Freezing starts slow, four hundred meters above sea level. The exertion of traversing a never-ending parade of ancient stone steps causes Ben to sweat through his layers, but it's no match against the wind. Strong currents of air blow in from the glaciers of Antarctica, battering his limbs like a thousand fists made of ice.
The rest of the team is oblivious to his predicament. Some happily chatter away while others save their breath as they plow upwards, but they all look downright toasty in their fleece-lined shell jackets. He falls back, unnoticed, behind Holdo and another one of Luke's students named Kaydel. "This is a strange little island," the older, purple-haired woman remarks to her companion. "A latitude of negative fifty-four degrees south and yet, according to Chiss weather reports, it's never snowed. Not once."
"Won't be the first time meteorological anomalies have been detected at these old religious sites, Doc," Kaydel crisply replies. "The annual fire whirl at the Mustafar ruins, the daily sun pillar behind the mountains near Jedha, Catatumbo lightning over Thule, moonbows every darn night at the Acablas dig— I could go on."
"Yes," Holdo says, "but those are Jedi and Sith temples, exclusively. The monastery here on Ahch-To is... something else."
Although Ben can barely hear the two women over the adrenaline pounding in his ears, his interest is piqued. All ruins with similar inscriptions to the one his grandfather had unearthed are called Jedi temples, after Jedha, while those whose walls bear the same alphabet as the original Massassi site are called Sith. It makes things simpler, but no one knows for sure if that's what the two religious orders are actually called.
Ben had gone to Venezuela on an Arkanis University expedition and seen Catatumbo lightning with his own eyes. The Thule ruins are underwater, swallowed up by the river mouth emptying into Lake Maracaibo, and the nearly ceaseless blitz is dramatic and bright, visible from at least four hundred kilometers away and producing immense quantities of pale blue ozone. It had called to something in Ben's soul, that storm. As he gazed out at the waters that churned beneath a dark, amethyst-tinged sky, he'd never felt so small and yet so understood all at once.
Holdo and Kaydel soon outpace him, and he's left to bring up the rear alone. The crumbling staircase leading to the monastery zigzags lazily along the hill, crude pillars marking every fifteen steps or so. Ben turns a corner and stops short because Rey is there, perched on one of the pillars that has been fractured to a tenth of its original height, either by time or an earthquake or stonemasons going on strike, or something. She's taken off her gloves and she very emphatically does not notice him, inspecting her bare right hand like it contains the secrets of the universe.
Ben drifts closer. He's long since pocketed his glasses, as they'd fogged up due to the sweat dripping down his brow, and so he has to squint to catch sight of the thin scratch on her palm, weeping droplets of red blood.
"I think you should put a band-aid on that," Ben says.
"Nah, I just told the others to go on without me for kicks." After that initial flash of sarcasm, Rey pointedly shows him the band-aid she's already holding in her uninjured hand.
He's rankled enough by her unnecessary antagonism to briefly contemplate walking past her, abandoning her to fend for herself. As soon as the thought occurs to him, though, he's filled with shame. "Here. Let me."
"It's fine. Look, I know everyone's eager to get to the site and I'd much rather not slow people down because I stupidly cut my hand on a rock—"
"Miss Niima," Ben sternly interrupts and, oh, God, he's using his professor voice, why on Earth— "I am tired and out of patience and quite possibly hypothermic. Allow me to help you."
Rey blinks up at him, hazel eyes wide and petal-pink lips slightly parted. After what seems like an eternity, she offers a stiff nod, along with the band-aid. He peels off his gloves, dumping them unceremoniously into her lap, and takes the band-aid, his mood worsening at the heat and static that bloom where his fingertips brush against hers. She must feel it, too, judging by the wary expression that hoods her features, sharpening when he drops to one knee in front of her.
"You have something to disinfect this with?" Ben asks gruffly.
"My pack," Rey mutters, nodding to the blue Patagonia Nine Trails 28L at her feet.
He fishes out a small bottle of rubbing alcohol, pops it open, and takes her injured hand in his. There's nothing but the whine of the katabatic gusts and the roar of the distant surf, and then Rey's tiny intake of breath as Ben splashes alcohol on her wound. He applies the band-aid gingerly, his exposed fingers as well as hers shaking in the bitter cold. The sight of her small hand all but engulfed by his palm stirs an odd sort of protectiveness within him, and he suddenly wants nothing more than to press a soothing kiss to the bandaged area, and to the delicate veins of that upturned wrist, and to the calluses on those slim fingers.
