The viewport plunges into darkness as Kylo drops out of hyperspace, streaked stars fading abruptly to black as he enters the Finalizer’s shadow. The Star Destroyer, in orbit over some backwater Outer Rim moon, is a familiar and welcoming sight. He adjusts his shuttle’s chrono to sync with that of the Finalizer, leaving behind Snoke’s citadel for good.
At least, until the war has been won.
His master’s orders had been clear: Kylo’s training was, after a long and hard year of tireless work, as complete as Snoke could provide. He had one final test that yet eluded him, but Snoke had assured him that it would come in due time; that he would ‘recognise the challenge’ when he saw it. For now, Kylo’s instructions were to resume command of the Finalizer and prepare for the final push against the Resistance.
He can only assume Snoke meant co-command of the Finalizer, but who was he to correct the Supreme Leader? Kylo hadn’t wanted to seem too eager to return to the Finalizer. Or, more specifically, too eager to see his co-commander again.
The Finalizer looms closer as Kylo alters the shuttle’s course slightly, aiming for his usual hangar on Deck 12. Due to its proximity to the commanding officers’ quarters and the grand holochamber, the hangar is reserved for him – Kylo can come and go as he pleases. He assumes it still is, seeing as his shuttle’s built-in security code triggers the Star Destroyer’s shield to allow him entry without pause; he doesn’t even need to alert the bridge of his arrival. No doubt Snoke will have informed them by now anyway.
Kylo vaguely wonders if General Hux will be around to greet him. Now that the Finalizer is in his sights and the inevitable reunion is just within reach, he can no longer quiet the feelings of how keen he is to see Hux again.
Though their relationship had gotten off to a rocky start years ago, the two had quickly come to realise the benefits of working with each other rather than at odds. Respect rapidly grew into camaraderie and trust, which morphed into friendship. An odd one, but a friendship all the same. Over those long years of their co-commandership, that had suited Kylo just fine; Hux, on the other hand, had come to want more. But Kylo became too distracted by the sudden rumours of a map to his uncle –no, Ben Solo’s uncle, not Kylo Ren’s– to notice the subtle hints Hux had begun to drop.
As Kylo fell deeper into his search, spending more time preparing for the eventual confrontation with Skywalker, Hux, too, changed: where Hux used to be conversational, attentive, and eager to offer tactical advice, he became reserved and grouchy around Kylo. It wasn’t until they were on their way to Jakku that Kylo realised, and called him out on it. They fought.
It hadn’t been pretty.
Out of spite Hux refused to help Kylo plan his assault of Tuanul, the disastrous mission that cost them the map. From there the failures spiraled, along with the animosity between them, and continued spiraling, and spiraling, until Kylo lay face up in the snow, the very ground he lay on giving way all around him. And then Hux was there, frantically yelling ‘hold on Ren damn it Ren hold on you can’t do this to me where are those troopers with that kriffing stretcher you better not die on me you banthashit please don’t die please I need you.’
Kylo’s actions that day, on that bridge, on that forsaken planet, had left him reeling: Han was dead, and Kylo had been shamefully bested by a traitor and a scavenger. Hux had been the one who helped him pick up the pieces, to put himself back together, during their retreat to Snoke. When they parted, they agreed to wait – to put things between them on hold until Kylo’s training was complete.
Now, with a reunion just within reach Kylo can’t deny his eagerness to pick up where they left off.
He engages the landing gear once he's cleared the Finalizer's shield, setting down the Upsilon softly in the center of the hangar. It's quiet – too quiet, but a glance at his adjusted chrono tells him he's landed during the height of zeta shift. The dead of night, per say, if they were on solid ground, orbiting a star with an actual day-night cycle. The lack of living presence in the hangar makes more sense when he thinks about it.
The fact that not even a single stormtrooper or officer is on duty to witness him disembark does strike Kylo as odd; Hux runs a tight ship and leaving a hangar unattended, even Kylo’s own, is out of the ordinary. But before departing the citadel, Snoke had warned him that between the recovery post-Starkiller and the final plans for the war being put into action, the First Order was stretched thin across its fleet and territories. Thus, Kylo does not dwell on the strange sight of an empty hangar during graveyard shift.
Instead, he silently slinks down the adjoining corridor, still far too familiar, towards his quarters. Given the late hour Kylo heads straight there, not even stopping to inform anyone of his arrival – anyone important enough will be informed by the droids recording the flight logs. Kylo briefly considers going to Hux's quarters but stops himself and continues down the corridor; Hux will definitely be asleep by now, and if nothing has changed then the man barely sleeps and needs every hour he can get. Kylo can greet him in the morning, after he himself has also had time to rest from his long journey.
His rooms are exactly how he left them, save for a neatly made bed – the cleaning droids must have been the only ones with access. Discarding his robes and all his layers on the floor behind him, Kylo makes a beeline for the refresher, keen to wash away all the sweat and ache of not only the travel, but the long year of rigorous training under Snoke's demanding and watchful eye.
