"Is this all of it?" Ben Solo asks, peering through the window of the orange-and-white Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Below him, a craggy green island adorned with the prominent remains of various stonework juts out from the wave-tossed azure surface of the Pacific Ocean, so small that, from this height, he could almost span it with one hand.
"Yeah, that's her," Poe Dameron replies as he coaxes the Cessna into descent. "That's Ahch-To. Straight outta National Geographic, huh?"
Ben's not impressed. A passing glance from bird's-eye view is enough to identify pre-Romanesque architecture and megalithic rows— interesting, given the isolated location, but hardly the revolutionary find his uncle had promised.
"Declared an Ascendancy state reserve in 1977 and it's only now that they're letting the rest of the world set foot on it," Poe continues, bringing the tiny four-seater 'round to the eastern side of the island. "Currently fifteen people living at base camp— it's the most inhabited Ahch-To's been in centuries."
"I'd hardly call fifteen people 'the rest of the world.'"
Poe flashes a good-natured grin that contains the barest hint of a knife's edge. "Dr. Skywalker did say you had a mouth on you."
The makeshift airstrip is narrow, marked by a striped windsock fluttering cheerfully in the breeze, and the bumpy landing on uneven, rock-strewn soil rattles the Cessna's hinges. Ben can't help but feel that Poe's doing it on purpose at least a little bit, and he scowls at the pilot once they've coasted to a stop.
"Here we are," Poe blithely announces. "Home, sweet home."
Despite the double-breasted cashmere trench coat he's wearing over a wool turtleneck and black heat-tech trousers, the cold immediately digs into Ben's bones once he disembarks. It had felt strange packing winter clothes in August, but Ahch-To is a thousand miles off the coast of Christchurch, practically halfway to Antarctica. The seasons are all upside down here.
While the airstrip is deserted, a bundled-up figure soon appears in the distance, making their way towards the plane. Poe deposits Ben's heavy luggage on the ground as effortlessly as breathing, seemingly unaffected by the chill despite his flannel jacket and tattered jeans— but, then again, during small talk on the flight over, Poe had proudly called himself Kiwi born and bred, and he's the outdoorsy type who probably summits Mount Taranaki on the weekends.
He gestures at the approaching figure. "That's Rey Niima, Dr. Skywalker's assistant. She's writing her master's thesis on the Ahch-To ruins."
Ben recoils. "A grad student?"
"Yeah." Poe chuckles. "I'm sure the two of you'll have a lot to talk about, Professor Solo. Lovely girl, despite being British."
Ben thinks about the last lovely British girl he'd met, and he's still thinking about her by the time the figure draws near enough for him to make out her features. This one has brown hair, too, and—
His heart stutters in his chest. The lower half of her face is tucked away behind a red scarf, but he'd know those hazel eyes anywhere.
Rey freezes as she recognizes him, looking like she wants nothing more than to turn tail and run. But Poe waves her over and she reluctantly soldiers forward, a merino-gloved hand lowering the scarf from her mouth.
"You're Ben Solo?" she hisses. "No way. I refuse."
"Right," Ben says slowly. "I must have gotten the wrong birth certificate, then. How foolish of me."
Rey crosses her arms, glaring daggers at him.
Poe looks from one to the other with a baffled expression. "Okay, so I get the feeling introductions aren't necessary," he finally remarks. "In that case, let's hoof it so we won't have to stumble back to camp in the dark. What d'you say, Oxford?"
"Don't call me that, flyboy, I don't even study there. Oxford is not the only institute of higher learning in the United Kingdom," Rey mutters, but she quickly— if ungraciously— hoists up one of Ben's duffel bags and starts walking.
Poe follows, carrying another bag, and Ben trails after them with his last piece of luggage. It's past three in the afternoon according to the Vacheron Constantin Overseas around his wrist, but the sun can set as early as four P.M. in this part of the world. It's easy to decipher the reason for Poe and Rey's haste— the island's terrain is steep and rugged. It would be a nightmare to navigate without daylight.
"Are you staying long?" Rey asks Poe.
"Leaving first thing tomorrow, but I'll be back on Friday with supplies," Poe says. "Any special requests?"
"Coffee," Rey grunts. "Lots and lots of coffee."
