Author's Note: Hey guys! Sorry this is so late. This chapter was harder to write than any other, for some reason.
This is the official "end" of our fic, and the end of my exclusive attention to it. I have bonus content in the works, as promised, including Ben POV chapters, so this isn't the last thing you'll read in this fic! But I'm going to work on a couple other things in tandem with those chapters. I still need to finish that SAS follow-up chapter (it's mostly written, but I need to tweak some things) and also it's trying to expand itself into a mini-fic, so we'll see what happens there. I am going to continue the time-travel canon fic, Meet Me in a Memory. I also have a one-shot that will be posted later this week as part of a Happily-Ever-After reylo collection, and I'll finish my TROS fix it. Lol, I wonder if I'm ever going to get back to writing my original works again. My novel is sitting there waiting for a second draft and has been since December. :P
Oh well. SW is too much fun right now.
Also I saw a Maserati Ghibli in real life the other day going down the street, and I literally snuck a second glance at the driver just to see if it was him before I realized what I was doing. Haha so dumb, but it made me laugh.
Moving forward — I think most of my readers like T-ratings, yeah? Meet Me In A Memory will keep going with both the clean and explicit versions (identical except for the smut) but as far as future fics go, do you guys like me keeping it clean or do you want to see more heat?
Thanks so much to everyone who has stuck with me through this! You regular commenters made this process so fun, and I've loved sharing it with you. Come find me on Twitter little_womp_rat.
Okay, I think that's it! Let's do this!
chapter 20: home
"We should probably go on an actual date."
They're back in Ben's car now, the office building and the desktop make-out session behind them. Rey has lowered her window halfway, flushed a little too hot from their activities, and seeking the cool air against her skin. They are both reluctant to leave all of it behind, though, so he maintains a firm hold on her hand, their fingers laced together and their forearms resting on the center console. He drives with one hand high on the top of the steering wheel.
Rey is still sort of reeling from this abrupt, wonderfully delicious change between them, and she almost misses Ben's remark as they make their way back to the new garage.
She shakes her head, trying to find some mental footing. "Sorry, what did you say?"
He glances at her with affectionate amusement. "A date. A real one. Where you get the chance to say yes ahead of time."
This wins him a surprised laugh. "Oh, wow, I don't even know if I can imagine that. Where would we go?"
"I was thinking one of those paint-and-sip glasses where you drink wine and paint along with an instructor."
"A painting class?"
For all his big brooding mountain body and intimidating demeanor, Ben is such a damn softy. Rey can hardly reconcile these versions of him sometimes. This artist is the one who likes cats, she understands, but how he relates to the cocky alpha male she saw so many times before Bainbridge is a mystery.
She considers the idea, though. "Honestly, I've never held a paint brush in my life. At least not one to be used for art. I've painted walls and stuff, but that's it."
"A new experience, then," he says, flashing her a stifled grin. "It'll be fun."
"Or it will be a disaster."
"Which will also be fun."
"Yeah, okay, fine," she finally says, coaxed into a ridiculous grin of her own.
"Great." Ben says excitedly. "I've always wanted to try one but it seemed pathetic to go alone."
She gives his hand a little squeeze. "Honestly, I'll go with you anywhere. Don't worry about being alone anymore."
It's an intimate promise. Perhaps too intimate. But after what they spilled into confession up there in his office, it doesn't feel wrong to say.
Ben slowly exhales a shaky breath and his grip on the steering wheel tightens visibly.
Someone has strung a web of lights between the two micro-buses, both pulled out of the bays and parked a modest distance from each other. The lights are small, fashionable Edison bulbs, their inner coils glowing a brilliant yellow and casting warm illumination over the space between the two vans. Under them, someone else has arranged a couple grills.
Rey gasps in disbelief when they pull up. It's such a pretty, idyllic little scene. The sun is sinking, clouds thin enough now to allow glimpses of a sweet pink-and-lavender sky, drawing out the shine of the lights over a scattering of her favorite people. She and Ben arrive a little after six, late because they definitely lost track of time, and it seems like everyone is there already, except Mando and Dyn. Mando's not known for being punctual, though, so she doesn't worry about it.
"Wow," Rey breathes.
"Huh. The place cleans up nice, actually." Ben parks and shuts the car off, looking over at her with a curious expression. "Are you pleased?"
"Yes, I am. It's beautiful." She laughs softly. When she looks at him and meets that familiar gaze, her whole body warms with secret delight.
He smiles. "Good. Ready to see everyone?"
With a full, unabashed grin, she grips the door and gives him a nod before opening it. As soon as she's out of the car, Jannah breaks away from the others milling around the grill and bee-lines straight for her. She's splashed in clothes of brilliant scarlet and dark charcoal, gold bangles and earrings contrasting with the fabric and bringing out the gold undertones of her flawless skin, and Rey is struck by how happy she looks.
A far cry from the frightened, harried girl at the gas station in nowhere Idaho.
It's a quick thought, though, because a moment later she's being crushed in the arms of her friend.
"You made it!" Jannah cries. "I'm so relieved to see you!"
"Me too!" Rey hugs her back just as tightly. "I'm glad you're still safe. You look great!"