His master had not let him forget just how shameful the duel with the scavenger was. Kylo was made to practice technique daily, the only respite the brief sessions of shared meditation with Snoke. He sparred with sentry droids, with his Knights, with holograms. He fought with his lightsaber, with his fists, with nothing but his mind, until he was bruised and bloodied and the streak across his face was no longer the worst scar on his body. The progress he made is tangible; Kylo can see it in his arms, can feel the raw power of both physical strength and the Force flowing through his veins.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t relieved that his training is over.
He uses real water for this shower, a luxury not afforded to him in the ancient citadel. Snoke's fortress pre-dates any structure Kylo has ever seen, concealed on a lone and dry planet in a system hidden within the Unknown Regions. Any technology is brought in mobile units and battery-powered; no plumbing meant cleaning only with portable sonics. Kylo doesn’t hold in the sigh of relief when the hot water washes over his skin, soothing his muscles in a way that a sonic could never replace.
Stumbling out of the refresher, Kylo doesn’t bother to re-dress as he collapses on his bed, eager to get a full night’s rest before he resumes his duty. Before he sees Hux, is the last thought that flits across his mind as he drifts off.
His sleep, however, is restless.
The vision comes to him like most do, at first: the sensation of floating, of being summoned by the Force, pulled through time and space to be shown something he must decipher himself. Past, present, and future are all presented the same way, and Kylo has grown used to looking for little signs throughout the vision to help him place it on a timeline. Except this time he’s almost unceremoniously dropped in a bare, darkened room, and it’s so oddly disorienting he at first doesn’t notice the small child hunched over in the corner.
The child, a young boy from what Kylo can make out, cries uncontrollably with his face hidden in the crook of his left arm. The boy’s other arm hangs limply at an impossible angle. The sight of it angers Kylo; the boy can’t be more than three, and the way his arm –not his wrist– is broken means it wasn’t a fall or an accident. Kylo takes a step towards him.
The boy notices, apparently, because he gasps. His sobs quiet immediately, replaced by small, weak, sniffles. He doesn’t look up.
Kylo sits on his haunches, lowering himself in order to closer inspect the child. The boy seems to shrink into himself as if afraid Kylo might reach out. He starts to lift his head, which would give Kylo a clear view of his face, when–
A harsh buzzing sound echoes around him, effectively ejecting him out of the vision and jolting him upright in bed. It’s his door – someone is requesting entry.
Kylo feels like he’s barely slept an hour, but the chrono beside his bed tells him it’s been six and that the Finalizer is well into alpha shift by now. His door sounds again, and Kylo rushes to pull on some pants before hurrying to answer, his still-asleep mind fully expecting Hux to be on the other side.
“Lord Ren,” Lieutenant Mitaka greets, politely ignoring both Kylo’s state of undress and his lack of mask. “Good morning, and welcome back to the Finalizer.”
Kylo doesn’t try to hide the disappointment in his tone. “What is it?”
Mitaka shifts, uncomfortable but doing his best not to reveal so. It doesn’t matter, because Kylo can sense it anyway.
Somehow the poor lieutenant has always drawn the short straw, has always been the one to deliver news to Kylo – especially bad news. He’s also one of the few people to have seen Kylo without his helmet and lived to tell the tale. Kylo used to wonder if Mitaka had some sort of death wish, seeing as even after Kylo had been physical with him on at least two occasions, that he continued to be some sort of unofficial liaison to him. It turned out that it was neither a death wish nor some masochistic bet taken with other officers, but a sense of duty to his general: Hux had assigned the lieutenant to Kylo, and what could the poor lieutenant do but impress his beloved general?
“Apologies for being unable to organise a proper greeting for you upon arrival, my lord. We were uninformed of your ETA. If you would report to the bridge, sir,” Mitaka clears his throat, nervous at delivering an instruction to Kylo, “the commanding officer would like to officially welcome you back. Sir.”
“Acknowledged. You’re dismissed, Lieutenant,” Kylo scowls. He watches Mitaka nod and start his retreat before Kylo slams the button to close his door.
Something is definitely wrong. Hux had neither greeted him last night nor this morning. Did Hux not want to see him? Did Hux not feel the way he had a year ago? The confessions that had tumbled out of his mouth, a panicked Hux seemingly unable to hold back, while he held Kylo’s hand all the way from Starkiller’s surface to the medbay on the Finalizer – had they meant nothing?
Kylo angrily picks up his robes from the floor, hastily getting dressed. He goes to his closet, where his helmet has waited for him while he was away – there was no need for it down on Snoke’s lonely planet, so why take it? Hux had somehow retrieved the bloody thing before Starkiller imploded, bringing it to Kylo’s room after he’d been released from medical. It’s this memory –Hux in his greatcoat with his hands wrapped around the helmet, almost timidly requesting entry because he was unsure of how much Kylo remembered from his little rant– that stops Kylo short the moment he lays eyes on the mask.
Mitaka said ‘the commanding officer.’ The empty hangar last night. Something is wrong.
No, he corrects himself. Perhaps Hux is simply away. Possibly inspecting a new base. There is much Kylo missed in a year, there must be some logical reason for all this and for Hux’s absence. Kylo hurriedly puts on his helmet and the rest of his clothing before heading for the bridge, forsaking his new cloak for the old cowl – a small creature comfort, something of the old to help him get back into the routine on the Finalizer.
