Pressing down on the center of the ancient sun pattern had yielded not only windows but also a secret wall, stone panels gliding apart to reveal another set of runes over where— Ben realizes with a jolt— the entrance to the next passageway should be, as estimated from the blueprints provided by the Chiss government. Beside him, Rey's already whipped out her phone and is feverishly snapping photo after photo of the new engravings like they'll disappear any second. "Aurek, Kaph, Forn, Midwan—" she identifies each glyph under her breath, her hazel eyes shining in the sudden daylight that has flooded this section of the temple— "Dr. Solo, look, it's Jiaasjen, we've only ever found it carved into the base of Sith statues before, this is the first instance of it being part of a mural—"
Her enthusiasm is... infectious, for lack of a better word. Ben struggles to hold back a smile as his attention reluctantly drifts away from the wall to hone in on her, the momentous discovery eclipsed, somehow, by the way she's bouncing on her heels, utterly radiant with joy.
"Congratulations," he tells her, and he means it. Even if the hidden corridor leading to the balcony will continue to thwart them for the remainder of their time here on Ahch-To, Rey's thesis is already guaranteed to shake up the stodgy world of academe. After she graduates, she's going to have her pick of doctorate programs. Renowned universities from every corner of the globe will come knocking at her door.
Perhaps she'll consider Arkanis.
Ben suppresses the thought— the tantalizing bloom of possibility— almost as soon as it occurs. While there's a part of him that would, quite frankly, love nothing more than to once again find himself thrust into in Rey's orbit after this expedition, he also recognizes that this would be an exquisitely harrowing form of torture in itself. She would be even more off-limits to him than she is now and, besides, he doesn't think he can stomach what will happen to her boundless passion and optimism once Snoke has finished sinking his claws into her.
"If this is the door to the secret passageway and its mechanism operates on the same principle as the windows—" Rey's dulcet tones break through the mire of Ben's reverie, forcing his return to the present— "then we just have to find another pattern. We unlocked the windows with the sun, what unlocks a door?" She tilts her head, studying the runes with an intensity that is charming and frightening all at once. "A key... an arch..."
Ben hangs back, giving Rey free reign to work it out. He would normally be clamoring to impose his own methods in deciphering a find like this, he would normally be eager to stake an intellectual claim in whatever results might unfold, but there is something about watching Rey put her mind to task. He can't put a name to this something, exactly— all he knows is that it fascinates him like nothing else has in a long, long time.
"Dr. Solo?" Rey glances over at him. "What do you think?"
I think I'm doomed, he wants to say but doesn't. I think the curse of the pharaohs has nothing on you. I think you are my Egypt. Soon enough he is spared from having to reply at all when the rest of the team files into the temple, excited to see up close what other ancient secrets have been brought into the light of day.
"A fish nun," Rey deadpans, raising an eyebrow at Finn as they stand over the grid while preparations are made to head back down to base camp. The productive day is about to be capped off by a swift sunset, and they need to get moving soon to avoid having to navigate the treacherous stone staircase in the dark. But, first— "What do you mean, 'a fish nun'?"
"See for yourself." Finn peels back the canvas tarp protecting the half-unearthed statue from the elements, then hastily reattaches it before any of the professors can notice and admonish him. Rey manages to glimpse an admittedly very piscine head with a bulbous snout and a mournful expression encased by a wimple of sorts, all carved from granite.
"It looks like some sort of ceremonial mask," she ventures.
"I mean, yeah, it definitely is," says Finn. "But she'll always be the fish nun to me."
"She could be a primitive sea goddess."
"Wearing early medieval European headgear? Shit, that would be awesome."
"Hey, you never know— maybe the Europeans copied off of her," Rey posits with a laugh as they join Ben, Luke, and Rose at the edge of the platform. "Like how the veneration of Isis is said to have influenced Marian iconography, particularly the Nursing Madonna—"
"Is this The Da Vinci Code?" Rose asks. "It sounds like The Da Vinci Code."
"Oh, no," Luke groans as Ben suddenly whips around to narrow his dark eyes at the grad students. "Miss Tico, you woke the dragon, I'm afraid."
