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into the great laugh of mankind

Chapter Text

"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.

Chapter Text

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."

 

"Pardon?"

 

"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."

Chapter Text

"The Chiss have known about this for ages," Luke tells Ben as the latter stares at the glyphs carved into the wall, sharpened by the bluish-white beam of his headlight. "They made their own catalog of the inscriptions and treated them as one language, called Ch'acuzah. Because a policy of isolationism had been in place under the Sabosen Dynasty for hundreds of years, they didn't breathe a word to the international community when Anakin's team unearthed Jedha or when Dr. Mace Windu found the Massassi site a few years later. Times have been slowly changing for the Chiss after Thrawn's revolution, though, and it was the Grand Admiral himself who invited me to come and make sense of these ruins."

 

"Why?" Ben asks absentmindedly, still unable to believe his eyes even as they feast on what is spread out before him, the ancient engravings stretching on for as far as vision allows and even beyond that, into the shadows where the field of artificial light cannot penetrate.

 

"It's a gesture of goodwill. Thrawn is planning to open up the borders, and he thought cooperating with the U.K. in a scientific venture would be a good first step."

 

"No, I mean—" Ben hesitates. "Why you? Why Yavin University, instead of CIfA or the British Museum or— well, Oxford?" It's a testament to how this miraculous find has softened his disposition towards his uncle that he adds, "No offense."

 

"None taken," Luke calmly replies before answering Ben's question in grave, ponderous tones. "The soldier once known as Mitth'raw'nuruodo, who overthrew the last Sabosen king, considers himself a modernist. However, he told me that he is not so blind as to fail to recognize when coincidence ceases to be just that and, instead, takes on the mantle of destiny. During the Age of Sail, the Chiss had a word for preternaturally gifted navigators, those who could find their way on the open seas using nothing more than the position of the stars above. Do you know what that word is?"

 

Ben shakes his head.

 

"Ozyly-esehembo." Luke flashes another one of his strange and secretive half-smiles. "Translated into English, it means 'sky-walker.'"

 

*

 

Rey jogs up the last few steps of the winding stone staircase, her lungs fit to burst. She'd started running halfway to the top, Ben's jacket in her arms, telling herself that it's because the temperature's dropped and a little more exertion would keep her warm.

 

The truth, though, is that it had been such a startlingly intimate thing, rifling through Ben's bag while the familiar scent of the fabric softener he used assailed her senses. Ever since he arrived on Ahch-To, she'd been doing her best to keep her memories of that Takodana night at bay, but they'd caught up with her as she trekked alone through the long grass. The best sex of her life, the biggest hands that had ever been on her body, the warmest eyes that had ever gazed upon her face, all back-lit by Christmas decor and Mediterranean stars...

 

Rey's trying to outrun the past. She's almost succeeding except that, by the time she reaches the summit, she's holding Ben's jacket tighter to her chest, remembering how it had felt to hold him. She never thought she'd see him again but he's ruined her for all other men and, oh, God, he's a professor, and she'd fucked it up before it even started.

 

Tears sting her eyes. She can't let them fall, however; Finn's beaming up at her from the excavation grid beside the stone platform. "I've got a ring!" he announces as he carefully pushes his trowel into the earth. "Pewter, late fourteenth century by the looks of it."

 

"Sailors?" Rey suggests. According to historical records, the island had been found abandoned long before the Black Death cast its shadow over Europe.

 

"Could be, yeah. Want to get in on this?" Finn's already shuffling aside to make space for her, and Rey's heart squeezes in her chest. This is one of the many things she adores about her best friend— he's never selfish. Unlike many others in their field, he does what he does for the sheer love of archeology and is more than happy to share that love with others. The promise of fame isn't even on his radar. That's why he'd chosen Yavin even though Arkanis had stopped at nothing to try and lure the Bates-Evans heir to their program; the unscrupulous, cutthroat atmosphere of Snoke's circle simply hadn't been Finn's style.

 

It doesn't seem like Ben's style, either— at least, not the Ben she'd met on the C ô te d'Azur. Then again, she hadn't really known that man, had she? But she knew of Dr. Solo— his brilliance, his sternness, his fractured relationship with Luke, all the little tidbits of gossip she'd overheard from the professors this past week.

 

"I'll catch up with you later," Rey tells Finn. "Gotta see a man about a jacket."

 

"If he hasn't turned into an ice cube yet," Finn quips, which makes Kaydel, who's digging a few feet away, disguise a snort as a hasty cough.

 

Ben and Luke aren't on the grid with the other archaeologists or birdwatching with the zoologists, so Rey surmises by process of elimination that they're inside the temple. Sure enough, when she ducks in through the entrance, she nearly bumps into Luke on his way out.

 

"Well?" She keeps her tone hushed, knowing that sound echoes through the building. "How did he react?"

 

"I daresay he's stunned but recovering," Luke quips. "I look forward to the two of you working together."

 

If you only knew, Rey thinks miserably.

 

She finds Ben in the entrance hall, or what the team assumes is the entrance hall. There's a balcony on the other side of the building, right at cliff's edge, but attempts to find the passageway leading to it have proven unsuccessful thus far. Although Finn and Rey have brought their climbing gear, Luke wants to give it another few days before risking one of his students breaking any bones on the jagged rocks at the base of the cliff or plummeting into the ocean below.

 

Rey dons her own headlight and switches it on before walking over to Ben. He starts at her approach, as if he'd been so engrossed in the wall carvings that he didn't register her presence until she was within arm's reach. He looks so young in the harsh fluorescent glare, so starkly pale, his glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.

 

"Miss Niima," he intones, his deep voice in that dark space sending a shiver down her spine as she holds his jacket out to him. He takes it from her and shrugs it on over his puffed winter coat and, yeah, he does look kind of ridiculous, but the glow of their headlights has brought into fine relief the constellation of moles on his face and the flecks of olive in his brown eyes, and Rey feels the farthest thing from laughing.

 

"Thank you," Ben says stiffly. The plush swell of his bottom lip juts out with captivating petulance, tempting Rey to kiss him, to let it be like last year, on that other coast.

 

Instead, she steps away, widening the distance between them to something more professional. "Don't mention it." She gestures at the wall, eager to change the subject. "So, what do you think?"

 

At first he looks kind of lost, staring at her in a way that's both befuddled and somewhat irritated, but then he picks up on her cue and he's all business again, turning a solemn, focused gaze back to the runes. "It would seem at first glance that the Jedi and Sith languages as we know them both stemmed from one culture before parting ways. But does the sediment dating back that up? Is this temple older than Jedha?"

 

"No," Rey says quietly. "The Ascendancy has estimated that it was built at least two centuries afterwards."

 

"That certainly clears things up," Ben mutters. Despite his sarcasm, his eyes shine with the same determination that she recognizes in herself whenever there's a new puzzle to be solved. "I wish there was some way we could decipher these glyphs. We need a second Rosetta Stone."

 

"Maybe we'll find it here."

 

"Wishful thinking."

 

"Or hope?" she challenges, and he glances over at her with some vague, flickering emotion that she doesn't have the words for.

 

*

 

The days pass, light blowing out on the crests of the Antarctic wind and rolling back in with the tide. Ben's so exhausted from hiking, from studying the ruins, and from battling the cold that he sleeps like a log through each night, which is a good thing because that means he doesn't have to consciously deal with the fact that Rey's on the other side of the small tent, separated from him only by a barrier of luggage and equipment. He still hasn't put Takodana behind him, but it's good that the monastery is there to occupy the portion of his waking thoughts that isn't devoted solely to her, and by his fifth day on Ahch-To he's developed a mild obsession with the still inaccessible balcony. The Chiss had managed to scramble up onto the ledge on several occasions, but there's a door sealing off the interior that no one's figured out how to open.

 

"Muon tomography shows that there's a corridor behind the entrance hall leading into a roughly circular chamber, which in turn leads out onto the balcony," Luke tells Ben as the latter pores over Ascendancy blueprints during lunch break. They're eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches in one of the stone huts scattered around the temple, sheltered from the biting gale. "I believe there's a secret door on our side, and I'd quite like to find it before the Chiss decide to just knock down a section of the wall in order to reach the corridor."

 

"They won't actually do that, will they?" Rose is aghast at the very thought. "The ruins are thousands of years old— doesn't seem fair that they've remained standing this long only to get destroyed because we're curious."

 

"It's the necessary evil of archeology," Ben points out. "Most of the time, we end up knowing more about certain structures after their destruction than we did when they were still in place. That's how the Arkanis team was able to discover the sacred texts in Ossus, they blasted the hollow eastern wall—"

 

"And, in doing so, reduced a significant portion of the carvings on the other side of the wall to smithereens," Rey interrupts, eyes blazing. "All that ancient history lost in the blink of an eye because your university was too impatient to find another way into the meditation chamber."

 

Ben frowns at her. "One would argue that the tablets found in the meditation chamber bear far more import than the wall carvings."

 

"Both could have been studied if your lads had exercised a little prudence—"

 

"I was not a member of that expedition." It's Ben's turn to interrupt, curtly. "I missed the preliminary briefing for it and was thus removed from the roster. If you have any issue with the Ossus team's methods, Miss Niima, I highly suggest you take it up with the people who were actually there."

 

He hasn't cowed her. Not in the slightest. He sees it in the way she lifts her chin, he hears it in her voice when she tells him, "You were the one who brought up their methods, Dr. Solo. I was simply refuting their efficacy in furthering scientific knowledge."