As he half-expected, Hux is nowhere to be found on the bridge. A hush falls over the command deck as he enters, the minds of the officers abuzz with surprise, respect, and fear. Good. They will not have to re-learn to respect him, even if they had only half-believed the news of his return.
A lone colonel stands at the viewport at the front of the bridge, turning when Kylo’s heavy footsteps reach his ears. The colonel produces an uneasy but polite smile and a nod at Kylo.
“Greetings, Lord Ren. Welcome back to the Finalizer.”
Kylo breathes slowly, buying himself some time to skim the colonel’s mind for his name. Kylo was introduced to the entire command staff upon his first arrival on the Star Destroyer, but that was a long time ago; Hux usually dealt with his own officers, and would supply Kylo with their names whenever necessary. But Hux isn’t here now.
“Colonel Kaplan,” Kylo says after a moment. “You are currently the ranking officer on board?”
“Yes, my lord,” Kaplan nods. “I have had command of the Finalizer since General Hux’s departure. I am…” he frowns. “I am displeased to report our investigation has not yielded results yet, my lord.”
“Investigation?” Kylo tilts his head, definitely worried now. “What investigation? And where is General Hux?”
Kaplan glances at Mitaka, who has approached them with a datapad in hand. The silence on the bridge is suddenly oppressive, as if everyone present is hanging onto every word exchanged between Kylo and the colonel. No, not as if; they are listening, are waiting to hear Kylo’s reaction.
“Have you not been briefed, my lord? We sent word to the Supreme Leader the moment we found out about the… situation.”
“Do enlighten me, Colonel.” Kylo is starting to feel annoyed, both at having been left out of the loop and by this tiptoeing around the subject.
Kaplan frowns. “General Hux was abducted from Tellik 4 Station five standard cycles ago. He had gone to resolve contracts with the mining guilds for tibanna gas when the incident occurred. Forgive me, Lord Ren, I thought you had been informed.”
Kylo’s head swims.
Hux is missing? That would explain both his absence and the disorganisation on board. But a missing general would be disastrous for the First Order, now of all times, and Kaplan said the investigation was still ongoing.
Kylo needs to get to work, immediately.
He rattles off a list of commands as they come to mind: “I want to know exactly what happened in the cycle leading up to and directly after the general’s abduction. I expect an intelligence officer to brief me on the leads you have thus far made. From now on, I will take charge of this… investigation. And send word to the Supreme Leader, I need an audience with him as soon as possible.”
He turns to stalk back across the bridge but is halted by Kaplan.
“My lord?” Kaplan asks, hesitation in his voice. “Am I to presume you will be taking on full command of the Finalizer?”
Kylo observes the colonel for a moment. He seems nervous, but also hopeful. The task of replacing General Hux seems to be stressing the officer and his mind seems to beg Kylo answer his question in the affirmative.
“Yes, Colonel. Until General Hux is returned to us, I will take the mantle of commander of the Finalizer. When the general is found, he and I will resume our co-commanding roles.”
Kaplan’s posture slouches ever-so-slightly in relief, though it barely shows on his face. He nods. “Very good, my lord. I shall have the holo-chamber prepared for you right now.”
Kylo nods and continues on his way, heading straight for the holo-chamber. He has some time before Snoke will respond to his call: they have to first reach someone in the dusty citadel, and the droids have to reroute power to their holo-cams, and then, and then. In the past he’s waited up to an hour after requesting an audience before the holo-call even began. It’s this reason Kylo is going to the chamber now, and not waiting elsewhere: nobody will bother him once he’s inside, and he needs time to think.
The entire situation he has found himself in is perplexing, and wholly unexpected. Kaplan said Snoke had been informed; why then, had Kylo not been told before he left? What was Hux doing, going on trade negotiations himself? Who had made an error and allowed their general to be abducted?
But loudest, most pressing in Kylo’s mind: where is Hux, and is he all right?
Letting out a frustrated breath through his nose, Kylo slinks down to his knees right there on the floor of the holo-chamber. He removes his mask, cool unfiltered air flooding his nostrils the moment the latches click off. He should meditate. He’s better than this. He can’t show his frustration and unbalanced emotions to his master, only the day after leaving him.
Kylo closes his eyes. Inhales. Exhales. Focuses on his breathing. Gathers the Force around him like a blanket, shrouding himself in its power to calm down. Releases his frustration and unease to it.
But the Force is a two-way connection, and whatever he puts out opens himself to letting something in. Again, he feels himself floating, pulled towards the vision being presented to him.
The same boy from his dream appears. This time, the boy is taller and slightly older but just as skinny. They’re in the cargo bay of some ship, and the boy is in the same position: on the floor, face hidden in the crook of his elbow, and although his broken arm is healed, there’s a slight crookedness to his right arm that hints it never healed properly. There is no crying this time, but the boy’s shoulders shake and tremble with dry sobs as if he’s holding the tears back.
Kylo’s about to approach the boy when a different voice interrupts them.
