside of the country itself, but I don’t know what good that’ll do without control of the country.”

They fell silent again.

“…Last night, the Germans again made extensive air raids over England, Scotland, and Wales…”

“And now, they’ll get England,” Poe predicted.

Rey knew it was going to start getting dark soon, and if they stayed and listened to the news she’d be alone in a car with a boy who still hadn’t taken his hand off hers, even though they’d been stopped in place for a while. “Maybe we should start back to town.”

Poe nodded his head, still intent on the radio. “I’ll drive back,” he replied absently, and Rey pulled her hand out from under his and opened the car door. It took Poe a second or two longer to follow suit.

They kept the radio on as they drove back into town. Poe listened, his face grim, while Rey stared out the window at the scenery as they passed – farm fields, then scattered houses, then more houses and shops, closer together.

She wondered what everything around her would look like if the Germans brought the war to America. To Naboo. How would it feel to be living amid the rubble of what used to be, under the occupation of an enemy that did not even speak the same language?

Nothing gold can stay, she thought, remembering a poem from one of the collections that Ben had suggested.

How long until all of what she saw in front of her was lost?

She shivered as the stars began to appear in the darkening sky.

 

June 26, 1940

Over the last week, new elements had appeared in Rey’s nightmares of Plutt – the sound of gunfire in the distance and a haze of smoke in the air. As usual, she awoke from the dream with a muted cry, sweat beading off her body and her heart pounding wildly. This time, however, the sweat had less to do with the nightmare than it did with the fact that the temperature had been soaring over the last couple of days.

Rey had opened both of her windows before going to bed, hoping that would cool off the room. There were no breezes coming in through either window, though, and the air had just accumulated in thick, heavy layers. Rey tossed and turned, her sheets damp with perspiration and her quilt kicked to the floor, hoping to fall back to sleep. Finally, she abandoned her efforts with an aggravated sigh and sat up.

Maybe there was a breeze outside, even if only a small one. Really, at this point any whisper of air would be enough. She stood and pulled her lightweight robe from the garment rack before heading down the stairs.

Usually she wouldn’t sit out on the porch in her robe, but it was 3:00 in the morning and who would be around to see her anyway? She unlocked the door of the rooming house, shutting the screen door but leaving the storm door open in the hopes of airing out the front room, and took a seat on the steps.

There was only the vaguest hint of air stirring, but it was enough. Rey tilted her head back, breathing in the scent of roses and gardenia and honeysuckle. She closed her eyes and listened to the soft rustle of trees and the chirping of the crickets, and she felt herself begin to relax.

Then she heard the footfalls. They were rapid but regular, and they were coming closer.

Who would be….

Oh. Ben.

Rey watched as he came along the road, just as she’d seen him do on many other nights. She’d always been sitting in the front room when he came by before. Now she wondered if she should greet him.

She decided against it. He seemed to have a rhythm going, and she didn’t want to disturb him. She put her arms around her knees to hug her legs closer to her and watched him as he ran towards the rooming house.

As Ben passed in front of her, he glanced over briefly. He came to a sudden stop when he saw her.

“What are you doing?” The typical scowl appeared on his face. “You can’t just sit there!”

Rey scowled right back at him. “I live here. I can do anything I want!”

He looked up and down the road, as if he were checking to see who else was around, and then he started over to her. “In the middle of the night, just sitting around outside? It’s not safe!”

“This is the safest place I’ve ever lived,” she scoffed.

He stood just in front of the stairs, his hands on his hips, slightly breathless from his run. “Anyone could come along here, Rey. Anyone. Not to mention you’re wearing….” He waved one hand at her, up and down, to emphasize her current outfit, “…whatever that is.”

“It’s my robe,” she contended. “It covers me completely. And I know anyone can come along, but I’m paying attention and I can handle myself.”

They regarded each other fiercely, and then Ben sighed. “I know you’re careful,” he groused, bending to tie a shoelace. “I know you can handle yourself. But you shouldn’t put yourself in a position where you would have to.”

Rey had to admit to herself that he made sense, but she wasn’t going to admit that to him. “Well, It’s too hot inside. Speaking of which, why are you out running in this heat? That doesn’t seem like a very good idea.”

“Couldn’t sleep,” he told her.

Rey watched his long, graceful fingers move as he finished with his shoelace. “There’s a lot of nights that you can’t sleep, aren’t there?”

“Yes,” he admitted, then straightened up and looked at her. “Apparently they’re a lot of the same nights that you can’t sleep either.”

Rey wondered for a moment how he knew, and then realized that she wouldn’t have seen him all those nights if she hadn’t been awake as well.

She looked down at her knees. “True,” she agreed.

He took a seat on the step just below hers, and for a minute or two they watched one of the bushes across the street rustling.

When Ben spoke, his voice was quiet. “Nightmares?”

“Mm-hmm,” Rey hummed, nodding slowly. She did not look at him. “You too?”

There was a pause, and she got the sense he was weighing what to say. “Yes,” he finally responded.

They sat in silence, as a raccoon emerged from the rustling bush and began to trundle its way along the sidewalk into the park.

“I haven’t seen you sitting out here before,” Ben told her.

Rey shook her head. “I’m usually inside, by the window. I drink warm milk, that’s what helps.”

Ben leaned down to tie his other shoelace. “Too hot for that tonight.”

Rey nodded, then asked, “Do you always run, afterwards?”

“Most of the time,” he answered. “If the weather’s really bad I use the punching bag in the basement instead.”

“Do you box?” She didn’t mean to sound surprised, exactly. It’s just that Ben wasn’t one of the athletes at school.

“No,” he responded. “It was a coming-home gift from my parents last summer.”

“Oh.” An odd kind of gift, she thought.

“It was a way to curb my anger,” he explained, scraping one of his shoes against the steps, “so I have something to hit instead of people.”

Rey frowned slightly. She’d heard him raise his voice, and he’d admitted to throwing things in the library. For a while now, she’d been wondering how much of the other things people said about his temper were true.

How many people have you actually hit when you were angry? She wanted to ask, but it seemed like a bad idea.

“Does it work?” she asked instead. “For curbing the anger?”

He made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. “More or less.”

“Does it work for the nightmares?”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter whether I run or hit the bag, as long as it tires me out enough to be able to fall back asleep. And I should be doing physical conditioning anyway. It’ll make everything easier when I join the service once the war starts.”

Rey watched the movement of her hands as she idly wrapped the sash of her robe around her fingers and then unwrapped it again, over and over. “I know you think we should join the war, but do you really think we will?”

He thought briefly. “Yes, I do. But I’m not sure when we’ll go in.”

“I listened to the fireside chat last month,” Rey ventured. “President Roosevelt said our military forces were getting stronger, but when he said how many men were actually in the Army and Navy, it sounded like it was less than half a million. I mean, there’s probably more, but that’s nowhere near enough for a war like this, is it?”

“No,” Ben shook his head. “No, it’s not. We’re not nearly ready.”

The bell on the clock tower tolled, sounding muffled and distant in the heat. It reminded Rey of the final lines of a poem she’d read in one of the books that Ben had recommended.

“So,” Ben blurted, “this conversation will really help soothe the nightmares.”

Rey exhaled ruefully. “Well, who needs sleep?”

“Yeah.” Ben cleared his throat. “Anyway, changing the subject, have you had a chance to read any of the poetry?”

Rey giggled at the coincidence. “I was just thinking about that. There was one in particular, the bell made me think of it.”

He gazed at her with interest. “Which one?”

“The acquainted with the night one,” she told him. “It felt really personal when I read it, and I couldn’t figure out why. But, well….” She waved her hand to indicate the night all around them.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” he agreed. He began to quote it, his voice a gentle near-whisper that was only meant for the two of them.

She didn’t remember the exact words for most of the poem, so she sat and listened, still watching her hands play with the sash of her robe. She did remember the last four lines, so she recited them with him. Their voices rose and fell together in the still, quiet night.

“And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.”

Ben gazed at her for a moment longer, then suddenly cleared his throat and stood. “See you later,” he told her, and headed back down to the street.

“See you,” Rey repeated back as she watched him disappear into the darkness.

We’re both acquainted with the night, she thought, and took one more deep breath of honeysuckle-scented air before rising to go back into the rooming house.

Chapter Text

July 20, 1940

As the summer went on, Poe and Ben and the Hux twins began to make a habit of coming to the cafe a couple of times a week for coffee and pie. If Rey didn’t have to worry about other customers she’d chat with them for a bit as Lusica lurked in the background, wiping the same spot on the counter over and over again.

Finn told Rey they were showing up to see her, but she didn’t believe that. They wouldn’t go out of their way just for her. Well, except for Poe. He’d been increasingly attentive after their driving lesson, and he kept asking her when they could go out for another one.

Today, Armie was the first to order. “Blueberry pie, please,” he said. “And coffee as well. Thank you.” Rey was surprised by his sudden demonstration of manners, but kept her face pleasant and neutral as she wrote the order down. Ben turned to Armie, regarding him with astonishment.

Poe Dameron was never one to give up easily. “I’d love some coffee, sweetie. And how about next Wednesday for another driving lesson?”

Ben scowled down at the table.

“I’d love a coffee, Rey,” Francie added.

“Okay,” Rey said, recording the order, and then turned to Ben and mentioned, “We have peach pie today. I know you like that one.”

He looked up at her, eyes wide – just a bit on the dark side of caramel, she thought – and nodded, “Yes, thank you.”

“Peach pie for me too!” Poe chimed in. “So how about Wednesday?”

“Well,” Rey answered, thinking. She wasn’t sure she wanted to go driving with Poe again. His unflagging energy wore her out, and then there was the whole hand-grabbing thing which happened last time. But she couldn’t think of any real reason to say no. “I think that might work all right.”

Poe beamed. “Great!”

“Rey, I have a favor to ask you.” Francie may have been asking for a favor, but it sounded like a command.

Rey had begun to head back to the kitchen with their orders, but she turned back to them and waited, “Okay.”

“You fix things, right? Mechanical things?”

Rey nodded.

“My sewing machine isn’t working,” Francie explained. “I was hoping you’d fix it for me.”

“Of course,” Rey agreed. She hadn’t done much work with sewing machines. It would be a nice challenge. “I didn’t know you sewed,” she added.

“She thinks she’s the next Cookie Chanel,” Armie teased.

Coco,” Francie responded, her tone of voice and her glare dangerous. Her brother did not look nearly as intimidated as Rey thought he should have.

“Do you want to bring it by the rooming house, or should I come to you?” Rey asked.

“Can you come over later today?” Francie didn’t bother to wait for Rey’s response before continuing, “We don’t live far from Solo. You’ve been there so many times, our house should be easy to find.”

Rey felt her face warm up slightly. She kept her eyes on Francie so she wouldn’t have to look at Ben.

“I live over there too,” Poe added. “We’re all neighbors.”

Francie gazed coolly at Poe, as if to reprimand him for the interruption, before turning back to Rey and holding her hand out. “I’ll write down the address for you, if you give me a piece of paper and a pencil.”

“Um, okay,” Rey managed to say, before tearing a sheet off the order pad and passing it to Francie with her pencil.

“Just come over when you leave work,” Francie directed as she wrote. “I’ll be home all afternoon.” She handed the paper and pencil back to Rey, who took a moment to look at the address. “Two blocks west of Solo and one block north,” Francie clarified.

Rey nodded and headed off to serve up the coffee and pie as Armie began, “Now, Solo, how can you justify Roosevelt trying to be President for a third term when clearly no President should serve more than two?”

****

Two blocks west of Ben’s and one block north.

That’s where the Huxes lived.

Rey walked to Ben’s house, slowing slightly as she neared the end of their walkway, because maybe Ben would happen to be leaving the house to go somewhere and she could talk to him for a moment.

When the group had finished their pie and coffee and departed the café, they’d left Rey a nice tip on top of a folded-up napkin with her name written in large letters across it. She’d opened it to find the words “The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, let me know what you think about it” in Ben’s handwriting.

She’d wanted to ask him what about the book he wanted to discuss, but he didn’t appear outside. She knew if she went up to the front door, she’d wind up staying longer than she should, so after dawdling in front of the house a bit more she went on her way.

The Huxes’ home was another mansion. But where the Solo house had a comfortable, homey outside appearance, with flower pots along the walkway and a rambling easiness to the front porch, the Hux place was forbidding in its magnificence. The bushes were strictly pruned into angular shapes, and the walls rose straight up, topped by windows surmounted by arcs that looked like contemptuous eyebrows. Rey thought it was exactly the kind of house where someone like Armie would live. She wasn’t so sure that it fit Francie well.

The door was answered by a dark-skinned woman in a maid’s uniform, who kept her face neutral and her eyes lowered respectfully as she inquired if Rey was there to see Miss Francie. Rey smiled, pleased to meet someone new, but the woman merely stepped aside to let her in, asked if she would like anything to drink, and then told her that Francie was upstairs.

As Rey cautiously began ascending the grand staircase, Francie appeared at the top.

“Rey. Good, you’re here,” Francie greeted her. “Come on up, I’ll show you the problem.”

Rey followed as Francie sauntered down a hallway lined with paintings and into a bright, open room in which a sewing machine and a dressmaker’s form held pride of place. There were open chests of cloth scattered haphazardly around, alongside tables holding pincushions and scissors and other things Rey couldn’t identify. On the walls, Francie had tacked up what appeared to be pictures from magazines and newspapers, along with a large amount of sketches.

Rey thought Francie was very good at sketching.

“This is my room,” Francie announced. She was beaming uncharacteristically. “Not my actual bedroom, of course. But Father gave it to me to do whatever I want with it.”

“I like it,” Rey told her honestly. “There’s so many windows, so much light.”

“I know,” Francie enthused. “I can really see what I’m doing when I’m in here. And I’ve got very good lighting installed for when I work at night. Anyway, this,” she indicated with a wave of her hand, “is my errant sewing machine.”

Rey sat before the device, brow furrowed, analyzing what the problem might be. As she got to work, she tried to tune out the icy richness of the house and focus solely on the machine in front of her.

She was successful, for the most part, but remained very aware of Francie pacing behind her.

When all was said and done, Rey delivered her verdict: the machine needed a new belt. She showed Francie how to remove the old belt and how to replace it, as well as how to do other basic maintenance.

When Francie thanked her and held out five dollars in payment, Rey objected that it was too much.

“No, it’s not,” Francie insisted with a glacial stare, and Rey meekly accepted the money.

“You might be able to pick up the belt at one of the fabric stores in town,” Rey suggested as she pocketed the cash. She looked back up, and paused when she saw a calculating gleam in Francie’s eyes.

“Rey,” Francie began, in a voice that could have been considered wheedling by someone who didn’t know her.

“Yes?” Rey responded, trying in vain not to sound as wary as she felt.

Francie hesitated for only a moment, but it was long enough for Rey to realize her hostess was actually nervous.

“Would you allow me to make you a dress?” Francie pleaded.

Rey stared at her, dumbfounded.

“I can sew for myself, with that,” Francie pointed out the dressmaker’s form, “but I’ve never made anything for anyone else. I need to practice, and I need to work on fitting and pattern-making, plus I think I can trust you not to hold any mistakes against me, yes?”

“Sure,” Rey admitted.

“It wouldn’t be anything outrageous, I’m not even close to being ready to make couture, but I’d learn so much and you’d get a nice dress out of it, because if it doesn’t look good the first time I’ll make it again until it does. Or I could pay you, if you’d rather.”

“No, no, I’d be happy with the dress,” Rey said hastily. She didn’t want to reduce this relationship to nothing but a financial transaction, especially when Francie finally seemed so much more approachable.

She also wasn’t sure what couture meant, but since Francie wasn’t going to make it she decided not to worry about that.

Francie smiled widely, and Rey noticed that her teeth were as perfectly white and polished as the rest of her.

“Thank you!” She clapped her hands together a couple of times in happiness, then said, “Do you have time to come to the store with me now? We can get the belt for the machine and I can decide on colors and fabrics – I have an idea what would work, but I’d like to check several against your skin tone – and we could look at patterns and you could tell me what you like….”

Rey nodded, unable to get a word in edgewise as Francie carried on about the process that they would be following, pulling out a tape measure and some paper and a pencil to write down Rey’s measurements.

Rey had never known there were so many measurements to be taken. It made her slightly uncomfortable when Francie slung the tape measure around her chest, and again when it went around her hips, but Francie continued to chatter on about dressmaking and Rey was able to relax again. Once Francie completed her extensive collection of measurements, they set off to the fabric store together.

“Have you always liked sewing?” Rey questioned curiously.

“No,” Francie confessed. “I’ve always liked fashion. I didn’t like sewing until I discovered that it was a way to make my own fashion.”

Rey had never sewn anything other than routine mending and the occasional potholder. “Is it difficult?”

“I don’t believe it is.” Francie looked both ways before stepping off a curb to cross the street. “It’s probably similar to what you do with machines, except it’s done with fabric. Fitting things together, making them work as a whole, that sort of thing.” She glanced over at Rey. “And the clothes have to fit the person, and I’m not talking about measurements. You’re a practical girl, so your dress will be practical, not overly constructed. Easily washable, with pockets, all of that.”

“It sounds like it will be very nice,” Rey offered.

“That is the idea,” Francie answered.

“Do you sew for anyone in your family?” Rey asked.

“Good Lord, no,” Francie chuckled. “Father has a professional tailor for his clothes. I think he sleeps in suits. Armie uses the tailor too – he’s trying to live up to Father’s expectations. He won’t be able to do it, but he’s trying.”

Rey wondered what kinds of expectations a parent might have that would be impossible for a child to live up to. “I’m sure he’ll be able to do it,” she said.

“No,” Francie shook her head decisively. “Father’s expectations for Armie are unattainable for any human being. It’s very difficult for my brother, which is why he’s such an obnoxious twit much of the time. I’m very lucky to be female, actually. As long as I’m appropriately decorative, Father lets me do whatever I want.”

“Appropriately decorative?” Rey couldn’t begin to imagine what that might mean.

Francie smiled. “I present a polished appearance, I can hold intelligent conversation, I can play piano and sing, I’m a charming hostess to his business associates, and I do not embarrass him in public. That’s all he requires of me. Oh, there’s the store!”

The next hour was a whirlwind of activity. Francie dragged Rey around the shop, holding fabrics up to her face and asking her opinions on various dress patterns. Once they settled on fabric and a dress, Francie began stocking up on what she called “notions”, which seemed to be a catch-all term for buttons, spools of thread, chalk, and other apparently useful items. Francie explained the purpose of each and every “notion”, in exquisite detail.

Rey’s head was spinning by the time they were finished. Fortunately, she was able to bid Francie goodbye at the door of the shop and set off on her own, hoping to find some peace and quiet on her walk back to the rooming house.

She made a stop at Hill’s Drugs, intent on finding a certain lipstick that Francie had recommended to her as they swirled through the fabric store (“Not red,” Francie had told her, “but just a bit more of your natural lip color, just to bring it out”). She hoped that the drugstore wasn’t too crowded – she was feeling overwhelmed and talked out, even though she had done almost none of the talking that day. She kept her head down as she made her selection, so if someone she knew was in the store she wouldn’t see them and wouldn’t have to talk to them.

Rey paid for her lipstick, thankful that the cashier offered her a warm smile without idle conversation. On a whim, she went back to the makeup counter instead of leaving the store. She stopped at one of the countertop mirrors, where she opened her lipstick and began applying it to her bottom lip the way she’d seen Francie do to herself at school.

As she was about to begin with her top lip, she heard the cashier ask, “Will that be all?”

Rey paused with a frown when she heard the hostility in the woman’s tone. It was blatant and cutting, rude and disdainful, and she couldn’t imagine what would possess an employee to talk to a customer like that, much less one human being to another.

“Yes,” someone responded, sounding tense and embarrassed, and Rey flushed with anger when she realized that the customer in question was Ben Solo.

Yes, he’d thrown an angry fit in the back of this shop last winter. Yes, he’d made a mess the employees had to clean up. Yes, he’d probably startled some of the other customers. But that was months ago. Months ago. And he hadn’t done it again – at least, she hadn’t heard of him doing it again, and she was sure Lusica would have filled her in on all the details if he had. There had been plenty of time to forgive his behavior, if not forget it.

Of course, people weren’t always forgiving. Rey knew that. If she’d been the one to throw such a fit, she would have avoided Hill’s Drugs like the plague afterwards, afraid of how people would react to her. But he hadn’t. He’d come back to the same place, to buy something like a normal person. He was facing up to what had happened, and to everyone who’d gossiped about him afterwards.

He was so brave, really. And this woman still treated him like garbage. It made Rey furious.

She shoved her lipstick into her pocket as she strode towards the cashier’s station. She saw the woman glare daggers at Ben before punching the register’s keys much harder than necessary. He stood there with his eyes fixed on the bottle of aspirin on the counter in front of him, his arms rigid and his hands in his pockets.

As Rey came up next to Ben, she snapped, “You have no right to be so rude to him!”

The cashier froze mid-ring, turning wide eyes in Rey’s direction, as did several other people within earshot.

Ben darted a look at Rey, then pulled a couple of bills from his pocket and laid them on the counter. “Keep the change,” he muttered, as he grabbed the bottle and went quickly out of the shop.

Rey summoned up her best imitation of Francie Hux’s icy stare and directed it at the cashier before following him out the door, glaring at everyone around her.

She’d had far too much of people today.

Ben was standing outside the store, his expression stormy. “That was completely unnecessary,” he told her, trailing behind her as she strode down the street. “You should not have done that.”

“She was rude and horrible,” Rey fumed. “They all were.”

“I expected rude and horrible,” he argued. “It didn’t…”.

“Ben Solo, don’t you dare say it didn’t bother you, because you know it did! And even if it didn’t, I don’t care anyway, because it bothered me!” Rey ranted. “So I’m going to speak my mind even if you’re not!”

She heard a faint grumble from his direction; she couldn’t make out most of it, but she was pretty sure she heard the words most difficult girl somewhere in there.

She whirled to face him. “Excuse me, what did you say?”

“I…” He stopped quickly when he saw her face, his eyebrows rushing together in confusion. “What did you do to your mouth?” She looked at him, trying to figure out what he meant, and then he groaned in annoyance. “Oh, of course. Francie.”

The lipstick, she realized. He’s crabbing about the lipstick.

“No,” Rey growled as she gestured towards herself. “I chose to buy it.”

“I don’t know why you would,” he grumbled, moving around her to walk away.

“Because I want to,” she snapped, turning and walking quickly to catch up to him.

“Why do you want to be like Francie?” he asked sharply.

“I don’t want to be like Francie,” she retorted. “And it’s none of your business if I do, so why does it bother you so much?”

“It doesn’t,” he scoffed.

Rey snorted.

He shoved his hands into his pockets, glowering at the ground. “Just stop trying to be something you’re not.”

I was only trying to be pretty, she thought. I guess he thinks I’m not.

She felt her eyes begin to sting.

I will not give him the satisfaction, she thought, and she sped up, moving past him and into the park.

“I’m just saying,” he argued from behind her, his footsteps speeding up, “you should stop going out of your way to impress people.”

“I am not…,” she began.

“Francie says mascara, you wear mascara. Francie says lipstick, you wear lipstick. I don’t know what kind of thing she’s going to suggest next, but I’m sure there’s something….”

“She’s going to make me a dress,” Rey spat out.

He sounded incredulous. “Oh, you’re letting her dress you now, too? So are you just her real live paper doll?”

“You are an ass,” Rey growled. “She’s making it to practice sewing. I chose the fabric and the pattern. I told her what I wanted. All she’s doing is making it. I have no idea why I’m telling you this, because it’s not your business and I don’t care what you think and you’re an ass.” She turned back around to face him again, standing directly in his path. “And just so you know, the makeup and the dresses and everything, I’m just trying to improve myself, that’s all. What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s a ridiculous waste of time,” he snapped.

Her breath caught in her throat when she saw his narrowed eyes, so like the first time she’d ever seen him, there in front of the school, when he’d told Armie, She’s just a train child. Don’t waste your time.

“Because there’s no way to improve myself, is that what you mean?” She advanced towards him, an ache building behind her filling eyes as her voice trembled. “Because no matter how I try, I’ll never be able to improve myself enough? I’m just the orphaned charity case who will never….”

“That is not what I meant,” he told her, closing the distance between them. “That is the opposite of what I meant.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.

“Yes, I said something like that once and I was wrong and I knew I was wrong as soon as I said it,” he told her. “I would never say it now. I wouldn’t even think it. So just stop bringing it up already.”

She turned her head to glare at the bushes next to the path, trying to sniffle without making any noise.

“No, look at me,” he ordered, an edge of anger in his voice.

The hell I will, Rey thought. She continued to stare into the bushes, blinking back furious, devastated tears.

She heard him sigh. “Rey, please.” His voice was gentle, and tired. “Please just look at me.”

He sounded almost defeated, and it made her heart squeeze painfully. Rey steeled herself before turning towards him and lifting her eyes back up to his.

His eyes were wide, fixed firmly on her. Licorice black, with a circle of chocolate at the very outside. And he looked as overwhelmed and miserable as she felt.

He edged slightly closer, a half-step in her direction. “Do you really believe that’s what I think?”

Rey's nerves felt jumpy and painful, as if she’d just touched a sparking live wire.

Did she believe it, really?

She thought about the handkerchief, the walks home, the book suggestions, the early-morning conversation on the porch steps, all the things Ben had done that he didn’t have to do.

If he truly thought she was a waste of time, he wouldn’t have done any of it. And he certainly wouldn’t have gone out of his way to make sure she had a good place to live.

Rey looked away from him again and shook her head, and heard him exhale in relief. They stood still and silent in front of each other while the shrieks and laughter of the children at the playground drifted over them.

Rey rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. “My head hurts.”

And it did. The ache behind her eyes had spread to her forehead, and she was suddenly exhausted by the weight of the day.

“Mine too,” Ben admitted wearily.

Rey wanted to ask if they were all right with each other again, but she was afraid of what he might say. She didn’t know what she’d do if he said no. Just the thought made panic rise in her chest.

When she heard a rattling sound, she looked up at him. He was shaking the bottle of aspirin with what looked like the ghost of a smile on his face.

“I’m glad I decided to go buy some completely unnecessary aspirin,” he said. “If you’d like some…?”

Rey turned to look down the path. “I think there’s a water fountain down that way,” she said in assent.

Ben nodded, and they slowly fell into step with each other as they approached the fountain. When they got there, he opened the bottle and handed two aspirin to her.

“Ladies first,” he remarked.

“You are a Goddamn gentleman,” Rey responded with a tentative smirk, and he smirked back at her.

Maybe we’re still friends then, she thought with relief, taking a sip from the fountain. She hadn’t really thought about him as her friend before, but he was her friend. He was an important friend.

Rey sat on a nearby park bench and watched as Ben took his aspirin and drink of water, keeping her eyes on him as he drifted over and settled onto the bench next to her.

She couldn’t think of what to say next, so she reached over to poke the aspirin bottle in Ben’s hand. “Why was the purchase unnecessary?”

“I just needed to get out of the house,” Ben answered. “My uncle is there. He came over to see my parents.”

“Which uncle?”

“I’ve only got one,” he answered. “My mother’s brother. Twin brother.”

“Oh.” Rey hadn’t known they were twins. “The military uncle with the academy.”

“Yes,” Ben said, drawing the last consonant out in a slight hiss. He shook the aspirin bottle, watching the pills jump around inside. “He and I have had...problems.”

“I figured,” Rey said. She debated whether or not to say the next thing – they’d only just brokered some kind of fragile peace between them, and she didn’t want to break it again – but decided to say it anyway. “Sometimes I don’t understand how your family gets along.”

He made what sounded like a dark chuckle. “Or doesn’t.” He kept his eyes on the aspirin bottle. “Someday I’ll tell you about it. Not now, though. I already have a headache.”

“I’m sorry,” Rey whispered. The whole thing had blown up so quickly, and she couldn’t even figure out why. Now that she thought about it, she was sure she’d embarrassed him in the drugstore. And then jumped right down his throat at everything else he said, and that was the last thing he’d needed, what with his uncle and all. “I didn’t mean to be so...well...difficult.”

“I’m sorry too,” he told her, his leg bouncing against the bench. “I never meant…I was saying, trying to say, you don’t need to improve yourself. Well, you do, everybody does, but….”

Rey shook her head. “Ben. You should probably stop talking now.”

He thought for a moment. “You’re probably right,” he agreed.

In the distance, the clock tower began chiming the hour. In her head Rey counted seven bells, and when the sound had faded, Ben said, “I can probably go home now. He’ll be leaving soon, so the most I’ll have to say to him is goodbye.”

Rey sighed, and they both rose from the bench. She turned to head down the path to the rooming house, and as she did Ben joined her.

He’s not walking away from me. He’s going to walk me home, she thought, and felt a thrill of gratitude.

They strolled in silence, listening to the sounds of the summer twilight around them, their pace easy and relaxed. When they reached the rooming house, Rey turned to Ben and asked, “The Great Gatsby, huh?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Anything in particular I should be reading for?” she asked.

Ben shook his head. “Just interested in what you think.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Rey teased.

He gave a low chuckle. “I am well aware.”

She giggled at that, and then they stood in silence, staring at the ground.

“Anyway,” she said. “Thanks for the aspirin.”

“Anytime,” he assured her.

She wanted him to stay longer, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

It didn’t matter anyway, because Ben suddenly said, “See you soon,” and turned back to the park again.

“See you,” she echoed.

Rey watched him as he disappeared up the path, moving through shade and sunlight with an easy stride.

We are still friends, she thought again, and smiled.

Chapter Text

August 7, 1940

For the most part, Rey’s second driving lesson with Poe had gone well. It had taken her about five minutes to remember how to shift gears, but she had rapidly been able to do so with a fluidity which seemed to surprise him.

He didn’t have the radio on, and he didn’t put his hand over hers on the gear stick; but after a short while he’d rested his arm along the top of her seat as he leaned forward to show her something, and he’d left it there afterwards until the lesson was nearly over. Rey had spent the rest of the lesson sitting up straight and stiff as a board so her back didn’t touch the seat.

When she pulled up in front of the rooming house afterwards, she’d said a quick thank you and goodbye before jumping from the car and all but running up the front steps so he wouldn’t have the chance to escort her. She’d felt ridiculous afterwards – what did she think he was going to do, anyway? – but it had seemed the safest option at the time.

Her frantic escape hadn’t seemed to bother him, though. He and the others had shown up at the café with their usual frequency over the following weeks, and Rey was spending more and more time talking to them when they did. She was careful not to shirk any of her duties, of course; she owed Maz her very best work. But she found herself looking forward to seeing them come in the door every couple of days.

Today, they were all enjoying blueberry pie with their coffee.

“So, sweetie,” Poe began, leaning back to catch Rey’s eye as she wiped down the tables. “What’s new with you?”

“Well, I recently finished reading a book.” Rey darted a look at Ben, then threw the cleaning rag over her shoulder and walked to their table. Ben lifted an eyebrow at her curiously, and she told him, “I thought all those people were horrible.”

“All of them?” he asked, tilting his head to the side. “Even Nick Carraway?”

She nodded. “Oh, him too. He’s helping his cousin have an affair. And I think he gets way too caught up in the whole Gatsby thing, I don’t know, the carnival of it.”

“Oh, Gatsby,” Francie murmured to Poe, who was looking confused.

“There wasn’t a carnival in that book,” Armie said suspiciously.

“She means the milieu,” Francie clarified.

“Well, why didn’t she just say so?” he muttered in response.

“What about Mr. Wilson?” Ben prodded, leaning towards her across the table. “Was he horrible?”

Rey shrugged and took a seat across the table from him. “He was locking Myrtle up in the garage. He was treating her like she belonged to him.”

“Not to mention he killed Gatsby,” Armie argued.

“He thought Gatsby killed his wife,” Francie jumped in. “I would think that would make anyone a little crazy. And Gatsby himself wasn’t all that horrible. He did love Daisy.”

“No, he didn’t,” Rey shook her head. “He loved what he thought she could be, he loved what he imagined about her. He loved her like she was a way of life, not like a person. And she was pretty much the same way about him. I’m not sure they really even knew each other at all.” She looked back at Ben to see if he had anything to add, but he didn’t speak. He merely gazed at her with an oddly rapt expression.

“But the parties, though,” Francie appealed, and Rey’s attention went back to her. “Oh, the parties! They would have been amazing. Think of the glamour!”

“All those people in his house, and they don’t even know who he is?” Rey rolled her eyes. “Honestly, they’re just all horrible.”

Francie gave a cool chuckle. “If you think these people are horrible, you should read Wuthering Heights.”

Ben winced. “Trust me,” he told Rey, his voice intense. “Don’t.”

Rey was making a mental note to pick up Wuthering Heights the next time she was at the library, when Poe finally spoke up.

“You know, we’ve all been talking about going to a movie on Friday night,” he said, indicating his companions with a wave. “It’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’.”

“Laurence Olivier,” Francie murmured.

“Greer Garson,” Armie replied, and the twins nodded at each other.

Poe was still looking at Rey. “Why don’t you come with us?”

“Oh, yes, do!” Francie chimed in.

Rey wasn’t sure they meant it – they’d never asked her to do anything like this before – but when she turned to Ben and saw him nod encouragingly at her, she decided it didn’t matter if they meant it or not. She knew that Ben meant it, and that was enough.

“Sure,” she agreed. “I’m in.”

 

August 9, 1940

 

Poe’s car pulled up in front of the rooming house as Rey was getting ready to leave for the movie. She hadn’t expected him to show up, and for a moment she wondered if he was coming to tell her the outing was cancelled. Poe seemed to be fond of making bold gestures; it would be just like him to drive all the way over to deliver a message instead of calling on the telephone.

“Are you ready?” he asked when she opened the door. “You can drive over if you want. It’s a good chance to practice parking in a crowded area.”

Rey wasn’t sure what to say. She’d meant to walk to the theatre, had actually been looking forward to a nice stroll through the park in the fresh summer evening air. Driving such a short distance seemed a bit silly.

But she didn’t want to be impolite, and it really was a good idea to practice driving through town. She hadn’t done that yet. So she agreed.

Poe didn’t put his hand over hers, or rest his arm along the back of her seat. He filled the car with endless chatter as they drove the short distance to Main Street, waving cheerfully out the window at everyone they passed while Rey gripped the steering wheel and focused on not hitting anyone who was out and about.

When they got to the movie theater, Ben and Francie were already waiting in the ticket line.

“I didn’t know you were driving over together,” Francie chided. “You could have picked us up too, Dameron!”

Poe ignored her, turning to Ben to talk about airplanes.

“Where’s your brother?” Rey inquired.

Francie sniffed. “Father’s taken him to some horrible business dinner tonight. I’m sure he’ll be an absolute delight tomorrow as a result, so give him a wide berth if you happen to run into him. One, please,” she told the ticket taker.

Rey stepped up to the booth next, pulling a quarter out of her pocket.

“No, I’ve got this,” Poe interrupted, attempting to edge himself between her and the ticket booth. “My treat.”

“No, that’s okay,” Rey said, holding her position and feeling slightly irritated. “I can pay for my own ticket.” She pushed the quarter into the cashier’s hand.

She heard what sounded like a chuckle from Ben.

As they entered the theater, Poe came up beside her. “Do you want any popcorn?”

“No, thank you,” Rey answered, walking away from him. Poe shrugged at Francie and joined Ben at the popcorn stand.

“Rey, dear,” Francie whispered, pulling her aside. “When a boy wants to pay for you and buy you popcorn, let him.”

“I have a job,” Rey argued quietly. “I can buy my own ticket, I can buy my own popcorn. I don’t need anyone to do that for me.”

Francie rolled her eyes. “That’s not the point.”

“Then what is the point?” Rey demanded.

Francie looked at her for a moment, then smirked in amusement. She sounded fondly condescending as she said, “Oh, Rey.”

Rey narrowed her eyes as the boys rejoined them, about to ask what she meant by that, but Francie blithely pretended as if they hadn’t even been talking.

Rey decided to stick close to Ben, as he was the least irritating of her companions at the moment, and followed him as he chose a row of seats for them to sit in. Poe took the seat on the other side of her, holding his bag of popcorn out.

“Would you like some?” he offered.

Rey shook her head as the lights went down. “No, thank you.”

He shrugged and took back the bag, grabbing a handful for himself.

Rey tried to figure out why he didn’t offer any to Francie – they weren’t fighting as far as Rey could tell – but her train of thought was interrupted by the sound of a shaking popcorn bag. She turned towards Ben.

He had his eyes glued to the screen, where a newsreel was playing, but he was holding his bag of popcorn out to her.

What is with everyone? Rey thought in annoyance. Do I look like I’m starving to death?

“No, thank you,” she murmured, and turned back to the screen.

He shook the bag again.

“Ben, seriously. I don’t want any.”

The bag shook a third time.

“Knock it off,” she whispered, in as close to a growl as she could manage with such low volume.

“I will if you take some,” he replied quietly, still staring raptly at the screen. “Movies aren’t movies without popcorn.”

“Yes, they are. I’ve seen movies without popcorn plenty of times.” She turned back to the screen.

He shook the bag again.

“Ben!” she hissed. “Stop distracting me!”

The bag shook once more, longer than it had before.

“Fine!” Rey scowled gracelessly, grabbing a handful.

The bag retreated back over their shared armrest.

Rey was now surrounded by three irritating companions.

“You know,” she turned to Ben as the newsreel ended, “you don’t have to be such a….”

“Ssssh!” He quieted, more loudly than he needed to. “Rey, people are watching the movie.”

She glared at him, then noticed a slight, almost mischievous smile form on his face. With a start, she realized he was playing around with her.

Ben Solo was being playful.

The shock of it overrode her annoyance. For the most part, anyway. She turned back to the screen, then took a piece of the popcorn in her hand and flicked it at his face. It bounced off his cheek and into his lap.

He didn’t even flinch. He just took a handful of popcorn from his bag and ate it as the opening titles began.

She flicked another one at him, once again bouncing it off his face and onto his lap. Without looking away from the screen, he picked it up and put it in his mouth. Rey smothered a giggle.

“What’s funny?” Poe asked in a whisper, leaning towards her.

Rey shook her head and cleared her throat, focusing on the movie, and Poe leaned back into his seat again.

The film was written from a book, one that Rey had never read. She didn’t know the story, but it didn’t matter. She thought it was funny and romantic and thoroughly charming, although she was frequently distracted by heavy, irritated sighs from Ben’s direction.

As Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr. Darcy talked outside of the Bennetts’ house, she heard Ben make an odd noise. When Rey looked over to make sure he wasn’t choking on a popcorn kernel, she saw him glaring up at the screen.

“That didn’t happen,” he whispered venomously.

Rey leaned closer. “What?”

“Lady Catherine and Darcy. That whole thing. Never happened.”

Rey blinked at him for a moment, then decided to just ignore him and watch the movie, since it was almost over. He was quiet, for a minute or two. And then he gave a loud snort.

“Ben!” Rey whispered.

“This is whole thing is ridiculous,” he fumed. “This is not the story Jane Austen wrote.”

“That’s the book,” she reminded him. “This is a movie.”

“This is a travesty,” he hissed, and folded his arms across his chest with a pout.

Rey nearly jumped when she heard Poe’s voice whisper near her ear. “What’s going on over there?”

“Nothing,” she demurred, glancing over at Ben again. He was still pouting, his eyebrows lowered in displeasure. She couldn’t help but smile at his expression – it was just so completely Ben. “I’m sure he’ll tell us all about it after the movie,” she advised Poe with a chuckle.

And she was right. As soon as they were out of the movie house, Ben started in.

“That was nothing like the book,” he grumbled.

“Some of it was,” Francie countered.

“Some, yes. But they changed so much,” Ben shot back.

“Really?” Poe wrinkled his forehead. “I don’t remember the book much. Was it that different?”

“In every way that mattered,” Ben insisted. “And the ending!”

“I have to say, the dresses weren’t right,” Francie mused. “They seem to have borrowed the costumes from Gone With The Wind and that was not the style for that time period. But the first part of it seemed relatively true to form.”

“The first part,” Ben scoffed. “You mean the carriage race?”

“I liked the movie,” Rey offered, then qualified, “but I’ve never read the book.”

“You haven’t read it?” Ben asked her, his eyes wide, and she shook her head.

“I’m glad you liked it, kewpie doll,” Poe broke in. “Hey, can I give you a ride home?”

Before Rey could say anything, Francie answered. “You can give me one. My feet are killing me.”

“Because you walked here in those stupid shoes,” Ben pointed out. He was apparently still feeling argumentative. Rey looked down at Francie’s dainty high heels.

“They’re not stupid,” Francie informed him. “They’re glorious.”

“But you can’t walk in them,” he said incredulously. “They’re completely impractical.”

Rey thought Ben had a good point, but she wasn’t going to say that to Francie.

“Fashion outranks practicality,” Francie declared. “And I can walk in them. In fact, they were on my feet when I walked over here. And they will still be on my feet when Dameron gives me a ride home.”

“Oh, alright,” Poe sighed. “I can drive everybody, I guess.”

Rey was the first one dropped off, which only made sense because the others all lived so near each other. During the short ride back to the rooming house, the car was filled with Ben’s critiques of the movie’s shortcomings and Francie’s thoughts about the costuming choices. As Rey stepped out of the car, a chorus of farewells in her wake, she felt light and contented.

Other people, normal people, did things like this, go out to the movies on a Friday night with a group of friends and then talk afterwards about what they had and hadn’t liked. Rey had always seen herself as different from regular, normal people. It had been almost as if she was standing outside a room while they were inside, and all she could do was watch them through a window. Tonight, she had felt like she was in the room herself for a little while. She rather enjoyed the feeling.

And she very much enjoyed her glimpse of a more playful Ben Solo. She had no idea what had brought out that side of him, but she hoped it didn’t end soon. Playful Ben Solo was fun.

Rey liked playful Ben Solo very much.

 

August 10, 1940

Rey had lived at the rooming house for almost eight months, and it was beginning to seem like home. Maz was happy to have her there, no one from the Children’s Bureau had shown up to remove her, and Plutt was buried in the paupers’ field, never to return. She was almost beginning to believe it might be possible for her to stay in the rooming house permanently.

Almost.

Rey knew better than to believe anything good would last for long. In her experience, the moment when she began to feel good about something was the moment it got pulled away from her.

So it didn’t surprise her when a new and more vicious version of the Plutt nightmare shattered her sleep. It terrified and sickened her, yes; but it did not surprise her.

Rey awoke from a dream in which Plutt had appeared in a movie theatre, dragging her screaming into the night as everyone else continued to watch the film. Even Ben hadn’t turned around at her cries. When she opened her eyes after the dream, there were tears flowing from them.

