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oh autumn, oh teakettle, oh grace

Chapter Text

These are the facts in the case of BENJAMIN ORGANA-SOLO, ESQUIRE, VS. THE UNIVERSE:

 

  1. According to a multitude of online travel guides, rugged Takodana island off Saint Bees Head in Cumbria is a UK anomaly in that it only ever truly rains in early spring and late fall. By all accounts, the third day of October should have been pleasantly cool and dry— and not unleashing the gates of watery hell upon him as he putters down a treacherous mountain road on his way home.

  2. Home for the next five months is a rustic cottage in an equally rustic hamlet that's a two-hour drive from Andui, which is the closest thing to a city that Takodana can boast and is where all of Ben's meetings take place. Basic common fucking sense should have dictated that First Order Intercontinental house him somewhere within the city limits but, no, the little shack in Nymeve was the only accommodation that Alistair Snoke's weaselly twig of a PA could book on such short notice, oh, don't look at me like that, Solo, I think you'll find it's quite charming, actually, and, besides, you'll have a car—

  3. — which, the car. Ben is puttering down said mountain road because there's really no other way to describe what his rental is doing. Armitage Hux had procured a small, rusty, lemon yellow Chir'daki coupe— ugly as sin and even older than that— because nothing brings Hux more joy than making Ben miserable. Ben's heart had dropped into his stomach when he saw the ancient contraption waiting for him in the narrow driveway outside the cottage and he fully intends to swap it for something built within the last millennium— the car, not the cottage, although he won't exactly be opposed to swapping that, either— but he'd figured it could wait until he got his bearings, having just flown in from New York three days ago.

  4. He hadn't even wanted to spend the first half of the new fiscal year trapped on this godforsaken island that was connected to the rest of Britain only by a ferry that chugged back and forth from Whitehaven Harbour once a week, but Snoke had insisted that Ben personally oversee the negotiations and contract signings for what will be Takodana's first seaside resort.

  5. Ben can't so much as breathe a word of complaint about his post or his abysmal living conditions because he's already on thin ice, thanks to Massachusetts senator Leia Organa blocking First Order's purchase of a large tract of the Paitnnu Wetlands that Snoke had been planning to turn into a fleet of holiday homes. Ben hasn't spoken to his mother in years so it's nowhere near his fault, but he's certainly being made to feel otherwise back at corporate.

  6. So— and supplementary to Items 1 and 3— here he is, gritting his teeth as the Chir'daki's wheels threaten to lose purchase on the slippery incline, the rain falling in sheets so thick he can barely see a foot ahead of him, and—

  7. — and a dark, indistinct, four-legged shape scurries out of the trees and onto the road and there's a bump and he's just hit something, what the fuck—

 

The roar of the rain swallows the screeching of the tires as Ben veers sharply off the concrete and onto a thin patch of soil that borders the forest. He kills the engine and then checks his side mirror, praying that whatever merry woodland creature the bumper had collided with has shrugged it off and is sauntering back into the trees— he's heard of that happening. With deer and, like, moose.

 

But the sad, furry lump lying pathetically still a few feet behind the car is too small to be either. Wonderful. The cottage in Nymeve already gives Ben the creeps with how quiet everything is at night, and now he's going to be haunted by the ghost of roadkill past on top of that. Grumbling under his breath, he twists the key in the ignition, and—

 

— and nothing.

 

He tries again.

 

Still nothing.

 

Ben whips out his phone to search for the nearest towing service and, Jesus, there really has to be a threshold of how much bad luck the human mind can endure, because it takes him approximately six whole seconds to realize what he's staring at— or, to be more accurate, what he's not staring at.

 

There are no signal bars.

 

Ben slumps forward, pressing his forehead to the steering wheel. He's stuck on an isolated road on some podunk island in Europe, with a phone that's as good as dead, a "car" that's definitely dead, and the semi-flattened corpse of an animal that's very, very dead, thanks to him. It's raining bucketloads and his last glimpse of civilization had been the outskirts of Andui on the other side of the mountain more than an hour ago and, dear God in heaven, Your Honor—

 

— the prosecution rests—

 

🍂

 

When Ben lifts his head fifteen minutes later, the rain has slowed to a vague drizzle. He tries to start the engine again with a half-hearted hope that's quickly and brutally crushed, and then he slips his phone back into his coat pocket along with the useless keys before clambering out of the Chir'daki— which he proceeds to kick for good measure, venting his frustration out on the worn metal. He scuffs his Silvano Lattanzi cordovan leather oxfords while he's at it, but the shoes are doomed, anyway, what with all the hiking that's in store.

 

It's four in the afternoon. If he starts walking now, he'll make it to Nymeve before sunset. Probably. It's not a good idea, but it's the best he's got.

