Rey Niima strolled through Milano Centrale Railway station. The number FN-2187 train was leaving in fifteen minutes. While Italy may have operated a bit slower than countries such as the United States and England, they still functioned under a schedule, especially in the northern provinces. She needed to hurry if she was going to make it on time.
She darted up the steep stairs, unwilling to wait for the elevator. The loud click-clack of shoes on the marble floors played a chaotic soundtrack that went along with her rushed efforts. Dozens of people filtered about, mostly business men and women, trying to get to their final destination in time for supper.
Ignoring the noise and the stimulation of one too many advertisement banners, Rey shouldered her way through the crowds. In her haste, she barreled into someone.
“Scusami. Mi dispiace,” Rey quickly apologized as she took notice of the petite elderly woman she had run down. Instinctively, Rey reached out and righted the woman on her feet.
The woman made a tutting sound, waving Rey off. She wore a long-sleeved navy blue shirt with a vest over top and a matching hat, which covered all of her hair. From behind her thick glasses, she peered up at Rey, her expression unreadable. The woman was a gypsy, one of many who frequented public places like the Duomo and the Galleria in hopes of securing a few extra coins. While they primarily targeted unsuspecting tourists, there were times when they snuck a wallet out of a local’s bag. However, they’d never bothered Rey before. Maybe they could tell she was a transient like them.
Spotting the time, Rey cursed under her breath. She needed to go. She apologized once more before adjusting her bag on her shoulders and moving to leave. The elderly woman held out a hand to stop her.
“Tu chi se?” the woman asked. Who are you?
“Non sono nessuno,” Rey replied. I’m no one.
The woman hummed, thoughtfully. “Chiunque tu stia aspettando, non tornerà mai più. L'appartenenza che cerchi non è dietro di te, è avanti.” Whoever you’re waiting for, they’re never coming back. The belonging you seek isn’t behind you, it is ahead.
“Che cosa?” What?
A whistle blew. Rey gazed up to see which train was leaving and when she looked back down, the woman was gone.
She glanced around frantically but there was no sign of the gypsy.
Strange, she thought.
She checked her pockets and her bag to make sure the old woman hadn’t robbed her blind while she had been distracted. When Rey confirmed her wallet was still secure, she headed to her platform.
Trenitalia was owned by the government and as such had a few security officers patrolling the station. One asked her to show him her ticket before she boarded. With a cursory glance, he let her pass. She suppressed a yawn, as she boarded the overnight car. Being able to finally put her pack down would be a welcomed relief. She felt like she had been carrying it forever. In a way, she had.
She’d spent the better part of the last nine months touring the country, working her way from region to region but it was time to move on. She never stayed in one place for too long. There were too many other places to look.
Her rucksack contained only the bare essentials — some clothes, an extra pair of sneakers, a few snacks and her map. Once she was in her compartment, she’d unroll it and mark off Milan. One more city down, countless others to go.
Rey had been searching for her parents since she’d been found wandering the streets of Westminster at the tender age of six. After graduation, Rey made it her mission to find them. She took whatever job she could find — bartender, maid, delivery girl. She’d even been an au pair.
While she had been in Spain, the Andor family had been exceedingly kind to her. Cassian, Jyn, and their son Bodhi were the closest thing Rey had ever come to having a family of her own. It was with their blessing that she came to Italy.
Her next stop, Salzburg was home to their close friend, a pilot by the name of Han Solo. He was in need of a mechanic and Rey had the experience. After Cassian put in a good word, Han had hired her — sight unseen. Like Cassian and Jyn, he was a generous man. He booked her a train ticket and told her he’d pick her up at Salzburg Hauptbahnhof, the city's main railway station.
Rey glanced down at the printout, double checking her compartment number.She failed to notice the prefix in front of her name. Han had forgotten to update the drop-down menu when he had booked her passage. As a result, her ticket read Signor Niima.
Had Rey taken note of the discrepancy, she may have avoided the series of events that were about to unfold.
Compartment BB-8 was located midway in the second sleeper car of the train. When Rey yanked the door open, she found the double unoccupied.
She tossed her rucksack on the bottom bunk. Her hands reached toward the ceiling as she stretched, thankful for the time to rest. She’d spent the last couple of months working in a salvage yard. Her employer, a man by the name of Unkar Plutt, was neither kind nor generous. He worked her to the bone, demanding she finish her tasks within ridiculous timelines. It had given Rey immense pleasure to tell him she was quitting.
With a smile on her face, she crawled onto her bed. Nimble fingers searched the contents of her bag until she pulled out her map.