She wiped them away and rose from her bed, shaking, and pulled on her robe before padding down the stairs and out onto the front porch. Part of her hoped that Ben would go running by while she was out there, although she knew it was a selfish wish. After all, he’d only be running because he’d had a nightmare, too, and she didn’t want that for him.

But she felt so much better, every time that they met in the deep, quiet dark of the night. It wasn’t a frequent occurrence – it had happened maybe a handful of times since the first occurrence, back in June – and they didn’t have long conversations when it did happen. In fact, sometimes they didn’t even talk at all. Sometimes, he’d say hello and walk over and then just sit next to her on the porch steps for a little while in silence as the trees fluttered gently in the early-morning wind. She’d even taken to sitting on the front steps to read when she had a chance during the day, because being out there comforted her now.

She had never had much chance before to just sit outside and enjoy the warm smell of sunshine on the flowers and grass, never had the chance to do something as simple as sit and read while the breeze stirred her hair and cooled her skin.

Rey had so much to be grateful for, but that also meant she had so much to lose. She recognized this was why the dreams had changed for the worse. She wished that knowing why it happened would make it stop, but of course that wasn’t the way it worked.

When she got outside, she thought briefly about sitting on the porch swing. The boarders had put it up only that morning, and the clean white paint was almost glowing against the dark brick of the outside wall.

Any of the boarders could use it. But Maz had been thinking mostly of Rey when she decided to add it to the porch.

“Someplace comfortable to sit and read,” she’d told Rey. “I know you like it out there, but the steps are awfully hard and they can hurt your back something fierce when you lean on them.” Rey couldn’t argue with her. It was true.

The down side of sitting on the swing right now was that she wasn’t sure Ben could see her there from where he ran. He was used to looking for her on the steps; what if he didn’t even look up on the porch?

It wasn’t worth missing him if he ran by. So Rey took her usual place on the top step, leaning back on her arms and letting the nightmare fade from her mind as she waited to see if Ben would be out.

She straightened up when she heard his soft, regular footfalls approaching. He slowed in front of the rooming house, scanning the porch, and stopped when he saw her.

“Hey,” he greeted her, leaving the street and coming to stand on the walkway in front of her.

“Hey,” she returned, standing up herself and relishing the opportunity to be taller than Ben Solo for just a moment or two. “Look what I got today.”

He followed the direction of her tilted head, and his eyes grew wide.

“Really?” he asked, and she nodded happily and led the way to the swing.

“We can’t swing too loud, it’s the middle of the night,” she admonished as he settled next to her.

“This is nice,” he sighed. “It’s really comfortable.”

“I know,” she gushed. “I’ll bet I could even sleep on it.”

He shut his eyes in exasperation. “For Pete’s sake, Rey,” he groaned, “do not sleep out here. You don’t know….”

“…who might walk by,” she finished with him. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll have you know, most people sleep on their porches when it gets too hot.”

“If most people jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” he countered, his expression sour.

“No, because that would be stupid.” She considered for a moment. “Well, unless I was being chased by a rabid dog or something, and it was the only way to escape.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “That’s not my point.”

“Yes. I know.”

They rocked slowly back and forth for a few minutes, their feet pushing off the porch in unison, before Ben asked, “So Maz put this in for you?”

She nodded. “Well, not just for me. But it was mostly for me.”

“Just to be nice?”

“My birthday’s this month,” she confessed, then hesitated. There were so many expectations around birthdays, after all, and she didn’t want to seem as if she was asking for congratulations or gifts or anything.

“I didn’t know that,” he noted in surprise. “What day is it?”

She was silent for a moment, wrestling with how to answer, and worrying that her honesty might change something in their friendship. She’d stopped bringing up how he’d called her a “waste of time”, because he’d apologized and she knew he felt badly about it, but that didn’t mean she would ever forget it. She didn’t want to remind him that she was essentially a nobody, from nowhere, especially given how nice it had felt to be part of the crowd the other night.

But the idea of telling him only part of the story bothered her.

I want to be honest with him, she decided.

Rey took a deep breath. “I don’t actually know,” she admitted.

He regarded her with full attention while she studied her hands, which were twisted together in her lap.

“Oh,” he finally commented, and then he was silent again.

Rey struggled for words of explanation. She’d never told anyone her birthday story before, not even Finn, who knew everything else about her. It was the final piece of her pitiful history that she’d kept to herself.

“So I don’t remember my parents,” she started, and found that once she began, the words came pouring out of her. “When I was little, someone found me somewhere, I think maybe a church but I’m not sure because I don’t really remember this part either. I only know what people told me. I was just there, by myself. No note or anything, just me, with only the clothes I was wearing, and I was hungry and crying. There was no one who knew anything about me, except me, and all I could tell them was that my name was Rey.”

“Were you lost?” he asked quietly.

“No.” She twisted her hands together more tightly, trying to keep her voice even. “I’d just been left. So they took me to an orphanage and I lived there for a couple of years. I don’t even remember much about that. Bits and pieces. Rooms with beds and cribs, the color of the walls in the room where we ate, things like that. They figured I must have been born in August, I don’t know how they figured it. Anyway. The trains were running, taking children out west, and I was put on one so I could find a home. When Mr. Cawley picked me out at the station, he had to fill out some papers before he could take me and he asked me when my birthday was.”

“You chose your own birthday,” Ben stated, and Rey nodded.

“Yes. This part, I remember clearly. I had been counting on the train, looking out the window and counting houses, cars, horses. Just to keep from thinking too much. And I was counting as he did paperwork – how many women were at the station, how many men, how many children – and when he asked about my birthday I’d just been thinking, ‘1…2…’ and so that’s what I told him.”

“August 12,” Ben mused.

“It worked as well as anything else,” Rey shrugged.

Ben didn’t say anything, and Rey felt her heart begin to stutter with anxiety. She’s just a train child, she remembered him saying. And it was true – that’s what she was.

“It’s fine,” she blurted anxiously. “It’s really fine. There’s nothing magical about birthdays anyway. A person doesn’t change because one day they’re a year older.”

“No,” he agreed. “No, they don’t.”

“And I’ve never lived with anyone who fussed about it anyway,” she reassured herself. “So it doesn’t matter if it’s actually my birthday or not.”

He shook his head. “I’ve never liked birthdays myself. There’s always too many people, and they always want to talk at me and I don’t want to be talked at, and…” He stopped abruptly. “Of course, that’s not quite the same thing.”

“Well, no, it isn’t,” Rey admitted, then added, “In a way, though, it almost is.”

He gave a short, thoughtful hum.

Rey took a deep breath. “If you tell me when your birthday is,” she ventured, “I promise not to talk at you that day.”

She looked over at him and was relieved to see a rueful half-smile on his face.

“January 24,” he disclosed.

“January 24,” Rey responded.

Ben nodded, then turned and regarded her. “August 12.”

“Or whenever,” she shrugged, trying to appear light-hearted.

“Or whenever,” he agreed.

They sat for a moment, the quiet creaking of the porch swing surrounding them, before he said, “See you,” and stood up.

“See you,” Rey echoed, watching him go quietly down the stairs and on his way. She couldn’t help the frisson of anxiety that trembled through her chest.

What does he think of me, now that he knows?

 

August 12, 1940

Rey had never done much to celebrate her birthday before – Finn sang “Happy Birthday” to her every year, as she did for him, but that was the extent of it. None of her guardians had ever cared enough to mark the day in any way.

She and Finn had developed a habit of walking back to the rooming house with Maz after work a couple of times during the week to have lunch together, and when they did so today it didn’t seem any different than any other day. Rey figured he’d probably do the birthday singing once they got there, and then they’d have lunch and talk. They didn’t usually do birthday presents; Christmas presents had always been difficult enough to manage.

And really, getting to spend time with Finn was present enough, given how little time together they had anymore.

When they got to the rooming house, Finn immediately began admiring the porch swing and asking her questions about it. They talked for nearly ten minutes before Maz came to the door and told them to come in for lunch.

When Rey got to the doorway of the kitchen, she stopped cold. Maz had prepared their lunches, setting them on the small kitchen table, and there was nothing unusual about that. What was unusual was the pie on the table between the plates, candles proudly glowing on top of it.

“Happy Birthday, Peanut,” Finn smiled exuberantly.

Rey didn’t move.

She knew, vaguely, that candles were part of birthday celebrations. But she’d never had birthday candles before, and she wasn’t quite sure how she was supposed to begin.

“We’ll sing, then you close your eyes and blow it out,” Maz prompted gently.

“Make a wish first, Peanut,” Finn reminded her.

“I haven’t…,” she started, “I don’t know what to….”

“You can wish for anything you want, child,” Maz soothed her. “Or you don’t have to wish at all.”

Rey looked at Finn. He was so excited, and the look on his face made her shake off her attack of the nerves and go to her birthday cake…well, birthday pie. Maz and Finn sang, then watched her expectantly as she moved closer to the candle.

I wish…, she thought, and then closed her eyes against the tears that were gathering. I wish for peace, and friends and family and love. And I wish for a good, normal life.

She took a deep breath and blew out her candles.

Once they’d had lunch and some pie, and Finn went back to the Easley’s farm, Rey began to clear the table of their plates.

But Maz was having none of it, taking the plates from Rey’s hands and shooing her out of the kitchen.

“Curl up on the swing with a nice book,” Maz commanded. “Relax. It’s your day.”

Rey protested, but only faintly, and was about to go up to her room to get a book when one of the boarders, Mr. Simpson, called to her from the front room.

“This is for you.” He held a package out to her. “Someone left it on the swing for you this morning. We brought it in so no one would take it.”

Rey accepted it, regarding it in wonder. The package was rectangular, and sort of heavy, and it was wrapped in pretty paper with a pattern of brown and green leaves with pink flower buds against a white background. A small tag attached to it read “To Rey” in the fanciest writing she’d ever seen, but there was no “From” written there.

She thanked him and went up the stairs to her room, rubbing her finger against the smooth paper. She didn’t open the gift until she had closed the door behind her, and she was careful when she did; this was not newspaper wrapping, crude and cheap, that she could rip into bits. She wanted to keep such pretty paper, maybe put it in her nightstand drawer so she could take it out and look at it sometimes.

As she was coaxing the edges apart, she could tell there was a book underneath. When she finally managed to get it loose from the wrapping paper, she turned it over in her hand.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

“Oh, he didn’t,” she murmured.

When she opened the front cover of the book, there was an inscription inside, in the same fancy lettering that had been on the tag.

August 12, 1940

Or whenever

Happy Birthday Rey

This is the real story

Ben (Solo)

“Of course he did,” Rey giggled fondly to herself, remembering his indignant pout from the movie house on Friday night.

She carefully smoothed the beautiful wrapping paper, folding it so that the tag was on top, and laid it gently in the top drawer of her nightstand.

Then she headed back downstairs and out to the porch swing, clutching her birthday book close to her chest.

Chapter Text

September 17, 1940

“I want to ask you a question, but I don’t want you to get angry.”

The soft autumn sunshine fell through the window of the sewing room, making Francie’s hair glow even more platinum than usual. She was kneeling by Rey’s side, pinning up the hem of the dress while Rey stood as still as possible, listening to the Benny Goodman record on Francie’s turntable.

Rey rolled her eyes. She couldn’t stand it when people began conversations that way – it seemed to give them an excuse to say anything they wanted and then blame you for taking offense. On the other hand, Rey felt strangely honored that Francie would be at all worried about her reaction. Normally, Francie didn’t care a whit for anyone else’s opinion.

Plus, Francie was still working on the dress when most people would have given up long ago. This was the fifth attempt, and both girls hoped it would be the last. It had been an epic battle to get to this point; Rey had spent a great deal of time in the sewing room as Francie flushed, grumbled curse words, and even tossed pincushions at the wall. At one point, Francie had returned to the fabric shop and purchased every remaining yard of the fabric that she’d chosen for the dress, to make sure she had enough to cover all possible mistakes.

So Rey could cut her friend some slack for prefacing a question in such a way. But not too much.

“I’ll try,” she agreed, “but that’s all I can promise.”

Francie shifted a bit towards Rey’s front, working her way around the hem. She plucked a pin from the cushion tied around her wrist and paused. “How do you not want to kill Ben Solo every five minutes?”

Rey giggled. “Who says I don’t?”

She knew where this was coming from. During lunch, there had been a disagreement between Ben and Francie over something so minor that Rey no longer remembered what it was. But Ben had taken a superior and cutting tone and Francie had responded with cold haughtiness, and things had escalated quickly from there. Apparently, Francie wasn’t over it yet.

“I say you don’t,” Francie resumed pinning up the hem. “Not like the rest of us.”

“Poe doesn’t want to kill Ben every five minutes,” Rey pointed out.

Francie chuckled. “I think he does sometimes. He just prefers to press Solo’s buttons instead of getting mad at him.” She inhaled sharply and put her finger in her mouth, then took it out and examined it before picking up another pin. “Also, Dameron has known Solo a lot longer than the rest of us. He swears that Solo wasn’t always such a cuss. Apparently he was a sweet, quiet child at one point.”

“He’s still quiet,” Rey pointed out, shifting slightly from one foot to the other. And he can be sweet, too, she thought, but she felt oddly shy about saying that to Francie, so she kept it to herself.

“Hold still,” Francie told her. “No, that’s not what I meant, really. Dameron says that his temper didn’t used to be so bad. He wasn’t so easily angered and superior. He wasn’t such a jerk.” She shrugged, moving slightly further along the floor. “He was easy going, if you can imagine that.”

“Actually, I can,” Rey told her, thinking of the quiet companionship of walking home with Ben on study days, and how calming it was to sit on the front porch swing with him after she’d had a nightmare.

“See? That’s what I’m talking about, when I say you don’t want to kill him every five minutes. The fact that you can see him as easy going when he’s anything but. I swear, you must have the patience of a saint.” Francie sat back, resting on her heels. “Here, back up and turn around slowly, so I can see if it’s even.”

Rey did as she was asked. “When was this?”

Francie frowned and tugged briefly at the front of the dress. “When was what?”

“What Poe was talking about, when Ben was younger.”

“Oh.” Francie thought for a moment. “Well, Armie and I met them in second grade, and at that point Solo was the same charming, delightful person I know today. So I’d say before that.” She stood and gestured to Rey. “All right, go get changed so I can stitch up the hem.”

****

It was an uncommonly warm day for September, and Rey could already feel herself starting to sweat as she left the Hux’s to return to the rooming house. She’d worn one of her lightest-weight dresses that day, but it didn’t seem to matter. By the time she reached the end of Francie’s block, she could feel the material beginning to stick to her back, and her arms were damp against her schoolbooks.

Rey’s route to and from Francie’s house took her past the Solo home. It wasn’t that she had to walk that way, there were other ways to get to Francie’s. But she liked Ben’s neighborhood, and she liked his neighbors, although she’d rarely spoken to any of them.

There was an older lady living two doors down who always waved and smiled as Rey passed by with Ben, and it made Rey feel good to see her and to wave and smile back. Farther down the block were two young but energetic children who liked to run up to Rey and show her rocks they’d found or flowers they’d picked. Ben always stood stiffly, watching them with apprehension, while Rey bent down to affectionately exclaim over their small treasures.

Once or twice after talking to the children, she’d straightened up and caught him watching her, his face soft and his eyes kind. Deep caramel, she’d thought, categorizing their color even as she looked down and pretended to adjust her skirt before resuming their stroll to his house.

Neither the older lady nor the children appeared to be out and about as Rey started down Ben’s street. Ben, however, was sitting on the steps of the Solo’s front porch, and Rey slowed when she saw him, hoping she didn’t look as much of a sweaty mess as she felt.

“Hey,” she said, stopping at the end of the walkway.

“Hey.” He rose from the front steps and sauntered down to her. He nodded back at the house as he explained, “Hot in there.”

“I’ve just been to Francie’s,” she explained back, in case he wondered what she was doing in his neighborhood.

He grimaced.

“She’s not happy with you either,” Rey attested.

“Very few people are,” he mumbled, joining her on her walk home.

“Stop it,” she ordered. “It’s a beautiful day and I’m not in the mood for your crank.”

“My what?”

“Your crank,” she repeated. “Your dark doom and gloom.”

Crankiness,” he corrected, “is the word you’re trying to use.”

“No,” Rey shook her head. “Crank is exactly the word I meant to use. Crank, crank, crank, so there.” She cast a cheeky look at him from under her eyelashes, noting with pride that he seemed to be fighting back a smile.

“If you say so.”

“I do.”

They walked in silence until they reached the cross street, when Ben asked, “Have you been listening to the news lately?”

“Yes,” Rey nodded. “Is that what’s making you so touchy?”

He sighed. “I’m not…well. Yes. I can’t stop thinking, you know?”

“I know,” she confirmed. “I think about it all the time, even though I don’t want to.”

A week or so ago, the German Luftwaffe had swept over London, dropping bombs in a wave of destruction and fire and leaving hundreds dead or homeless in the burnt-out rubble. Rey had listened to Edward R. Murrow’s report the morning after the first bombing – “There is no way to describe the thing that is happening,” he’d recounted, “The courage of the people, the flash and roar of the guns rolling down streets, the stench of air-raid shelters in the poor districts.”

The attacks continued on a nightly basis. Rey waited at the radio whenever it was time for Murrow’s latest broadcast, even though her heart pounded painfully in her chest every time she heard him begin, “This…is London.” She truly didn’t want to think about the bombing– didn’t want the images in her head, didn’t want to consider the implications -- but she had to listen. There was no shutting it out.

America could not stay out of this war; even Armie was beginning to admit that. The cataclysm was there, gathering darkly on the horizon, looming over them and lending everything an uncertain, temporary feeling, like the strange brightness of the sun just before storm clouds roll in. At lunch in the familiar cafeteria, during the structure of the school day, they would all talk of next summer and senior year and college; but when Rey was home at night, alone in her small bed and surrounded by darkness, she knew that those things were more than likely not going to happen the way they all planned.

Those things might not happen at all.

Rey knew she wouldn’t be going off to fight – girls didn’t – but Ben would, and Finn. Poe and Armie, too, and as many of the other boys in town as were fit for service. And sometimes when people went off to fight, they didn’t come home again.

“Do you think we’ll go in soon?” she asked.

“I can’t imagine it’ll be much longer,” Ben answered, “especially if England can’t hold out. That’s what Hitler’s hoping for, I think. That the British will be bombed into hopelessness and just surrender. And they might. I mean, I can’t imagine….”

His voice trailed off, and Rey did not speak either. They passed through the downtown area, bathed in September sun and filled with people – mothers out shopping with children in tow, kids running out of Hill’s Drugs with ice cream cones, a group of older women laughing together as they walked, factory men on their way home in their work clothes.

Life is still going on around me, Rey thought, even though somewhere there are bombs dropping and cities burning. She was lucky, she knew, to be living such a good life. I wonder how much longer this will last for us. I wonder what it will be like, afterwards.

As they moved through the park, she took deep breaths of the fragrant late-summer air, noticing everything with new clarity. The way the leaves draped over the path, the way the flowers swayed in the breeze. The way Ben looked now, deep in thought as he walked beside her, the trace of a frown at the corners of his mouth. The yells of the children at the playground, enjoying one of the last warm days of the year. And the odd little tables over by the playground where the old men usually sat and did something that Rey couldn’t see, but which were empty now.

“Ben,” she asked, slowing down, “what are those tables for?”

“Hmmm?” He looked up, focusing into the distance. “Oh. Those are chess boards.”

“That’s a game, right?”

He glanced at her suspiciously. “Yes. Have you never played it?”

She shook her head. “But I’ll bet you have.”

He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t play in the park.”

“Why not?”

People,” he muttered darkly.

“Mmm,” Rey nodded in understanding.

“We have a chess table at the house. If you want to learn how to play, I could show you after studying sometime,” he offered, and Rey was glad to hear that his voice had lost some of the somber edge she’d heard earlier. We might as well be happy now, if we can be.

Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to play chess in the sunshine.

“Rey,” he warned, as she began to cross the grassy lawn in the direction of the chess tables. “I don’t play in the park.”

“No one’s around,” she told him blithely.

He tried another tactic. “Maz is probably waiting for you.”

“No she’s not.”

He began moving towards her reluctantly as she reached the tables. On top, they each looked like a checkers board, but they were thick, with a hinge on the side. Rey set her books down and lifted the top of the table to find a variety of little pieces inside.

“There are probably some pieces missing,” Ben said from behind her, and she stood aside to let him peruse the contents.

“Well?” she asked, after he’d spent a minute cataloging the contents. “Is everything there?”

He sighed in defeat. “Yes.”

Rey clapped her hands and gave him a bright smile. “Good!”

Ben gazed at her for a moment, his expression unreadable, before saying, “Do you really want to do this now?”

“Yes, I do,” she assured him. “It’s a beautiful day, we’re in a lovely park, and…and I really want to learn to play chess with you.”

He shook his head ruefully, but he had a faint smile. “All right,” he started, picking up a piece and displaying it to her. “This is the king. The whole game is about capturing him.”

October 2, 1940

Rey had always learned quickly. She’d had to – it had often meant the difference between eating and not eating, or getting hit and not getting hit. She was used to figuring things out as fast as possible.

It didn’t take long for her to become comfortable with the game of chess.

After a couple of weeks she still hadn’t beaten Ben (which was of course her goal), because she’d only been playing a short time and he’d been playing for most of his life. Nevertheless, she was able to hold her own more and more, and occasionally even challenge him. She’d smile at him merrily as she did, and he’d scowl back at her. The better she got, the more intense he became. It was great fun.

It would have been more fun, though, if he’d acted as if he were enjoying himself. Rey knew that he was, but he was Ben so of course he didn’t show it much.

And that was a shame, because Rey had seen him being playful, and she had loved it. Playful Ben Solo was one of Rey’s favorite things.

She’d only seen him that way once, though. Rey decided that had to change, and soon, because who knew what the future would bring?

Today they had put in about half an hour of study time before heading to the chessboard, where they’d been locked in wordless battle ever since. Silence had settled over the room like a blanket, and Rey could hear the rush of the wind in the bushes outside and the soft creaks of Leia moving around upstairs.

She looked across the chess board at Ben. He was staring at it with an expression that was far too serious, his brow furrowed and his mouth pressed into a thin line. He did not look as if he were having fun.

Rey decided to see if she could change that.

Once Ben had completed his move, Rey reached for her knight. With a decidedly sly glance in Ben’s direction, she made a loud whinnying noise as she moved it.

She set the piece back down on the board with a satisfied smile, and looked up at her chess partner.

His eyes seemed about to pop out of his head. “What…” he managed to choke out. “What are you doing?”

“It’s a horse, Ben,” she explained with precise logic. “It neighs.”

He stared at her for a moment without blinking, then shook his head.

“He’s a knight, Rey,” Ben corrected sternly.

Rey’s cheeks flushed as she considered that she might have miscalculated his mood.

He reached out and grasped her knight, holding the piece as if it were on the verge of making a charge, and cried out, “For King and Country!” Then he set the knight back down on the chessboard and fixed Rey with a haughty stare. “That’s what he says.”

For a solid half minute, Rey stared at him. And then she felt amusement sweep over her and bubble its way up her chest and into her throat. She fell back in her chair, letting loose peals and peals of laughter, which were made even more delicious by the overdone pout on Ben’s face.

“Why are you laughing, Rey?” he scolded, his mouth twitching up at the corners. “This knight is venturing forth on an epic mission for the glory of England. It’s historically very important!”

Rey had been about to suck in a much-needed breath, but this last statement brought on a fresh onslaught of giggles, especially because he was seriously using phrases like epic mission for the glory of England and historically very important. For some reason, that really got her going.

Perhaps it got her going too much, though, because as she took in a breath between giggles, she made a snorting sound. A loud, unattractive, rip-roaring snorting sound.

Wide-eyed, she clapped both hands over her mouth, even though it was her nose that had snorted, and flushed bright red.

Ben’s eyes widened too, with incredulity. “Did you…did you just snort?” he asked, his voice full of amazement.

Rey shook her head vigorously, her hands still glued to her mouth.

“Yes, you did,” he exclaimed in delight. “Oh yes you did!” And Ben Solo burst out laughing.

His laugh wasn’t what Rey would have expected, had she harbored any expectation of ever hearing Ben Solo laugh. His chuckles had all been dry and sardonic, cynical and dark – this sound was anything but. It wasn’t low or deep in any way, although it was definitely masculine, and it spun ripples and trills in varying tones as he chortled.

It made Rey giggle again in delight to hear it, which made Ben laugh even more, and they fed each other’s amusement back and forth across the chessboard until Rey’s stomach and face hurt and her eyes were running with tears.

Slowly, they began to catch their breaths, and it was as Rey was wiping her eyes that she caught a glimpse of Leia standing just outside the archway to the living room with a look of shocked amazement. When she saw Rey glance in her direction, Leia quickly backed up, disappearing into the dining room.

Ben sighed, and Rey looked back over to find him staring down at the chessboard with his hand on his chest. “My face hurts,” he complained mildly.

Rey smiled. “You have a very nice laugh.”

He chuckled. “Thank you. You have a very nice snort.”

She picked up one of her pawns and tossed it at him. He tried to catch it but missed, and got up from his chair to retrieve it.

“Did you just try to kill me?” He returned to his seat, placing her pawn back on the board.

“Chess is a dangerous game, Ben,” Rey countered, her eyebrows drawn together in a scowl. “A very serious, dangerous game…Hey!”

He’d captured her knight with his bishop and was wiggling it before her.

“He has served his last Crusade,” Ben intoned solemnly, and Rey fell into giggles again.

****

Leia was just coming down the stairs as Ben and Rey were gathering her books in preparation for their walk back to the rooming house.

“Do you have to leave so soon, Rey?” she inquired, sounding more disappointed than mere politeness demanded.

“Um…” Rey darted a quick look at Ben, who was regarding his mother with suspicion. “I need to get home for dinner.”

“Well, you could eat here with us,” Leia offered. “I’d love it if you’d join us. I’m sure Ben would too.” She turned a bright smile towards her son.

Ben blinked at her.

“Wouldn’t you, Ben?” Leia encouraged.

“Mom….” he said carefully, the tip of his ears turning pink, before falling silent.

“I think it would be nice,” Leia continued. “We could all get to know each other better.”

Rey thought she saw Ben shudder a little, then he blurted, “Maz is probably expecting Rey. We shouldn’t keep her.”

He doesn’t want me to stay, Rey thought, and she felt a sinking sensation in her chest. Not that she particularly wanted to stay – she suspected it would be an utterly awkward experience, given how Ben and his parents seemed to interact – but she wanted Ben to want her to stay.

Leia pressed her lips together and furrowed her brow, and Rey swore she could feel Ben tense up even more next to her.

“Maz is definitely expecting me,” Rey jumped in, wanting to save them all from the imminent argument between mother and son. “I have a lot to do tonight.” As she said the words, she felt that they sounded too ungrateful, so she added, “But thank you for the invitation. I’m sure it would have been lovely.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a wistful expression flicker across Ben’s face. But it was so fleeting that Rey was sure she had just imagined it.

Leia fixed a firm gaze on Rey and smiled. “Some other night, then. You can stay after one of your study times. Or if that doesn’t work, you could come over on some other night. I’ll call Maz and work it out with her.” Her eyes moved from Rey to Ben and back again, and she laid her hand gently on Rey’s arm. “We’re all looking forward to your company, very much.”

Rey nodded mutely, unable to think of any response.

“Okay, great,” Ben choked, turning on his heel. “Let’s go.”

He hurried out the front door and strode quickly down the walkway.

Rey felt a strange urge to curtsy, but settled for quickly saying, “Thank you, ma’am,” and scrambling after Ben, who had stopped at the sidewalk to wait for her.

They walked in uneasy silence through Ben’s neighborhood. When they reached the cross street that led to the downtown, he cleared his throat.

“So,” he started, his shoulders hunched up, “I know it’s hard to say no to my mother. If you don’t want to come for dinner, you don’t have to.”

“I don’t mind.” Rey kept her eyes fixed on the florist’s business sign, visible at a distance. “I mean, if you think it’s best if I don’t, I mean, if you’d rather I didn’t…”

“No, no, no.” He ran a hand through his hair, then shoved both hands into his pockets and turned his head to gaze intently at the houses they were passing. “It’s alright, it’s your call, don’t worry about what I think.”

Rey played with the rip on her notebook cover while they began talking over each other.

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable….”

“No, it’s okay, I just don’t want you to feel like you have to do it….”

“Because it’s your house too and if it would be too much….”

“No, it’s just that I understand if you’d rather not….”

“I mean, I will if you’re okay with it….”

“I’m okay with it as long as you are….”

“I’m okay with it,” Rey said quickly, “but….”

“I’m okay with it too,” Ben replied.

“Well, all right then. I guess I’m coming for dinner sometime.” Rey clutched her books to herself more tightly.

“All right,” Ben shrugged. He gave an awkward little hum, and Rey bit her lip.

They continued without speaking past the downtown and through the park, where the sunshine filtered through the canopy of brightly-colored leaves, surrounding everything with a golden glow. Rey stole a glance or two at Ben, and was relieved to see that his shoulders had loosened up.

As they reached the front porch steps of the rooming house, he asked, “Is there anything you don’t eat?”

She looked at him quizzically.

“My mother will want to know,” he explained.

“I’ll eat anything,” Rey assured him. “It doesn’t even have to taste good, as long as it’s food.”

She’d meant it as a joke, but there was a sadness in his eyes when he looked at her, and something else, more intense, something that she couldn’t name but found she liked all the same. She was trying to figure out what it was as he turned abruptly to head back to the park.

“See you,” he said.

“See you,” she returned.

As she watched him go, she heard Maz through the screen door, sounding pleased as she gave permission for Rey to stay at the Solo’s for dinner some night.

Rey sighed. Leia Skywalker Solo certainly didn’t waste any time.

Chapter Text

October 5, 1940

Rey was not sure why she was so uneasy about having dinner with Ben and his parents. This was something friends did regularly, she imagined – have dinner at each other’s houses. She’d talked to both of the older Solos several times, and they’d always been kind and friendly. And of course she already ate lunch with Ben every day. It should have been a nice, relaxing idea.

But it wasn’t. It felt more like she was going to an interview, and she was afraid she would fail.

She had no idea how to behave in a formal situation. She’d thought about asking Francie for pointers, but she didn’t want to have to blush her way through explanations about why she was having a family dinner with the Solos. She tried to get some tips from Maz, but the older woman just chuckled and told her that the Solos put their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else, and she shouldn’t worry.

Rey tried not to, she really did. But she worried anyway, right up until the moment Ben pulled up in front of the rooming house in the Plymouth to pick her up.

Then she worried more.

He was tense and grim, tightly wound, and his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel. Rey attempted to soothe him, despite her own thrumming heartbeat and trembling hands.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, keeping her eyes on the road in front of them. “We’ll have a nice dinner and we’ll talk some and then it will be done.”

He chuckled harshly at that, and they both fell silent for the rest of the ride.

When they got to the house, Ben pulled the car around to the garage and shut off the ignition, staring down at the steering wheel.

“Rey,” he began, then paused for a second before continuing. “Look, I just…whatever happens, please try not to hold it against me. I mean, against us.” He opened the door and got out of the car before she could reply, heading around to open her car door and help her out, as his mother had taught him.

Rey swallowed hard as she waited for him.

How bad does he think this is going to be?

****

“Here, Rey, I’ll get you some of the chicken,” Leia offered, holding her hand out. Rey meekly surrendered her plate and watched as Leia efficiently covered half the plate with meat. “Is that enough?”

It was more than enough, but Rey nodded anyway. “Yes, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Leia said, then handed the plate to her son. “Ben, give Rey some eggplant.”

He put a spoonful of the roasted vegetable onto the plate, then raised his eyebrows at Rey questioningly. She shook her head slightly and he returned the spoon to the bowl and held Rey’s plate out to her.

“Don’t be stingy with it,” Leia urged her son.

“That’s all she wants,” he informed her.

“It’s alright, it’s enough,” Rey chimed in.

“For Chrissakes, Leia, we don’t need to stuff her to bursting,” Han added. “She’s a small girl, she doesn’t have that much room.”

Ben slapped a spoonful of eggplant down on his plate with a frown.

“Well, if you want more, Rey, just let us know,” Leia relented, then sent Han a steely look across the table.

“I will, thank you, ma’am,” Rey nodded, and glanced quickly over at Ben, who was sullenly picking at his potatoes.

She couldn’t think of anything to say, so she began to eat, taking great pains to carefully cut her chicken into small bites and to keep her mouth closed when she chewed. She usually did so anyway, but it wouldn’t hurt to take extra care today.

She’d just taken a mouthful of eggplant when Leia asked, “So, have you lived here all your life, Rey?”

“Since…” Rey began, but stopped when she remembered that her mouth was full of food. Leia waited patiently while Rey chewed as fast as she could.

“Since I was about five,” Rey answered, putting her hand in front of her mouth to hide the fact that she hadn’t completely swallowed everything.

“But you only just moved in with Maz, correct?”

Rey nodded. “In January.”

“Oh, yes,” Leia recalled. “When your guardian died. I’m so sorry about that, by the way.”

“Don’t be,” Ben stabbed his fork into his chicken. “The world’s better off without him.”

“Ben!” Leia was aghast at her son’s reaction.

“He’s not wrong,” Han told her, taking a swig from his wine glass. “Plutt was a drunken, violent, Godforsaken idiot. A loser through and through, and you know it, sweetheart.”

“Well,” Leia allowed, shrugging. She toyed with her potatoes as the conversation died away.

Rey’s face was beginning to redden. She couldn’t think of anything to say to break the silence, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She glanced up at Ben and found that he was watching her intently.

When their eyes met, he quickly turned to his father and asked, “So how was today, Dad? Did you have a good day?”

Han’s fork stopped halfway to his mouth as he stared at his son in confusion, and there was a muffled clatter as if Leia had dropped something on her plate. For a few seconds, no one spoke.

Han slowly lowered his fork back down to his plate. “Well, it was fine, Ben,” he answered slowly, as if he was trying to coax a wild creature out of hiding without frightening it. “It was a good day.”

Rey took advantage of the fact the attention was focused on Ben by breathing deeply and having a sip of water.

“Good,” Ben commented, immediately turning his attention back to his plate.

“Well, good,” Han nodded. He lifted his eyebrows in his wife’s direction as Ben shoved a large helping of potatoes into his mouth.

“That’s a pretty dress, Rey,” Leia praised smoothly.

“Oh, thank you. Francie Hux made it,” Rey ventured, “She designed it and sewed it together.”

“It’s very nicely done.” Leia eyed Rey appraisingly. “And that color works so well with your complexion. Don’t you think so, Ben?”

“What?” Ben choked out.

“Don’t you think Rey’s dress is pretty on her?” Leia repeated.

Ben’s face was getting as red as Rey’s felt. “Sure,” he murmured.

Rey knew he’d been coerced into saying it, but she felt a thrill of happiness anyway, so sudden that she had to look down at her plate so no one would see it.

“Is that all you have to say?” Leia prodded.

“Leia,” Han broke in. “It’s a nice dress, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just a dress.”

“Well, I think little Francie did a wonderful job finding a color that brings out the pink in Rey’s cheeks,” Leia declared.

Rey was momentarily distracted from her embarrassment by the odd idea of “little Francie”.

“You’re bringing out the pink in everyone’s cheeks,” Ben muttered.

“What, Ben?”

“Good dinner,” Ben clarified, his voice tense. “Tastes great.”

“Thanks,” Han said. “You know, Rey, I would normally have had an assistant in the kitchen with me, to help. But I had to go it alone today, since he had a guest.” He winked at her. “Completely abandoned the old man.”

Ben rolled his eyes as Rey tried to wrap her mind around the image of the Solo men in the kitchen, cooking together.

Leia shook her head at her husband. She took a sip of wine before speaking again. “So, Rey, do you have any hobbies?”

“Hobbies?” Rey stuttered. She was sure she did, because everyone did, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember what they were at the moment.

“Yes. Things you do for fun, because you enjoy them,” Leia explained.

Ben scowled at his mother. “Don’t be patronizing. Rey knows what a hobby is.”

Leia’s voice was frosty. “I was not being patronizing, I was merely….”

“Oh, really, Mother?” Ben challenged.

“Rey likes to fix things, don’t you, Rey?” Han broke in with a suggestion, and Rey gratefully nodded, twisting her hands together under the table.

“I do,” she admitted, and kept talking, hoping to keep the silence at bay. “I think it’s interesting, how things work, and I like being able to take something that was broken and make it whole again.” She thought for a moment. “I like reading, too. And chess is fun.”

Her eyes met Ben’s across the table, but before she could smile at him, Han spoke up.

“Ben likes reading too, much more than anything else. Except maybe calligraphy. And being grumpy.” He chuckled.

What is wrong with him? Rey thought. Why does he keep going after Ben like that?

Ben shot him a dirty look. “Shut up, Dad.”

“Ben!” Leia scolded. Rey didn’t think he needed to be reprimanded – he was only defending himself.

“It’s fine, sweetheart,” Han waved her off. “He just proved my point.”

“What’s calligraphy?” Rey quickly asked Ben, trying to give him a chance to speak.

It didn’t work.

“Fancy-schmancy writing,” Han answered for his son, “which I don’t see the point of. But if it makes him happy….”

Rey felt hot little pinpricks of anger cutting through her discomfort.

“It’s artistic,” Leia argued. “That’s the point of it.”

“Artistic,” Han scoffed, taking another bite of chicken.

Leia glared at her husband over the rim of her wine glass. Rey dug her fingernails into the skin of her hands as she watched Ben poking his fork harshly into his food.

“You know, Rey,” Han mentioned, “I want to thank you for helping Ben with math. He’s pretty bad at it, but he’s gotten better since you’ve come along.”

“Thanks for your support, Dad,” Ben said sarcastically. Rey felt the pinpricks beginning to grow larger.

“I’m just saying….”

“Rey,” Leia quickly interrupted, “I know you came out to Naboo on the children’s train….”

The statement shouldn’t have affected Rey the way it did. It was just simple fact, and Rey knew that. But it hit her like an unexpected left hook to the jaw, bringing back a searing flash of memory.

She's just a little girl, counting horses and cars and people in order not to think about what might happen to her, standing in a miserable huddle of children at train station after train station as strangers walk back and forth in front of them, deciding which ones to pick and which ones to leave behind.

Rey’s heart jolted so hard that she felt nauseated. She stared at the serving bowl of potatoes, trying to slow her heartbeat and her breathing so she could give Leia some kind of rational answer to the questions she was sure were coming.

Mom!” Ben’s voice rang loudly off the dining room walls. “Stop!”

Han set down his fork and watched Ben warily.

“For Pete’s sake, Benjamin,” Leia chided in a low voice, “I’m just asking a question.”

“You need to stop now!” Ben ordered, his tone menacing and ugly.

“Don’t tell your mother what to do.” Han’s voice was low and tense.

“Rey doesn’t mind, do you, Rey?” Leia didn’t wait for Rey’s response. “I’m just wondering where on the East Coast you and your parents lived. I know some people out there, they might know some Smiths….”

“Jesus Christ, Mother, that’s enough!” Ben stood up hastily and dropped his fork onto the table. Rey startled at the clatter and looked up at him. She’d never seen his eyes so fierce and dark. “Stop the goddamn interrogation!”

“Hey,” Han warned, beginning to rise from his seat, “watch your mouth!”

“Shut the hell up, both of you!” Ben snarled.

Rey couldn’t tear her eyes away from Ben. She could tell from the vicious set of his eyebrows and the way he was quivering that he was one wrong word away from truly exploding.

They’ve pushed him and pushed him and he’s going to lose his temper completely and then they’ll send him away again.

The thought cut through her, bringing tears to her eyes for a second or two before she took a deep breath and straightened her back, banishing the cowering little girl at the train station from her thoughts.

No, they won’t. Not if I have anything to say about it.

Rey cleared her throat, and as she began to speak all three Solos turned to her in surprise.

“To tell you the truth,” she said to Han, her voice clear and strong even though she was shaking wildly, “I’ve seen Ben’s writing, the calligraphy, if that’s what it’s called? And I think it’s beautiful.”

She turned to Ben, who had his eyes fixed on her in desperation as his chin trembled. Chocolate with flecks of gold, wrapped around the deepest black. “And you are good at math. I’ve studied with you, so I know. You’re just so much better at everything else that you think you’re bad. But you’re not. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

Rey then turned to Leia, who was watching in stunned amazement. “And to answer your question, ma’am, yes, I came out on the train and no, I’m not sure where I lived with my family. All I really know is that I was abandoned when I was about three and no one knows who my parents were or what happened to them. It doesn’t matter how many Smiths you know out East, because Smith isn’t even my real last name. My first name is Rey only because I told them it was, but I was just a child. I could have been trying to say some other name. There’s no way of knowing anything about me for sure.”

The silence that followed was nearly suffocating. Rey swallowed hard and lifted her chin, digging her nails into her hands even more.

Ben was the one to speak first. “That’s it,” he declared. “We are done with dinner.”

He kicked his chair back against the wall and stalked rapidly out of the dining room. Rey heard the front door creak open as she stood.

“Thank you so much for the meal,” she said quietly to a wordless Leia, then turned to Han, who was looking anywhere but directly at her. “It was delicious.”

Han sunk slowly back into his seat as Rey pushed in her chair and headed towards the front door, clenching her mouth shut so she wouldn’t throw up or scream.

Ben was shifting from one foot to the other on the sidewalk out front, his face stormy. When Rey reached him, he cast a scathing look at the house and turned abruptly, marching off at a furious pace.

Rey moved as fast as she could, but it was still difficult to keep up with him.

He began to rant, curse words bubbling out of his mouth. “Assholes. Take two goddamn handkerchiefs anywhere you go, but go ahead and interrogate someone at dinner, embarrass her, what fucking hypocrites, how about some goddamn common courtesy….”

After the tension of dinner and Ben’s near-explosion, and with the rapid pace they were going, Rey couldn’t catch her breath. “Ben,” she gasped, wanting to tell him to slow down but needing more air before she could get the words out.

All of a sudden he came to a stop, so unexpectedly that Rey very nearly ran straight into him.

“Jesus, I’m an asshole,” he muttered to himself, then turned to her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m such a jerk. I should have asked if you’re all right.” He exhaled, then spoke again, his voice softening. “Rey, I am so sorry, for all of it. Are you all right?”

Rey shrugged, then nodded, pulling blessed air into her lungs. “It’s fine, Ben. I’m fine.”

He narrowed his eyes at her. “No you’re not.”

She gave him as much of a scowl as she could muster and stepped around him to continue her way home. “Yes I am.”

He fell into place beside her. “Give me a break, Rey,” he argued. “You are not.”