"I merely take issue that a suspense thriller would have the gall to market itself as presenting historical fact when it is based on nothing more than the delusions of that charlatan Plantard—" Ben starts to rail. And keeps on going.
Luke sighs and Finn and Rose duck their heads, the three of them hurrying down the staircase as quickly as possible. But Rey is... oddly entranced. She lets Ben walk ahead of her so that she's bringing up the rear as he viciously tears a work of fiction to shreds with all the burning, misplaced indignation that only a historian would feel, his deep voice carrying over the windswept grass and crumbled stone of Ahch-To. Maybe it's just that her chosen field of study has given her a predilection for nerdy men who care too much about things most people wouldn't even spare a passing thought for but, when Ben eloquently segues from the docetism prevalent in Gnostic Christianity to the exact coordinates of the Paris meridian, Rey can almost swear that her heart skips a beat.
By the time he launches into a diatribe about how Pope Clement V could not have possibly killed off the Knights Templar and thrown their ashes into the Tiber, considering that the last leaders had been burned at the stake on an island in the Seine by King Philip IV and, anyway, Pope Clement had moved the papal headquarters to Avignon, he'd been nowhere near Rome at the time— Rey is full-on smiling. She's biting her lip, dimples peeking out of the corners of her cheeks, and it's not a mocking smile, either, but something that carries shades of what is alarmingly close to genuine fondness, allowed to be unbridled because it's aimed at his back and there's no way he'll be able to see it.
He looks at her over his shoulder. Fuck. She acts fast, yanking her scarf up the lower half of her face.
"Anyway, enough about that," Ben grumbles, his glasses slipping down the bridge of his nose. "We need to discuss a game plan for tomorrow. What do you think of an earlier start?"
She can tell that he's frustrated by how their breakthrough had been cut short by the impending loss of daylight. She can tell because it had frustrated her, too. "How much earlier, exactly?"
Ben shrugs. "We can head up before dawn. That should give us enough time to reach the temple before sunrise."
"We'll have to run it by Dr. Skywalker first, but I'm in."
He flashes a pleased little half-smile that should not, should not render her temporarily breathless but, oh, it does, and she nearly collapses in relief when he turns away to focus on navigating the stairs once more.
Get it together, Niima, Rey tells herself sternly. He's a professor and she's a grad student, and even if that weren't constantly hanging over her head like the Sword of Damocles, nothing can happen between them ever again. She inadvertently made sure of that a long time ago.
Rey woke up to the silvery half-light of a winter morning on Takodana, Ben's bare chest underneath her cheek rising and falling with every gentle breath he took. Still drowsy, her consciousness still mostly wrapped up in the fog of dreams, she nuzzled at his pecs, inhaling the warm scent of him that surrounded her like the world's best comforter. He stirred slightly, his arms tightening around her in his sleep.
"Kira," he murmured.
And, just like that, it was as if a bucket of ice-cold water had been dumped over Rey's head. Her eyes flew wide open as reality set in. Last night had been— beyond words, but, if forced to describe it, she would have to explain how the connection had been so strong that her soul would probably bear the mark of it for all her days to come. There had been so many blazing, incandescent moments when it hadn't felt like just another one-night stand.
But it was. She'd picked him up at a bar— or maybe they'd picked each other up, she didn't know— and she'd given him a fake name and now it was over, it was Christmas morning, he was an American and she had to go back to her campus in England tomorrow, and—
And she was not going to wait until tomorrow. Rey came to that decision the moment she peered down at Ben, so softly handsome in sleep, and felt like she could stare at him forever, felt like she could spend her whole life tracing the constellation of beauty marks scattered across the planes and hollows of his face. If she didn't act fast, he was going to wake up with her still in the room, and they'd have to suffer through the awkwardness of a morning-after conversation before he inevitably put on his clothes and walked out of her life. Or, if by some miracle he decided to stay, it would only be until she admitted that she'd lied about her name, and then he'd be disgusted and he'd walk out. There was only one possible scenario where he didn't walk out of this hotel suite as her heart shattered in his wake, and that was if she walked out first.
Rey untangled herself from Ben's embrace, changed into a new set of clothes, and packed as quickly and as quietly as she could. She could only be thankful that the man apparently slept like the dead— he'd even started snoring by the time she'd finished rescrambling the combination on her luggage's padlock. The sound caught at her heart but she refused to waver, and she strode out the door without looking back.