"Life is good," Jannah assures her, cracking a wide grin that flaunts the cute gap between her front teeth. "I know it's only been a month but it feels a lot longer, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Rey says emphatically. "It does."
"Come on." Jannah takes her hand. "Zorri needs to be reassured that the decor is good. She's been dissatisfied with it."
"What? Are you kidding? It's beautiful!" Rey is dimly aware that she's lost track of Ben, and glances behind her quickly as Jannah leads her away.
He's standing there leaning against his car again, a lot like he was a few hours ago. His mouth works into a reserved, amused sort of grin, and a blush rushes through her face at the memory of how that mouth feels and tastes. She turns around quickly again and smiles privately to herself.
Jannah looks back too, calling over her shoulder. "Didn't mean to be rude, my guy, sorry! Come join us so we can make proper introductions!"
A moment later Rey is swept into that comfortable, cozy crush of people who took her in and treated her like family even when they had no reason to do so. Zorri is the picture of grace, as usual, and Rey makes sure to complement her excellent taste so thoroughly that Zorri's eyes sparkle and she gives Rey a genuine embrace. Poe asks her if she's going to come live with them again, which she declines — for now, she says. Finn is a bouncing ball of exuberance, wanting to know everything about her life since she's been away, acting absolutely disappointed when she doesn't have a whole lot to report.
He has noticed Ben, though, who followed Jannah and Rey over at a slower, more reluctant pace. Finn's energy temporarily curbs, hidden behind a sudden attitude of caution.
"So are you the guy?" he asks, giving Ben a chin thrust of acknowledgment.
Ben towers over Finn and Poe in a way that is almost comical. He's got at least four inches on them, maybe more. He looks over Finn with a look of detachment that Rey hasn't seen for a while. "The guy?"
"You know, the guy. The one Rey asked for help with Jannah. The one who gave Zorri the dossier from Empire. The one Rose has been telling us about for two weeks — that guy."
"Oh. Yes, that's me."
Poe sticks out his hand with a lopsided grin. "Great to finally meet you, man!"
Rey wants to pay attention to this exchange — the first time he's meeting the rest of them, apparently, but she can't because suddenly Rose is there too, pulling on her hand and whirling her away from the three men.
She's changed out of her work coveralls and into a soft turquoise sweater. She looks adorable.
"Rey! Come here, I want you to meet my sister, Paige."
Rey finds herself face-to-face with a woman who she would not guess was Rose's sister. She is taller by a lot, her body long and sinewy where Rose is short and compact. She has a slow, graceful kind of smile as she gives Rey a quick, feather-light embrace of greeting.
"Hi. It's great to finally put a face to the name Rose keeps talking about. Hope you don't mind me crashing the party."
"Not at all!" Rey reassures her, smiling brightly. "I've heard a lot about you from Rose."
Zorri and Jannah join them. A cool wind sweeps in off the water and sets the lights to bobbing, but Rey almost doesn't even feel the chill because she's surrounded by friends who are genuinely happy to see her. She thinks, for just a moment, that if she could go back in time, she would show this scene to her ten year old self. That little girl crying in the husk of a gutted junkyard car, curled around a hungry gnawing stomach and an even hungrier, lonely heart, needed to know that someday in her future, she could have everything she'd dreamed of. A community. An overflowing abundance of love.
Jannah links her arm through Paige's, and this subtle action startles Rey right out of her nostalgic thoughts.
The two women notice, and Jannah grins bashfully. "Oh. Yeah...remember that co-worker I went out with a few times?"
It wasn't Paige, Rey knows, since Rose said her sister worked for SI. She tries to remember. "I do...was it Tally?"
"Yep, that's it. She's great — super nice, we had a lot of fun, but it was pretty clear we were never going to be more than good friends. So she introduced me to her bestie, Paige."
Rose giggles. "Small world, isn't it?"
"Smaller all the time," Rey marvels.
Zorri grins. "Fate is funny like that."
The smile that Paige gives Jannah is exactly what it should be. Adoring. Gentle. Playful. Just the way that Jannah deserves, especially after all she's been through.
"It's still new," she says. "We're feeling it out. But so far, it feels..."
"Pretty good?" Jannah supplies.
Paige nods. "Pretty good. Very good, I'd say."
"I'm so happy for you," Rey gasps, and she means it with every fiber of her soul.
"Thanks to your friend," Jannah says, "I have everything I need to keep Phas away, if she ever shows up."
Rose pokes Rey in the ribs. Her eyebrows bounce suggestively. "Speaking of! What about you? Prince Moneybags whisked you away in his mean black chariot and you were gone for hours. What happened?"
She throws a nod towards Ben, who, along with Poe and Finn, has now drifted over to talk to his father. Han is sitting in the open side door of his van, nursing a coke. Finn is animated again, addressing Han with wide, emphatic gestures.
Rey smiles. Ben looks more comfortable now. He glances up and catches her eye, and she can feel his affection even from this distance. It makes her toes curl in her shoes.
"Um..." she starts, not sure how she wants to answer Rose — and the others curiously awaiting her response.
But she's saved from having to answer when Mando's car finally pulls in and parks next to Ben's Ghibli.
"Hold that thought!" she tells them, dashing over to it eagerly.