 

Ben has no idea how to respond to that, and so he doesn't. Finn suddenly pipes up, in a transparent attempt to lighten the mood, "Regardless, I heartily advocate against knocking down any walls just yet. We're, like, a thousand nautical miles from civilization, and that's not a good situation to be in if one invokes the curse of the pharaohs."

 

Luke clutches his chest in mock despair. "That my own student should subscribe to such fear-mongering and superstition—!"

 

Finn holds up his sandwich in self-defense. "All I'm saying is, Howard Carter's pet canary was eaten by a cobra after they broke into King Tut's tomb. There's coincidence and then there's destiny, you know?"

 

"Then there's the cycle of life, snakes devouring small prey species and all that," Rey says. "Come off it, Finn."

 

"I don't know, I'm kind of with my boyfriend on this one," Rose opines. "He might have chosen to make messing around ancient burial sites his life's work like the rest of you people, but at least he's genre-savvy."

 

Ben quietly finishes his sandwich while listening to the banter unfold around him, so relaxed and easy and different from all he's ever known at Arkanis. His and Rey's quarrel falls to the wayside, forgotten for now.

 

*

 

Later, he does wake up in the middle of the night. The wind's howling at the flaps of the tent, but it does that so often that it's become background noise and it's not what rouses him from slumber.

 

There is an Ascendancy research station near the campsite, boarded up for the season but the Chiss liaison had given Luke the keys. While it's a small cabin that can comfortably house only four people at most, it has solar panels, a radio, and plumbing. In the spirit of egalitarianism, none of the team sleeps on the bunk beds and there's a rotation for charging their devices. It had been Rey's turn earlier and now she's watching a movie on her laptop, the volume so low that it wouldn't even have been a blip on Ben's radar under normal circumstances. But he's acclimatized, and the tinny sounds of mundane chatter and cheesy musical cues strike at his brain with how out-of-place they are on Ahch-To.

 

He lifts his head from the sleeping bag to groggily peer at Rey over the rudimentary barrier. "Are you kidding me?" He checks his watch. "It's three in the morning."

 

"Couldn't sleep." Rey's on her stomach, her eyes fixed on the screen and her feet— clad in appallingly colorful thermal socks— swaying idly in the air.

 

Ben slips on his glasses, squints in the dim light. Groans as he recognizes that scene from that movie. "How can you watch that garbage?"

 

"Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus," Rey retorts with quiet dignity, "is a masterpiece of the postmodern era."

 

"A giant shark just leapt out of the ocean to eat an airplane," he points out.

 

"Yeah, and that's brilliant," she snaps. "So slow your roll, Citizen Kane."

 

"If you insist on rotting your brain with that dreck, could you at least use earphones?" In truth, Ben doesn't really care one way or the other, but he's fresh out of witty comebacks and he refuses to let her have the last word again. " Some of us have an important historical site to study in a few hours."

 

Huffing an exasperated breath, Rey makes a show of rooting around in her bag for her earphones, popping them in without another word. Ben lies down and tries to go back to sleep, but the encounter has left him frustrated for reasons that feel bigger than his temporary roommate's horrible taste in films, and he ends up just glaring at the roof of the tent as it quivers in the wind.

 

It's not long before he hears Rey close her laptop, followed by shuffling noises that indicate she's attempting to get comfortable. He wonders if he's ruined her movie-viewing experience, and he feels strangely guilty.

 

After a while, she asks, "Why did you miss the preliminary briefing for the Ossus expedition?"

 

Her voice bridges the space between them, almost like an olive branch in the darkness of the tent. Ben thinks about who he'd been in Takodana, running from his demons and running right into her, and he's all of a sudden too tired for pretense. "My father died," he says. "He had a heart attack and I flew—" home— "back to Chandrila to be with him in his last moments."

 

"And they took you off the roster for that?" A thread of anger creeps into Rey's tone. "That's bullshit."

 

"It showed an egregious lack of dedication to my field," Ben woodenly echoes Snoke's words from so long ago. "There were limited slots on the team and my superior decided that the opportunity should go to someone who wanted it more than I did."

 

"Someone who'd prioritize a work meeting over a dying parent?" Rey seems well and truly enraged now. "Your superior is fucking evil, Dr. Solo. All the offense."

 

Ben can't help the small, wistful smile that plays along the corner of his mouth, there in the secret gloom with no one else on his side of the tent to see. Rey sounds like someone who would fight for him. It's a nice illusion, for all that it'll probably last no more than a few minutes. "After my father breathed his last, Snoke called to say he'd given my slot to someone else. I was furious, I suppose. More than furious— I'd just lost a parent and the chance of a lifetime. It was... a self-destructive state of mind." He hesitates, then figures he might as well rip off the metaphorical band-aid. "My father and I didn't have the most amicable of relationships in the first place. In my head I ended up blaming him— blaming a dead man— for having that heart attack and setting my career back by years. The Arkanis team flew to the North Pole on the day of his funeral, while I graded papers in my office."

 

Rey's so, so quiet. Ben's heart aches. Setting aside all ethical considerations, this is why things were doomed from the start for him and his French Riviera dream girl. He's in no state to be in a relationship with anyone. He has nothing to offer but bitterness and regret and age-old grief.

 

"That was seven years ago. And that's why I was in Takodana last Christmas," he continues. Let this be closure, then. Let this be the last hand, with no cards left to play. "It was the seventh Christmas since my father's passing. I was— I am— still too much of a coward to spend the holidays with my mother, but last December I just had this feeling that I wouldn't survive another holiday spent alone in my apartment. The C ô te d'Azur seemed as good a choice as any."

 

And then I saw you, he thinks, remembering, remembering. The English girl in the gray sweater, doing shots at the hotel bar. I woke up the next morning and you were gone, and I just want to know why.

 

He won't ask her, though. For some people, a one-night stand is a one-night stand, and maybe all he'd needed was to see her again to realize that it's not her fault he still hasn't made his peace with that.

 

"I don't have a family," Rey says. "My parents left me with their dealer as collateral and skipped town. When the dealer was arrested in a police raid, I bounced around from one foster home to the next until I came of age. That's why I was in Takodana last Christmas— because I had nowhere else to be."

 

"Why are you telling me this?" Ben asks. He doesn't mean it in an accusatory manner; he's genuinely curious as to why she thinks he deserves to know.

 

"Because you told me about your father," she whispers in the dark. "And fair's fair."

 

*

 

Rey wakes up late the next morning, hurriedly stumbling out of the tent to find everyone else already almost done eating breakfast.

 

"Did you stay up watching shark-themed B-movies again?" Finn asks with a smirk.

 

"She did," Ben confirms.

 

"Ugh." Rey hunkers down on the grass beside him and holds out her mug. "I can't talk to you until I've had some coffee."

 

"Which of us?" Finn presses.

 

" Both of you," Rey sniffs. "Coffee. Now."

 

It's Ben who removes the kettle from the burning coals and pours out the sweet, milky instant that Poe had dutifully brought across from Christchurch. He does this so very gently and carefully, like it's the most important thing, and she flashes him a tentative half-smile, thinking about last night's conversation. He doesn't smile back, not exactly, but his eyes soften. He's wearing a wool cap today and it's a shame that it hides his pretty hair— hair that she remembers running her fingers through in the afterglow while she lay sprawled across his broad chest, the two of them warm and sated and drifting off in the early hours of Christmas Day. But, for all its faults, the cap accentuates his sharp cheekbones and, paired with the glasses, the overall effect is overly large, adorably grumpy hipster. He looks— well— cute.

 

Not for me, Rey forcibly tells herself before her thoughts can go any further down the road marked danger. Never for me. She's not even entirely sure it had been a good idea to swap secrets like trading cards last night; it had been cathartic, in a way, to finally give voice to what she'd been bottling up for so long— this is what life did to me, this is why I walk out before I can be walked out on, this is why I left you.

 

But she rather doubted he cared. Theirs had been just a casual hookup, after all, and if he bore any grudges it was in all likelihood due to injured pride that she'd given him a fake name and hadn't stuck around long enough for him to be the one to sneak out of her hotel room. She resolves to put it out of her mind for the time being— last night's talk had carried the echoes of something like a truce between them, and that was, perhaps, the best that she could hope for.

 

Besides, there is work to do on this island.

 

*

 

The morning excavation proves fruitful for the archeology department. Not far from where Finn found the ring, Tallissan Lintra's mattock breaks through the hard ground and hits a sizable block of stone. With an excited squeal, Tallie immediately discards her mattock in favor of the more delicate trowel, and she's soon joined by professors and other classmates as they clear away the earth from what Luke thinks might be a statue.

 

Rey helps for a while, but it soon becomes apparent that the artifact is only about four feet in length and a quarter of that in width. There's too many cooks in the kitchen, and so she elects to head inside the main temple, where Ben and the team's other historian, Dr. Gial Ackbar, might find her useful.

 

On the way, she catches Rose's eye and the other woman waves at her from where the zoologists are studying an abandoned nest lodged high up in a rocky crevice and arguing loudly about whether it belongs to a porg or to a seagull. "I've only seen the European herring gull hanging around here and we all know they build their nests in soil or sand, Doctor Garr," Holdo is loftily telling her colleague, "so, unless you've got a kittiwake or Bonaparte's gull stuffed down your jacket—"

 

Damn, Rey thinks, shaking her head as she passes by, what a bunch of nerds.