Luke is unimpressed by Ben and Rey's proposal. "It'll be pitch-black," he warns them over a dinner of boil-in-the-bag chicken and rice, with a side of tinned fruit. "And if you think it's cold now, wait until you're hauling yourself up a cliff at four in the morning in the middle of winter."
"Time is of the essence," Ben argues. "Our research permit expires in a week. We need to find that passageway."
"We won't be unprepared," Rey promises. "We'll bring extra coats, first-aid kits, flares—"
"As well as our pacifiers," Ben sourly interjects, "because you seem to be laboring under the belief that we are infants who can't take care of ourselves—"
Luke holds up a placating hand. "All right, all right. Far be it for me to hinder the spirit of scientific inquiry. Just be careful." He shakes his head. "I knew the two of you teaming up would give me another white hair."
"He meant that as a compliment," Ben tells Rey, who grins in triumph before scarfing down what's left of her meal and going over to sit with her friends. Ben's not even halfway done with his rice— the woman eats like a whirlwind.
"You know, Ben, I've been meaning to ask," Luke says once it's just the two of them in their little corner by the fire pit, "have you and Miss Niima met before?"
Ben nearly chokes on his food. "No." He coughs, the tips of his ears turning red; he'd never been a good liar and he can only pray enough time has passed since they last saw each other that his uncle has forgotten all his tells. "Of course not. What makes you think we have?"
"It's just that—" Luke gestures vaguely in the air— "you're not a people person, kid. You've never gotten on with strangers. But you act like you're more comfortable around her than you've ever been around me or— or around anyone else in recent memory, really."
Your parents, is what he doesn't say, the unspoken words hanging heavy in the air.
"Perhaps I'm more comfortable around her because she minds her own business instead of commenting on my social foibles," Ben snaps, resorting to the defense mechanism afforded to him by sharp words even as a future wherein Luke sends him packing first thing tomorrow for not being able to keep it in his pants flashes before his eyes.
And this is where Ben starts to suspect that Luke may have learned something from the past, after all. Instead of pressing the issue or taking offense at his nephew's tone, Luke simply offers up a good-natured chuckle. "Point taken. I'll lay off. But, on a related note, I'm starting to wonder if it might not have been such a good idea to stick you both in the same tent."
"Uncle." Ben is absolutely horrified at where this conversation has gone— not to mention riddled with guilt. "You can't be insinuating—" That I'll sleep with her now, knowing all that I know now— "I wouldn't do that—" I would never have done it had I been aware— "The mere idea is preposterous." And I'm going to hell.
"I know, I know," Luke says, which, of course, makes Ben feels about a hundred times worse, "but it didn't occur to me until now that it might not be all that proper. It's something I should have considered before, but it never crossed my mind." For a moment, in the firelight, his expression takes on the befuddled misery of the consummate old bachelor.
"It will be fine," Ben says shortly, wondering how on earth he could have gotten himself into this mess. "You'll be excused the oversight since everyone knows you're basically a monk and, in any case, it's field work. Nobody's picky about sleeping arrangements during field work."
"I can't decide if that makes me feel better or like I've entered some kind of alternate dimension where you're the one talking me down." As if to emphasize that he's joking, Luke pats Ben's shoulder before the latter can retort. "Anyway, thanks, kid. Glad you're here."
Ben manages to— well, it's not a smile, he isn't smiling, but he isn't frowning, either, and that's honestly a huge step where Luke's concerned. "Me, too," he says, and means it, even though he can tell Luke doesn't quite believe him— or, to be more accurate, doesn't believe his nephew's happiness— such as it is— has to do with anything more than the temple and all its mysteries.
But Ben thinks that, even if the ruins had held no great breakthroughs, he'd still be glad to be here on Ahch-To. Because he's talking to his uncle again, in person, for the first time in years, and the night is beautiful for all that it's hellishly cold, the stars beaming down like silver rain and the light of the fire so soft that it seems to allude that anything can be forgiven.
And, of course, Luke has to open his mouth again and ruin the moment, because the man is allergic to going five minutes without making Ben's life a living hell. "So I have your word that you'll protect your virtue from my students, then?"
