❆ Prologue ❆
There is a sort of cold that, if one is very lucky, they will only experience a few times in their life. And if one is very very lucky, they will only experience it briefly before they are brought into a warm home and given a warm drink and are sat by the fire to thaw.
Rey is not lucky.
She knocked on the doors of two farmhouses, their brick walls touched with a few flakes and the wooden posts around their property piled with fluffy white snow. One man told her that they had no room in their home, and he’s sorry, but he’s not going to walk the mile to the barn in this weather. The other didn’t answer at all, despite the candles in the windows and the fire-silhouetted she could see moving inside.
There is only one more house on this road, before she will be walking into what was once a green, lush forest, now blanketed in snow and dangerous in the dark.
Whether by age or intention, the wrought iron gate swings open when she presses against it. The metal is ice cold to the touch, or at least she believes it is. She lost true feeling in her fingers hours ago after she left the village, their doors closed to her as well.
The manor house has been there for as long as she can remember. It looms over the village, its grandeur almost menacing compared to the rough streets and stone and wood houses. The resident inside has never come to town, never once stepped through the tavern doors into the warmth and revelry. Whatever he needs, he supplies from elsewhere. The small village’s few offerings aren’t enough for him, it seems. She’s heard the butcher’s frustration, and some of the farmers’ as they sit at the creaky wooden tables of the tavern and complain in confusion about their wares never making it past the gates.
Snow crunches beneath her worn boots, some sneaking in through the holes in the leather and stinging her toes, the skin almost burning from the cold. It’s almost as high as her hand is long, now, and she has to trudge through it to get to the large front door.
She’s never seen a door like this. She’s seen painted doors, like that of the bookstore she’s never been into, with it’s gold and green script and a navy book with its pages spread open like bird’s wings. She’s seen stained glass doors, like the one to the tavern, with the colors shining like jewels lit by the fire inside.
Rey’s never seen a door carved like this.
Each door has three square panels, carved with scenes of battle. Violent scenes. Terrible scenes, that look almost garish when framed in such ornamentation. She stares at them for a moment, before reaching up towards the iron knocker. Like the gate, the metal stings her hand, even though she touches it through the worn wool of her cloak.
Two knocks. Thunderous, almost, in the way the iron hits the wood.
Two heartbeats, then three, then four, then five.
“Please, I beg of you!” It’s in vain, perhaps, to shout in hopes of whoever is inside hearing her through thick oak and carved stone. “I’m merely--”
She doesn’t even finish her sentence before the door is opening.
The man who opens it is older than she is, but not so old that he has grey in his hair, not yet. Years later, he will know the horrors of war and his features will represent it. His face wrinkled and scarred beyond recognition, his jaw severely disfigured on his left side. But for now, his face is whole, and scowling down at the beggar girl of just 19.
“What is it you beg of me?” he asks, voice low and irritated as he stands in the doorway.
He is dressed far more opulently than she has ever seen. His tunic is almost golden, the yellow threads woven so finely and so delicately that he practically gleams. Rey’s breathless, staring at him, and feeling the warmth that came from him opening the door. For a moment, she almost feels as though she is melting, the heat of it so significant compared to the cold she’s been walking in for the past several hours.
“Please, sir. I just need a place to stay the night. A spare room, a closet, your pantry, your barn, anything, please.”
She is past the point of bargaining. She is past the point of cleverness. She knows that she will probably lose her fingers, her toes, perhaps her life tonight if she does not find shelter soon.
“I have no room for someone the likes of you.”
And with that, the door closes, and she is left in the cold once more.
It’s cruel, truly, not only to close the door in her face, but to taunt her with such inviting scenes inside. She walks along the outer wall, seeing through the glass window panes rooms with fires, with candles lit. With people dancing, laughing, holding silver cups and dressed in brocades and wearing jewels that rival the decorations of the evergreen tree—
Oh. Yes, that’s right, a tree, with candles and ribbon decorating it. Pretty things she’ll never own herself.
It’s Christmas Eve.
The man in the manor must not be a pious person, she thinks, to forget the meaning of tonight of all nights. To turn someone in such need away as cruelly as he did.
The only gardens she is familiar with are the ones that contain vegetables and fruits and herbs, just outside the apothecary’s home, and the one outside of the church, with it’s meticulously cared for flowers in honor of the Queen Mary.
This garden, even bare as it is in the dead of winter, is far more opulent than either of those. There are more bushes and trees and hedges than she’s ever seen, trimmed to perfection beneath the blanket of harsh snow.
She’s trembling so hard she aches, now. Between her walking for almost two miles in the cold, and her constant shivering, her bones feel as though they are so frozen they will shatter like an icicle falling from a rooftop. She can no longer feel her fingers, or her toes, as she makes her way towards a gazebo of metal and glass.
In the summer, it would be so beautiful, Rey thinks. The colorful glass that makes up its roof would no doubt shine and sparkle even more than that of the tavern door, and she can just imagine the patterns it would make on the marble dias it stands on.
The stone bench beneath it is protected from the snow. It is cold as ice when she sits upon it, but at the very least it’s a place to rest, if only for a moment. It’s no warm barn or soft bed, no. But the stained glass roof will keep her from waking up beneath even more snow, forgotten and frozen in the cold.
With luck, she thinks as she lies down on the cold, hard marble and watches the snow fall through the pitch black sky, she will find someplace tomorrow, perhaps one that will offer warm wine and food, as well.
Rey is not lucky.
As the snow slows from an almost blizzard to a gentle flurry or two, so does her heartbeat, until both stop all together.
When her heart warms and thaws, it shall beat once more.
40 Years Later
“And, of course, the estate as well.”
“Of course,” Mr. Ben Solo replies, nodding.
The day is hot, and muggy. Despite the doors open in the legal office, he can still feel the sweat under his cravat. There’s no breeze to ruffle the papers of his former employer and mentor’s will, the one that declared everything should go to him.
For someone who had been through the horrors of war, it seems almost absurd that Mr. Snoke would have been done in by stomach ulcer.
“If you could sign here for me, please.”
“Of course,” he repeats, taking the quill offered to him and signing his name where the lawyer points.
Everything. Everything belongs to him, now.
“Very well, thank you, Mr. Solo.”
Despite the shadows the buildings offer as a reprieve, the warm summer air in London smacks him in the face as he steps outside, papers clutched in his hand. Having no desire to stay in the city longer than necessary, and eager to see the estate for himself, he climbs into his carriage and sits back just as the driver urges the horses forward.
Everything is covered in sheets.
The last time he was here, it was January. There was snow on the ground and frost on the bare trees, sparkling in the winter sun. Their interaction had been just as cold, if not colder, than the day itself.
For all of his influence, for all of his impact upon Ben Solo’s life, it was difficult to deny Mr. Snoke. It always had been, especially in his youth, when the man claimed to understand him better than anyone else ever could, and offered him the opportunity of a lifetime. Wealth. Control. Power. A sense of independence and freedom that he could never achieve on his own, especially not with parents of such reputation as his.
The emerald sitting room, with its mint-green walls and deep velvet chaises, has been covered to protect it fron the dust and summer sun rays. Ben steps into it, looking around, remembering the ticking of the grandfather clock now covered in the corner.
“So this is what you want.”
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
“You wish to betray me and fade back into obscurity, never to be seen again. Weakness. Is that what you wish for? To be weak and foolish, boy?”
The clock is quiet, now, not having been wound since April when the man died in his sleep. Ben had heard of his stomach pains, had received a few brief letters that were, for the most part, filled with complaints and insults.
But he never imagined that one of those would be the last he ever received from the elderly man.
“Sir, shall we move on to the gallery?”
“Yes,” Ben says, turning to look at the footman who’d accompanied him. “Yes, thank you.”
Once the sheets come off, the work begins. He leaves much of his furniture in London, intending on keeping the townhouse only as a place to stay should he need to do business. The estate is far larger and far more fitting to his needs. That is, the needs of silence and solitude after so many years of lingering voices in his head.
He can still hear the old man’s insults occasionally, the way he spat the word ‘boy’ over and over, the way his broken-then-healed-poorly jaw clenched every time Ben said something he found untoward or inappropriate or even simply not to his liking.
The first day, he helps the staff clear the way and fold the sheets. One by one, paintings are revealed, and then removed. There are so many that glorify war and violence, and he has no desire to look upon painted blood as he drinks his tea and eats his breakfast. And so they are removed, heavy mahogany frame and all, to be sold, perhaps. Auctioned, in favor of newer, brighter paintings.
The furniture he will keep. Despite the memories of sitting on chaises and having discussions of his failures, despite sitting at the dining room table and recalling when he felt too ill with self-loathing to eat or drink any of the banquet offered, it is fine furniture. He has no desire to buy new pieces, not when these work perfectly well and practically glow when polished. It would be wasteful, and a hassle to commission new sets.
Mr. Snoke hated waste and hassle.