 

Ackbar nearly knocks her over as he storms out of the temple. "I refuse to work with that boy a second longer!" he fumes. "A most slovenly approach— no respect for theoretical framework— what does he think this is? National Treasure?"

 

"I, II, or III?" Rey asks, which earns her a glare from the elderly professor before he bustles off to complain to Luke.

 

Ben's in an equally combative mood when Rey finds him, his arms crossed as he stands in the middle of the entrance hall and squints at the carvings in the light of the plethora of battery-operated lamps that the team had hauled up from base camp. It's Luke's new strategy, illuminating more of the glyphs at the same time in the hope that a bigger picture will grant more perspective than the finer details have thus far. Unfortunately, judging from Ben's thunderous expression and the way Ackbar had flounced, it doesn't seem to be working.

 

"Why is there a hole in the wall?" Rey quips.

 

Ben darts a confused glance in her direction, and then it must occur to him that she's joking about the baleful glare he's levying at the poor, defenseless runes, because his lips press into a thin line. "Very funny but, if we don't find the entrance to the next chamber soon, future generations will actually be asking that."

 

"Well, pissing off your colleagues is a surefire method of expediting the process."

 

"Ackbar is too set in his ways. I told him that just because he's as old as these ruins doesn't mean he's equipped to figure them out."

 

Rey's eyes nearly pop out of their sockets. "You did not!" she exclaims, torn between horror and admiration.

 

"Didn't I?" Ben's tone is dry but something about the way he looks at her is almost conspiratorial.

 

She can't help it— she giggles. The sound echoes off the walls and his tense posture relaxes just the slightest bit.

 

*

 

By the end of the day, Ben's forced to conclude that Rey Niima is nothing short of brilliant.

 

She's the one who notices that the Leth symbol recurs throughout the wall in a pattern that mimics the sun and its rays, broken up by regular smatterings of random glyphs so that it's not immediately apparent. There are ten suns in all— five on the east wall, five on the west, and she points each one out to him, plucking the pattern out from the slew of filler text.

 

Ben's so staggered by the discovery that he extends a hand to touch the center of one sun, running his fingers along the embossed ridge.

 

"I wonder if Leth could be their word for 'light,'" Rey gushes. She's standing in front of him, her eyes shining amidst a backdrop of ancient language and of shadow, and—

 

Like you, Ben thinks. Like your name.

 

The stone moves beneath his hand.

 

*

 

Out on the grounds, everyone freezes in their work at the sound of earthly rumbling. They turn their heads toward the source just in time to witness hollow, square-shaped panels open up along the temple walls, the masonry moving in obedience to hidden mechanisms, sliding apart until the facade is very unmistakably sporting windows where there had been none before. There are ten in all— five windows on the eastern side, five on the west, flooding the building's interiors with daylight.

 

"Oh, man." Tallie's mildly disappointed voice breaks the stunned silence. "Guess Niima's going to win best thesis."

 

*

 

These are the things that Rey remembers.

 

The pulse of Christmas lights as they twinkled outside her hotel room, beating against her closed eyes like hundreds of tiny wings. The smooth scrape of her fingernails against cotton sheets as Ben worked his way into her from behind, her knees buckling at the agonizingly slow stretch. She remembers how his fingertips dug into her ass almost hard enough to bruise, how he kissed the back of her neck after he was done burying his cock to the hilt and leaving her immobile and breathless from the way he filled her so completely.

 

"Okay?" he mumbled, and she could only nod into the pillow, too overwhelmed to speak.

 

But it wasn't long before sound did leave her lips. She whimpered when he eased out halfway, she groaned when he drove back in. A single thrust that seemed almost experimental despite how far it went— like he was testing her limits, like he was curious about that gasping noise she made as the last of air was knocked out of her lungs. "Good girl, taking me so well," he murmured in her ear and she clenched around him, so dangerously close to another orgasm, even just from this.

 

He withdrew again, a reprieve that lasted all of a few seconds before he began fucking her. He started with shallow, rapid thrusts as she gripped the bedding for dear life, her head lolling forward and her bare nipples scraping against cotton. Everything was awash in an alcoholic haze, her fluttering eyelids affording glimpses of the room bathed in faint red and green and gold.

 

"God, you're so tight," she heard him say, hoarse and reverent, and she reveled in it, the feeling of smallness, of being a pretty little thing, of being safe. She remembers how he wound her hair around his fingers, how a fresh wave of arousal shivered through her when he pulled and her neck arched back to receive his sloppy, bruising kisses, how her knees finally gave way when his free hand effortlessly shifted her hips so that he was hitting that spot inside her as some weak parody of her own voice called out his name, over and over again.

 

Rey collapsed onto the bed, elbows first, from the shattering force of her second orgasm. Ben folded above her, pressing his chest to her spine and panting in her ear as he fucked her hard and deep through the aftershocks. He was relentless, he was going to bring her to tears, he slipped one hand between her body and the mattress and coaxed her back to the edge and tipped her over again with his fingers on her sensitized clit, and she remembers how she sobbed that third time, it was too much, she was an utter wreck, it was all winter night and tinsel and Mediterranean sea.

 

She could sense that he was close from how his pace faltered, could hear it in the ragged desperation of his tone when he leaned in to rasp, muffled against her neck, "I want to come in you— may I?"

 

Had she been more coherent, Rey would have laughed at the painstakingly correct grammar. "May"? What are you, a professor or something? she nearly teased, but she was too limp and blissed-out to do anything else but nod.

 

Ben finished inside her with a grunt, sinking his teeth into the round of her shoulder and eliciting another dazed moan from her lips as she felt that liquid heat coat her inner walls. She remembers how he rolled them both over so that she lay pillowed on his chest, remembers how she almost told him that it was okay, she didn't need to cuddle, but one glimpse of the drowsy, contented expression on his stern, handsome features was all it took for the words to die in her throat. She remembers falling asleep listening to his heartbeat.

 

And she remembers thinking that she could get used to this, and how that filled her with a fear she didn't act on until the morning, when she woke up and left before she could be left again by someone new.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

"Looks like we found our Rosetta Stone," Rey had planned to quip— or something similar— when she glimpsed Ben turning to her out of the corner of her eye and moved to face him, too. But all her corny jokes— all her witty one-liners— fled at the sight of his face gilded in sunlight, his windswept hair a dark halo, his eyes so clear and bright that she could almost see the runes reflected in their depths.

 

In that moment, amidst all the joy of discovery, amidst all the relief of hard work paying off, amidst all the glory of the ages, she forgot that he was not only a professor but also the nephew of her professor, she forgot that they were technically colleagues on the same expedition, she forgot that she was ten years younger than him, she forgot that they lived an ocean across from each other, she forgot that she was the kind of girl who didn't make the same mistake twice.

 

She forgot everything except that hotel on the French Riviera, how the corners of his eyes had crinkled when he laughed at the bar, how effortlessly he'd carried her up the stairs, how he'd held her and filled her and made her feel so, so safe.

 

And when he bowed his head she tipped hers up, when he bent down she lifted herself on her toes, when his hands flew to her waist hers curled at the back of his neck, and now—

 

And now they're kissing.

 

And it feels like home.

 

That expression has never made much sense to Rey. Feels like home, people say when they find themselves somewhere cozy, when they're surrounded by familiar faces, when they're reminded of their childhood. But her childhood was a never-ending set of revolving doors— in and out of foster houses, in and out of somebody else's life— and she hadn't fared much better in her teenage years. Even uni— as well as her masters so far— has been a string of campus dormitories shared with other students who, no matter how well they get along, tend to drift out of touch once the semester ends and they move out or are reassigned to another hall. Her only constant has been Finn, and Finn already has a future in mind where he returns to the United States after graduation and starts a family with Rose.

 

So, yeah, Rey has no idea what home is and what it's supposed to feel like but, here and now on Ahch-To, with the cradle of Ben's arms shielding her from the biting air of a sub-antarctic winter, with the language of ancient Sumer at their feet, she thinks that, maybe, home could be this— his soft lips on hers, her fingers tangled in his silky hair, and no more distance between them.

 

But nothing lasts forever. She should have gotten used to that, she should have known that by now. She shouldn't have been surprised when Ben goes still, his breath a hot, unsteady rasp at the corner of her mouth.

 

"Rey." He says her name so hush and strained, the sudden slack to his grip at her waist making her think of autumn and of dead things and of goodbyes. "Miss Niima— we can't— I..." He trails off, at a loss for words even though he can't seem to completely let go of her just yet.

 

Rey exhales. Already the harsh reality of their situation has started settling in and she's the one who steps back first, her hands dropping to her sides like they're attached to lead weights. "I know," she says quietly.

 

Ben adjusts his glasses, as if he doesn't know what else to do. "My uncle trusts me—" he begins, and she cringes because the last thing she wants to think about after that earth-shattering kiss is her cape-wearing hippie professor, but it can't be helped— "and that trust is— it has been such a hard-won thing." He drags a hand through the hair that Rey had mussed. "There is your reputation to consider—"

 

"I know," Rey says again, a bit more forcefully this time. They're both all too aware that double standards in academia are the same as with everywhere else. It doesn't matter that they're from different specializations, that they're from different universities, that they met long before they had any idea who the other one was; if they allow anything to happen between them again, if someone sees, she's always going to be the girl who hooked up with a professor while out in the field.

 

Ben gestures, limply and half-heartedly, around the circular chamber. "So perhaps we should just—"

 

"Yeah." Rey clears her throat. "Let's just— just."