“What makes you think you know how I am better than I do?” she snapped, wrapping her arms around her midsection.

“I’m looking at your face,” he retorted sharply.

Rey had to admit he had a point there. She didn’t say anything in response, just kept walking, her arms tight around her body.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him rifling through his pockets. A handkerchief appeared in front of her, and she sighed and snatched it out of his hand, trying not to drop it through her trembling fingers.

They walked in silence for several minutes, Ben with his hands in his pockets and Rey wiping her eyes.

“I’m glad you’re not banned from the library anymore,” she finally said, “since we’re going to have to find somewhere else to study. They’ll never let me back in your house after I was so rude.”

“You weren’t rude,” he reminded her. “They were. All you did was stick up for yourself.” He chuckled darkly. “Chances are they like you even better now than they did before.” Rey gave him an incredulous look, and he nodded. “Oh, trust me. Feisty is a very big thing to them. They’ll love you for not taking any guff.”

Rey remembered being in the car with Han after working on the airplane, and how he’d been almost delighted by the way she’d stood up to Ben at the barn.

You see his bet and raise him double, Han had said admiringly.

Rey supposed she’d just done the same thing to Han and his wife.

“That is,” Ben continued hesitantly, “unless you’ve decided that you don’t want to come over any more. I couldn’t blame you, if that’s….”

“What? No!” She looked at Ben in surprise. “Of course I do!” Her voice faltered as she continued. “If you still want me to.”

“I still want you to,” he assured her, speaking before she’d even finished her sentence.

“Good,” she murmured, and felt her cheeks warm up when she realized he’d probably heard her.

He cleared his throat. “So are you still hungry? Because God knows I am.”

“Ben. I’m always hungry.”

He chuckled, lighter than before. “Want an ice cream? I know it’s not summer anymore, but Hill’s is on the way back to your house. My treat, as an apology for my stupid asshole parents.”

Rey felt her shoulders loosen up. “Thank you, I’d love an ice cream.”

He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at that, and she nudged his arm slightly with her shoulder. He gave a tiny half-step to compensate, growling slightly, and Rey wondered if she’d gone too far.

But then he nudged her back. She smiled up at him gratefully as the corners of his mouth twitched upwards, and they continued on their way in their usual companionable silence.

 

October 6, 1940

Rey felt better about everything while she and Ben had been strolling and eating ice cream, but the heavy set of his shoulders when he bid her goodbye at the rooming house afterwards had bothered her. She awakened the next morning wondering what had happened after he'd returned home.

She took a bath and attempted to get more homework done, but she continued to worry about Ben. What if he’d gone home and blown up at his parents? What if he’d gotten into an actual fight with his father? What if they’d already packed him off to his uncle again?

Rey spent a good half hour staring at the science book in front of her, reading the same sentence over and over, before Maz knocked on the door connecting Rey’s room to their shared bathroom.

“Rey, could you come in here a moment, please?”

Rey shook her head to clear it and rose from the table, opening the bathroom door and walking through to Maz’s room. At the threshold, she stopped short with a gasp.

Maz’s room was bigger than Rey’s was; instead of an armchair, it had a couch. And sitting on that couch at this very moment was Leia Skywalker Solo, her hands clasped in her lap and her posture perfect. The perfume she was wearing filled the air with the scent of roses and jasmine.

Rey’s first instinct was to flee, but as she turned to go, Maz gently took hold of her shoulders and turned her back to Leia. “Child,” the older woman said firmly, “the two of you need to have a talk. Now I know you’re a brave girl, and I’m sure you can do this.”

Maz’s eyes were kind but unyielding. Rey nodded and looked down at the ground, crossing her arms across her chest.

“I’ll be downstairs,” Maz told them, and then left them alone, shutting the door behind her.

Rey stared mutely at the floor, afraid to meet Leia’s eyes. She felt unwieldy and graceless in the face of Leia’s poise, and she couldn’t help but wish she had put mascara and lipstick on that morning.

Leia sighed. “Rey,” she began quietly. “I owe you an apology. Both my husband and I owe you an apology.”

Rey almost looked up in surprise. Almost.

“There’s a lot of things I didn’t know,” Leia continued. “I would never have brought certain subjects up if I’d known they were sensitive for you. I’m sorry for that, and I’m sorry for the way that I – we—rode right over Ben when he tried to stop us.”

She paused. Rey nodded slightly in the silence, still unsure where this might be going.

“I didn’t mean for it to be, what did my son call it, an interrogation? Truly, I didn’t. It’s just that you and Ben have become such good friends, and I wanted to get to know you better.”

Rey kept her eyes on the floor as she mumbled her reply. “Of course you’d want to know if I was an acceptable friend for your son.”

“Oh my goodness! No!” Leia exclaimed, shaking her head. “My husband and I like you very much!”

Rey relaxed, but only a little. “Thank you, ma’am, but…,” she responded, then bit her lip as she tried to think of her next words.

Leia waited patiently as Rey considered how to say what needed to be said.

“I know who Ben is, where he comes from.” Rey hesitated again, but only for a second. Then she looked up, directly into Leia’s large brown eyes. “And I know I don’t have anything. I know I’m not from the right neighborhood, and I don’t come from a good family. I’m not like any of you. So you might like me personally, but that doesn’t mean you think I’m the right kind of friend for your son.”

Leia regarded her for a second without saying anything. Rey waited for a response, clutching herself even more tightly so that Leia couldn’t see how much she was shaking.

“Rey,” Leia sounded tired. “None of that matters to me, or to my husband. We just wanted to get to know you because of Ben. You’re important to our son, and he is important to us.”

I’m important to Ben.

In her mind, Rey knew that already, . But hearing somebody say it out loud…well, that was something else. She felt warm all over, from the center of her chest to the tips of her fingers, and a smile began to spread across her face.

Her smile faded when Leia spoke again.

“And I want to apologize to you for my son, for giving you the idea that Han and I cared at all about how much money you have or where you came from.” Leia shook her head and looked at the floor, her lips pursed. “I don’t know what possessed him to tell you that.”

“He didn’t do anything of the sort,” Rey contradicted, surprise coloring her tone of voice. “Why would you think he did?”

Leia looked up with a startled expression, casting about for an explanation. “Well, because Ben is…he can be….”

“He can be what?” Rey uncrossed her arms. She could feel something bristling and hot welling up inside her chest, and she put her hands on her hips with a frown.

“Well…” Leia hesitated, making a helpless gesture with her hands.

Rey took a step towards her, eyes narrowed fiercely. “I don’t understand. Why do you both talk about Ben the way you do? You assume he’s done something wrong, right off the bat, even though you have no way of knowing.”

“Ben was never an easy child,” Leia began.

Rey interrupted, her words coming faster. “Everything you say to him, you’re either dismissing him completely or correcting him, even if he’s doing things right. And Mr. Solo keeps talking about how he’s bad at math or whatever, and making light of the things he enjoys doing. It’s like you don’t even know him as he is, like you don’t even really see him, or even want to, and I don’t understand it.”

Leia spoke, clearly trying to keep her tone reasonable while she attempted to explain. “I appreciate your loyalty to my son, I really do. But you don’t know the history. You don’t know what he was like as a child.”

Rey regarded the older woman for a moment before contending, “No, you’re right, ma’am, I don’t. But I know who he is now. Whoever that child was, he’s not that anymore.”

She had a brief memory of Ben’s response when she’d told him he had parents who loved him – That’s debatable, he’d said – and her voice softened as she looked at Leia imploringly. “Please, try to see him, just as he is. I know he’s not perfect. But he’s so much more than he gets credit for being.”

Leia examined Rey’s face for a moment, then nodded. “So much more than we give him credit for, you mean.”

Rey spoke quickly. “I didn’t mean….”

“Yes, you did,” Leia acknowledged quietly.

Rey turned her gaze to the window, to hide the tears that were beginning to well up in her eyes.

Now I’ve done it. They may have accepted me before, but there's no way they will now.

“Well,” Leia said, a finality in her voice as she stood up off the couch. Rey hugged her arms to her chest again and sniffled.

Leia picked up her purse and folded her coat over her arm before turning to Rey, who was trying to wipe her eyes without the older woman seeing.

“Rey,” she began hesitantly. “I’d like to try again, if you’re willing.”

“I’m sorry?” Rey squeaked, her mouth falling open.

“Another dinner. One with less interrogation and criticism. One where you can actually see the best in us.”

“Oh.” Rey thought about it, then asked what she thought was the most important question. “How does Ben feel about that?”

“I don’t know,” Leia admitted, her voice rueful. “He’s not speaking to us right now.”

Rey shook her head. “I won’t do it without him.”

“But you’ll consider it?”

“Yes. But only with….”

“Ben, yes, I know.” Leia gazed at her for a long moment, then added, “Thank you, Rey, for your honesty. It’s not easy to hear, but I appreciate it. And don’t ever worry again about what Han and I think of you.” She turned and moved to the door, still seeming calm and collected as she opened it. “You are exactly the kind of friend I want for my son.” From the threshold, she turned and smiled at Rey. “I hope we see you soon for dinner.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Rey nodded, as Leia closed the door behind her. Then she crossed the room and sank onto the couch, her legs trembling beneath her.

What in the world just happened?

She was still sitting there fifteen minutes later, when Maz came up to check on her.

“How are you feeling?” her guardian asked.

“I don’t know,” Rey admitted. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Oh, I think it’s simple.” Maz took a seat next to Rey. “You are a strong, honest, and perceptive girl, and Leia – Mrs. Solo – sees that and admires you for it. You clearly care about her son, and he clearly cares about you. So of course she wants everyone to be on good terms.” She patted Rey’s knee kindly. “It’s really not that complicated, child.”

Rey wasn’t so sure about that, but she nodded anyway, and Maz shooed her back to her room to finish her homework before supper.

She wondered if Ben would agree to another dinner. Well, no, she didn’t wonder – she knew he would outright refuse, at first. But she also knew there was every possibility that he’d go along with it if she really wanted him to.

Rey was certain that, despite all his arguments to the contrary, Ben wanted everyone to be on good terms too.

Chapter Text

October 15, 1940

Rey had been right – Ben’s first response to the idea of another “family dinner” was complete and violent refusal.

But the more Rey considered everything, the more she realized they’d all been so nervous before the first attempt – even Han and Leia – that it would have been surprising if everything had gone well. Now that they’d had the worst possible dinner, the next one had to be better, right?

Or so Rey thought. The idea seemed logical to her, and she suspected Ben found it logical as well, although of course he’d never admit it. In fact, the more they discussed the possibility, the more they dug in to their respective positions.

Someone was going to have to give. Obviously, Rey thought it should be Ben.

“Honestly,” she told him, pulling her food from her tin and dropping it on the lunch table, “it’s so uncomfortable over there right now when I’m studying, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you living in the house.”

“No different than usual, I promise you.” He slammed his lunch tin shut, and Rey glared up at him.

“Oh, yes, it is,” she said. “You forget I’ve been there many times in the past. It was nothing like this. Don’t you want it to get better?”

“I’ve accepted that it won’t,” he huffed.

“No, you haven’t.”

He snorted. “Why in the world are you telling me what I think?”

“Because I know you, Ben Solo.” She pointed at him with her sandwich. “I know you.”

“Not that well.”

“Better than you think.” Rey took a bite of her sandwich and continued. “And I know that you’d like to be able to relax in your own house for once.”

“Your argument might have more impact if I could actually hear you around your mouthful of food.”

She rolled her eyes and swallowed. “Okay, if you don’t care, how about this? I do.”

He glanced up at her in disbelief. “You actually want to go through that again?”

“No. I want to have a nice dinner where we talk like actual human beings to each other….”

“Good luck having that with my family….”

“…and maybe get on some kind of good footing.”

“For the love of God,” he moaned. “Why?”

“Because I’ve never had a family, and you do, and I don’t want you to feel like I feel, which I know you think you won’t right now, but someday you’ll know you do and it’ll be too late and then you’ll wish you had!” Rey’s words came out in a quick, angry stream, and she punctuated them with a fierce bite of sandwich.

Ben blinked at her for a second. “Wait, just…what?”

Rey glowered at him mutinously. “You know what.”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh, for…”.

He broke off suddenly, looking to the side, and Rey followed his line of sight. Poe, Armie, and Francie were staring at them, with faces full of avid and eager interest.

“Are we entertaining enough?” Ben snapped at them.

“Yep. I could do with some popcorn, though,” Poe smirked.

Ben’s face went darkly murderous, and Rey hurried to distract him.

“Ben,” she coaxed softly, and he dragged his eyes away from Poe to gaze at her again, his eyebrows gathered low on his forehead.

Rey bit her lip. She hadn’t had anything specific in mind to tell him, she’d merely wanted to get his attention away from Poe before things got worse. She kept her eyes on Ben’s as she tried to come up with something, anything, to say.

Chocolate, no, dark caramel. No, light honey caramel. Wait a minute….

His eyes actually seemed to be getting lighter, the longer she gazed into them. How was that possible? His pupils were dilating and she’d have thought for sure that would make his eyes seem darker. Maybe it only seemed like they were lighter, because his forehead began to relax and his eyebrows were no longer drawn down quite so severely.

They’re such a beautiful color.

Rey heard a cough from one of their tablemates, most likely Francie, and Ben blinked quickly and looked away.

Rey shook her head a little and tried again. “Ben, look, I know it wasn’t fun. But I don’t want to leave it like this. I want to remember it as better.”

His eyes dropped to the top of the lunch table. “Maybe it will be better if I’m not a part of it.”

“I will not do this without you,” Rey’s voice was firm and decided at first, but then it began to trail off into a soft plea. “I don’t want to do this without you. I want you to be there with me. Ben, please. Just try?”

He sighed, tracing his finger along a crack in the wooden table top.

“Is this what you really want?” he asked, looking back up at her.

She nodded.

“Fine,” he agreed quietly. “I won’t make you do it alone.”

She smiled, but only a little – she didn’t want to look like she was basking in victory or anything.

“Thank you,” she murmured. “I promise this time will be better.”

“I’m not sure that’s in your control,” he said wryly, then added, “I’ll be there. And I’ll do what I can to make this time better.”

Rey’s smile grew wider, and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards in return.

He turned to their friends, one eyebrow lifted in warning. Francie and Armie hastily bent their heads over their food, pretending to be unaware of anything that had just transpired, but Poe stared back at Ben with bold amusement before turning his head to wink at Rey.

She joined Ben in glaring at him until the lunch period ended.

 

October 19, 1940

Rey and Finn continued their Saturday-after-work habit of going back to the rooming house for a late lunch. Today, Finn seemed a bit on edge. Rey couldn’t quite figure out why, but she knew he’d reveal it to her as soon as he was ready.

As they were enjoying the sweet, cinnamon-laced apples, Finn cleared his throat.

“I have something I need to tell you.”

His gaze was direct and serious, and Rey lowered her spoon back into her bowl. Her heart gave an odd thud.

“What?”

He gazed at her for a moment, his lips pressed together, then said quietly, “I’ve decided. As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m going to enlist in the service.”

Rey sat still, her body frozen in place while her mind whirled and churned. Finn merely watched her as she processed what he had said.

“But we may not go to war.” She didn’t completely believe in what she said. The more she watched newsreels and listened to the war coverage from Europe, the more certain Rey became that the United States would eventually have to enter the fight.

She didn’t want Finn to leave. Maybe, if he thinks there won’t be a war, he’ll stay in Naboo.

“Whether we do or not,” he replied, his voice calm and steady, “I will be enlisting on my eighteenth birthday.”

Rey cast about for another argument. “But school,” she insisted, and her voice sounded small and childlike in her own ears. “Finn, you won’t be done with high school when you turn eighteen. You’ll be a couple of months away. Don’t you want to finish and graduate?”

“For what?” he asked. “Do you really think it would matter? You know as well as I do that I’m going to be working on a farm or in a factory for the rest of my life. Graduating high school won’t make any difference.”

“Mr. Davis has his own business,” she argued. “He does carpentry. You do woodwork and it’s beautiful, couldn’t you finish school and then maybe do the same thing? You’d need schooling to have a business….”

He looked down at his plate for a moment, his lips pressed tightly together, before saying, “Mr. Davis is always worried his business will be burned down. You know that.”

Rey sniffled, feeling hot tears pricking against the corner of her eyes. Finn was right, of course. There were those in town who felt Elijah Davis was getting above his station, and they weren’t above letting him know it. Someone once carved a noose into the bark of a tree outside his house.

She didn’t want Finn to have to worry about being seen with her. She didn’t want him to have to make sure he was back on the Easley’s farm before dark. She didn’t want him to be limited in what he could do or what he could become. It was so deeply unfair, the way this town worked.

But she didn’t want him to leave it. Well, to be honest, she didn’t want him to leave her.

“I know…,” Finn started, then hesitated, his eyes glistening.

Rey nodded at him to continue.

He took a deep, ragged breath. “I know how you feel, about being alone. I know how afraid you are of being abandoned. And I don’t want to leave you here, I really don’t, but I think…I think I have to.” Rey knew he was pleading with himself as much as with her. “This is my best chance to live a better life.”

A better life. The kind of life he deserved, and he deserved so much. He deserved all the good things in the world.

I can’t hold him back, just because I’m afraid. I can’t hold him back, just because I’ll miss him.

Rey nodded, wiping at the corner of her eye. “I know. And I want you to take it.”

His shoulders relaxed, and he exhaled. “Well, we don’t have to get all sad about it now,” he pointed out, wiping his eyes and smiling. “It won’t be until next year, we’ve still got time.”

Rey smiled back at him and picked up her spoonful of apple again.

“Besides,” Finn added, “you won’t be alone anyway.”

“Yes,” Rey agreed. “I am so lucky to have Maz.”

A familiar voice called from the dining room.

“Rey? Are you back there?”

Finn stood up, his eyes suddenly wary, as Rey turned to see Ben coming through the kitchen door.

“Hey,” Ben said, then stopped short as his eyes took in the dishes on the table and Finn standing uncomfortably against the wall.

“Hey,” Rey returned, feeling the big smile that had bloomed on her face at the sound of Ben’s voice become a little more uncertain.

She turned to look at Finn, who nodded at Ben, carefully keeping his eyes lowered.

A flash of anger shot through her. Finn was her friend, one of the best she’d ever had. He shouldn’t have to lower his eyes to anyone.

Rey stood and stepped forward, her chin lifted high. “Finn, you know who Ben is, right? He’s in class with us. We study together all the time.” She turned to Ben. “Ben, this is Finn. He’s my friend. He works in the café.”

Ben’s eyes flickered to her, and she held his gaze. Then he took a step towards Finn, and Rey fought the urge to step between them.

“My mother has a thing about formal introductions,” Ben muttered at Finn, and held out his hand, which was stiff and trembling. “My name is Ben Solo. I am pleased to meet you.”

Finn examined Ben’s outstretched hand for a moment, then lifted his eyes to Ben’s face. He squinted for a moment before reaching out and clasping Ben’s hand firmly. “Nice to meet you too.”

The boys gave each other’s hand a single, hearty shake, and then let go. “Oh, yeah,” Finn said quickly. “Like Rey said, my name is Finn.”

Ben blinked at him, the corners of his mouth twitching, before responding, “Hi, Finn.”

Finn smiled back, visibly relaxing. “Hi, Ben.”

Rey felt a broad grin spreading across her face, and it wasn’t until she heard Finn say her name for the second time that she tore her eyes away from Ben.

“Hmmm?”

“I’d better get home, you know?” Finn asked. “I’m sure the Easleys are waiting on me. Tell Maz thanks for lunch.”

“I will.” As Finn passed her and Ben on his way out of the kitchen, Rey added, “Be careful.”

“I will,” Finn assured her. “Glad to meet you, Ben.”

Ben nodded. “Glad to meet you too.”

“Bye, Peanut,” Finn said, before heading out through the kitchen door.

Ben and Rey stood in silence for a moment, facing the doorway, before simultaneously letting out a breath.

Ben quirked an eyebrow at her, his expression uneasy. “Peanut?”

“That’s what he called me when we were little,” Rey told him, “because he thought the shape of my head was like a peanut. So can I get you anything? There’s a couple of baked apples left, or maybe a cup of coffee?” She took a couple of steps towards the refrigerator.

Ben remained standing in place, his hands in his pockets. “No, thanks.”

Rey halted and looked towards him, watching as he pulled one hand from a pocket and ran it through his hair.

“So, you and Finn knew each other as children?” He was looking everywhere except at Rey, his eyes darting nervously over the remains of lunch on the kitchen table.

“Yeah,” she admitted, crossing and then uncrossing her arms. “We kind of grew up together, at the Cawley’s. We were both there.”

“You were at the Cawley’s?” he asked, frowning.

“Yes, with Finn. So he’s sort of my family,” she explained, her fingers fidgeting with the material of her skirt. “Well, the closest thing to family I’ve got, anyway.”

“So, like…your brother?” Ben asked, looking up at her tentatively.

She nodded. “Yes, exactly.”

He made a slight humming noise, as if he was considering her answer, then sighed and took his hands out of his pockets. “So, my mother wants me to confirm when you’re coming to dinner again.” He took a seat in the chair Finn had been in, letting out an exasperated sigh. “She wants me to confirm it today.”

“Oh,” Rey said, feeling the tension leave her back. She sat back down in her chair. “Well, what do you think?”

He glanced at her from under lowered brows. “You know what I think.”

Rey rolled her eyes. “I mean, when do you think would be good? And do not say ‘never’,” she added, as he gave a grumpy huff and began to open his mouth.

“Okay. I think it might be best if you just stay after studying one day. It might feel, I don’t know, less forced.”

“More natural,” she clarified, and he nodded.

“Yes.”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Rey mused. A sudden idea occurred to her. “Hey, maybe we could make the dinner!”

“Are you kidding me?” he snorted in disbelief. “A guest making the dinner? My mother would kill me!”

“But what if it’s what the guest wants to do?” Rey asked, smiling innocently. “Shouldn’t you accommodate your guest and make her happy?”

He sat back and regarded her. “Are you on the debate team?”

“The what?”

He shook his head. “You’d win every time.”

“Win what?”

He chuckled, and Rey glared at him. “Ben Solo, are you making fun of me?”

“No. No, I am not. I am only saying you are really good at coming up with appropriate arguments.” He tapped both hands on the table. “Well, that’s it then. You are coming to not only eat dinner, but also to help make it. Monday okay?”

“Monday is fine,” she agreed, and he stood. “Do you have to go right away?” she questioned, in a voice that was far more plaintive than she had meant it to be.

“Do you want me to stay?” There was a quiet surprise in his voice that made Rey’s chest hurt a little.

“Of course I do,” she exclaimed, but then she thought about it. “Well, there’s really nothing here to amuse you, I guess, and I do have to clean up from lunch, so maybe you’d rather go…”.

“No,” he interrupted, leaning down to pick up Finn’s plate and silverware. “No, I’ll stay. I’ll help you clean up and we can go for a walk or something.”

“Ben, you don’t have to clean up…,” she began to argue.

“But what if it’s what the guest wants to do, Rey?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you accommodate your guest and make him happy?”

She sighed, reaching for her dishes. “Fine. If that’s what you want.”

“Oh, desperately,” he assured her, smirking, and she rolled her eyes.

“I’ll wash, you dry,” she directed, heading towards the sink.

That night, as Rey was getting ready for bed, she thought back over the afternoon that she and Ben had spent together. Once they’d finished cleaning up the kitchen, they’d gone for a walk; afterwards, they’d sat together in the front room listening to the radio and talking.

They’d discussed the upcoming presidential election (Ben favored Roosevelt and Rey agreed with him, although they were too young to vote), the current progress of the war, and Agatha Christie’s mystery And Then There Were None, which they were both reading.

Between her lunch with Finn and her time with Ben, Rey felt she’d had a very good day indeed.

It wasn’t until she was in bed, pulling the blankets up around her shoulders, that it occurred to her that Ben could have called on the telephone instead of coming all the way over, if all he needed to do was ask her about dinner.

He wanted to see me, she realized, and felt a warmth spread through her chest. She smiled to herself in the dark of her room, as she snuggled into her pile of blankets and drifted off to sleep.

 

October 21, 1940

“I need you to chop the onions, Ben. Are you sure you want to be doing this, Rey?”

Rey nodded, her eyes bright. “Of course I do!”

Han squinted at her for a moment, frowning slightly, before handing her a large pot. “Potatoes,” he said. “Peel ‘em and cut ‘em up, not too small. Quarters, you know. Then put ‘em in here and fill it with water.”

“Got it.”

“I can do the potatoes, if you’d rather,” Ben offered. “If you don’t want to peel all of them.”

“No, I’m fine,” Rey answered. “Onions make me cry too much anyway.”

“I hope you like meatloaf, Rey,” Han said. “Not to brag or anything – I saw that, Ben, don’t roll your eyes at me – but I make a damn fine meatloaf.”

The idea of liking certain foods, having a preference for them, was something Rey was only beginning to get used to. She’d spent too much of her life hungry to think about whether or not she actually liked any food in particular – as long as something filled her stomach, she’d eat it.

Maz had made meatloaf for dinner, many times, and it had tasted good. So Rey supposed she liked meatloaf.

“I’m looking forward to it, sir,” she told Han.

“It actually is pretty good,” Ben mumbled, trying not to let his father hear.

“I think meatloaf should have flavor,” Han continued, rummaging around in one of the drawers. “I put some stuff in it – some herbs, spices, you know. Not just meat and oatmeal….”

“Onions are done, Dad,” Ben interrupted briskly.

“Well, bring them over here, then.”

“I am!”

Han glanced over at Rey as his disgruntled son swept the onions off the cutting board and into the bowl. “You’re making quick work of those potatoes!”

“I’ve cooked a lot of them,” she told him. Potatoes were cheap.

“Wait, I’m done with the onions now, I’ll help you.” Ben brought his cutting board back over to the table and grabbed a potato, smirking at her. “I’m fast with potatoes too.”

“Not as fast as I am,” Rey tossed him a smug grin.

“That’s what you think.”

“Kids!” Han pointed at them with a wooden spoon. “Do not race each other’s potatoes with knives! Jesus, Ben, if either of you cut off a finger your mother would kill me.”

“It seems you have discovered my evil plan for your demise,” Ben deadpanned. Rey giggled.

“Think you’re funny, huh?” Han growled. He waved the wooden spoon at his son once more, for emphasis, before beginning to mix the meatloaf ingredients together in the bowl.

Rey threw her potato quarters into the pot and reached for another potato as quickly as she could. Ben regarded her for a moment, and then bent over his own potato with renewed energy.

It did not take them long to get all the potatoes into the pot, but they could not agree on who had won the potato race. Han finally shooed them out of the kitchen, muttering something about “peace and quiet” and “get out of my hair”.

Rey’d had a good time helping in the kitchen, so she was considerably less nervous for the actual dinner. Ben, though, seemed to be more tightly wound as time went on. So Rey decided a short walk before dinner was in order, to burn off some nervous energy. Ben grumbled, but once they had their coats on and were outside, he seemed to loosen up a bit.

Rey had been reading books of fairy tales that she’d found at the library, and she was enchanted with them. Ben was not.

“I know they’re important culturally, and literarily, but they’re just so depressing.” He kicked at the fallen leaves along the sidewalk. “Baking kids in an oven? The wolf eats the grandmother?”

“They’re not all like that,” Rey reminded him. “Some of them are really quite beautiful.”

“’The Red Shoes’?” he asked. “’The Little Mermaid’?”

“’The Ugly Duckling’,” she shot back.

“The duckling spends the entire story being bullied and lonely and cold and starving!”

“But he’s beautiful at the end, when he’s all grown, and he isn’t cold and lonely anymore!”

“Still,” he shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll ever like fairy tales, so we should just agree to disagree.”

Rey didn’t answer. She decided to give Ben a book of fairy tales for Christmas or his birthday, and was busy thinking about which particular stories would prove her point best.

At least Ben had been able to blow off some steam by ranting about fairy tales. By the time they returned to the house for dinner, he was considerably more relaxed. That was all Rey could really hope for, since she knew Ben Solo and he rarely seemed to relax all the way.

Besides Leia’s exclamation of “Oh, good, meatloaf!”, no one said much of anything at first, apart from “Please pass the potatoes,” or “Would you like some carrots?” And that was fine. Rey didn’t mind silence, if everyone was getting along.

Leia, however, was apparently not as comfortable in a quiet room. “Ben, Rey, how was school today?”

“It was good,” Rey answered.

“Relatively speaking,” Ben added, his eyes on his plate. Rey nudged his foot under the table, and he looked up at her with lowered eyebrows.

“Try,” she mouthed at him, trying to smile pleadingly without Han and Leia noticing.

He rolled his eyes. “School was good. Mom, Dad, how were your days?”

“It was very good, Ben, thank you,” Leia answered.

Han grunted. “Relatively speaking.”

Ben gave a muffled chuckle. Leia raised her eyebrows at her husband.

Han took a swig of wine. “You know I hate that office business, sweetheart. I’d rather just work on the floor, or oversee repairs.”

Leia sighed. “I know. I promise, once we get done with the quarterly projections, you can spend more time doing that.”

Rey took another forkful of carrots. She knew Ben’s mother wasn’t often home after school, but she’d never really considered the reason for the empty house. She figured Leia did what all the society women in Naboo did. Rey wasn’t sure quite what that was, although she thought it probably had to do with shopping or bridge clubs or charity drives.

Apparently, though, Leia worked at the factory with Han. And she wasn’t only a secretary – if Han was able to go down and work on the floor regularly, it meant his wife was running the business side of the company.

There were factory men living in the rooming house, and Rey knew they were a traditional bunch, fairly set in their ways and opinions. They regarded Maz’s ownership of the rooming house and the café as a proper way for a woman alone to make a living (since it mostly involved cooking and cleaning), and they indulged Rey’s penchant for mechanics as if she were a child playing with toys. The idea that Leia could lead a company full of such men made Rey look at her hostess with new respect.

Rey took a bite of the meatloaf, and her eyes went wide with surprise as the flavors rushed through her mouth. There was a jolt of onion and garlic, along with a satisfying meatiness, but the biggest surprise was…well, Rey wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but she imagined it had to do with Han’s “herbs and spices”.

“This is really good,” she blurted around her mouthful of meatloaf.

“Aw, thanks, kid,” Han replied, a crooked smile spreading over his face.

“Here, have some more.” Leia reached out for the platter of meatloaf, ready to pile more slices onto Rey’s plate.

“Mom,” Ben muttered.

Leia looked at her son, then pulled her arm back and cleared her throat. “If you’d like more, Rey, just say so. There’s plenty here.”

Rey nodded, then glanced over at Ben. He’d been gazing at her with an expression she couldn’t quite place, but once her eyes were fully on him he looked back down at his plate and took another bite of mashed potatoes.

“I heard it’s supposed to rain tonight,” Han offered, and the conversation around the table focused on the topic of the weather for the rest of the meal.

****

Rey and Ben walked most of the way home in their usual silence. The night was crisp and clear – Rey didn’t know where Han got his ideas about rain – and the air smelled of wood smoke.

As the fallen leaves crunched under their feet, Rey said, “So, your mother runs the factory with your father?”

“My mother runs the factory, period,” Ben clarified, peering up at the waning moon. “She runs it under his name, of course, because women don’t run factories, at least not in Naboo. But it’s the Skywalker family business, and she’s the Skywalker.”

“And she likes it more than he does,” Rey stated.

“Yes.”

Rey asked quietly, “Does she expect you to take it over after her?”

For a few seconds, she heard nothing but the crunching of leaves underfoot; then Ben answered. “Yes.”

“Do you want to?”

He sighed. “It’s the family legacy. I’m, you know…,” he affected a deep, pretentious tone of voice, “…the last Skywalker. If I don’t do it, they’ll have to sell out. We’re the town’s major employer, and I don’t know what would happen to all the jobs under another owner.”

“But do you want to?” Rey asked again, even though she was pretty sure she knew the answer.

He bit his lip and looked down at his feet before shaking his head. “No.”

Rey nodded.

They continued through the park without speaking again. The wind had picked up – maybe Han had been right about the rain after all – and those leaves that were still left on the trees were blowing off and settling around them, casting shadows as they fell past the glowing lamp posts along the path.

When they reached the rooming house, Rey turned to look at him.

“Ben…,” she started, but couldn’t think of exactly what to say.

She wanted to tell him to do what would make him happy, even if it wasn’t what his parents expected. That he deserved to be happy. That he shouldn’t feel guilty about living his own life. That he shouldn’t let himself be forced into a future that he didn’t want.

But in the end, his decisions weren’t up to her, and it wasn’t really any of her business anyway. So she only shrugged at him.

He seemed to understand, though, and he nodded at her. It wasn’t an agreement as much as it was an acknowledgment, and Rey felt her heart sink when she thought of how miserable he stood to be if he did what was expected of him.

“See you,” he said, his voice soft.

“See you,” she echoed back, as he turned towards the park to head home, his hands shoved into his pockets.

You deserve so much more, Rey wanted to say as she watched him go. You deserve so much.

Chapter Text

December 24, 1940

The Solos had been in the habit of inviting Maz over for Christmas Eve, since she had no family in the area. This year, they had extended the invitation to Rey as well. It was her first real Christmas celebration, with a tree and presents and a nice dinner. The Solos had roasted a ham, and there were mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts and stewed apples with cinnamon.

After dinner, they all retired to the living room to have dessert. Maz, Leia, and Han sat in armchairs around the fireplace, eating pie and discussing politics, town gossip, and Christmases past. Rey watched and listened from her perch on the sofa next to Ben, feeling happily full. She relished the warmth and comfort of the crackling fire, and the Christmas tree, and the cheerful friendliness that existed between her guardian and Ben’s parents.

Ben looked sulky as he ate his pie, his leg jiggling faintly against the front of the sofa. Rey sighed inwardly. Why didn’t he understand how magical it was, to have a Christmas like this?

Probably because he’s had one every year, his whole life, and he doesn’t know anything different.

Well, Rey knew different. And she was going to enjoy this day, no matter how sour Ben Solo insisted on looking.

She nodded defiantly when he turned to look at her.

“What?” he asked.

“You know,” she told him.

“I don’t…,” he began, then muttered, “oh, good God, woman.”

Rey shoved the last bite of pie into her mouth, surprised at how warm the fire was making the room. She hoped she’d have a fireplace of her own one day.

“That was a lovely pie, Maz. Thank you for bringing it.” Leia arched her back in a small stretch. “Do you know what would be delightful?”

Ben opened his mouth, but Rey elbowed him before he could say anything.

“Hot chocolate!” Leia continued, standing and beginning to collect the pie plates.

“I’ll help you,” Maz offered, rising from her chair.

Rey wondered if she should offer to help too – she’d noticed this was what female guests usually did, they helped their hostesses while the men sat and talked – but Maz came over and took her plate and Ben’s, following Leia into the kitchen. The sound of running water, clinking china, and clanking pots drifted out to the living room, along with the rise and fall of the women’s voices.

Rey gazed once more at the Solos’ Christmas tree, taking a deep breath of the woodsy pine scent. It was a brightly lit fairyland of colorful ornaments, with thin strips of glittering silver tinsel hanging from the branches, and a shining white star on top.

“The tree is so beautiful,” she murmured reverently.

Ben didn’t say anything in response, but she could tell he was looking at her. Han cleared his throat and stood. “Well,” he began, his mouth shifting in a manner so like Ben’s that Rey almost giggled, “I’m gonna go…you know your mother can’t make anything….” He rubbed his hand against his chin, then nodded and said, “Yeah,” before heading out of the room.

Rey took a quick breath. This was probably the best time to give Ben her present. She and Maz had brought gifts for the family, true, but Rey had wanted to give Ben something of her own.

She hadn’t known what to give him – she’d thought about a book of fairy tales, but she hadn’t been able to find one in Naboo that had the stories she wanted. So she’d gone with the old standby and knitted him a scarf.

She’d taken a lot of care with it, selecting the yarn in colors that she thought would suit him and go well with his winter coat. She also made sure the yarn was good quality – now that she didn’t have to turn all her wages over to someone, she had a little money to spend on such things.

And she’d been very, very precise with the knitting. She’d ripped out stitches and started over when she made a mistake, so his scarf would be as perfect as possible. After all, Ben could afford any scarf he wanted, the best of the best. Rey didn’t want to give him anything less.

“I’ve got a present for you,” Ben announced, standing abruptly and moving towards the tree.

“I’ve got one for you too,” Rey countered, “can you get that one also? It’s right in the back. No, not that one. The other one. No, no. That one, over there.”

He turned his head and gave her a look of long-suffering irritation, then nodded towards at the pile of presents stacked beneath the tree. “Can you at least describe the wrapping paper?”

“Red, with white snowflakes on it.”

He crouched forwards a little, grabbing a gift and holding it out behind him. “This one?”

“Yes.” Rey’s heart leapt in her chest as he brought the presents back to the sofa.

Ben handed his gift to her, and examined hers as he took a seat. “Hmmm, feels soft.”

She was thrumming with anxiety when he finally pulled the wrapping off to reveal the stripes of black, grey, and crimson. He didn’t react right away, merely took it carefully from the wrapping and perused it, rubbing the material between his fingers.

Rey’s nerves got the better of her. “I didn’t know how you felt about tassels,” she blurted out. “You’re not very decorative, I mean, that’s not how you dress usually, you’re more plain. Not…not bad plain, I like your plain, but I felt like it needed something on the end and I could have ended it with those ball things but that’s not you either, so I went with tassels because it seems more elegant and I thought that would be better, and I made them all black because it would be too much to put all three colors there but if you’d rather have that I can fix it….”

“Wait,” he said, and the simple word stopped her in her tracks.

He doesn’t like it. I’m so stupid. I should have found him a book or something.

“Wait,” he repeated, turning to her with wide eyes. “You made this?”

Rey swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes.” She bit her lip when he turned back to the scarf and ran a gentle hand over it, then began babbling again. “I know it’s not much, you probably have loads of scarves, I just couldn’t….”

“You made this,” he interrupted, and she fell silent. “I just…,” he began, his voice uneven. “I…no one’s ever made anything for me before.”

Rey was surprised, until she remembered that Leia Skywalker Solo was not exactly the knitting type.

“Never?”

“Never,” he confirmed, shaking his head. He swallowed hard, then said, “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”

Rey let out a trembling breath. “You’re welcome. I hope it’s warm.”

“I’ll bet it is.” He held it up in front of him like a banner. “Can I put it on?”

Rey giggled. “Well, it is yours.”

He chuckled. “Right.” He draped it around the back of his neck, laying it carefully over his shoulders.

“I knew those would be the right colors,” Rey murmured, admiring how they complemented his dark hair and his pale face. She reached out and took the ends of the scarf to wrap them back around so that the front of his neck was covered.

He dropped his eyes. “Mine’s not nearly as good as this.”

Rey looked down at the finely wrapped gift in her lap. “Ben, anything you give me….”

“It’s not much, just something I thought you’d like. I don’t know if you’ve ever read it….”

Rey was already busy prying apart the edges of the paper where it was taped. She couldn’t find it in her to rip through such lovely paper. Of course it was a book, and she smiled brightly as she saw the blazing red of the cover peeking through the wrapping.

Once she had it loose, she turned it over to read the gold-colored script on the front. “A Christmas Carol.”

“It’s one of my favorites,” he told her, his words almost gushing out. “It’s a classic, and it’s a beautiful story, imaginative and full of meaning, and…,” he caught himself, and Rey looked up at him in time to see his eyes shining before he shrugged and sat back a little. “I don’t know,” he continued, more casually. “I thought you’d like it, maybe.”

Rey ran her hands over the cover slowly, savoring the feel of it against her fingers. “I love it,” she told him.

“Have you read it already?”

“No,” she shook her head. “But I love it anyway.”

He chuckled in disbelief. “How do you know you love it if you’ve never read it?”

Rey shrugged. “Because you got it for me, and I trust you.”

Ben didn’t say anything in response, and Rey opened the cover to find that he’d written her a message in calligraphy, just as he’d done with her birthday book.

December 1940

For Rey

Merry Christmas

I hope it’s the best one yet

Ben

Rey ran her finger over his words, barely touching the paper, before turning the page and beginning to read. She’d only gotten through the first few words when Leia bustled into the room, carrying a tray holding five steaming mugs. Han and Maz trailed along behind her, laughing quietly at some shared joke.

“Hot chocolate!” Leia announced, setting the tray down on the coffee table in front of them.

Rey startled, realizing how rude she was being.

“Sorry,” she told Ben, “I just started reading it while you were sitting there.”

“No, don’t worry.” He handed her a mug of hot chocolate, then picked one up for himself. “I’m happy that you seem interested in it.”

“Have you read it before, Rey?” Leia asked. Apparently Ben had told his mother what his gift to Rey was.

“I have not,” Rey said, blowing on the top of her hot chocolate. “But I can’t wait.”

“What are you wearing, Ben?” Han’s voice was puzzled.

“Rey gave it to me,” Ben answered, looking down at the scarf.

“Oh,” Leia smiled. “It looks very nice.”

“She made it,” Ben added.

Both Leia and Han turned to look at Rey, their eyes wide.

“You made that?” Leia asked, as if she’d never heard of such a thing.

“Well,” Han began, but then stopped, clearly lost for words. “Well.”

“Here, let me see,” Leia moved over to Ben, reaching for the scarf with one hand while she clutched her mug of hot chocolate with the other. Han joined her, standing behind the sofa so as not to get in his wife’s way.

Ben scowled. “Mom, don’t. You’re going to spill hot chocolate all over us. You can look at it later.”

Leia made one last attempt to touch the scarf, but stopped when Ben pulled away with a scowl. “It’s beautiful, Rey,” Leia approved, as she returned to her chair by the fire.

“Nice work, kid,” Han added, tapping Rey lightly on the shoulder as he moved back to his chair.

“Did you see it, Maz?” Leia asked.

“Oh, yes. I’ve been watching her make it. Rey has been very focused.”

“Ben gave me a book,” Rey told her guardian, holding it up. “A Christmas Carol.”

“Oh, that’s a good one,” Maz nodded.

“I used to read it to Ben every year when he was little.” Leia sighed with nostalgia and gazed with misty eyes at the tree. “We’d sit in front of the tree and read, every night, until he’d start to fall asleep. Then we’d pick up where we left off the next night. Remember, Ben?”

Ben shifted a bit in his seat. “Yes,” he admitted.

It sounded lovely to Rey, being read to under a Christmas tree, but something about the memory seemed to bother Ben.

Well, enough of that. Rey was finally having a happy Christmas, and she wasn’t going to let the mood spoil.

“And now he can read it to me.” Rey held the book out to Ben.

He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “I can what?”

“Read it to me,” Rey said. “Please,” she added, smiling up at him with hopeful eyes.