Mando emerges and looks around. Rey brushes past him to open the door for Dyn. "You guys made it! Little late, but you haven't missed the food yet."
"I wasn't worried," Mando says mildly. "Surprised, at first, but then I figured it would be like every asado I've ever been too — late getting started. It's an interesting set-up you've got here, though. A little more festive than what I was expecting."
Dyn hops down out of the car and immediately starts jumping at the sight of the lights. "Wowie-wow! This looks like a party!"
"It is," Rey says happily, taking one of his hands. It's so weird to have them here, suddenly. The collision of these worlds feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone. For a while now the Seattle group has existed in a separate compartment in her mind, not intersecting at all with her little micro-family in Colorado. But now it's a convergence, and she feels excited and nervous and all of the feelings a person can have at the same time.
"Come meet my friends," she tells them.
Mando motions to Ben's car. "Clearly someone here has good taste."
"You'll meet him too," Rey laughs even as her stomach gives an anxious lurch. She motions to the shop. "I have a lot to tell you, but the short version is that I got a job here."
"Good," Mando says approvingly.
Rey feels like she's glowing.
"Oh my goddd, Rey!" Rose squeals at their approach. "Is this your little foster brother? He's so cute!"
Dyn draws behind Rey's leg, half-hiding himself in a sudden fit of shyness. The others gather around too.
Rey squeezes Dyn's hand to reassure him. She introduces both of her guys to the group of friends, and it is only then that she feels the night properly begin. Poe and Finn join them, and everyone is gracious and enthusiastic. They sweep around Mando and Dyn like a blanket, welcoming and warm. They ask Mando about bounty hunting, and about what Rey was like as a teenager. Mando answers their questions with his usual taciturn formality, but it doesn't come across as stand-offish. In fact, it only seems to encourage them, and pretty soon they're talking over each other trying to learn more. Zorri is really good with Dyn, it turns out, and eventually lures him from hiding. She, Paige, and Jannah engage him in a silly little game of tag.
Rey catches Ben's eye across the party again. He's watching them all interact, his expression difficult to read. His father says something to him, and he nods. It's strange and nice to see him hanging out with his dad like that.
Mando nudges her and asks in a low voice, "So which one is the kid of your skip?"
The enthusiastic conversation has finally abated, she realizes, and everyone is splitting. Poe has wandered over to help Chuy at the grill. Finn and Rose have fallen into some kind of giggly conversation. It's a good moment to finish the rest of the introductions.
"He's over here, come on," Rey says with a small smile. She takes Dyn away from Zorri, Paige, and Jannah.
Han stands up when they approach, setting his coke down and giving Rey a crooked smile.
"Finally get to meet the fam, huh?"
She grins. "Yeah, guess so. Han, Ben, this is my foster father, Mando. And this is my kid brother, Dyn. Guys, this is Han, my fugitive, and Ben...his son."
Ben shakes Mando's hand, and then Han does, his grip firm but his face screwing up into a perplexed look. "You seem sorta familiar there, Mando. Have you come after me before?"
"Not that I can recall," Mando says. "I saw your file when Rey was assigned the case. I'm pretty sure I would remember you."
"Yeah, you definitely would," Ben remarks.
Han laughs. "Can't argue with that. It's probably for the best anyway." Here he cracks a cocky smirk. "That would make things pretty awkward when we become in-laws."
"Han!" Rey squeaks, her whole body instantly engulfed in the fiery inferno of living hell. She's got a full-body blush going on now, she just knows it, and she doesn't know if she's going to combust or lay down and give up the ghost right there on the spot.
Mando laughs. "Oh? Is that the situation here?"
"Pretty much the gist of it," Han says with a nod.
Ben has turned away in a barely disguised cringe. It's hard to tell in the light, but his cheeks seem as flushed as Rey feels right now. He composes himself and clears his throat. "Please ignore my father," he tells Mando. "He's punishing me for being an ass, by being an ass himself. He likes making people uncomfortable."
Mando assesses Ben with a shrewd, appraising eye. "So you're the one I've heard about, then. The one she was all worked up over when she got home."
"Oh my god." Rey really wants the ground to just open up and swallow her whole.
Ben glances at her, and she could throttle him for that tiniest of smirks he's wearing.
"Do we need to have a discussion about your intentions with my kid?" Mando asks Ben.
Han nudges Rey. "Hey, this was a great idea, pup. I'm having a wonderful time."
"This wasn't my idea," Rey mutters. To Mando she pleads, "Stop. Stop talking to Ben."
"What?" he asks, lifting a brow in feigned ignorance. "You're the one who asked me to be more of a real dad. Isn't this was dads do? Embarrass their kids?"
"This is exactly what dads do," Han confirms.
And then — much to the mortification of everyone watching — the two of them actually fist bump.
Rey can almost hear the groan from a live studio audience. She buries her face in her hands, letting go of a quiet Dyn to do it.
Han laughs. Mando grins.
Dyn uses his newfound freedom to step away from Rey, tapping on Han's arm. "Is this your car?" he asks softly.
Han fluffs Dyn's curly hair. "Sure is, little man. Your sister helped me make her all pretty."
"Rey, you did a good job," decides Dyn with wide eyes. He climbs inside. "It's so cool."