He eats alone, the first night, in the grand dining room, and quickly decides he will not do it again. Because staring down a table of a length three times his height, and listening to the summer rain pound against the windows and the candles crackling and his own chewing and breathing and swallowing as he eats—
No. No, he doesn’t like the emptiness, and the echo it brings. He will not eat here again.
The halls are the same. Empty. Dark. Echoing, his footsteps so loud even though he tries to step as lightly as possible across the marble. The statues create macabre shadows on the walls, the slivers of moonlight passing through the clouds and the sconces in the hallways sending silhouetted figures and abstract shapes reaching towards the ceiling and spreading across the floor. Strange, all of it. In a way that makes his heart beat faster and his feet step quicker to the rooms he’s stayed in only a handful of times before in his younger years.
When he wakes, it becomes very clear that it is to remain this way.
“I refuse to stay any longer.”
He doesn’t know this butler. Mr. Snoke had a habit of losing them, and losing them often. Whenever he came to the estate, it always seemed as though there was an entirely new staff. Ben had just assumed that Mr. Snoke had been a difficult employer. After all, he wanted things done his way, and refused to hear anything else. But as he stares into the white, terrified faces of the staff he’d met only just yesterday, it becomes clear that there is something else in the midst.
“What is it?” he asks. “Is there something I am lacking to provide? Are your quarters not to your liking? Please, tell me what ails you or vexes you and I will do my best to assist.”
“There are evil things here, Master Solo,” one of the maids says. She is older, grey in her brown hair. But with her wide eyes and shaking, wringing hands, she looks more like a child who woke up from a night terror. “Please, I must go, I can’t…”
“Evil things,” Ben repeats.
The house is strange, yes. And opulent. Very, very opulent. Everything a tribute to the man that Mr. Snoke was. Yes, some of the paintings are violent, and macabre, and downright awful, but he would not say there are evil things here. Evil-looking, perhaps, but not malevolent in nature.
Still, they leave without an explanation, because every time he presses for one, they find they cannot give him one. A feeling, they say. Even the most skeptical of them depart, insisting they feel, as well.
He’s felt something, yes, but he assumed it was because the house is so much larger than his in London, and emptier than he’s ever felt it. And the presence of his former employer looms in every corner, every painting, every statue and piece of furniture. Everywhere he looks he can hear the man’s voice, recalling his lessons, his guidance. His scolding, his reprimands. His anger. His insults.
But he doesn’t feel anything evil, per se. Just the memories of a horrible man.
His first night well and truly alone in the home, he wanders.
There are more rooms than he can truly comprehend. Several sitting rooms, for entertaining - something Snoke rarely did, and if it was required of him, he only invited a handful of men who saw the world through the same red-colored lens that he did. Ben lingers in all of them, wiping his fingers along fireplace mantles, rubbing the dust that comes off between them. The staff hadn’t gotten to all of the rooms in a day - it would be impossible, even of a staff twice the size.
And so there are still sheets, there is still dust, there are still shadows as he walks along the marble halls.
He’s in the library when he feels a chill.
The velvet curtains are closed, and the fire is lit. It’s not roaring, no, but it still gives off warmth. There should be no reason he suddenly feels ice cold. There should be no reason for the hair to stand up on the back of his arms, for a shiver to roll its way down his spine the way it does. He turns to the windows, standing and placing his hands along the frame, feeling for a draft.
There is nothing.
He frowns, and pulls his night clothes more tightly around him before bringing the winged chair he’d been sitting in just a few steps closer to the fire, and returning to his book.
It starts with the drafts, like the one he felt in the library.
There is no reason for them in the middle of July. And they are perhaps why every staff member he hires leaves within a week, if not before, citing once more that there is something they cannot stand to live with.
The word ‘evil’ is used more often than it isn’t, but Ben feels no such sensation. Yes, the drafts are odd, but he has become used to them, and actually found relief in them when the summer heat becomes too much to bear. This is no evil. This is a blessing, really.
And then the drafts start blowing out candles.
One moment he will be reading in the library, indulging in the vast collection that Mr. Snoke had collected over the years, and the next the candle beside him will go out. He’ll blink in the darkness, confused and disoriented, before finding the flint and tinder and lighting the spill once more. He’ll go around to the sconces and light them once more before settling in his chair.
It only happens once every night, at the beginning. He chalks it up to the drafts, to a summer breeze that must be sneaking through the window frames no matter how many times he inspects them and feels for the source. It’s a decent explanation.
And then doors start closing by themselves.
He leaves some open to let the breeze in when the day is particularly hot. The door out to the courtyard in the middle of the house, with all of its marble statues and carved hedges, he leaves open the most. The first day, he doesn’t necessarily prop it open. He just opens it, rolling his sleeves up to his elbows in the privacy of what is now his home, no staff to appear proper to because they keep on leaving no matter how many pounds he offers them.
Within the hour, he notices a difference in the temperature, and walks by the door to find it closed once more.
The next day is just as sweltering, and he props it open with a heavy brass statue he’d found in one of the rooms. It’s an ugly thing of a man on a horse running a spear through some sort of mythical beast. The idea itself is not so strange, myth and legend a common subject for art, but it is the grotesque way the man’s face twists and the horrible, twisted position of the beast that makes Ben grimace. And so he braces it in front of the door, thinking that it will be heavy enough to keep it open as he makes his way through the house, doing the tasks the staff would normally do.
It’s only when he’s sweat through his shirt that he returns to that hall, and finds that not only has the door closed, but the brass statue has been moved. He frowns, wiping his hands of the oil that he uses to keep the staircase bannisters gleaming.
He supposes that a breeze could have been strong enough to close the door, to push the bronze statue out of the way… Except that there has been no breeze today, the leaves in the trees around the estate almost eerily still.
He props the door open once more, this time adding a large and heavy book about war and strategy that he has no caring for and no intention to read.
That does the trick for that door, at least for the time being.
It is a few weeks later when he truly feels like there is someone, something, with him. When he understands why he cannot hold staff.
There are too many things he simply doesn’t have an explanation for. The drafts he can explain a bit, though he’s at a loss when it comes to days that the world is entirely still and not even a leaf is stirred. The candles are the same as the drafts. There must have been something to extinguish them, perhaps they burned too far down or the wax is poor or the wick not made well.
And then there come the things he has no explanation for.
The brass statue is heavy. As are the multiple books he uses to prop doors open, to air out the old house and replace the lingering smell of must and mistakes. There are days when the doors close, and the books have been moved in such a way that it could not possibly have been the wind. For the wind would scatter them, the tower of them falling over. Is he not right? Would that not be how it would happen?
And yet each time, he finds the books in the same pile he’d used to open the door. The same exact orientation, even, their titles in the same order he’d stacked them in.
And then there is the matter of the books in the library.
There are a few with illustrations. Drawings of cathedrals in France and Spain. Intricate illustrated accounts of myths and legend, Hercules slaying the lion, Perseus decapitating Medusa. He hasn’t looked at them yet, having preferred the plays that Mr. Snoke never allowed him to read or attend because it was a distraction from work, even for the few hours of time they would consume.
But someone has looked at them.
He takes a day to search the house. The entryway is grand, with marble floors and a grand staircase of deep, dark wood that curls up to the second floor, small golden statues on the top and bottom pillar of the bannister. He recalls seeing them the first time he walked into this estate, his foolish younger self thinking that little golden statues on a staircase meant wealth and power and, eventually, satisfaction with how he’d lived his life.
He could not have been more wrong.
The study is empty, its grand mahogany desk still holding papers and notes and accounts from Mr. Snoke. He hasn’t had the time or energy to go through them, yet, or to remove them. A project for another day when he is not so tired from hearing doors close and feeling cold air against his cheek.
He searches every room, knowing his efforts may be in vain. He is one man, and his steps in the large, empty house echo as he walks, despite the care he takes to muffle them. If there is someone else residing in the house, they would hear his approach, and have plenty of time to conceal himself. Still, it soothes his anxieties to wander, to assure that he is the only one within these walls.
It does not, however, help the feeling of loneliness that has been weighing on his chest ever since he resigned himself to never hiring a full staff, and then resigning himself to never hiring a staff at all.
It is early autumn when he hears her for the first time.
He still wanders the halls at night. After so many years in London, being surrounded by the cacophony of other people’s lives and the noises that come with them, he enjoys the silence. The peace that comes with being well and truly alone. Of course, there is that weight, still, but he would much prefer the weight to the headaches he received while living in the city and hearing too many conversations at once.
He’s walking by one of the galleries when he hears it.
It’s not good, not really. The notes are hesitant, like a child placing their fingers upon the keys of the instrument for the first time. There’s a bit of a melody there, but it’s off key. Curious, and experimenting.
He keeps his footsteps as quiet as possible, hoping to catch the … person who has been living with him for the past few months. He can’t call them a thief, no, he hasn’t noticed anything missing. Misplaced, perhaps, but not missing. And they are not destructive, no. They just … are.
