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In Motion Again

Chapter Text

“The most remarkable thing about coming home to you

Is the feeling of being in motion again;

It’s the most extraordinary thing in the world.”  

—The Mountain Goats, “Going to Georgia”


It takes four generations of monarchs to migrate from the Rocky Mountains to Santa Cruz, a fact that Ben Solo has known since he took his first steps at the Natural Bridges State Park, his mother’s whispered encouragement lost in the rustle of butterfly wings. It takes two generations of Organa-Solos to volunteer at the Welcome Back Monarchs Day, a tradition that Ben assumes as fact until his mother declines to join him the year after the fire.

“Maybe it’s better if you go alone,” Leia says. “Your father’s rebuilding the woodshed. I think it’s best if I stay to help.”

Underneath her gentleness and hedging is a rock-solid no that stops Ben mid-plea. Mumbling some excuse, he hangs up the phone and dons his neon orange volunteer vest and chipped name tag that once gleamed under the Santa Cruz sun.

He still looks for his mother’s familiar braids in the crowds of locals and tourists overrunning the park to catch a glimpse of the monarchs. All he finds is Poe’s curly mop, Amilyn’s purple waves, and enough pitying glances from the volunteer staff to suffocate him.

“She’s helping Han out, that’s all,” Ben mumbles when Amilyn comments on his mother’s absence.

Amilyn isn’t convinced and neither is Ben, so he buries himself in the festival, directing traffic and hand-cranking batches of pumpkin ice cream as Poe barks instructions over the walkie talkie. On another day, Ben might ignore Poe’s chatter. Today he discovers it drowns out his mother’s absence, so he dives in and paddles with the current.

At first, the current pulls him from the music tent to the craft booth. Ben paddles through the tasks with ease. Then it tugs him to the fringes of the eucalyptus grove where he stations himself to answer guests’ questions, but soon their questions turn from monarchs and migration to the fires that raged through the Santa Cruz Mountains last year.

“How lucky the fires didn’t burn the groves,” one man comments after battering Ben with a line of questioning that scorches his memory and curdles his stomach.

The urge to punch the man’s ruddy nose wells up from somewhere deep inside Ben. He fights it down with a sneer. “How lucky the fires didn’t burn the groves,” he parrots. “Just a thousand houses.”

“Look, man, I didn’t mean—”

Ben barrels past him before losing control. He spots Amilyn’s frown from across the way and veers toward the visitor’s’ center rather than risking another conversation with her. The porch is empty, save for one woman surveying the crowd. She’s looking for someone, too—Ben feels it in his bones, and the part of him looking for someone hopes she finds her person. He pushes past her, too, and then:… quiet.

Inside the center, the festival noise dwindles to a dull hum. Inside the center, Ben surfaces to take his first real breath since arriving at the park. It takes two generations of Organa-Solos to volunteer at the Welcome Back Monarchs Day, but without his mother, Ben wonders why he bothered coming back. Natural Bridges might have escaped the fire, but it feels hollowed out all the same.

Kill the past. Stop remembering.

After collecting himself, Ben emerges to find the woman still perched on the porch, sitting now instead of standing, yet somehow seeming coiled to spring at the slightest provocation. Only once Ben by her does he notice her trembling mouth, her fierce glinting eyes.

“Are you waiting for someone?”

Whipping around to face him, the woman pastes a terse grin on her face, a pale imitation of joy. The grin acts as a barrier between them, or maybe an offering to placate him while urging him on his way.

Ben doesn’t move.

How unlike him to linger when the parking lot needs directing and Poe needs backup at the ice cream stand. But he waits for her answer as children and seagulls flap past them.

“Not anymore.”
“But you were.”

“I was.”

She eyes him, still coiled tight and ready to bolt. Some impulse to grab her wrist, to make her stay, laps at the corners of Ben’s consciousness, but Ben tamps it down by returning to his volunteer script. “While you wait—”

“I’m not waiting.”

“You don’t have to lie to me. I understand.” When he cuts her off, she gapes, an excuse pouring half-formed from her tongue.

“You do?” Skepticism in her raised brows and crossed arms.

“My mother and I volunteer every year,” he finds himself saying—anything to make her stay, although his eagerness to share the thoughts that he won’t indulge on his own with a stranger repulses him. “Except this one.”