Poe's sharp bark of laughter echoes through the vast slopes. "You got it."
Ben knows he should be taking in his surroundings, relishing the experience of being in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth, but his attention is focused on Rey as she trudges ahead of him on the switchback that is all that remains of an ancient goatherd's trail. Of all the places to run into her again, it had to be here, where no one can go without a special permit from the Chiss government. The universe must be laughing its ass off right now.
Poe stops to retie a loosened shoelace, and Ben seizes the opportunity to catch up to Rey. The acceleration leaves him winded but he stubbornly perseveres until he's beside her.
"You said—" he wheezes, and then grimaces before taking a deep gulp of much-needed oxygen and starting over. "You said your name was Kira."
"You really want to talk about this now," she deadpans.
"I'd much rather we resolve it before I have to explain to my uncle that I'm ineligible to join his team on account of having slept with his student."
"There's nothing to resolve," she insists. "You teach history at Arkanis, I study archeology at Yavin. Different fields, different universities, different bloody continents. We can just pretend it never happened."
That's easy for you to say, Ben almost retorts. It was the best night of my life and I'm still thinking about it nine months later. You twisted me into knots and you didn't even tell me your real name.
He clenches his teeth against the words; he still has his pride, after all. "Fine," is what he tells Rey instead, his tone appropriately cool. "It never happened."
She offers him a stiff nod. "Good. As long as we're agreed."
She met him last December, at a hotel bar.
Takodana was a village on the Côte d'Azur, the budget traveler's alternative to Monaco and Saint-Tropez. Rey had begun saving up for her trip once Finn mentioned he'd be spending winter break in the U.S., with his girlfriend Rose and her family, for the second time in a row. Rey had already endured the previous Christmas without her best and only friend for company, and it wasn't an experience she cared to repeat.
But, in all honesty, this was hardly any better— sitting alone in the grungy, smoke-filled bar of Chez Kanata, surrounded by merrily carousing tourist groups as she downed shot after shot of whatever the bartender plunked in front of her until the tab limit she'd very firmly imposed while sober ran out. Because it was the twenty-fourth, Christmas songs blared from the speakers and the festive lights strung along the liquor shelves blinked red and green, further compounding Rey's misery.
There was a rush of Armani Code's distinctive leather-and-tobacco notes as a tall, dark-haired man sat beside her. "Un verre de cognac, s'il vous plaît," he said, holding out his card to the bartender, who took it and bustled off.
Rey was good enough with languages to recognize when French was being spoken by an American. She'd also been in the nightlife scene long enough to know what it meant when someone sat next to her at a bar where several other perfectly vacant stools were available.
She turned to him, already opening her mouth to say that she wasn't interested— and then paused at the sight of pale, sharp features surrounded by a halo of luxurious, soft-looking black hair, brown eyes framed by aviator-style prescription glasses set atop an aquiline nose, and a pair of unexpectedly sensual lips. He was fit, too— she could tell from the way his broad shoulders stretched out the charcoal blazer he was wearing.
"I'm Kira," Rey blurted out, because it was as good a pickup line as any and she didn't actually want to give some stranger her real name.
"Ben," the man automatically replied, before he blinked like he couldn't believe the old sit-next-to-her-at-the-bar ploy was actually working. What a dweeb. "Are you alone or—"
"Yeah, whatever," Rey interrupted him, ascribing what she said next to the cheap tequila and knockoff absinthe she'd been drinking all evening and to the crushing, self-destructive loneliness that always hounded her during the holidays. "Get liquored up first, and then I'd quite like to sit on your face and just take things from there, if you don't mind."
The bartender returned with the glass of brandy and Ben's card, but Ben handed the latter back to him, mumbling, "On va prendre la bouteille."
Rey smirked. Happy Christmas to her, indeed.
Base camp is a collection of neon polar pyramid tents scattered at the foot of the island's tallest hill, which bears the monastery that looms over everything else in the gathering twilight. A sturdy figure peels away from the small crowd huddled around the fire pit eating out of tin cans. At the same time, Poe drops Ben's bag and makes a beeline for the diners, who welcome him with glad cries. And then Ben is gazing upon his uncle's weathered face for the first time in more than half a decade.
"Is that a cape?" are the first words out of his mouth as he surveys the older man.