Ben leads with the heel of his foot, grateful for the soft leather slippers he put on and they way they help his efforts. He’s quiet as he approaches the open doorway, before he peeks in.
There is no one there.
They couldn’t have heard him, and they couldn’t have hid in time. He would have heard the bench move back against the floor. He would have heard the rustling of curtains, the only place to hide in such a room. But instead the music simply stops, and he’s left staring into an empty room, feeling foolish and frowning in complete and utter confusion.
He decides to go to bed, resigning that the notes were from a music box or something of the sort. Some mechanical something or other that plays such tunes, its gears finally unstuck for some reason after all these months, and continuing wherever it left off when it was wound last.
He knows that it’s ridiculous, that the notes were not from anything mechanical but instead the piano forte he always looked at but was never allowed to play.
But it’s the only reasonable explanation.
“Would you care to have us visit, Mr. Solo?”
After weeks without a social calling, or any reason or desire to call anyone to him, the ball is completely and utterly overwhelming. It’s been so long since he’s heard properly played music, since he’s heard the conversations and laughter of others that his head pounds and he claims to be unwell so that he will not have to dance.
The man standing next to him is short, his jacket a smidge too tight after indulging in all the treats that summer brings with its fresh fruit and wildflower honey. His grin is bright, eager, and Ben has no doubt his intent is not to see him, but to gaze upon the house that was limited to such few men just a year or two ago.
“I regret that I cannot,” Ben replies. He offers no further explanation, instead watching as the man’s face falls before the man’s wife tries to change the subject towards the weather and how wonderful it is to have sun for so long.
When he returns to the house, there is no draft. The candles and fire remain lit. He’s grateful for it. He’s so exhausted from the ball, both physically and mentally, that if they were to go out, he’d have no wish to lift a hand and light them again.
The drafts and doors were a nuisance, if he’s honest. The books were mildly entertaining, if only to see what his mysterious houseguest is interested in reading. Or rather, looking at. Illustrations, always, and he actually reads a few of them himself. It’s out anyways, and why climb up the ladder to put it back without being read?
He hears the piano forte only a few more times, but then whoever was playing it apparently decides they are not so skilled after all, and so it stops.
The bakery in the village makes delicious sweet buns, with honey and nuts and cream. He purchases several of them a week, eager to have the carriage he takes into town once more smell like sugar and yeast.
He buys half a dozen, every time. And yet there are only five when he goes to retrieve one after changing out of his proper clothes and into mere pants and a shirt.
He saw the baker’s wife count them. He counted them himself. He stared down at them in the basket, mouth watering but having no desire to eat one when he has no water and cloth to wipe his fingers of the sticky honey. There were six. And now there are five.
“So you like sweet things,” he says, not entirely sure who he’s speaking to, or whether he’s going mildly insane from lack of human interaction and speaking to himself just to hear a voice.
It’s a trick of his mind, he’s absolutely sure. One of those circumstances when one wills themselves to feel something, and they are then convinced it happened. Because a draft couldn’t have possibly brushed along his neck just then, as though in confirmation. He’s standing in the kitchen, and it’s a windless August day. It’s cloudy, yes, but the rain and the cool that comes with it has not yet come to the estate.
It’s just not possible.
He leaves the sweet rolls behind, escaping the room as soon as possible. When the sun has fallen and his stomach finally convinces him that yes, he does need to eat something or else he will faint, he returns. And he sees that another sweet roll has been taken, but the rest have been left on a silver platter for him. Arranged perfectly and prettily.
At this point, he’s not entirely sure whether his houseguest is trying to express apologies, or trying to mock him. And he doesn’t wish to know which is correct.
He goes through the house once more. Only this time, it is not so calculated or careful. Every room he steps into, he lights every fire, every candle, every sconce, banishing the shadows of near midnight. He pulls curtains open, tearing them in some cases, and screams when he can only hear his own footsteps, his own breathing, his own heartbeat.
Eventually he falls into bed, peace of mind not found but exhaustion begging him to let his frustration and confusion go for just a few hours.
He wakes up with no answers, and one less sweet roll.
“May I confide in you about something?”
“Yes, of course.”
There are very few people he enjoys the company of. And while he cannot say with sincerity that he would enjoy having Mr. Poe Dameron in his life every single day, he does occasionally enjoy walking the streets of London with the man.
Especially considering the effort to took for him to convince Dameron to let him into his life after he finally cut himself from Snoke.
“I may sound mad,” Ben starts. “But I do believe that there is something haunting Snoke’s estate.”
“It would certainly explain your lack of staff,” Poe replies.
“So you don’t think me mad?”
“For better or worse, Solo, you are one of the most logical and reasonable people I know. No doubt Snoke had something to do with that. I recall you chasing butterflies in our boyhood and daydreaming during lessons,” Poe teases. A horse whinnies somewhere, and Ben looks over at the other man. He has silver in his hair, now. “If you say that something is lingering there, I’m willing to believe you.”
“I will admit, you are taking this far better than I imagined you would. I expected to be mocked.”
“I will mock you for plenty of other things that are in your control,” Poe assures him. “For example, your distaste for Lady Elenor and your preference of sweet wine. But considering your letters expressing your frustration about your inability to keep people in your employment, I’d say this is out of your control.”
Ben sighs, closing his eyes against the summer sun and listening to the sounds of people around him. He truly does enjoy the quiet and peace of just being alone. “What do you suggest I do?”
“I wish I had advice for you, old friend, but the best I can offer is my chateau by the sea for a week or two. Perhaps leave the windows open in that old house, and they’ll decide to fly out?”
“I don’t believe that’s how haunting works, Dameron.”
“It could be worth a try.”
He’s almost entirely certain that this is just the man’s way of getting him to finally indulge in the sea and someone’s company, but he accepts nonetheless.
Two weeks by the sea does him little good. Despite Dameron’s insistence that fresh air will clear his mind and that he will find peace listening to the waves, and that perhaps whoever has been haunting the estate will become bored with the lack of someone to pester, when he returns to the estate, the moment he opens the door there is cold air upon his cheeks. Eager, almost.
I’ve missed you, it seems to say.
“Forgive me,” he says, speaking to the empty air. “I needed some time away.”
His staff were right, he finally decides, after finding stacks of books in the library once more. There is something here. Someone here. But they are not … evil, per se.
They merely … are.
He finally goes through the papers in Snoke’s study. He doesn’t feel the draft in here, but that doesn’t make it any less cold. He stands in the doorway for a moment, looking in at all the deep, rich wood. All the leather-bound books and pieces of parchment. The wooden and brocade chair he sat in often during his visits here, listening to the man go on and on about his lack of progress, of achievement, of sense and logic. Foolish, he was called. Childish. A mistake.
Ben has to force himself to step forward into it, quickly getting a fire going in hopes of banishing the chill from his chest. It doesn’t help enough.
There are many papers. Papers of business, contracts with other old men Ben met a handful of times throughout his apprenticeship. These are more recent, though. He needs to search older.
He looks well into the night for anything about the house that is now his. He has the deed, yes, but he’s looking for accounts. Stories. History. Anything. Snoke purchased it from another man sometime in his thirties. That’s all Ben truly knows about it. He knows it was purchased because of the deed, and he knows the age of his old mentor because Snoke touted it as a grand achievement - one Ben could make, as well, should he follow Snoke’s business practices and advice to the letter.
He did, and still managed to fail in the old man’s eyes.
It is well past midnight when he decides to give up, the fire low and his eyes aching as he finally stands from the chair. He trudges to his room, aware of a chill lingering to his left, but deciding to ignore it as he walks the halls.
It is September when he sees her for the first time.
The rain pounds against the windows of the library, the fire roaring and his tea steaming beside him. At the cards table near the window, there is a book. An illustrated book of The Odyssey, black and white block prints of illustration pressed onto every five pages or so. Occasionally, out of the corner of his eye, he will see the pages flutter and turn. It’s subtle, so subtle it can be passed off as that same damned draft he’s felt since July.
He knows better, now.
Ben’s careful not to disturb his guest, watching as the pages flip and flutter. He begins to notice that, whenever the pages are turned, they always land on the pictures.
“Can you not read?” he asks out loud.
For a moment, there is nothing. No chill to confirm or deny. But after a moment, there is something. A breeze against his left cheek, then his right cheek. Moving his head ever so slightly as if to shake—
“How about left cheek for no, right cheek for yes?” he offers, discomforted by how whatever it is simply moved him.
A coolness to his right cheek. Yes.
If he does lose his mind, he supposes, there would be no one to give a damn. And so he might as well lose it entirely and speak to whoever … this is.
He stands, and there is a chill at his back, as though eager like a child. He crosses to the card table, and picks up the book, before returning to the chair that has become his the past few months.