Her eyes snap to his, cold and inquiring. Under her unflinching gaze, all Ben can do is look back. Following the jut of her shoulders, her elbows and jaw, he imagines her a knife, all razor-sharp edges and glinting steel. If anyone else stared at him for quite so long, he might fidget or mumble an excuse and flee. But he lets this woman scrutinize him as he stands still like he does for the butterflies. One sudden movement and they might fly away. Ben doesn’t want her to fly away.

“Do you miss her?”

A flash of white. A sharp retort and twinkling smile. A whiff of jasmine.

“Yes.”

His admission softens her somehow. Her arms unwind from their vise grip around her torso. Her shoulders droop. Her jaw loosens in the barest hint of a grin. Understanding blooms across her face and Ben longs to know how she’s reached such an understanding.

Then she shoves her hand at him, a one-pump shake, and Ben’s world narrows to their fingertips brushing, to the callouses lining her palms. “I’m Rey.”

“Ben.” Dropping her hand fast does little to quell the shivers starting up his spine. “Where are you from?”

In the silence that trails Ben’s question, he worries he’s broken this tentative stillness, that she’ll flap away, leaving him a curious wreck on the visitor’s center porch. Then nodding as if Ben passed some unspoken test, Rey begins to speak.

“I drove from Tempe to see the butterflies. My car broke down just outside of Boulder Creek. Mountain Mechanics took one look at it and quoted a price I couldn’t pay. Said they offered the fairest prices around the valley. Offered me a job, too, so I could work it off.” She trails off there, picking at the grease underneath her fingernails.

“And you never left?” Ben presses, although the story’s end is made clear by the Mountain Mechanics jersey hanging loose on Rey’s slim frame.

“Not yet.” She squints in his direction, at his name tag, and he’s the one who feels like he’s looking into the sun. “You move a lot, Ben Solo?”

“No,” he says, his parents’ home on Kings Highway painted red in his mind.

She nods and drains her lemonade too fast for him to follow. “You don’t seem the type.”

“How can you tell?” So used to answering people’s questions thanks to his orange volunteer vest, the question comes out rusty, more like a challenge than Ben intends, but he relishes the way her eyes spark at it. She looks him up and down, unabashed in her raw examination.

Ben’s been ogled before at the festival, by moms and dads dragged behind squealing children with orange-painted faces and ice cream sticky hands. He’d be lying if he hadn’t noticed the attention. Never before has a tourist looked beyond his height or volunteer vest to pick him apart like Rey does now. Under her gaze, he becomes an engine to prod and dismantle until she discovers how to make him run smoothly again. The thoroughness of her silent evaluation reveals nothing of what she thinks about Ben, only that the Mountain Mechanics got a damn good deal hiring someone so perceptive.

In the end, she rattles off a list of identifying characteristics that mark him as homegrown valley folk: the plaid peeking from his vest, the muddy boots and beanie, the fleece and frown.

Astute and unsettling, Rey upturns the festival with a look and a list, leaving Ben scrabbling for a familiar foothold. “Have you seen the monarchs?” he finally asks, retreating into his volunteer role that should render him invisible.

Rey’s attention snaps from him to the eucalyptus grove and its crowded boardwalk entrance. Hesitation tangles her hands and gnaws skin from her lips. “Not yet.”

He almost escapes into his volunteer role, pulling back from her with a rote comment about enjoying her first visit and remembering to stay on the trail. But her hesitancy reels him closer and he’s powerless to alter course.

“You’re stalling,” he observes. Now she starts, a jerk of her head that she tries to disguise as a nod.

“No,” she snaps. Then she softens. “What if they’re not everything I’ve imagined them to be? It’s the last link I have to my mom. I want to hang on as long as I can.”

“Then what?”

“Then I’ll be truly alone.”

Nothing left to tie her to Santa Cruz, Ben realizes. The thought rankles and he blurts out, “Where will you go?”

She shrugs. “An ocean.”

He points to the shore opposite the eucalyptus grove, where waves creep up the sand. “Santa Cruz has an ocean.”

Rey laughs, the fluttering of a thousand monarch wings. “A warm ocean. Somewhere free of ghosts.”

With his parents’ house and his father’s fingerprints in every sunset, Ben thinks he understands. “Whenever you’re ready,” he reassures her as the walkie talkie belted to his waist crackles to life.

“Face painting station ran out of orange paint,” Poe declares. “Ben, we need you to—”

“Got it.” When he turns back to Rey, who’s watching him instead of the teeming boardwalk, Ben discovers two things: first, that Rey’s eyes glow green in the afternoon sun. Second, while he expected their conversation to draw to a natural close soon, he’s not ready for that moment just yet. He can’t stop himself from staring long enough to memorize the freckles dusting her nose. Finally, he says, “I have to—”

“I know.” A hint of amusement morphs into a grin bright enough to overpower the weak September sun. “The kids need face paint.”