"Hello, Ben." Luke adjusts the thick fabric around his shoulders with a slight trace of pomp. It's not a poncho— it's an actual hooded cloak with long, flowing sleeves. He looks like a monk. "Glad I could lure you away from the stuffy halls of academia. What do you think so far?"
Ben shrugs. "It might possibly be the medieval temple furthest south of the equator, which would be impressive if they hadn't already chipped the Ossus ruins out of the Arctic ice seven years ago." I should have been there, is what he doesn't say, although he's sure Luke's thoughts are running in a similar vein. "It could be older than Jedha but, somehow, I doubt it." The masonry that Anakin Skywalker's expedition had uncovered amidst the shifting sands of Taklamakan in the early seventies had been estimated to predate Stonehenge by thousands of years. You couldn't beat that, although Ben had once assumed he'd be able to.
"Oldest. Farthest." Luke snorts. "This is what I cordially detest about our lot. We compare and compare, running ourselves ragged. We never enjoy our discoveries simply for what they are— testaments to the human condition. But, anyway, I hope you stick around. You just might be pleasantly surprised."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Ben demands.
Luke glances at Rey, and something secret passes between them. Her eyes flicker to the monastery on the hill.
"That's a discussion for the morning," Luke tells Ben. "You should get settled in before anything else."
Ben's about to protest, about to demand answers, but he'd flown into Auckland from Boston, hopped onto a local flight to Christchurch, and then Poe had picked him up. The forty-five-minute trek over the switchbacks with his luggage hadn't done him any favors, either, and now his sweat is cooling rapidly as the nighttime temperature plummets. He's jet-lagged, exhausted, starving, and freezing his ass off. Getting settled in becomes a more tantalizing prospect with each second that passes.
"I'll show you to our tent, Dr. Solo," Rey chimes in.
With his free hand, Ben picks up the bag that Poe had dropped and follows Rey to one of the bright orange pyramids. It takes a while for his fatigued brain to process her choice of words and, when it does, he nearly drops everything he's carrying.
"Our tent?" he repeats.
Now that they've ventured out of earshot, Rey's quick to shelf the polite act. "Each tent can house two people each, and we brought eight. I was fine sharing with Dr. Skywalker's nephew— I didn't know it was you."
Ben groans to himself. He's about to spend two weeks on a godforsaken island in close quarters with the one-night stand he never expected to see again, who just so happens to be a student under his uncle's tutelage. Fucking wonderful.
Rey unzips the tent flaps and shines her flashlight inside, revealing a sleeping bag on the left and an empty space for his on the right, separated by a neat row of luggage, a portable gas heater, and a battery-operated lamp.
"It's not Chez Kanata," Ben snarks, "but, then again, what is?"
"You're a riot." She dumps his bag onto the floor. "I thought we agreed not to talk about that."
"We agreed to pretend it never happened. Therefore, the correct response should be that you've certainly never been to Chez Kanata and you've certainly never hooked up with a stranger there. I was testing you, Miss Niima, and you failed."
Ben's needling her because he's cold and cranky and tired, and spreading a horrible mood around is what he does best. He hadn't counted on Rey being able to give as good as she got, though, and bravado perishes a quick death in his throat when she suddenly peers up at him, her vapid, doe-eyed expression caught in the flashlight's harsh glare.
"I'm sorry, Professor," she simpers in a breathless, higher-pitched voice. "I'd hate to be punished for my mistake."
He stares down at her, a flush that is equal parts anger and embarrassment heating his cheeks. Rey wearing a bulky, shapeless parka and spouting lines straight out of a bad porno should have no effect on him, but it does, hitting him right in the libido, conjuring a wealth of the kind of fantasies that he's never allowed himself to entertain in the past.
Before he can muster any semblance of a retort, her pink lips curl in vindictive triumph, dissipating the illusion of schoolgirl innocence, and she shoulders him out of the way as she heads to the fire pit, leaving him in the dark.
It's going to be a long couple of weeks.
The clock struck midnight, and the bar went nuts. Christmas greetings in various languages split the air, along with the clink of glasses and the sound system's stirring, tinny rendition of L'enfant au tambour.