 

Out of a lingering sense of morbid curiosity, Ben wanders over to his hapless victim for a closer look— and almost immediately recoils. While there's no mistaking the stocky build, the gray fur, and the sharp claws, the mangled form plastered to the concrete is unlike any badger he's ever seen before, and not just because it looks like a giant stomped on it. There's something about the arrangement of the snout on the black-and-white-striped face, how it jibes with the sightless beady eyes and the open mouth...

 

The features, Ben realizes, are too human-shaped for his comfort. Like someone was inside the badger's skin and had been about to burst free, headfirst, when it died.

 

Ben shakes his head as rational thought filters back in. It's some kind of bone disease, or the Takodana badgers have mutated in the way that the elephants on Cyprus grew smaller before they went extinct, or his imagination is running wild. In any case, he's being ridiculous, and he needs to get a move on if he wants to reach the hamlet before dark.

 

It takes about half an hour of walking along the empty, winding road to hit Ben like a punch to the gut— he'd left his briefcase and his MacBook in the car.

 

"Son of a bitch!"

 

The curse explodes from his lungs, echoing through the cool air. As if in response, there's a loud clap of thunder and, without further ado, the rain comes crashing down again, the road and its forest lining blurring silver before his eyes as icy wetness pounds every inch of his being.

 

Maybe one day in the very distant future he'll look back and find this funny.

 

He rather doubts it, though.

 

The black pea coat he's wearing over his charcoal business suit isn't doing much in the way of sheltering him from the elements, so he stomps off into the treeline where he figures the thick forest canopy will slow the rainfall at least a little. He huddles under a massive elm not far from the road and waits for the rain to subside, water dripping from the branches and down his back as he broodingly contemplates his options.

 

They are as follows:

 

  1. Hike back up the road in the pouring rain to retrieve a MacBook and important documents that stand a hundred percent chance of water damage, losing valuable daylight hours while he's at it.

  2. Continue hiking down to Nymeve— also in the pouring rain— and send a tow truck in the morning.

  3. Lie down in the middle of the road— also, and he can't stress this enough, in the pouring rain— and wait for death. Become a ghost of roadkill past, along with his new friend the mutant badger.

 

The third and last option looks more and more appealing with each cold, soggy minute that ticks by, but Ben eventually decides on the second, peeling away from the elm and marching forward, hands in his pockets, head bowed so the torrents don't blind him. The ground is disgusting— a slurry of wet earth and dessicated leaves that ooze into his shoes— but at least the trees are clustered together tightly enough to form a meager barrier between him and the storm. Emphasis on meager. Ben soldiers on, a litany of grudges running through his head like rosary beads. Fuck Hux, fuck his job, fuck his father for meeting his mother at goddamn Burning Man and knocking her up so that Ben could be traipsing through the fucking woods in the middle of the Irish fucking Sea thirty years later.

 

When it finally, finally stops raining, Ben is drenched to the bone and shivering fit to burst, the lower half of his suit pants plastered with mud. He looks around, dazed by the sudden stillness, and realizes that he'd stumbled deeper into the forest than intended, the road barely visible through the gaps between the tree trunks. He huffs out a breath and makes his way towards that ribbon of concrete, his now utterly ruined shoes squelching with every step. Mi dispiace, Silvano.

 

The online guides state that the woods covering this portion of the Takodana mountain range that separates Andui from Nymeve are predominantly English elm. Ben had read that there were less than two hundred mature specimens left on the mainland due to some kind of plague spread by beetles that has been devastating the species since the early twentieth century, but here they are plentiful, over forty meters tall, barks like crocodile scales, upper branches splayed out into fan-shaped crowns. There are other trees, too— aspen, birch, and sycamore maple— their leaves just starting to turn red at the edges so that the overall effect is that of dark emeralds being gradually eaten away by licks of flame.

 

Ben's almost willing to concede that, under vastly different circumstances, it would have all been rather pretty.

 

Emphasis on almost.

 

He's only a few more soul-crushingly spongy steps away from the road when he passes a silver birch noticeably greener than the rest and the sleeve of his pea coat snags on one of its branches. Mindful of the hand-spun vicuña, Ben turns around to pry himself loose, and—

 

— and—

 

There are moments when the blood runs cold. When the heart stops and the lungs pause in their contractions because the body is so overcome with terror that it forgets to breathe. The veil of normalcy that shrouds the known world is ripped away and the brain short-circuits upon being confronted with what is underneath, with what is twisted and grotesque and cannot— should not be.

 

The low-hanging branch holding Ben's sleeve in place is not a branch. It's a human hand, its fingers curled around the material just above his elbow, its wrist attached to a slender arm that's growing out of the birch tree's white trunk.