He hasn’t read the epic poem in years. Then again, he spent some of his early days here reading, before he realized that without a staff to do the work for him, he must do it himself. And so he can only indulge when he’s finished caring for the estate that was left to him. For as awful as the man who once resided in it was, and for as awful as some of the memories within these halls may be, it is a very fine house, and he has no desire to let it fall into disarray then shambles then ruin.
“Sing, Muse...” he starts.
Whoever it is, they have decided not to sit in the chair across from Ben, but right beside him. He can feel the chill on his arm as he reads, such a strange contrast to the fire roaring just on his opposite side. He hasn’t read the poem in a long time, and he fears his meter may be off. There is a correct way to recite it, he knows, but he’s never read it aloud before.
He’s hardly read aloud to anyone, before.
He is several pages in when the chill against his arm grows stronger. As though someone has pressed ice to his forearm, instead of just a cold autumn breeze. Ben stops mid-sentence, and looks down.
Hands. Just barely there. He can see the brocade of the chair through them, but nonetheless they are there.
And so is she.
She’s kneeling on the ground beside the chair like a child, eager to listen and please. Her hands are braced on the arm of the chair. Her attire is poor, so very poor. Even as translucent as she is, he can see the threadbare nature of her dress. An old style, a simple peasant’s style from so many years ago.
The moment he stops reading, she looks up at him, eyes wide as saucers.
He can just barely see a pert nose, freckles across it, lips parted in a gasp before she disappears from beside him.
“Wait—” he starts, but it’s too late. She’s already disappeared, and the chill with her. Within moments, he feels like he’s almost sweating. With the lack of her, the fire becomes too warm, and he stands to put it out.
He doesn’t feel the chill of her as he makes his way to the kitchen to fill a carafe of water, and make one more pot of tea. He still doesn’t feel the chill of her as he walks back to his bedroom, through the dark hallways made even darker and colder by the rain storm outside. Still, everything feels entirely too warm, and he strips his shirt and falls into bed in trousers. Sweat clings to his brow, his neck, his collarbone as he lies there and stares up at the canopy.
The startled, wide-eyed, pretty face he’d seen remains behind his eyelids even when he closes them in a vain attempt to sleep.
With autumn fast approaching, it’s difficult to tell what is truly a cool wind, and what is her. Which makes him frustrated and feeling exceedingly foolish for reading to what could just be empty air.
But he still reads, because if she is there…
Then perhaps she’s listening.
It’s a week before he sees her again. This time, she is already sitting in the room when he walks in with a pot of tea and tray of scones. He damn near drops it as he stares at her standing by the window, the darkness of the night behind her allowing for him to see her more clearly.
She’s still barely there, and he worries that if he blinks she’ll disappear. So he does his best to stare, uncaring if he’s being rude, so that he can observe her more.
There are snowflakes in her hair. It’s loose, waved around her shoulders, like it had been put in a braid. It’s damp-looking, too. She’s thin. Too thin, with boots that have seen many, many better days. He can see the holes in the sides, in the toes, as he sets the tray down on the card table.
“Can you…?” he asks, and she tilts her head in question before he gestures to the pot of tea.
She stares at it, opening her mouth, but no sound comes out. No cool breeze touches his cheeks. Instead, he watches as she shrugs. Her form shimmers like the palest, thinnest gossamer. A sheet of ice just barely thick enough to see through, or like frost on a window pane.
“Hello,” Ben breathes.
Evil things, his staff had said. Had they seen her? Or had they just experienced things beyond the realm of reality, beyond logic, and immediately called it ‘evil’ as humans tend to do? Because she certainly doesn’t feel evil, or even cruel or haughty like some of the women he ’s attended parties with.
She seems almost … sweet. A spirit who enjoys the pictures in books and the sweet rolls with their honey and nuts on top.
The ghost says nothing. But she smiles, soft and hesitant, before she uses one spectral hand to point towards the book on the card table.
“You wish for me to continue?” Ben asks.
“Very well, have you heard everything I’ve been reading? Or shall we start from the beginning?”
He watches as she looks to the book. He can see her effort, the way her nose scrunches, and then there is that draft he is so familiar with. It opens the book, the cover hitting the table with a soft ‘thunk’ before the pages flip and come to where he’d marked it with an olive green ribbon.
“So you were listening,” he mutters, looking to her form once more. “Good to know it wasn’t a waste of breath.”
He could argue that he’s losing his mind. That the lack of social interaction is well and truly getting to his head, and he’s having visions of a beautiful girl to make up for the loneliness he’s felt the past few months. But as he watches her take her position beside him once more, kneeling upon the floor despite his protests, gesturing to the pictures in answer as to why she is positioned the way he does, there is too much that is unexplained. The icy cold of her hand as she rests it on the arm of the chair, the way he can feel her beside him. Much like the warmth of someone standing too close, only with her chilled instead of warm.
He well and truly believes she is there, despite what a lifetime of logic and reason should tell him.
Ben reads until the cold of her fades away. One moment she’s there, and then he breathes, and she’s gone. The fire once more feels entirely too hot as her presence goes. He looks down to where she’d been, finding no more shimmer, and only empty air.
“We’ll continue tomorrow,” he says into the night, marking the book and closing it once more before reaching for his now-cold tea.
Her presence becomes almost permanent.
Or, he supposes it’s been permanent for a while, now. He’s been feeling the drafts, shivering for months now. He just didn’t know it was her.
She doesn’t go into town with him. But she is there when he returns, a cool breeze caressing his cheeks when he opens the front door. She’s there when he receives the deliveries of food for the week, her eyes wide as she takes in what he would guess is more food than she’s ever seen in her … well, her former life, he supposes.
It’s not hard to guess, not with her collarbones so sharp and her hands so thin.
She is, of course, there when he reads. He doesn’t think himself a very good reader. He can recall his father reading to him as a child, and his mother. His mother’s voice was soft and steady, a soothing balm to whatever the day had been, or calming him after such exciting adventures. His father’s was quite the opposite, as Ben bounced with every cannon shot or horse ride, every character a different voice.
He wishes he could recall them now, and use them himself.
The first time he hears her laugh, it’s a faint thing, and in the heartbeat after it happens, he’s not entirely sure he heard it at all.
It’s pouring rain. A good-intentioned attempt to gather herbs and flowers from the garden turned into a muddy mess. His trousers have at least six inches of mud on them, his boots squelch with rain water, and his white shirt is completely soaked through. His dark hair is plastered to his head, and as he steps inside, he looks down at the flowers he’d picked, the last before winter’s cold fingers pluck the life from the rest.
They’re limp, now, soaked and weighed down from the force of the rain.
He hadn’t noticed her, the cold air of autumn and the chill of the rain making it hard to tell what’s her and what isn’t. But he hears her. Oh, he hears her.
It’s not dainty. It’s not the giggles that he’s used to behind lace and painted fans and soft leather gloves. It’s a snicker, and he looks up to see her form in front of him, her hand raised to her mouth, forefinger curled and pressed to her lips and her other arm wrapped around herself as she watches him.
“Well, that was a waste of time and effort,” Ben mutters, reaching up to run his hand through his wet hair. He shakes his head, water droplets falling to the marble floors, and again he hears her laughter.
He finds he quite likes the sound.
There are times when he has to go to London for more than just the pleasure of seeing a friend.
The estate was not the only asset that Mr. Snoke left to him. There are business assets to care for and consider, or attempt to pass off to someone else. Which means sometimes hiring a coachman from town and staying in his townhouse for a week. His much too-warm, much too-empty townhouse, despite the staff that he does manage to keep there.
He is gone for a fortnight, once, a messy business with a man who is less than honorable and insisted the price of Snoke’s assets was too high. Ben assured him that it was an incredibly decent price, but if he wanted to decline the investment opportunity, then he was more than welcome to.
It was back and forth more than he would like, and he spent many nights at his desk, running his hand through his hair and drinking tea to battle the way his brow pounds with frustration and lack of sleep. Despite the nonsense of it all, he finds himself missing the manor. And especially missing the calmness of reading to a woman he’s still not convinced exists, even with such evidence before him.
And yet he finds himself looking forward to the day he returns.
Her voice startles him so much he damn near falls backwards down the stairs.
He hasn’t even taken off his hat, yet. It’s still dappled with rain as he looks up at her, wide-eyed, her form shimmering on the staircase. She’s always been small, thanks to the circumstances of her life as he assumes it, but she looks even smaller with her arms wrapped around herself. Protective. Wary.
“I … I had business in London,” he explains, finally taking off his hat and setting it on some side table that, in Mr. Snoke’s time, always held an almost gaudy bouquet of fresh flowers, the blooms overflowing and nauseatingly strong in scent. Now it holds an empty vase, and his damp hat. “I ask for your forgiveness.”
“I assumed I’d finally frightened you away,” she says, and he can hear where she attempts mirth, but it falls flat as he walks up to her.
“Never,” he promises. “You … can speak.”
“I was not able to before,” she confesses, looking down at him from where she is standing three steps above. “It’s new.”