 

Judging from the crease that mars the smoothness of his pale brow, he has no idea what she's talking about, but that's all right, because neither does she.

 

*

 

The rest of the team is absolutely ecstatic when they finish making the climb up from base camp and find Ben and Rey in the newly opened chamber. Rey's got out her notebook and is jotting down painstakingly thorough descriptions of the plethora of artifacts strewn across a small table by the wall, while Ben is very emphatically on the other side of the room, perusing the opposite wall and the carvings found therein. They are neither Jedi nor Sith glyphs but, rather, a tableau of sorts, depicting civilizations from all over the world sailing to Ahch-To and— paying tribute? Consulting?— with the hooded monks waiting for them at the entrance of the temple.

 

After carefully brushing away the dust that had gathered during centuries of stasis, Ben studies the masses of what seem to be pilgrims, for lack of a better word. He spots fringed garments that could indicate either the Babylonians or the Sumerians themselves, belted knee-length tunics similar to what the Assyrians started wearing sometime around 1000 B.C., and the deshret and hedjet of Lower and Upper Egypt. He sees the sky god of the Zhou watching over his people as they make the crossing alongside Maya canoes and the double-hulled sailing vessels of the Southwestern Pacific islands. Assessing each group for any identifying symbols, he picks out with ease the Islamic Basmala, the Eight Auspicious Signs known collectively as Ashtamangala, the mon of Hachiman, and even a handful of military standards from the Byzantine Empire. It is a confusing and, quite frankly, nightmarish jumble of different cultures from different eras, all thrown together with no respect for chronology, as if the engravers had wanted nothing more than to make future historians cry.

 

It is stupefying. It is revolutionary. It is almost, almost enough to make Ben forget about Rey and the kiss that still burns upon his lips.

 

"Jesus Christ," Ben hears Finn mutter from behind him, and he glances over his shoulder to see the younger man staring at the tableau with wide eyes and hands on his hips. "No one is ever going to believe us. They're going to think we spent these past few weeks engineering an elaborate hoax."

 

"I'll fight them all," Rose promises, handing Finn her camera. "Now hurry up and start documenting."

 

*

 

For all his flaws, there really is no other living person in the world who is more of an expert in ancient Sumerian than Gial Ackbar. By midday, he's cobbled together a rough translation— subject to peer review, of course, but it'll do for now.

 

"This," he tells Ben, indicating the block of Jedi text, "appears to be a prayer or a chant of some kind. The Sith writing, meanwhile, appears to be the inverse of that chant. Note that the first row of cuneiform underneath the Jedi inscription denotes peace, while the first row of cuneiform on the opposite section negates it entirely."

 

"What about the third section?" Ben asks, nodding towards the last block of writing on the floor that features a mishmash of Jedi and Sith, also translated into Sumerian.

 

"This is where it gets interesting," says Ackbar with a twinkle in his dark eyes that, for a fleeting moment, makes him look oddly young again. "The third section appears to be an agreement— a synthesis, if you will, of the two opposing perspectives. I would tentatively venture to posit that the Jedi and Sith religions branched off from a common foundation before converging once more here on Ahch-To." He sighs in what can only be described as pure satisfaction before clapping Ben on the arm with an exuberant strength that is surprising for his age— although, really, the seventy-year-old professor has been making the daily trek up and down the cliff with no adverse effects, so perhaps he's just a freak of nature. "I was at university when your grandfather discovered Jedha, you know. One week later, I spoke to my advisor about switching majors from economics to history. Best decision of my life— a decision that I have never regretted since." Ackbar's gaze starts to mist over and Ben looks away, embarrassed. "You and I may have our differences, Dr. Solo, but I believe that we can both agree on one thing— nothing compares to this."

 

And, the thing is, Ben would have also subscribed to this school of thought once, but now his gaze sweeps the interior of the ruins, lingering with some kind of reluctant defeat on Rey as she argues over the origins of a particular artifact with Tallie and Kaydel.

 

" Yes, cows are sacred to Hinduism but just because you see a figurine of one doesn't automatically mean it's from India!" Rey's waving the palm-sized, stone-carved bovine in her hand. "Besides, look at the horns, this is obviously a predecessor of the Ankole-Watusi breed, which means it's from sub-Saharan Africa—"

 

"Rey," Finn tries to intervene, "put that very old, very archaeologically significant cow down now—"

 

Looking at Rey's irate face, at the fire in her eyes, Ben finds himself disagreeing with Ackbar yet again. But he doesn't issue even a noncommittal response to the older historian's declaration, afraid that if he opens his mouth he'll end up saying all of it out loud.

 

*

 

Unlike the other members of the expedition that he's spearheading, Luke doesn't seem to be in any rush to examine the chamber and make his own mark on such a monumental find. Instead, Rey notices him sitting cross-legged out in the middle of the balcony, away from the hubbub, the katabatic gusts rifling through his gray hair and his gray cape, his weathered features cloaked in utmost serenity as he gazes out over the dazzling blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.

 

"Dr. Skywalker? Are you all right?" Rey asks, hovering on the threshold between the balcony and the chamber.

 

"Quite all right," Luke says, the speech pattern a testament to how long he's been living in England. I've assimilated, he often likes to joke to his students when he reaches for the vinegar instead of the ketchup. All of a sudden, Rey wonders if her professor ever misses America. "Don't worry about me, Miss Niima. Go and explore. Enjoy."

 

But, instead, Rey goes to sit beside him. It is rather peaceful, she'll admit, and it's with a pang that she realizes they've all been so preoccupied with the ruins that none of them has ever taken time to just soak in the island itself. Ahch-To is a rugged emerald sprawl of sheer drops and vast plains, bordered on all sides by an asymmetrical frame of black rocks and white sand beaches. The light falls so differently here, the sun's rays carrying an almost crystalline tinge; it turns the air into sheets of fine glass.

 

The beauty fills Rey's lungs with every breath, transforming into something nameless, something urgent, inside her. It takes a while for her to muster the courage to ask, to sate the curious, grasping thing that's clawing up her throat and bursting with the need to know— "Dr. Skywalker?"

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Last week, you told me that you were looking forward to me and Dr. Solo working together. Why was that?"

 

"Oh." Luke appears briefly startled, and then he turns contemplative. "Well, I suppose that, in a way, you remind me of him. When he was younger, at least. He's grown a bit more cynical in recent years, but perhaps this expedition has been changing that. I hope it has, anyway." Luke drifts deep into thought for several long moments, before finally proclaiming, "From the moment you walked into my office for your admissions interview, I saw right away that there was a hunger in your eyes. A certain scrappiness, a desire to prove yourself. I'd only ever seen that look once before. On Benjamin Solo."

 

Despite the seriousness of the moment— and despite how her and Ben's cordial relationship has been soured by what transpired earlier— Rey can't help the quirk of her lips upon learning his full first name. It's another piece of him that she greedily latches on to. "Benjamin."

 

Luke nods. "It was his father, strangely enough, who suggested it. His mother had wanted just 'Ben'— the nickname of a dear old family friend of ours— but it was a fair compromise."

 

"Why 'strangely enough'?" Rey pressed, not caring that she might possibly be giving off creeper vibes. To hear Luke talk about Ben's past, about Ben's family, is on par with unearthing ancient treasure.

 

"Because Han was not a religious man," says Luke. "But there was a Bible passage he'd read as a boy that stuck with him for the rest of his life. You understand how language can just... do that sometimes, yes? It's the darnedest thing."

 

Rey leans forward eagerly. "What was the passage?"

 

"Genesis chapter thirty-five, verse eighteen, if I'm not mistaken." Luke closes his eyes, taking another deep breath of contentment as he tilts his face up towards the winter sun. "Rachel was about to die, but with her last breath she named the baby Ben-oni, which means 'son of my sorrow.' The baby's father, however, called him Benjamin," Luke intones from memory, "which means 'son of my right hand.'"

 

*

 

That night, Ben and Rey's tent is quiet, which isn't too far out of the ordinary as they both usually return to base camp exhausted and fall into a deep slumber practically from the moment they crawl into their respective sleeping bags.

 

Tonight, however, Ben is laying wide awake— and so is Rey. He can tell from the way her breathing hasn't evened out yet, from the way he hears her shift position once every so often, as if she, like him, is restless and unable to sleep.

 

Tonight, the silence is painful.

 

Their kiss earlier this morning has unlocked Ben's memories of Takodana, which, in all honesty, hadn't even been that repressed to begin with. He's drowning in remembrance. Rey's skin, golden in the dingy hotel suite's cheap lighting. How her mouth had tasted of cherry brandy and how the slick between her legs had made his head spin in a way that had nothing to do with the copious amounts of alcohol the two of them had imbibed. He remembers how hot and tight she'd been down there, her inner walls gripping him like a velvet vise and rippling around him in the throes of orgasm.

 

He remembers every single fantasy he's had in the past nine months. He remembers every single thing he has imagined doing to her if they ever met again.

 

And his cock stirs in his trousers.

 

Biting back a curse, Ben reaches a hand down to the seat of his pants in an instinctive bid to relieve some of the pressure. It turns out to be the wrong move because the physical sensation of being touched, even through cloth— even though he himself is the one doing the touching, and how sad is that— is too much to bear. Blood rushes south and, with all rational thought fading as his mind suddenly devolves into a cloud of panic, he rolls over to face away from Rey's side of the tent. As if he's afraid that she'll sit up and peer over the barrier of luggage and equipment and somehow see his hard-on under the sleeping bag and in the dark.