 

Mushrooms, is Ben's first coherent thought. That's it, isn't it? There's a shrub in South America with bracts that look like swollen red lips, there's an entire genus of flowering vines literally called Clitoria, and there's a fungus named dead man's fingers because that's what it resembles and smells like. It's just a mushroom, no big deal—

 

" χαίρε?" the tree says.

 

He should probably scream. If only he remembers how his vocal cords work.

 

"Heus?" the tree tries again.

 

That's Latin, Ben's single brain cell helpfully supplies.

 

"Dia dhuit? Dydh ha?" It's a female voice, the pitch gradually heightening with annoyance at each failed greeting— at least, Ben thinks the tree is greeting him, and he doesn't exactly have the spoons to deal with that at the moment— "Shwmae? Hej? Salut?"

 

Something breaks through the mire of Ben's stupor upon hearing that last word— an instinct that is quickly developed by anyone who has ever spent any amount of time in Paris, who has had to defensively explain to the locals over and over again that—

 

"I don't speak—" he automatically starts to say—

 

"Oh! You're American!" the tree chirps in perfect, British-accented English. "Right. Hello. Could you help me out, then?" The hand releases his sleeve and then splays out its fingers, wiggling them expectantly, and he is too flabbergasted to do anything but react, gripping the thin wrist and, with static shooting through his veins at each point of contact, pulling...

 

A woman emerges from the tree. There's no magical shower of sparks or clouds of smoke; she's suddenly just there, bursting out of the trunk and stumbling into his arms as he catches her before she can fall into the mud, his hands clamping around a tiny waist and his body pressed up against someone warm and soft, who smells like rain and moss with an undercurrent of berries, and he's not so stunned by the whole situation that he doesn't feel a stab of regret when she steps away.

 

"Finally!" she exclaims. "I thought it would be another hundred years before I got out of there!"

 

The woman is as tall and slender as the birch tree she just popped out of and, although Ben still can't wrap his head around that, he's having a hard time concentrating on anything else other than her eyes, mottled brown and green like a forest in high summer and flecked with shards of gold that sparkle like sunlight. Her hair is a rich chestnut hue, long and wild, framing what's quite possibly the most beautiful face he's ever seen, made all the more alluring by the freckles dusted atop her high cheekbones and the bridge of her delicate nose. She's wearing a thin white dress that not only leaves her lithe arms bare but also has a slit cut into the flowing skirt revealing about a mile of perfectly-shaped leg, and she is so Ben's type that his heart stutters in his chest and all he can manage to say at first is a very eloquent, "Um."

 

Fortunately, another synapse flares to life a beat later and he follows up with a relatively serviceable, "Why were you in the tree?"

 

"I was cursed," she says, like that explains everything. "Wandered a little further afield and caught this forest's guardian on a bad day. He loathes dryads, you see. Told me I was trespassing and trapped me in the birch before I could scamper."

 

"He doesn't sound like a very nice guy," Ben ventures, buying time until the camera crew pops out of the undergrowth and the host of some random prank show congratulates him on being a good sport. Maybe they'll give him a ride back to the hamlet— it's the least they can do.

 

"Oh, Unkar's the worst," the woman fervently agrees. "Took him a couple of centuries to release me, didn't it? Nasty old badger."

 

"Well, if he's anything like the eerily human-looking one I ran over..." Ben trails off as the woman freezes, then squints up at him with a penetrating expression.

 

It's not long before she breaks out into a wide smile, and it's as dazzling as the sun coming up from behind a cloud. For a moment he's blinded by her radiance.

 

"You saved me," she breathes in awe. "You killed Unkar and ended my curse. That's why I was able to leave the tree! I don't know how I'll ever be able to repay you—"

 

Ben's really searching for those hidden cameras now. "Don't mention it, uh..."

 

"Oh, right." The woman smacks her forehead in that age-old gesture of having forgotten something, then holds out her hand. "I'm Regina, but you can just call me Rey. And you are?"

 

"Ben." He shakes her hand and the feeling is golden at the edges, turning the inside of his stomach into a million butterflies. What is happening to him? "Ben Solo."

 

"Ben Solo." The woman— Regina— Rey— carefully pronounces each syllable like it's treasure on her tongue, all the while looking up at him like he's a knight in shining armor instead of the sleazy corporate lawyer that everyone despises. "Thank you for saving me."

 

He drops her hand and shifts his weight from one foot to the other, uncomfortable under such admiring scrutiny. It makes him feel like a fraud, which is stupid because the only fraud here is this devastatingly pretty brunette claiming she's a—

 

"A dryad, was it?" he queries.

 

She nods.

 

"And you've been stuck here—" He motions to the birch tree— "for two hundred years?"

 

She nods again.

 

"Sure doesn't look like it," he mutters before he can help himself.