“Did he do this?”
The boy freezes, shoulders raised, and Kylo looks up to inspect the newcomer. A woman in a white Imperial uniform (so this is the past, then), dark skin and matching hair with a single streak of white betraying her age, eyes the child with wariness.
“Did he do this?” she repeats.
The child angles his face up so that only his eyes are visible. There’s the swollen ring of a black eye around one of them, and Kylo can just make out the misery in the boy’s blue-green irises.
That specific shade is familiar.
“Yes,” the boy croaks, his voice raw from underuse.
The woman approaches him cautiously, a calculating look in her eyes. “He doesn’t like you very much.”
“You don’t have to let him do this,” she says in what Kylo assumes to be her attempt at reassurance. She’s obviously not used to it – it sounds stiff, uncomfortable. Still, she pushes on and Kylo has to admire her attempt. “Just because he’s your father does not mean you have to heed to his every word.” She crouches in front of the boy, lowering herself but making sure to keep her face above his eye level. The boy watches her. “You’re a child of the Empire. The Empire protects its children. You can resist him.”
The boy simply stares at her. Still scared.
“I can’t. I can’t even fight back. He’s my father.”
She sighs. “I’ll tell you what. You’re a smart child. Let’s make a deal. I will protect you from him, so long as you protect me from them.”
The boy considers this for a moment and then nods.
Kylo blinks and he’s back in the holo-chamber on board the Finalizer. He stands just in time to see the holographic form of his master lighting up in front of him.
“Kylo Ren,” Snoke’s voice resounds across the holo-chamber, the very durasteel at Kylo’s feet vibrating. “You left my presence only yesterday. Do you feel your training incomplete? That you are unready to return to the war?”
Kylo bows his head. “No, master. I am ready. I am here to discuss other matters with you.”
“You may proceed.”
“General Hux has been abducted,” Kylo states without preamble.
He looks back up at Snoke’s hulking form – which is ironic, now that he thinks about it. The Supreme Leader is not much taller than Kylo himself, and looking upon this oversized hologram after a year of seeing him in the flesh is… strange. He seems comically immortal in this form, compared to the frail and scarred body he actually has in real life.
“I am aware of the situation,” Snoke dismisses. “I was informed by High Command that Colonel Kaplan has taken control of the Finalizer and launched an investigation.”
“I have assumed full control of the Finalizer, Supreme Leader.”
Snoke seems impressed. “Very good. Were their efforts… unsatisfactory to your standards?”
Kylo swallows. “The colonel is a capable officer but his investigation has yet to turn results. I will take it into my own hands to ensure its success.”
“You show excellent initiative, Kylo Ren. Our flagship must be under the command of a strong leader, after all.” Snoke places a hand on his chin in contemplation. “But tell me, Master of the Knights of Ren. How do you intend to find General Hux, if the Order’s most capable crew have yet been unable to?”
The way he says it almost sounds like a challenge.
“The Force will guide me,” Kylo declares. “By the grace of your training I have become much stronger and well-versed in its ways. It will guide me down the right path, I will find General Hux and punish those that have dared insult the Order this way.”
Snoke hums. “It is your decision. You are a leader, now, Kylo Ren. The leader you were born to be. What you do with your power, both in the Force and in the Order, is at your discretion. Use it wisely.”
Before Kylo can respond, the hologram fades out of sight.
“Yes, master,” he says belatedly, anyway. His own voice reverbs back to him.
Kylo is still unsure why Snoke neglected to tell him if he had indeed already known about the situation on the Finalizer. The thought nags at him, begging him to consider it and chase conclusions he has no desire to think about, but he is too close to the end of this war to doubt his master now. Instead, he stands, re-dons his mask, and briskly heads for his chambers. He can meet the intelligence officers later – right now he needs to meditate some more. The Force will show him the correct path, the Force will help him find his co-commander and restore Hux to the Finalizer. With him.
Hux would snort at that thought. “You intend to rely solely on the Force to complete this task, Ren?” he would probably ask sarcastically.
Kylo can see it now: they would be marching down the corridors side-by-side, easily falling into step with each other, discussing their next plans. As they did so many times before. Before their fall out, before the map and the traitor, before Starkiller. Hux isn’t here now, so Kylo simply imagines the rest: Hux in his crisp uniform and posture ironed out to perfection; Kylo by his side, a terrifying presence in his robes and mask.
(He tries not to think about how the last time they walked next to each other as co-commanders was after their fight. Kylo said something about using clone troopers while Hux accused him of being emotionally compromised. He succeeds in forgetting and only thinking about the times before. Mostly.)
“You shouldn’t be relying completely on your mystical powers for this, Ren,” the Hux of his imagination chides. “You know better. Have all our strategy meetings and planning together gone in one ear and out the other?”
“Of course not,” Kylo grumbles. To himself.
“Good. You shouldn’t be placing all your eggs in the same basket. Have your back up plans, and make sure you’re not using your Force as a crutch. You’re better than that.”
Kylo stops in his tracks. He was better than that. He is. Though Hux was always the mastermind, many of their plans had been a team effort. Kylo is not as incompetent as his ordeal with the map made him out to be.