He was about to ask why, she could tell; but he stopped himself, examining her face for a moment, then nodded and held out his hand for the book. Of course he had to roll his eyes when he took it from her, but that was fine. She’d let him have one moment of exasperation. It was the least she could do, after he’d given her such a wonderful gift.

Rey turned to face him, snuggling back against the throw pillows at the end of the couch, as he opened the book. The adults fell silent as Ben began to read.

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that….”

 

January 18, 1941

Across the seas, the war continued. A week earlier, a German bomb dropped on London had demolished an underground railway station and left a 120-foot crater in front of the Bank of England. Battles continued in Africa, and the British RAF was bombing aircraft factories and bridges in Germany.

Just a few days previously, the Lend-Lease bill had been introduced into Congress. It was a way to provide aid in the fight against Germany, without the United States formally going to war. Rey hoped it would become law.

America was a relatively rich country – not that Rey had ever seen much of the riches, but she knew they existed – and it made no sense to her that a country with such advantages wouldn’t step in and help the rest of the world in the fight for freedom.

It’s not that Rey wanted America to join the war, exactly. She didn’t want Finn to have to go to fight, and he meant to enlist once he turned eighteen. He’d definitely be in it, that much was clear.

As would Ben. “It’s my duty,” he’d explained. “I can’t just sit around and let everyone else fight for me. I need to contribute.”

Rey understood, she really did. But the thought of Ben being far away, of not hearing his voice almost every day, of wondering if she would ever see him again – well, Rey did everything she could not to think about it. She was very good at ignoring things she didn’t want to think about.

This was an ordinary Saturday, really. Rey woke up in the morning, got dressed, brushed her hair, had breakfast, put on some mascara, bundled up, and went to work at the café. Everything was just as it always was.

But there was something different about this day, and Rey couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Something good and bad, something bittersweet.

Her friends came in to the café, as they usually did on a Saturday. Rey took their orders and brought them their pie, stopping to chat whenever she had time. After work, she walked over to the Hux home, where Francie had been working on another dress. Today they were having the second fitting, along with what Francie liked to call “girl time”. On her way home afterwards, Rey stopped by the Solos’ to see if Ben was there. He was, so they had a cup of hot chocolate together before he walked her back home.

The strange feeling had continued throughout the day. Rey had moments of melancholy, almost pain; she had moments when her eyes started to tear up with an unexpected feeling of relief.

It was so odd.

It wasn’t until she was standing at the sink in the soft pink slippers that Maz had given her for Christmas, brushing her teeth, that it clicked.

It was January 18, and it had been one year.

One full year, to the day, since Plutt had turned up frozen to death in some barren, snow-strewn field. One year since she’d sat terrified in the principal’s office, and later at the police station, not knowing where she would be at the end of the day, or with whom.

One year since Ben Solo had loaned her a handkerchief, and then gone to ask Maz to take Rey in.

No wonder she’d felt so strange all day.

Rey rinsed out her mouth and put her toothbrush back in the plastic cup by the sink. Then she took a good look at herself in the mirror, searching for any changes. They weren’t hard to find.

Her face was slightly more filled out, and her eyes were brighter (although maybe that was just the reflection of the light fixture overhead). Her hair was longer, and fell around her shoulders with a hint of luxurious curl at the ends. It struck her how different she looked now, as opposed to how she’d always pictured herself before.

I wonder….

Rey slowly undid the sash of her robe; as it fell open, she darted a quick glance towards the door to Maz’s room to make sure she wasn’t being observed. Not that she was doing anything wrong – she wasn’t – but this was a personal moment. Private.

She shrugged the robe down from her shoulders and let it hang loosely off her back, as she pulled her nightgown taut against the front of her body. She turned to the side to get a better view.

The rest of me is more filled out, too.

It’s not that she was round, necessarily (at least, not in her stomach – there were parts of her that were definitely round, more so than they had been a year ago). It was just that she looked filled out. Healthy. Normal. She couldn’t see any sign of the starving child she had been for most of her life.

Rey continued to examine herself, tugging at her nightgown to see the outline of various parts of her body, until she heard the front door of Maz’s room open. She quickly pulled up her robe and was tying the sash as her guardian called her name.

“Right here,” she answered. “Just finished brushing my teeth!”

Maz pushed the bathroom door ajar so they could see each other. “There you are.” Her eyes drifted down to Rey’s feet. “How do those slippers feel, honey? Are they warm enough?”

“They’re wonderful,” Rey smiled. “Thank you for them.”

“You’re welcome, child. Now sleep well.”

As Rey slid into her bed, taking a quick breath at the feel of the cold pillow case against her face, she thought about how much her life had changed in the space of a single year.

I have so much. A warm and bright room, a comfy bed, food enough and permission to eat as much as I need. Clothes that fit, and are not just rags. Time to do homework, and to read, and to learn to play chess. Money that I earn in my own pocket. And more friends, Poe and Francie and even Armie. And Maz.

And Ben.

She closed her eyes and snuggled deeply down into her blankets, feeling deeply thankful for all of her good fortune.

 

January 24, 1941

It was a very cold day; everyone was bundled up within an inch of their lives as they went out to work and to school, and they didn’t go out unless they had to.

It was Friday, and Rey was looking forward to the end of the day and the beginning of the weekend, although she was a bit worried about Ben’s birthday.

She was going to give him his present this evening. Leia had insisted on Rey coming over for Ben’s birthday dinner, which meant she didn’t have to do it in front of their friends. She’d have to do it in front of his family, but that was fine. It was a good present, anyway, or so she hoped.

Rey had finally managed to find a book of fairy tales which had the one story she really wanted to give him, and she’d wrapped it up in some pretty paper that she’d bought at Hill’s.

She decided to write something inside, like he always did when he gave her a book. She couldn’t do calligraphy so she knew it wouldn’t be as pretty, and she agonized over what to say to him for quite a while. She didn’t want it to be too much, and she didn’t want it to be too little.

In the end, she remembered that he always kept his messages short, so she decided to do the same. Just inside the front cover, in her usual untidy scrawl, she’d written,

January 24, 1941

Happy Birthday Ben!

These are good stories. You will like them. They are NOT horrible.

Rey

After a moment of further contemplation, and before she had the chance to stop herself, she finished,

P.S. I’m glad you were born.

When she read back over the last line, she flushed bright red, because it was maybe a little too much. But she couldn’t erase it now, so she just slammed the book shut and wrapped it as quickly as possible, so she wouldn’t have to think about it.

And really, it was fine. Friends could say that to each other. Especially good friends, like she and Ben were.

Dinner at the Solos’ went as it usually did. They’d all gotten into the habit of Rey staying for dinner whenever she studied with Ben after school, and eating together was almost commonplace now. That awful first dinner they’d had together was a distant memory.

Leia and Han did everything they could to make Rey feel comfortable. She appreciated it, even though she was sure they weren’t doing it for her as much as they were doing it for Ben. He was more relaxed when she was there, much less antagonistic towards his parents, and Rey couldn’t blame them for wanting to keep it that way. Even if she was only there to keep the peace between the three of them, she didn’t really mind.

It was nice to pretend like she was part of a family.

Ben had been fine all through the meal, right up until Leia had excused herself near the end and reappeared suddenly with a cake sporting blazing candles. Even then, he’d only narrowed his eyes and glowered with his adorably dark scowl while the three of them sang “Happy Birthday”. He glanced up at Rey briefly before blowing out his candles, and she was amazed by the effect of candlelight on his eyes.

Light chocolate brown, hints of gold glittering in the depths, caramel around the middle.

“Make a wish,” Rey teased, and he huffed in annoyance before blowing out the candles.

Rey handed Ben his gift in the living room while Han and Leia were cleaning up the dinner dishes.

“Well, what could it possibly be?” he asked dryly, feeling at the corners of the book through the paper.

“Oh, shut up. Just open it.”

He began to tear off the paper. Rey twisted her fingers together and bit her lip.

What if he doesn’t like it? What if he gets mad? He told me he didn’t like fairy tales, why did I get him something he doesn’t like? What if he asks me to take it back? He wouldn’t. What if he just acts like he likes it but I can tell he doesn’t and it’s awkward and horrible? What if….?

Ben removed the paper and turned the book over to examine it. He was expressionless as he read the cover, but then disbelief crossed his face.

“You didn’t,” he growled, but his eyes were playful, and a hint of a smile danced around the corners of his lips. Rey grinned in relief.

“Oh, I believe I did,” she purred back at him, feeling smug. “And you’re going to read it, too.”

“Am I now?” He opened the book to peruse the table of contents. “Which one of these is your favorite?”

She leaned over and pointed it out.

“Ah.” He moved to shut the book, but then caught sight of the message written on the inside.

Rey bit her lip again as she watched his eyes move over the message. The corners of his mouth curled upwards in fond amusement – that must be the bit about “they are NOT horrible” – but then his expression began to change.

Rey felt the warmth rising in her cheeks as she realized that he was reading her postscript. She didn’t want to look at him, didn’t want to see his expression as he read it, but she couldn’t stop herself. She stood, her hands clenched tightly against her stomach, and watched his eyes as he read it over, once, twice, and then again. He didn’t frown, or wrinkle his forehead, or narrow his eyes, or put on any of his other dark expressions.

He looked younger, and softer, and more open, in a way she hadn’t seen before.

He looks almost…beautiful.

Ben cleared his throat, taking a deep breath. “Thank you.” He shut the book gently, then held it out to her, giving her a cheeky glance from under his eyebrows. “But I’m not going to read it. You are.”

“I’m going to what?” Rey sputtered.

“You’re going to read me your favorite one,” he repeated, his eyes dancing with amusement. When she opened her mouth to protest, he held up his other hand. “Turnabout is fair play, Rey.”

She had to admit, he had a point there. And she’d had him read several chapters of A Christmas Carol, and he was only asking for one story. So she was getting away easy, really.

“Oh, all right,” she groused, tugging the book from his hands. “But you are not allowed to make any snooty comments!”

He placed his hand over his heart and gave her his most sincere expression. “I hereby promise not to be-snoot your favorite fairy tale.”

Rey quirked an eyebrow at him. “See that you don’t,” she commanded, then strode to the sofa in as ostentatiously dignified a manner as possible, her head held regally high. He chuckled right up until they were settled in, and she couldn’t help but smile too, as she nestled down into the numerous throw pillows that Leia had strewn along the couch.

“Are you ready?” she asked, giving him a prim look over the top of the book.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Very well, then. We shall begin.” Rey found the page she needed, and began to read Beauty and the Beast.

At first, it was a little unnerving, reading out loud while somebody watched her. Then Rey remembered part of the reason for this gift was to show Ben Solo how fairy tales could be good, and so she made her voice more animated. She let it rise and fall as the events of the story unfolded, even going so far as to make up voices for the characters when they spoke. She did her best to paint a vivid picture in Ben’s mind, to pull him in wholeheartedly (which would of course prove that she had been right about these stories all along).

At some point, Leia and Han finished in the kitchen and came to stand in the doorway. Rey knew they were there, listening to her read, but it didn’t bother her. The only opinion that really mattered was Ben’s.

Immediately the fairy gave a stroke with her wand,” Rey finished, waving her arm in the air, “and in a moment all that were in the hall were transported into the Prince's palace. His subjects received him with joy; he married Beauty, and lived with her many years; and their happiness, as it was founded on virtue, was complete.

She smiled at the happily-ever-after ending and glanced up at Ben. He was watching her intently, with that same soft, open, almost-beautiful look he’d had earlier, and Rey felt an unexpected tingle race up her spine.

There was a burst of applause from the doorway – politely restrained from Leia, but big and noisy from Han – and both she and Ben startled and looked towards his parents.

“That was a lovely reading, Rey,” Leia praised, as she and her husband came into the room to take their usual chairs in front of the fireplace.

“It’s a good story,” Han declared, “even if he does turn back into a prince again at the end. What?” he asked his wife, who was giving him a look of disbelief. “The beast was a great guy, and that’s who she fell in love with anyway.”

“She fell in love with the prince,” Leia reminded him. “He was a prince underneath the beastly exterior. He’s still the same man he was before.”

“Yeah, but now he’s too pretty,” Han complained. “Because it couldn’t be a happy ending unless he was pretty.”

“I think you’re reading too much into it,” Leia argued, and Rey turned to glance at Ben.

He was giving her a look of such exquisitely doleful suffering that she had to put her hand over her mouth so Han and Leia wouldn’t hear her giggle.

“Always, the good people are beautiful and the bad people are ugly,” Han was continuing his argument.

“Listen,” Ben said loudly, and his parents stopped bickering long enough to do so. “It’s late, I’m going to take Rey home.”

“You’re not walking, are you?” Leia asked.

Han added, “It’s colder out there than a witch’s…”.

“Oh my God, Dad,” Ben moaned.

“They can’t walk,” Leia told her husband.

“I’ll drive Rey home,” Han agreed, standing and grimacing his way through a stretch. “Ben, go fetch her coat.”

“I can drive her,” Ben objected. Han shrugged and sat back down.

“No,” Leia shook her head. “If the car breaks down, you’re out there all alone in this cold.”

“The car’s fine, Mom!”

“There’s nothing wrong with my car!” Han chimed in, sounding insulted.

Leia raised her hands in defense. “I’m just saying, if. Better safe than sorry.”

Han mumbled something under his breath and stood again.

“I’m coming too,” Ben declared, getting up to retrieve the coats. “To keep Dad safe if the car breaks down.”

“Aw, thanks, son,” Han grunted dryly.

Rey was glad that Ben would be joining them. Not that she didn’t want to drive with Han – she was sure he would have had a good story or two for her during the drive – but she felt awkward saying goodnight to him in front of his folks.

Of course, she had to say goodnight to him in front of Han, although not in his earshot. Ben insisted on walking her to the front door, and Han didn’t say anything about it. It’s probably another one of Leia’s “gentlemanly comportment” rules, Rey decided.

When they got to the porch, she turned to Ben, her eyebrows raised expectantly.

“What?” he asked.

She raised them a little higher.

He rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. There is one fairy tale that isn’t bad.”

“At least,” Rey admonished.

“Don’t push your luck,” he warned.

She grinned up at him in response.

“Anyway, thanks for the gift,” he said.

“Happy birthday, Ben,” Rey answered. She wondered if maybe she should hug him or something – she hugged Finn all the time, for goodness’ sakes – but decided against it. The thought of it made her a little bit nervous, for some reason she couldn’t quite understand. And Ben Solo wasn’t much of a hugger anyway.

“See you.” Ben turned and strode down the steps as Han revved the engine.

“See you.” Rey waved at Han before going into the rooming house.

Some of the boarders were playing cards in the front room, and they called out a greeting; she waved at them as she headed for the stairs.

The door to Maz’s room was open, and the older woman was sitting on her sofa and reading True Detective Mysteries magazine. Rey told her about the cake and the book and how Ben had made her read it (which Maz found very amusing). Then she bid her guardian good night and went to her own room, intending to read some more of Little Women.

But Rey found that her head was far too full of Beauty and the Beast for her to concentrate on the March sisters. So she set her book back on her nightstand, turned off her light, and settled in to sleep, her mind full of how the Beast’s palace sparkled with light and fireworks and music when Beauty said she loved him.

Chapter Text

February 14, 1941

“I’ve got everything ready for the first fitting,” Francie informed Rey, as they entered the cafeteria and moved towards their tables.

“It’s not going to be too fancy, is it? Because I don’t need a fancy dress.”

Rey had told already her friend that exact same thing, several times, but Francie had a real bee in her bonnet about making what she called “evening wear”. When she’d first heard the phrase, Rey had pictured pajamas, but then she’d seen sketches of what Francie had in mind and it was definitely not pajamas.

“Actually, you will.” Francie slid into the seat across from her brother, who greeted them with a nod. “The Club always has a Spring Formal.”

“I don’t belong to the Club,” Rey reminded her.

"The Club" was what everyone called the Naboo Cultural Society Union. It was a place where rich people met other rich people to do whatever rich people did. It was highly exclusive, and very costly to join. Rey thought the building looked like Tara, from “Gone With The Wind” – large and white, with graceful columns staunchly standing along the front, and surrounded on all sides by carefully tailored landscaping. It took up an entire block near the downtown area. Rey had walked by a couple of times, and just being on the sidewalk in front of it had left her feeling woefully shabby.

“Well, we do,” Francie gestured at Armie, who gave the half-hearted suggestion of a smile. “And so do the Damerons and the Solos. We’re allowed to bring guests in occasionally, so you’ll come with us and you’ll have a place to wear it.”

Rey sighed, picking at the crusts on her sandwich. “I’m not really a fancy-dress kind of person, though.”

“For goodness’ sakes, it’s not going to have ruffles or anything on it,” Francie huffed. “It’ll be sleek and clean. Rey, you can trust me.” She fixed Rey with a pleading look, and Rey sighed and nodded.

“Trust you with what?” asked Ben, taking the seat across from Rey.

“Another dress,” Rey said, mentally counting the seconds until he rolled his eyes, and grinning in satisfaction when he did it exactly when she thought he would.

“Happy Valentine’s Day!” Poe crowed, pulling envelopes out of a bag and dropping them in front of his friends as he circled the table.

“Oh my God,” Ben muttered. “Haven’t you grown up yet?”

Armie looked at his envelope with weary resignation.

“Oh, don’t be fuddy-duddies,” Francie scolded, opening her envelope to reveal a small card with a clown and a puppy. Out loud, she read, “Hey funny face, could you ‘GROW’ to like me?” It was apparently a joke, but Rey didn’t get it.

“Cute,” Francie smirked. “Very cute. Armitage, open yours.”

“I’d rather not,” he mumbled sourly, but picked it up anyway. Rey saw an illustration of Goofy as he pulled it from the envelope. Armie cleared his throat and read, in a voice devoid of any interest or emotion whatsoever, “I am Goofy, that is true, simply Goofy, over you.” Francie laughed as her brother tossed it to the side and said, in a bored monotone, “Oh, that’s a good one, Dameron. It really is.”

Rey turned to Ben and raised her eyebrows eagerly.

“No,” he refused, glowering.

“Aw, Solo, you’re so cute when you’re grumpy!” Francie cooed sweetly, and Rey felt a flash of irritation before realizing that Francie was only kidding.

“I’ll open it if you stop that,” he growled back, and Francie mimed zipping her lips.

“What does it say?” Rey leaned across the table as he opened it.

This is PLANE language, be my Valentine.” He handed the card to Rey, so she could see the boy climbing into the plane, and sighed, “Gee, thanks, Poe.”

Poe took a seat next to Ben. “Alright, kewpie doll, it’s your turn.”

Rey ripped her envelope open to find a picture of a cat in a big heart, with a girl sitting in front of him. “Do you ‘CAT-ch’ on? I want you for my Valentine,” she read, and wrinkled her nose. “Poe, that’s an awful pun.”

“I aim to please,” he grinned.

“He does this every year,” Francie told Rey, gesturing at Poe. “Solo always refuses to open it at first, but eventually he gives in.”

Rey thought it was an adorable tradition. She looked down at her card with gratitude, pleased to be included. This is my first Valentine’s card, she realized with a smile, and then looked up at Ben. He immediately dropped his gaze to his sandwich, the muscles under his left eye twitching slightly.

“Oh, yes! I’m having a recital next month!” Francie announced. “And you all have to come.”

“Can’t,” Poe smiled. “Busy.”

“I haven’t even told you when it is yet,” Francie pointed out.

“I have to be there, you know,” Armie reminded everyone, “and I’d rather not suffer alone.” Francie kicked him under the table.

“I’ll go,” Rey assured Francie.

“Thank you, Rey,” Francie replied, glaring at her brother.

“What do you do at a recital?” Rey asked.

“I play piano and I sing,” Francie explained. “It’s a way of showing how much you’ve grown in your art. Mine isn’t actually art, and I haven’t grown all that much, but Father insists.”

The recital was set for a Saturday at 2:00, but Rey figured she could ask Maz to let her off work early. After all, she’d picked up enough slack for Lusica since she’d been working there. She was trying to work out a way to convince Ben to join them, when the bell rang for the end of the lunch period.

“Hey, sweetie, come here a minute?” Poe gave her a charming smile. Rey turned to Ben, to ask him to wait for her a moment, but he was already stalking off to class.

“I hope you don’t mind, I got you a little something extra.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a small box of candy.

“Oh.” Rey didn’t know what to say, but she wanted to be polite. “Um…thank you. That was very nice of you.”

“You’re welcome, but listen, don’t mention it to anyone, okay? You’re the only one I got anything extra for, and I don’t want to make everyone else jealous.” He winked at her.

Rey was already backing up in the direction of the door. “I have to get to class.”

“Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetie,” he called after her.

Rey nodded, then dashed out of the cafeteria. She made it to class just as the bell was ringing, and flung herself into her seat with the Valentine, the box, and her lunch tin still in her hands.

“What’s that?” Ben whispered, his voice surly.

Rey swiveled around in her chair slightly, wondering if she looked as panicked as she felt, and gave him an uncomfortable shrug.

Ben gazed at her carefully for a moment.

Clouded chocolate. No golden highlights. Rey felt slightly sad – she loved the golden highlights.

But then, as she watched his eyes, the highlights began to appear. There weren’t many, and they were difficult to see in the brown, but there they were. I must have missed them at first, she thought, noticing Ben’s shoulders beginning to loosen up.

“Mr. Solo, Miss Smith? Is there something you wish to share with the class?”

Rey whipped her head back around to see Mr. Hurley glaring at them from in front of the chalkboard.

“No, sir,” she answered, just as Ben said, “No, thank you.”

The teacher eyed them sternly for a few more seconds before returning to the lesson. Rey took a deep breath and tried to concentrate as much as possible. But as she held her first Valentine card and gift, she wondered if she actually wanted either one.

 

February 15, 1941

“I’m not supposed to tell you, but I’m not sure if it means anything and I don’t know what to do.”

Rey and Francie sat on the floor of Francie’s sewing studio, a plate of cookies and two glasses of milk between them.

Francie raised her eyebrows at Rey over the cookie that had been on its way to her mouth. “If it’s a big secret, maybe you shouldn’t.” Then she smiled, a wicked gleam in her eye. “Even though I really want you to.”

Rey shook her head. “It’s not a big one. It’s just a thing with Poe.”

“Ah!” Francie smirked. “Let me guess. He got you something extra for Valentine’s Day.” She took a bite of cookie, looking satisfied when surprise bloomed on Rey’s face.

“Yes! How did you know?”

Francie shrugged. “Dameron’s very transparent, once you’ve known him for as long as I have. He’s had you in his sights for a while now. I wasn’t sure if you realized that – you haven’t seemed particularly aware of it.”

Rey furrowed her brow and thought back to the summer, when he’d insisted on giving her driving lessons. He’d also come to pick her up, all alone, on their way to the movies. And he’d turned on the charm whenever he and her other friends showed up at the café on Saturdays.

“There were some things,” she allowed, “but they were months ago now, and I really didn’t notice them before.”

That was a bold-faced lie. She’d had the distinct impression during the driving lessons that he was aiming to develop something more than friendship with her, and it had made her uncomfortable.

Francie rolled her eyes. “Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t.”

Rey flushed slightly at being caught out.

“And it may have seemed like he’s stopped, but believe me,” Francie shifted slightly, “he’s just been re-evaluating. You didn’t exactly fall starry-eyed at his feet, like he’s used to people doing.” She stifled a giggle. “He’s probably been wondering for months what on earth he was doing wrong.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong,” Rey insisted. “It’s not that he upset me.”

Francie waved her hand dismissively. “No, no, not like that. I mean, he’s got this whole routine, and it’s always worked, until you.” She giggled again. “He must be so confused. I almost feel sorry for him.”

“Re-evaluating,” Rey mused, and Francie took another bite of cookie and nodded. “I guess he thinks chocolates might be the way to go.”

“Oh, is that what he gave you? Nice. Very nice.”

“No, it’s not,” Rey argued. “I mean, it was nice of him, yes, but why doesn’t he just give up?”

“Because,” Francie explained. “Now you’re a challenge.”

“Wonderful,” Rey muttered.

“Oh, don’t be such a Gloomy Gus,” Francie exhorted. “You could do a lot worse. He’s personable and friendly, and a very good kisser.” She wiggled her eyebrows as Rey’s mouth dropped open.

“You’ve kissed Poe?” Rey squeaked.

“Everyone’s kissed Poe. Well, except you.”

Rey still couldn’t quite process it. Poe and Francie had never seemed to have any interest in each other. Not even a past interest. “How did that...I mean…when?”

Francie shrugged. “Seventh grade. Before I became more discerning.” She looked up towards the ceiling, as if recalling a memory. “And he was a good kisser then. Imagine how much better he must be by now.” She smiled at Rey and wiggled her eyebrows again.

Rey was still stunned. “I don’t…how many people have you kissed?”

“Not that many.” Francie thought for a moment. “Maybe…three?”

“Three?”

“Rey, relax,” Francie laughed. “It’s just kissing. Haven’t you ever…?” Her cool blue eyes suddenly went wide. “Oh. Oh!

Rey narrowed her eyes at her friend. “What?”

“You haven’t ever kissed anyone,” Francie concluded, smiling in surprised glee.

Rey was speechless for a second, trying to figure out if her lack of kissing experience was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Have you?” Francie prodded.

“No,” Rey admitted, thinking it was probably a bad thing that she hadn’t.

“I’m not saying it’s bad,” Francie hurried to assure her. “It’s actually rather sweet.”

Rey gave her a skeptical look.

“No, it is!” Francie observed Rey, her lips pursed as if she were having an internal debate. Then she nodded slightly. “You probably don’t want to hear this….”

“You’re probably right.”

“…but maybe you should consider kissing Dameron. No, hear me out!” Francie was all business as she listed all her pro-kissing reasons. “It would be a nice first experience, one. Two, if you wanted to learn how to kiss well, he’d probably be a pretty good teacher. Three, he wouldn’t be following you around anymore trying to figure out how to get you to kiss him. Four….”

“But he’s not the one I want to kiss!” Rey objected.

“Oh. Oh.” Rey was beginning to hate the way Francie said the word oh. “You mean, there’s someone you want to kiss?”

“What? No!” Rey sputtered, after a second or two of stunned silence. “I just meant that I don’t want to kiss Poe!” Her face was hot and tight, and she could only imagine how red she must be.

Francie was not going to let it go. “Because you want to kiss someone else specifically?”

Rey wanted to get up and walk out, but settled for a counter-attack.

“Is that why you don’t want to kiss Poe anymore?” she shot back.

Francie leaned back a bit, supporting her weight on her hands. She was relaxed, as if she was enjoying a conversation about the weather, or movies, or something less personal. “I don’t want to kiss any high school boy. I mean, boys were fine when I was younger, but now? I’d prefer to kiss a man.”

Rey grimaced. “You’re sixteen! Why would you want to kiss a grown man who would kiss a sixteen-year-old?”

“I don’t. So obviously I’m not going to be kissing anyone anytime soon.” Francie tipped her head back, stretching her neck. “There’s a certain lack of maturity to high school boys. I mean, we were just talking about a prime example. Dameron is fun and good-looking and I know he kisses well, but he’s a boy. No sophistication.” She smiled at Rey, cool and confident. “I deserve the real thing, and I’m willing to wait for it.”

“Well, maybe, so am I,” Rey declared, tilting her chin up and hoping it made her look bold. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t kissed anyone yet. I’m waiting for the real thing.”

“Mmm,” Francie nodded, eyeing Rey thoughtfully. “So what kind of real thing are you looking for? I’ve already told you mine – sophistication, maturity. A nicely-built chest and strong arms wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Francie!” Rey could feel herself going crimson again.

“What? It’s natural!” Francie sat upright again. “Rey. There is nothing wrong with finding certain things about a man attractive. You can’t tell me that you don’t have some idea of what you like.”

But I don’t, Rey thought. She’d never had time, or the space in her head, to think about all of that. She’d spent most of her life worrying about finding food to eat, and how to behave so that she didn’t get smacked, or kicked out with no place to go. Her life had been about survival, up until little over a year ago.

“Seriously, Rey. What do you want, in a man?” Francie was looking at her earnestly, and there was an eagerness in her eyes that Rey rarely saw.

She’s probably been thinking about this forever, and couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

Rey had never considered Francie Hux to be a lonely person. Francie had money, she had friends, and she had more confidence than anyone Rey had ever met. She even had Armie as a built-in companion.

But Rey supposed this wasn’t a conversation that a girl would have with her brother. And now that she thought about it, Francie really didn’t have close girl friends.

Except Rey.

“Ummm,” Rey began, trying to figure out what in the world she might find attractive. “Well, I haven’t given it a lot of thought. But I think…kind? And smart. And comfortable. You know, to be around, like it would be okay not to talk if I didn’t want to talk. But someone I could talk to, about anything. Someone that I want to talk to.”

“Hmm.” Francie considered for a second. “What would you want him to look like?”

Rey shook her head. “I really don’t know. That’s not as big a deal as the other stuff. But I guess, nice eyes. Really nice eyes, that I can’t stop looking at, because I’ll have to look at them a lot. And taller than me.”

“Yes,” Francie agreed. “So your head fits on his shoulder.”

“Exactly,” Rey nodded.

“And hair that feels good when you touch it,” Francie added.

“Yes. And a good laugh.”

“Not like a hyena, you mean?”

“No, I mean a genuine laugh.”

“And muscles you can feel when you run your hands over them,” Francie mused, a dreamy look in her eyes.

“Francie!”

“What? It’s natural!”

“I know, but!” Rey put her hands on her cheeks to try to cool them off.

“Oh, but,” Francie scoffed at the word. “But nothing. You won’t be saying but when you get your hands on him and feel.” She let out a suggestive chuckle.

Rey had a sudden image of her own hands running over a pair of strong arms and across a solid chest, her fingers brushing against shirt buttons before beginning to work them free. Her heart began pounding against her ribcage; she felt as if her stomach was beginning to drop down to the bottom of her abdomen.

She quickly covered her face so that Francie wouldn’t see her thoughts.

Francie stopped laughing and sighed. “I’m sorry, Rey. I don’t mean to embarrass you.”

“It’s all right,” Rey said, her voice muffled behind her hands. “It’s fine, really.”

“You are precious,” Francie cooed, almost as if she were talking to a child. Rey would have been irritated by the tone of voice if she wasn’t so distracted. “I tell you what, let’s get back to dress fitting, shall we?”

Rey hastily emerged from behind her hands. “Wait, don’t take the cookies away, I want some more.”

Francie chuckled, as Rey grabbed at the plate. “Embarrassment has nothing on cookies.”

Rey thought for a second, then spoke around her mouthful of cookie. “Sorry for acting so embarrassed. It’s just that I haven’t ever talked about this before. Maybe we can talk about it later, once I’m more used to it?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Francie picked up a cookie. “You know, I have a book you might find interesting.”

Rey perked up a bit. “Yes?”

“Don’t mention it to Solo, though – yes, I know you two have some sort of thing going on with books – and don’t let anyone see you reading it.” Francie leaned in towards Rey and whispered, “I’m not supposed to have it. It’s banned.”

Rey felt her eyes widening. “Oh,” she whispered back, and then immediately nodded. “Yes. Yes, I’ll borrow it.”

Francie nodded. “We’ll have to find a way to get it to you without anyone knowing. Maybe bring a satchel over here with you sometime? All right, now, put down that cookie and let’s get back to business.”

 

March 8, 1941

Rey had indeed brought a satchel over one Saturday when Francie’s father and brother were out for the day, and she’d been given a well-worn copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Rey had asked how Francie had gotten ahold of the book, since it was banned, but her friend refused to say.

Rey only read it when she was sure she wouldn’t be interrupted. She wasn’t worried in general, since Maz always knocked before coming into the room, but she decided to be extra careful because it wasn’t her book.

The biggest problem had been where to hide it when she wasn’t reading. Maz didn’t often go into Rey’s room when she wasn’t there, but it was Maz’s rooming house and there was always the possibility that something would need to be fixed suddenly. After thinking for a bit, Rey shoved the book into the back of the drawer that held her underwear. Since Rey did her own laundry, Maz would have no reason to go into that drawer.

It also seemed like an appropriate place to keep such a book.

Rey was around Chapter Six. She figured Francie had loaned her the book to give her a chance to read about sex stuff without anyone around to see her face go beet red. She appreciated that, and she was relieved to find that it wasn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected it to be. There was an affair, and the language was maybe a little more, well, frank than anything she’d read before, but that was fine.

There were some things in the book that puzzled her, because her own knowledge was limited to the basics, but she wasn’t near ready to ask Francie any questions.

And Rey didn’t like the characters much. They seemed so self-centered; then again, she probably should have expected that. After all, Francie had recommended Wuthering Heights, and those people had been simply awful.

She wished it wasn’t a dirty book. There were a lot of not-dirty things in it that she would have loved to discuss with Ben.

She’d managed to get him to join her for Francie’s recital. She’d considered wheedling, arguing, and pouting, but ultimately decided to be truthful. This was Ben, after all, and he’d see right through any games she tried to play.

“Please, Ben,” she’d asked, quietly and honestly. “Armie and Francie will be the only ones I know, and I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb, but I don’t mind that when you’re with me.”

He’d looked at her for a second, his expression unreadable, before sighing and agreeing.

Of course, now that they were at the recital, he looked as if he were deeply regretting doing so.

The recital was in the home of Francie’s music tutor, which was a large Victorian in the second-best part of town. Most of the furniture had been removed from the music room and replaced with wooden folding chairs, which were filling up by the time Ben and Rey arrived.

Armie stood at the door of the music room with an older man. Rey assumed he was Mr. Hux; he had Armie’s red hair and Francie’s ice-blue eyes.

“It’s nice to see you. Francie will be so glad you came,” Armie said formally, holding a stiff hand out to Ben, who accepted a firm, hearty shake. “Father, this is Benjamin Solo, I’m sure you remember.”

Mr. Hux fixed a cold stare on Ben and offered a tight smile. “Yes, indeed.” His phrasing was clipped. “I saw your mother at the Club just last week.” He did not offer his hand to Ben, which Rey thought was rude.

“And this is Francie’s friend – our friend – Rey Smith,” Armie added. “Nice to see you, Rey.” He leaned towards her and Rey moved a half-step backwards before catching sight of Ben, who was giving her the slightest of nods. Rey held still then, against her instincts, and Armie gave her an awkward, inept air kiss by her cheek.

“You’re that rooming-house girl my daughter makes clothes for, aren’t you?” Mr. Hux’s eyes were sweeping over Rey in minute inspection. She felt Ben tense up beside her.

“Yes, Father, she’s a good friend of Francie’s,” Armie corrected, much more smoothly than Rey would have expected.

Rey decided it was best to stick to innocent pleasantries. “Yes, sir. Thank you for having me here.”

“Francine was insistent,” Mr. Hux informed her, already looking over her head at the people who had just entered the house.

Ben nudged her arm, and Rey felt the urge to bob a slight curtsy as they moved towards two empty chairs.

Francie was over at the piano, talking with her tutor; she took a moment to give them a modest grin and a decorous wave before returning to the discussion.

Rey let out a loud sigh as she sat, whispering to Ben, “So that’s their father.”

“Yeah.” He shifted, trying to get comfortable in a chair that was clearly too small for his frame. “I hate that man.”

“Ssh, Ben!” He hadn’t spoken quite as softly as he could have done, and Rey looked anxiously around them.

He watched her checking the room, a look of amusement on his face, then bent in close to her ear so he could talk much more quietly. “It’s all right. Everyone hates him. Even his son.”

Rey felt a tingle in her spine at the sound of his deep-timbred voice, so hushed and so close to her ear, and she felt herself give a little shiver.

Just then, Francie’s tutor stepped forward to thank everyone for coming. She gave a little speech about Francie, extolling how talented she was and how hard she worked. Ben gave a quiet, skeptical “hmph”, and Rey was about to scold him.

Then she caught sight of Francie’s expression; her friend was still smiling demurely, but her eyebrows had an incredulous tilt to them. Rey realized that Ben wasn’t doubting Francie’s talent – he was reacting to the overly fulsome praise that was gushing from her tutor’s mouth.

I don’t know why everyone has to go so overboard, Rey thought. They could simply say she’s done well this year, that would be enough. Rich people behaved so abnormally, with their excessive manners and their unfathomable rules and their constant judgment.

No, not all rich people, she corrected herself, watching as her friend launched into an intricate piece of classical music. Francie and Poe weren’t that way. Armie was…well, he had been. He seemed to be changing, even if only slightly.

And Ben – Ben wasn’t like that at all. Rey glanced quickly at him. In her peripheral vision, she could that everyone in the audience was wearing the same expression, seeming enchanted and awed by Francie’s playing. Everyone except Ben. He was simply watching, his expression smooth and unreadable, and Rey would have wagered a lot of money that he was the only one who was really listening.

He turned his head slightly, raising his eyebrows and mouthing, “What?”

Rey shook her head and shrugged, mouthing back, “Nothing.”

Ben rolled his eyes and returned his attention to Francie, but Rey could see the corner of his mouth turn up. She smiled to herself and focused on Francie as well.

There were several classical pieces. Rey didn’t know what they were, but they were beautiful and the audience appeared thrilled.

Francie took a bow, then waited until it was quiet. “Those are some of my favorite pieces,” she said, her voice mellifluous, “but they’re not the only kind of music I like. For the last several songs of the program, I’m going to play more popular music. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.”

Mr. Hux appeared more annoyed than usual, and Rey wondered if the recital program had been a bone of contention between father and daughter. Then Francie began to play “One O’Clock Jump”, which Rey recognized because it had been on the nickelodeon at the café for a while in a year or two before.

Rey nudged Ben’s arm and nodded towards Mr. Hux. The man had looked sour before, but now his face was practically pinched. Ben made a quiet coughing noise to cover his chuckle.

As the audience politely applauded “One O’Clock Jump”, Francie darted a glance at Rey and gave a cheeky grin. Rey couldn’t help giggling in return.

When Francie began to play and sing another song, Rey vaguely recognized the familiar tune, although she didn’t know what it was called. The melody and the lyrics were somewhat mournful, and yet full of love and promise and bittersweet longing. Rey made a mental note to ask Francie for the title.

Francie’s voice was smooth and clear and polished, but not rich like some voices were. It was obvious she’d had training. She played and sang her way through three more songs, and by the time she was finished, the applause was genuine and enthusiastic.

Once the recital was over, Francie came over to them immediately.

“I figured I’d better say hello right away. I don’t think Solo’s going to last much longer,” she laughed. Ben was indeed glowering at the crush of people surrounding them. Rey was grateful to be able to leave soon; she was feeling a bit crowded herself.

“It was lovely, Francie,” Rey assured her.

“You’re good,” Ben added.

Francie hesitated for a second, a look of surprise on her face, then chuckled and purred, “Well, of course I am. I’m going to have to make the rounds now, but I’ll talk to you both later. Thank you for coming!”

Ben and Rey worked their way through the crowd surrounding Francie. Mr. Hux passed by them on his way over to his daughter, but gave no sign that he’d seen them.

Armie was standing by the door again, well out of everyone’s way.

“She does good, doesn’t she?” he asked, looking fondly towards his twin, then added, “Have a nice walk home. See you in school.”

Both Ben and Rey sighed in relief when they emerged from the house. As they walked, Ben agreed with Rey that there had been an awful lot of people in such a small room, and Rey listened as Ben told her all about the classical pieces Francie had played. Rey admitted that she liked singing, and Ben told her she should join the school choir.

“But I’m not that good,” she protested, as they made their way along the crowded sidewalk of the downtown area.

“Well, of course you don’t think so,” he answered. “You probably are, though.”

“You haven’t heard me sing,” Rey reminded him.

“Sing for me now,” he prodded, giving her a mischievous sideways glance.

“No,” Rey scoffed.

“Yes. Please.” He nudged her arm.

“I’m not singing for you in the middle of downtown, Ben Solo.”

“Why not? You might pick up a few dimes.” He nudged her again.

“Oh, stop it already, you’re…ugh.”

Rey had stepped far to the side to avoid a woman with a baby buggy, and her coat had gotten caught on the wrought-iron scrolling of a trash container. She tugged at it carefully, so that she wouldn’t rip it. Once it was free, she turned, intending to run and catch up with Ben.

Instead, she ran right into him. He’d stopped dead in his tracks in front of her.

She nudged at him. “Ben?”

He didn’t move, and there was something about the stiffness of his shoulders that set off warning bells in Rey’s head. She reached out her hand to give him another nudge, more gingerly this time.

He was shaking.

“Ben?”

“Let’s go,” he barked, spinning abruptly and grabbing her arm. He pulled her back along the sidewalk, towards the crosswalk.

“Ben…what…?”

“I said, we have to go.” He was hurrying, his strides impossibly long, and Rey wasn’t keeping up with him so much as she was being dragged along.

“Go?”

“I have to get you home,” he answered, his face grim, and the tone of his voice reminded Rey of something, some memory, and not a good one. But she couldn’t quite bring it to mind.

“Ben!” She tried to yank her arm away from him, but he held on tight and plunged off the sidewalk, crossing the street without looking. They hadn’t even made it to the crosswalk yet; Ben just jumped out from between two parked cars. A horn blared from a car that had just begun to pull out of a parking space, and Ben swore under his breath.

Once they reached the other side of the street, Rey managed to wrench her arm free from his grasp.

“Damn it, Ben, stop!” she gasped.

“Come on!” he commanded. “Rey, let’s go!” She took a step towards him, and he turned and continued his escape across the park.

Rey stumbled along behind him, her anger draining away and being replaced by something else.

I’ve never seen him like this, she thought, and her chest ached with a rush of panic.

“What’s going on? Ben!”

“I don’t know,” he muttered, turning around to look back across the park. “Why is she here, she doesn’t live here.”

Rey turned and looked back, too, but she didn’t see anything that was different from any other day. People going about their business, in and out of the shops, stopping to chat when they met each other. Mothers with babies in buggies, other kids from the high school, some older folks on their daily walks. One woman, though, stood stock still, her handbag dangling from her elbow; she was staring in their direction with scrunched eyes, as if she were trying to see them across the distance.

She heard Ben take a deep breath behind her. “Rey, please. Let’s just go. But slowly, so we’re not obvious.”

She turned to tell him that particular ship had already sailed, but his eyes were wild and dark, and he was slowly backing away down the path.

Any other time, Rey would have crossed her arms, planted her feet firmly, and refused to move until he told her what was what. But this was obviously not the time to demand answers.

“All right,” Rey said, her voice quiet and soothing. “I’m coming.”

Ben’s glance flickered over to her for a moment, and Rey held his gaze as she walked forward, trying to bring him a measure of calm. And it was the look in his eyes that finally triggered her memory.