 

Ben doesn't know how long he lies on his side like that, staring at the wall of the tent with unseeing eyes and his pulse pounding through what feels like every fiber of his body as he alternates between silently threatening his erection and pleading for it to subside. He determinedly replaces his erotic fantasies of Rey with the prospect of her hearing what would no doubt be the unmistakable sounds of him jacking off and then kicking him out of the tent, screaming bloody murder at the top of her lungs. The others would wake up and then, having gone crazy from the weeks of isolation and the periods of darkness that are much too long for August, they'll stone him to death or burn him at the stake or tie him up and toss him into the ocean for being such a pervert. All while his pants are hanging down his knees.

 

You're so fucking weird, Solo, Ben chides himself. You read Lord of the Flies one too many times in grade school.

 

But weird or not, his musings do the trick, and he can't pinpoint the exact moment he falls asleep but the next thing he knows is that he's being woken up by the sound of the alarm, pulled from a dream of a signal fire that's blazed out of control, razing the island and oozing black smoke into his lungs as someone who looks like Rey smiles and waits for him in the flickering flames.

 

*

 

Spurred on by Ben and Rey's discovery, the other members of the team also leg it up the cliff before dawn. Rey is shocked by how much she— well, by how much she resents it, the patter of several other pairs of footsteps, the presence of several other flashlight beams, and the uproar of several other voices intruding on the starry, quiet trek that she used to share with Ben and Ben alone as recently as yesterday. But she keeps her feelings to herself, even managing to chat companionably with her fellow grad students as the sky over the island lightens bit by bit, from ink to charcoal to smoke.

 

It might actually be for the best. At least with other people around, she won't have to dwell on her and Ben's kiss and on the rush of memories it had incited in her— memories that were so tactile she swore she could sense his arms around her and his tongue on her neck when she did little more than close her eyes. Last night had been brutal, she'd tossed and turned, unable to sleep, debating the pros and cons of just shoving a hand down her pants and bringing herself to sorely needed release. The only thing that stopped her had been the prospect of Ben overhearing, which, no, she wasn't about to get caught masturbating by the very same object of her illicit desires, thank you very much.

 

But what if he had caught you, her treacherous inner voice whispers, a feline little purr at the back of her mind, and what if he'd offered to lend a hand?

 

"Oh, God," Rey whimpered, only to clap a gloved palm over her mouth the moment she realized she'd said it out loud.

 

"Everything all right there, peanut?" Finn calls from a couple of steps behind her.

 

Rey's cheeks burn. She's suddenly extremely grateful that she's in the lead and no one can see her face— she's pretty sure that it's currently crimson enough to glow in the dark. "Fine," she squeaks, not daring to look back at Finn. "Just a bit tired, is all."

 

"Okay," Finn says, sounding like he doesn't believe her but unsure how to press the issue. "If you want to take a break, just say the word— I actually wouldn't mind a granola bar and some coffee in a few minutes."

 

Rey waves a hand back at him in acknowledgement. She'd actually been planning to call for a breakfast stop at the broken pillar, and maybe Ben would sit down and join them, too—

 

You are unbelievable, she tells herself acidly. One kiss and your brain turns to mush? Pathetic. And to think that she and Ben had just verbally reestablished that they would never be able to pursue a romantic relationship, that it would be the height of folly.

 

But that's what's so ridiculous about the human psyche, isn't it? Moth to a flame, forbidden fruit, and all that. The more the universe tells you that you can't have something, the more you end up wanting it, to the point of self-destruction.

 

By the time they reach the broken pillar and Rey declares that she could eat a horse, Finn and Rose have started idly conversing about the pets that they'll have in the future. Rose absolutely wants to adopt a cat, preferably the type with a squished face that always looks like it woke up on the wrong side of the bed— her Patronus, she says— but Finn is less enthusiastic because he's more of a dog person.

 

"Look, babe, it's simple," Finn declares, sitting down on the grass and peeling back the wrapper from his granola bar. "It's me or the cat, you decide. Now, do you want a St. Bernard or a Newfoundland?"

 

Rose sticks her tongue out at him. Rey laughs despite the wistful little ache in her chest. She knows that Finn and Rose will get a cat and a dog, and have the cutest, geekiest kids running around underfoot in a house in the suburbs. Maybe even a white picket fence— they're that kind of couple. And those are the kinds of things that Rey herself tries so hard not to want, because she knows she'll never have them, knows that no one will ever think her worthy of giving those things to.

 

One by one the professors and other grad students pass by and cheerfully decline invitations to sit down and eat, some saying that they're not yet hungry, some wheezing that they won't be able to climb the remaining stairs on a full stomach and that they'll break their fast on the summit. Out of all of them, it's only Ben who hesitates, however briefly, his steps slowing as he approaches the broken pillar. And when he rises up from out of the panorama of stone and grass and sky, with that nerdy bonnet pulled over his hair and those equally nerdy glasses slipping down his nose, hands shoved into his coat pockets and shoulders hunched as if to present himself as a smaller target to the icy wind, the wistful little ache in Rey's chest blossoms into a full-blown fracture at the seams of her heart. She looks at Ben in the half-light and she misses the future, the days that haven't happened yet and never will.

 

"Wotcher, Dr. Solo," Finn greets in his usual amiable manner that borders on the side of irreverent. "Breakfast?"

 

"I've got Twinkies," Rose offers.

 

Ben glances down at the three of them with a slight frown. Rey holds her breath. She wants him to say no. She wants him to say yes. She doesn't know what she wants.

 

"I'll pass for now," Ben says as he strolls by their little group, "but thank you."

 

Rey's gaze immediately drops to her lap, where her hands have fisted tight with tension without her even realizing it. She feels like bursting into tears. What is it about this man that turns her back into that insecure teenager, that lonely girl who was always second-guessing herself?

 

Rose waits until Ben's out of earshot, and then she leans forward to whisper conspiratorially, "You'd think he'd be happier about getting the secret door open and everything, yeah?"

 

"Maybe that is his happy face," Finn quips. "Actually, Rey, I've been wanting to ask— what's the deal with you and Dr. Solo?"

 

Rey can't believe that her best friend asks her that at the exact moment that she drinks from her thermos. It's only the greatest degree of self-control she's ever exercised in her entire life that prevents her from spewing coffee all over the place. "I— I don't know what you're talking about," she replies in what she hopes is a suitably calm tone. "I mean, he's all right."

 

"There are times when you guys act a bit—" Finn gestures vaguely— "weird around each other—"

 

"Oh, thank God, I'm not the only one who noticed," Rose blurts out. "I was starting to believe I've been imagining things."

 

Finn smiles at Rey. It's his encouraging, you-can-talk-to-me smile. "Are the two of you still arguing a lot?"

 

"You'd also think," Rose adds before Rey can answer, before taking a bite of kaya toast and then uttering the rest of the sentence through a full mouth, "that he'd be on better terms with you after you were instrumental in basically revolutionizing his entire career."

 

"The lady has a point." Finn nods sagely. "For Rose, grumpy-faced cat is just her Patronus, but some people are, like, the living embodiment of—"

 

And then he stops talking. Because, while Rey considers herself a pretty decent liar most of the time, it's harder for her to hide anything from her best friend and, by extension, his girlfriend, and perhaps there's some part of her that has really just lost all subtlety where her Takodana-hookup-turned-Ahch-To-colleague is concerned, and her face is on fire for the second time this morning, her features screwed up in determined nonchalance, but screwed up is the key phrase here and Finn's eyes are practically bulging out of his head as realization dawns and, just like that, Rey knows it's all over—

 

"Oh. My. God." Finn's aghast words ring through the still air, bouncing off the rocks that are strewn all over the sides of the cliff. "That's him— French Riviera Ben— Ben Solo?"

 

"What's he talking about?" Rose's gaze flickers suspiciously from her boyfriend to Rey. "What are you trying to hide—" And then it must slot into place for her, she must all of a sudden remember their girls' night out in London when she'd flown in to visit a few months ago and the tipsy confessions that had ensued, and she must have put two and two together with breathtaking swiftness, because— "Oh. My. God!" Rose shrieks. "Your Christmas hookup, 'the most fantastic shag of your life,' is Dr. Solo?"

 

"Be a little louder, by all means, I don't think the penguins in the North bloody Pole were able to hear you," Rey mumbles.

 

"Okay, so, first of all, order Sphenisciformes resides almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, with the Galapagos penguin being the only species found north of the equator," Rose primly corrects. "Second of all, I can't believe you didn't tell us, Rey."

 

"I thought we were friends!" Finn wails just as Holdo and Garr come plodding up the staircase.

 

"Oh, dear." Holdo clucks her tongue. "Is this a Lord of the Flies situation? Should we start dividing up the island now?"

 

"I call dibs on having Dr. Solo on my team," says Garr. "The man looks like he can— what do the kids call it these days, Amilyn, that funny misspelling— p-r-o-t-e-c-c?"

 

"I have another spelling for him," Rose tells Finn and Rey in an aside, "and it's c-r-i-n-g-e."

 

"I heard that, Miss Tico," Garr admonishes.

 

"Sorry, Professor." Rose digs around in her backpack. "Can I make it up to you with a Twinkie?"