"You're a bit younger than me," Han says to Mando, patting the top of the van. "Did you grow up with these babies running around or were those ugly eighties models on the road by the time you were getting your license?"
Ben shifts to Rey's side as the two older men launch into a discussion about the various eras of micro-buses. One of his hands finds her hip, sneaking around to the small of her back. He bends his head to the side of hers, keeping his voice low and private. "Are you okay?"
"Fine," she says, still a little flustered.
"Sorry about my dad," Ben says, his glance darting to the others.
"Mando's guilty too."
"Pretty sure mine's the one who started it."
Rey can't help it. She smiles a reluctant smile. "That's not the first time he's made jokes that like to me. I swear he does it because he likes the reaction he gets."
Ben chuckles. "Of course that's why he does it."
His fingers find hers, lacing into them nice and snug. She looks at him in surprise. He shrugs. There's no reason to hide their regard if they're going to get mercilessly teased for it anyway. Might as well lean in and take their lumps like good sports. He clearly doesn't care who sees it, so Rey decides not to either.
He's hopping out of the van again when he spots them. His little face furrows into a confused frown and he darts over immediately.
"What are you doing?" he demands.
"Waiting for the food to be ready?" Rey replies, surprised and confused by the confrontational tone.
"No, I mean why are you guys holding hands?"
"Oh." She glances at Ben, smiles, and then mimics his earlier shrug. "Because we want to, pal. Ben is my special friend. I like holding his hand."
"I like holding yours too," Ben murmurs.
"I don't," Dyn says sourly. His frown has turned into a fierce glare, which he throws at Ben. He seizes Ben's forearm, tiny hands grasping in futility at those huge muscles, and tries to pull it away. "Stop it. You can't do that."
Surprised, Ben lets go of Rey and lets Dyn bat his arm away. He crouches down to the boy's level. "Why not?"
Dyn takes Rey's recently vacated hand, still scowling. "She is mine, not yours. You can't hold her hand. That's what only I do."
"Whoa," Rey says, genuinely surprised, crouching down as well. "You're being kind of mean, Dyn. What's gotten into you?"
The child has his occasional bad moods, of course, but he's never been deliberately rude to anyone before. He doesn't have a mean bone in his whole body. Normally he's the picture of kindness, winning everyone over with good will and an easy smile. Rey has never seen this side of him before.
He gives Ben another dirty look. "You just came back. An he wants to take you away from me."
"No he doesn't." She looks at Ben for help here, but he's regarding Dyn with this funny look. Like he's a little bit fascinated, or appreciative, or something. At least he doesn't seem offended.
Dyn rushes into her, burying his face into her neck. His voice warbles with distress. "You can't go with him, Rey! You said you would never leave again. You have to stay with me."
"Hey, hey," she says softly, her instincts to soothe overriding her surprise. "It's okay, buddy. Calm down. I'm not going anywhere. I'm with you. Always. That's why we moved here, remember? So we can stay together."
Dyn doesn't say anything. He's not crying, but he doesn't leave her embrace either. She can feel every frantic beat of his tiny heart thrumming through his body like the flutter of a bird.
To Ben, she gives a helpless shrug. "I'm sorry. I don't know why he's acting like this. Normally he's a really easy kid to love."
"You don't have to apologize for him," he says gently. His attention flicks away from Dyn, burrowed in her arms. "It's okay."
Mando notices and breaks off from his conversation with Han. "So what's happening here?"
"Dyn's just acting weird," Rey tells him. She pulls the child away from her and brushes hair out of his face. He's giving her a troubled, accusatory look. She kisses his furrowed brow and gives him a little push to go back to Mando. "He's being rude to Ben for no reason."
Ben unfolds, standing back up. Rey does too. He shakes his head. "He has his reasons. It's fine. We were all just getting to know each other a bit better." He gives Rey a reassuring grin. "Obviously you two are very close. You told me that before, but I see it now."
Mando nods. "She's basically been his mother. Or the nearest thing to it."
"It's okay, short stop, you can be mean to that big guy," Han says, leaning in to Dyn. "When he was little like you, he could be plenty mean too. He can take it."
"I can take it," Ben agrees.
A smattering of Spanish erupts behind them, Poe and Chuy falling into some heated argument, and Mando's attention immediately zeroes in on them. He perks up, and as always happens when he hears the call of his people, he excuses himself to go join them. Dyn follows, shooting Ben a little glare over his shoulder as he does.
"Okay, so spill, Ben," Han says, sitting back down in the open side door of his van. "What did you do to the kid?"
"He didn't do anything," Rey says immediately. She steps over to him and pokes Han's shoulder. "But you! You're a different story. You have to stop with your shenanigans."
Han lifts his hands innocently, grinning. "What'd I do?"
"You know exactly what you did."
"Hey!" Rose pops up beside them. She looks flushed and happy. "Can you spare your giant hunky strong boyfriend for a minute? Finn wants help getting the tables out of Poe's truck. We could all help him, of course, but I think either he's a lowkey misogynist or he wants to size Ben up because he said it's a man thing."
She rolls her eyes and laughs.