 

Rey's cheeks flush the lightest, most arresting shade of peach. "Well, I am immortal," she says shyly. "Sprang from a drop of Ouranos' blood when Cronus castrated him and everything."

 

"Right," Ben says slowly. "I have to go now. The house I'm staying at is five miles away and my car died and my phone doesn't have any signal out here—"

 

"I'm not even going to pretend I understood a single word of what you just said," she amiably declares, and there's his single brain cell again, insisting that of course she would have no idea, Alexander Bell patented the telephone in 1876 and the Motorwagen wasn't rolled out until ten years later. "But I'll walk you home before heading back."

 

"Back to where?"

 

"My tree. Every dryad has a tree, yeah? Mine's this lovely old ash in a grove on the other side of the island."

 

"Right," Ben says again. This entire conversation is ridiculous. "I don't want to take you out of your way—"

 

"Nonsense, it's the least I can do to make sure you safely reach...?"

 

"Nymeve."

 

He hadn't thought it was possible for her face to light up even more, but it does. She's a cartoon character— any moment now sparrows and dormice are going to circle around her singing about the power of friendship, and that won't even be the weirdest thing to happen all day. "Is that pub still there, the one that makes the fudge?"

 

Ben recalls driving past such an establishment earlier this morning— if only because he'd spotted the neat printout on the window and it had struck him as funny that a pub would allegedly be known for their WORLD-FAMOUS FUDGE!!! (AVAILABLE IN CLOTTED CREAM, MAPLE SYRUP BUTTER, AND RHUBARB). "I believe so, yes."

 

There's suddenly a mercenary glint in Rey's eyes. "Let's go, then!"

 

And she starts marching through the woods, in the direction of the hamlet, and he has no choice but to trail after her, all the while furtively glancing around for any sign of the camera crew. Where are those bastards hiding?

 

🍂

 

These are the things that Ben notices about Rey during their trek:

 

  1. She's barefoot, the hem of her long white dress swirling gracefully around slim, tanned ankles with each step. The lack of shoes doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest; her stride is purposeful and impossibly light, somehow— leaves don't crunch under her soles and the soggy earth doesn't slow her down. It's like she's walking on air, such a far cry from the absolute racket he's making as he kicks aside fallen twigs and crashes through bramble and tries his best to prevent the mud from sucking his ruined shoes off his feet.

  2. She's glowing, for lack of a better word. He has to focus closely to see it but there's a subtle radiance emanating from her skin and her hair, as if she'd bathed in pearl dust, or sunlight. As far as special effects go, it's rather good, actually, and he can't help but be impressed by the sheer commitment to this elaborate prank.

  3. Lastly— and, incidentally, more evidence in his ongoing case that the universe is out to get him— she has a very, very nice ass.

 

Ben's not trying to be a creep, but Rey's traipsing ahead of him and the scanty material of her dress does not leave much to the imagination. Sometimes she steps a certain way or the wind blows just so, molding the back of her skirt to the curves of what is an utterly glorious derrière, firm and pert and nicely rounded. Ben's on the seventh month of his longest dry spell yet, and it's just— it's torture, is what it is. It's when he catches himself almost beginning to drool that he decides it's way past time to quit perving on her and force his gaze onto chaster sights.

 

Like the elm trees. Or the slivers of gray sky that peek out from the gaps in the canopy. Or the bend in the road at the periphery of his vision.

 

Or the fat, speckled toad sitting on a moss-coated boulder, watching through unblinking coppery eyes as they pass by.

 

"Go away, Teedo," Rey snaps, and Ben's in the middle of wondering who she's talking to or what the hell a Teedo is when—

 

"You can't tell me what to do, little nymph," the toad gloats in smug bass notes and an inexplicable Cockney accent. "Unkar's gone. I'm in charge now."

 

Rey waves a dismissive hand and doesn't acknowledge the toad's presence again. "Sorry about that," she mutters to Ben as they keep on walking. "A lot of these minor deities need attitude adjustments— oh, you've gone deathly pale, are you quite all right?"

 

No, Ben would have said if he were physically capable of talking, but he's not, because it's the fucking toad that just talked and he feels like he's going to faint and when he starts shivering he can't stop, it's freezing and he's drenched in rainwater and cold sweat and the toad had a human voice and the badger had a human face and the woman had come out of the tree—

 

"Ben!" Rey stops in her tracks and grabs him by the shoulders, staring up at him in unadulterated concern. "What's the matter?"

 

"F-f-freezing." It's a miracle that he manages to form the response through his violently chattering teeth. It had taken a while for the steadily plummeting temperature to affect him but it's doing so with a vengeance now that it's almost dusk, exacerbated by delayed-onset shock at recent events.

 

Rey relaxes. "I know just the trick for that."

 

And she cradles his face in gentle palms, surges up on the tips of her toes, and kisses him.