It’s new, and it’s wonderful, he thinks. She seems more solid, too, and he thinks her freckles are more prominent. Sprinkled like frost across her nose. He can see her lips, too, can see they are chapped. And he can see the snow flakes on her eyelashes. And he can see she’s watching the way he’s examining her.
“I suppose you have questions.”
“I froze to death,” she explains first, matter-of-factly. “In the garden.”
“How long ago?”
“Four decades, I’d say.”
“And your name?”
It’s horrible, really, how unsurprised he is that it was Snoke who ultimately caused her death. She speaks of a younger man than the one he knew, who was just harsh and cruel, who turned her away on Christmas Eve, of all nights, claiming to have no room in the large house of his. The man’s disdain for those less fortunate than he was, no matter what the matter, was truly despicable.
“Then I hope it brings you some comfort to know he has passed,” Ben offers.
“I know,” Rey replies. “I was there when he did.”
The private dining room does not feel so empty when she is there. He’s taken to eating in one of the sitting rooms at a card table, because it felt less pathetic. But now she sits beside him, her form just barely there, but he can see the hardness in her eyes and the clench of her jaw as he mentions his former mentor. The true cause of her death, he supposes.
“I don’t suppose he knew of you like … this,” Ben says. He reaches for his wine, something from Snoke’s cellar, dark and sweet.
“I aimed to make him as miserable as I could, but he did not know of me, no,” Rey replies.
For someone whose entire being, her entire existence in this realm has been caused by such tragedy, cruelty, and sadness, there is a lightness to her. When she mentions making Snoke miserable, there’s just a touch of a smile upon her lips.
“Like you had attempted to make me miserable?” Ben asks, raising a brow as he takes another sip of soup. He abandoned the trial and error and eventual disappointment of trying to find a cook willing to stay in the house, and so he’s limited to what he knows how to cook himself.
“I never tried to make you miserable,” she explains. “I was merely … making my presence known.”
“You have succeeded,” he replies. “You are the reason I cannot find any staff who are willing to stay.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, and she genuinely sounds like it. “I tend to wander. It’s … all I can do, really.”
Forty years. Four decades of wandering aimlessly through a house she was denied entry to.
“And what were you hoping to achieve, by making your presence known?” Ben asks.
She really is pretty, he thinks, as her brows furrow slightly. Her lips part, as though to speak, but no sound comes out. “I … know not,” she finally decides. “Perhaps… for someone who would acknowledge it. Instead of being ignored or cast away as I was in life.”
“You shall not be cast out here,” Ben promises. A pause. “I know no holy man to ask who would do such an act.”
“You think me a demon?” she asks, and there’s laughter in her voice.
“I don’t know what I think,” he confesses.
For demons are supposed to tempt sin, are they not? And for all of her beauty, the only thing he feels for her when he looks at her is … sadness.
She becomes a companion, almost. Someone who lingers with him as he walks through the vegetable garden and gathers root vegetables before the first snow. Someone who keeps him company as he cuts those vegetables for a stew, referring to the recipes that Dameron so kindly copied and sent him when it became obvious no cook would stay the night.
“So you like sweet things,” Ben says once more, but now he can see her as she picks apart a sweet roll. She breaks it off into pieces the size of her thumbnail, savoring each and every bite.
“I didn’t get to eat them much when I was alive,” she confesses. “It’s only in death that I can indulge.”
“Did you eat when the house belonged to Snoke?”
He can recall that, actually. He can recall one instance when there was a dinner party, full of old men with far too many pounds in their accounts. He remembers feeling awkward, sitting between men three times his age, and having to listen to every bit of conversation and think up something clever should he be asked to join. He rarely was.
Snoke had been livid when they came up one cake short, the staff having no explanation for it aside from perhaps mishearing how many guests were arriving. Still, their befuddlement now is clear to him - they had made enough cakes. One had simply gone missing.
“He turned the darkest shade of red when he was angry,” Rey recalls.
“That he did,” Ben agreed, smiling a bit at the memory now that he knows it involves her, in some way.
It turns out quite a lot of Snoke’s ire over the years has to do with the woman who enjoys sitting with him at the breakfast table.
“Are there things you miss about life?” he asks as they wander through the gardens. It’s not quite winter yet, but it’s getting there, and the combined chill of her presence with the chill of late autumn means he’s bundled up in wool from head to tow. But he has no complaints. He’d much rather be cold and with her than warm inside and utterly lonely.
“Aside from living?” she asks, and there’s a sad, wry little smile upon her lips.
“Forgive me,” he begs. He’s grateful for the cold, because it means that the flushing of his ears and cheeks can be excused for the wind instead of shame. “I didn’t—”
“You’re forgiven,” Rey promises. She looks to the sky. “I miss sleep.”
“You don’t sleep?”
“No. The last time I fell asleep was…”
She trails off. He nods, knowing the story of her death and recognizing she has no wish to repeat it. He has no wish to hear it again, either.
“So what do you do when night falls?”
“Wander,” she explains. “Same as you.”
He can’t argue with that, he decides, as they make their way into the more decorative garden. He hasn’t hired a gardener, though he supposes he could, considering the house is off of the grounds, and beyond where she can go. The shrubs and bushes have grown during the summer, their leaves brown and brittle now.
“What else do you miss?”
“Feeling the petals of flowers beneath my fingers. Grass between my toes,” she explains.
“You cannot feel these things now?”
“No,” she replies simply. “As I can’t feel you.”
To show him, she reaches for his hand. He feels as though he just put his fingers in a pile of snow, but when he looks down, there is no pink or paleness from the cold. He can see her fingers through them, and then watches as she moves them away.
“Why is that?” he asks. “You can hold tea and pastries just find, as well as books.”
“They aren’t living. Flowers are living. Grass is living. You are living.” Her tone becomes harder, her gaze distant and towards something that is not him. He follows it, and finds himself looking at the gazebo.
“I am not," she says.
October comes with jeweled leaves, bright oranges and vibrant yellows. Rey enjoys spinning them between her fingers as they walk through the main courtyard.
The statues of war and violence have been removed, leaving empty spots of stone and dirt. He’ll need to plant something or replace the statues with something less … gruesome. Another thing to put on his endless list regarding the care of the estate.
The more they’ve spoken, the more solid she becomes. The first time he could see the shades of her, he was startled, and she questioned his staring at the breakfast table before he explained that he could tell the color of her hair, now. Not the exact shade, no, but he can tell it’s darker than her skin. That the dress she wears is just barely darker. He can’t tell the hue, no, but he can assume. And he can see the cracks in her knuckles, now, can see just how worn the laces of her boots are. More and more details show up every day, it seems.
She knows not why, either.
“I’ve been asked to join my friend for a week or two. At his house near Canterbury. Will you be all right?”
“You say this to a dead woman who has been entertaining herself for the past forty years,” Rey replies with no small amount of mirth. He looks down at her, and she’s grinning that smile he’s come to know from her. The one that shows her teeth, the one that stretches her cheeks and makes her eyes narrow and crinkle. The one that makes him feel warm, despite the chill that constantly comes from her spectral form.
“Forgive me if I wanted to be considerate,” he mutters in return.
“You’re forgiven,” she replies, cheeky as ever, and he sighs.
He will miss her. He doesn’t tell her this, but he will.
For as much as he dislikes balls, he has to admit he missed some aspects of them. Though he doesn’t enjoy dancing so much as his friend, or a Mr. Finn Trooper he was introduced to upon arrival at Yavin House. But he does enjoy the music, especially the waltzes. And he enjoys the laughter he hears, and watching people smile and enjoy themselves around him.
He wonders vaguely if she can dance, before deciding he will ask, even though he’s almost certain he already knows her answer.
“Tell me, who is she?”
Dameron has to raise his voice a little over the reel that’s being played, men and women laughing as they move in circles around each other. The pace is a little quicker, and some mistakes are made, but that only results in giggles and chuckles.
“Who is whom?” Ben asks.
“The woman who you’re thinking about while standing in this corner,” Dameron replies as he presses a drink into Ben’s hands.
Ben doesn’t drink, instead looking out to the dancing couples once more. “It matters not. She’s unattainable,” he says, hoping that his friend will drop the subject.
And of course, because it’s Dameron, that only piques the man’s attention further. Ben should have known. “Unattainable, huh?” Dameron turns, looking out at the dance floor as well. “Barring the highest royalty and nobility, I see no reason why a lady may be considered unattainable. Your inheritance from Snoke would be enough to sway even the most conservative of parents, and you have fine blood in your veins. If you wish to keep your secret, you may, but I assure you that what you may consider unattainable is very much not.”
Ben says nothing.
“How is the haunting going, by the way?” Poe asks, his voice light as he looks towards Ben.
Ben again says nothing, instead taking a long sip of the sweet wine that had been handed to him.