The large parchment was difficult to keep intact. She’d had it since she was twelve. That was the year she had decided that if her family wasn’t going to find her, she’d find them. With the help of her teachers, Rey had plotted her pathway through Eastern Europe. Searching every single town was impossible, but if she stuck to the larger cities, her plan could be a reality.
The first year on her own had been the hardest. At seventeen, she was malnourished, scrawny, and naive. She had secured her first job in London but it hadn’t paid much. Later she found out she had earned less than half of what the owner was legally obligated to pay her. Rey learned from her mistake and it never happened again.
Over the last two years, she had hardened in order to survive. By doing so, she made sure she never went to bed hungry and that she always had an exit strategy. Even now, as she sat in her bunk, Rey knew the layout of the closest exits in her mind. She knew which doors opened in case of emergency and which windows could be smashed.
If she had friends, she was sure they would consider her habit cynical, but Rey thought of it as a life skill. Attachments weren’t good for someone who was always moving, someone who couldn’t understand the idea of putting down roots because her own had been ripped out.
No, Rey didn’t need anyone. Once she found her family, she’d be whole again. They were the missing piece, the part of her that needed to be mended. When she found them, she would find her place in this world.
Her eyes honed in on the map. Her red felt tipped pen drew an ‘X’ through Venice, Genoa, Verona, Stressa, Milan, and Turin. The next set of cities were in Austria. She’d start in Salzburg, then check Linz and Vienna before circling back to Klagenfurt and Innsbruck. If Austria held no answers, she planned to hop over to Munich.
As she began marking the appropriate cities in Germany, the door to her compartment slammed open. Rey jolted, her pen falling to the floor.
In the doorway, which barely contained him, stood a mountain of a man with broad shoulders and a head of hair that every model in Milan would envy. His pale skin was dotted with a constellation of moles and Rey found her eyes trailing along them until they disappeared beneath his dress shirt.
The new arrival stared at her with molten chocolate eyes, then proceeded to pick up the red pen and hand it to her.
“Buonasera,” he said in greeting.
His voice was deep and smooth, causing Rey’s skin to erupt with goosebumps. She swallowed as she reached for the pen. The second her skin touched his, she felt a spark. Rey gasped, rapidly withdrawing her hand. The stranger reacted in a similar fashion, eyeing her curiously, before turning his attention to his own hand. His lips parted as if he wanted to say something, but then he shook his head and pointed to her rucksack.
“Vorresti che lo stivassi per te?” Would you like me to stow this for you?
His accent was strange for a northern Italian. She wondered if he made his home in Sicily or another southern province. Even with his unique tone, she understood his words. What she didn’t understand was how someone his size could bear to be in a suit all day, especially considering how warm their summer was. Then again, she’d never seen a man as attractive as him in a suit.
He looked fit to burst as if his inner beast was clawing to get out. She imagined what a man like him must do for work. Considering the expert tailoring and his one-of-a-kind leather shoes, she guessed it was something important like a lawyer or a position in finance. Rey hadn’t worked in an office before, besides as part of the cleaning crew, yet she suddenly found herself wishing she had enough experience to apply where he worked. If only to see him in his suit again.
The sound of a throat clearing brought her attention back to his face. He was watching her expectantly. Rey realized he was waiting on her answer.
“Si, grazie,” Rey nodded, hastily as if she hadn’t just been daydreaming about him.
She couldn’t help but notice the way his jacket tightened around his arms as he lifted her bag with ease. She wondered what else he could lift with those arms.
“Grazie,” she thanked him.
“Prego,” he replied with a curt nod.
He shucked off the jacket and hung it on a peg next to the shelf.
Rey froze. He didn’t mean to stay here, did he?
She assumed he was lost, wandered into her car, noticed she couldn’t lift her bag and offered to store it for her. As if to confirm otherwise, he leaned back against the window and removed his shoes, carefully slipping them into a nook beneath the luggage shelf.
No matter how much she liked his voice, Rey liked her safety more. The fact remained that she didn’t know this man. While Europeans weren’t as prude as some other countries, having a man and women (who weren’t in a relationship together) sharing an overnight car was crossing a line, even for the Italians.
“Penso che tu sia nel compartimento sbagliato,” she informed him. I think you’re in the wrong compartment.
The man arched a brow at her but didn’t respond. Instead, he tossed his suitcase onto the top bunk and proceeded to crawl up into the space above her.
Rey watched his massive form disappear. The bunk creaked and she prayed that the bed held. He was certainly not built for such a confined space and she wasn’t built to sustain the impact if he came crashing down on top of her.
She cleared her throat and tried again. “Mi scusi signore?”