Rey's laughs too, but she gets caught up on the word Rose used. "He's not—"
"I can help," Ben says swiftly, cutting her off. "The old man can too."
Han grumbles in protest.
Rose giggles. "Great! Thanks."
Before he goes, though, Ben pauses and gives the little engineering student a small smile. "I think we did good here, by the way. You're an excellent co-conspirator."
Her eyes widen along with her grin. "You aren't kidding! It all worked out so perfectly. So seamless. That never happens."
Han stands up, still grumbling. "What am I, chopped liver? I helped too."
Rose pats him. "You did," she says consolingly. "You gave Rey and me a place to come work."
Ben huffs a low chuckle, gives Rey a passing significant look, and then he and his father step away to help Finn.
Rose rounds on Rey, hands going to her hips. "You were not about to feed me some BS about that man not being your boyfriend."
Rey opens her mouth to protest, but Rose overrides her.
"—Because I've been talking to him for two weeks now, since you announced you were coming back, and I'm pretty sure he's halfway to putting a whole ass diamond on your finger. And I saw the way you lit up when he pulled in here. You're halfway to accepting the rock, aren't you?"
Rey flounders for something to say, but words slip away in all her fluster. "We didn't — we aren't—"
"Tell me nothing happened this afternoon." Rose raises an expectant brow. "Go on. Try to tell me that nothing at all happened."
Orcas. Orcas happened.
A breathless little laugh escapes her, and Rey feels like the blush in her cheeks will never get a chance to cool again. "Okay, then I won't."
Rose grins, her eyes illuminating with excitement. "I knew it!"
"Something happened, yeah, but we didn't — we didn't really label what this is or anything."
Yes they did, she realizes with a lurch. They did give it a very significant label. They'd both said love. But Rey would feel like a lunatic admitting that to Rose, and besides, it is too private to share with anyone else right now. Ben has been dragged into the same senseless feeling right along with her, the two of them caught up in this mysterious connection that runs so much deeper than a few interactions and a few meaningful conversations. It feels primordial. Like it has existed long before they ever met.
Rey does not believe in soulmates or any dreamy nonsense like that. But this...feels...about as close as she is willing to admit. Certainly there is something at work here greater than herself or Ben.
"The boy would move heaven and earth to make you happy." Rose motions to Rey's faded green-blue Westie. "He got you a rare classic because he knows you love them. He asked me not to tell you he was the one who bought it, which was so stupid because of course I was always gonna tell you, but what that tells me is that clearly he's not just doing nice things to get into your pants. It's really obvious how he feels about you. And you're not real subtle either. So you'll label it soon enough, and when you do, I won't have been wrong about calling him your boyfriend. I just better decide if I'm gonna hook up with Finn or not or else all you couples are gonna leave me in the dust."
Rey seizes this last thing to rescue her from having to address the rest of what Rose has said. "Really? You're thinking about it?"
"I am, actually. He clearly wants to, but I'm trying to decide. Are we really becoming that friend group?"
"I guess we are," Rey laughs.
Rose grins, her cheeks dimpling. "Mostly I'm just glad you accepted that ride from Ben when we were going to meet up with everyone that first time. Because then we got to work on his car together. And because of that, he came and found me and offered me this sweet new job in a way better place."
"One where we get to work together restoring cars," Rey agrees.
"Best turn of events ever." Rose beams, and Rey feels transcendently happy. Like nothing can ever get better than this night, right now. It's that soul-deep conviction that she is in the midst of a memory.
Chuy announces that the steaks are about done, so the rest of the preparations kick into overtime. Ben and Finn get the tables set up, and then part. Finn goes to pump some music through Han's van, and Ben jumps into help Zorri set out the dinnerware. Jannah and Paige have resumed their game with Dyn, and his happy squeals ring out through the night in concert with Finn's music. Rey helps Rose haul out the other food dishes from the back of Paige's car. Mando, Poe, and Han keep Chuy company, apparently all engaged in some kind of vehement debate.
They all sit down to eat, and the conversation swells to include everyone. Zorri wants to hear about Han's arrest and everything surrounding that, so he regales them a more comedic retelling of the events than what actually happened. He manages to embarrass Rey and Ben a few more times, much to his great delight, and then he and Mando are exchanging wild stories about strange arrests, and everything seems to move in double time.
Everyone is in high spirits. They laugh easily. Even Ben, the self-proclaimed introvert who dislikes crowds, seems at ease here in this company. He's not quite as relaxed as he was in the coffee shop, but still, his smiles come more frequently and more easily. And he keeps giving her these looks that make her heart fly into an erratic rhythm and she could swear the ground beneath her rocks a little, like a boat adrift.
But Dyn proves to be a formidable opponent.
After dinner, everyone mills around in pockets of conversation, reluctant to pack up and leave. If Ben ever gets too close to Rey, particularly if he ever takes her hand, Dyn is suddenly there, transformed into a little ball of fury trying to wrench them apart. He shoves against Ben's legs, completely unaware that he looks like a mouse trying to push down a redwood.
Rey keeps trying to pry him off, shoo him away to go play, but he reappears again and again, any time Ben tries to initiate a little physical contact. Finally, when Rey starts to grow genuinely frustrated, Ben decides to address the situation.