“And face paint they will have,” he says. “Enjoy the festival, Rey.”

That smile again, the real attraction of today. “I have.”

When Ben returns from the storage tent, orange paint tubes stuffed in each hand, he notices her spot at the picnic table has been taken by a family of four squabbling over a bowl of pumpkin ice cream. Though he tries to put her face from his mind, he looks for her in every wave of people streaming out of the eucalyptus grove until dusk drives the tourists from the park and the monarchs hunker down to sleep.


The waves pull him from the shore and push Ben back again, tumbling him through sand and rocks and kelp that clings to his wetsuit. He takes the thrashing in stride, paddling out again and again on a surfboard made custom for his lanky frame. A gift from his father so Ben would stop stealing Han’s board.

The waves pull him from the shore and push him back again, a hollow imitation of joy when he catches the sort of wave that would get his father hooting and hollering. Ben does not holler. He rides the wave until it fizzles into foam and reminds himself the ocean has always been a vast, empty expanse. He takes twisted pleasure when water chokes his throat and burns his nose. Some deep, dark part of himself whispers that he deserves it, the stolen breath and stinging eyes. Because of Ben, Chewie fought for his last breaths, too, and what good did that do him?

He paddles under the point break, a rookie mistake for which he can almost hear Han chastising him. It spits him out, the leash chafing his wrist and the board banging his shins. Not hard enough to bruise, but enough to propel him from the water up the beach, hoisting his board as he makes the long trek to his car.

As afternoon ebbs into evening, Natural Bridges empties from beachgoers. Throughout the day, towels litter the sand, umbrellas flutter like moths to the sun’s flame, and visitors crowd the tidepools, eager to glimpse anemones and urchins unfurling their spines with the tide. But as the sun wanes, so do the tourists, packing up towels and umbrellas and crawling back up the dunes. Ben skirts around the exodus as best as he can with a fiberglass surfboard tucked underarm. A dog yips, joyful and insistent, as he passes and Ben hates the way it makes his chest ache more than his battered shins.

Chewie should be barking, too, dashing madly through the waves and tangling himself in the surfboard leash on the walk back to the car. He should be digging up mounds of sand and shaking water from his fur. He should be bolting across the dunes, ripping up seagrass and dodging Ben’s outstretched arms while Leia lectures them about the dangers of erosion and Han just chuckles.

They’re not here.

It may be Ben’s fault, but he still hates them all for it.

Then a familiar accent rises above the chatter and waves, coaxing Ben back to the present. He whips around so fast he almost clobbers a couple strolling alongside him. He shakes off their frowns like the seawater dripping from his hair, scouring the beach for Rey, but all he sees is sand and a small flock of Natural Bridges recruits trailing behind Poe.

Ben doesn’t glance away fast enough.

“Solo!” Poe calls, loud enough to turn the heads of every new recruit. Silhouetted by the sun, they stare at Ben, who returns the call with a nod. Enough to appease Poe without engaging. He picks up the pace, anything to avoid getting roped into the docent training. His feet sink broad and deep into the cooling sand. It clumps between his toes no matter how fast he moves.

“Ben?”

With the way his imagination scrambles every voice within a thousand feet of the grove into Rey’s, he must be getting desperate. He doesn’t turn around, not for the phantom voice or the yipping orange dog that darts past his heels.

“Ben!”

He halts, spins, holds his breath at the three buns bobbing into view. The tip of his surfboard collides with the cold sand and the new volunteers flutter like monarchs in his periphery.

Bundled up in a blue UCSC sweatshirt, Rey peers up at him. He doesn’t miss her gaze traveling over his damp hair and wetsuit. It sparks, an echo of the setting sun on the water. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“I live here,” he says, jerking a thumb in the direction of the houses bordering the beach just beyond the park. When she smiles, he marvels at how she cracks him open with a few simple words, reducing him to an eager boy spilling information in an effort to impress her. Water puddles from his wetsuit, down his legs and onto the sand between them. He thinks about the dripping water, not about Rey’s ripped denim shorts or her luminescent smile—like she, too, hasn’t been able to get him out of her head since the festival last weekend.

Wishful thinking.