 

Holdo and Garr end up sitting down with them for breakfast, which Rey is more than grateful for because that means Finn and Rose won't continue to ply her with awkward questions— even though they both take turns shooting her looks that unmistakably mean, This isn't over.

 

*

 

Later in the day the excavation site is swarmed by porgs, much to the dismay of the archaeologists and the delight of the zoologists.

 

"Babe, I told you not to let them in here!" Finn glares at Rose as several of the rotund little birds come waddling into the newly opened chamber, cooing with glee at the novelty of their surroundings. "You were supposed to be the first line of defense!"

 

"But they're so harmless and adorable," Rose protests even as she gently tries to lift her shoe away from a porg who's attempting to pull it off of her foot. "Besides, I can't touch them."

 

"Miss Tico is right," says Luke, apparently not minding the fact that three porgs are currently scrambling to climb up the back of his cape. "The Chiss Ascendancy has strict protection laws in place. We need to avoid handling them as much as possible. I must insist that we solve this via peaceful methods."

 

"Exactly," says Rose. "They're an endemic species, Finn—"

 

"Yeah, well," her boyfriend retorts, "I'm going to turn them into an endangered species if they shit on the carvings one more time—"

 

While Finn and Rose's bickering is always a source of entertainment for Rey, this time she tunes it out because there are far more urgent matters that require her immediate attention— namely, the porg that has started gnawing on the wall tableau while Ben watches with an expression that is helpless and thunderous all at once.

 

"That's solid rock," he tells the animal, a hint of incredulity in his tone. "You cannot possibly think it tastes good."

 

Rey walks over to them, her arms already outstretched. Deciphering her intent, Ben asks softly, "Are you sure?"

 

"Positive." She still can't quite look at him, not when he's this close to her. "My thesis is on the line." After checking to make sure Rose is preoccupied elsewhere, Rey stoops down and gingerly grips the porg on both sides, hauling it away from the wall.

 

The animal's reaction is instantaneous. It unleashes a bloodcurdling screech and, flapping its stubby wings, manages to slip out of Rey's grasp, zooming upwards like a bottle rocket and—

 

landing on Ben's wool cap—

 

Rey bursts out laughing. The sight of a fluffy, goggle-eyed bird roosting on this tall, powerfully-built man's head is too much to bear.

 

"I'm utterly thrilled that you're enjoying this," Ben grits out. "This is vicuna wool, so help me, God—"

 

"Serves you right for buying a thousand-dollar bonnet," Rey shoots back through her giggles.

 

But she does eventually get around to helping him, shooing the porg away with a wave of her hand. It takes a solid hour for the team to succeed in herding the disgruntled flock out onto the open balcony, where they hang around for a while and sternly reprimand the humans with little shrieking noises before finally taking wing.

 

"Well," Holdo says with a beatific smile, "all's well that ends well. Now, if you'll excuse us, my colleagues and I need to collect some fecal samples..."

 

The archaeologists watch as the zoologists get down on their knees and start scraping up the droppings that litter the floor, pointing excitedly at undigested seeds and bits of shell.

 

"What a bunch of weirdos," Kaydel mutters to Rey, who nods fervently in agreement.

 

*

 

The last of the pictures have been taken, the remaining artifacts have all been carefully packed away to be flown back to Christchurch where a Chiss delegation is waiting to inspect them— as foreigners are still not allowed on the Ascendancy mainland— and the chamber and its adjoining balcony have once more been sealed off, along with the windows, after Rey, noticing that the as yet untranslated etchings on a handful of stone tablets all end in the same glyph, touches the corresponding runes along the entryway. The expedition troops down the cliff one last time, although they're already making plans to apply for another permit and come back.

 

"Perhaps we'll be able to work with Chiss researchers next time around," says Luke. "That would be fascinating. Think of all we'll be able to learn from them."

 

"I heard it from the grapevine," says Ackbar, "that they deciphered the Voynich manuscript twenty years ago. Most extraordinary."

 

Ben would normally have pressed Ackbar for details but, in that moment, he finds it so hard to care. About the Chiss, about ruins, about the past, about any of it. All he can think of is the future, how it looms before him like an open pit, because the day after tomorrow he'll be on a plane back to the United States and Rey will be traveling home to England. It all feels... unfinished, between them, like a block of wood or a slab of marble that has only been half-carved to suggest the shape of something, and again with his wishful thinking but in the dying light he imagines that she keeps glancing over at him, too, with the same fear that he feels in her eyes.

 

When they return to base camp, the wind has miraculously stopped. It had been Ben's constant companion ever since he arrived but now there is nothing except for the glassy stillness that has taken its place. Since they had made the descent earlier than usual, no one's ready to get dinner started and then turn in. There's enough daylight left for the team to head down to the beach and get a bonfire going, all of them seized by that last-minute panic— that overwhelming impulse to make the most out of every moment— that always marks the tail-end of every trip.

 

Much to Ben's surprise, Tallie and Kaydel drag a duffel bag all the way from the camp to the sandy beach, where it is reverently unzipped to reveal several bottles of Corellian rum and spicewine from Rydonni, in Andalusia. Paper cups are filled to the brim with everyone's choice of poison and people form a haphazard circle around the bonfire, some perched on driftwood or boulders while others elect to just plunk down on the sand.

 

Luke does the honors of giving a toast. "'If I have seen further than other men,'" he intones, with his paper cup raised in the air and a twinkle in his blue eyes, "'it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.' Thank you for your hard work, everyone. Now it's time to—" He glances at the grad student contingent— "how do you kids say it? 'Chill'?"

 

They all boo him, and he graciously sits back down with a chuckle. Ben takes a generous swig from his paper cup to hide his smile.

 

The alcohol flows on well into the night. If there's one thing Ben has learned from his many years in academia, it's that no one can drink quite like scientists. But at least they all still have the presence of mind to keep the bottles and cups away from the ever inquisitive porgs who wander over, drawn by the noise and the warmth of the bonfire as it blazes against the Pacific's dark and icy ledge.

 

There's drinking and talking and dancing to impromptu a capella and more drinking, and inevitably— like the slow fall of gravity, like the way the moon pulls the tides— Ben's attention zeros in on Rey and never quite manages to leave. She's beautiful and golden in the light of the flames, her face flushed pink the way it had been on that French Riviera night, and it doesn't take long for him to realize that she's practically almost as sloshed as she'd been back then, too. He's not faring any better— the spicewine's warmth in these winter climes is addictive— but at least he is sitting down on a log and not scampering clumsily about on the shifting sands. She seems to be purposefully avoiding Finn and Rose, who in turn seem to be trying to talk to her about something, but Rey keeps moving out of their reach, nearly tripping over her own feet in her haste to get away.

 

Ben can't pinpoint the exact moment he decides to call it a night, but it's probably when it dimly occurs to him that he's drunk enough to not shy away from the fact that he feels sad to be leaving Ahch-To. He mutters a vague goodbye to Luke and makes his way back to base camp, the beam of his flashlight wobbling in the dark. He thinks he feels Rey's eyes on him as he walks away, but he doesn't look back.

 


 

Ben must have managed to sleep for only half an hour— perhaps even less than that— when he wakes up to a sudden drop in temperature and the return of the wind battering the walls of the tent, along with sheets upon sheets of pouring rain. But the cacophony isn't what roused him from his slumber. No, he wakes up because Rey is crawling into his sleeping bag.

 

"What the—" is as far as Ben manages to get before he's suddenly confronted with an armful of slim, spicewine-smelling woman, who leaves his sleeping bag unzipped but throws the fleece blanket over both their bodies and then curls up on top of him. Her hair is damp and she's shivering, dressed in an over-sized wool sweater and—

 

"Rey." His voice cracks on the single syllable of her name, and he clears his throat, only to dumbly ask, through a haze of alcohol and drowsiness, "Rey, wait, where— where did your pants go?"

 

"Took 'em off to sleep," she slurs, craning her neck so she can burrow her nose into his chest. It's almost catlike, the way she rubs her cheek against his sweatshirt. "But I'm cold— there's a storm—" Her teeth are chattering, punctuating her choppy sentences, she's moving on top of him in an unthinking bid for the warmth that friction can provide, her sweater riding up her thighs and her ass sliding against the seat of his sleep pants. "Got caught in the rain after you left— why did you leave, Ben?— it's so cold—"

 

He shouldn't be encouraging this. She's drunk out of her mind and so is he. It's Takodana again and this is the worst idea ever and—

 

And her head falls back onto his shoulder, and she turns to brush her lips along the line of his jaw. "Stubble," she sighs, very intelligently. Yesterday he'd been too tired to stick to his routine of trooping up to the Chiss research station and shaving as best as he could in front of the bathroom's dusty mirror, beneath the yellow solar-powered light. "You shave more often than Finn, why're you so hairy?"

 

"You really want to talk about another man's shaving habits while you're half-naked on top of me?" Ben snaps despite his better judgment— although to be fair his judgment is probably still waiting for him to come back for it up on the cliff, where it's been left behind and sealed up along with all those other ancient secrets.

 

Rey giggles, unrepentant, and in the midst of his sleep-tinged intoxication Ben feels a sudden burst of anger. Anger that it can only ever be like this with her, anger that she can only ever let him touch her when they're drunk. Anger that it's only when they're drunk that he can even dare.

 

Rey's giggles turn into a rattling cough that shakes her slim frame, and Ben's arms instinctively tighten around her waist. "So cold," she says again, shimmying her hips against his, her breath rasping on his cheek as she nuzzles at his ear. "I'm really freezing— Ben— Professor Solo—" And, oh, this woman doesn't play fair at all— "please..."