As a squad of stormtroopers thunder past him, Kylo rationalises that this must be Snoke’s final test. This, to prove himself a leader in not only the Force, but in leading the First Order as well, had to be the final test that his master alluded to.
His training in the past year focused solely on the Force. Aside from Snoke, the Knights, and the droids that patched up his injuries and brought him food, Kylo had had little contact with other sentient beings. His days consisted of meditation on Force techniques and sparring, so much sparring, that there was no time for socialising – not even with his Knights. No wonder Snoke had been so abrupt with ending his training, having given him the orders only hours before Kylo left: Snoke had seen the abduction as an opportunity to test Kylo as a leader and sent him back to the Finalizer for it. That had to be the reason.
A small voice in his head tries to argue with Kylo but he shuts it down. This reasoning makes perfect sense. Doesn't it?
He doesn't get the chance to finish that thought as the squad of stormtroopers are followed closely on their heel by a familiar, shiny figure.
“Lord Ren,” Phasma greets him. She falls out of line with her squad, directs them to continue on without her and stands at attention in front of Kylo. “I heard a rumour you'd returned to us. Welcome back, sir.”
“Captain,” he nods. He's always liked Phasma; she took no shit and wasn't afraid to best him in sparring at the gym. It's almost… good to see a familiar ‘face.’ “Last I heard you were on a TIE trying to rendezvous with the fleet. Good to see you escaped Starkiller in one piece.”
Physically, Phasma makes no movement. Mentally, Kylo can feel her kick herself, shame and regret flooding her mind for an instant before her conditioning kicks back in and she's as confident as before.
“I almost did not make it. I got into a situation with the traitor and did not escape that easily. However, I luckily cleared the blast radius just in time.”
Interesting. “I, too, fought the traitor. And the prisoner. You'll see the result the next time we spar.” He turns, gesturing for her to follow. He starts in the direction of the bridge, eager to get the intelligence briefing over so that he can meditate and plan.
Phasma follows, maintaining a distance of a half step behind him. “I would be happy to spar with you. I've been in need of a gym partner with a backbone.”
Kylo almost cracks a smile. “Are your own stormtroopers afraid of you, Captain?”
“Of course,” Phasma says, almost proudly. Though the programme was designed by Hux and his father, Phasma is the one who does all the stormtroopers’ physical training. “As they should be. I'll die before another one of my troopers escapes my grasp.”
“Ah, Captain.” Kylo does smile this time, although between the mask and the voice modulator, no one could possibly tell. “It is good to be back.”
“It's good to have you back, sir.” They walk in silence for a few steps before she speaks up again. “I hope you're to do something about the situation, then?”
Kylo knows exactly what she's talking about without her having to specify. “Of course. I will find General Hux. He is necessary for our continued success.”
“Good,” Phasma huffs through her helmet. “Kaplan doesn't hold a candle to Hux. And he knows that too; everyone on this ship wants the general’s safe return to us. High Command may have been unsure about him after our failure on Starkiller but not one of us has ever lost faith.”
He knows Phasma has known Hux for longer than he has, and that they have something of a friendship. As friendly as they could be, given that one was raised a stormtrooper and the other groomed to command since birth. Their friendship is different from the one he and Hux share –shared, he corrects himself, until they figure out what they'll do moving forward– but a bond all the same. He can feel it in her mind; she worries for Hux, wants him back.
Kylo nods at her. “I agree. I have not lost faith in him, either. And I will bring him home.”
The briefing is long, and most of what Kylo learns is that the First Order Security Bureau effectively has no leads – even after five days.
The intelligence officers barely told him anything new: Hux was on Tellik 4 Station to finalise a deal for tibanna gas with the mining guilds of the Outer Rim when he was abducted. Curiously, the abduction took place after the contracts had been signed – that ruled out the mining guilds’ motive of leverage for their contract. Hux was reported missing an hour after the meetings concluded when he missed his own mandated report-in with the Finalizer. The space station was immediately placed under lockdown and searched, while a log of all ships departing and arriving at Tellik 4 in that hour was seized for careful examination. But, as the Security Bureau agents claim, because the station lies at the intersection of multiple hyperspace lanes, the list is long and combing through it for leads has taken them more time than anticipated.
Kylo left the meeting with more questions than he had going in and twice as frustrated, but this is his test; he is determined to find Hux and prove his worth as a leader.
The intelligence officers told him to wait, that they would generate results with more time, but Kylo needs to do something. So he heads to Hux’s quarters, hoping examining them might yield something to help in the investigation. Though he suspects he won’t find much, surrounding himself with Hux’s personal belongings may very well help Kylo hone in on Hux’s presence in the Force (however weak it may be for Hux’s lack of Force ability), which will certainly facilitate any meditation Kylo will do.
The door to Hux’s quarters slides open easily with an override code, revealing the darkened rooms that lay behind it. Kylo steps in, ordering the lights to eighty percent, and warily takes in his surroundings. He’s been here only a handful of times: in the living area to share a drink or the desk in the small alcove adjoining it to talk. Hux mostly did work in his office nearer to the bridge and rarely spent time in his quarters himself.