Rey bit her lower lip and debated whether or not she should alert train security. Before she could make up her mind, she felt the train lurch forward and they were on their way.
Letting out a shaky breath, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand.
Her connection was at Villach, which meant she had a few hours to rest before they’d announce the stop and ask for passengers to disembark. She finished making her marks for Germany then proceeded to fold up her map, tucking it safely inside her jacket.
Above her, she heard the man’s heavy breathing, indicating he had fallen asleep. She knew she should try to do the same. Mr. Solo was expecting a mechanic, not an exhausted bag of bones.
If the Italian officials hadn’t been bothered by the man’s presence in her compartment, she wouldn’t be either.
After all, she could handle herself.
Rey rolled over on her side, closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep.
Vrrrrrr. Vrrrrrr. Vrrrrrr.
Rey groaned as she swatted her phone, trying to turn off her alarm before the vibrations woke her compartment mate.
The compartment mate with the chocolate eyes and feather-soft hair.
The compartment mate with a voice made of pure sin.
The compartment who she had been dreaming about.
Peering around, she realized the room was completely dark, which was good for a sleeper car, but unnerving for a young woman traveling alone.
Quietly, she slipped from her bunk, padding over to the shelf where he had hung her rucksack.
Rey rose up to her tiptoes in an attempt to retrieve the bag, but its weight kept it nestled on the shelf. She tried pulling it down by the strap, a hiss of breath escaping as she clenched her jaw in concentration.
The deep voice came from behind her and suddenly she felt the warmth of him, as he reached around to free her bag.
Rey turned slowly, thankful for the darkness because it hid her blush.
“You’re not Italian,” she observed.
“Neither are you,” he chuckled.
Her cheeks burned. His laughter was the only sound more alluring than his voice. It was as smooth as silk, as smooth as the dark tendrils of hair falling into his face.
“But you spoke Italian to me,” she said in an accusing tone.
Another chuckle. “I thought you were Italian,” he commented.
“You talk in your sleep,” he informed her.
Rey went red all over. She hoped she hadn’t said anything embarrassing while she had been out. The last thing she needed was this handsome stranger knowing exactly what she had been dreaming about.
As if sensing her unease, he changed the subject. “Are you getting off at Klagenfurt?”
“No, Villach,” she answered.
“Come on!” Suddenly, his hand closed over her wrist and he was yanking her and her rucksack out of the compartment.
Rey would have had yelped if her brain had been able to think of anything but how it felt to have his hand wrapped around her. He was so warm, so big.
He led her to the end of the car, where a train official was standing with a tablet. The official appeared bored and didn’t even raise his eyes as they approached.
The stranger, who was still holding onto her wrist and carrying her bag, spoke to him in German. The official glared at Rey, then at the stranger, then back at his tablet. Unconcerned, he muttered a response which resulted in the stranger cursing.
“What?” Rey queried.
“We just missed it,” the stranger informed her. “He said once they close the doors, they can’t reopen them until we reach the next stop.”
“What?” Rey repeated, even though she heard him.
Her shock had her staring out the windows as they passed Villach station. Her stomach churned unpleasantly and she broke out in a sweat. Her vision became blurry as her anxiety bubbled up. She was going to miss her transfer to Salzburg. She was going to lose the job she had lined up and her plans for touring Austria would be over.
“Hey.” Warm hands landed on her shoulders. Her eyes focused on his face. He was leaning in, searching her eyes for something. “Hey, it’s alright,” he told her. “We’ll get off at Klagenfurt and get you a regional rail pass. They can get you back to Villach. It will be fine. Alright?”
Rey felt sick but she nodded in agreement. His plan made sense. Besides, what choice did she have?
He removed his hands from her shoulders, slung her pack over his shoulder and led her back to their compartment.
The stranger introduced himself As they walked, the stranger introduced himself, "I'm Ben."
He smiled and she felt the goosebumps return. “Nice to meet you, Rey.”
The first regional train to Villach didn’t leave for another two hours. Luckily, it arrived before Rey’s transfer to Salzburg, so she wouldn’t be delayed for her meet-up with Mr. Solo.
Klagenfurt Hauptbahnhof wasn’t nearly as large as Milano Centrale but they did offered coffee. After her roller coaster of an evening, Rey made a beeline for the cafe. Ben easily fell into step next to her as if he knew where she was going before she did. Maybe he needed his caffeine fix too.
“Due caffè per favore,” Rey ordered for both of them. She didn’t speak any German, but thankfully the barista understood her and began making the espresso.
Rey reached into her bag for her wallet but Ben stopped her. He was still carrying it, along with his own suitcase. Rey acknowledged that it was nice having someone to travel with. Not that she would ever admit it out loud. She was fine by herself.