In one fluid movement, he's caught all of Dyn's wrists and ankles in one of his gigantic hands and hauls the tiny kid up like a hog tied to a roasting spit. He peers into Dyn's upside down face.
"You and I need to have a conversation, sir," he says firmly.
Dyn snarls and squirms. "Let me go!"
"I will," Ben assures him. "But you have to agree to talk to me. Do we have a deal?"
Dyn scowls. "Deal."
Ben lets go of Dyn's ankles and sets the boy back down onto his feet. He keeps hold of one of Dyn's hands though and snags one of the camping chairs Poe and Zorri provided for the evening. "Okay, then, come on."
They start off towards his car. Rey follows, but before they even get a few steps, Ben turns around and shakes his head.
"No, sorry, Rey. You have to wait here. This conversation is man to man."
Dyn's chest puffs out in pride and he lifts his chin high into the air. "Yeah, Rey. Wait here."
Startled, Rey stops and watches them walk away. This was...unexpected. She's not sure how to feel about it.
"Rey!" Han calls, waving her over to where he and Mando are sitting at one of the tables.
She hesitates. Dyn isn't in any danger, of course, and there's no reason she should be worried. But still. This moment unsettles her. She wants to know what Ben will say to him. By his own admission, he's not had much — or any — experience with kids. Will he know how to talk to Dyn? And what does he want to talk about anyway? Is he trying to tell the kid to cool it?
This is an uncomfortable feeling. It's a greater collision of her two worlds than anything that has happened so far.
Ben puts Dyn on the hood of his car and then unfolds his chair, sitting down in it. The two of them regard each other warily.
"Come on," Han calls again. "They're fine."
So finally Rey goes, plopping down on the bench next to Mando. "Dyn is okay," she reassures him. "Ben wasn't too rough when he picked him up like that."
"I wasn't worried," Mando says mildly.
"I've never seen him be this jealous before." She picks the pecans out of the salad leftovers.
Mando grunts in acknowledgement. "He's never seen you pay attention to someone the way you do to Ben before either. And neither of have I. It's new."
"Yeah, it is new," she says a little too defensively. "I don't really want to talk about it."
Han chuckles. "It's okay, we don't have to talk about you and Ben. I just wanted to know if he'd told you about dinner on Sunday yet."
"Sunday?" Rey blinks. "No?"
"Too busy with other things, then," Han teases.
"A bit." Rey gives him a prickly look.
"Well, my family is tryna get past the past, we're tryna resolve all our issues. It's a lotta knots to untangle. Leia thought it would be a good idea to establish one night a week where we all sit down at the same table for a meal. If that's the only thing we can stand of each other, that's fine, but at least we have that. Anyway, she wants you to come this week."
"Me?" Rey's eyes widen and her pulse quickens at the memory of the woman who definitely did not belong in her camper. "Why?"
"Why?" Han snorts. "Come on, kiddo, weren't you listening to what I said when we were stuck in traffic?"
"I have tried to forget it."
"You know what I'm talking about though? Vetting?"
"Yes, yes," she says heatedly. "I know. But she already did that when she showed up to talk to me that day she was springing you from jail."
Han chuckles. "I heard something about that. I guess maybe she did learn some things about you that day, but I guess she wants to know more. Maybe. I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. She doesn't really elaborate her motives to me. But Luke is coming too, so maybe it's got something to do with burying the hatchet."
"I don't have a hatchet," Rey protests. "I'm fine with Luke."
Then again, Luke was in the dark about what she was doing in Seattle — she had technically lied to him, and he'd no doubt learned the truth by now, so it is entirely possible that he does have a big beef with Rey, but if that's the case, she isn't eager to step willingly into that confrontation.
"It'll be the first time he and Ben sit down at the same table in forever," Han sighs. "Could be a lot of fireworks. Apparently you've been a good influence on both of them in turns, so maybe it's a good idea to have an outside party. Do Leia and me a big favor and be there, huh?"
Rey exhales in defeat. "Okay."
"Ben will pick you up," Han says brightly. He glances at Mando. "Sorry I can't extend the invite. My wife will probably want to meet you and the little guy soon enough."
Mando waves him off, completely unconcerned about the snub. He looks around at the group, Poe now breaking down the grill, the others laughing and talking. He gives Rey a surprisingly soft look.
"You've done well here. These seem like good people."
Rey smiles. "I think they are."
"Most of 'em," Han agrees. "Chuy and me might not qualify."
"You do," Mando says with amusement. To Rey, he adds, "This is exactly the kind of thing I hoped you'd find someday. A group of friends like this. A life that suits you as well as this one does."
"I'm happy," she admits. "This was definitely the right decision."
Han lifts his can of soda in a toast, and they reciprocate.
After that, the party starts to wind down. Everyone starts cleaning up. When Ben and Dyn return, he immediately helps Finn pack the tables back into Poe's truck. Dyn asks Han if he can play in his car again. Rey wants to ask him what Ben said, but Mando discourages her.
"He's fine now," he says. "Don't drag it all up and get him stirred up again."
So she doesn't. But the unbearable curiosity lingers with her.