 

It's when he feels hot tears drip from the corner of her eye and onto his face that Ben's wine-addled mind is able to grasp, albeit somewhat faintly, that she's not playing a game, that she's not consciously engaging in some underhanded seduction. "Please just touch me," she says in an aching whisper that's almost inaudible beneath the howling wind and the rain cascading outside their tent. "Please, I know we only had one night and I know I left first," she babbles, "but I missed you—" Her small hand fists into his sweatshirt, holding on for dear life. "I missed you, I missed you, God, how I missed you—"

 

Ben would have had a hard time remaining unaffected by that while sober. In his current state, he stands no chance at all.

 

At first he just runs his hands up and down her sides, feeling clumsy and oafish at how his fingers can almost completely encircle her tiny waistline, but the way she melts into his touch is like a kind of saving grace in the middle of this rainstorm. Her lips graze the corner of his mouth and something is switched on inside him, something that leaves no room for common sense.

 

He hauls them both into a sitting position, her spine pressed to his chest. She squirms in his lap, the bulge of his erection catching between the pert globes of her ass, and his right hand snakes beneath the hem of her sweater and the thermal camisole she's wearing under it, roving over an expanse of smooth, bare skin before finally cupping her breast.

 

Rey arches into his touch, her moan a ragged sound that is swallowed up by the deluge outside. "Yes, like that," she sighs as he palms the soft swell of her breast, as he tweaks her nipple between his fingers. "Just like that. Just like before."

 

With his free hand, Ben pulls the over-sized collar of Rey's sweater down her left shoulder. Some wild, drunken impulse makes him drag at the strap of her lace-edged camisole, too, tugging it down her upper arm and then releasing it quickly so that it snaps against her skin. She jumps, sucking in a gasp of air at the unexpected sensation, but he gives her no time to recover, immediately bowing his head to litter kisses along the slope of her neck. He is relentless, he is determined, he is going to make her come so hard even if he ends up killing himself in the process— because she said she'd missed him, which means she'd thought about the night they'd shared, and there is nothing he wants more in this moment than for the present to blow the past out of the water.

 

And then, when they go their separate ways, maybe she'll miss him again.

 

*

 

Perhaps like this, with no light to see by except the red glow of the space heater, he can be just a body in the dark, spun out of her misplaced longings to sate the need that the kiss up in the ruins had ignited. Perhaps like this, with all the alcohol in her system dulling her to reality and to logic, she can pretend that she never cried herself to sleep the night after she left him.

 

He nibbles at her ear as he continues strumming at her nipple, which is so stimulated now that it almost hurts. Her left breast, meanwhile, feels neglected, aching to be touched, every scrape of the camisole against its peak setting her on an edge that walks the thin line between pleasant and aggravating. He kisses the spot where her ear meets the line of her jaw, and her toes curl in her knee socks. He's the only one who's ever discovered that sweet spot, he's the only one who's ever lingered over her like this before.

 

"Ben," Rey breathes, her hold on pretense slipping yet again, and with a swirl of her hips she's rubbing herself against his hard-on, long and slow and delicious strokes, the friction so exquisite it brings tears to her eyes anew.

 

As if in response to the pleading in her tone, his right hand mercifully transfers to her left breast at the same time that his other hand slides down her body, cupping her through her soaked underwear. She keens from the possessiveness of the gesture, from how massive his hand is, covering her completely as she rocks into his palm.

 

"Look at you." His voice is pitched so low she thinks for a second that she's only imagining it, thinks that it's a mere echo of the rain. "Sitting on my lap, so wet for me." She has difficulty deciphering his tone; it seems torn in half between wistful and vengeful, but with his next words it's decidedly more of the latter. "I'm tempted to call you my good girl again, but you're not, are you?" The pad of his thumb flicks along the outline of her swollen clit, a caress that's maddeningly gentle and much too brief. "You left me. I woke up and you were gone. I looked all over the hotel for you, I thought that perhaps you'd just gone down for breakfast, I ignored the fact that your luggage wasn't there anymore because I didn't want to believe it—"

 

And maybe that makes her a coward, but Rey suddenly can't bear to hear this. She tries to twist around in his arms, tries to capture his mouth in a sloppy kiss, tries to stop her heart from breaking at the mental image of Ben wandering hotel hallways in his clothes from the night before, but he ducks his head, avoiding her lips in favor of sucking harsh, punishing bruises into the column of her throat instead, his hand on her breast just a little bit rougher now, even though the fingers cupped between her thighs stay frustratingly still.

 

"I have dreamed of you every night since then." His confession is a broken rasp against her skin. "And to run into you here, at the ends of the earth—" His forefinger skims up the gusset of her panties, so light and fleeting, just once and not enough. Never enough. "To learn that you didn't even give me your real name—"

 

"I'm sorry," Rey blurts out. She feels his hand at her breast freeze in place, she feels his entire body tense, muscles coiling like wire, as if he hadn't expected her to apologize. And that, all the more, is why she needs to. "I left because it mattered more than I wanted to admit, even to myself." Has the alcohol loosened her tongue, or does it just feel as if a burden has been lifted by finally saying all of this out loud? "I woke up so happy and then you called me Kira in your sleep, and all I could think about was how I'd fucked it all up by lying to you from the start—" Ben resumes teasing her nipple and stroking her through her drenched underwear and she nearly chokes on the sheer bliss of it, throwing caution to the wind and surrendering every secret, every truth she has ever held in her heart, punctuated by her own little gasps as he picks up the pace of his ministrations— "I left because— because I was afraid you were going to leave— because I knew even then it would destroy me if you did— I'm so sorry, Ben, I—"

 

He slips his hand down her panties, thrusting one long, thick finger inside her without further ado. She cries out at the sudden intrusion and he leans over her shoulder and stifles the sound with his lips, his tongue sweeping greedily into her mouth. He tastes like spicewine and like sleep, he tastes like the lights on that long-ago December night. He tastes like everything she's ever wanted, and she returns his kiss with everything she's got.

 

When they come up for air, he rests his forehead against hers. "I promise you," he says huskily as he works another finger into her cunt, "there is nothing in the world that could have made me walk out of that hotel room had you still been in it."

 

Rey's glad for the storm, for how it masks the embarrassingly plaintive, much-too-loud sound she makes when Ben curls his fingers in a come-hither motion right after saying those sweet, blessed words. Out of the two of them, he's probably the more sober one because he has the presence of mind to lift his other hand from her breast to her face, his large palm clapping over her mouth to muffle her cries as he fucks her with his fingers as best as he can, his movements restricted by the cloth of her panties but it somehow feels even more amazing because of that, like he couldn't even wait to rip off her clothes. Like he wants her just as badly as she wants him.

 

"Not so loud, baby," he chides in her ear, gravel-voiced, and her eyes widen at the endearment. "We can't let anyone find us like this— my fingers crammed in your tight little cunt and you dripping all over me—"

 

Rey's heart slams in her ribcage. She's honestly surprised she doesn't expire on the spot, but she manages to nod, swept up in the moment now that it's safe to revel in the illicitness of it, shielded as they are by wind and rain and darkness and alcoholic haze. It's a fumbling, graceless choreography of hands, Ben's right palm over her mouth, her nails raking at his scalp, his left wrist pumping in staccato rhythm under the hem of her sweater, her other hand doing its best to reciprocate, reaching down between their bodies to caress him through his sleep pants.

 

It's when she finds herself teetering dangerously on the verge of orgasm that she grabs his wrist. "Stop." She doesn't recognize her own voice, so wrecked and wanton and breathless. "Want to come on your cock— please—"

 

"Shit," Ben groans, sounding awed and defeated all at once, "thought I couldn't get any harder—" He presses a loud kiss to her cheek. "You really are my dream girl," he murmurs, and it's— it's really cheesy and overly affectionate, and, somehow, it turns Rey on beyond belief.

 

I hope you'll still feel that way in the morning, she thinks, faintly, drunkenly, perhaps foolishly. I hope you'll fight for us.

 

And then Ben eases his fingers out of her wetness and helps her remove her panties, gently coaxing her out of his lap. There's a few moments where Rey stares straight ahead into the darkness, trembling from both anticipation and the cold that has draped over her again now that she's no longer in Ben's arms. Behind her, she hears the sounds of him fumbling with his own pants and underwear, the sounds of him switching to a more conducive position, the sleeping bag shifting slightly with the change in weight.

 

Just when Rey thinks she can't stand the waiting any longer, strong hands latch on to her hips, picking her up like she weighs nothing, and Ben sits her down on his cock. His fingers had stretched her out some and she's wet enough that there's only a brief flicker of discomfort as his length drives up into her, but the movement had been so jarring and he is so ridiculously big that her mouth drops open in a tattered, muted scream, the breath knocked out of her lungs for one dizzying second.

 

He's sitting back on his legs while her thighs are spread apart, her knees bracketing his, his erection hilted all the way inside her. Full can't even begin to describe this. She feels impaled. He kisses the sensitive spot between her shoulder-blades as his fingers run up her bare thigh, eliciting shivery trails of static, before settling back on her hipbone. She leans against him with a sigh and, ever so slowly, using her hips as hand-holds, he begins rocking her up and down his length. Everything about this moment turns into a million shattering stars.