They stood in the aisle of Hill’s Drugs, with soap and other products littering the floor around them, and he looked like a frightened, miserable little boy.

That had been over a year ago. He and his mother had been fighting about asking someone to Christmas dinner.

Rey looked back towards the downtown. The woman still stood, staring after them, with her hand shading her eyes so she could see better.

That woman, she thought. Is that her?

“Let’s go,” Rey suggested softly.

Ben nodded, then lifted his head to look back through the park again.

“No, no, no,” she murmured, putting her hand on his upper arm to move him further into the park. “It’s okay, let’s just go.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, and did as she asked.

As they walked, Rey let her hand slip down his arm to rest at his elbow. He was still shaking, but his breathing had slowed. She kept her hand there, barely touching him, as they continued across the park and towards the rooming house.

When they had climbed the porch steps, Rey turned to speak to him, but as she opened her mouth he shook his head and told her, “Inside.”

She opened the door, waving to the boarders who were gathered around the radio in the front room, and then noticed that Ben was still on the porch.

“Come in with me,” she invited, and he glanced suspiciously back at the street before complying. Rey shut the door behind him and motioned him towards the stairs, and he followed her up to her room.

Rey left the door open, so no one would make any assumptions about what she and Ben were up to. She threw her coat on her bed, as he sank into one of the chairs around her little table. He stared out the window and didn’t say anything, even as Rey took a seat in the other chair and looked at him expectantly.

“Ben…,” she began, speaking carefully.

He cleared his throat. “So, I know that was kind of odd.”

Rey nodded. “Kind of.” She didn’t ask any questions, or prod him to talk. She knew wasn’t easy for Ben to open up about things, so she waited for him to decide what and how much to say.

After a couple of minutes, he cleared his throat again. “I just thought I saw somebody that I didn’t want to see.” He rubbed one hand against the other, then looked over at her. “You know, when you see someone that you don’t expect to see, and you don’t want to see them?”

“Mmm-hmm,” she hummed, to let him know she understood.

“It was just unexpected,” he repeated, dropping his eyes to his fingers.

Rey knew it was more than that. She looked down at his hands. They were still trembling, as he slowly twisted his fingers together. She wanted nothing more than to take his hands in hers, and to comfort him. But it didn’t feel like the right thing to do at the moment.

He’d started talking to her about it, though, so Rey felt she could ask a question or two. “That woman. It was her, wasn’t it?” she inquired, careful to keep her voice soft and reassuring. “Who is she?”

Ben let go of his fingers and ran one hand through his hair, sighing deeply.

“Trudy Snoke.” There was a slight quaver in his voice. “My nanny.”

That’s right. That’s who Leia had wanted to invite over. And Ben had gone absolutely bananas.

Rey felt a cold shiver run through her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he burst out. “I’m being completely ridiculous. She hasn’t been my nanny for years now. I’m grown up. She can’t...,” he trailed off, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m being so stupid,” he muttered, his cheeks beginning to redden.

“No, you’re not,” Rey said defiantly. “It was unexpected, you didn’t have time to prepare. That’s all. I mean, if I ran into Plutt again all of a sudden…,” she shuddered. “Anyway, you feel how you feel. That’s all there is to it.”

He gave a rueful chuckle. “If you ran into Plutt again, we’d all have bigger things to worry about.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

“Dead rising from the grave, Armageddon and all that,” he added, then looked out the window at the fading light of dusk. “I should probably go home.”

He made no move to leave.

“Do you think she was visiting your mother?” Rey asked, twisting her own fingers together.

He let out a long breath. “Most likely,” he admitted.

“Stay and have dinner here, with me…with us,” Rey offered. She wasn’t sure how much food Maz was preparing, and if there was enough for a guest; but if there wasn’t, Ben could just have hers and she’d find some bread or something. The last thing he needed was to go home and find his nanny there.

“I don’t know,” he hesitated. “You know most of the men that live here work for my parents.”

Once upon a time, Rey would have thought he was being stuck-up and snobby. Now, though -- now she knew him well enough to know he felt anxious and out of place. Just like she did, when she was surrounded by people who were watching and judging her.

I was so wrong about him.

“Doesn’t matter,” she told him. “There’s probably not enough room for both of us at the dining table anyway. We can eat in the kitchen. Finn and I do it all the time on Saturdays.”

“I remember.” He looked out the window again. “I’ll have to call home and let them know I’m here.”

“That’s okay, there’s a phone on the table downstairs, along the staircase.”

He considered a moment longer, then nodded, and they rose together from their chairs.

“You know,” she told him, as they left her room, “I’ve been to dinner at your house so many times, and this is the first time you’ve been to mine.”

“That’s true, it is,” he acknowledged, and gave a half-hearted imitation of a courtly bow. “I am honored to be asked to share a meal in your home.”

“Of course you are,” Rey told him, channeling her inner Francie with a pert smile. He rolled his eyes fondly.

As they began to descend the stairs, he quietly added, “Thank you.”

“Any time,” Rey answered, her voice as soft as his. “Anything you need.” She cringed inwardly for a moment, because that sounded too…something, she didn’t know what. Then she tossed her head and added, “You better like chicken and noodle casserole, because that’s what you’re going to be eating tonight.”

“Oh yummy, that’s my favorite,” he dead-panned, and Rey was very relieved to hear his sarcasm again.

Ben hadn’t really explained why he’d reacted to his nanny that way, but Rey decided to let sleeping dogs lie. When he was ready, he would tell her. She trusted that.

She trusted him.

Chapter Text

April 14, 1941

As she walked back to Ben’s house with him after school, Rey felt lighter and livelier than she had in weeks. She figured it was probably because of the weather. The temperature was hovering right on the line between being chilly enough to snap her awake, and warm enough to make her want to take off her coat and soak in the promise of springtime. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the grass was vivid green, and she’d made Ben laugh out loud with her impression of their science teacher.

Rey really wasn’t in the mood for school work. As they climbed the porch steps, she was hoping Ben would be willing to put studying aside for a bit and play chess or listen to the radio and talk. She thought there was a good chance of it – he seemed to be affected by the spring sunshine every bit as much as she was.

As they opened the front door and heard his mother’s voice, Rey realized they couldn’t be frivolous. Leia would expect them to take their schoolwork seriously. Well, they could give it a lick and a promise and then maybe have some fun.

An unfamiliar voice rumbled a response in the living room, and Rey realized that Leia was talking to a man. Rey didn’t recognize the voice. But Ben apparently did; he came to an abrupt stop just inside the door, his lips pressed into a thin line. His expression gave every indication of wanting to turn and head right back out.

“Ben? Is that you?” His mother’s voice, which had been pleasant and friendly a moment earlier, now sounded anxious.

“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath.

“Go?” Rey whispered at him, tilting her head towards the door.

He shook his head. “Too late,” he mouthed back. He took a deep breath and called back, “Yes, it’s me. I’m here with Rey.”

There was a rustle and creak of furniture. “Well, now you can meet Rey,” Leia told her guest in a hushed voice.

Ben winced. “Sorry,” he whispered.

Rey didn’t know what he had to be sorry about. All he’d done was come home from school. She didn’t have time to ask him about it, though, because his mother came into the foyer, her guest following closely behind.

“Oh, hello, dear,” Leia greeted Rey, leaning in for a quick kiss to the cheek. Rey accepted with a polite smile, examining the man standing under the living room arch.

He was taller than Leia, but shorter than Ben, and slightly stocky in the way a man can become when he is no longer as active as he was in his youth. His salt and pepper hair seemed to have been blown wildly about his head.

“Ben,” the man nodded. His greeting was careful and polite, but detached.

Ben gave a very slight nod in return.

“This is Ben’s friend, Rey Smith.” Leia turned towards the guest, as if making a presentation. “The one I’ve been telling you about.”

“What have you been telling him?” Ben questioned, his body going taut beside her. Rey laid a gentle hand on the back of his upper arm, hoping to soothe him a bit. She tried not to be too noticeable about it – she didn’t want to look like she trying to calm him down.

She was, of course, but it might embarrass him if it was too obvious.

“Relax, Benjamin,” the man chuckled. He sounded as if he were speaking to a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. “Only good things. No need to go overboard about it.”

Is he trying to set Ben off? Because this was exactly the way to do it. She pressed her hand into his arm more firmly, to remind him she was right there.

“Rey,” Leia broke in, stepping between Ben and her guest. “This is my brother, Luke Skywalker.”

Ben’s military uncle. No wonder he’s so tense. Rey wondered if this was the first time they’d seen each other, since that day he’d gone out to buy aspirin as an excuse to escape his house. It couldn’t be, she didn’t think. Christmas had come and gone since then, they probably saw each other at the holidays. Right?

Rey bobbed her head. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Luke returned, his piercing blue eyes examining her closely. Ben shifted his weight, leaning closer to Rey, and Luke flickered a glance over at his nephew.

“Luke was just in Chicago, on academy business, and he stopped in on his way past town,” Leia explained, mostly to Ben. “I’ve invited him to have dinner with us.” She fixed a no-nonsense stare on her son.

“Fine,” Ben shrugged.

Rey knew it was not fine.

“Has Mr. Solo started dinner yet?” Rey asked Leia. “Because Ben and I were going to help him out tonight.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Ben dart her a confused look. She saw Luke notice it too, and smirk.

“He’s in the kitchen,” Leia admitted, “although I don’t know if he’s started yet.”

“Yeah, sure.” Han’s voice rang out from the back of the house. “Send everyone in here, that’s just dandy.”

Leia narrowed her eyes in the direction of her husband’s voice.

Rey gave Ben’s sleeve a tug. “Come on, let’s go help your dad.”

As Rey entered the kitchen, Ben shambling along behind her, she saw Han take a quick, practiced gulp from a tiny glass that was filled with a brown liquid. He shrugged when he saw they’d caught him, mumbling, “Fortifying myself,” before clapping his hands together. “Spaghetti and meatballs,” he announced, pointing at Ben and then Rey. “Ben, you chop me some onions. Rey, you get the water boiling.” He reached for a bottle that he’d hidden behind the flour canister. “And I’ll have just one more of these.”

****

The seating at the dinner table was different than Rey was used to; it had always been Han and Leia at each end of the table, and she and Ben across from each other. Judging from the whispers passing between Han and his wife as they were setting out the plates and utensils, there was a great deal of consternation over who would sit where. Rey was grateful that, in the end, Han and Leia placed her right next to Ben. They were facing Luke across the table, but at least they were on the same side.

During dinner, Ben stayed quiet, although his scowl spoke volumes. Han made comments every now and then, but generally held back as his wife caught up with her brother.

Rey studied Luke with curiosity. She’d expected a military man to sit ramrod-straight, and to possess an air of command about him. But Luke did neither. He seemed almost world-weary as he chatted with Leia.

Except that, every so often, he’d shoot a sharp look at Ben; he seemed to be examining his nephew for something, although Rey had no idea what. She didn’t like the way he did it, though.

Not long into the meal, the conversation took an inevitable turn.

“Roosevelt is still saying we’re neutral,” Luke was telling Han, “but he’s saying one thing, and doing another.”

“Of course he is. He’s a politician. They all lie,” Han declared, then waved his hand at his wife and brother-in-law. “No offense to the family.”

Luke chuckled. “It’s your family too, Han.”

Rey hadn’t known there were politicians in Ben’s family. She decided to ask him about it later.

“He’s working the angles in the Atlantic,” Luke continued. He refilled his plate with more spaghetti. “At least, that’s what I’ve heard from my friends who are connected. He’ll publicly deny it right now, but we’re protecting convoy shipping routes, and Admiral King has the Atlantic Patrol acting on a war footing.”

“We’re not ready for war, are we?” Han asked. “We don’t have the numbers, either men or material. At least that’s how it seems to me.”

“We won’t officially declare war until we’re stronger,” Luke answered. “For now, it’s an undeclared war. But it’s still war.”

For a moment, all that could be heard was the clinking of the silverware against the plates.

Han cleared his throat. “So,” he asked, picking up his glass of water. “How long do you think it’ll be?”

Luke looked his brother-in-law straight in the eye. “My guess? Less than a year. Depending on what happens in the Atlantic.”

Han nodded, his face grim. “That’s what I’ve been thinking. God damn.” He took a sip.

Rey looked over at Leia, surprised that she didn’t reprimand her husband for his profanity. Ben’s mother had her head down, and her eyes on her plate. The hand she was using to hold her fork was trembling.

“You and I are out of this one, kid,” Han said to Luke. “Don’t get me wrong, I’d serve my country again in a heartbeat, but we’re too old now. They won’t take us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Luke objected. “I’m not as ancient as you are.”

“Nah, our fighting days are over.” Han turned his eyes on Ben. “Sorry, son. Looks like this one’s yours.”

Leia rose quickly from the table, muttering something about needing more butter, and disappeared into the kitchen.

“I know.” Ben’s voice was calm and determined. From the corner of her eye, Rey could tell he had picked up his head and was gazing steadily at his father.

Less than a year, she thought. She felt dizzy, as if the room had tilted slightly.

“Going into the trenches, are you, Ben?” Luke asked.

Ben picked up a piece of bread and bit into it, not acknowledging Luke at all. Rey could feel the way his leg was bouncing under the table.

“He’s going into a cockpit,” Han corrected. “He’ll fly whatever the Air Corps needs him to.”

“I see.” Luke had his eyes fixed on his nephew’s face. “That’s a big job, one that’s difficult to get. People's lives will be in your hands. Are you sure you’re up for it?”

Ben swallowed and finally looked up at his uncle, but Han jumped in before he could respond.

“Why wouldn’t he be?” Han looked over at his son. “You’re a helluva instinctive pilot. You have sharp reflexes and a sharp mind, which is more important.” He turned back to Luke, as Ben looked back down at his plate, the muscle under his left eye twitching. “I’ve been up with him many times, I know how he flies. He’s cautious, but not slow, and he’s decisive. No reason he wouldn’t be able to fly anything they’d put him in.”

“There are a lot of different requirements in today’s military,” Luke argued. “He’ll have to go through a lot of schooling.”

Han nodded. “He can do that, can’t you, Ben?”

Luke spoke again, before Ben could even look up. “And there’s a psychological fitness evaluation as well. Will you be able to get through that?”

Rey had been chasing the last bits of spaghetti around her plate with a shaking fork, trying to summon up the appetite for them, but at Luke’s question her her gaze snapped sharply to him.

He was staring intently at Ben, who was gripping his fork so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. Luke kept his gaze fixed on his nephew’s face, as if he were watching a window to see if it would crack.

“Luke,” Han began.

Rey interrupted. “I don’t understand why you’re asking him that.”

Luke turned his gaze to Rey and gave her a kind smile. “Well, there’s a lot of responsibility when you’re flying in combat, so they need to make sure that a pilot can stand up to pressure…”.

Rey shook her head. “Obviously. I understand that. What I don’t understand is why you’re asking Ben if he can get through it.” She narrowed her eyes slightly as the smile faded from Luke’s face. Han leaned back in his chair and folded his hands together in front of his stomach.

“I’m not sure this is something you need to worry about,” Luke said, as if soothing a small and fretful child.

Rey reminded herself to be polite. “I’m not worried,” she clarified. “I’m curious, because I don’t see any reason why it would be a problem.”

Leia appeared in the kitchen doorway, her reddened eyes wary, tucking a handkerchief back into her pocket.

Luke gave Rey a paternal look. “I don’t know how well you know Ben…”.

“Very well.”

Luke’s annoyance was beginning to slip through his gentle tone. “You probably don’t know him as well as you think you do.”

“You probably don’t either,” Rey retorted. She’d given up being polite; she’d had about enough of this pushy little man. She stared directly into his eyes, lifting her brows boldly.

Luke clenched his jaw. “Yes, well, I’ve known him since he was born. I’ve known him all though his childhood, which was turbulent and difficult and borderline violent, if I’m being honest....”

“Luke.” Leia stood frozen in the doorway.

“He couldn’t manage his temper at all, not the slightest bit.” Luke focused in on Rey, as if he were trying to hold her down in place. She lifted her chin and held his gaze. “I could tell you stories…”.

Ben interrupted, his voice cold and calm. “Yes, well, I’m not a child anymore, am I?” The fork was still trembling in his hand as he raised his eyes to look directly at his uncle, a faint smirk playing around his mouth. “Some people learn and grow.”

Han shifted in his chair, leaning forward, alert.

Luke’s eyes snapped back to his nephew. “Ah, there you are. I was wondering if you knew how to speak for yourself.”

“Excuse me?” Rey flushed with anger, and the only thing that kept her from saying more was the feeling of Ben’s forearm pressing discreetly against hers on top of the table. She knew he wanted to handle this himself, and so she shut her mouth; but she didn’t stop glaring daggers at Luke.

Luke’s eyes flickered down to their arms and back to Rey again. “I know it’s hard for you to understand the dynamics between us, Rey,” he started, a look of sympathy on his face, “since you don’t have a family, but…”.

“Excuse me,” Ben tilted his head, only just slightly. “What did you just say?” His voice was calm and quiet, not at all rude, but there was a menace in his tone that made Rey shiver ever so slightly. She pressed her arm against his, as he’d done for her earlier. Luke gave him a long, searching look, and Ben stared back, his face expressionless. Han’s eyes moved back and forth between Ben and Luke, and he seemed about to intervene, when Leia stepped over to the table.

“I see that dinner is over,” she declared, her eyes firmly fixed on Luke.

There was a second or two of silence, and then Han and Ben both rose hastily from their chairs.

“I’ll clear the table and take care of the dishes,” Han volunteered, moving more quickly than Rey had seen him do before.

“Come on, Rey, I’ll walk you home.” Ben put his hands on the back of her chair as if to pull it out for her, and Rey lifted herself up a little so he could do so.

As she followed him to the foyer to get their coats and school things, Rey glanced back into the dining room to see Leia, her arms folded, glaring down at her brother. Luke let out what seemed to be a resigned sigh and sat back in his chair, looking up at his sister obstinately.

Rey may not have had much experience with how siblings behaved, but there was definitely a storm brewing between the Skywalker twins, and she didn’t want to get caught in the middle of it. She hurried out the door after Ben, as fast as she could go.

She expected him to have an outburst like the one after their first awful Solo family dinner, but Ben did not speak as they walked through his neighborhood. He just stared ahead, his jaw clenched and his hands shoved into his pockets. For some reason, this bothered Rey more than any yelling or swearing he could have done, probably because she was in the mood to yell and swear herself.

By the time they reached downtown, she’d couldn’t hold back any longer.

“So that’s your uncle,” she ventured.

“That’s him.” He pressed his lips together tightly.

“What is wrong with him?”

“I take it you’re not a fan,” he quipped, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Rey shook her head decidedly. “Not in the slightest.”

Ben let out a dark chuckle.

“Seriously, though. He would not shut up.” Rey could feel herself beginning to work up a good head of steam. “Is it just me, or was he goading you? Because it seemed like he was.”

Ben sighed. “He does that now, ever since I was at his school.”

Rey scowled. “It was like he wanted you to blow up!”

“Maybe,” Ben considered. His brow was furrowed the way it was when he was trying to figure out a particularly difficult math problem, and Rey couldn’t help smiling a little, even though she was mad. That look on his face was one of her favorites. “That’s what I’ve always thought he was doing, getting back at me for what happened at the academy or trying to prove that he was right and I was wrong, or something. And usually my parents just let him, but…I mean, this was the first time…”.

He trailed off, and they continued through the park, the grass a much less vivid green now that the sun had disappeared behind soft grey clouds. The wind had picked up, and Ben pulled his hands from his pockets to raise the collar of his coat.

“You know, he’s right, about the psychological exam, and about the responsibilities of flying,” he continued. “I have to be able to remain calm under pressure if I’m going to fly. So I think, maybe he wasn’t trying to taunt me. I think…I think he needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to crack as easily as I have in the past.”

“He needed a plate of meatballs thrown in his face,” Rey muttered, and Ben laughed. It wasn’t the way he’d laughed earlier in the day, when he’d sounded much more free and happy, but she’d take what she could get.

“I’d pay good money to see that,” he told her.

“I’ll send you the bill once it’s done.”

“Yes, please do.”

They lapsed into silence again, but it was a relaxed, comfortable silence, the kind that Rey treasured. When they reached the front steps of the rooming house, she turned to Ben.

“Do you want to come in for a while?” she asked. “He’s got to leave sometime, maybe then you won’t have to see him?”

Ben looked back through the park, considering it. “I want to, you know. I really do. But I think I should go home.” He turned to gaze at her once more, and she could tell he was steeling himself for whatever might await him back at his house. “I can’t keep avoiding this. You understand?”

Rey felt a thrill of admiration deep in her chest. He’s so brave.

She nodded. “I do. I think you should be proud of yourself for doing that.” She could feel the heat rising in her cheeks, so she looked down at her feet.

“Thank you,” he murmured, sounding surprised and pleased.

She nodded again, oddly shy and afraid to look up, even though she desperately wanted to see the color of his eyes.

“So…see you.” His voice was soft, and Rey waited until he turned to go before she looked back up again. She stood there, the brisk spring wind tangling her hair and making her eyes tear up, as she watched him cross through the park.

Less than a year. The thought came to her, unbidden and unwelcome, and she held her coat closed with one hand as the gusts of wind brought even more wetness to her eyes.

 

April 24, 1941

“I can’t quite get this closed,” Rey called from behind the door.

“Well, come on out, then,” Francie summoned, her voice edged with impatience. “I want to see it on you!”

Rey couldn’t tell what the dress actually looked like – the bathroom mirror was small and above the sink, so she could only get a look at the neckline and the sleeve. But that was enough to make her uncertain about wearing it in public.

“Armie’s not around, is he?”

“Oh, for goodness’ sakes, Rey. I’ll have you zipped up before he gets a chance to see anything. Now get out here!”

“Okay,” Rey murmured, clasping the back of her dress firmly in one hand. Here goes nothing.

She opened the door to find Francie standing there, her hands clasped eagerly together. Rey tried to read her friend’s face, but Francie didn’t alter her expression as her eyes swept up and down the dress.

“Francie, can you please…?” Rey appealed, but Francie interrupted her with a burst of fervent applause.

“Oh, it’s fabulous!” she crowed, “Even if I do say so myself!”

Rey turned around, to emphasize the fact that she was still holding her dress closed.

“Sorry!” Francie carefully pulled the zipper up. “Too tight? Or can you breathe? Because you can’t dance if you can’t breathe.”

“I can breathe,” Rey assured her, turning back around.

Francie looked her over once more, tugging slightly at one side of the skirt to even it out. “You look so sharp!” she exulted. “Come on, you need to see it!”

Rey allowed Francie to pull her along the hallway and back into the sewing room, but kept her eyes on the floor as they approached the full-length mirror against the wall. Francie’s hands smoothed and adjusted the material that draped across Rey’s shoulder, which couldn’t really be called a sleeve, in Rey’s opinion.

It was precisely that sleeve that worried Rey. Because it wasn’t a sleeve, it was just the fabric of the dress, going over the shoulder, and it was only on one side. The other shoulder was completely bare.

“Oh! I’ve got a belt that would work with this!” Francie darted out of the room.

Rey drew in a shaky breath and slowly lifted her eyes up to her reflection, smoothing at the taffeta of her skirt with nervous hands.

There wasn’t much light through the windows today, and the mirror was almost as cloudy as the sky, but Rey could see well enough to realize that the dress looked very nice on her. The rose pink color made the flush of her cheeks softer and more noticeable. The top of the dress was fitted in a way that accented her slim waist and the curve of her hips, and there was a diamond-shaped fold of fabric just over her midsection that politely underscored the swell of her bosom. There were two pleats running down the front of the full skirt, and Rey was quite certain that it would flare out becomingly if she spun around while dancing.

Rey let out a soft breath as she looked at her image with wide eyes. She’d never had such a beautiful piece of clothing before.

“Here it is!” Francie bustled back into the room with the belt. She wrapped it around Rey’s waist and cinched it into place. “Not too tight?”

“No.”

The belt was gold-colored, and somehow just the addition of that one item made the dress look even richer.

“Of course, your hair will need to be done differently, and your makeup,” Francie mused. “But we can do that before the dance. You’ll let me do your hair and makeup, won’t you?”

“Um, okay.” Rey was a bit wary about Francie’s intentions for her hair and makeup, but the thought of preparing for a dance with somebody – with a friend – was too appealing to pass up. “I don’t know how to do yours, though.”

Francie waved off her concern. “Oh, I’ll do my own, that’s fine. You know what?” she asked, looking at Rey’s reflection. “I think you’re going to knock people’s eyes right out of their sockets!”

Rey scrunched up her nose. “Oh, that sounds messy.”

It took a second or two for Francie to process her meaning, but then she rolled her eyes with a chuckle. “You’re funny. Now, go take it back off. I’ve got a garment bag in my closet, I’ll put it in that so it will keep well. You don’t want anything to happen to it before the dance.” She dashed from the room again, apparently to retrieve the garment bag.

Rey took one last look at herself in the mirror. The dress was lovely, and it made her body look beautiful. Her hair and her face – well, right now her hair was pulled back from her forehead, with messy tendrils curling every which way, and the only makeup she wore was mascara. Her hair and face weren’t quite up to the level of the dress.

You’re going to knock people’s eyes right out of their sockets, Francie had said.

Rey smiled. Ben Solo had crabbed about Francie treating her like a “dress-up doll”, but right now, Rey didn’t mind at all. In fact, sometimes she rather enjoyed being Francie Hux’s dress-up doll, and if Ben could see her in this dress, he might understand that.

But he wouldn’t see her, because he didn’t go to dances.

Rey felt her heart sink a little at the thought, so she gave her reflection a defiant look and tossed her head. Ben wouldn’t be there, but that was fine. She could have fun even without Ben Solo.

 

April 25, 1941

“We have a slight problem.”Francie leaned up against the locker next to Rey’s, looking very disgruntled. “Father wants Armie and I to go to a dinner with him next Saturday.”

Rey froze. “The night of the dance?”

“Yes,” Francie growled. “And he is insistent.”

I knew it was too good to be true.

Rey slowly pulled her lunch tin from her locker and closed the door. “It’s fine,” she reassured Francie, trying to seem cheerful. “There’ll be another chance to wear the dress sometime.”

“Oh, we’re still going,” Francie decreed. “Just not right at the beginning. So we won’t be there for as long as we wanted, but we’ll be there. I’ll still get you ready and everything, but then I’ll have to go to dinner and you’ll have to wait for us to come back and pick you up.”

“Oh.”

They wove their way down to the cafeteria, and Rey wondered if it was even worthwhile to go to all the trouble of getting ready if she was only going to be at the dance for such a little while.

“I’m so sorry,” Francie apologized again. “We will go, only not until later. And I will help you get ready beforehand, I promise.”

“It’s all right,” Rey shrugged. “I can get myself ready.”

Francie shook her head. “Well, no, you can’t.”

Rey narrowed her eyes at her friend.

“Oh, don’t get upset,” Francie admonished. “I just mean that you haven’t been to one of these dances before, you have no idea what your hair and makeup should look like. That’s all.”

“I should look like myself,” Rey contended.

“And you will,” Francie promised, “you will. Just, more elegant. Trust me.”

Rey lifted an eyebrow skeptically.

“You like the dress, don’t you?” Francie reminded, and Rey nodded because she had to admit that was true. “So trust me to do the rest of it. I’ll come over, we’ll get ready, and then once Father’s stupid dinner is over I’ll come back and pick you up. You’ll just have to be careful with your hair and your makeup. And the dress. So don’t eat or drink anything because it could spill, and be careful how you sit, and…”.

It sounded like a lot of trouble. And it would be even more trouble for her friend to juggle getting Rey ready, and herself, and going to her father’s dinner, and returning to fetch Rey, and for what, really? Not that Rey hadn’t been looking forward to the dance, and the music, and seeing the inside of the Club, and feeling pretty for once. But the only people she would even know would be Francie, Armie and Poe. Ben wouldn’t be there.

Maybe I’m not meant to do this, Rey thought. It’s not a Club for people like me anyway. I won’t even know how to behave.

“Francie.” Rey slid into a seat at the table, keeping her eyes fixed on her lunch tin. “Maybe I just shouldn’t go to the dance.”

“Wait a minute.” Poe slid into the seat across from Rey. “I heard that. Why wouldn’t you go to the dance?”

“Armie and I were going to bring Rey to the Spring Formal as our guests, but now Father has decided that we all have to go to dinner that night,” Francie explained. “So we won’t be able to pick up Rey until much later in the evening. Honestly, Rey,” she added, “that’s no reason to decide not to go.”

“Well, I can’t go without you,” Rey responded, “and it’s your dance and you’ll miss even more of it if you have to worry about getting me there, and it’s all getting very complicated…”.

“I have a solution,” Poe announced. “You can come with me, sweetie, as my guest.” He gave Rey a charming smile.

“Don’t you already have a date, Dameron?” Francie inquired.

“Nope!”

“How do you not…,” Francie began, but Poe kept talking over her.

“What do you say, kewpie doll? Will you do me the honor of allowing me to escort you to the Spring Formal?” Poe focused his big, dark eyes on Rey, looking at her soulfully.

Rey bit her bottom lip and considered. She did want to go to the dance. And she really didn’t want to sit around for hours, made up and dressed up, waiting for Francie and Armie to finish dinner. Plus, they’d all been planning on meeting up there anyway, so it probably wouldn’t inconvenience Poe much to pick her up. “Well…okay.”

“Wonderful!” Poe looked over at Francie. “See? It’s all handled. You can have a nice relaxing dinner…,”

Francie snorted.

“…and Rey can enjoy the dance from the beginning. Everybody wins! Now…,” he turned his attention back to Rey. “I’ll be at your place at 7:00, if that works for you.”

Rey nodded. “Yes, thank you.”

“I’ll take care of everything, you don’t need to lift a finger.” He flipped open his lunch tin and extracted a large sandwich. “You’ll be my guest, and I’ll sign you in with me. I’ll pick you up and bring you home and we’ll dance all night. I’ll make sure you have the time of your life.”

Francie rolled her eyes.

“Oh, and what’s your favorite flower?” Poe asked.

“My favorite…,” Rey fumbled. “I don’t...,”

“I want to get you a corsage,” he explained. “Every girl wears one. Right, France?”

“That depends,” Francie responded, “on if…”.

Poe kept going, as if he hadn’t expected an answer. “I’m not promising I can get what you want, but I’ll try.” He flashed her a winning smile. “So what’s your favorite, sweetie?”

Rey thought maybe she was expected to say roses, or orchids. Something sophisticated. But the main thing about flowers was scent, and while roses did smell nice, there were others that smelled far more beautiful.

“Honeysuckle,” she admitted. “Or lavender. Or lilac.”

“I’ll do my best,” he winked, and started in on his sandwich.

“Are you sure about this, Rey?” There was an odd tone in Francie’s voice, almost a warning, but Rey was relieved to have a solution to the problem. So she just nodded as Armie and Ben joined them at the table, Armie glaring furiously at nothing.

“I hate Shakespeare,” he pouted.

“Philistine,” Ben muttered.

Armie looked sharply over at his friend. “What did you call me?

And they all forgot the dance as the debate over Armie Hux’s cultural sensibility began in earnest.

 

April 28, 1941

Ben wasn’t by his locker when Rey went to meet him after school. Confused, she turned to look for him, just in time to see him heading out the doors at the end of the corridor.

What in the world?

She raced outside to try to catch up with him, but Ben was already far ahead of her, his long strides carrying him quickly away from school.

She began to jog after him, her satchel bouncing against her hip bones. “Ben! Ben, wait!”

He kept going, as if he hadn’t heard her, but she was pretty sure he had. “Oh, no, you don’t,” she muttered, then took a deep breath and let loose with the loudest yell she could summon. “BEN SOLO, YOU WAIT UP!”

Every single person in front of the school turned and looked at her; then, they turned and looked at Ben. He slowed to a stop, jamming his hands into his pockets before shooting a deadly glare her way.

Rey was breathless, but she glared right back as she approached him. When she had almost reached him, he turned back around to continue stalking home.

“You didn’t have to yell quite that loud,” he complained.

“I wasn’t sure you heard me,” she shot back, falling into her place beside him.

“People heard you in Kalamazoo, Rey. That’s all the way in Michigan.”

“I know where Kalamazoo is,” she sniped. She didn’t, of course, but he was being a jerk. “Ben, what in the world is wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” he mumbled, his face stormy.

“Well, that’s clearly not true. First of all, I can see your face. Second, it’s Monday. We always go to your house Monday. We’ve got a big history test coming up to study for, and you’re running out of school with your tail on fire.”

“My tail is not on fire,” he scoffed. “I don’t know what…”.

She cut him off. “You know what I mean. You were just fine at lunch, so I didn’t think we were fighting, but obviously…”.

“Obviously you want to be fighting, or you wouldn’t go yelling after me and accusing me of…”.

“I’m not accusing you of anything, I’m stating what you did, which was leave without waiting for me and without telling me you were going to do it, which was rude.”

“I’m sorry. I apologize,” he said, sounding not at all apologetic. “Is that better?”

“No.”

He didn’t respond. Rey waited close to a minute, to give him time to get himself together, and then she tried again.

“You know, if you don’t want me to come over today, you just have to say so.”

“I didn’t think you’d want to come over,” he growled.

“What are you talking about?”

“I thought maybe you’d rather ride home with Poe and plan out your upcoming date,” he contended.

“My what?” Rey stuttered. “I don’t have a date with Poe!”

“That’s not what he says,” Ben informed her.

“And just what does he say?” she demanded.

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Because I’m asking you, Ben. Quit being…being this way and tell me what he said!”

Ben huffed as he stepped up onto the curb. “He’s very excited because you agreed to be his date for the dance.”

Rey’s mouth dropped open. “I…no….No! I never said I’d be his date! He never said it was a date!”

“Oh, come on, Rey!” He stopped so suddenly that she almost walked right past him. “You can’t tell me that if a boy asks you to go to a dance with him, it’s not a date! You’re not that stupid!”

“I’m not that what?” she broke in, her tone dangerous. “You’d better rephrase…”.

He spoke over the end of her sentence. “Chrissakes, Rey, even I know how dating works!”

The hell you do, she wanted to retort, but decided to put a lid on her mouth in the interest of getting to the bottom of this whole date-with-Poe thing.

“Not that it’s any of your business,” she declared, glowering at him mutinously, “because you refuse to go to dances anyway, but I was supposed to ride with the Huxes. Then their father set up a dinner for them beforehand, and I couldn’t just go on my own because I don’t belong to the stupid Club, so Poe said he would take me as his guest.”

Ben cast a dangerous look down the street in the direction of Poe’s house.

“He was being helpful,” Rey argued.

Ben looked at her for a couple of seconds, then asked, “When he was beinghelpful, did he offer to pick you up in his car?”

“Of course,” Rey answered. “I’m wearing heels, I’m not going to be walking.”

“Did he say he'd arrange everything and take care of all the details?”

“Well, yes, but he’s the one who belongs to the Club.”

“Did he say he’d dance with you all night?”

“It’s a dance, Ben.”

“Did he ask what your favorite flowers were, so he could get a corsage for you to wear?”

“He said everyone wears one.”

Ben took a step towards her, his jaw clenched. “It’s a goddamn date, Rey.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s not.”

They glared at each other for a minute, Ben’s eyebrows raised in skepticism and Rey’s narrowed in irritation, before she turned on her heel and continued towards his house. She heard Ben’s footsteps as he followed behind her, but she did not wait for him to catch up.

It was slowly dawning on Rey that he was probably right, and she wasn’t at all sure what she was going to do about that. The one thing she was not going to do, however, was admit to Ben that he was right.

They continued on their way to the Solo home in silence, Rey stalking righteously ahead and Ben following closely behind.

As Rey turned in at the Solos’ front walkway and headed for the entrance, Ben spoke up from behind her. “Are you going to say something to him?”

“Like what?” she shot back over her shoulder. “Anyway, we have a history test to study for.”

Ben followed her up the steps. “Like, ‘Gee, Poe, there’s been a misunderstanding and I’m not your girlfriend’.”

“Even if it is a date, which it’s not, going on one date with someone doesn’t make me his girlfriend,” she pointed out, making her way into the dining room. “Which chapter do you want to look at first?”

“I’m glad you understand that. Poe doesn’t have girlfriends, you know. He just goes on dates to look popular.”

Rey set her satchel down on the table and began taking out her books. “I think we need to go over the battles.”

Han appeared in the kitchen doorway, a big smile on his face.

Ben did not set his books down. “I’m amazed he didn’t already have someone lined up, usually he does. This is the first time he ever didn’t have a date to something. No wonder he’s so excited about taking you, now he doesn’t have to go alone.”

Han’s eyes went wide, and he quickly backed into the kitchen again without speaking a word.

Rey directed an icy glare in his direction. “By all means, please continue.”

Ben shifted slightly in place, but his expression remained resolute.

Rey flounced into her chair, slamming her book open. “Battles of the Civil War.”

Ben regarded her for a couple of seconds, then dropped his books on the table with a loud bang and moved around to his chair. “Fine. Battles of the Civil War.”

He flipped his history book open and they sat and read in annoyed silence.

“We should quiz each other,” Rey suggested, letting the tone of her voice tell him that she’d really rather not have to speak to him at the moment.

Ben closed his book over his hand, so that he could find his place again. “Fine, go ahead.” He was clearly not happy to communicate either.

“Fort Sumter.”

“April 12-14, 1861. First battle of the war. Confederates bombarded the fort until the Union forces surrendered.”

Rey nodded, then shut her book, keeping her place the way Ben had, while he opened his and chose a battle.

“Antietam.”

Rey thought for a moment. “August…no, September 17, 1862. Bloodiest battle in American history. Neither side won.”

“Neither side ever really wins,” Ben muttered, and Rey had to admit he had a point.

“Gettysburg,” she said, her voice softer as she thought, Less than a year.

“July 2-4, 1863. Union victory. Most important battle of the war, ended Lee’s hopes of invading the North.” He was beginning to sound less angry.

“July 1-3,” Rey corrected, and he nodded. “So,” she added quietly, “do you think that in 80 years, students will be memorizing the battles of our war, the way we are now with the Civil War?”

“I’m sure they will,” he murmured, then sighed. “You know, I’m sorry for being grumpy and a jerk and not being able to say things right.”

“I’m sorry too,” she responded. “I was kind of rude myself.”

“I hope you have a good time at the dance,” he told her. “I really do.”

“It’s not a date,” she repeated. “Not to me, anyway.”

Ben nodded. After a few seconds of silence, he opened his book again. “Let’s get back to it. Okay...Spotsylvania Court House.”

Chapter Text

May 3, 1941

That afternoon, Francie arrived at the rooming house, her hair in rollers and her arms laden with bags. There was a garment bag with her dress and two pairs of pretty shoes, one for Francie and one for Rey to borrow. There was a smaller bag, which Rey recognized and knew was full of cosmetics.

Once they got up to Rey’s room, Francie opened a third bag and began pulling out various different sizes of rollers, followed by a bottle containing some clear liquid, a bunch of bobby pins, several brushes, combs, and a pair of scissors.

“No,” Rey objected, when the scissors appeared.

“Just for trimming.”

“No.”

Francie sighed and put the scissors back down. She began smoothing her hands over Rey’s hair, her lips pursed in concentration. “Hmmm. You have a nice natural wave going on, here, at the ends. I think we’ll just play that up, instead of doing something crazy.” She lifted her eyebrows at Rey. “Unless you’re in the mood to be daring?”

Rey shook her head firmly. “No.”

“Oh, well,” Francie shrugged, running her fingers through Rey’s hair to check the length in various places.

Rey almost gasped at the sensation. Except for when she’d gotten rough haircuts from Mrs. Cawley when she was a child, no one had touched her hair; once she’d gone to Plutt’s, she’d trimmed it herself. Mrs. Cawley had pulled on her hair as she cut it, as if she was trying to hurt Rey; but Francie’s touch was gentle, almost soothing. Rey had never felt anything like it. She shut her eyes against the unexpected tears that welled up.

Why are you crying? she thought savagely. She’s just doing your hair. Rey swallowed hard and took a deep breath to calm herself, so that her friend wouldn’t notice what an idiot she was being.

“Rey? Did I hurt you?” Francie sounded genuinely concerned.

Rey shook her head, keeping her eyes closed until she was sure the tears wouldn’t be obvious. “Nope.” She smiled up at Francie. “Not at all. Everything is fine.”

Francie examined her closely for a few seconds, then nodded and got back to work. “All right. I’m going to start by setting your hair up in the rollers, and as it dries we’ll do your makeup.”

*****

When a fancy car pulled up in front of the boarding house, Francie departed into the cold, grey late-afternoon light. Armie, his hair slicked back and his face stony, sat in the back seat next to his father, as his sister bounded down the front porch steps in heels so high Rey almost toppled over just looking at them.

Unfortunately, she would be wearing shoes that were only mildly lower. Francie had talked her into borrowing a pair (apparently it was a big deal to have shoes that “completed the ensemble”). Rey decided it wasn’t worth fighting over, especially since she had exactly one pair of shoes, and they were definitely not fit to wear someplace like the Club.

Francie wore a larger size, so they’d had to shove cotton balls in the toes of the shoes in order to make them fit. Rey’s feet already ached a little, and she hadn’t done more than hobble down the stairs to the front room to wait for Poe.

I’ll be crippled before this night is over, she thought, twisting her fingers together and shifting her shoulders to keep her shawl around them.

“You look nice, Rey honey,” one of the boarders – Mr. Swanson – told her, sounding like a fond uncle. The other two men in the room looked up from the radio and gave cursory nods before returning to the broadcast.

Rey had just decided to give her feet some relief by sitting down, when Poe’s car pulled up in front of the house. A fresh throb of worry pulsed through her stomach, as she saw him check his hair in the rearview mirror before exiting the car.

This is a date, isn’t it? She swallowed hard and smoothed the front of her skirt, as he bounded up the front porch steps with a small white box in his hands.

“Is that the Dameron boy?” one of the men at the radio muttered, and they all peered out the window. Rey raised her hands, intending to hide the flush on her cheeks, but then stopped short. Francie would kill her, if her makeup got smudged somehow.

As Maz stepped around from the dining area, dish towel in hand, Mr. Swanson shook his head. “I’ll get this,” he announced. He lumbered past Rey to the front door, pausing momentarily to pull himself up to his full height before opening it. “Yes?” he rumbled, his voice lower than Rey had heard it before.

The attempt at intimidation was met with an onslaught of friendly Dameron charm. “Good evening, sir! I’m here to pick Rey up for the dance.” Rey couldn’t see Poe’s face, but she was certain he was flashing a brilliant smile up at the burly man.

“Ah, yes,” Mr. Swanson mused. “The dance.”