“My treat.” He slid a few Euros across the countertop.
“Thank you,” Rey smiled.
“It’s only fair,” Ben stated. “After all, it’s my fault you missed your stop.”
“If I had gotten your bag down sooner, you wouldn’t be here right now. I apologize.”
Rey stared at him, thinking that he had to be teasing her. There was no trace of humor on his face. In fact, he looked downright guilty. “Ben, I overslept. It was my fault for miscalculating the time to the station,” she pointed out.
The barista cut in, bringing over their cups of espresso.
“You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” he remarked, taking their coffee over to a small table in the corner. “You’re so young.”
Her brow creased. “I’m not that young.”
“You look like you haven’t even graduated yet,” he observed, taking a sip of his drink.
“I'll be twenty next April, thank you very much,” she snapped.
“That’s still young,” Ben insisted. “Besides, you shouldn't be sleeping in a male compartment, at least not with a stranger. Didn't your friends want to do this with you?"
“Do what?” she asked, her curiosity blinding her to what he'd mentioned about the compartment being reserved for men.
“Backpack across Europe. Sleep hostels. Drink until dawn. Whatever it is that kids do these days,” he elaborated.
Rey started laughing. “You sound like an old man.”
“I am,” he said flatly.
“You can’t be that old,” she argued. “Twenty-five?”
She whistled. “I stand corrected. You are an old man.”
Ben arched a brow at her but when she burst into another fit of giggles, he smiled.
They fell into comfortable banter from that point on. Ben told her about why he was in Austria. He insured antiquities and a current client wanted him to authenticate a collection of rare medieval weaponry they had recently purchased. Traveling was a common occurrence for him. It came with the profession and while living out of a suitcase and the constant state of jet lag was unpleasant, he enjoyed his work.
“I’ve always been fascinated with art history,” he told her, as they enjoyed the second round of espresso and freshly made croissants. “Ever since I was a kid. I used to stay up late reading books in bed about the architects of Versailles or Leonardo Da Vinci’s career.”
“You were a dork,” Rey grinned, reaching across the table to nudge him playfully. Ben made a face. “A cute dork,” she clarified.
A crimson flush coated his face, blossoming across his cheeks to his ears. He took a long sip of his coffee, while Rey filled him in on her background.
He never interrupted her, even when she told him about the more unfortunate times she had experienced. Ben merely sat through it all, listening intently and nodding if appropriate, but he never stopped her.
Rey told him about the foster care system in the UK. She spoke about the teachers she had befriended at her school and how they had helped her plot out her plan for tracking down her parents. She talked about Madrid and living with the Andors. That was the time when she had been happiest.
Speaking about Cassian, Jyn, and Bodhi reminded her that she needed to call them when she met up with Mr. Solo in Salzburg. Jyn requested that Rey keep in touch, no matter where she went. They had a standing appointment the first Monday of each month to at least call, though Bodhi preferred it when Rey could FaceTime him.
When she told Ben about Plutt, Rey saw him ball his hands into fists until his knuckles were white. It was an odd reaction from a stranger, but not quite as odd as when she told him where she was going and why.
“Mr. Solo is restoring a World War II Falcon,” Rey mentioned. “He needed an extra pair of hands and I know my way around an engine, so…” she trailed off with a shrug.
“I hope he’s paying you well,” Ben commented. There was a harsh edge to his voice that hadn’t been there before.
Rey assured him that Mr. Solo was paying her better than any other job she’d seen in Austria. As an added bonus, he was allowing her to board in the apartment on the third floor of his house. "It's a long-contract," she remarked. "About a year, but it should help me set aside some savings."
Ben nodded briskly before he was changing the subject. He asked about her parents and how her search was going. In turn, she asked about his parents.
He went silent for a minute, then told her how his parents separated when he was young. He spoke about how his mother had struggled to maintain a normal household with the departure of his father. Unfortunately for Ben, his mother hadn’t coped well. She drowned herself with work and alcohol, often leaving him alone. And his father — well Ben hadn’t seen the man since he was fifteen. That particular evening had ended in with a shouting match and Ben breaking his father's nose. It was safe to say that they had an extremely strained relationship.
“That’s a shame,” Rey admitted. “As upset as I am at my family for leaving me, when I find them, I want them to know I forgive them.”
“Really?” Ben asked, perplexed by her response.
“Of course,” Rey replied. “At the end of the day, they are still my family. They are a part of me. I can’t hate a part of myself. I want to be at peace with it and the only way I can do that is if I forgive them.”
He nodded again, pursing his lips as he mused over her words. After a moment, he said, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
Rey thank him and navigated them to the safer topic of food.