But she’s still standing before him, hands balled into long sweatshirt sleeves and eyes glowing green in the fading light. Expectant. Ben holds his breath and dives in.

“You’re volunteering.”

A brilliant observation. Yet Rey simply nods, an empty leash swinging from one hand.

“Poe mentioned the visitors’ center’s been short staffed since the fire.”

He stalls then as he does when talk of the fire sneaks up on him, a slow burn in his brain that never quite runs out of fuel. She can see the wariness in his darting eyes, he’s sure of that, but his mind stutters on last August—crackling branches, baying dogs, wailing sirens—and he can’t find the right combination of words and gestures to convey to Rey that it’s alright, he’s alright, he has to be alright it’s been thirteen months goddammit and if the rest of the valley’s rebuilding so should he.

His mother would know the right words to say. She’d deliver them dry and fast with a smirk at once warm and aloof, engineered to set Rey at ease and establish the same camaraderie she manages to maintain with half of the Santa Cruz mountain folk. Ben can hear her now, reminding him that he’s a gentleman, not a scoundrel, and that gentlemen don’t rush past ladies like Rey and dive headfirst into the ocean to avoid humiliating themselves. So he grounds himself in the cold sand and dripping wetsuit while he hunts for a reply that won’t scare Rey away.

Then a fluttering sensation encompasses Ben’s wrist; he thinks of butterflies and glances down to see Rey’s fingers wrapping around him. Her warm touch grounds Ben in the present better than any sand or water, but her eyes have embarked on a journey to far-flung shores.

“You’re not alone,” she murmurs. “You’re not alone.”

In between each refrain, Ben imagines a little girl, three buns and a sunshine smile, drifting to sleep with tales of monarchs and migrations fluttering through her dreams and a mother to guide her into the dark.

“Neither are you,” he says and Rey’s grip tightens on his wrist as she peers at him, scanning him hungrily for something he can’t quite name. He doesn’t know if she finds what she’s looking for, but she lets go as a flock of seagulls squawk overhead and the yipping orange dog circles back to collide with her legs.

“Beebee!” she exclaims, bending to scratch the stubby corgi between his ears. Ben expects the grief to hit him then, wholly unprepared for the wave of heat spreading down his belly as Rey’s fingers rake through fur. The heat only intensifies as she grins up at him, all glowing eyes and dimpled cheeks. “He wanted to volunteer, too.”

Beebee’s wagging tail confirms this. Ben schools his face into an approximation of a smile. By the way Rey dims at his reaction, he realizes that his pain might bleed through all disguises.

Time. He needs time to think of how to explain his grimace, how to explain the last year choking his lungs like seawater or smoke, but Beebee starts barking again and Ben’s head throbs in time with each yelp.

Glancing back at the orientation group, now migrating across the rocky tidepools, Rey sighs. “We should go.”

Still, she doesn’t move. The flock of new docents drifts farther away from them, but Ben isn’t ready to see Rey go. “I’m glad to see you.”

This time when she smiles, it’s cautious and searing, enough to set Ben’s cheeks aflame. “You are?”

As she brightens, Ben panics. “Volunteering. Glad to see you volunteering. So you can finally see the monarchs.”

Like clouds covering the sun, Rey dims and stiffens into a similitude of the woman at last week’s festival. In Ben’s head, his mother’s laugh rings raspy and amused.

“Maybe.”

After years spent living with a mother like Leia, Ben can spot a no that’s disguised to avoid confrontation. He shouldn’t poke at what seems to be a sore spot, but after holding up under the poking and prodding that has accompanied his mother’s conspicuous absence at Natural Bridges this fall, Ben has acclimated to discomfort. Something bruised under Rey’s soft exterior calls to him, like to like.

“I’ll go with you.”

Startled, she blinks. “What?”

“When you change your mind. If you need.”

A thousand protests flash across her face; underneath it all, a pervasive sense of loneliness that flickers so fast Ben wonders if he imagined it. He braces himself for a scathing reply or worse, a withdrawal, but it never comes.

“Okay.”

An outstretched hand thrusts a phone at him. He stares at it longer than he should, trying to remember his number. For someone who rarely gets things right, he really wants to get this right.

“I’ll call you,” she says, chasing another blinding smile that wards away the lingering chill. “Goodbye, Ben Solo.”

Then she’s jogging back to Poe’s docent orientation, Beebee at her side, and Ben’s left watching the sinking sun swallow her whole. The sea glows golden and so does his chest and on the walk back to his new place on Westcliff, he can finally breathe.