Instead, he slips her gloves back on for her, shielding her hands from the biting air currents and his baser intentions, the fleshy band-aid peeking out through the tear in the brown wool that the rock had cut. But he can't stop the "Good girl" that spills from his lips in a low rasp. He tells himself it's to annoy her, but maybe there's also a vindictive part of him that wants to remind her of that night. It's that dark streak of his that tends to manifest at the worst possible moments, defying all common sense.
Rey snatches her hand back, a crimson blush staining the apples of her cheeks. She's trembling all over, although he can't figure out whether it's from anger or the chill. Without another word, she gets to her feet and storms away, shouldering her pack mid-stride, and this time Ben only has his big, fat mouth to blame.
"Well, that could have gone better," he says out loud.
Stalks of feathery grass bob in the wind, as if nodding their agreement.
Although dilapidated and smelling faintly of tobacco, Rey's suite at Chez Kanata was not without its charms. The pattern of blue geraniums and dancing fairies on the faded wallpaper was whimsical and the antique lace curtains provided a welcome touch of luxury, drawn back to frame a sliver of the Takodana coast illuminated by beach lanterns and Christmas lights shining in through the window, the waters of the French Riviera glimmering like a sea of stars.
Housekeeping had made the bed while Rey was out. They needn't have bothered because, unless she missed her guess, it was just going to get messed up again.
"Put me down," she ordered Ben, who stopped in his tracks and looked at her like she'd just kneed him in the groin.
"Why?" he croaked, sounding so abjectly vulnerable that she hurried to kiss his hurt away, tightening her arms around his neck. She tried to explain that they had to take their shoes off so they wouldn't track sand all over the sheets, but the eager way he swept his tongue into her mouth left her liquor-soaked brain quite fried.
"Shoes," was all she could muster.
"Oh." He brushed another quick peck over her lips. "Right."
He set her down on the edge of the bed, situating his glasses on the nightstand before sitting beside her as she placed the brandy bottle between them. It was torture— it was complete and utter torture— to do something as menial as taking off shoes and socks when all she wanted was to jump his bones. One bone in particular.
Eventually, though, they'd both kicked their footwear aside— Ben's left shoe went flying straight across the room, which made Rey giggle, which in turn made him grin. He really had the most beautiful, crooked smile, and her heart fluttered dangerously at the sight of it as he uncapped the bottle and took another swig, his brown eyes never leaving her face. When their lips met again, the decadent flavor of cherries and booze was even more pronounced, and Rey moaned low in the back of her throat as it went straight to her head.
Ben spread her out on the mattress, plying her with kisses so deep they made her toes curl. Now that they were horizontal, she was even more breathtakingly aware of how massive he was, of how tiny she felt underneath those wide shoulders and that broad chest, those rangy hips, those thighs like tree trunks. Yes, she thought, absinthe and tequila and brandy coalescing in her mind like swirls of fog and birthing nonsensical musings, cover me. Mediterranean, rain over me.
Bit by bit they shed their clothes. A slow process, given the fact that they couldn't seem to stop kissing for very long. Rey managed to fiddle with the light switches as well, such that— by the time she and Ben had stripped off their underwear— the only illumination came from the bulb hanging over the entryway and from the Christmas decorations glinting in through the window, tangling the waves of Ben's sable hair in nets of red and green and gold.
He knelt between her spread legs, his dark eyes devouring her naked body and lingering on her breasts as he palmed his erection. "Do you have any idea," he murmured in the huskiest voice she had ever heard, "what I want to do to you right now?"
It sounded like a promise and a warning all at once. Rey gulped, her gaze dropping to his cock. She'd suspected he'd be well-endowed, but to actually see it, to watch it twitch and swell with every stroke of his fist— a nervous thrill soared up within her, excitement bordered by trepidation. A pleasantly stimulating mix of emotions that she hadn't felt since her first time.
"I'm going to need a lot more foreplay," Rey blurted out, because apparently the alcohol had not only rid her of her inhibitions, but it had totally demolished all her filters as well. "Since you're, you know, above average."