Maz rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “For goodness’ sakes, Swanson, he’s a friend of hers. Everything is fine.” She swooped past Mr. Swanson, who winked at Rey with a gleeful grin and returned to the radio. “Come on in, Poe. She’s right here.”

Rey clasped her hands in front of her and put on a bright smile as Poe glanced over. His eyes immediately went wide, and he gave a low whistle.

“Get a load of you,” he murmured, “all decked out. You look stunning, sweetie!”

“Thanks,” she breathed, hastily adding, “You look nice too,” because it was polite. It was true too, but then Poe always looked nice.

He grinned at her, then chuckled as he remembered the box in his hand. “I’ve got your corsage right here. I hope you like it.”

“I’m sure I will,” she responded, while he opened the box. She started to bite her lip, but stopped herself when she remembered the lipstick Francie had applied.

Rey was relieved by the simplicity of the corsage; it was a white orchid with two small, bright purple sprigs of lavender. A hint of fragrance still clung to the blossoms.

“Do you need me to pin that on her?” Maz asked.

Poe shook his head. “No, it ties around her wrist. Francie Hux would kill me, if I put a hole in this dress, right, sweetie?”

Rey laughed brightly, nodding. Poe grasped her hand and pulled it out to place the corsage on it. She hoped he couldn’t tell she was practically trembling with nerves; then she saw how her hand wavered in the air as he tied the ribbons together in a bow around her wrist, and knew he would notice.

“I wish I had a camera,” Maz smiled. Rey was grateful that she didn’t.

“That’s all right,” Poe assured the older woman. “There’s always photographers at the Formals. I’m sure there’ll be lots of pictures taken of us tonight.”

Oh, dear. Rey frowned slightly.

“Well, my lady fair?” Poe held his arm out to her. “Shall we?”

Rey swallowed and took careful hold, keeping her smile plastered tightly across her face.

Relax and have fun, she told herself. Even if it’s a date, it’s only one. And dates don’t mean anything to him anyway.

*****

Thankfully, the rain had held off; Rey couldn’t imagine what her hair would have looked like if she’d gotten it wet, with all the sugar solution Francie had used to set her curls. When Poe helped her out of the car at the door of the Club, the outside air smelled of damp dust and wet earth, along with the faint scent of magnolia blossoms. A man in a perfectly arrayed uniform approached them. Poe handed him the keys and he gave them a respectful bow.

As Poe led her up the front steps, Rey turned to see what the man was doing. “He parks the car,” Poe explained, “so we can just go right in. He’ll fetch it for us too, afterwards.”

“Oh.”

Then the doors swung open, and Poe ushered Rey into the foyer of the Club.

It was an incredibly grand space, for a foyer – almost twice the size of the Solos’ living room.

An enormous crystal chandelier hung above the middle of the room, casting bright sparkling light across everything. The walls were covered with richly flocked wallpaper in green and gold, accented by deep brown wainscoting, and the rug over the black marble floors was a vibrant forest green. Rey thought about how soft it would feel, if she took off her shoes, which she very much wanted to do.

She’d have liked to sit down, as well. There were plenty of sofas with velvety red upholstering and curved wooden legs scattered throughout the room, but most of them were already taken.

“Let me get this,” Poe murmured, putting his hands on Rey’s shoulders to take her shawl.

“No, I’ll do it,” she blurted, stepping forward slightly and shrugging it off. He caught it as it draped behind her back and gently pulled it from her body. Rey squirmed slightly, feeling a draft of cold across her bare shoulder.

“I’ll be right back, I promise,” he told her, before heading off to the cloak room.

Rey took advantage of his absence to let out a long, steadying breath. The actual dancing seemed to be taking place in the room ahead of her; apparently the foyer was where everyone sat and talked. There were so many quiet conversations woven throughout the room that she found it difficult to hear the band leader, when he began to introduce the next song.

“Oh, look.” Poe was back at her side again. “There’s the photographer. Let’s get a picture, hmm?”

Rey nodded. Poe put his hand at the small of her back to guide her through the crowds. He greeted the photographer with enthusiasm, then positioned himself and Rey so they were tilted towards each other, before telling her, “Smile, sweetie!” Rey attempted to make her dimples appear as the camera flashed.

It was blinding, and it actually hurt for a moment. Rey blinked her eyes once, then a couple more times. There was still a bright imprint of light behind her eyelids, and an oddly dark spot in her vision.

“It wears off,” Poe laughed, watching as she tried to squint it away. “Hey, what do you say we have a dance? It’s what we came here for!”

“I don’t know much about dancing,” Rey admitted.

“Don’t worry. Just follow my lead!”

With that, he swept her off towards the dance floor to the beginning strains of “In The Mood”.

*****

They’d been dancing almost continuously since they’d arrived, in the center of the jostling crowd, and the cotton balls in the toes of Rey’s shoes had gotten compacted down into uncomfortable little nubs. She could feel the sheen of perspiration across her forehead, and she hoped it wasn’t going to ruin her makeup.

Every so often, there would be a burst of bright light from the photographer’s flash bulb, which usually startled her but seemed to have no effect on Poe. At the end of every song, Rey gazed longingly across the room to the table holding the cut-glass punch bowls and the plates of cookies, thinking, surely he’s ready to rest too; but then the music had started up once more, and Poe grabbed her hand for yet another dance.

He was having a grand time. Rey didn’t want to ruin it for him, but the orange-pink liquid in the punch bowl looked so cool and sweet, and she was getting so thirsty.

When the next dance finally ended, Rey clapped for the band politely, trying to keep from rubbing her nose. It itched something fierce, which she figured had to do with the amount of perfume being worn by the girls in the room, and how many different types of perfume they were all wearing. Her head was beginning to ache a bit as well.

She wanted nothing more than a breath of fresh air. But if she asked Poe to escort her outside, he might think she was trying to get him alone for, well, certain reasons. The last thing she wanted was to encourage him in that train of thought.

The band leader introduced the following song, and Rey recognized the title.

Oh my God, a slow dance, she thought, her breath coming out in ragged little jumps.

“Poe!” She leaned towards him, getting close to be sure she was heard. “Could we take a break for a little while?”

For a split second, he looked mildly disappointed, but he recovered quickly. “Sure! Do you want some punch or something?”

“I’d love some,” she sighed, grateful that he had agreed so easily. He took her hand and led the way off the dance floor.

“Oh, look!” Poe exclaimed, and Rey smiled her first real smile of the evening. Francie and Armie were standing halfway between the dance floor and the punch table, scanning the room. “Hey, Huxes!” he called, making a detour in their direction, Rey following happily behind.

Francie beamed in their direction, as soon as she caught sight of them. “See?” She elbowed her brother’s ribs. “What did I tell you?”

“It’s a very nice dress,” he admitted, his eyes roaming over his sister’s handiwork. “And it looks nice on you, Rey.”

“Thank you,” she said, trying not to show her surprise at his compliment.

“So how was dinner?” Poe queried.

As they answered, Rey turned her attention back towards the refreshment table. She was pleased her other friends had joined them, but she would be more pleased if she was able to get a hold of some snacks. And then, from the corner of her eye, she saw a familiar figure, standing turned away from her, just enough that she couldn’t see his face.

It can’t be, can it? He never goes to dances.

She stepped forward slightly, to get a better look.

Turn around, she thought. Just turn around and let me see you.

From behind her, she heard Francie say, “Oh, and hell has frozen over.”

“What?” Poe laughed.

Finally, the figure turned, and Rey had just enough time to think, It is you, before her mind went blank and her breath seemed to stop completely.

She’d never seen Ben dressed like this before, in a tuxedo jacket and bow tie, with his hair combed carefully back, looking polished and decked out and older. Odd, how he looked older, in this moment.

He looks like a man. A very handsome man.

Ben Solo looked handsome tonight, there were no two ways about it. His graceful but strong jaw, his well-defined nose, his beautiful honey brown eyes, his soft dark hair. The little expressions that went flitting across his face, allowing her to almost trace his thoughts as he had them. And the stunned, slightly awed expression on his face, as he gazed at her.

He looks like I feel, she thought, and she caught her breath. As they began to walk towards each other, Rey couldn’t help smiling.

Ben smiled back, a big grin that brought out the dimple lines around his mouth. “Hey,” he greeted.

“Hey! You’re here!” Rey beamed up at him. “I didn’t think you came to these things!”

“I don’t,” he confessed.

“So why…oh.” She gave him a wry look. “Your mother found out about it.”

“Something like that.” He gave a little cough. “So, is that the dress?”

“It is indeed.” Rey swished the skirt from side to side with her hands.

“It’s nice,” he said. “Not that I know anything about dresses, because I don’t. I don’t know if it’s actually nice or not. It could be hideous, and I wouldn’t know…”.

“Ben.” She lifted an eyebrow at him, and he took a breath.

“Yes, well.” He thought for a moment, his eyes drifting over her. “The dress itself doesn’t matter as much as how it looks on you. And it looks pretty.” His mouth shifted a little, and Rey felt a warmth begin to glow, deep in her chest, as he added, more softly, “Really, really pretty.”

“Thanks,” she returned, her voice just as soft. “You look pretty too.”

He made a noise that seemed to be a mixture of a cough and a chuckle.

“No, not pretty,” Rey corrected, her cheeks flushing red. “I don’t mean, pretty like a girl. I mean…,” She stumbled over what to say, and settled for something that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. “I mean, you clean up handsomely.”

“Ben Solo!” Poe’s voice rang out just behind her ear, and Rey startled slightly. “I can’t believe you’re here, buddy! What possessed you to show up to one of these things?” He reached past her and clasped Ben’s hand in a firm, welcoming shake.

“Well…”, Ben began, but Poe cut him off.

“You got a date with you?”

Rey felt an ice-cold twinge of discomfort. She hadn’t considered the possibility of Ben bringing a date. She glanced around to see if there was a girl in his vicinity.

He’s never said anything about wanting to date anyone, but maybe he got set up with someone. Maybe his mother decided he needed a date and arranged something for him. She’d do that. I wonder who it is. I wonder if he likes her….

“Did you honestly expect me to bring someone?” Ben countered, and Rey let out a relieved breath.

“They say miracles do happen,” Armie noted.

“You don’t have a date either,” Ben reminded him.

“Nor do I,” Francie sniffed.

And I didn’t intend to, Rey wanted to add, but Poe was right next to her. He was only half paying attention to the conversation. The band had launched into “Sing Sing Sing”, and he had his eyes on the dance floor.

Again? Rey thought. But I didn’t get any punch yet.

Poe turned his head back to look at them, but his body was already beginning to move in the direction of the bandstand, his hand on Rey’s arm.

“Well, I do have a date,” he announced, “and my date and I are going to take another dance. Come on, sweetie!”

Rey turned to look back at her friends as Poe led her away. Ben was watching them, his brow furrowed.

“Don’t leave,” she commanded, hoping he would hear her.

“I won’t,” he shook his head, and she lost sight of him in the crowd.

Rey was starting to feel better about the evening.

She wasn’t one of the polished society girls who had perfect lipstick and dainty, well-fitting shoes, but she was here, and she could still have a good time even though her head and feet hurt.

She put all her concentration into keeping up with Poe as they danced, trying to anticipate his next move.

Then she caught a glimpse of the Hux twins, who had decided to dance together. It was almost comical at first, since Francie was taller than Armie even without her heels, and more likely to take the lead. But it didn’t take long for Rey to realize that the Huxes were amazing dance partners.

They certainly didn’t seem to be scrambling to keep up with each other, the way Rey was with Poe. She was working so hard at it that she had a stitch in her side and the hair at the back of her neck was wet.

She caught a brief glimpse of Ben, standing stiffly against a wall, watching the dancers with a distracted frown. His suit jacket was crumpled oddly beneath his arms because his hands were stuffed so deeply in his pockets.

Rey redoubled her dancing efforts, trying to make herself look as effortless and graceful as Francie.

When the music stopped, she joined in the applause, then tilted her head firmly towards the refreshment table, to let Poe know that she still wanted something to eat and drink. As they threaded their way off the dance floor, a group of boys from Poe’s class intercepted him, chattering and laughing at full volume, and Rey took advantage of the distraction to make a direct beeline for the cookies.

She had one in each hand and was taking a deeply grateful bite, when Ben appeared next to her, a glass of punch in his hand.

“Would you like a drink?” he asked.

Rey nodded, her mouth too full of cookie to make a polite response, and reached out to take the glass from him, forgetting that the cookies left her no way to hold a glass. Ben stifled a fond smirk, as she tried to figure out how to manage the dilemma.

“Here,” he offered, holding out his other hand. “I can hold one. I promise not to eat it.”

She wrinkled her nose at him and moved to exchange the uneaten cookie for the glass of punch. There was a moment of confusion as they attempted to trade the glass and the cookie. It should have been a simple transaction, but for some reason neither of them could figure it out. They eventually managed to giggle their way through it, and Ben held the cookie carefully as Rey drained the entire glass of punch in one go.

“More?” he asked, his eyes intent on her face.

“Yes, please. Thank you.” She handed him the empty punch glass, and he turned to leave. “Ben!” He looked back at her, seemingly puzzled at the sharp outburst, until he saw her outstretched hand.

“Sorry.” He handed over the cookie he’d been holding for her. “Here you go.”

By the time he returned with her glass full of punch, along with one for himself, Rey had finished the second cookie. As they stood silently, sipping at their drinks, Rey felt her shoulders beginning to relax. Her cheek muscles didn’t ache nearly as much as they had all evening, even though she was still smiling.

Her feet, however, were cramped and miserable. She stood on one foot, and then the other, trying to take pressure off, hoping it would help.

“We could sit down,” Ben suggested.

She considered it for a moment, then shook her head. “I think we’d have to fight someone to get chairs.”

He scanned the room. “All we need is one chair. I don’t need to sit.”

Rey tried to imagine how far Ben would have to bend over to talk to her in all this noise if she were sitting and he wasn’t. He wouldn’t be comfortable for long.

“It’s fine,” she hastened to say. “I can keep standing. My feet don’t hurt that much.”

Ben regarded her with a dubiously cocked eyebrow. She shrugged in defiance and turned back to the dance floor. As she did, she saw the corners of his mouth twitch upwards.

They watched the dancers in comfortable silence, until the song ended. As the crowd applauded and the band moved around the stage to a different setup, Ben asked, “So your feet are fine?”

“That’s what I said,” she responded, keeping her voice bright.

He cleared his throat with a cough. “I guess you could keep dancing, then?”

“Of course,” she responded, unwilling to admit she’d been fibbing.

“May I have the next one?” He sounded off-handed about it. Rey wasn’t sure if he really wanted to dance or if he was just calling her bluff, but her heart thumped hard against her ribs anyway.

“Sure,” she answered, keeping her eyes on the band. “Well, except I’m not sure I’m up for being tossed around the floor again.”

“We could wait for a slower song,” Ben offered, his eyes following the other partygoers in the room. “All you really have to do then is move back and forth from one foot to the other.”

“That is true,” she mused.

The band leader stepped forward and introduced their girl singer, who adjusted the microphone and made a few lighthearted comments about being glad to be with all of them that evening. Of course, she was pretty, and Rey quickly glanced over at Ben to see if he noticed. She smiled to herself when she realized he wasn’t even looking at the stage.

He’d been looking at her. She was fairly sure about it, even though he turned away quickly. And she felt herself quiver, as she hastily looked away from him.

She held her punch cup up to her cheek to cool down. We look at each other all the time, she scolded herself. Why am I behaving like this?

Dances certainly were strange. People got all dressed up and looked handsome. That one, simple change made other intelligent, rational people forget themselves. For no good reason.

Rey had just about talked herself into behaving more rationally and intelligently when the band struck up the next song. It was the one Francie had played at the recital, the gorgeous, bittersweet love song she had wondered about.

And it was a slower song.

She and Ben looked at each other at the same time. He raised his eyebrows and nodded towards the dance floor, and she smiled and shrugged in agreement. He took her punch glass and put it on a nearby table, as Rey floated out onto the dance floor.

She spun around to see Ben following closely behind, his hand held out to her. She reached out for him without a second thought, and he sent her twirling under his arm. When she came back around to face him, he was chuckling.

“You don’t have to bend quite so far down, you know,” he reminded her.

She laughed. “You’re the tallest person I’ve ever danced with,” she explained. “I usually have to duck a bit, and I’m in these heels tonight.”

He gave her shoes an offended glare. “Why are you wearing those, anyway?”

“Francie said…”.

Francie,” he sighed in irritation.

“Ben.” She fixed him with a stern glance.

He looked sheepish for a moment, then nodded and reached out to hold her.

Rey had danced to slow songs in her life. Not often -- only with Finn, when they were kids at the Cawley’s and the radio played, and no one was around and they could pretend that they were adults at a swanky party – but she had done it.

So when his hand went to her waist she automatically rested hers on his shoulder. He felt solid underneath her hand, stable and strong, and she hadn’t been expecting quite how much. Most of the time, he was hunched in on himself, looking smaller and skinnier somehow, but that was not the truth of it. Not at all. He was all firmness and muscle, probably from using his punching bag.

Rey had a sudden memory of talking to Francie about touching a man’s chest. She took a hasty breath and tried to concentrate on something else.

His hands. His hands felt so nice, both the one against her waist and the one that was holding hers. He ran warmer than most people – she knew that – but it was one thing to know it and another thing to feel the heat of him seeping through the cloth of her dress, spreading slowly across her skin. The hand that was enveloping hers was large and secure and safe. There were calluses on his fingers, slighter than the ones on hers and in different places, but his skin was soft enough to be soothing. She wondered what it would feel like to twine her fingers in his.

He was warm all over. Rey wanted to hover closer and closer to that warmth, as she did around a fireplace on a chilly day.

Her face certainly felt as if she were standing in front of a fire -- she wondered how flushed she was.

She took a deep breath. “So we just have to move our feet from side to side, right?”

“Well, there are some steps,” he admitted, “but they’re not difficult. It’s…well, just…here, watch.” They both looked down to their feet on the floor, Ben counting softly and Rey following his moves with hers. It was true, she didn’t know the exact steps, but she probably knew more than she was letting on.

It was just easier to look at the floor than at him. She didn’t know why, and she didn’t want to think about it too much.

Ben was still counting softly. “…three, four, and …”. His hand on her waist guided her into another twirl. Rey giggled, relieved by the distraction, and made sure not to bend down this time.

She came out of the twirl with a happy smile, to find him grinning back at her, his eyes shining. He’s so beautiful when he smiles, she thought. He needs to smile more often.

The photographer’s flash bulb went off somewhere close by, but Rey didn’t startle this time.

Honey caramel around the edges, flecked with gold, dark chocolate in the middle. Not dark like when he’s angry. A different dark. Midnight dark.

Rey realized that they were looking at each other now, not at their feet. She couldn’t keep staring into his eyes, it was too…well, she couldn’t think of the right word, but it was too something. She didn’t know where else she should be focusing, though – his nose, his chin, his lips?

She moved closer and put her head near his shoulders, almost as if they were dancing cheek-to-cheek, so she didn’t have to look at him directly. She didn’t actually rest her cheek against his, because he was too tall. Also, because it would have been forward. And embarrassing.

Ben smelled good. He must have been one of the only people in the room not doused in some kind of perfume or cologne – well, besides Rey – and he smelled like spice and coffee and a bit like a forest. That’s probably aftershave, she told herself, no one smells like a forest. If the whole room had smelled like him, she wouldn’t have gotten a headache.

She realized her head didn’t hurt as much as it had before.

They were only half-following the dance steps at this point, more like shifting back and forth in a bit of a pattern. Rey found herself studying a small curl in his hair where it rested against the back collar of his jacket, and thinking about what it would feel like to play with it.

Then she felt Ben’s arm lift, and the hand at her waist guided her into a final twirl as the last notes of the song unfurled around them, and she felt almost giddy.

“Thank you for the dance, my lady,” he said, giving her a tiny bow.

“Thank you, my good sir,” she responded, with a little curtsy.

They joined the rest of the crowd in clapping in appreciation. Then before the band could strike up the next number they began weaving their way back over to where the Huxes and Poe stood, watching them. Armie inclined his head towards his sister and whispered something to her. Poe’s face was unreadable.

As she approached the group, Rey asked Francie, “What was the name of that song?”

“Hmm?” Francie had been staring at her brother with a raised eyebrow.

“You sang that song at your recital. What is it?”

“Oh, that. I’m surprised you haven’t heard it before.”

“Are those your shoes, Francie?” Ben came up behind Rey. “They’re not her size, it’s not…”.

Rey nudged him with her elbow. He pursed his lips into a thin line and shoved his hands into his pockets.

Francie ignored the interruption. “'I’ll Be Seeing You',” she told Rey. “It’s quite lovely.”

“It’s sad and depressing,” Armie muttered.

“It’s melancholy and bittersweet.” Francie corrected. “There’s a difference.”

“It’s sort of, missing someone but hopeful for the future,” Rey added.

Armie rolled his eyes. “If you say so.”

Rey nodded at him boldly. “I do.”

“So do I.” Francie copied Rey’s nod. Armie gave his twin an exasperated squint.

“Sorry for abandoning you back there,” Poe apologized to Rey. “I got caught up in a conversation.”

She didn’t see what he needed to apologize for. “It’s all right,” she told him. “Ben danced with me.”

“Yes, I saw.” His eyes drifted to where Ben and Armie stood slightly apart from the rest of them, heads bent in discussion. “How about we get this one, then?” He turned a wide, dazzling smile on her, as he reached for her hand.

Before Rey could respond, she was being led back out onto the dance floor. She barely had time to glance back at the rest of her friends, before Poe was energetically swinging her around once again. The twins were now engaged in what appeared to be a debate, while Ben stared after her and Poe with a clenched jaw.

It was a fast number, and Rey had to concentrate on keeping a pleasant expression on her face, as she struggled to keep up with her quicksilver dance partner. As he spun her around, she stumbled and felt her foot twist beneath her. A shock of pain raced from her ankle up her leg, and if Poe hadn’t caught her and held her up she would have had a spectacular fall right there in front of everybody.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” Poe asked, still moving to the beat of the music.

“Mm-hmm,” she nodded, cautiously putting weight on her injured foot, desperate not to be humiliated in front of the entire room.

It hurt. It really hurt.

“No,” she said then. “No, I’m not.”

“Here, let’s go sit down.” Poe took her arm and began trying to lead her back to the side, as other dancers whirled around the floor.

He had taken her right arm, but it was her left foot that was injured, and so Rey found herself supported where she needed support least. It was a struggle cutting between dancing pairs, hopping along on her good leg in the high heels, as Poe held her elbow. As she took the next hop, her foot landed awkwardly on the edge of her high heel.

She wondered if she’d be trampled by the other dancers if she fell over on her way to the chairs. That would make an interesting picture for the photographer.

She heard Ben’s voice at her left side, saying, “Here, I’ve got you.”

He bent himself low enough for her to sling her arm across his shoulders, and he braced her with an arm around her waist. This was a better and faster way to go, using Poe’s arm as leverage for hopping with Ben’s support on her injured side, and it didn’t take long before they had reached the chairs along the side of the room. When they saw that Rey was injured, people stood up and moved politely away.

The Huxes came rushing over, as the boys settled her into a chair. Francie pulled an empty seat up in front of Rey, facing her, and carefully lifted Rey’s foot into her lap.

As her friend delicately touched her ankle, Rey let out a quiet hiss of pain.

“I think it’s sprained,” Francie sighed, then looked up to the boys, who were crowding around them, looking helpless. “Well? Is anyone going to get her some ice?”

Ben and Poe looked at each other. Francie huffed.

“Dameron, go get the ice,” she ordered. “Armie, see if Dr. Amundsen is here tonight. Solo, you stay put until I need you for something.”

“Dr. Amundsen?” Rey asked, as Ben took a seat in the chair beside her.

“You need to have it looked at,” he confirmed.

“No,” Rey shook her head. “I mean, it doesn’t feel too bad right now.”

“That’s because you’re sitting down,” he pointed out, then turned back to Francie. “Tell her.”

“You need to see a doctor,” Francie admonished.

“I’d rather just rest it until tomorrow and then see how it’s doing.”

Dr. Amundsen was the rich people’s doctor, and Rey had no idea how much he might charge. Dr. Barclay was probably more affordable, and he’d treated her once or twice when she was little. She knew he was a kind man. If she had to see a doctor – which she didn’t believe she did – Rey would rather see him.

Poe reappeared with some ice rolled up in a piece of cloth; Rey had no idea how he’d managed to fetch it and return so quickly. “If someone’s got a couple of safety pins, we can fasten it together at the ends and it’ll stay around her ankle without her having to hold it there,” he offered.

“That’s actually a good idea.” Francie sounded surprised. “And I did bring some safety pins, in case something happened with the dress.” She gazed at Poe for a few seconds before saying, “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Are you going to go get my purse?”

“Cloak room?” he sighed, and she nodded.

Poe headed off in search of Francie’s purse. Ben shifted in his seat next to Rey and noted, “It looks like it’s beginning to swell.”

“Ben. Don’t start,” Rey groused, feeling sharper than usual because of the pain. “I am fine.”

“Don’t be mad at him.” Francie pointed at her. “He’s just worried about you.”

Ben shifted uneasily beside her. “All of us are,” he muttered.

“I’m not mad at you,” Rey mumbled back, suddenly aware of the fact that he was resting his hand on the back of her chair. “Not really.”

“Give it a couple of minutes,” he murmured. “I’m sure that’ll change.”

She couldn’t help but giggle, as Poe reappeared with the purse, but the giggle ended in a tiny squeak of pain as Francie turned to take the purse and jostled her ankle in the process.

Rey bit her lip, as her friend carefully wrapped the ice-laden towel around her ankle and pinned the cloth together.

“Don’t stick her with the pin,” Ben warned. Francie stilled and glared up at him. He shifted closer to Rey and glared back as the photographer’s light flashed nearby.

Armie reappeared, all out of breath. “Dr. Amundsen is not here.”

“Did you bring your car?” Ben asked Poe.

“Of course I did,” Poe responded. “I drove her here tonight, remember? And I’m driving her home, but not until she’s ready to leave. Do you want to stay a little longer, sweetie?”

Rey’s ankle was throbbing, just like her head. She knew people were staring at her and whispering. She was Poe’s guest, though, and he was clearly hoping to stay longer. She wasn’t sure it would be polite to go. “Well…,” she began, but Ben cut her off.

“Give me your keys,” he told Poe. “I’ll drive her home and you can stay.”

“I’m not giving you my keys,” Poe scoffed.

“Then I’ll call for my parents’ car to come get us.” Ben’s voice was firm. “Rey needs to go to a doctor…”.

“No, I don’t,” Rey interjected.

“…or go home,” he amended.

Poe gave her an appraising look, and she decided to be completely honest.

“I’d like to go home,” she confirmed. “Poe, if you want to stay a little longer, Ben can take me. I don’t mind, and I don’t want you to miss the party.”

It took Poe a second to respond.

“No, kewpie doll, that’s all right.” He smiled at Rey again. “You should go home and rest your foot. I’ll go pull the car up to the door.”

“Get her shawl from the cloak room,” Francie told her brother.

“What does it look like?”

“It’s probably under Dameron’s name.”

“Oh, right.”

Francie shooed him away with her hand, then turned back to Rey. “Are you going to be able to make it to the door?”

“I think so.” Rey bit her lip again. She’d managed to get to the chairs with Ben and Poe’s help; if they would be willing to help her again, she’d be able to get to the car. But she wouldn’t be able to do it without their help.

Then she thought about going to school, and working at the café, and everything else that she normally did.

I probably won’t be able to do any of it for the next few days, at least. I’ll have to stay home in bed. Maz will have to bring me food and do things for me.

I’ll be helpless.

Rey felt unexpected tears welling up in her eyes. She gave an angry sigh and let herself fall against the back of her chair, anxiety and frustration roiling around in her head.

“Hey,” Ben coaxed. “It’ll be all right.”

“But school, and work, and…”.

Ben rustled through his pockets to find a handkerchief for her. She giggled through her tears, as she imagined Leia Skywalker Solo shoving multiple handkerchiefs into the pockets of her son’s suit as he tried to leave the house.

“I’ll bring your books over, or Francie will,” he promised, his voice low and soothing. “Right?”

Francie nodded, her eyes moving back and forth between Ben and Rey.

“And Maz will make sure you have anything you need, and so will we,” he continued.

“I don’t want anyone to take care of me,” Rey protested through the handkerchief, as she wiped her cheeks. “I need to take care of myself.”

“And you will,” Francie reassured her. “We’re just going to help you a little until your ankle heals. That’s what friends do, Rey. Don’t be silly about it.”

“She’s not being silly about it,” Ben replied. His gaze was soft and intense as he added, “It’s all right, Rey. You’re not alone anymore.”

Rey sniffled, and then reluctantly nodded, shifting closer to Ben and his warmth. She sat in silence, wiping her eyes, until Armie reappeared with her shawl.

“This it?” He held it out to her.

“Mmm-hmm,” she nodded, reaching out to take it, but Ben got to it first.

“Here,” he said, laying it carefully around her shoulders.

“Thank you,” Rey said humbly, and wiped her nose so she didn’t have to sniffle again.

“How should we get her out there?” Armie asked, as Ben stood up.

“I’ve got her,” Ben told him.

Rey reached out her hand so he could help her up, but he ignored it and bent over her instead. She let out a gasp of surprise and grabbed at his shoulders when he scooped her up into his arms with ease, careful to catch her skirt against her legs so it wouldn’t fall open.

“Um,” he said, staring at the floor. “I probably should have asked first. Is this all right?”

Rey nodded. He was still staring at the floor, though, so he didn’t see it, and he asked again, more hesitantly.

“Is it? All right?”

Rey nodded again, but this time she added a word. “Yes.”

He looked up at her face, and as she gazed back at him, a bright flash went off right in front of them. Rey squinted and turned towards the photographer.

“Aw, that’s nice,” he told them.

“She’s hurt,” Ben growled. “How is that nice?”

“I meant the picture…,” the man tried to explain, but Ben strode past without another word, Rey clinging tightly to him.

He’s so strong, she thought. He’s holding me up and it seems so easy for him.

To Rey, it felt almost like flying.

Poe had pulled the car up to the front of the building by the time they made it outside. Ben dipped down slightly so Rey could reach the handle and open the front door. As soon as he slid her inside, he shut her door and climbed into the back seat.

“All settled?” Poe asked Rey, and she nodded. She could still feel the warmth of Ben’s arms across her back and under her legs; it felt so good, it almost overtook the pain from her injured ankle. She leaned her head against her window and watched the trees and buildings and homes slide by as they drove back to the rooming house.

Mr. Swanson and Mr. McHale were playing cards in the front room, and they looked up in alarm as Ben carried Rey through the doorway, Poe trailing along behind them.

“What happened?” Mr. Swanson thundered.

Ben was moving rapidly towards the staircase, and Rey had to lean over his shoulder to answer. “I twisted my foot,” she explained, “but it’s fine.”

“It was an accident,” she heard Poe tell the men. “She was dancing and she just turned her ankle.”

Once the door to her room was opened and Rey had flicked the light switch, Ben carefully set her down in her armchair.

“Okay?” he asked. Poe’s footsteps sounded on the stairs.

Rey nodded and bent down to reach for her ice pack, which had shifted away from her ankle.

Ben turned to Poe, who had just come into the room. “I think we should let Maz know about this. Can you get her?”

“She’s next door,” Rey directed, as she struggled to adjust the cloth.

“Here, let me do it,” Ben said. He kneeled in front of her, as Poe reluctantly backed out of the room.

Rey sat back up and watched as Ben re-adjusted her ice pack. She could hear Poe knocking on Maz’s door, then knocking again, but her attention was elsewhere.

Ben’s hands looked so large against her leg, but they were moving with surprising grace and care. He undid one of the safety pins to adjust the cloth, and then slowly pinned it back again. He took care to make sure the sharp needle was as far from her skin as possible. Rey couldn’t see his face at all, just the top of his head as he bent down over her foot. She wondered what it would feel like if she reached out and ran her fingers through his hair. A little shiver went through her stomach.

Once the ice was securely fastened, Ben put one hand around the back of her other calf, just above her ankle, lifted her leg slightly and removed her shoe for her. Then he moved back to her injured leg and repeated the gesture. His hand was so warm against her skin, even through her stockings.

Maybe it was the contrast between the cold of the ice and the warmth of his hand just above it; maybe it was simply that she’d never had anyone touch her leg like that before. Maybe it was the easy, soft way that he slipped off her shoes, or the fact that her face was so close to the top of his head that she could smell his shampoo and the glorious foresty scent of his aftershave. Or maybe it was the memory of what it had felt like when he cradled her on their way up the stairs.

Whatever the reason, Rey was…oh, she didn’t know what she was. All she knew was that she was flushed and hot all over, with sweat beading on her forehead, and her breaths were shallow and quick. She had a nervous, jumpy feeling in her lower abdomen that was quickly becoming a pleasant but insistent burn, and on top of all that, she was trembling.

Even though her shoes were now off, Ben hadn’t removed his hand from the back of her calf. She should have gently pulled away, with a reproving look to remind him to behave appropriately. It would have been the proper thing to do.

But she didn’t want him to take his hand off her leg. What she wanted, more than anything, was for him to slide it up a little bit higher. Her skin tingled under his touch, and there was an ache in the very core of her body when she thought of that tingle spreading as his hand moved.

She stared down at him, watching the soft waves of his hair quivering on top of his head, and she wanted him to look up at her. She wanted it more fiercely than she’d wanted anything in her life.

But she was terrified by the thought of what might happen if he did look up. Because if he did, if his eyes met hers right now...well, who knew what she might do?

“Oh, child, what happened?” Maz bustled into the room, Poe right behind her. Ben hastily rose and went to stand at the counter, hands shoved into his pockets. Rey looked away from Maz to hide the blush on her cheeks. “Do you need to go to the doctor?”

“Ben thinks so,” Poe declared, as Maz knelt by Rey’s ankle, “but Rey would rather wait.”

“It might get better overnight,” Rey added quickly, hoping her voice didn’t sound as husky as she thought it did.

“We’ll see,” Maz mused, squinting as she tried to see around the ice-laden cloth. She rose slowly from her position on the floor, bracing herself on the arm of Rey’s chair. “Thank you very much for your help tonight, gentlemen.”

“Yes, thank you,” Rey added, steadfastly staring at her ankle.

“Feel better, sweetie, okay?” Poe reached out and took her hand, then bent to courteously plant a kiss on it. “I’ll come by tomorrow and see how you’re doing.” He straightened up and looked towards his friend. “You coming, Ben?”

Ben nodded quickly, tossing a muffled “See you,” at Rey on his way out the door. He kept his eyes on the ground as he left.

Maz watched them go, her brow furrowed slightly, and then she turned back to Rey.

“Let’s get you situated for tonight, and then in the morning I’ll call Dr. Barclay. Oh, yes, I will,” she declared, as Rey opened her mouth to argue. “I am your guardian, and I want the doctor to take a look at you. Don’t give me any backtalk.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Now that she was alone with her guardian, Rey was too tired and too hurt to fight about it any longer. And judging by the look on Maz’s face, she’d end up losing the argument anyway.

The older woman’s voice softened. “I’ll draw you a nice bath, so you can relax,” she soothed, “and get you something to drink and some aspirin for the pain. Then we’ll get you all tucked in and comfortable for the night, hmmm?” She smoothed a lock of hair back from Rey’s forehead.

Rey felt her eyes growing wet again at the kindness in Maz’s touch, so she nodded instead of speaking.

“All right, honey.” Maz patted her shoulder lightly. “I’ll be right back.”

Rey vaguely heard her guardian shuffle off to fill the tub, but she didn’t look up. She kept her eyes locked on the floor, where Ben Solo had knelt in front of her, his hand resting gently on the back of her calf.

You’re not alone anymore, he’d told her.

And tears slid down her cheeks, as she realized that she was beginning to believe it.

Chapter Text

May 4, 1941

Rey was exhausted. The night had been miserable; every time she started drifting off, she’d shift or turn somehow, and there’d be a sharp flash of pain from her ankle. Then she’d come roaring back into wakefulness with teary eyes and a clenched jaw, trying not to scream in frustration and fatigue.

It hadn’t been the worst pain she’d ever felt. But she’d been trying so hard to fall asleep, and every time she got close, she was jolted awake again.

Rey caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror that morning, as she lowered herself carefully onto the toilet. She looked as bad as she felt. There were dark circles under her red-rimmed, swollen eyes, her hair was a jumbled tangle, and her face was pinched and drawn and pale.

She sighed and shivered miserably on the cold porcelain.

“Are you ready to go back to bed yet, honey?” Maz’s voice was muffled by the closed door, where she was waiting to help Rey back to bed.

Rey closed her eyes and nodded, before remembering that Maz couldn’t see her. “Yes, but give me a minute.”

She was going to stand up on her own and pull up her own pants. It was humiliating enough to have to be helped to the bathroom in the first place.

After she’d settled back in bed, Maz disappeared down the hall, only to return with an armload of extra blankets and a big pillow.

“We’ll put your foot up on this,” she told Rey. “It’s a chilly morning for May, so I’ve brought you some extra blankets.”

Rey tried to hold back a squeak of pain as Maz gently lifted her leg onto the pillows. Maz gave her a knowing glance while she shook open one of the extra blankets.

“I’m going to bring you up a tray from breakfast, and then I’ll get Dr. Barclay here to take a look at you.”

*****

The doctor was as kind as she remembered, giving Rey a paternal smile as he asked a few questions about how it had happened and what she had been doing to treat it. He was gentle as he examined her injury, his fingers tracing lightly over the bruising that lay just below the ankle bone.

“It’s definitely a sprain.” He looked at her over the rim of his wire glasses. “I’d like you to stay off it for the next several days.”

Rey felt a shock of tears well up behind her eyes.

“Keep it elevated, iced when possible,” he directed Maz, who was sitting in Rey’s armchair. “She’ll need to take aspirin for the pain and swelling, two tablets. Wait at least six hours before giving her another dose.”

“We can do a few days, can’t we, child?” Maz smiled at Rey, who blinked hard and nodded.

Dr. Barclay turned back to Rey again. “I’ll come back on Wednesday. I expect it will be better by then. Depending on how it looks, I might give you crutches, but you probably won’t need them for long.”

Rey tried to keep her voice from quavering. “Can I get out of bed at all?”

“Well, you can go to the washroom, or take a bath. Maybe tomorrow, you can move over to sit in the chair,” he told her. “But I don’t want you going downstairs, or anywhere outside this room, until I’ve seen you again. Remember, the more you let it rest, the sooner it will heal.”

“How about work on Saturday?” Rey wanted to know. “I waitress at the café. Will I be able to do that by Saturday?”

He shook his head gently. “I don’t think so, honey.”

“Rey.” Maz rose and stood next to the doctor. “I don’t want you to worry about that. I want you to get well first. Lusica can cover for you. Lord knows, you’ve covered for her enough times.”

Rey felt a tear escape from the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand. She saw Maz and Dr. Barclay exchange a look, and he reached for his doctor bag.

“I’ll see you Wednesday, Rey,” he affirmed. “Until then, stay as still as you can.”

Rey nodded, and wiped away another tear as her guardian followed the doctor out of the room. Her hands were shaking, and her head hurt almost as much as her ankle.

After they left, the room filled with a suffocating quiet; she imagined this was what it would sound like, if she were buried under a thick layer of cotton. Every other noise was so far away. Everything else in the world was so far away.

A wild, nervous misery was rising in her chest, and she took a deep breath to keep herself from giving in to it and sobbing.

It’s just a couple of days. Just a couple of days.

A couple of days, in which she would unable to get herself food. Unable to take the most basic care of herself. Unable to even be seen, out in the world, where everybody else was.

And she couldn’t do anything about it, because she was trapped. By her own stupid leg.

Rey clenched her jaw and beat her fists against the mattress on either side of her hips. Despite her best efforts to muffle them, little squeals of rage and anxiety escaped. She flailed her fists and ground her teeth until she began to feel dizzy; then, she sagged back against her pillows, taking deep gulps of air. Her face itched, where her tears were trickling down.

Stop being ridiculous, Rey scolded herself, clearing her tears away with a fierce swipe of her fists. It’s only a couple of days. This is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to you.

She reminded herself that she was lucky. Maz didn’t seem to mind bringing her food and taking care of her, and Lusica did owe her one (more than one, but Rey wasn’t counting). She’d be able to catch up with everything she missed in school if she worked hard. Especially if Ben and Francie brought her assignments over, like they’d said they would.

Ben.

Rey bit her lip as a flood of memories from the dance poured through her mind.

There had been a kind of magical feeling to everything the night before, once Ben had shown up. How everything had sounded, looked, felt – all so unordinary, so extraordinary. Why was that?

He’s just Ben. My friend. One of my best friends, even though he’s surly, rude, and demanding. But he’s kind, and funny, and beautiful, too. And strong, my goodness, he lifted me like I was a feather, and he’d never have dropped me. I know that.

Her eyes fell on the armchair, where it sat innocently against the wall. She felt a sudden jolt of heat run through her body.

Rey shivered and scrunched her eyes shut. You are being silly, she told herself. It’s not that way, with us.

Even if she did react to him in a certain way, well, he clearly didn’t react to her the same. He’d basically bolted out of the room last night -- he didn’t even look at her on his way out the door. If he’d had the same reaction, he would have…well, she didn’t know what he would have done, she’d never been in such a position before.

But he wouldn’t have run away so fast. Rey was certain about that.

And it was fine, really.

He was still one of her best friends, and that was all that mattered. And she wasn’t going to think about it anymore.

Rey reached over to her nightstand and grabbed one of the books on top of it, not even checking to see which one she’d taken. She just needed to focus on something other than her ridiculous reaction to Ben Solo.

*****

Rey had been attempting to read for hours. She’d get about a page along, and then her eyes would begin to drift shut. She’d let herself lie there, hoping she’d be able to fall asleep, but she never did.

She’d been through several frustrating rounds of almost-sleep when there was a quiet knock on the door.

“Rey?” Maz was almost whispering, as if she was trying not to wake Rey up.

“I’m awake.”

Unfortunately.

“Are you in the mood for a visitor? Poe Dameron is here.”

“Um…,” Rey pushed herself up so that she was sitting straight, and pulled a blanket up across her chest. “Okay, I’m ready.”

The door opened to reveal Poe standing on the threshold, a bouquet of flowers in his hand.

“It’s all right, you can go on in,” Maz confirmed, then put her hand on his arm to stop him from actually doing so. “This door stays open,” she directed, regarding him with a firm stare.

“Yes, ma’am.” Poe ducked his head in agreement.

Maz nodded and reached for the flowers. “Can I put those in water for you? I’ll bring them back up later.”