"For the love of God, Uncle Luke—"
Rey has climbed mountains in the dark before, enough times that, when she and Ben set out for the temple at three-thirty in the morning, she leads the way with confidence. A confidence that it takes her about half an hour to admit with grudging reluctance may have been slightly premature because— while forest trails are easy as there's always a branch or a rock to grab hold of and switchbacks are grueling but one can just forge on ahead without having to watch their feet all that much— an actual man-made staircase, at night, with its steps narrow and winding and worn down by centuries of exposure, is a different matter entirely.
She concentrates on putting one foot above the other, the beam of her flashlight trained on the cracked, ceaselessly ascending stone. The cliff is as black as tar everywhere the flashlight's glow does not reach, its shadows vast and deep and disorienting. And yet Ben is a steady, solid presence behind her, below her, urging her on.
"You know," he says in a conversational tone of voice once they've passed the tenth stone pillar, "this is a very, very stupid thing that we're doing."
Rey snorts. "This was your idea."
"There's not a single other living person around." Ben sounds like he's in awe. "It's just us." He pauses, and Rey, who's been part of many a partnered and group trek in her lifetime, waits for— "God, if you were all alone here and you fell and broke your leg, there'd be no one to help you."
There it is, like clockwork. "Someone always ends up saying that," Rey muses. " I end up saying that, sometimes, when I'm on a mountain I haven't climbed before. It's crazy to me, how people— how we are all mirrors of one another. How in some aspects we're just like everyone else in the world."
"As if all of humanity is just one soul echoing through different bodies and through time," says Ben and, yeah, also like clockwork, the existentialism and philosophizing have begun. "It's all this open space," Finn had remarked during another hike in times past. "It makes people think. That's why people keep seeing aliens in the desert."
In the present, Rey whistles. "Dr. Solo, you're a poet and you don't even know it."
"That was... unfathomably corny, Miss Niima."
"I'm not the one going on about how all of humanity shares one soul—"
She misses a step. She's too busy bantering with the hot professor she hooked up with last year to actually pay attention to where she's going and— as the sole of her boot scrapes desperately for purchase half a heartbeat too late, as her sense of balance disintegrates into a million glittering pieces, as her body starts to arc backwards down the steps with her eyes full of starry night sky, there's this wry little part of Rey that somehow has time to think, Yup, you totally deserve this—
But Ben doesn't let her fall. He catches her by the waist and braces her against him and she feels like she's just slammed into a brick wall, which, to be fair, isn't too far off the mark. His breath rasps against her ear and her heart pounds with the adrenaline of both a near-miss and the nearness. The clouds had parted sometime in the last few minutes and silver flickers all around them as the starlit grass blows in the icy breeze.
The thing is, Rey remembers the curl of these large fingers around her waist. She remembers the press of this body against hers, as well as the warm, woodsy scent that fills her nose. And it's ridiculous— she is ridiculous— but her eyes instantly fill with tears. Am I going to spend my whole life always missing strangers? she asks the Southern Hemisphere's winter constellations, spread out above her like a spangled rooftop. Is this my fate?
All too soon, Ben lets her go— no, he practically shoves her back onto the upper step, thrusting her away from him as if she were made of fire. But maybe, just maybe, his fingers had squeezed a little, sinking into the stiff material of her shell jacket, maybe they had caressed in vain the curve of her waist hidden beneath polyester and fleece. Maybe his breath had hitched, just for a second.
Or maybe she'd only been imagining all of it.
"Be careful," he mutters from behind her, a graveled oak-wine voice in the dark.
They climb the rest of the way without incident, and in total silence. He's jumpier around her now, to the point of standing as far away from her as he can whenever they stop for water. Rey knows it's for the best, knows that he in all likelihood wants to distance himself from the memories that their accidental contact had brought forth, but still her heart aches with loss.
Sunrise isn't until eight in the morning and so, when they finally haul themselves up onto the platform at half past six, their flashlights cut a stark path of illumination through the velvet blackness, the temple rising up, a sharp and forbidding hulk of gray, from the depths. Its entrance seems to stretch open wider than ever, a gaping mouth waiting to swallow them whole.