For as charming and handsome as he is, most people forget that Poe Dameron was also once a fine commander. They forget that he worked with Ben’s mother, Leia Organa, and has a much respected education. He’s also clever, and so Ben isn’t surprised when Poe mutters, “You’re playing me for a fool.”
Ben simply continues remaining silent, letting his lack of an answer become an answer.
“You’re not playing me for a fool,” Poe realizes. “I … unattainable indeed, Solo, I …”
“Her name is Rey. I’ll confide in you her story when we are not surrounded by mirth and merriment, for I have no wish to ruin it.”
Poe merely nods. Ben looks over, and sees the man practically downing his wine, his cheeks pale at the realization of exactly what Ben means.
“Her name is Rey,” Poe repeats, once they have returned to his home and retired to the study. Dancing clothes and jackets and cravats abandoned, Poe stands in his shirt, the collar undone and revealing dark chest hair with bits of silver. He’s clutching his cup of wine like someone will attempt to take it from him, and he leans back against the piano forte, hand braced on the engraved wood like it may keep him from falling.
To his credit, he is entirely unsurprised by Snoke’s role in the young woman’s death. He listens intently, not even taking a sip as Ben explains the circumstances.
“If I have lost your friendship, know I understand, and I ask you not to tell my mother,” Ben pleads gently. “I sound mad, I’m sure.”
“You do, yes,” Poe replies, his handsome face turned downwards in a confused, concerned frown. “But I … I do believe you, surprisingly.”
“You were born from a woman who is a convincing liar but would not lie about something like this, and a man who would lie about anything but does it incredibly poorly,” Poe says, and Ben has to chuckle at that. Yes, that sounds right, doesn’t it? “I … how long have you…?”
“She’s been making her presence known since I moved in, but she only just started to speak in the middle of September. I’ve spoken to her every day since.”
“And here I was worried you were shutting yourself inside that dreadful place with no interaction at all,” Poe says, an attempt at a tease. It’s a poor one, though, as he takes another sip of his wine before meeting Ben’s gaze. “… You know she’s dead, correct?”
“I know,” Ben says quietly. “Yes, I'm aware.”
She’s sitting on the bannister as she usually does when he returns from a trip, whether it be to Dameron’s or London or just into town. She seems more solid today. He can still see the staircase and the rest of the polished bannister through her, but it is easier to see her rather than it is to see through her.
“Thank you,” Ben says, setting his trunk down and taking off his hat. He reaches for her hand, and she raises a brow at him, before indulging him. It takes some coordinating between the two of them, but they manage something almost like him lifting her hand to kiss it. His lips feel like he pressed ice to them, but when he pulls back, he sees that her cheeks have darkened slightly, and she’s staring at him with wide-eyes and softly parted lips.
“I’ve missed you,” he says.
“And I you,” she breathes.
He has never looked forward to feeling cool so much in his life, not even in the hottest day of summer.
Late autumn comes with rain. Of all the staff he misses the most, he thinks he would much like a carriage driver. At the very least then he would be protected from the elements as he makes his way back from town.
Rey doesn’t greet him on the stairs like she usually does. His best guess is she’s watching the rain from the library, or standing in one of the archways, watching as it pours down into the courtyard. She’d told him once that it was much more peaceful to watch it now, when in her life she watched the skies with worry of being caught in it and getting soaked. Unlike him, she had no warm home, no tub of hot water to sink into.
He’s dripping in the foyer, damn near slipping on the stairs as he makes his way up to his room.
The bath takes longer than he’d like to heat and prepare, and he stands shivering and listening to the storm pounding on the roof.
It’s only after he’s in the bath, sighing as it feels almost scalding against his skin, that he realizes some of the chill is not entirely from his time in the rain.
Ben dips beneath the water, running his hands through his hair before he comes up with a gasp. Slicking it back, he reclines against the tub, and feels the cool air kiss his cheeks and bare shoulders. He closes his eyes, feeling the shivers subside the longer he remains in the hot water.
And yet … despite the fire he lit that is now almost roaring, there’s still that chill…
“You’re not as good as hiding your presence as you think you are,” he mutters.
He doesn’t even open his eyes, but he hears the quick opening and closing of the bathroom door, and he smiles slightly to himself despite the brilliant flush on his cheeks, stretching to his ears and down his chest.
He tries to kiss her on the first of December.
It’s raining again. The library is the coziest place to be, with its warmly lit sconces and the roaring fire. He keeps the tea coming, moving from Earl Grey to English Breakfast and then a more delicate green that a store in London had when he went a week ago to finish up some business. Rey likes the green, sipping delicately as she kneels beside him once more, listening to the Iliad this time.
He sees she’s finished her cup of tea out of the corner of his eye, and moves to stand. “Here, let me—”
“Oh, I can—”
He’s only had the experience of falling face-flat into a mound of snow once in his life, at the amusement of Poe Dameron when they were younger. But coming face to face with her feels very much like that. Their chests would be pressed together if she were alive, and he finds himself staring down at her, at the frozen freckles across her cheeks, her lips that, despite the cold and shimmering silver nature of her, still look so soft…
His attempt is for naught, because the moment he leans in, he just feels as though he’s stuck his head in the snow bank, and he feels no pressure. No softness. Nothing. Just cold.
She can’t cry, he doesn’t think, but she looks like she’s about to as he pulls back. “You wouldn’t wish to, anyways,” she whispers.
“And why wouldn’t I?”
“I’ve never been wanted anywhere, by anyone,” she says, saying it so firmly and with such conviction that he can’t help but believe it for just a heartbeat. He opens his mouth to protest, but before he can, she’s gone, and he’s left in the too-warm library.
He finds her in the garden.
Everything is drab and brown now, leaves brittle and crunching beneath his boots as he walks towards where her form is … not truly standing, but not floating, either, like some of the descriptions he’s read of ghosts in literature. She’s just … there. Her arms wrapped around herself almost protectively as he crunches towards her.
“I ask for your forgiveness,” he says.
“For attempting to…”
“Then I ask yours,” she replies, and she turns towards him. “I … I’m not used to being wanted.”
“I can imagine not.”
“My parents abandoned me,” Rey explains. “When I was a girl. I’ve been on my own ever since.”
He tries to reach for her hands, but of course, his touch goes right through. Still, she indulges him, and lifts her hands so that he may pretend to hold them. He will never be used to the cold of them, he thinks, or the way that his skin never shows the sensation in paleness or pinkness. He can just feel it.
“I have no intention of leaving,” Ben says. “After all, if I can’t get staff to stay here a night, I don’t believe I could convince anyone to buy it, even if I put it at an absurdly low price. I would like to stay, if you will let me.”
“Yes, of course.” Her smile is sweet and soft. “I have been more entertained in these months than I have been in my entire lifetime.”
“I’m glad.” What else does he say? He just stares down at her, ignoring the way the rain starts to come down again, a cold droplet hitting his temple and rolling down his cheek, then his jaw. Her hand reaches up, and though he can still feel the water on his skin, it’s the chill of her ‘touch’ that makes him smile in return.
For as absurd as some of Poe’s ideas may be, as they always have been, even in their childhood, Ben has to admit the idea of hosting a Christmas Eve ball is a fine one.
“Let her see life,” Poe had explained, sitting in Ben’s townhouse in London three weeks before the date itself. “It’s the perfect time. You can pass her off as a draft somewhere, old windows and a cold night. She can move about and enjoy holiday treats and the music. Perhaps experience something she’s never before.”
“I can promise that the concept of a party in itself is one she’s never experienced before,” Ben replies.
“Then let it be your gift to her.”
Just as she is terrible at concealing her presence to him, his senses so in-tune to the change of temperature or the flicker of something out of the corner of his eye, she is terrible at concealing her joy. It’s in her eyes, when he mentions a ball.
“It looks strange to not host a ball after inheriting the house,” Ben explains. “I can pass off the time with the excuse of making sure the house was to my liking instead of Mr. Snoke’s, but it won’t be long before I am required to entertain, for propriety’s sake. As much as I dislike it.”
He may dislike hosting and entertaining, but the idea of doing it for her happiness makes his heart skip as he watches her. She’s very good at keeping her face composed, but he watches as her eyes widen and almost sparkle at the mention of it.
“I think it’s a fine idea,” she replies, but he can see her form shiver and shimmer with what he thinks may very well be excitement.
And so the planning begins.
The past few Christmases he’d spent alone. Though he smelled the boughs of evergreen and holly when visiting Snoke’s clients and in the streets as people loaded trees onto carts, he always returned home to empty walls and the smell of balsam absent.
He can recall the Christmasses of his childhood, with pastries aplenty, his mother’s apron always covered in flour despite her being of noble blood. There were always many trees in their home, all decorated with candles and ribbons and pretty things. He has no sense of decoration for that sort of thing, and so he pays people to do it for him. Rey makes herself as scarce as she can. The chill of her being still lingers, but like he plans to for the ball itself, he tells the staff that there is a draft he has not yet found the source of yet.