“Thank you,” Poe handed the flowers over and Maz disappeared down the hall.

He stepped inside the room, but didn’t approach the bed. “Hey, sweetie. How are you feeling?”

“I’m all right,” Rey informed him, even though she wasn’t. “You can pull a chair up, if you want.”

“Oh, sure.” He took one of the wooden chairs from her table and moved it nearer to the bed.

“Did the doctor take a look?” he asked as he sat.

Rey nodded. “It’s sprained. I have to stay home until Wednesday, and then he’ll check again and see how it is.”

“Three days off school? That’ll be nice!”

“I guess. But I’m kind of worried about getting behind.”

“Aw, don’t worry!” He shifted forward, and for a second Rey thought he might try to take her hand. She hoped she hadn’t flinched too noticeably. “We’ll keep you up with it. Solo and Francine are working all that out. They’re going to bring your books by after school every day.”

“I don’t want to cause so much trouble,” Rey fretted.

“Neither one of them thinks it’s trouble,” he assured her, but she interrupted before he could say more, her words coming out in a rush.

“Poe, I’m sorry I got hurt. I know you were having such a good time, and I didn’t mean to put a damper on your evening or make you leave early…,”

“Don’t apologize,” he interrupted. “It wasn’t your fault.” He grinned. “Besides, I wound up going back anyway, after I dropped Solo off. Not to worry, I didn’t miss anything. I was more concerned about you being hurt.”

“So, Ben went home right away?” Rey looked down, watching her fingers play with the edge of her blanket.

“Of course, he did. And don’t you feel bad about that, either,” Poe consoled her. “He never goes to those things. It was a miracle he showed up at all. I couldn’t figure out what prompted it, but…”. He pursed his lips, looking thoughtful, before shrugging. “He does what he does.”

Rey nodded, giving the edge of her blanket one more swipe with her fingers.

“Hey,” Poe said, and his tone was unexpectedly gentle. Rey looked up in surprise. “Listen. You did have some fun, didn’t you?”

“Yes, of course!” she reassured him, because she had, once Ben had arrived.

He gazed at her for a moment, his eyes sympathetic. “Yeah, but…it was a little overwhelming for you, wasn’t it?”

Rey’s eyes welled up with tears, and she looked back down at the blanket. “Kind of,” she replied in a small voice.

She’d known the whole time that she was out of her place. But how to explain that to someone like Poe? He’d never felt out of place a day in his life.

And he’d been a charming companion, but that didn’t mean she wanted to go on more dates with him. She wasn’t sure how to explain that without hurting his feelings, which she didn’t want to do. He was a good friend, after all. He could be a bit careless, maybe, about what other people might be thinking, but he was still a good friend.

Poe was the one who had first invited her to sit at lunch with everyone. He was the one who had made her a part of that group. He’d practically given her group of friends to her.

If she hurt him, or offended him, she didn’t know if he’d still be her friend.

On the other hand, she couldn’t just keep going on without saying anything. That’s not what a friend would do. And even if he didn’t want to be her friend, she was still his.

I’m so tired, she thought, closing her eyes. Why do we have to have this conversation when I’m so tired?

“Poe,” she said, and stopped short.

“What, sweetie?”

She felt a tear slip down past her cheek, and she wiped it away.

“Rey?” Poe took her hand in his. He was trying to comfort her, but all it did was drive home the fact that she didn’t want to hold his hand.

I have to do this, she thought, her stomach churning. I have to.

“I just…”. She cleared her throat and sniffled. “I really like you, as a friend, and I’m glad I know you, you’ve been so nice to me…and I want to keep being your friend and I just….”

“Oh, Rey.” His voice was so soft that she could barely hear him, and more reassuring than she’d anticipated. “Sweetie, that’s all right. You’ll always be my friend. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Rey took a deep breath and blurted, “But I don’t want to date you.”

“That’s okay,” he confirmed. “I know.”

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, lifting her head to look at him. He was gazing at her with kindness and sympathy in his deep brown eyes.

He had nice eyes, he really did. But they weren’t…they just weren’t eyes that she wanted to stare into.

“Don’t be. It’s all right.” He squeezed her hand. “But you can’t blame a fellow for trying.” He winked, and Rey let out an unexpected giggle.

“I suppose I can’t,” she admitted. She let her head fall back against the headboard.

“I did like dancing with you, though,” he grinned. “So if we’re at another dance together, you know I’ll ask you for a turn on the floor. Nothing fancy, just two friends dancing.”

Rey nodded, and gave him relieved, fond smile. “Just two friends dancing.”

A brief silence fell between them, and then Poe looked over at the wall, as if he were looking for a clock. “Well. I should probably get going. I’ll let you rest.” He stood as he spoke, taking hold of the chair and moving it back to the table.

“Okay,” Rey agreed. “Thank you for coming over. And thank you for the flowers.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie. I hope you enjoy them!” He came back to stand by her bedside. “Just take it easy, and let yourself heal. Don’t worry about school or anything, Ben’s got that covered. He’s going to take care of everything.” He cleared his throat, his gaze drifting to her propped-up ankle, and he nodded. “Yeah. Anyway. Relax and enjoy your time off school!”

And with a final kiss to her hand, he was out the door, leaving Rey on her bed, boneless with relief and exhaustion.

She shut her eyes for a moment, just to think, but startled when she heard a heavy glass hitting wood.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Maz whispered, as she centered the Mason jar of flowers on the table.

Rey shook her head. “I’m not sleeping.”

“I think you should, honey,” Maz suggested, her brow furrowed. She came over to the bedside and pushed Rey’s hair back out of her face. Her hands were rough, but her touch was soft. “I’ll close the door so no one can bother you.”

“No, leave it open,” Rey begged. “Please. In case someone else comes over.”

“Well, all right.” Maz gave Rey a stern look from behind her glasses. “If you promise to try to get some sleep.”

“I promise.” Rey nodded.

She didn’t sleep. She lay in bed with her book, sometimes reading, sometimes just watching the way the light from the window changed as the day went by.

But no one else came to visit.

Everyone’s just letting me get some rest, she thought. And that makes sense.

Rey understood, really she did. But she fell asleep that night with disappointment laying heavily in her chest.

 

May 5, 1941

 

Her room is small and dark. Cramped. Just two mattresses on the floor, one for her and one for Penny. Barely far apart enough to be walked between. This is her room from childhood, but right now she’s not a child. She knows this is true. She can feel the way her hair curls around her neck.

Mrs. Cawley would always twist her hair up into three buns, to keep it out of the way. Rey cried the first time, because it hurt. But that made Mrs. Cawley angry. So Rey does everything she can not to cry anymore. She’s also learned to sleep on her side, so the buns don’t poke into her head and keep her awake.

But now her hair is down. She must be older. But she’s small, too. Like a child.

The room is pitch black, when there’s no lantern around; there are no windows to let in any sunlight or moonlight. Always, pitch black.

It would be pitch black now, if it weren’t for the light edging in around the door. There’s enough light to see that Penny isn’t in the room with her. Rey doesn’t know where the older girl has gone.

But where doesn’t matter. It won’t change the fact that Rey is alone.

She sits up on the mattress, pushing aside her threadbare blanket. She tries to stand, but her leg won’t move. In the dim light from the doorframe, she sees that it is all bandaged up and resting on a pillow.

Her leg should be able to move. It’s only her ankle that is hurt. But when she tries to slide it across the pillow, nothing happens. It’s like it’s a stone statue leg. Except that it’s hers and she knows it’s not stone. At least, she doesn’t think it is.

She’s stuck in this bed. In this room. Her heart is thumping in odd rhythms, and she wonders if someone will bring her food. If they forget she’s here, she’ll starve.

Maybe Finn will come looking for her, she thinks. Then she remembers that Finn’s not allowed in the house. He had come inside only once. Mr. Cawley had taken a strap to him because of it.

She jumps as a bang and a crash sound outside the door. Rey breathes faster, her body tensing up. Her palms are wet against the mattress.

“Give me that,” the man says. His words are slow and steady. His voice is terrifying.

“No. I won’t.” The woman’s voice is cold and vicious. She doesn’t sound quite rational.

Rey can hear her own breathing. It is loud in her ears, and ragged. She can tell she’s shaking from the sound of it. With icy fingertips, she reaches for her leg, trying to get it moving so she can do something.

Run? Fight back? She doesn’t know.

But her leg won’t move.

“Give me the fucking knife, Helen.” The demand is a growl, like a wild animal, and closer.

“Get away from the door,” the woman hisses in return.

There’s a giggle from the other mattress. Rey drags her eyes from the door to see Penny sitting with her back propped against the wall.

“He won’t let her get me,” she tells Rey. There’s a smirk on her thin, oval face.

The door begins to rattle and shake on its hinges. Rey whips her head back around to watch it. Her fingers cramp as her nails dig into the mattress.

Feet shuffle across the floor on the other side of the door. There are little grunting noises out there, too, which confuse child Rey. Older Rey knows they’re the sound of swinging arms and missed grabs.

“Get out of my way!” The woman pushes the words out in spurts, between the grunts.

Rey desperately returns her gaze to Penny. But the mattress is empty.

Once again, Rey is all alone in the room.

She grapples with her leg again, her movements frantic, as the door crashes and trembles in its frame.

The woman’s voice snarls something indecipherable.

Rey can hear her own desperate gasps getting louder and louder as the pounding against the door becomes more and more violent. She pulls on her leg, using all of her strength.

But it won’t budge.

The door is bowing in as it is battered. It won’t last much longer. Rey’s sobs are echoing through the room, creating a miserable symphony with the booms and cracks of the door.

It finally gives way with a loud smash, and the light streaming through it blinds Rey. She can’t move. She can’t see. But she can hear.

She hears the footsteps coming across the floor, and an angry snarl.

 

Rey’s eyes snapped open. The room was dark again. And quiet.

Rey was quiet, too, aside from soft, whining sobs and desperate gasps of breath. She could feel pins and needles under her skin. Her face was hot and wet, her hands and feet freezing cold.

Her eyes darted around the room, wild in their search for the threat.

But the door was shut, and there was no light around the doorframe.

She wasn’t on a mattress on the floor; she was in her bed at the rooming house.

Maz was right there, in the next room. Rey would only have to hop through the shared bathroom to get to her guardian. She considered it, for a moment, as she concentrated on slowing her breathing.

But she needed to check outside her door, just to make sure.

She sat up, her movements slow and careful, and gently swung her legs down off the bed. When her injured leg moved the way she wanted it to, she let out a relieved sob.

As quietly as possible, she hopped across the room to the door. She didn’t want to wake Maz up, not really. Not if she could get a handle on this herself.

She reached for the door, and her heart beat so hard that it made her cough. Her sweat-slick palm slid around on the metal doorknob as she took a deep breath, and she had to use both hands to pull it open.

The hallway was dark and calm. No one was fighting out there, no one had a knife. The only sound was the faint buzz of a snore coming from Mr. Johansson’s room.

Rey hopped over to the bannister. That was probably a mistake; there was nothing to hold onto between it and her room, and she almost toppled face-first into the wooden posts. She leaned there for a moment, the muscles of her good leg twitching painfully, and stared at the steps.

She usually went downstairs when she had a nightmare; she’d boil some milk and sit in the front room or on the porch, waiting to see if Ben would run by. But there was no way she could get down the steps tonight, not on her own.

Her eyes blurred with tears. The front porch was so tantalizingly close. Ben was so tantalizingly close. The only thing Rey wanted, in the whole wide world, was to be able to go downstairs and sit with him on the porch swing. It didn’t seem too much to ask for.

But apparently, it was.

Rey took a deep breath, and reminded herself that he may not even be out running. They hadn’t been meeting up as much in the middle of the night this spring. His nightmares seemed to have quieted down, just like hers had.

Well, until tonight.

How much time did she have before dawn, when the house would begin to wake up? She didn’t know.

What she did know, was that she wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again.

I am one acquainted with the night, Rey thought, and let out a dark, desolate chuckle.

She turned away from the stairs, hopping on tired legs to her bed. Once she’d settled herself again, she thought about reading. But she didn’t reach for her book. She lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling, watching the light of dawn gradually chase the night’s darkness away.

She lay awake, refusing to remember the Cawleys.

*****

Maz brought her an early breakfast, before heading to the café. The boarders awoke and went off to work, their boots clomping on the wooden floors and stairs. And then the house was still. The only sound was the patter of raindrops against the windows.

Rey hopped to the bathroom, holding on to anything that she could find along the way – it wouldn’t do, to fall down when no one was home to help her back up again. When she was finished, she returned to bed and fell back into it, on top of her covers, grateful that she’d made it with no mishaps.

Her ankle didn’t hurt as much anymore. Maybe Dr. Barclay had been right. Maybe, the more she stayed off it, the faster she would heal.

It’s worth a try, she thought, and reached up to grab a book from her nightstand. She rolled onto her side, the book propped up next to her, and fought to keep her eyes open to read in the dim, grey daylight.

*****

As Rey lazily awoke, she heard a faint din from downstairs – pots clanging, male laughter, a distant strain of music from the radio. Her eyes were closed, but she could tell it had gotten dark out.

That’s right, it was raining. Maybe that’s why it’s so dark?

She wondered idly what time it was. Probably near suppertime, given the lovely smells wafting up from the first floor.

Meatloaf, maybe. Hopefully there was some left for her.

She sighed and snuggled deeper into her pillow, reveling in how relaxed she was. She felt almost as if she were resting on a cloud.

She drifted a while longer, the comforting sounds and smells wrapping around her, cushioning her like the blanket that was tucked in around her body.

She didn’t remember falling asleep with a blanket, though. She’d been on top of her covers, reading The Secret Adversary, trying to keep her eyes open because she liked the story.

Rey reached out slowly, feeling for her book, but it wasn’t on her bed, as she had expected. She opened her eyes, trying to figure out where it had gone. There was something different about her room. Something had changed, but she couldn’t figure out what.

She squinted at the light coming in through the open doorway, feeling a bit unsteady.

What time is it, anyway?

Rey craned her neck, looking for her clock, as footsteps came up the stairs. When the light from the doorway dimmed, she sat up quickly, her muscles tensing and her heart beginning to race.

“Oh, you’re awake,” Maz murmured, moving smoothly towards the table, tray in hand. “I brought you some dinner. Light’s coming on, honey.”

Rey let out a breath and closed her eyes, as her guardian turned on the bedside lamp. When she was thought it wouldn’t be too blinding, she opened them.

There was the book, on the nightstand next to her bed, in front of the clock. How did that get there?

“I fell asleep reading,” she guessed, as she pushed herself into a more upright position.

“Did you, now?” Maz set the tray over Rey’s lap.

Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, a glass of milk. Rey was suddenly very hungry.

“Yeah.” She cut off a bit of meatloaf with her fork, then speared it and dragged it through the mashed potatoes before jamming it into her mouth. “Mmmm,” she groaned, “It’s so good.”

“Thank you, Rey,” Maz settled into the chair next to the table. “But please don’t talk with your mouth full.”

Rey shrugged an apology and shoveled in a forkful of creamed spinach. She had just swallowed when the realization struck her.

“Maz? Where’s the other chair?”

Her guardian gestured across the room. “Right next to you.”

Rey turned to scan the other side of the bed, but she didn’t have to look far. The chair was pulled up between her bed and the window, a stack of books and papers on top of it.

Rey blinked, feeling a bit dizzy. How did I miss that?

As she examined the pile, Maz clarified, “Ben Solo came by after school today with books and work for you. You were sleeping, so I told him to just leave it up here.” She chuckled. “I didn’t think he’d put it on a chair.”

Rey reached out and laid her fingers on the folded paper on top of the pile. He’d written her name across it. She huffed a small laugh.

Just in case there was someone else in the room who thought the school books might belong to them.

“Are you done with dinner, honey?” Maz shifted as if to stand up.

“What? No!” Rey pulled her attention away from Ben’s pile and back to her food again. Between her hunger and her curiosity about the note, she made sure her food disappeared at a rapid pace.

After every little bite had been scraped off her plate, Rey sat back against her pillow, trying desperately not to belch in Maz’s face when her guardian bent to collect the tray.

“Can I bring you up a slice of pie?”

“Maybe later.” Rey’s eyes were fixed on the pile again. “I’m full now.”

“Okay. Holler if you need me.”

Rey waited until the older woman was safely out of the room before letting out a muffled burp and turning eagerly to the pile. She picked up the folded paper and traced the handwriting with her finger.

She could almost hear him saying her name.

She unfolded the letter and read:

Here are the books and things that you need to keep up with what happened in school today. I wrote notes for each class explaining what was required.

You were sleeping when I got here, so I left everything where you could reach it.

Everyone misses you at lunch. Francie is determined to come over tomorrow and “freshen you up”. I told her you don’t need that, and she said it wasn’t about “need”, it was about “fun”. Maybe you can explain what that means next time I see you, because I never understand anything she says.

Also, I brought you a book, in case you run out of things to read. It’s for you, you can keep it. I haven’t read this story since I was little, but I remember liking it, even if it is a “girl’s story”.

I hope you feel better soon.

See you,

Ben

Rey turned back to the chair and plucked the aforementioned book off the top of the pile.

The Secret Garden, it was called, and there was a picture of a girl on the front, looking at a garden wall.

He said he’d enjoyed this one when he was little, but she had to agree, it was clearly a girl’s book.

Ben Solo, she thought. You will never cease to amaze me.

She smoothed the letter out and read over it again. There was nothing he’d written that could be construed as anything more than friendly, nothing that indicated he thought of her in any way other than he always had.

It’s not that way, with us.

Rey frowned and bit her lip. In fact, this note seemed more formal than usual, as if he were putting a bit of distance between them.

Why would he do that? Unless….

Unless I made a fool of myself on Saturday, somehow, and he thinks….oh, what if it’s like how Poe was with me, I threw myself at him when he wasn’t interested?

Rey didn’t think she’d thrown herself at Ben, necessarily, but she had gazed into his eyes more than usual while they were dancing. And she’d gotten herself really close to him then, too. She’d told him he was handsome. She hadn’t stopped him from touching her leg.

He didn’t come to see me yesterday, she remembered. And he didn’t wake me up when he got here today. He just wrote me a note and left again.

Her chest felt heavy as she placed Ben’s letter back on the top of the pile and curled up under the blanket again, an ache starting behind her forehead.

If he’d really wanted to see me, he’d have woken me up.

Rey shook her head. Enough about that. Time to see what had to be done for school. She reached over to pick up the first notebook, which had been left open to a page containing only Ben’s handwriting.

Read pages 172-196, and answer the odd-numbered questions at the end of the chapter….

 

May 6, 1941

 

“Rey. Stop it.”

“I can’t!” Rey was trying not to giggle, she really was, but her feet were so ticklish.

Francie narrowed her eyes. “I’m going to smear the polish if you don’t stop moving. Do you want red splotches all over your feet?”

“No.” Rey shook her head as another batch of giggles burst through.

“Oh, my God,” Francie groaned, with an exaggerated eye roll. “Well, you’re going the right way for that to happen.”

“I’m sorry.” Rey took a deep, calming breath. “I’ll be good, really, I will.” Francie raised a skeptical eyebrow. “I promise!”

Francie considered the request, eyebrow still cocked. “Well…,”

“Look,” Rey commanded, adopting a sober expression. “I’m taking this very seriously.” She furrowed her brow and turned down the corners of her mouth. “See?”

Francie shook her head and chuckled. “Sometimes you are the oddest little thing. All right, give me your foot.”

Rey lifted her good foot and placed it in Francie’s hand, biting her lip so she didn’t start giggling again.

“I don’t have much new gossip for you,” Francie admitted, her face scrunched in concentration. “Well, apart from your breakup with Dameron.”

“My what?” Rey squeaked.

“You went to the Formal together, then he had to take you home, but he came back without you,” Francie explained, tilting her head to get a better look at Rey’s pinky toenail. “So everyone considers it obvious that one of you ended it. Which one of you called it off is still being debated.”

Rey let her head fall back against the headboard. “Ugh.”

“We’re trying to tamp it down,” Francie continued. “But it’s difficult because Armie doesn’t know how to manage these situations, and people are afraid to discuss it around me. I don’t know why.” She looked thoughtful for a few seconds, then shrugged. “Anyway, Dameron is pretending the gossip doesn’t exist, and Solo....” She trailed off with a huff, absorbed in her task.

“Ben?” Rey asked, wondering if her pounding heart made her voice quaver. “What does he say about it?”

“You know how he gets,” Francie reminded her. “He’s brooding and sullen and rude.” She chuckled again. “Although it is funny to see how much he scares people when he overhears something. That glare, you know?”

And his reputation precedes him, Rey thought. They’re probably all expecting him to lose control and try to kill someone.

It made her sad, how everyone still clung to some old idea of who Ben Solo was. True, he wasn’t sweet and placid, but he wasn’t the rampaging monster they all believed him to be.

“And he’s furious with Dameron, for ignoring the whole thing.” Francie sat back and regarded her handiwork. “Don’t move your toes.”

Rey fought the urge to give them a good wiggle.

“They had a heated discussion at lunch today.” Francie continued, reaching for Rey’s other foot. “Let me know if I do anything to hurt you, and I’ll stop right away.”

“I will. What were they fighting about?”

“Solo thought Dameron should speak up. Clear the air and tell everyone to knock it off. They’d listen if he did, you know everyone loves Poe. But he won’t. He thinks if we just ignore the gossip, it’ll go away on its own.” She shrugged. “And he’s probably right. But Solo doesn’t see it that way.” She wiped a smudge of polish away from the side of Rey’s nail, but Rey was too intent on the conversation to feel the tickle. “He got dramatic about it, banging on the table and yelling. Then did one of his stalking-away exits. You know. The usual.”

Rey’s heart sank. “It’s not that usual anymore,” she reminded her friend. “He hasn’t blown a fuse in a long time.”

“Not when our Solo Tamer is with us,” Francie elaborated. “But you haven’t been there.”

Rey scowled. “Your what?”

Francie looked up. “He calms down around you. Rey, you know that. I’ve seen you acting like you know that. I’ve been there when you’ve said his name and he just stops.”

That was true. She could say his name, or nudge him a little, and it stopped his train of anger from racing off the tracks.

But still.

“I don’t like that,” she contended.

Francie stopped brushing on the polish; she held still, waiting for Rey to continue.

“Solo Tamer. Like he’s some kind of wild animal and I can get him to do tricks, with a whip, like…like in the circus.” Not that Rey had ever been to a circus, but she’d seen drawings in books. “He’s a human being,” she fumed. “And maybe when he was younger he got too angry, but he’s older now and he’s trying to handle things better. I’m not making anything happen. Ben is choosing his behavior and his reactions. It’s his doing, and he deserves respect for that!”

Rey was working up a good head of steam, but there was something about the look she was getting from Francie that made her snap her mouth shut. Her friend’s eyebrows were raised just the slightest bit, and there was a gleam in her eye that made Rey distinctly uncomfortable.

Rey grabbed a pillow and hugged it to her chest, folding her arms on top of it.

Amusement flashed across Francie’s face. “Would it make you feel better to know that Ben is occasionally referred to as the Rey Tamer?”

Rey opened her mouth to respond, then shut it again. She took a fierce breath and sputtered out, “That’s not the point. That’s not…I don’t get…”.

“Really?”

If Rey was honest with herself, she knew the calming worked both ways. After all, she’d been about to tear into Luke Skywalker over dinner that one time, until Ben nudged his arm against hers. But, at the moment, she wasn’t interested in being honest with herself.

She hugged the pillow closer to her chest. “Shut up.”

There was a creak as the front door downstairs opened, and a familiar voice asked, “Is Rey awake?”

“Well,” Francie murmured, with a faint smirk. “Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.”

“He is not the devil,” Rey pouted, her heart hammering in time with the footsteps on the stairs.

She hadn’t seen Ben since the dance. Not since she’d sat in that armchair, right over there, and he’d held her leg with his gentle fingers….

Rey moved the pillow off her chest again; it was making her too hot.

“Hey,” Ben said as he entered the room, but he winced and stepped backwards almost immediately. “Jesus, what is that smell?”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Francie reprimanded, turning back to Rey’s feet. “It’s just fingernail polish.”

He wrinkled his nose. “It’s awful.”

“A small price to pay for beauty,” Francie hummed.

“She doesn’t need to pay a price,” Ben argued.

“I’m right here!” Rey interjected. She looked at him, feeling both fierce and hesitant.

In this moment, there was nothing magic or fairy-tale about him. He wasn’t in a well-tailored suit, with his lush hair combed neatly. There was no music playing, no punch and cookies, no flashing camera lights. This was just her room, tidy and tranquil and smelling of nail polish and lavender sachets. He was wearing normal ordinary clothes, and standing there with a normal, ordinary scowl on his face, hair messy because he’d most likely run his hands through it earlier.

He’s just normal, ordinary Ben.

“So hello,” she continued, slightly less fierce.

He took a deep breath, wincing slightly at the acrid smell, before turning to look at her.

“Hello,” he answered, and his eyes found hers.

Caramel, definitely. And gold. And midnight dark.

“Solo. Pull up a seat and stay awhile.” Francie’s voice was filled with subtle amusement.

“You can, you know,” Rey told him. “If you want, I mean. You don’t have to.”

“Of course he wants to. He came all the way over here,” Francie pointed out.

“I don’t have to stay very long, if you’d rather I didn’t,” he muttered. He glanced around the room, then turned back to Francie. “I can’t pull a seat up, though. You’re in one chair and her school stuff is in another.”

“There’s an armchair over there,” Francie retorted.

Rey remembered the last time she’d sat there, and felt a sweat break out across her forehead. Ben darted a nervous look at the armchair.

“Or you could just sit on the edge of the bed. I think there’s enough room, don’t you, Rey?”

Ben went pale. “I’m not sitting on the bed,” he growled. “That would be inappropriate.”

“You have a chaperone,” Francie noted.

“He’s not sitting on the bed,” Rey repeated. “He’s a goddamn gentleman.”

Francie’s mouth dropped open.

Ben sputtered out a choke of suppressed laughter. “Thank you, Rey.”

Rey choked back a giggle of her own. “You’re welcome, Ben.”

Francie’s eyes moved from Ben, to Rey, and back to Ben again, before she finally spoke. “All right, Mr. Gentleman. Take this chair. I’m done with her toes anyway, I’ll sit on the bed.”

As Francie settled herself on the edge of the bed next to Rey, Ben took her place at the foot of it. He stared down at Rey’s bright red toenails, his brow furrowed.

“Why…,” he started. Both girls regarded him warily as he shifted his lips in thought.

“Yes?” Rey answered, before Francie could respond with irritation.

He hesitated before focusing his gaze on Rey. “I’ve never seen you walk around barefoot. Not that you don’t. I’m saying, you don’t do it often.”

“I suppose not.”

“So why in the world would you paint your toenails? It’s not like anyone will see them.” He looked so adorably confused that Rey had to stifle a smile. “I just don’t understand the purpose,” he admitted.

“Does there need to be a purpose?” Francie inquired.

“Everything has a purpose,” he countered.

“I can see them,” Rey answered. “They’re bright and they’re pretty, and they make me happy. That’s their purpose.”

“Exactly!” Francie nodded. “Well said.”

He made a thoughtful “hmm” noise, and returned his gaze to her toes. “So it’s worth the smell, then?”

Rey was struck by an idea.

“You know, Ben,” she mused, and his lifted his head to look at her, his gaze filled with deep suspicion. Rey kept her voice as innocent-sounding as possible. “You deserve a little happiness in your life. Maybe if you asked very nicely, Francie would be willing to paint your toes too.”

“No,” he snapped, before she’d even finished.

Francie looked aghast. “Much as I’d love to see Solo discomfited,” she argued, “I really don’t want to touch his feet.”

“Nor do I want you to touch my feet,” he retorted.

“So you’ll have to do it, Rey,” Francie pronounced. “I’m sure he’d like that better anyway.”

Ben’s eyes widened as he looked over at Francie, the tips of his ears turning pink where they poked up through his hair.

Rey sucked in a couple of deep, rapid breaths. “I don’t know how to do it,” she demurred.

“Red’s not my color,” Ben mumbled, turning his attention back to Rey’s feet.

“You don’t know that until you try,” Francie prodded.

Rey almost smacked her.

Ben hastily pulled something out of his jacket pocket. “Here, this is for you. Finn sent it.”

Francie took it from him and handed it to Rey. “Finn?” she asked curiously.

“My friend,” Rey answered, relieved that they were no longer talking about her holding Ben’s feet.

“From the café,” Ben explained. “He works in the kitchen.”

“Oh, the colored boy.”

Rey had managed to get the paper wrapping off – it was a note – and found a little dog, carved out of wood. She held it out so Ben could see it, and he nodded his approval.

“Let me see that,” Francie commanded. Rey handed it off to her friend and gave the note a quick read.

Hi, Peanut! I hope you’re feeling better! I’d stop by if I could, but instead I made you a Toto to go with your Dorothy. I’ll see you for lunch on Saturday, even if you don’t come in to work! Rest up and heal! Finn

“He carved this?” Francie was examining Toto from all angles.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Rey nodded. “I have Dorothy right over there.”

“Really?” Francie mused, giving Toto one last admiring look before handing him back over to Rey. “He’s got some talent, that one. Is he going to apprentice to Elijah Davis when he graduates?”

Rey shook her head, running her finger over her gift. “He’s enlisting in the service as soon as he turns eighteen.”

“Even if we’re not at war?”

Rey nodded. “He wants to see the world.”

“The most they’ll let him see is the inside of a kitchen.” Francie sniffed. “Such a waste of talent.”

“People do what they have to do,” Ben said. “I think he’s smart to get out of here.”

Rey looked up, and found Ben watching her intently. She gave him a small, grateful smile. “Thank you, for bringing this.”

“You’re welcome,” he responded, just as Maz’s voice sounded from below.

“Francine! Your father’s car is here!”

“Ah. Time to go.”

Francie and Ben rose to get ready. Francie collected her belongings; Ben collected Rey’s work from the previous day and gave her the instructions for what to work on next.

“I hope you feel better, Rey.” Francie was headed for the door. “And I hope you’re back in school on Thursday!”

“Me, too.” Rey heartily agreed.

Ben paused at her bedside. “I’ll be by tomorrow, to see what the doctor says,” he told her, his voice low, as if the conversation was just for the two of them. “Rest as much as you can. Let Maz and I know what you need.”

“Or me!” Francie called from the doorway.

“Thank you,” she told him, again, and couldn’t stop herself from getting one more look at his eyes.

Honey, Pure, dark honey.

“Anytime,” he assured her, his face soft and serious. “You know that.”

She nodded, smiling gently.

“See you,” he said, and turned to go.

“See you,” she echoed back.

“Bye, Rey!” Francie called from the hallway, and Rey listened as their footsteps sounded on the stairs and the front door closed behind them.

She leaned back against the headboard with a sigh, and caught sight of her newly polished toes. She wiggled them, grinning with delight, and was pleased to find that the movement didn’t cause much pain in her ankle.

Maybe she would be able to return to school on Thursday.

Still grinning, Rey leaned over and picked up The Secret Garden. She hadn’t started reading yet, but now was as good a time as any.

When she opened the book, a short inscription inside caught her attention. There, in unpolished, childish handwriting, it said:

Benjamin Solo
1931
His Book

He’d said she could keep it, so she’d thought it was a gift he’d purchased somewhere. But it wasn’t – it was his book.

His book. A book he’d liked as a child. And he’d given it to her.

It’s not that way, with us, she reminded herself, tracing his clumsy writing with her finger.

But she smiled, anyway, as she turned to the first page.

Chapter Text

June 16, 1941

The summer hadn’t started out as well as Rey had hoped.

It wasn’t all bad. Some good things had happened. She and Poe were still friends, even after she’d said she wouldn’t date him; the only change in their relationship was that he was no longer winking at her quite as much. Finn was able to come over after the café closed a couple of times a week, so she got to see him more. And Francie was now obsessed with making Rey a “summer dress”, whatever that was, so they got to spend a lot of time together.

But Ben was gone.

Well, not gone. He was on vacation with his parents. They’d gone to Washington D. C. for a couple of weeks. It sounded so thrilling to Rey, to go to a city so full of history and excitement, but Ben had been dreading it.

“I have to be with them for fourteen days,” he’d complained the day before he left. They’d gone to Hill’s for ice cream, and he was sulking his way through the park, scowling at his chocolate-laden cone.

“You live with them,” she reminded him. “I don’t see how a vacation is that much different.”

“Yeah, well, when I’m living here with them, they go to work and I go to school, and I don’t have to see them. And then you come over after school, and I can be with you, and they’re sort of…around. On vacation, I’m with them all the time, and….” He stopped himself to take a fierce bite of ice cream.

Rey wanted to remind him that there were people who would never have the chance to vacation with their parents, and he should be grateful for what he had, but she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t want to say goodbye with a fight, and anyway, there were reasons why he felt as he did.

She didn’t know all the reasons, but that didn’t mean they weren’t real.

She decided to steer the conversation in a different direction. “What do you want to see the most?”

“Hmmm.” He furrowed his brow, deep in thought, and Rey smirked in satisfaction at having successfully derailed the Ben Solo Grouch Train. “Well, the monuments, of course. There’s a lot of history there. And there are some good museums, as well, and the Library of Congress.”

Of course, he’d pick a library.

“And the Capitol Building. I’d like to see where my great-grandfather worked.”

Rey remembered when Han had said something about that at the dinner with Luke. She’d meant to ask Ben about it.

“Was he in Congress?”

“Senator Alphonsus Naberrie, from New York.” Ben waved his ice cream in front of him in a mock grand motion. “He was my grandmother’s father. And his son William was a bigwig in Ohio politics – not a Senator or Governor or anything, just a guy with opinions and the money to make them happen.”

“Wow,” Rey said. “That’s impressive.”

“They were jerks,” Ben said, but he didn’t continue, and Rey didn’t press for more information.

They walked in on silence, enjoying their ice cream. It was a beautiful early-summer day, with the smell of grass and flowers in the air and a slight, springtime chill on the breeze. Rey had always loved the beginning of summer when the air was sweet and mild, and the sun shone with a tender brightness.

By the time he gets back, it'll be full summer, Rey thought. And by then, the sun would give off a scorching blaze, and the air would be heavy and still even in the new morning.

"The time will go by fast," she told herself.

“Not fast enough,” Ben replied, and Rey flushed bright red when she realized she’d said it out loud.

She decided she might as well pretend she’d meant to say it. “Listen, if you think of it like that, it’ll seem longer than it is. You’re going to enjoy yourself at least a little bit, in the museums and all. You’ll get to see so much.”

“I know. Be more fun if it wasn’t my parents with me, though.” He chuckled. “Sure you won’t come with us?”

He was joking, she knew that. But for a moment, she allowed herself to imagine being on vacation with Ben, going to see museums and monuments, and how much she would enjoy walking around the city with him, hand in hand….

No, stop that, Rey reminded herself. He’s your friend. Only your friend.

"I'll take pictures to show you," he had promised. Rey had nodded, afraid of what else she might say out loud if she wasn't careful.

 

He’d been gone almost a week by now. Rey had been busy since he left, working and spending time with her friends. She’d even asked Francie to teach her embroidery. But still, through all of that motion, she felt incomplete, somehow, like a sweater or a scarf with loose threads.

Maybe it was worse today because it was a Monday. She'd always spent Mondays studying with Ben. It was part of the routine of her life. Of course, she would feel off balance if she was out of her routine.

So, Rey asked Finn to come back to the rooming house with her for an hour or so after work, hoping his company would smooth some of the rough edges off her day. Of course, once they arrived, they went straight to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator, despite Maz’s warning to Rey about spoiling her dinner.

They'd settled down at the table with plates of rhubarb crumble when Maz called to Rey from the front room. "Mail for you!"

Rey furrowed her eyebrows. “Mail for me?”

“You do live here, Peanut,” Finn pointed out. He smirked when she stuck her tongue out at him.

“I know that,” she informed him. “But I don’t know who would be sending me something.”

“President Roosevelt!” he proclaimed.

Rey rolled her eyes. “I don’t think so.”

Maz appeared in the doorway. “Do you want this now, or should I put it in your room?”

“She wants it now,” Finn answered.

Rey shot him a look. “Don’t answer for me!”

“Well, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she muttered. He snickered and held his hands up in vindication.

“Here you go.” Maz handed her a picture postcard, then went back out to the front room, saying, “Don’t forget to clean up your dishes.”

Rey’s eyes traced over the illustration of the United States Capitol Building, illuminated against the night sky by beams of light from surrounding buildings, and her heart skipped a beat.

"It's from Ben," she murmured and turned it over to read the message on the back.

Hey
I hope it’s pleasant in Naboo. The humidity here is thick enough to swim through.
My parents are doing a lot of business, so I spend most days seeing the sights. The museums are fascinating, you’ll love them. I’m going up the Washington Monument today. Trying to take pictures to show you when I get home next week. I’m sure you’ll have opinions on everything. Sleep well.
See you
Ben

Rey ran her finger over his signature, wishing she was there with him so he didn’t have to see everything all by himself. Of course, he probably preferred it that way – this was Ben, after all – but it would be more fun to be together.

She heard a chuckle from the table and flushed when she remembered that Finn was still there.

“Sorry!” she apologized, “I wanted to see what he’s been doing. I mean, I don’t remember anywhere but Naboo, so…”

“No, that’s all right,” Finn gave an exaggerated sigh. “I know how it is.”

“I’m sorry,” Rey repeated. She tucked the postcard carefully into her skirt pocket and returned to the table. “I’m back now, I promise.” She took a forkful of her crumble and waited for him to start another conversation.

When he didn’t, she looked up to see him gazing at her with a sly smile.

“What?” she demanded, her mouth still full.

Finn’s eyes gleamed knowingly as he regarded her. “You’re sweet on him,” he grinned.

What?” Rey choked on her mouthful of rhubarb, and Finn reached across the table towards her.

“You okay, Peanut?”

“I’m fine,” she coughed.

“Take a drink,” he suggested, nudging her glass of milk. She did as he asked. “Better?”

She nodded, wiping her mouth with her napkin.

“Good,” Finn sighed in relief; then the sly smile spread across his face again. “You’re definitely sweet on him.”

“Okay, listen, I am not,” Rey defended. “I don’t know where you get the notion…”

“You almost choked to death the first time I said it!”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” she pouted. “Maybe I just tried to swallow too big a bite.”

“I suppose,” Finn considered. “But here’s the thing. You light up like the sun when you talk about him. And you’ve been moping around the café, ever since he left.”

“I have not.”

“You should have seen your face right now, the way you smiled when you saw the postcard was from him. And the way you looked as you read it…”

Rey stabbed at a piece of rhubarb with her fork. "He's my friend. I haven't seen him for a week. Of course, I'm glad to hear from him."

“Peanut.” Finn shook his head. “How long have we known each other?”

She unwillingly dragged her eyes up to meet his.

“I’ve never seen you look like that.” His gaze was gentle as he shook his head. “You know it’s not a bad thing, right? To be sweet on somebody?”

“Finn, it….” Rey started, then swallowed hard and blinked quickly. “It’s not that way, with us. I mean, we’re good friends. Close friends. But not…that way.”

“Do you want it to be?” he asked, and Rey looked away, letting her eyes wander over the cabinets hanging above the kitchen counter.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, finally, “because I don’t think he does.”

Finn gave a little chuckle.

"And that's fine," she added before he could speak. "Really, it's fine. I'm being silly. I got my head turned at the dance, that's all."

Finn shook his head, his expression skeptical.

“It’s probably better that he’s on vacation for a couple of weeks,” Rey babbled. “I don’t want to make him uncomfortable by mooning all the time around him. This way, I can get over this silly thing and by the time he gets back everything will be the same as it was and we’ll be all right.”

Finn’s eyebrows were raised practically into his hairline, so Rey talked even faster.

“Just because the dance was a special night, you know, and it was like going to a fairy-tale ball, and he looked so handsome, and it was just the perfect time and place and it has no basis in anything, and what?" She spat out her question, annoyed by the smile that was slowly spreading across her friend's face.

“Do you know for a fact that he isn’t sweet on you too?” Finn asked in a calm tone of voice. Probably trying to calm me down, Rey scoffed in her mind.

Out loud, she demanded, “Don’t smile at me like that.”

“Hey,” he defended, still smiling, “I’m only asking. Do you know it, for a fact?”

“You mean, have I asked him?” Rey was appalled. “Of course not!”

“Maybe it’s not my place to say,” he shrugged.

“Damn right,” Rey muttered.

“But,” he continued, “what if he’s sweet on you too?”

Rey took a quick, sharp breath as a thrill of fear shot through her. “He can’t be.” She shook her head. “No, he can’t be. Because I’d know if he was, and besides, then everything would change, and why are you encouraging this anyway? Didn’t you tell me to watch myself around him?”

“I did,” Finn considered, “but I think he’s been…what did you say about him…kind to you? He's good to you. He cares about you.”

Rey wrapped her arms tightly around her waist as he stood up and reached for his empty plate.

“Look, Peanut,” Finn sighed. “You bury a lot of things, and sometimes that’s good, and sometimes it’s not. Maybe everything would change for the better, you know?”

Rey shook her head. “He’s my friend, Finn. I’ve got a stupid crush. I’ll get over it, and it’ll all be fine.”

“If you say so.”

I know so, she thought. I’ll get over it, and we’ll still be friends, and no one will get their feelings hurt, and nothing will change.

As long as she and Ben could still be friends, Rey would have everything that she needed.

 

June 24, 1941

It had been a relatively slow morning at the café. Rey had spent a little time in the kitchen talking to Finn, who thankfully hadn’t brought up the topic of Ben Solo again. Lusica was always nosing around for something new to gossip about, and Rey would die if her co-worker happened on that bit of information.

Rey was standing at the counter, wiping it down for about the fiftieth time that morning, thinking about the latest news from Europe. Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, which was a very large country indeed (if it even was a country, which Rey wasn’t all that sure about).

She'd thought that Germany and the Soviet Union had some sort of agreement, that they weren't going to fight each other. That apparently hadn't lasted long. But then again, Germany had an agreement with Poland, too, back in 1939, and look at what had happened there.

And if Germany took the Soviet Union, the way they’d taken France and Holland and Denmark and everything else, what was to stop them from aiming for America too?

Rey frowned down at the countertop, then pulled herself out of her musings when she heard the bells jingle as the door opened.

“Welcome to Maz’s!” she started, raising her head with a smile, and then her heart jumped and she couldn’t remember what she usually said next.

“Hey,” Ben said, breaking into a huge grin.

Rey found her voice again. “Hey,” she beamed back at him. She wiped her hands on her apron as she came out from behind the counter. “Welcome home!”

“Yeah,” he said, his eyes tracing the outline of her face. “It’s good to be back.”