Crossing the mostly barren sitting room to Hux’s bedroom, Kylo orders the lights on there, too. The bedroom is as neat and sparse as the rest of the quarters. There are no personal artifacts on display aside from a plush duvet on the bed that is obviously non-regulation (Hux always did complain of feeling cold).
Kylo finds himself wondering what it might be like to sleep under such a luxurious blanket. Which, evidently, is not a good idea seeing as it leads to the thought of sharing such a blanket with Hux.
They had spent the night together, once, though that was in Kylo’s quarters and they spent the night talking, facing each other between the sheets. Side-by-side, as they always were. It had been the last night before Kylo left to complete his training: the same night Hux brought Kylo his helmet.
Kylo shakes off the memory and resumes his study of Hux’s bedroom.
The closets are as dull, containing sets of regulation uniforms, gym clothes, and pajamas; the only civilian clothes are two shirts and pants folded neatly and tucked into an otherwise empty drawer. Kylo turns his attention to the last piece of furniture in the room: the bedside table. He throws open both drawers, expecting to find yet again nothing of interest, but instead he finds himself stilling in shock.
There’s a photo –a real one printed on flimsiplast and not just a holo– sitting in the drawer. In it are the woman and the young boy from Kylo’s vision.
Kylo sits on the edge of the bed, gingerly picking up the flimsi to look at the photo. Both woman and boy are older than in the vision: the woman stands behind the boy in her starched white uniform with a hand on his shoulder, while the boy wears some sort of cadet uniform. Kylo can see his face clearly, no bruise or arm covering it this time, and mentally kicks himself for not seeing it earlier. The hair, the eye colour – how had he not recognised it sooner?
The visions are of Hux’s past.
The Force obviously has some reason for showing Kylo these memories. Kylo nods to himself; this had to be why he was seeing these visions of young Hux and this woman. He needs to find out who she is and meditate further on this to understand why – perhaps these moments in the past are key to finding Hux now.
Kylo stands, crossing back into the sitting room and rooting around in the desk for a spare datapad he knows Hux keeps here (he also makes a note to start keeping one on himself, seeing as he’ll probably be needing one as he takes on more duties as a commander). He snaps a holo of the woman in the flimsiplast photo, of just the woman, and tucks the flimsi back where he found it. Kylo leaves Hux’s quarters and quickly heads back across the Finalizer; he’ll need someone with full access to a console and Imperial archives to find out who the woman is.
Good thing he knows just the person.
“Lieutenant,” Kylo calls to Mitaka once he reaches the bridge.
The lieutenant jumps, caught off-guard, and Kylo senses a spike of fear run through him as he turns to face Kylo. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Take this.” Kylo hands him the datapad. “I want to know who that woman is in the holo. I trust you will be discreet about it, Lieutenant.”
“Of course, my lord.” Mitaka nods eagerly, taking the datapad from Kylo’s hands and pocketing it. “Oh, and–”
“I will be either in the general’s office or in the gymnasium should anyone need me, Lieutenant. There is much work to be done.” At least, until the Security Bureau comes to him with any new information, there isn’t a lot Kylo can do himself: he plans to meditate on what he knows so far (and why the Force keeps sending him visions of Hux’s past) while he considers what step to take next.
“Actually, my lord,” Mitaka interrupts him before he can step away. The lieutenant is still terrified of him but, curiously, is getting braver. “Colonel Kaplan requires your input on a few things. And Colonel Datoo had some resource reallocations to run by you. Commander Ters and Lieutenant Sovik were also looking for you, sir.”
Kylo sighs softly, glad that the sound is inaudible through the vocoder of his mask. Taking full command of a Star Destroyer was turning out to be more complicated than he thought.
Hux had always made it look easy.
With that thought, Kylo inhales deeply and turns back to Mitaka fully. “Comm the colonels and send them to the general’s office, I will meet them there. Have the commander and the lieutenant ready to meet with me immediately afterwards.”
“Of course, sir,” Mitaka nods, typing furiously at a new datapad that has materialised from seemingly nowhere.
“Oh, and have Captain Phasma inform me when she’s off-duty. Let her know to meet me at the gym t–”
“Lord Ren!” An intelligence officer, clad in her white Security Bureau uniform, runs onto the bridge, skidding to a halt beside Kylo and Mitaka. The young officer, with ochre-coloured skin and bright blue eyes, pushes her short black hair off her forehead and gulps for air once before squaring her shoulders. She nods at Kylo in greeting. “Pardon the interruption, sir.”
“What is it…” Kylo pauses a moment, trying to remember her name. She had introduced herself at the meeting… “Agent Darav?”
“My lord.” Her eyes glisten with excitement. “We may have found something.”
Kylo’s first week back on the Finalizer frustratingly and disappointingly yields no results.
The supposed lead Agent Darav approached him with was an almost unnoticeable discrepancy between a single ship’s departure manifest and life-signature readings from the droids stationed in all of Tellik 4’s hangar bays. The ship claimed nine human passengers and four others on take-off, whereas the droids had recorded an extra human as the ship left the station. Most would have dismissed this minute detail, but instinct and the Force had Kylo feeling that it was the correct lead to follow (and, evidently, Agent Darav had a similar hunch – Kylo already made a note to recommend her for a promotion after this ordeal was over).