Eventually everything is put away and people begin to trail off with lingering, reluctant goodbyes. They joke that they should have a cookout every weekend here. Han and Chuy put Rey's bus back in the shop bay, and then get in his own, trundling off into the night without any adieu. Rose locks up the shop, tells Rey to let her know what time she should show up in the morning, and then heads off hand-in-hand with Finn.
Rey follows Mando and Dyn to his car. She helps Dyn get buckled, and thinks that is probably the extent of their parting, until Mando pauses before getting in and gives her a strange look.
"What?" she asks.
"I'm trying to figure out what I'm supposed to do in this situation. Do you want me to play the protective parent role and lecture you about curfews and being careful when you're alone with a boy, or do you want me to let you be an adult who can make her own choices?"
She laughs. "Uh, the second one, please."
"Okay," he nods, obviously relieved. "Just be quiet when you let yourself in. Dyn will be exhausted and I don't want him waking. And if you decide not to come home tonight," he throws a look in Ben's direction, "let me know that too, huh? Just so I don't worry."
"I'm coming home," she says quickly, flushed hot again. "I promise."
He nods, gets in his car, and then they're off, slipping away into the night.
And all that is left is Ben.
Rey draws a deep, steadying breath and turns around. The lot is empty now. All the evidence that there was a party here is cleaned up and gone. It once more looks like the husk of a darkened auto shop with a nearly-empty parking lot, the moonlight reflecting off the Sound across the street. The clouds have cleared now, leaving the night sky on full resplendent display. Well, sort of resplendent. The light pollution from the city has shielded all but the brightest stars. Still, it's beautiful.
Ben is on the hood of Rey's car, lying back and looking up at the cosmos. She drifts over to him. He scoots a little to make room for her, and she does climb up next to him — the Rocky's hood holding firm under their weight stretched out across its surface.
"There were more stars at our trailer park in Colorado," she remarks softly.
He hums. "In the summer, I'll take you camping in the Cascades. Then you'll see what a night sky is supposed to look like."
Rey shivers, and even though it is growing quite cold now, she isn't sure it's only from that. The idea of being in the mountains with Ben is a tantalizing image, as is the thought of what sorts of adventures they might have all throughout the winter leading up to it. Happiness trickles through her, drawing a sublime smile.
"Thank you for doing this," she says to him after a minute. "All of this."
He turns his head to look at her, but she keeps her attention on the stars.
"Did you enjoy your day?"
She laughs a little. "Of course I did. It was all so perfect."
He doesn't move, so she finally does look because she can feel his smile. And yep, it's there. Full and dimpled and more beautiful than the sky by far. Impulsively, she props up on one elbow, tilts in towards him, and takes that smile for her own in a soft, chaste kiss.
A low hum of pleasure rumbles through his huge chest. His hands come to clasp her face gently, holding her there so he can taste her in return, the brush of his lips light and exploratory.
He's warm, so she cuddles into his body, resting her head on his chest while his arms engulf her.
"It's funny how this all worked out," he marvels.
"The strangest," she agrees. "But now, seeing the results, I don't think I would have changed a thing."
Lying here like this is extremely intimate, and Rey's mind does flit uneasily over what other sorts of things they could learn about each other, physically speaking. She's not ready to plunge headlong into every aspect of a relationship yet. But lying here is also extremely easy and not at all fraught with expectation. Ben is relaxed. His touch is gentle and unassuming. It's not hard to let the worry drain out of her and just enjoy this moment.
"Your friends are an interesting group," he remarks with amusement. "Poe and his wife were particularly intriguing to talk to. They're thinking of starting a spin-off company focusing on outdoor experiences for kids, and I'll have to take a look at their plans, but it might be something I want to jump in on."
Rey laughs. "You really managed to talk business at a party like this?"
"It came up organically, and it was more interesting than listening to Chuy and the two old men talk."
Rey rests her chin against his chest. "At least they seemed to get along pretty well."
"I wondered if things would turn sour when my dad learned about Mando's religion." Ben chuckles. "Funny that an entirely different bounty hunter in a different state who did come after him was part of the same religion. Are they all bounty hunters?"
"Bail bond agents," she corrects playfully. "And no, they're not. But duty is a huge thing to them — the biggest thing of all, maybe. So a lot of them tend to find their way into careers that reinforce some sense of duty and purpose."
He gently tucks her hair behind one ear, letting his fingers linger along the curve of her jaw. "Interesting. Do you think Dyn will grow up with that too?"
"I don't think so. Mando has never pushed his beliefs onto me, and it doesn't look like he's going to do with Dyn either. We'll see, I guess." And then, remembering, she props herself up again. "Wait, what happened with Dyn? He was fine the rest of the night — what did you say to him?"
"We just talked," he said, shrugging. "He was clearly positioning himself as the gatekeeper to you, so I figured I needed to get his permission if I wanted to actually date you."
Rey laughs at the image of her tiny, angry guard pitting himself against a mountain like Ben. "Did you promise him you weren't going to take me away? I can't believe he was worried about that. I wonder what put that idea in his head."
"No," says Ben. "I didn't."
That...catches her off guard. She sits up, giving him a confused look. "You didn't promise him that?"
"I did not," he affirms, following her up. "Your little brother is a bright kid. I didn't want to lie to him. He'd see through that. If I'm going to be in your life, I need to be in his good graces, and how could I do that by making him a promise I might break?"