Rey was on her feet and halfway in Ben's lap, her arms looped around his neck as she chased the taste of cherry brandy on his lips. She had no idea who'd made the first move after they whittled the bottle down to half empty, but that was unimportant when he was running the flat of his palm down her spine to knead at her ass and his tongue was sweeping so filthily into her mouth.
A proper French kiss, Rey thought, and then she started giggling.
Ben pulled away from her, brown eyes half-lidded— she vaguely remembered taking off his spectacles and setting them down on the counter. "What?" he asked in a husky voice that went straight to her cunt.
"Nothing," Rey slurred. He didn't need to know about her corny sense of humor. He didn't need to know anything other than the fact that she was wet for him and it was high time she jingled his bells.
A new song emanated from the speakers. Rey whipped her head around to gawk at the waiter manning the iPod behind the bar, her jaw unhinging in horror.
Ben pressed his lips to her neck, stifling a laugh. "Don't tell me you're one of those people who think hating the new era of Disney animation constitutes a personality trait."
"Shut up, I love Tangled," Rey snapped, although it was hard to put much ire into it when his wandering hand had slipped beneath her shirt, wriggling between their bodies to caress the bare skin around her navel. " This one is overrated, that's all. No hard feelings."
"That's fine, I am more than happy to explain why Frozen is my favorite film," said Ben, nipping at her throat.
"Please tell me you're joking because, if not, that's the deal-breaker right there." She moved as if to extricate herself from him but he was so much faster, clamping his arm around her waist.
"I'm joking," he said hurriedly.
"Smart man. Now, let's take this party upstairs."
Ben wakes up late his first morning on Ahch-To. He'd told himself the night before as he unrolled his sleeping bag that he'd just lie down for a few minutes and then grab a bite to eat— and the next thing he knows is Luke shaking him out of slumber because it's eight A.M. and they're heading out in half an hour.
By the time Ben's put on his thermals and layers, laced up his boots, shrugged into his puffer jacket, and stumbled out of the tent, he's absolutely ravenous. The sun has just started to rise, its weak, watery light darting through the busy encampment, and Rey eyes him skeptically as she hands over a paper plate heaped with fried eggs, beans, and pan-toasted bread.
"Haven't you got a shell?" she asks. "It's windy up top."
Ben clutches his puffer tighter around his frame in self-defense. "My shell jacket isn't as warm as this one."
"So put the shell over the puffer—"
He raises an eyebrow at her. He'll look ridiculous, and they both know it. "I won't dignify that with a response."
Rey pops a slice of toast into her mouth. "Suit yourself," she says, cheeks bulging.
He sits on the grass at her feet and eats off the plate she'd given him, chasing the runny beans around with a spork, the camper's best friend. It's not a delicious breakfast by any means, but it's filling and somehow still warm. He feasts like a king, washes it all down with a mug of black tea that Rey pours for him from the kettle over the fire pit.
It's not that Ben isn't grateful, but her behavior's done a complete 180 and it's jarring. "Why are you serving me?"
Rey lifts an alarmingly cute, freckled nose in the air. "I'm Dr. Skywalker's assistant. It's my duty to ensure the comfort of his esteemed nephew— whom I've never met before, by the way."
"In that case, Miss Niima," Ben says, because he apparently learned nothing from his defeat at her hands last night, "please make some coffee."
Scowling at him, Rey appears to take an inordinate amount of satisfaction in replying, "We're all out. Poe's flown back to the mainland, though, and he promised to bring a crate of instant on the next supply run."
"I know. I heard you when you told him to." I just wanted to piss you off.
"Oh, you weren't too busy huffing and puffing on that tiny hill?"
It's Ben's turn to scowl. "I should have let you carry all my bags."
"I still could've handled it." Rey makes a show of flexing, which would have been funny because she's totally covered up but the thing is—
— The thing is, Ben knows what her bare arms look like, how toned they are, how they'd folded over the sheets when he took her from behind in her dingy hotel room on the French Riviera, his teeth digging into the round of her shoulder as she sobbed and begged. He has kissed the lean muscles of those arms and the dimples of those elbows again and again, in his dreams.