Fortunately, the ship’s model was a discontinued YZ-903 freighter, of which only a few ships of that model had been docked at Tellik 4; most of which had been detained when the First Order instated their lockdown of the station.
Unfortunately, tracking down a single ship in the galaxy was proving difficult.
Though he wants nothing more than to meditate for hours in the hope of narrowing down their search, Kylo’s days are filled with tasks he previously thought menial and beneath him. He delegates as much as he can to all of the colonels and the officers he suddenly finds at his beck and call –as annoying as it is satisfying–, but some things simply require a commanding officer’s attention.
Kylo barely has time to look over the report Mitaka delivers him, the very day after his request, with information on who the woman in Hux’s photo is: Rae Sloane, Grand Admiral of the Empire, one of the founding members of the First Order. That’s about all Kylo is able to read on her profile before he’s called away to some other duty, some other inspection, some other meeting.
Instead, he learns more from the visions that plague his dreams and every meditation session, memories of young Hux –no, Armitage– growing up under the watchful eye of Rae Sloane.
Through the visions Kylo learns that the ‘they’ Rae referred to were Armitage’s personal squadron, children from Jakku that were the original test subjects of Brendol Hux’s new-and-improved stormtrooper program. In one memory Armitage eagerly chatters to Rae about his soldiers, mentions how one of them is teaching him hand-to-hand self defense – Rae counters by suggesting to teach him herself. Over the course of several mediation sessions and dream-filled nights, Kylo watches Rae take Armitage under her wing, tutoring him personally after hours (after Academy lessons for him, after duty shifts for her) in everything from Imperial history to tactics. She even goes so far as to giving Armitage lessons in marksmanship, which strikes Kylo as odd; it’s a bit early for a child to learn something like that. It may explain why Hux is such a good shot and show just how difficult life was for the Imperial remnant in the Unknown Regions, but Kylo suspects it was really Rae’s unique way of connecting with Armitage. Her way of sharing her skills and passing on her knowledge – to create someone akin to an heir, since to the best of Kylo’s knowledge she never had children of her own.
But as curious as he is about Hux’s childhood, Kylo can’t help but wonder why these moments would help him find Hux now. Because surely that’s why the Force keeps showing him this, isn’t it?
The first YZ-903 freighter they raid is tracked from Tellik 4 to all the way over Serenno. The ship doesn’t offer much of a fight and immediately allows itself to be boarded, which should have been the first warning sign that it’s not the ship they’re looking for. It turns out that its cargo bays carry spice, its crew is entirely made up of Selonians, and it is definitely not the ship that abducted Hux. Instead, the feline-like bipeds try to offer trading their expensive cargo in exchange for weapons.
Kylo barely refrains from spacing them on the spot for both not being the ship he wants it to be, and for having the audacity to make a spice deal with the First Order. To calm himself after such a disappointment, Kylo retreats to his chambers for meditation, silently beseeching the Force for some clue as to what to do next. As per usual, it presents him with yet another vision of Armitage and Rae instead.
“Have you ever felt rain?”
They’re in Sloane’s office, and Armitage is about ten. Though he’s skinny as ever he looks… healthy. No bruises or scars are visible where his smart cadet’s uniform does not cover. Two of his personal squadron are stationed just outside the door. It’s an unconscious power play by Armitage to remind all that he is not helpless, and Rae recognises it, respects it – she thinks he’s learning well. She has her own security measure in the form of a blaster with the safety off and a vibroblade tucked neatly into her boots.
But even so, Kylo can tell she trusts the young boy sitting across from her at her desk. She’s almost fond of him.
“Why?” Rae asks instead of answering Armitage’s question.
Armitage leans forward with the eagerness that comes with youth. “I heard our new territory is a wet planet. That TX-38 will have lots of rain. Have you ever felt rain?”
“Of course,” Rae answers Armitage’s question. “Rain was commonplace where I last lived planetside before my home became the stars.” She looks up at Armitage from her datapad and almost smiles. “We have that in common, you and I.”
“Your homeworld?” Armitage asks, always curious. A trait he never outgrew.
Rae huffs. “No. Ganthel is an industrial world. Or rather, was. I’ve no idea what the New Republic,” she spits this word as if it bears a sour taste, “has done with it. Though I never cared much for Ganthel.”
“Oh. Where, then?”
“Let this be a test of our Imperial geography lessons.” Rae sets her datapad down now, her full attention on Armitage. “Outer Rim, had an Academy, rainforest planet. What is it?”
Armitage ponders the question for a minute. “Arkanis is wet but has no rainforest terrain. Lothal is far too dry. Eriadu Academy was a training facility for stormtroopers, therefore…” Armitage smiles, proud of himself. “Prefsbelt. Notable alumni of its Academy include Wilhuff Tarkin–”
“And Rae Sloane,” she finishes. “Good. My lessons are sticking in your head. Keep up the good work, Armitage.”