They don’t question it, and soon there is holly wrapped around the bannisters, a tree in the grand foyer, dripping in shining things and glittering in the light of the chandelier.
He catches Rey staring up at it after the staff leave, her eyes wide with child-like wonder as she reaches to touch some of the baubles. For a moment, she looks almost solid, and he has half a mind to reach forward, to place his hand upon her lower back, to look up at the tree with this woman who has been through so much sadness and tragedy and yet still finds joy in her afterlife, somehow.
This woman who is of stronger mind and heart than he has ever been, and far stronger than the mind Snoke had wanted from him.
“Tea?” Ben asks, heart aching in his chest and tongue finding nothing else to say as he watches Rey.
She looks to him. “A minute more?” she asks softly.
“Stand as long as you wish. I’ll go put the kettle on.”
The tea is steeping and the biscuits have been arranged on the platter. He carries it out and finds her still looking up at the tree, arms wrapped around herself, eyes seeing beyond the baubles and balsam branches.
He says nothing, instead making his way up towards the library for their nightly reading, and feeling the cold of her beside him as she joins him.
London is the busiest it’s ever been, and if he had his way, he wouldn’t be here at all. But business must be done, and though the baker in the village makes the best sweet rolls, he requires something a bit more formal for the ball.
“Something of every flavor,” he insists. Not because he doesn’t know what Rey likes, but because he wants for her to try absolutely everything. He knows she likes chocolate, and she enjoys strawberries, and she likes the whipped cream with sugar that he occasionally makes when the weather is just right.
This is her party. He will spare no expense to make sure she gets to enjoy it as much as she possibly can. And that means food, and music, and decorations, if she cannot dance or converse with anyone as a living attendee would.
“Commission a dress,” Poe suggests.
“Whatever for? She can’t very well wear it,” Ben replies.
“No, but it will be something nice for her,” the other man explains. “She’s never owned a gown. It can be given away afterwards, or put in the attic, but it would be worth it for the look on her face, at the very least. To be given something like that.”
He’s not wrong, Ben decides. And it’s not as though he wants to spend the pounds he inherited on anything lavish like new carriages or paintings and statues more than what he’s already purchased to replace Snoke’s gruesome collection.
The cranberry silk is smooth and slides between his fingers, the silver beads delicate. He has no idea what he’s doing, if he’s entirely honest, but he’s seen the way she reaches for the silver baubles on the tree, the way she looks up towards the lights. She’s never had the opportunity to admire shining things, let alone wear them.
“This will do nicely,” he says, nodding towards the woman who was all too eager to help him through his cluelessness. “Thank you very much.”
It’s an expense, yes, and perhaps an unwise one, given how much fashion changes just in a year and how much the silver beading and embroidery will cost.
But he thinks about her hands and how they may caress the fabric, the look in her eyes as she sees it, and decides it is well worth it.
“I’m glad to be home,” Ben says, dusting the snow off of the shoulders of his coat before he reaches for her hand like he always does. And he fully expects her to play with him, to lift her hand along with his as she does, an attempt to convince themselves that perhaps they can have something, anything that is remotely similar to what others in this world are blessed with.
Much to his surprise, though, when he touches her, she is solid. Ice cold, still, as she always is, but solid. And he stares at her, wide-eyed, as he feels her fingers in his.
She is smirking, damn her, before her lips part into a grin so wide it pulls her cheeks and makes her eyes narrow. “I’ve learned something new,” she teases.
“You—“ he starts.
“I’ve been practicing, in the garden,” she explains eagerly. “Dormant does not mean dead. It’s still alive, just in rest.”
He stares at her, mouth agape for far too long, apparently. Because he watches as her eyes dull, as her mouth loses its grin. “Wha—” she starts, concern in her voice, before he’s reaching to cup her cheeks and pull her in.
He can feel her hands on his wrists, holding him to her. It’s cold, yes, just like before when he attempted at the very beginning of the month. But unlike before, he can feel her. His lips mould to hers, and he presses her against the bannister, the entire front of his body feeling as though he just threw himself into a snowbank like a child. And he’s just as giddy as a child, grinning against her lips as she smiles in return.
“Your hair is soft,” Rey breathes. He feels it against his mouth, in his lungs, icy and startling but he wouldn’t exchange it for the world.
“You … I … “ he starts, but he can’t find the words, and so he just kisses her again, and again.
He kisses her until he only kisses empty air, and finds her form just barely there, her smile apologetic.
He’s familiar with her fatigue. There are days when the best she can manage is a caress to his cheek or a shiver up his spine, just enough for the hair to stand up on his arms and the back of his neck and for her to say I’m here.
To manifest herself in such a way…
“Don’t exhaust yourself,” he insists, reaching for her waist out of instinct and finding only empty, cold air. “That… that was…”
“I’d like to do it again, when I’m able to,” she says.
“Yes,” he breathes. “Yes.”
When she’s able to turns out to be just before he retires for bed, his feet aching and eyes nearly slipping shut as he shuffles with her through the halls. Exhausted, but wanting to feel her lips upon his just once more before succumbing to sleep—
It’s not nearly as long a kiss. It’s chaste, just the brush of her breath against his, but it’s sweet. It’s so sweet, and he grins even as she disappears beneath him to return to whatever realm she resides in when she is not with him.
He’s sure that it’s by pure exhaustion alone that he sleeps and doesn’t spend until dawn touching his lips in awed disbelief.
It’s been so long since Mr. Ben Solo has indulged in something.
To his former employer, mentor, guardian of sorts… to indulge was to become weak. To spend the holidays at social gatherings was acceptable, so long as said social gatherings could be turned into business opportunities. To dance and drink and be merry as the season so calls for was unwise, for it was time that could be used furthering himself.
He truly forgot how beautiful everything is this season.
He just wishes that Rey were truly here to see it. Or here at all.
They pushed too hard, it seems. For all of her practicing in the garden, apparently to touch a dormant bush or the trunk of a pine tree is much, much different from something with a true heartbeat. Much much different from him.
He feels her, as he always does. In the shift in the air, the way the breeze caresses his cheek. But like Icarus in the myths she so loves to hear about, it seems they soared too close to the sun, and she’s weaker than even when he first felt her. There are no closing doors. There are no fluttering pages. There’s the briefest hint, a sigh against his neck, and then no more.
He almost begins to regret it, touching her and kissing her, even as brief and wonderful as it had been. Because it means when the dress arrives, he can’t present it to her as he wished to. He can’t show her the box and watch her undo the matching cranberry-colored ribbon. He can only bring it to one of the guest rooms, feeling her at his back as he sets the box down upon the bed.
“Forgive me,” he says, turning to where he thinks she may be judging by the coolness of that bit of the room. “I … I’d planned on giving this to you. It was Poe’s suggestion, even though we know you can’t wear it, but I merely thought…”
His cheeks feel hot, ears burning as he pulls off the lid and sees the gown. The fashion house has truly outdone itself, he thinks. There are loose, soft, buttery-cream leather gloves on top, embroidered with the same silver thread that adorns the gown. He can feel a rush of cool air as he lifts them out, and then he sees the gown.
The embroidery is stunning, the silver glittering in the low light. There are little vines and leaves, as he requested, running along the neckline and the sleeves. As he moves to lay it out on the bed, he can see the embroidery continues along the hem. He’d specifically requested something shining but organic, knowing her love for both.
Perhaps he put too much thought into a gown she will never wear, but it didn’t feel right to get something plain. She settled with plain her entire life, as it was all she could afford. She deserves better. She deserves so, so much better.
Almost immediately, he feels as though he was just plunged into a frozen pool. Everything in him feels like ice, and he gasps, the wind knocked from his lungs in surprise. It feels as though she stepped into him, which makes sense, he supposes - it is her version of embracing him from behind.
“I’m glad you like it,” he breathes, laughing lightly as he sets it across the bed. He turns as the cold leaves him, and he thinks he just barely sees a shimmer of her in the mirror across the room. He focuses on that spot, on the few threads he sees of her, the curve of her shoulder and the waist of her dress. “I need to finish the preparations, will you be all right? Will I feel you tonight?”
After knowing exactly what it is like to feel her lips upon his, the gentle air against his mouth is a poor substitute. But he accepts it as a yes anyways, and nods.
His heart aches as he leaves her, but he can hear the sound of horses and carriages outside, and he has guests to greet.
He is very glad he spent some of the inheritance hiring someone to decorate the estate for him, because there is no conceivable way he could have done something this magnificent on his own. He wouldn’t have known where to put the candles so that everything glows with golden light. He wouldn’t have known just where to put the silver platters so that they reflect the candles and make everything even brighter and more magical. He’s been in a few homes where the evergreen boughs and holly garlands were hung too few and far between, and a few as well where he was practically overwhelmed with the smell of greenery. He walks downstairs an the rooms smell of pine and balsam, but it is not overwhelming. It’s perfect, truly.
It is everything he hoped it would be for her.