Ben blushed. This attractive man with the muscles of a Greek god and a stupidly big dick actually blushed, ducking his head to press a chaste kiss to her knee, and Rey's heart just— cramped. There was really no other word for it, this tightness in her chest.
"Wait," he said, his voice muffled into her skin, "what's average?"
She rolled her eyes. "It would be far more pleasurable for both of us if we stroked something aside from your ego."
He laughed, changing the subject to the other thing she'd declared. "Foreplay, you say? I'm more than happy to provide." And, before she knew it, he'd lain down on the bed and he was beside her and then he was under her, those large hands maneuvering her body atop his. "I believe you mentioned something about wanting to sit on my face?"
Ben's a hundred meters from the summit when he's forced to concede that he might quite possibly be in trouble. The wind's gotten worse as he's gone higher and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. He's pulled his hood over his cap and zipped his collar up as far as it can go, but the cold still stings his nose and cheeks and easily slices through the lining of his coat. His steps are sluggish and his breath is coming out in short, painful bursts.
Plus, he's getting sleepy. Which, at a high altitude in the depths of winter, is a sure sign that one is irrevocably fucked.
He turns a corner and Rey is there. Again? D é j à vu, Ben thinks. Already seen. A prophecy in hindsight, or an anomaly of memory. But this time Rey is leaning against the pillar, not sitting on it, and her arms are crossed and she looks like she's been waiting for a while.
"There you are," she huffs, annoyed. "Thought you'd taken a tumble down the slopes or gotten swarmed by porgs again."
Her words mean she'd been glancing over her shoulder. Her words mean she'd grown concerned when she could no longer see his figure further down the path. A strange joy pierces through Ben's numbness— he can't remember the last time someone was worried about him. He opens his mouth without knowing what he's going to say, but it wouldn't have mattered in any case because his teeth start chattering, thwarting all attempts at speech.
Rey pales, a loss of color that emphasizes her freckles. "I told you to wear a shell! It's not enough to layer up on this island, you need to keep the wind out, too—" Grabbing him by the wrists, she tugs him behind the pillar with surprising strength. The tall rock acts as a buffer from the glacial howl, and the fact that they're now a mere few inches from falling off the ledge is a small price to pay for this respite. Grumbling about his idiocy under her breath, she rubs her gloved hands up and down the sides of his arms and all along his torso in brisk, purposeful motions. He just stands there, watching her irate little face as she coaxes a semblance of warmth back into his veins. She really is so lovely— he'd known that in France and he knows it here at world's end.
"Hold on to me," Rey orders, turning around so that her back is to him.
Ben complies with the dazed obedience of a man in a waking dream, wrapping his arms around her waist from behind and burrowing his nose into the crook where her neck meets her shoulder. She burns in his embrace, his own personal space heater, and he's got half a mind to cling to her for all eternity, to forever stay like this.
It doesn't last, though— she's fumbling with her pack, and soon she's wriggling to face him once more and he has to let her go. A blanket is draped over his shoulders, a thermos thrust into his hands.
"Drink up," Rey tells him.
"Not done bossing me around, I see," Ben japes before his brain catches up to his mouth and, Jesus, she could probably shove him off the cliff right this instant and make it look like an accident—
Remarkably, though, she keeps her cool. Maybe concern for his life has softened her edges, or maybe she's just not the type to kick a man when he's down. He'll never be able to figure out which. "I have no idea what you mean, Dr. Solo," Rey says, almost airily. "I've never met you before."
A sardonic half-smile twists at the corner of Ben's mouth. He sips from the thermos, which, it turns out, is full of black tea, more warm than hot but ambrosia nonetheless in his current state. Rey fastidiously avoids even the slightest of glances in his direction as he drinks; she chooses to look out over the ocean instead, and, for him, time passes with a careful languor, with the Pacific reflected in her luminous eyes. Try as he might, he can't shake his memories of another coast, another year.
"Let's get moving," Rey says after a while. "The summit's not that far off— it's nearer than base camp, at any rate— and you can take shelter inside the temple while I run down and get your windbreaker." Ben starts to protest, but she stops him with her next statement that has a ring of finality to it. "It's the most practical solution."
Ben grimaces. "I'm uncomfortable with the thought of you wearing yourself out due to my own lack of foresight."