While she wasn’t a connoisseur, Rey valued a good meal over most things, including expensive clothes. They were in the throes of a heated debate over which country had the best bread when an announcement came over the intercom.
“9:20 to Villach, leaving on Platform F in ten minutes. Villach on Platform F.”
Rey checked the clock over the espresso machine, startled that two hours had passed so quickly. When was the last time she had lost herself in a conversion like that?
“Thank you for breakfast,” she offered, knowing there was no way she could ever thank him for his kindness.
He’d spent far more time on a stranger than anyone she’d ever met. She didn't even know his last name, and yet he’d given her something special. He’d given her hope.
“I guess I need to take that back now,” Rey teased, gesturing to her rucksack.
Ben hesitated, his mouth opening and closing a couple of times. “I’ll walk you up,” he finally said.
She didn’t comment on the fact his smile had disappeared or tell him how she would miss him. It was crazy. She couldn’t miss someone she didn’t even know.
They reached the platform far sooner than she anticipated. Rey pivoted around, her eyes wide as she stared up at Ben trying to find the words, trying to come up with something to say.
He leaned down, dropping her bag off of his broad shoulders and onto her own. But he didn’t pull back. At least not right away. Instead, he remained close to her, barely a breath away.
“Ciao, bella,” Ben whispered. His words breezed over her lips, the gentle caress of an almost lover.
Rey felt her heart skip a beat and she closed her eyes, silently begging him to close the distance.
The train whistle sounded, jarring her.
When she opened her eyes, Ben was walking away.
With one final glance over her shoulder, Rey boarded the train, suddenly feeling very much alone.
In her disappointment, she missed the chocolate eyes that watched the train pull out of the station.
Rey wiped her arm across her forehead, clearing the sweat from her brow.
She’d been working for a week straight in the large hanger where the Falcon was housed. Han let her keep whatever hours she wanted, glad to have the company, especially when that company knew her way around a compressor.
Summer in Salzburg wasn’t as hot as Madrid or Sicily, but when you were hunched over an engine all day, the heat tended to get to you. She was glad she had the forethought to pull her hair back into three buns on top of her head.
Rey climbed down from her perch under the belly of the great silver bird. She’d brought an entire pitcher of ice water out with her this morning. The ice had since melted, but the water was still cool. She gulped down a full glass then poured herself another.
She was about to call Han to ask him about the turbines when he appeared in the hangar doorway.
“Took you long enough,” she snarked, pouring him a glass. “I thought you were just running into town for a quick errand. You’ve been gone all morning, boss.”
She dropped the glass to the floor. It shattered into hundreds of pieces and the water soaked through her sneakers, but Rey barely noticed. Because only one person had a voice that deep and silky. One person with chocolate eyes and a heart of gold. One person, she hadn’t stopped thinking about since she had left him in Klagenfurt.
Slowly, she turned around. “Ben?”
“It is you,” he breathed as if he couldn't believe she was standing there.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Han,” he replied, his eyes narrowing and then widening as if he was trying to determine whether she was a mirage or not. “He’s my father.”
Rey sputtered. “Y-your father?”
“Yeah,” Ben confirmed, taking a cautious step towards her as if he was afraid she'd bolt.
As if she'd make the same mistake twice.
Just then, his father walked in. “Hey, Rey, you’ll never guess who I—.” Han interrupted himself when he caught the palpable tension in the air. He glanced between the two of them, curiously. “You kids know each other?”
She became aware of several things all at once. First, Ben’s last name was Solo. Secondly, Han was the father Ben had vented to her about. And finally, she had agreed to work for Han over the next year until the Falcon was fully restored. An entire year working for and living with the man who had walked out on his only child, abandoned him, the man who Rey had urged Ben to forgive.
Was that why he was here? He had actually taken her advice? Her, a stranger. A nobody.
Her chest filled with warmth. She might have been a nobody but Ben liked her. And she liked him, more than she thought possible. Maybe love at first sight was real. Because at that moment, seeing him there, standing in front of her, as if they had never parted, as if the universe had willed them to find one another again, Rey felt as though it was real.
And she realized that none of the rest of it mattered.
That was when Rey recalled what the gypsy had told her. No matter where she went, no matter how hard she looked. Rey was never going to find her parents, but belonging — Rey could still find her belonging. It was right in front of her, in the man with the raven hair and chocolate eyes.
Her lips curled up into a smile.
Ben smiled back. Then he was strolling up to her. He cupped her face in both his hands, leaned down and kissed her.
Neither of them heard Han as he chuckled to himself, shaking his head. “That’s a yes.”