 

*

 

The next time Ben wakes up, a glance at his watch tells him that it's almost dawn. Or what would be dawn, anyway— the storm's still going at it, rain lashing at the outer walls of the tent and wind threatening to knock the poles askew. To expect to see the sunrise herald their last morning on Ahch-To at this point would be yet another exercise in wishful thinking.

 

He'd fallen asleep turned on one side, burrowed under the fleece blanket, but he's cold everywhere Rey's not pressed up against him. She's clinging to his back, her arms wrapped around his torso, one long leg slung over his waist. He thinks about what they'd done earlier, trying to pick out distinct memories from a time that had been glossed over and blurred at the edges with an alcoholic stupor. Eventually it comes back to him— the things she'd said, the way her cries had mingled with the roar of the deluge when he gave up going slow and started bouncing her on his cock, how he'd muffled his own groans by sinking his teeth into the round of her shoulder. How very prettily she had obeyed when he told her to play with her clit while he fucked her, how beautiful the sensation had been when she came undone around him. How his mind had whited out in bliss when her fluttering walls dragged his orgasm out of him and he pumped her full of his spend.

 

Maybe it's just because he's still slightly drunk, but Ben suddenly feels more at peace than he's been in a long, long time. He understands now that he's been wandering aimless and adrift for the past several years, but in this moment he sees his path with startling clarity. He is filled with purpose. And the contrast to who he'd been before this island is staggering.

 

He rolls over, jostling Rey awake.

 

"Hmm?" The space heater's glow casts her face in a chiaroscuro of shadow and embers as she blinks drowsily at him.

 

"I hate my job," he blurts out. "No— I loathe it. With a passion. And so I'm quitting." He takes a deep breath. "I'm quitting and then I'm going to spend some time with my mother and then I'll..." He trails off. Full of purpose he might be, but he hasn't exactly thought this stirring little speech through. "Shit, I don't know. Move to England, apply for a position at the museum in Yavin or— or wherever you're going to be—" He falters again. He'd run off at the mouth, giving no thought to what Rey might want.

 

But she smiles at him. It's a soft, warm smile that in the dim light somehow makes him think of Isis and of the Madonna all at once. Her hand crosses the minute distance between them, brushing a lock of hair from his forehead before cradling the side of his face.

 

"I spend, like, all my free time at the Yavin Gallery," she says, a mischievous glimmer in her eyes. "Maybe we'll run into each other on occasion."

 

"Yeah," Ben croaks, relief flooding his veins. "Maybe."

 

He rolls on top of her, kissing her for all he's worth. At first it's just an unhurried, languid exploration of each other's mouths, tasting this newfound joy, but their movements eventually grow more urgent with each second that ticks by, measured by rainfall. Soon her sweater and camisole are pushed up over her breasts and he's taken her right nipple into his mouth, alternating between teasing the hardened peak with the tip of his tongue and sucking on it gently between his lips. She keens beneath him, spreading her legs, and he's suddenly so, so glad they didn't bother to put their underwear back on.

 

In his haste to get inside her, he accidentally dislodges the blanket and, no longer insulated by layers of alcohol and burning urgency, they both flinch. "Oh, my God, it's freezing," Rey grumbles. "Could you please— yes, thank you," she says, sounding so very prim and so very British, when he's hastily cranked up the heater and readjusted the blanket over them. "I'm still a little cold, though..." She attempts to offer him an exaggerated pout, but the effect is ruined by the happy smile still lingering on her lips.

 

"Want me to warm you up?" Ben offers with a chuckle.

 

"Yes, please," she chirps, looping her arms around his neck and drawing him down to her for another kiss.

 

They're still kissing when he slips inside her, working his way in inch by inch. She claws at his bicep as he does so, and he isn't even anywhere near perturbed by it even though his sweatshirt is cashmere, she can rake her nails along it all she wants as long as she never stops holding him in her arms.

 

"I can't get over how tight you are," Ben mumbles against her the corner of her mouth, too caught up in the exultation of the moment— in the promise of a future shining bright— to guard his tongue. "Like you can barely take it when I—" He pushes forward another inch and they both groan.

 

"I can't take it," Rey whispers, dazed and flushed beneath him. This is intoxication of a different kind, one that Ben understands entirely because he feels it, too. They've found each other, they have everything they want, they can do anything they want. There is a certain sense of invincibility that has draped over their little tent and it consumes them both. Tonight, there are no more limits. "It won't fit. You're—" A beat that seems to last forever, and then a shy, breathless, "You're too big, Professor."

 

Ben stills, raising his head so he can peer down at her. Rey's biting her lip, her demeanor both challenging and tentative, like she's testing the waters.

 

He finds himself smiling as he nuzzles his nose against hers. "I look forward," he rasps, "to devoting the rest of my life to figuring out all the ways you like it in bed."

 

Rey giggles. "And in sleeping bag?"

 

Instead of replying, he hilts himself all the way inside her in one smooth stroke. She cries out again and he doesn't hesitate to once more cover her mouth with his palm. "Quiet, Miss Niima," he growls in her ear, and, oh, how she spasms around him at that, bucking her hips to meet the pace that he sets, her thighs wrapped around his waist. As the rainstorm soars to its crescendo, he ruts into her under the blanket, thrusting in and out with enough force to make her small, perfect breasts bounce. "See, it fits," he pants against her jawline, and at first he's not really sure about what he's saying but the way she moans into his palm gives him the confidence to proceed. "Such a good girl, taking me so well—"

 

She practically glows at his praise, closing her eyes as her head rolls back and she shifts her hips to take him even deeper into her. "Ben," she whimpers, breaking character for a moment, twisting away from his palm so he can hear her clearly, "please, fuck me harder, make me forget I ever left you—"

 

He presses a kiss to the slope of her neck. "That's in the past. You have to let it go." He does as he was bid, snapping his hips against hers in a series of rapid-fire thrusts. "I still wouldn't trade that night for anything," he manages to grate out as he nears his second orgasm of the night. "I promise, believe me, sweetheart— be good for me and let it go—"

 

Her hand dips down, her fingers brushing against his cock as she rubs her clit. "I— I will," she says. "I'll try—"

 

He rewards her by slipping a hand between their bodies to pinch her nipple between thumb and forefinger. It's the added stimulation she needs to climax, suddenly and violently, and he presses his face into the side of her neck, inhaling her scent as he fucks her through the aftershocks of her orgasm, desperate now to reach his own.

 

"Come in me, Professor," Rey murmurs in Ben's ear, because she is his dream girl, because she feeds his darker streak. "Fuck me and fill me up and send me to bed dripping with your come—"

 

"Jesus Christ, Rey," Ben gasps, "you're going to kill me—"

 

He can no longer hold back, her dirty talk turning him into a goddamn mess. His back bows as he spills inside her for the second time that night and, as he collapses on top of her, she folds him into her arms with a smug, sated little smile, and again he thinks, exhaustedly, of Isis, and of Inanna and of Astarte, and all the other long-gone queens of heaven.

 

*

 

The rain stops at seven in the morning. Two hours later, when the sun has appeared from behind the clouds, Rey steals out of the tent and hurries to the Chiss research station to brave the shower in the tiny bathroom. Had the circumstances been any different, she wouldn't have bothered, considering that they're flying out later in the afternoon and there'll be a far nicer en suite at the hotel in Christchurch, but there's no getting around the fact that she reeks of sex. She doesn't want to give poor old Dr. Ackbar a heart attack— or for Luke to feed his erstwhile nephew to the porgs before the situation can be explained to him.

 

She returns to her and Ben's tent freshly showered and changed and shivering from the cold, practically diving into her sleeping bag so she can warm up again. Ben tucks her in before leaving the tent for his turn to use the bathroom. "Want to draft my resignation letter for me?" he asks.

 

Rey shakes her head with a smirk. "If I write it, it'll just read, Dear Snoke, I quit, fuck you."

 

Ben chuckles, dropping a chaste kiss onto her brow. "That wouldn't be far off from my own sentiments, actually."

 

He's been gone for around fifteen minutes when Rey hears movement and voices as the rest of the team filters out of their respective tents for breakfast. She goes out to join them, snickering to herself at how grumpy and hungover everyone looks.

 

Upon catching sight of her, Finn and Rose exchange glances and then drag her away from the camp. "Well?" Finn demands, picking up from where they left off yesterday. "What are you going to do, peanut?"

 

He and Rose are both crossing their arms and frowning at her in concern and Rey can't help but grin, grateful for her friends, grateful for her time on this island, grateful for everything. She can't exactly tell them what she and Ben had done last night, but she can divulge what they talked about. What he had told her, the future they had promised each other.

 

"So." Rey clears her throat, her grin widening with each passing second. "Funny story..."

 

*

 

The little old woman at the front desk of Chez Kanata squinted at Rey over thick, round glasses. "Checking out early, dear?"

 

Rey nodded, knuckles clenched to white around the handle of her travel case. "There's— there's someone still sleeping in my room, he's also a guest here—"

 

To the old woman's credit, she didn't seem fazed by the news. "Say no more. I'll let him have a bit of a lie in— you must have tired him out, yes?" She chuckled at Rey's fierce blush. "Well, joyeux noel and all that."

 

As Rey turned to leave, the old woman stopped her. "You know, dear— as we bid goodbye to this year, something tells me the next one will be particularly fortuitous for you."

 

"Really," Rey deadpanned, not quite believing her.

 

"Oh, yes." The old woman, whose name-tag simply read Maz, waved her off with an enigmatic smile. "I think you're going to find what you're looking for."