"It's quite fine, really. I now have the right to say I told you so— that'll keep me warm for the next two weeks."
"Miss Niima," he sighs, recognizing her quip for the deflection that it is.
"Dr. Solo," she returns, both exasperated and mocking, "I do this a lot. Believe it or not, it's sort of my hobby. Finn and I tackled the Welsh 3000s last year, and the year before that we did both Lake District 24 Peaks and the Cairngorms."
It takes Ben an embarrassingly long time to realize that she's talking about mountains. About climbing mountains. Dear God, she was one of those people.
"This cliff doesn't even top out at a thousand meters," Rey concludes, "so I'll be all right, I promise."
"I had no idea we had an ibex on our team," Ben deadpans.
She snickers. "Yeah, I crave that mineral."
"Never mind, old man." She makes a face at him and stuffs the thermos back into her pack, and he's so tempted to— to kiss her, or something. As a form of punishment, maybe. It's honestly kind of depressing, how much he wants, but, on the bright side, the return of his vile libido probably means that he's no longer in danger of turning into a human popsicle.
Rey is significantly more talkative as they resume the ascent. Logically, Ben's aware that she's only trying to keep him alert, ever on the lookout for signs of hypothermia, but it's nice, the sound of her voice. How she can't help but let enthusiasm— sincere, utter love— creep into her tone as she tells him about her favorite mountains and all the summits she wishes she could conquer one day. Everest. Machu Picchu. The Nordkante.
"I thought Elbrus was the tallest peak in Europe," Ben attempts to contribute.
"It's not about the height," Rey says dismissively. "Elbrus is a walk in the park, no previous experience required. The Nordkante, however— finest rock climb in the Alps, just sheer, clean granite. It's the experience more than the record, you know?"
No, Ben thinks, I don't. So much of his academic career has been spent scrambling alongside others in a race to that one discovery, that one breakthrough built on the backs of those who came before. So much of his life has been spent striving to stand tallest on the shoulders of giants.
We compare and compare, Luke had said yesterday, running ourselves ragged.
"You and my uncle share the same philosophies in life, I believe," Ben tells Rey.
She wrinkles her nose. "Ugh, really?"
"Forty years from now, you'll also be prancing around deserted subarctic islands in a cape."
"Well, as long as there's someone like Poe flying in on the regular to supply me with pizza and beer."
"Pizza and beer?" Ben echoes with a small laugh that sounds— that feels— genuine, and therefore odd.
"Sure. No matter what's going on in your life, I promise, pizza and beer will make everything better."
The easy camaraderie does what Rey probably intended for it to do— distract Ben from the cold and from the ache in his bones. But it doesn't mean his thighs aren't burning by the time they reach the summit.
Rose appears to be in a similar predicament— she's lying on her back, spread-eagled, on the rough platform at the top of the steps. "I'll never walk again," she moans.
"You could piggyback when we make the descent," Finn offers jokingly. He's kneeling beside her, meticulously unrolling a leather case of archeology tools on the ground.
"Don't say that if you don't mean it, Finn," Rose threatens. "Don't dangle hope and then take it away."
"We'd break our necks," her boyfriend surmises, "but at least we'll be together."
Rose snorts, hauling herself up into a sitting position. She waves at Ben and Rey by way of greeting. "My great-grandparents on my mother's side were from Sa Pa, in Lao Cai," she tells Rey conspiratorially. "They were farmers, scrambling up the rice terraces every day at the crack of dawn. They're probably rolling over in their graves right now."
"Or they're proud of you," Rey suggests with a hint of mischief, "because you're on your way to becoming almost like a real doctor."
Finn bursts out laughing as Rose groans. Ben hangs back awkwardly, the inside joke making him feel like he's peering into the window of a house where he's been denied admittance— like inside jokes always do— but soon Rey is tugging at the sleeve of his coat, leading him over to Luke.
"Rose's mum and dad are surgeons," she explains to him. "It's a constant thorn in their side that neither of their daughters went to med school."
Luke is observing his team fan out through the ruins, his ridiculous cape flapping in the wind. "Finally." He nods at Ben and Rey. "I was about to send someone down to look for the two of you."
"I actually do have to head back down for a shell jacket," Rey says. "Dr. Solo's feeling the breeze."