"The good thing about this being an uninhabited island," Rey says, her first words in what feels like an eternity, "is that there's minimal chance of Jason Voorhees leaping out at us. Probably," she adds in a less confident tone because it is very dark and she and Ben are very isolated from civilization.
"We're relatively near New Zealand, so Jason will have traded in his hockey mask for a rugby kit," Ben deadpans.
"Sexy," Rey quips before common sense can come to her rescue and hammer it into her head that she shouldn't make these kinds of jokes around professors, least of all a professor she's already slept with.
Ben glances at her with disdain but also with— there's something still and flat in his expression that she can't quite read. "Jason Voorhees, really?"
"Jason Voorhees in a rugby kit," Rey corrects. Seconds tick by and her brow wrinkles when he doesn't say anything. "So, that was what is commonly known as a joke in certain circles..."
"I know what a joke is." Ben is sullen and snappish enough that Rey has to wonder if, possibly, for the briefest moment in time, he'd been—
"You jealous, Dr. Solo?" Oh, God, why did I say that, talk about shooting the elephant in the room— Her headspace veers wildly from taking the piss to panicked, but she has no choice except to see it through because apologizing will only make things worse. "Of the Friday the 13th guy?"
"I never thought I would say this," Ben rumbles slowly, "but I liked it much better when we were talking about The Da Vinci Code."
Rey could have collapsed in relief. Just like that, he's moved them out of awkward territory, seamlessly taking command of the situation that her stupid mouth had gotten them into. She flashes him a grateful smile and there it is again, that indecipherable look on his face, like shutters being closed.
He steps back even though there's no need for it, even though they're already as far apart as two people can be without having to raise their voices to be heard by the other. He gestures at the temple waiting in the dark. "After you, Miss Niima."
Over the next few days, Ben and Rey fall into a tiring routine. They go to bed in outdoor clothes and start tackling the staircase at three-thirty in the morning, staggering out of their tent practically the moment the alarm goes off. Sometimes they stop to eat breakfast at the broken pillar where he'd bandaged her injured hand, but most days they wait until they're inside the temple, shoveling sandwiches and coffee into their mouths as they stare at the wall and try to make sense of it in the lamplight. When the sun has risen and is streaming in generously through the windows, they turn off the lamps and continue studying the runes, searching for patterns, tossing around ideas, barely acknowledging the rest of the expedition when they trudge up the summit and poke their heads into the temple to say hello. Since the team had already thoroughly documented the original set of wall engravings before Ben arrived, and because of the limited time that they have on the island, the other students and professors have staked out their own areas of interests— most of them concentrating on the excavation grid from where the fish nun and various tools and jewelry have been liberated and are now stored safely inside the Chiss outpost near base camp— but there are some afternoons when Luke and his colleagues come into help. It's not a big wall, though, so most of the time Ben and Rey are left to their own devices. And sometimes Rey gets stir-crazy and leaves to wander around the rest of the site and dirty her hands at the dig, but she always comes back before the day is done to rejoin Ben in observing and cataloging and gently feeling along the glyphs in the hopes of replicating their first success. Then, three hours before sunset, Luke gives the order to pack up, and they grudgingly trek down the cliff with the others, eat a hasty dinner at base camp, and catch a few precious winks of sleep before the cycle starts again the next calendar day.
It's exhausting work, taking a toll that is both mental and the physical, and Ben is— turning out to kind of love it, actually. It's been so long since he was last in the field. He can't believe he ever allowed himself to forget this feeling and he wonders how he could have managed to let it go at all.
Everything clicks into place on Friday, three days before their time is up and they have to leave Ahch-To or risk provoking a diplomatic crisis. Ben and Rey are inside the temple as usual and they're sitting on the floor, poring over photos of other Sith and Jedi ruins from around the world, trying to find any commonalities with this new panel. The sun is about to rise, the sky through the windows tinted gray and pink and peach.
For some reason, Ben's focus keeps zeroing in on one symbol in particular: Imdniji, affectionately referred to as "Big Bird" in academic circles because of its resemblance to a certain hieroglyph in Gardiner's Sign List— G5, which is the logogram of Horus, the falcon-headed god. It takes a while for Ben to even begin to suspect why he's being drawn to Imdniji today, and then he checks the date on his phone just to make sure.