And she obviously doesn't care. Hell, she'd probably laugh in his face if he ever told her— which he never can, anyway, because he's a professor and she's a student and it might not be as unethical compared to, say, her being an undergrad, but it's still— iffy. Because she's his uncle's student. Because he has an older colleague who's on his third grad student wife. Because even the academic circles aren't immune from locker room talk and the grad students are fair game precisely because they're not undergrads and so it's not as reprehensible to play out all those power fantasies—
"I'm sorry, Professor. I'd hate to be punished for my mistake."
Ben gets to his feet. This conversation is finished. It has left him feeling more of a fool than he already was.
Luke claps his hands together, calling for attention. Everyone else looks up from cleaning the rudimentary mess area, securing the tents, and fixing their gear. "Well, it's a nice day for it," Luke begins, smiling wryly when his shivering audience groans. "I'd like you all to meet the newest member of our team— my nephew, Dr. Ben Solo, of Arkanis University's history department."
"Arkanis?" scoffs a woman with graying blonde curls. "I'm surprised Snoke let one of his boys out to play."
"Now, now, Dr. D'Acy," Luke gently admonishes, "we can hardly expect favorable results if we keep speaking ill of one another's superiors— even the superiors that deserve it."
God, Ben thinks, I'm going to get fired.
But he no longer feels any pressing need to rush to Snoke's defense. He's suspected for a long time now that his loyalty has waned, and this is further confirmation. Whatever respect he'd once felt for his mentor— whatever debt of gratitude— had died with Han Solo.
Luke speeds through the rest of the introductions and Ben tries not to let his brows disappear into his hairline, but it's hard going. He'd assumed this was a British archaeological expedition spearheaded by Yavin University, but the team also consists of zoologists from Gatalenta College in California.
"Dr. Holdo, Dr. Garr, and Miss Tico are here to study the porgs," Luke explains. "The Chiss Ascendancy grants research permits only once in a blue moon, so Amilyn called in a favor to me."
Holdo shakes Ben's hand. "I'm an old friend of Leia's." Her hair is dyed bright purple beneath a stylish wool bonnet. "You were a baby the last time I saw you, before I moved to the West Coast. Running around with a power drill while your nanny gave chase, trying to get you to put some clothes on—"
The tips of Ben's ears turn red. Beside him, Rey disguises a snicker as a hasty cough.
Holdo turns solemn, gripping Ben's fingers in what she probably thinks is a comforting squeeze. "I was very sorry to hear about your father. I was conducting fieldwork in the Amazon basin when it happened, so I couldn't make it to the funeral—"
"That's all right," Ben interrupts shortly. "I didn't go, either."
Something falters in Holdo's expression but she soon proves that she isn't the type to take anyone's bullshit, releasing his hand and offering him a chipper smile. "Oh, well, that's all right, then."
Luke quickly clears his throat. "We ought to get moving, I think."
Ben falls in line with the rest of the team, ignoring the speculative glances that Rey casts in his direction as they begin the long trek up the hill.
The stairs were floating beneath Rey's feet. She wasn't too bothered by such an inexplicable break in the laws of physics because Ben was enthusiastically taking every opportunity to cop a feel as they absconded to her room with what was left of the brandy bottle— which almost slipped from her clumsy grasp when Ben shoved his tongue into her mouth at the same time that his ridiculously huge hand covered her entire left breast through her shirt and bra, rolling her nipple between thumb and forefinger with enough pressure that her knees bucked out from under her.
"Oh, fuck," Rey gasped, and she would've fallen backwards off the banister if Ben hadn't lifted her up by the waist and transferred her to the more secure edge of the staircase, against the wall. He was on her again as soon as her spine hit the wood paneling, licking and sucking his way down her neck while she ground desperately against him, her fingers twisting into his dark hair.
In the end, it was an emphatically cleared throat that pierced through the haze of liquor and lust. Rey stilled, her eyes flying wide open at the sight of a family of scandalized blond tourists at the bottom of the steps. The mother had a hand over her child's eyes while the father glared at Ben and Rey.
Drunk Ben was... fantastically shameless. "Merry Christmas!" he called out, scooping Rey into his arms and bridal-carrying her up the rest of the stairs as she giggled into his chest.
"Americans," Rey heard the father snort in disgust, which only made her laugh harder.
"Anyone else smell that?"