Luke nods at once. "Of course, of course. Leia'll kill me if I don't return her son in one piece."
Ben's hands clench into fists. His uncle and this slip of a girl are talking about him like he's a troublesome child. Before he can admonish them, though, Rey turns to him expectantly and he finds himself grudgingly describing the bag where his shell is stashed, in the tent that they both share. And soon he's watching her figure disappear down the slope, her stride swift and certain over grass and stone.
Rey was nervous. She'd talked a big game earlier at the bar but the truth was that the sum total of her experience with this position amounted to Pornhub and her own fantasies. She couldn't exactly back down now, however, and so she clutched at the headboard, gingerly planting her knees on the pillow on either side of Ben's beautiful, angular face.
He took his sweet time— stroking her thighs, palming her ass— and, just as she was about to ask him what the holdup was, those thick fingers dug into the spurs of her hips and yanked her onto his waiting mouth.
Rey's world turned upside down. In a very, very good way.
In stark contrast to the lazy exploration of his hands, Ben's lips and tongue wasted no time in getting to the heart of the matter. He lapped at her long and deep, his wicked tongue drowning her core in a fresh wave of pleasure with every silken caress. Rey's spine arched as she threw her head back with a strangled cry, her hands flying to her breasts in a mindless bid for more stimulation as she writhed and bucked into his mouth.
"Tastes like heaven," Ben slurred, drunk on the brandy and on her, his dark eyes half-lidded and burning like coals, "my good girl, playing with her pretty little tits while she rides my face—"
Rey whimpered. It was too much, too fast. If she'd been sober, she would have wanted to stop, to shy back from all this abyssal delight before it swallowed her whole. But they didn't call it liquid courage for nothing, and so she gave herself up, gasping, undulating, chasing the heights, the edge, his worship.
It was almost an out-of-body experience. As if her sense of self had retreated to preserve her own sanity. She heard a voice that was too broken to be hers babbling a harebrained stream of sloppy encouragement, each syllable laced with intoxicated fervor— yes, there, more, so good, my God, you were made for this—
Was it her imagination, or did the man beneath her seem to tremble with each drop of praise that fell from her lips? Ben obeyed every instruction without missing a beat, going faster or slower when she told him to, sliding his long, thick fingers into her cunt when she demanded them. He had three crammed inside her, stretching her deliciously wide, when he took her aching clit between his plush lips and sucked and she—
— came, just like that, rearing up, then sagging forward and planting her hands on the wall for support, squeezing him between her thighs, clamping down on his fingers, listening to— feeling— him moan at the taste of her—
Rey collapsed. Just flat-out melted, her body a puddle of bliss and nothingness all the way down to the bone.
The shadowy interior of the monastery's main building is predictably frigid, with a slight hint of damp, but it's out of the wind and that's the important thing. Ben can't hold back a sigh of relief as he swaps his cap for a headlight and puts on his glasses.
"This way," Luke intones, leading him to the eastern wall of the place.
Ben stares at the engravings. He pulls out his phone and cross-checks with photos from various sites around the world. Then he stares at the engravings some more.
"This is Resh," he says, voice cracking just the slightest bit as he indicates a symbol that looks like the number seven, "a constant motif throughout the Jedha ruins. And this—" He points at a glyph that resembles a barbed hook— "is Dy, which was first found and cataloged at Mustafar."
"Aren't you glad you flew all the way out here?" Luke smiles, secret and strange in the dim light. "I told you I'd make it worth your while."
Ben can no longer speak, not even to issue a snappy retort. Jedi and Sith inscriptions plaster the wall from floor to ceiling, all jumbled together at the same site. The universe is suddenly so much bigger, so much grander— and far more beautiful and terrifying and mysterious— than he could ever have imagined.
Rey was falling, and then she was being lifted up and rearranged on the mattress, by the strongest arms and the loveliest hands that had ever held her, her body all pliant and warm and luxuriating in the afterglow.
Ben turned her over onto her stomach, propping up her hips with one of the pillows, and then he leaned in close to murmur in her ear as the smooth, hot skin of his cock grazed her backside. What he said— in a soft, gravelly voice rich with promise— made her shiver and close her eyes in anticipation.
"I think it's my turn to boss you around now."