"Hmm." He says this out loud, a nonsense sound that nevertheless reverberates in the silence, causing Rey to look up at him from her university-issued iPad screen.
"I just realized it's the fifteenth anniversary of the day I crashed my father's car." Ben's tongue is loosened by fatigue and lack of sleep; he's not even fully aware that he's talking. "He had a Corellian YT-1300, which is widely considered the ugliest and bulkiest SUV model in history, but he'd swear to anyone that it drove like a dream. He'd had that car forever, called it the Falcon. And one night when I was in high school, I got drunk and stupid and..." Ben trails off, remembering the hairpin turn and the lamppost, the screech of metal and the crunch of broken glass that had landed him in the hospital for weeks, and how his relationship with his father, which had already been starting to buck under the strain of teenage moodiness and rebellion, had never been the same after that. Then he forces himself back to the present, painfully conscious of Rey's eyes on him and, shit, why does he keep unburdening to her like she's the sounding board for every regret he's ever had in his life? She's a grad student who's had the misfortune to get saddled working with him, not his therapist. "I'm rambling. I'm sorry."
But Rey suddenly leans forward into the space between them. She'd taken off her gloves to better work the iPad— eyeing Ben's capacitive leather Muijos with no small amount of envy— and she places her bare hand over his covered wrist. "For what it's worth," she says, her hazel eyes plaintive in that way he's come to recognize they get when she's being earnest, and so, so clear and beautiful, "I'm glad you were with your father at the end. I'm glad you got to say goodbye."
Relaxing slightly even as his throat tightens with some odd emotion, Ben turns back to the photos. He examines a close-up of the section with the Imdniji rune at the Mustafar site, glances up at the wall here on Ahch-To where the same rune is sprinkled throughout, then swipes to the next photo, the one from Ossus, where the row of tiles bearing Imdniji is just barely visible over the arch leading to another chamber.
And that's when it hits him.
In hindsight, it's so simple that he can't believe they didn't figure it out on their first try. But, then again, that's usually how these things go.
"Miss Niima." His voice cracks like it's the dam to his burgeoning excitement, but he doesn't care. "A few days ago, you said the Jiaasjen glyph was previously found only on the base of statues."
Rey nods but is otherwise still, watching him like she can tell he's building up to something.
"Imdniji, meanwhile, occurs fairly often throughout any given site," Ben says, "but it is always, always found on entrance arches. And on doors."
The two of them leap to their feet at the same time, gadgets falling to the floor with a clatter, carelessly kicked away in their rush to get to the wall. They run their hands along every falcon-shaped glyph they see, arranged in a pattern that Ben sees now is reminiscent of the shape of wings. And, as a quiver runs through the building's foundations, as the wall splits in half to reveal the corridor behind it, moving with all the patient slowness of the ages, the falcon glyph pointing the way, Ben thinks of the stupid car that he'd totaled, he thinks of his father hooked up to an IV drip and using the last vestiges of strength to touch his son's face, he thinks of how coincidence can cease to be just that and, instead, take on the mantle of destiny.
And then Rey is grabbing hold of his hand and they're running through that corridor, towards the rising sun— because the door sealing off the balcony on the opposite end of the temple has opened, too, and the light veils everything in gold. Everything— the stone corridor and the circular chamber it leads into that in turn leads out onto the balcony, Rey's face and her hair and the faded mosaic of colorful tiles on the floor of the chamber, the horizon in the distance where the ocean meets the sky. Everything, everything.
"Ben, look." Rey points to the mosaic. Spread out at their feet are several lines of Jedi glyphs next to a collection of similarly arranged symbols from the Sith alphabet, and alongside them is a cuneiform script that is as familiar as a pulse to every scholar worth their salt. "It's Sumerian." Rey's crying from sheer relief, the weariness she's sustained over the past few days visibly melting away. "It's Sumerian, Ben."
And Ben takes one look at her and, without pausing to think, knowing only this moment and this joy, his racing heart caught up in some wild, desperate thrill, turns to face her and bows his head, and Rey surges up on her toes to meet him halfway, their lips colliding in the fierce light of a blazing sun as it banishes the last of the shadows and day breaks over the Pacific.