“So?” Poe asks, the moment he’s stepping out of his carriage. Snow has started to fall, a white Christmas on its way as flurries flutter and fall to land upon the ground. “What did she think?”
“She’s been weaker these past few days,” Ben explains. Their boots leave footprints in the shallow snow as they walk into the manor. “I regret that I could not see her face as I’d wished.”
“A pity,” Poe says, and he genuinely sounds as though he means it as he hands his hat and outer coat over to one of the temporary footmen. “Do you suppose … I could see her?”
“I don’t believe so.” His voice is soft not because of secrecy, but because of the way his heart clenches in his chest and tightens his throat, restricting his tone.
“Let us get you some wine.”
He doesn’t particularly like many of the people he invited. But Poe is right - to not host any ball or gathering after inheriting such an estate would be seen as a faux pas, and he can only pass off a delay as a change in interior for so long. There are many he hasn’t seen in a decade or more. After so long associating only with whom Snoke pre-approved and thought could be useful, it’s strange to stand among company he picked himself.
He keeps wishing to feel cool air against his cheek, but it never comes. Perhaps it’s the spiced wine. Perhaps it’s the dancing of the others around him. Perhaps it’s just the amount of company after so long.
It’s perhaps been an hour before he feels it.
Poe’s excuse is perfect. It truly can be passed off as a draft, the windows of the ballroom tall to reveal the garden and the snow falling. It’s quite reasonable that he wouldn’t have repaired a draft, especially considering the room hasn’t been used in months.
He feels the moment she walks in, and he turns as subtly as he can towards the source of the chill.
And his heart stutters in his chest.
Her hair is brown.
Chestnut, really, with red that’s brought out by the cranberry of the gown. He stares at her. At the woman who stands in the doorway to the ballroom, looking overwhelmed and terrified before her brown eyes find his, and he can see the tension in her shoulders relax ever so slightly.
There’s a slight crash behind him, and he turns, seeing Poe’s dropped his glass. Thankfully, it only gains the attention of a few around them, the music lively and loud enough to cover it.
“Excuse me,” Ben mutters, stepping from the handful of men and women he’s been talking to for the past few moments to pass the time as he waited for her. What were they discussing? He can’t even remember anymore as he steps towards Rey. She makes no move to step into the room with him, just waiting for him to come to her.
Her hand is as cold as always, even through the leather of the glove. But he can finally raise it to his lips and properly kiss it as he’s wanted to. In front of others. In front of those he considers friends. Kissing the hand of the woman he so admires.
“You look beautiful,” he whispers.
“I feel it,” she breathes. “Thank you.”
“Come with me?”
There are far more eyes on him than he’d like for there to be, but he’d choose being watched by the world if it meant feeling her hand upon his arm as solid as it feels. Still cold, but solid. He moves to rest his hand upon hers, feeling too-slender fingers beneath the leather.
“Mr. Dameron,” he says, noticing Poe has another glass of wine, significantly fuller than the first. “Mr. Trooper,” he adds, to the young man who’s joined them. “May I introduce Miss Rey?”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Her curtsy is not so neat or as proper as those of the other ladies in the room, but it’s passable. They didn’t plan for this. How could they? Ben thinks, feeling as though his heart is about to break his ribs with how full it feels to have her on his arm. This … this is so far beyond the realm of possibility, if reality itself that he finds it difficult to breathe as Mr. Trooper gives a short bow.
“The pleasure is mine,” he says. “Do you dance?”
“Regretfully, no,” Rey replies. “But I certainly enjoy watching.”
“You are of similar mind and preference to our Mr. Solo, here,” Poe says. Ben looks to him and recognizes that color has almost entirely returned to his face. His tan skin still looks a little too pale to be natural, as though he hasn’t seen the sun in years, but slowly he’s returning after such a shock.
To see her smile in her spectral form is one thing. To see her smile standing beside him, almost glowing in the candlelight, is quite another. He’s breathless as he looks down at her, knowing quite well the image they are presenting and knowing he will have to find an excuse for their closeness later.
As well as an excuse for her lack of existence in society.
But for now, with her hand on his arm, he stands and watches the couples dance before them.
“If there is one you wish to try, I ask that you let me know,” he mutters under his breath.
“I know not the steps,” Rey replies. “I’ve never danced before.”
“Ever?” he asks, thinking her already knows the answer but he will ask anyways.
“I had no reason to,” she says, looking up at him. “And yet now I have every reason to dance, and I cannot.”
“How is it you are still here?”
“I was saving my strength,” she explains. “If I am to attend my first ball, I wish to truly attend my first ball.”
Ben smiles slightly, his hand returning to rest on top of hers as they listen to the reel and watch the guests in all their glittering finery dance beneath the evergreen boughs and shining candles.
As much as he would have enjoyed dancing with her, he thinks he much prefers standing next to her throughout the ball. Because it means he is there for every little reaction to the world around her. He can see the moment she admires a lady’s dress, because her eyes widen and she stares at the bright ivory silk in longing. He can see the moment she enjoys lemon curd for the first time, biting into a pastry and smiling at the brightness of the flavor. He hears her laugh to one of Poe’s quips, sees her hanging onto every word of Mr. Finn Trooper’s story. For as overwhelming as everything must be, she shows no sign of distress, and his heart truly feels as though it’s about to burst as he watches her with pride and admiration.
And, dare he say, love.
“I must go.”
Her hand on his arm is tight enough to bruise, cold enough that he’s almost certain there will be frost upon his coat when she releases. He looks down to her, and for the first time he sees fear in her eyes.
“Yes, of course,” he breathes. “I thank you for your company.”
She doesn’t even respond beyond a short curtsy for propriety’s sake. He thinks he vaguely hears Mr. Trooper’s compliments of her, as well as Lady Rose’s agreement, as he watches her disappear into the crowd of people. Within moments, she is gone, and though he keeps his gaze upon the doorway, the ballroom is too full for him to see her move through it.
To remain in the company of others is torture. All he wishes is to find her, to find the room in the house that is cooler than all the others, and just sit with her, even if she is too weak to speak, to acknowledge him. But he must remain, lingering in the ballroom until the last guest leaves. Their carriage pulls off into the snow, the wheels leaving tracks behind. It’s fallen steadily, and he leaves footprints behind as he trudges through the snow that is as high as his forefinger is long.
The house is entirely too warm.
He finds the dress on the stairs, along with the gloves, the pins she used to put her hair up, the leather shoes and stockings he’d asked for as well. They are all there, crumpled to the mahogany, and he stands there staring down at the remnants of a wonderful night, before he decides to pick them up in the morn.
She is strongest where she passed.
They don’t venture out to the gazebo often. It’s a painful memory for her, and a painful thought for him. But when he wakes on Christmas morn and wanders through the house to find that it’s still too warm, he decides to pull on his boots and walk out into the garden.
The snow continues into the night, and comes up to his ankles as he trudges through the garden in trousers, his sleep shirt, and a wool coat. He has no reason to look more proper than that, not when his heart is eager to see her.
In the dull blue light of early morning, he sees her. She’s not quite as sheer as she’d been in their earliest interactions, but not as solid as she was last night. She’s once more in the clothes she wore when she passed, her hair loose and arms wrapped around herself as she watches him walk towards her. There is no truly elegant way to walk through a half a foot of snow, especially not when one is trying to get to her as quickly as he is, but it doesn’t matter. He reaches her, stepping into the gazebo and stomping the snow off of his boots.
“What for?” he asks.
“You have cared for me more than anyone ever has,” Rey explains. Her eyes are soft, and if not for him knowing better, he would think she was about to cry. “I spent my life being cast out. Ignored. Discarded. By my family, by those who lived in the village, by that horrible man. I was a beggar, a burden. I was nothing.”
“You’re not nothing,” Ben promises. “Not to me.”
“I know,” she replies, her smile broadening. Her eyes don’t crinkle, not yet, but it’s still bright and joyous. “You would not have planned an entire ball for nothing.”
“I planned an entire ball because I love you,” Ben insists.
“Say that again,” Rey demands, breathlessly.
“I love you.”
He blinks, and she looks the same way she did last night. Brown hair, damp from the snow. Skin pale, no doubt from the circumstances of her death. Brown-green eyes wide as she stares up at him.
“Again,” she says, firmer now, almost a command.
“I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you,” he says, over and over and over again, reaching for her face and expecting his hands to pass through it entirely.
But they don’t.
He reaches up to cup her cheeks, and feels warm skin against his palms.
And then she reaches up to hold his hands there, and her hands are warm.
Her lips are warm.
Her pulse is beating beneath his fingertips as he pulls her in. He wraps his arm around her and lifts her up to spin her, wet boots nearly slipping on the wet marble floor of the gazebo. Their laughter, in both disbelief and happiness, seems so loud in the silence that comes with a blanket of freshly fallen snow.
Almost as loud as her heartbeat.
When her heart warms and thaws, it shall beat once more.