"What? What do you mean you might break?" Rey wants to laugh, but honestly she's just too baffled. "Are you planning on kidnapping me and hauling me off to Canada or something?"
He chuckles. "No. But I suppose we should talk about this, after what happened in my office."
Does he mean the hot and heavy kissing on his desk? Or the fevered, senseless confessions of being incomprehensibly in love?
"Okay...?" she says uncertainly.
"Come here." He takes her hands and pulls her off the hood of the car, guiding her around in front of him while he stays seated. They're faces are level now, and it's easier to gauge each other's reactions like this. He keeps her hands engulfed in his own. His lips are full and tempting, and for a moment she forgets everything except a sudden urge to kiss him again.
He draws a breath and speaks carefully. "Maybe I should have warned you about this before what we said in the office. It's not really fair to spring it on you now. But the thing is, you need to know that I'm in this for the long haul."
Her heart skips. "The...long haul?"
He nods. "I'm not the kind of person who dates around. I know my dad told you some things about me, but his perception of me isn't entirely accurate. I was really shy with girls, it's true. And I haven't had a lot of experiences. But it's because I'm not interested in casual dating. I don't like the games that come with it. I guess I'm just a foolish romantic, but I've always just wanted to commit myself to one person, whole-heartedly, with forever in mind. I had started to think that would probably never happen for me. But then you came, and before I even realized what was happening, I was falling. What I feel for you now is scary, and intense, but because I feel it, I can't promise your brother that I will never take you from him. Because I can easily envision a day where I do. Where I ask, anyway."
Halfway to a diamond, indeed, Rey thinks deliriously. Her heart is flying so fast in her chest, like the boat over open water.
"Do you remember that day on the island?" he asks softly. "Do you remember what you told me, about wanting to be a mother?"
Oh god, that memory. She hopes its too dark to see how hard she blushes from embarrassment. That admission was far, far too personal. She shouldn't have said it at all. Now he's pulling it back up out of the ground where she tried to bury it, and she doesn't want to look out of fear.
He holds her hands a little tighter. "Don't be ashamed, Rey, please don't be ashamed. I told you then and I'm telling you now, there's nothing wrong with that secret wish. In fact, it's something I want too. I didn't think I could say it out loud until you were brave enough to do it first. I want that, and the whole cheesy package. The house, the pets — yes, a cat, but also a dog — the van-full of noisy, chaotic kids, the wife, the life. Something better than what I had. Something better than what you had. Watching you tonight with Dyn...god, Rey, you're going to be a great mother. And I want to be part of that."
Rey's head is spinning. She grips him unsteadily lest she fall over.
He hurries to fix whatever this confession has induced in her. "I know, I know, it's too much right now. I'm sorry — this is — this is way too much. I'm not asking for any of that now, because I know it's too soon. There are still things we need to learn about each other, still a lot of ground to cover. We've rushed this far into this thing so fast, and I'm not trying to accelerate things further. If it doesn't work, it's okay. If we try, and a few months in, or a year, or in any amount of time, we decide it doesn't work for us, we can part as friends."
Why is he talking about breaking up when this thing is barely begun? The idea of that is unreasonably upsetting.
His hands transfer to her waist and he scoots to the very edge of the hood, pulling her in closer. "But you need to know that I'm going into this with a goal in mind. With that specific dream. Not now, but someday. For now, I just want you to be my girlfriend. It didn't feel right to ask you for it without letting you know what you're getting into. Are you — are you okay with that?"
It's probably a healthy conversation to have. This setting of expectations. This clarification now will save them from being blindsided in the future. No one can claim they didn't know what the other person wanted for their end game. Ben is apparently a traditionalist. He wants it all. And he's asking if she does too.
Rey can't remember how to breathe. However healthy and rational this is, she feels like she's about to fly into a million pieces and go drifting off into the atmosphere. She holds his face in her gaze, his deep, dark eyes full of tenderness and fear, nervous that she will freak out. It is too soon, but her heart doesn't seem to know that. It throbs with yearning.
Of course she wants the same thing. She always has.
"Yes," she breathes, so soft she has to swallow and try it again. "Yes. I am. Ben, I — I want all of that—
Before she can really even figure out what to say, he is pulling her into him, snatching her words away with hungry, desperate lips against her own, reigniting that white fire again, consuming her in the depth of his relief.
Rey lets go.
Drowning in this feeling of him, in this feeling of them, she can almost see it. That vision of a shared future, building something together that would go on for generations after them, founded on love and something do much deeper. Mutual respect and understanding carrying them through all the natural turmoil of a shared life, keeping them as happily bound to one another then as they are right now. A family of their own, better and more real than anything she has ever dreamed of. Partners and lovers and unrecognizably happy.
It's so real that the next kiss is absurdly wet, and she realizes that there are tears in her eyes, and maybe they are in his too because everything tastes salty now and he's holding her so tightly against his trembling body.
It might be too soon to throw themselves headlong into that wild unknown, but Rey recognizes that these are their first steps. And it feels right.
Being here tonight, after all that has happened, Rey finally feels what she has been missing her entire life.
At long last, she is home.