“So I guess you survived,” she teased.

He rolled his eyes. “Barely.”

“Can I get you something? Or do you want to wait until everyone else gets here?”

“I’d love a cup of coffee, thanks.” He took a seat at the group’s usual table as Rey turned to go back to the counter.

“You have to tell me everything you did and what you saw,” she called back to him. “I want to hear all about it!”

She turned to give him a stern glance, to show him that she meant it. He was watching her, and there was nothing odd about that, people watched her get their coffees all the time.

But there was something about the look on his face. Rey didn’t know how to describe it. All she knew was that it sent a shiver straight down her spine and made her legs tremble slightly.

She quickly returned her attention to the pot of coffee. Get it together. Remember, you’re over this. “Still take it black? Like your cranky little soul?”

“I’ve only been gone two weeks,” he rejoined. “Not enough time to change my coffee preferences or my soul.”

Rey giggled. She’d really missed him.

She set the coffee down in front of him and took a seat at the end of the table since there weren't any other customers around.

“Thanks.” He took a sip. “Anyway, my parents want to have a picnic at our house on the Fourth of July, and my mom is going to call Maz and see if you two want to join us.” Rey could feel the table jiggle faintly as his leg bounced underneath it. “So, do you think you can? I mean, if you’re already busy, that’s fine, you don’t have to, but…,”

“Sure,” Rey breathed. She cleared her throat. “It sounds like fun!”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” he scowled. “My uncle will be there.”

“That’s fine,” Rey said, trying not to scowl herself. “I promise not to toss a plate of meatballs in his face.”

“We’re not having meatballs,” he informed her.

She shrugged. “That’ll make it easier to keep my promise, then.”

He chuckled again, low and sweet, and oh, how she liked that sound. And the way the edges of his eyes crinkled, when he was amused.

Soft, soft caramel, sparks of gold, coffee around the edges.

The bell above the door rang, and Poe called out “Solo! You’re back, buddy!”

Rey got up, feeling slightly disappointed that they were no longer alone. She really wanted to hear about his vacation, after all, and now she had to get back to work.

“You can sit down again, Rey,” Francie asserted, as the boys shook hands all around. “It’s only us right now.”

Rey glanced at the doorway to the kitchen. Lusica was peeping around the side of the door, eyeing them with avid curiosity.

“No,” Rey sighed. “I really should get back to work. Coffees all around?”

“Please,” Armie answered. “And if you’ve got any more strawberry rhubarb pie, I’d like a slice.”

“You don’t even know what else they’ve got yet,” Francie pointed out.

“I want what I want, Fancy,” he riposted.

Rey snorted a quiet chuckle as she poured their coffee. She looked back at her friends one more time, and her heart swelled with warmth.

Armie and Francie were engaged in a round of mock bickering. Poe was regaling Ben with information about the differences between the Army and Navy air forces, waving his arms around expansively as he did so. Ben was sipping his coffee and listening intently, interrupting every so often with a pointed question. The sunlight coming in through the window was bright and hazy, and it filled the room with a golden glow.

Of course, that meant it would be hot today, but that was fine. There were plenty of cold drinks at Francie’s house, for later. And she could wander by Ben’s on the way home, and they could sit out on the glider swing in the back yard and maybe catch a breeze.

For most of her life, Rey had not considered herself lucky. She hadn't dared to think it, since that seemed the quickest way to tempt fate into taking everything back again.

But for a moment, as she watched her friends, she allowed herself to feel lucky, and to hope that, maybe, her luck might last a little while.

 

July 4, 1941

Ben had shown up at the rooming house around 10:00 that morning. The picnic at the Solos’ didn’t start until 3:00, but it was probably in everyone’s best interests that he stayed clear of his family until then, since Luke had arrived the night before and was staying in the guest bedroom. On the other side of the wall from his nephew.

But Ben wasn't showing up aimlessly. There was an Independence Day parade at noon, and the two of them wanted plenty of time to get downtown before it began. Ben was on a mission to find the best watching spot since Rey had never seen the parade before.

Rey was almost bouncing with excitement as the marching band and the Scouts and the politicians went by. And the floats! There were so many, all vibrant and vivid and filled with smiling, waving people in bright costumes. She’d never seen anything so thrilling. And her friends were a part of it!

Francie was on the float for her father’s bank, standing proud and tall, dressed as the Statue of Liberty; she sent Rey and Ben a big smile as her float went past. Hux was behind the wheel of a Cadillac convertible, just behind the float, acting as his father’s chauffeur while Mr. Hux occasionally sent a haughty, bored wave out at the crowd.

Poe had managed to secure a spot on the float that held Miss Fourth of July, and he blew an exuberant kiss in Ben and Rey’s direction as he passed by. Rey laughed and waved back at him, then turned to share her enthusiasm with Ben. He was glowering up at the float.

Well, that would never do.

She elbowed him, and when he looked at her in protest, she ordered, “Wave!”

“Good God, woman,” he muttered, but he snapped a smart salute up at his friend. Poe doubled over laughing as the float moved away from them.

Not long after, the Falcon Industries float went past. It was pulled by a truck that was being driven by a large man with a great deal of facial hair, more than Rey had ever seen on anyone, ever. He smiled and wiggled his finger at Ben when he passed.

“Who’s that?” Rey asked.

“Friend of my dad’s,” he answered, and directed her attention to the float behind it.

There were soapbox races after the parade, but Ben and Rey opted not to stick around for them. They spent some time on the playground in the park. Rey hadn’t been on a real, playground swing before, so Ben showed her how to pump her legs back and forth to make herself go.

She took to the lesson with great gusto, swinging herself so high that the chain could no longer remain taut; it slackened a bit, giving her the feeling that she was falling. The delicious rush she felt from that made her laugh out loud and swing even harder.

“Not so high,” Ben warned. “You’ll fall off!”

“You’re just jealous,” she called, pumping her legs faster, “because you know you can’t go this high!”

He stood for a moment, watching her swing, then popped himself hastily into a swing. Rey cackled and swung harder as he worked to match her height, his expression determined.

It was probably a good thing that all the real children and their parents were at the races – no one was around to see the two of them soaring almost above the top bar of the swing set and shrieking with laughter.

Well, Rey was shrieking. Ben was merely chuckling. But still, it was good that no one else was there to see them behave like this.

After the swings, they found their favorite park bench and sat a bit. Rey caught her breath while Ben told her some more about his vacation to Washington. It was a beautiful, magnificent summer day, the best Rey had seen in quite a while, and they were having a grand old time.

And then, the clock tower chimed 2:30, and it was time to go back to the Solos'.

Ben’s shoulders were stiff as they went up the porch steps. Rey didn’t blame him. She was on high alert herself, knowing that his uncle Luke would be joining them that day.

If he starts in on Ben again….

But she stopped that line of thought cold. She didn’t want to make yet another scene at the Solo dinner table, especially since she knew Maz would be joining them.

And so, apparently, would the bearded man who had been driving the Falcon Industries float in the parade.

“The kids are here!” Han greeted them, a glass half-full of brown liquid in his hand. Ben winced as his father spread his arms out expansively, splashing some of the drink onto the floor. Rey wondered how many glasses he’d had before they got there. “Chewie, come here and meet Rey-with-an-E!”

The man who approached them was holding a glass of his own. He was very, very tall – taller than Ben, who had shoved his hands into his pockets again – and was regarding Rey with a gruff, intimidating pout.

She lifted her chin and drew herself up taller. When she met his eyes, she saw that they were twinkling.

“So this is your little mechanic?” He extended a large, rough hand out to her. “I’m Charlie Bacca. I run the floor for this guy.” He jerked his head in Han’s direction.

Rey allowed her hand to be enveloped in his and received a hearty shake as a reward. The man then turned to Ben.

"Benny boy! Haven't seen you in a while! How're you doing, kid?"

“You saw me last week,” Ben grumbled.

Mr. Bacca shot Rey a sly glance, then reached out and ruffled Ben’s hair. “I’ve known this guy since he was just a cute little cub. I remember the day he was born, even.”

“Christ Almighty,” Ben muttered, smoothing his hair back into place.

“The Little Flying Ace, I used to call him…”.

“All right, Chewie,” Han broke in. “Let’s let Rey breathe a minute here. We need to light the fire.”

"Hell yes, we do!" The big man smiled at Rey. "We'll talk mechanics later, Rey!" He sent Ben a wink, then followed Han into the kitchen.

"That man's name is Chewie?" Rey whispered as a burst of loud masculine laughter escaped the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Ben shrugged in annoyance. “I don’t know why.”

A smirk crept across Rey’s face. “The Little Flying Ace.”

“I swear to God, Rey…,” he growled.

“Sorry.”

He glared at her, but she could see the corners of his mouth turning up. “You’re not sorry.”

She giggled.

The back door slammed shut, and Rey heard Han's voice through the open windows in the back of the living room. "The kids are here!"

“Don’t burn down the neighborhood.” Leia’s voice was stern.

Rey’s eyes widened. “Wait, they’re lighting an actual fire? Outside?”

“Too hot to light one inside,” he teased.

“I know that,” she pouted, secretly pleased at his playfulness. “I mean, why are they lighting it?”

“They like starting fires,” he answered. “They’ll dig a pit in the back yard and fill it with wood. They pretend it’s about cooking, but it’s not, really.”

She nodded.

As she stood in the foyer, looking up at him, Rey had a sudden thought. We’re alone in here. No adults. Just us.

Before she could stop herself, she let her gaze fall on his lips. They were beautiful, really. Red and plush and soft-looking.

No. She quickly averted her eyes. No. You’ve got to get over this.

Thank God it was summer. She could pretend the blush on her face was because of the heat.

“I suppose we should go out back,” she ventured, turning her face away, towards the kitchen.

“Probably,” he sighed, and his defeated tone of voice snapped her out of her embarrassment.

“It’ll be okay,” she reassured him. “It’s a holiday, right? Everyone will be on good behavior.”

“Can’t we just leave?” he asked.

“No. Sorry.”

“Fine,” he relented. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “Let’s go.”

*****
Everyone got along that afternoon in the backyard, for which Rey was grateful. Luke had stayed close to Han and Chewie, watching them build the fire, while Leia and Maz had walked around, talking gardens and landscaping.

Ben and Rey sat on the glider swing together, under the cool shade of the oak trees clustered near the back of the house. They talked about books for a little while and then sat quietly, relaxing in the scant breezes that blew their way.

A particularly nice breeze washed over them, and Rey lifted her hair off the back of her neck. She closed her eyes and leaned her head back, letting herself drift for a moment.

It was so peaceful there, amid the smell of cut grass and blooming lavender, the pleasant hum of voices, and the raucous laughter from the edges of the fire. And Ben’s silent presence beside her, calm and secure, smelling of clean laundry and pine-forest aftershave and something spicy and musky.

I’m all sweaty, she thought, biting her lip. I hope I don’t smell bad to him.

She opened her eyes, to see if he looked disgusted.

He was leaning against the back of the glider swing, his eyes trained on her lips. She felt herself begin to smile, and he moved his gaze to her eyes.

Dark like the midnight sky. I can almost see the stars….

“Ben, Rey.” Leia and Maz were coming back up the garden path, towards the house. “Are you going to come inside, to hear the broadcast?”

Ben leaped up. "Yes, absolutely." He cleared his throat. "Rey?"

"Sure." She let her hair drop behind her and rose to follow him into the house.

They gathered around the radio in the living room. Luke and Chewie stood at either side, their faces solemn. Han and Leia took their usual chairs, and Maz and Rey were on the couch. Rey had thought Ben might sit next to her, so she’d left some room; but instead, he stood behind his mother’s chair, his face sober as he listened to the President’s Independence Day message.

“My fellow Americans: in 1776, on the fourth day of July, the representatives of several states in Congress assembled, declaring our independence, asserted that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind required that they should declare their reasons for the action. In this new crisis, we have a like duty.”

Chewie leaned back against the wall, getting comfortable for what was to follow. Luke stayed still, his hands clasped behind him.

“It is simple – I could almost say simple-minded – for us Americans to wave the flag, to reassert our belief in the cause of freedom – and let it go at that.”

Han leaned forward in his chair, propping his elbows on his knees. Leia folded her hands together in her lap.

Rey pulled her eyes away from the radio. She watched Ben’s profile as he rested his hand on the top of his mother’s chair back, intent on the speech.

“I tell the American people solemnly that the United States will never survive as a happy and fertile oasis of liberty, surrounded by a cruel desert of dictatorship. And so it is that when we repeat the great pledge to our country and to our flag, it must be our deep conviction that we pledge as well as our work, our will, and if it is necessary our very lives.”

Ben’s head turned slightly, and Rey could see that he was looking at his father. Han turned a steady gaze to his son, giving an almost imperceptible nod, as Justice Harlan Stone began to read the Pledge of Allegiance.

As everyone stood to join in, Rey could not tear her eyes away from Ben. He stood straight and tall, his hand over his heart, looking sure and steady of purpose as he repeated the words of the pledge.

Less than a year, Luke had said that spring.

Leia was trembling, ever so slightly, as the Marine band played “The Star-Spangled Banner”. When it finished, she strode to the radio and shut it off.

"Well," she said, keeping her face turned away from everyone. "We have dinner to make, and we should probably get started so we finish eating before the fireworks start."

“That sounds like a good idea,” Luke answered crisply. “Han, Chewie, are you ready to cook?”

“Of course.” Han headed out of the room, Luke and Chewie hot on his heels.

“Ben, perhaps you could start working on the salad,” Leia directed. “Rey could help you. Maz, let’s you and I make some more lemonade.”

*****

When they arrived at the high school, the football field was a sea of people and blankets and bags. Children ran through the crowd from all directions, darting between blankets and legs and picnic hampers, as the high school band played patriotic music from their place in the stands.

Ben led Rey away from the rest of the Solo party, towards the spot that he and the Huxes had claimed every year since seventh grade. Francie and Armie were already there, both leaning back on their elbows, a basket between them.

“There they are!” Francie greeted. “I was beginning to think you might miss it.”

“It’s not even dark out yet,” Ben pointed out. He unfolded the small blanket he’d been carrying and spread it out next to Francie and Armie’s, overlapping theirs a bit.

“It’s going to be a good show,” Armie nodded. “It usually is.”

“It was last year,” Rey agreed, settling in next to Francie. True, she had nothing to compare it to – that had been the first time she’d ever seen fireworks – but she’d thought it was spectacular.

“Cookies?” Francie handed the basket to Rey.

“Oh, yes please!”

Ben chuckled at Rey’s eager delight. “Told you there was a reason to skip the cake.”

“You skipped the cake?” Francie asked in surprise.

“No,” Rey shook her head, her mouth full.

“Of course not,” Ben laughed, his voice warm.

“So what did you think of Roosevelt’s speech?” Armie asked Ben.

“No,” Francie declared. “We are not discussing war today. We are going to have a wonderful time celebrating our Nation’s birthday with fireworks and music.”

“You realize that it took a war to make America,” Armie pointed out.

Rey held the cookies out to Ben, hoping he’d fill his mouth with them and be unable to talk.

He did take one but didn't bite into it. "I think he was pretty clear," he mused. "We'll be in it sooner rather than later."

“There’s still a lot of isolationist sentiment out there,” Armie responded.

“Which is why he was talking about how we’re an oasis that can’t survive surrounded by dictators. He’s laying the groundwork.”

“Eat your cookie, Ben,” Rey broke in.

“Rey,” Francie purred, “don’t you think Cary Grant is handsome?”

“Oh, definitely.”

“So sophisticated,” Francie sighed. “And Errol Flynn. He’s really something too. So muscular and well-toned. His arms are just….”

“All right,” Armie interrupted, with a grimace. “You can stop now. You’ve made your point.”

“I’ve always been more of a Jimmy Stewart girl myself,” Rey admitted. “It’s his personality more than his looks, although he is handsome….”

“Eat your cookie, Rey,” Ben broke in.

The girls looked at each other in silent mirth, while the boys rolled their eyes at one another.

When it finally got dark enough, the fireworks began. The high school band kept playing during the show, but they could barely be heard over the crashing explosions and echoes of explosions, and the applause and whistles from the crowd. It was loud and brilliant and overwhelming in the best way.

As the barrage of red, white, and blue fireworks went off overhead, Rey ooh’d and ahh’d right along with everyone else, and in between her exclamations of wonder, she hummed to herself.

And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air….

Rey felt a sudden chill sweep down her spine.

Is this what it looks like, over Britain? The anti-aircraft fire, and the bombs that the Germans are dropping?

Rey dropped her gaze from the fireworks and surveyed the crowd around her. In the flash of each firework that went off, she could see the happy, excited faces lifted up to the skies; in between explosions, she could see the bright, fizzling lights of the sparklers that were scattered among the crowd.

What will next Fourth of July look like? Will it be like this, or will it be different? Or will we not have one at all?

“Are you cold?” Ben whispered, and Rey realized she’d been shivering.

“No,” she whispered back. “I’m all right.”

“You sure?”

She stole a quick look at him, out of the corner of her eye. In the bright flash from overhead, she saw concern etched across his face.

He’d give me his coat, if he had one, she realized, and she smiled quickly to keep her eyes from watering.

"I'm fine," she nodded pertly and turned her attention to the fireworks. "Oh, look at that one!"

He wasn't convinced, she knew that; but she also knew he wouldn't press her on it if he felt she didn't want to be pressed.

I’m so lucky, she thought yet again. So lucky. I need to shut up and enjoy it.

And she decided to do just that. To spend the rest of the evening enjoying the beautiful fireworks, and the fresh-smelling summer night breeze, and the company of her friends. And Ben.

Chapter Text

July 26, 1941

Rey was up early that morning, thanking every one of her lucky stars that the sun was shining and the wind was mild. She dressed quickly, pulling her hair back from her forehead and fastening it with a hair clip. A light touch of lipstick and mascara and she was on her way, bounding down the stairs to get a quick piece of toast before Han arrived.

Today was the day. She was finally going flying in the Jenny!

Ben had been trying to set it up since the spring but there had been problem after problem. Leia and Maz’s initial discomfort with the idea. Han’s work schedule. The Solos’ vacation. Mechanical issues with the plane. The weather.

But last night, everything had fallen into place – well, except for the weather, because no one could really predict that. But Han promised that if the sun was shining and the wind wasn’t gusting too hard or fast, he’d be by to pick her up at 8:00.

By 7:30, Rey was perched on the porch steps, bolting down her toast and coffee as she jiggled her knees up and down.

Han pulled up in the Plymouth, five minutes late and Rey sprinted down the front walk, her empty mug sitting forgotten on the front steps.

She paused at the side of the car, puzzled. “Where’s Ben?”

“He took the Ford. He had some things he wanted to take care of first.”

Rey couldn’t understand why anyone would need so many cars – she herself got along fine without one – but that was Han Solo for you. Some rich people collected antiques, some collected jewelry. Han collected cars.

She shrugged and slid into the front seat.

Han glanced behind him before pulling away from the curb. “Ben said you’re seeing a movie later.”

“Yep. ‘The Big Store’.”

“Marx Brothers, right?” He chuckled. “They’re pretty funny. Sounds like you’re going to make a day of it!” He made the turn that would take them out of town, to the barn that Rey had first visited all those months ago. “Okay, listen up, kid. There’s some stuff I want to go through with you before we’re in the air.”

*****

The Plymouth pulled up to the barn, right next to the Ford.

Rey craned her neck, looking around for her friend. “I thought you said Ben was here?”

Han opened his car door, a smug grin on his face.

Rey got out and started walking towards the barn.

“He’s not in there,” Han called after her, raising his voice to be heard over the loud roar of an engine.

“Where is he?” Rey yelled back.

Han smiled, and pointed at the sky.

Rey looked up. There, above their heads, a yellow and white Curtiss Jenny buzzed over the top of the barn, rising in altitude as it headed away from them.

She held her hands over her eyes, shielding them from the sunlight so she could see better.

That’s Ben! Oh, look at him go!

Rey knew that Ben flew planes. She’d heard him talk about flying, and she’d heard his father praising his flying. Knowing it, though, was different from seeing it.

She couldn’t see his face, of course; she could barely tell that there was a person in the cockpit, from this distance. But that was Ben up there, no question.

The Jenny had wheeled back around to return, and Rey’s heart thudded so hard that she gasped. As Ben roared overhead again, she let out an exuberant scream that blended with the engine’s noise, so she couldn’t separate the two sounds.

“It’s a great day for flying!” Han came up to stand beside her as she turned to watch Ben soar past. “I think you’re really going to enjoy yourself!”

“I already am!” Rey wiped her wet eyes carefully so her mascara didn’t run. She didn’t know why she was tearing up – she wasn’t sad. Maybe it was the wind in her face, or the pollen in the countryside. That was probably it.

Ben had brought the Jenny around again, and was coming in lower now, lining up with the field that lay to the east of the barn. Rey watched, her hands covering her mouth, as the plane dipped to one side, and then the other, before finally straightening out and touching down.

“Kind of a sloppy landing,” Han noted. “He’s going to have to work on that. No, wait.” Rey had started moving towards the plane, which was rolling down the field towards them. Han held out an arm to stop her. “Stay out of the way. He’ll get here.”

She watched with eager eyes as the Jenny moved closer, its propeller slowing lazily at the front. She couldn’t see Ben’s hair or face well – he was wearing a brown, close-fitting cap, and a large pair of goggles. But she could tell he’d seen her, by the way his head turned in her direction.

The plane had rolled past them a little by the time the choppy roar of the engine went quiet. Rey looked at Han, who nodded and dropped his arm.

She scampered across the field to where Ben was hauling himself out of the cockpit, skidding to a stop in front of him just as he pulled off his goggles and cap.

“Hey,” he smiled, rubbing his head.

“Hey.” She wanted to say something about his piloting skills, or the beauty of the Jenny in flight, or how much older he looked standing there with his cap and goggles in hand, but she was having trouble translating her thoughts into actual words.

Han’s voice sounded from behind her. “Gotta watch that landing, Ben.”

“Yeah, I know. I didn’t handle the rudder correctly at first, and then I overcompensated.”

Rey was surprised by how calm and analytical he sounded. His usual reaction to his father’s criticism – or most things Han said, really – was to grumble in annoyance or lash out in anger, depending on his mood.

Right now, though, he didn’t sound like a grouchy teenager. He sounded like a grown-up. Like a professional.

A tiny thrill shivered its way down Rey’s spine.

“You ready, Rey?” Han was pulling on a cap of his own.

Ben frowned. “What are you doing?”

“Someone’s gotta fly the damn plane,” Han pointed out.

Ben narrowed his eyes. “I can do it.”

“No way.” Han was firm. “I’m taking her up.”

Grown-up Ben immediately disappeared and was replaced by Grouchy Teenaged Ben. “You don’t think I can handle it?”

No, not Grouchy Teenaged Ben. Angry Teenaged Ben.

Oh, hell. Even without looking, she knew his fists were clenched at his sides.

“Ben,” Rey appealed, careful to keep her tone of voice somewhere between stern and soothing.

He huffed.

“I know you can,” Han countered, “but I also know that if there was some kind of accident while the two of you were up there, your mother would kill me.”

“If there’s an accident, she’ll kill you no matter what,” Ben challenged.

“Yeah, well, if I’m already dead I can’t be killed, can I?”

Rey’s eyes widened as she darted a look at the plane.

“God, shut up, Dad,” Ben growled, stepping closer to Rey.

“Don’t tell me…oh.” Han fell silent, his mouth shifting back and forth.

“Hey,” Ben turned to Rey. She dragged her eyes away from the plane, to find him watching her carefully. “You’ll be fine,” he reassured her. “I’ve flown hundreds of times and here I am. It’s safe. Even if he’s the pilot.”

“Sorry, kid,” Han added. “We got carried away there, for a moment. It’s going to be fine. Okay?”

“Okay,” Rey nodded, swallowing away her unease.

“Yeah. So.” Han sighed, then gestured at his son. “Give her your cap and goggles, Ben.” He grabbed onto the side of the Jenny, placing his foot into the step near the bottom of the fuselage.

Ben handed her the cap. “Here, put this on. Otherwise you’ll see nothing but your hair, and you don’t want that.” Rey took the cap from him and turned it over in her hands, furrowing her brow. “I mean, your hair is really nice, I like looking at it and you probably do too, but you should be watching the scenery….”

Rey was barely listening to him. “Ben,” she interrupted with a frown, “how does this…?”

“Ah.” He cleared his throat, and held out the goggles to her. She traded the cap for them, and he arranged it in his hands. “Like this, see?” He made a movement, as if he were going to put it on her head, but stopped short. “Or do you…?”

Rey wanted to tell him it was all right, but she wasn’t sure her voice wouldn’t squeak. So she lowered her head and leaned closer to him, to make it easier. She couldn’t bring herself to look him directly in the face, but she caught a glimpse of his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.

He tucked the cap over her head; it wasn’t a tight fit, since it was his cap, so there was only a minor bit of tugging involved.

“And there’s this strap,” he mentioned, catching it in his fingers, “which has to be fastened, to keep the cap on. Would you prefer….”

No, she thought, you can do it. But she said, “I could,” because maybe he didn’t want to, and how ridiculous was this anyway, she was old enough to dress herself….

As she reached up to take hold of the straps, her fingers met his. She wasn’t sure if the quiet little gasp that followed was his or hers. Rey’s face was burning as Ben took a quick step back.

“Ben, quit fooling around over there!” Han was already in the back seat of the Jenny, his cap and goggles on. “I’m not getting any younger!”

Ben gestured stiffly to her hands. “Goggles,” he said. “To protect your eyes.”

Rey nodded, and he turned on his heel and strode quickly towards the plane. Rey scrambled behind, pulling the goggles on and attempting to make them tighter.

“Tighten the goggles for her, son,” Han commanded. Rey twirled to face away from Ben, so he wouldn’t have to reach around her, and rested her hand against the yellow paint of the plane while he fumbled with the straps.

“Okay, there,” Ben announced, shoving his hands into his pockets. Rey slowly turned back around to face him.

Han chuckled and shook his head. “Now tell her how to get up here.”

Ben darted a narrow glare at his father, then talked Rey through the process of climbing into the front cockpit of the Jenny and strapping in.

Rey’s seat was underneath the larger, top wing of the plane. Directly in front of her was a fuel gauge, which she eyed cautiously.

Little over half full. She wasn’t sure if that was enough, but neither Han nor Ben seemed bothered by it, so she decided she shouldn’t be, either. They probably wouldn’t be up for long, anyway.

She watched as Ben walked around to the front of the plane and gripped one of the propellers with both hands. He gave a mighty tug and stepped back off to the side, as the engine sputtered and cracked and began to roar.

The plane began rolling down the field, the bumps and dips in the ground jolting Rey around in her seat. The bounces became more pronounced as the plane picked up speed, and Rey thought her teeth might be jostled right out of her head – but then, everything smoothed out.

They were in the air.

Rey sucked in a big gasp as the world descended beneath her.

Between the spitting thrum of the engine and the howl of the wind against the side of her cap, flying was louder than she had expected it to be. And while the bouncing had stopped, the vibrations hadn’t; she could feel them throbbing in her blood and in her bones.

Her hands had been clinging to her harness straps as they’d lifted off, so tightly that they’d begun to cramp up. She released the straps and rubbed one hand with the other, as she looked down at the miniature world below her.

The farm fields were in block patterns, separated by the occasional road, with their houses perched solidly near their boundaries. There was a glint on one of the roads, and Rey realized with a thrill that it was a car. She watched it until it drove beneath the wing and she couldn’t see it anymore, and then she looked around some more.

There – those were the train tracks. She’d come into town along those tracks as a five-year-old, anxious and unsure of her future. They looked completely different, from above. Small, like wires laid across twigs, if the twigs were all shaped the same.

She saw the river below, shining in the sunlight, wending through the trees and fields. There was a slight interruption in the glimmer – that had to be the footbridge where she and Finn used to part on their separate journeys home, back when she was at Plutt’s.

And then she saw Plutt’s itself – the dusty yard, the single, sickly tree, and the beaten-up shack where she used to do all the repair work. An unexpected wave of nostalgia rolled over her, as she remembered the feel of metal beneath her fingers, the motion of the tools in her hands, the smell of oil and musty wood and machinery. That’s where I first met Mr. Solo, she thought. Almost two years ago. And now, he was in the seat behind her, piloting her through the skies.

The nostalgia faded as she took in the ruins of the building behind the shack. Plutt’s house had collapsed, most likely because there was no one there to care for it anymore.

Flashes of memory lit up her mind. The gnawing hunger. The drunken ranting. The feel of fists against her face.

Out of the corner of her eye, just off to the right, she caught a glimpse of another farm. The one that used to be the Cawley’s place. Her stomach rolled inside her.

Rey shut her eyes and held her breath, letting the shuddering pulses of the engine wash the recollections out of her brain. By the time she opened them and took another breath, the two farmhouses were behind them.

On the horizon ahead of them, she could see the faint shimmer of what had to be buildings. One of the larger towns, probably. She squinted. Is that Springfield?

And then the plane keeled over onto its side.

Rey squeaked and grabbed onto the edges of the cockpit. The ground was now below her side -- the wing seeming to be pointing almost straight down to it, and the sky was on her other side. She darted a frantic look back at Han.

She wanted to ask him what was going on, but she couldn’t. He wouldn’t hear her above the wind and the engine noise.

He didn’t seem even the slightest bit upset, either. So maybe this was normal?

She turned her attention back to the earth at the edge of the wing, only to see the plane beginning to level out into a more reasonable position. The Jenny was heading back towards Plutt’s old farm again. They’d turned around.

Oh. That’s what it was like when a plane turned.

Rey sank back a little in her seat, her nerves still jumping underneath her relaxing muscles, her clammy hands sliding a bit as they maintained their grip on the sides of the cockpit.

She watched as the ramshackle ruin of the place she’d once lived passed by.

It’s so small from up here. It looks like I could squash it with my foot.

She let go of the side of the plane and held up her hand, lining up her thumb with the shack and ruins. If she adjusted the position of her hand, she couldn’t even see it. She could block it completely, with a single thumb.

Such a tiny thing, from where she was sitting – so trifling and insignificant.

And then it fell behind them. She looked towards the front of the plane to see all of Naboo spread out before her.

Her eyes picked out all the landmarks of her life. The high school. The Club. Downtown, with the cinema and the fabric store and Hill’s. Off to the right, the neighborhood where Poe and the Huxes lived. And there was Ben’s house, with its big lawn and its flower pots along the front walkway and the oak trees hiding the glider swing.

The park, with its trees and playground and chess boards. The rooming house.

Home.

The plane tilted again, but this time Rey knew what was happening. She kept a loose clutch on her harness as her eyes wandered over the miniature town below her, reveling in the dizzy breathlessness of the turn, until the Jenny levelled off again.

The town fell behind them and the trees and scattered farmhouses below got larger as the plane lowered itself back to Earth. Rey’s legs and arms grew heavy as her stomach sank downwards. That didn’t make a lot of sense; they hadn’t gone high enough to lose gravity. Nothing should have changed.

And yet, it had. Up in the air, Rey’s previous life had been laid out before her, as small as a child’s dollhouse and just as harmless. She was lighter than she’d ever been before, surrounded by nothing but air and possibility, drifting along a path that was smooth and steady despite the rough churning of the engine and the roaring of the wind.

She’d been free.

No wonder Ben loves this so much.

The Jenny jostled as it landed, rolling down the field in a series of bumps and jolts that knocked Rey’s teeth together. The sputters of the engine slowed as they approached the area near the barn. Ben was standing by the car, his hair ruffled all on end; as they came closer, he pulled his hands from his pockets and took a couple of slow steps in their direction.

By the time the engine stopped, he was striding so fast he was all but running.

“How was it?” he called out, before he’d even reached the plane. “Are you all right?”

Rey took a breath so she could answer him but she found herself without words. She just grinned at him, with a smile so wide she thought her face might crack in half.

Ben stopped just short of the plane and gazed up at her, taking in her bright smile and flushed cheeks. “You liked it.”

Rey nodded happily, and breathed, “I loved it.”

“She did great,” Han announced. “She didn’t upchuck, she didn’t scream, she didn’t faint.”

“Of course not,” Ben responded. His voice didn’t have the hard edge it usually did when he corrected his father, probably because he was smiling up at Rey.

Bright, shining amber and honey, bits of chocolate, sunlight. How his dark eyes could look like sunlight, Rey wasn’t sure. But they did.

Han’s voice broke through her musings. “Help her out, will you, Ben? I’m going to go up again. Just for a little while.”

Rey began undoing her harness.

Ben narrowed his eyes at his father. “Mom said no stunts.”

“Stunts? Who, me?” Han sounded far too offended to be serious.

“Dad.”

“She wouldn’t find out anyway….”

Dad.

“...because there’s nothing to find out. I’m just gonna fly casual,” Han contended, his voice thick with mock innocence. “Now help Rey get out. Oops, too late.”

Ben turned just in time to see Rey plop herself down to stand right in front of him. She smirked at the look of surprise on his face.

Han let out a roar of laughter. “You’ll have to get up damn early in the morning to stay ahead of her, son!”

Ben directed an ominous glare at his father. Rey could see the tips of his ears turning pink underneath his untidy hair.

Han was unfazed. “Rey, you might want to move away a little while Ben starts her up.”

Ben huffed out a growl and stalked to the front of the plane as Rey backed out of the way. She slowed to watch him reach up and grasp the propeller with two hands. He pulled hard, the muscles on his forearms taut, then moved away as the engine sputtered back to life.

Han sent them a jaunty wave as he bumped his way back down the field; Ben and Rey watched him go, shading their eyes against the bright morning sunlight.

“He can do stunts?” Rey didn’t take her eyes off the plane, watching it rise smoothly from the ground and soar into the wind. It seemed so odd to think that she’d just done the very same thing not half an hour ago.

“He was a barnstormer for years after the Great War.” Ben dropped his hands from his eyes and toed at the dirt. “Flew all over the country.” He checked his watch. “Good, we still have plenty of time to catch the show.”

Rey kept pace with him as they made their way to the car. “But your mother doesn’t want him to any more?”

Ben paused for a moment by the driver’s side door, as Rey made her way around. “No, she doesn’t.”

Rey climbed into the front seat of the car, wincing a bit as she felt the heat of the upholstery through her skirt. Leia’s attitude made sense. It was an older airplane, after all, and by now he was surely out of practice. Who knew what could happen?

Of course, his wife was afraid. Rey would be afraid too, if it were Ben doing loop-the-loops through the sky.

Ben turned the key in the ignition. “He’s got a heart condition. That’s why he’s not supposed to do stunts. Doctor’s orders.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” He put the car in gear, his lips pressed together in a tight line.

Rey watched him stare grimly out the windshield. She didn’t know what to say. And that was fine – odds were, he didn’t want to talk about it anyway.

She slid along the front seat, just a little closer to him, and kept her eyes on the road as they headed into town.

*****

After the movie was over, Ben drove Rey back to the Solo house; they intended to get some cool drinks and try to beat each other at chess.

As they left the garage and headed towards the back door, the sound of a furiously raised voice leaked out through an open kitchen window.

Ben and Rey stopped dead in their tracks.

“You didn’t think I’d find out? You’re in a goddamn plane, Han, everyone can see you doing your ridiculous stunts!”

The crash of something falling rang out. “Good God, woman! What’s the point of staying alive if I can’t live?”

“You told my son not to tell me, didn’t you?”

“He’s my son too, Leia! And I am a grown adult, I make my own goddamn decisions and you and your goddamn doctors have no say…”.

Rey darted a nervous glance towards Ben, who was giving her the same look. As quietly as possible, they turned and crept along the driveway and down to the sidewalk, the sounds of argument growing faint behind them.

They wandered in the direction of the town for a couple of blocks, not speaking, before Ben cleared his throat.

“It’s going to be a good couple of hours before we can go back,” he informed her. “Do you want to get some ice cream or something? Unless you’re tired and you want to go back to the rooming house.”

“We could play chess in the park,” Rey answered, because she wasn’t ready to go home yet.

Ben groaned, then reluctantly admitted, “I guess we could.”

“Thank you.”

Rey watched as Ben’s eyes followed a bird that swooped down from a tree and took off across the sky. “You sure it’ll be a couple of hours?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It typically is. Although this one might be shorter than usual.”

“Why’s that?”

He snorted. “Because it’s not about me. Those fights last for days.”

Rey kept her eyes on the sidewalk in front of her. “Do they fight about you a lot?”

Ben pursed his lips and kicked a pebble out of his way, while Rey waited to see what he would say.

He exhaled. “They used to. I was born about a year after they got married, so I wasn’t part of their plans.” He grimaced. “So when I was born, my mother had to spend all her time at home, with me, and she didn’t want to. You know my mother.” He scowled. “She hated it.”

Rey nodded. She didn’t really believe Leia had hated spending time with Ben when he was little, but she did know the woman was not a homebody.

“Dad was at work all day, and you know how much he loves office work. He’s completely unsuited for it, too, so he was running the factory into the ground without her there.” He huffed. “Squandering the family legacy, that’s what she used to call it.”

Rey frowned, imagining little Ben listening wide-eyed as his parents hurled curse words at each other, as she’d just heard them do.

“My dad was also used to being footloose and fancy-free, and once I came along he couldn’t just hop in a plane or go to the bar whenever he wanted, and he hated that. They were both trapped, and they spent years fighting about who should be stuck with me each day.”

He shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “They eventually settled it by pawning me off on that…”. He took a shaky breath.

Rey watched him warily, remembering his reaction when he’d seen his former nanny downtown, but he calmed himself.

“Anyway. Then I grew up angry and miserable and destructive, and I scared them, so then they fought about what to do about me. They settled that by pawning me off on my Uncle Luke. They thought maybe he could fix me, and even if he couldn’t, at least they wouldn’t have to deal with me any more.” He shot her a glance from the side of his eyes. “Don’t say it.”

Rey shook her head. “Don’t say what? I haven’t even opened my mouth yet.”

“Don’t say ‘oh, but they loved you, they were just overwhelmed and unprepared’ and whatever other bullshit,” he growled.

“Is that what people usually say?”

“I don’t talk to anyone about it. But I’m sure it’s what they’d say if I did.” He kicked at the grass along the edge of the sidewalk. “It’s what I say to myself about it,” he muttered.

“Oh.”

“Because I know that, intellectually in my brain I know it. But I don’t feel it.”

They crossed the street in silence, heading towards downtown, as Rey turned his story over in her mind. She’d known the general outline of it, of course, but there was one thing he’d said that she hadn’t expected.

“You said they were scared of you?” Rey had trouble understanding that.

She remembered Luke describing Ben’s childhood as “violent”, but she had never seen Han or Leia act as if they were frightened of their son. They’d been embarrassed and irritated by him, and dismissive of him; also, proud and protective of him, and fond too. But not afraid.

He didn’t respond right away, and she thought maybe she shouldn’t have asked. She was about to apologize, when he spoke again.

“They thought I was just like my grandfather. My mother’s father, her real father. He died before I was born, so I never met him. But I’ve heard stories.” He took a deep breath. “He was angry, and violent, and he…well, you’ve probably heard the stories too.”

Rey shook her head. “I haven’t.”

He looked at her, his eyebrows raised skeptically.

“I haven’t,” she repeated, frowning at his disbelief.

“Maybe not yet,” he answered, his voice dark with regret, “but I’m sure you will. Everyone does, eventually.”

“Well, I don’t want to,” Rey declared, “so I won’t. And that’s that.”

He let out a chuckle and slid a sideways glance at her. “Oh, that’s that, huh?”

She met his look with a determined stare of her own. “Yes. It is.” She surged forward, ahead of him, and turned so she was facing him. “Listen. It’s a beautiful day today,” she began, ticking things off on her fingers as she walked backwards in front of him. “The sun is shining, it’s hot but not too hot…,”

“It’s getting windy…,” he groused.

She ignored him in favor of continuing her list of Reasons to Not Be Cranky. “And you went flying. I got to watch you flying. I got to fly!”

“Yeah, with my dad, who clearly…,”

“And I’ve never seen anything like it!” she enthused. “It was gorgeous and spectacular and I completely see why you love it!”

She noted with satisfaction that he appeared to be struggling to keep the corners of his mouth from turning up.

“Plus, we went to see a funny movie and we both laughed, you know you did and don't deny it, and now we’re going to get ice cream and play chess in the park…,”

His faint smile faded slightly. “You’re about ten steps from the curb. Be careful.”

She kept going, because she still had things to say. “And so help me, Ben Solo, we are going to enjoy ourselves, because if I have to….”

“Rey, the street is right behind you, there are cars! Seriously, stop!”

Ben took two unexpectedly quick steps towards her, his eyes wide with alarm, and grabbed her wrist. She pulled back against his grip, but only a little. Just enough to let him know it was her decision to stop, not his.

“Jesus, Rey,” he blurted, breathless. His fingers were firm, but not tight, against her skin, and they were warm.

His hands were so large, as they wrapped around her wrist. Her hand looked almost delicate in comparison. Rey lifted her eyes up to his, and realized she was breathless, too.

Chocolate caramel, shimmery golden glitter.

As she took in the dimensions of color in his eyes, she saw his pupils begin to dilate.

Midnight black.

Rey shivered.

Ben dropped her wrist and stepped back. He cleared his throat and jammed his hand into his pocket. “Ice cream,” he asked, his eyes on the ground. It was more of a statement than a question.

Rey was cold without his hand on her skin. Her heart sunk in her chest. He looked so uncomfortable.

I must have stared at him too long, and it’s not like that, with us, she thought. She twisted her hands together, trying to figure out how to bring things back to normal again. Back to friends.

She took a quick breath and nodded. “Ice cream.” Then she pointed at him, drawing her eyebrows down fiercely. “And the park. And chess.”

The corners of his mouth turned back up, and she almost sighed in relief. “Yes. The park. And chess.” There was something in his tone, soft and fond, that made her heart swell up so she almost couldn’t breathe. He looked back up at her and grinned. “I hope you’ll still have a good day, after you’ve lost.”

She put her hands on her hips. “After I’ve lost? Really, Ben?”

He checked for traffic before stepping off the curb, and the grin stayed on his face as they crossed the street together. “Well, you are getting better, but you’re still not quite there.”

“I’ll show you not quite there,” she muttered.

“I’m sure you’ll try,” he snickered.

She nudged into him – it was more of a bump, really, to let him know she wasn’t to be trifled with, on the chess board or anywhere else. He nudged her back, and she bumped him again in retaliation, giggling as she did so and relishing the sound of his answering chuckle.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good day so far, she reflected, as they strolled down the sidewalk towards Hill’s. It’s been one of the best days, ever. And it’s not over yet.

Rey was fiercely, gratefully happy about that.