The person who asks is Finn Bates-Evans, one of Rey's fellow grad students who's also a burgeoning archaeologist. No sooner has the question left his lips when Ben catches it, too— an oily, fishy odor, cut by something earthy and sweet that's reminiscent of ambergris.
A gaggle of small, rotund shapes scrambles up the side of the cliff, spilling onto the expedition's path and filling the air with burbling cries.
"Porgs!" Rose Tico squeals in delight, shoving past Ben in her haste to reel off photograph after photograph with the camera dangling from her neck.
The team stops in their tracks, everyone digging phones out of coat pockets to document this amazing moment. Holdo murmurs observations into a tape recorder while her colleague, Tai-Lin Garr, hurriedly scribbles away in a field journal. Finn and Rey act like teenagers, taking silly selfies with the animals in the background, daring each other to reach out and touch one.
Fuck, maybe she is a—
Ben panics, trying to remember how old he'd been when he was a thesis short of a master's degree. No, Rey has to be in her twenties at least. That would still make him a decade older than her, but—
A slight weight settles on the tip of his boot. Ben looks down, and a pair of huge black eyes peers curiously up at him.
There's a porg sitting on his toes.
While he's not in the animal sciences, Ben has to admit that it's kind of— cool— to come face-to-face with a species that very few people have seen. Amicuscula porgerata, of the family Alcidae, was officially discovered by Chiss biologists in the latter half of the sixteenth century, although there had been accounts in sailors' logs long before that. Endemic to Ahch-To, their closest living relative is the Atlantic puffin. And they're cute. Almost disgustingly so.
"Look at them." Rose sounds like she's on the verge of tears as a couple of porgs cling experimentally to the hem of her trousers with their stubby wings. "They exhibit no fear response because they've never had any natural predators. Shit." Her face crumples. "We have to protect them."
Finn wraps an arm around his girlfriend's shoulders and kisses the top of her head. "Ticked one off the bucket list, eh, babe?"
"A true auk," Holdo says in wonder. "There's footage of them gliding under water but they absolutely waddle on land."
"We've been here a week but this is the first time we've seen them up close," Garr muses. "Perhaps Dr. Solo is our good luck charm."
"They certainly like him, at any rate," Luke remarks. A handful of the creatures have flocked around Ben, some gnawing at his shoelaces, one hopping up and down in a vain attempt to reach the shiny zipper of his coat, others content to chirp and coo inquisitively up at him.
"Shoo," Ben ventures, to no avail.
The grad student contingent's sudden burst of laughter is punctuated by Rey's startled exclamation as several of the porgs around her feet start moving at the same time, effectively herding her towards Ben. He can do nothing but stare blankly at her radiant features as she's brought into his orbit, her eyes reflecting the surrounding greenery shot through with shards of winter sunlight. She's looking at him, too, mirth fading from the lines of her mouth, replaced by something both puzzled and indefinable.
There's a clicking sound from somewhere far away. Luke's just taken a photo of the two of them, and he's grinning broadly at his phone screen. "This is adorable. I'll send it to Leia."
"You had better not," Ben growls, but Luke dismisses him with a wave and resumes the ascent.
The rest of the team follows, Rey scurrying like she can't get away from Ben fast enough. The porgs trail after them for a while before losing interest and disappearing into the long grass.
Ben was strong. That would end up being one of the things that Rey remembered most in the empty months to come. He carried her down the second-floor hallway like she weighed nothing, and for a few brief moments her intoxicated mess of a self indulged how it felt to be safe, to be cared for by someone else.
She couldn't get used to it, however. She was never going to see him again after this.
It took some effort to fish her room key out of her pocket, considering that she was still scooped up in his arms as he stood at her door and one of her hands was occupied with the brandy bottle. It took more effort to fit said key into the lock, because she could barely feel her fingers but registered— as keenly as if they were shockwaves— each press of his full lips to her temple and her cheek as he bent his head to scatter sloppily affectionate kisses all over the side of her face.
At last, the knob turned and the door swung open. Rey beamed up at Ben in triumph.
"Good girl," he slurred, raspy and deep, and her heart sang.
Tugging at his collar, she brought his mouth to hers for another searing kiss. With their lips still locked, he bore her over the threshold, kicking the door shut behind them.