The boy preens at the praise.
“Now.” Rae shifts her attention back to her datapad. “Tell me about your latest session with Brendol.”
Armitage visibly sags at the mention of his father, and a bitter taste seeps into Kylo’s mouth. It’s not good for him to dwell on any mention of fathers, especially when one so terrible as Brendol Hux reminds Kylo how much Ben Solo’s father had actually tried.
Han had always been unreliable and foolhardy, but Han had always loved his son. Both Leia and Luke had had so many expectations of young Ben, and so many fears and secrets; but never Han. Han didn’t understand the Force. The smuggler was often hot-headed and rash himself – he never understood the fine line between Light and Dark, and he accepted his son regardless of Ben’s proclivities.
Kylo is no fool. He knows he’s powerful, that Snoke needs his powers, and what Han said on the bridge is true to a certain extent, but he also knows that Snoke will give Kylo what he wants and would never manipulate who Kylo is to fit Snoke’s liking. Han was like Snoke, in that way; Snoke not only accepts Kylo for who he is but encourages it, and Han would have done the same for Ben. Han was Kylo’s only remaining attachment to Ben Solo.
Which is why Han had to die.
The memory distresses Kylo: Han on that bridge, the light fading away around them, the old man giving his last breath for his long-dead son. Kylo was a wreck in the aftermath, and he’s not sure he would have made it to Snoke’s citadel in sound mind had Hux not comforted him during their journey.
He exhales shakily, shedding the memory from his mind’s eye in order to focus on the vision before him, where Armitage has been detailing the plans for the stormtrooper program to Rae.
As if noticing his grief, Armitage glances directly at Kylo over Rae’s shoulder. Kylo is too startled by the occurrence that he doesn’t realise he’s been dropped out of the vision, his own bed in front of him rather than the desk of a long dead admiral and a child long grown. Never has someone in a vision from the past ever noticed Kylo’s presence in the Force dwelling, watching; these memories the Force is presenting him are obviously not normal.
His comm chimes before Kylo can mull over the discovery. Phasma’s message indicates her shift is over and she is waiting for him for their customary sparring session. Kylo makes his way to the private gymnasium, does some basic stretches with the captain, and the sparring begins; it takes only a few minutes for both of them to work up a sweat, each pushing the other to the limit.
“You seem distracted today, Lord Ren,” Phasma taunts him, dodging one of his jabs.
“I have much to think about,” he responds, trying not to sound like he’s sulking.
She misses his chest. “Today was only the first raid. We’re searching for a single ship in the Outer Rim, we’ll have some misses before we have some hits.” Punctuating her point, she lands a kick on his thigh. “It’s like searching for a single grain of sand in a dune on Jakku.”
“Yes but,” Kylo frowns, dodging another kick and landing a blow on her bicep. “I have the Force guiding me. It shouldn’t be so difficult.”
“Your Force should not be relied on blindly, sir.”
Kylo huffs. “You sound like Hux.”
“Great minds think alike.”
“Indeed,” he muses. “I think I could still learn a thing or two from our general’s so-called ‘great mind.’”
Phasma takes a step back, dropping her hands and signalling for them to take a break. “We all could. Hux’s absence is felt by everyone. But surely you must know by now that you are doing a far better job than any of the colonels could have done? Than any of our admirals from High Command could do?” She pauses, taking a long drink of water. “We miss our general, but we trust you’ll find him. It’s only a matter of time.”
After the third failed raid, Kylo kills the captain of the captured ship and destroys an interrogation chamber, enraged.
He can just imagine Hux’s frustration with him for doing so: he would probably admonish Kylo and complain about the cost of repairs, before making Kylo promise to find another outlet for his anger next time.
“Ren. Stop this,” Hux would say. His voice would be loud enough to be heard over the hum of Kylo’s lightsaber and the crumbling of equipment, yet not quite shouting. Just clear and strong. “Kylo, stop this at once.”
Kylo extinguishes his lightsaber, panting at his efforts and surveying the destroyed room for the first time.
“You are better than this, Kylo,” he imagines Hux would say. “What was all that training for if you give in to some childish impulses at the first sign of anger? You know what you are supposed to do. Step back, breathe in. Then re-evaluate whatever it is that set you off in the first place.”
He does the former, clipping his saber back on his belt and evening out his breathing. If he closes his eyes, Kylo can just see Hux standing in front of him, among the shredded durasteel of the ruined interrogation chamber, urging him to calm down. The sight looks so whole and so real that Kylo almost tries to talk back to it.
Promise I’ll find you. Miss you. Can’t do this without you. Need you. Won’t fail you.
“My lord,” Mitaka interrupts Kylo’s thoughts, his face as blank as he can manage but his anxiety permeating the air. Kylo can smell it almost as fragrantly as the smoke from the destroyed room and the blood of the dead pirate. “Pardon the interruption, my lord, but the Supreme Leader has summoned you for an audience. His call awaits you in the holo-chamber.”
Kylo brushes past Mitaka with barely a nod and heads straight there, ready to be berated for yet another failure.
Inexplicably, it doesn’t come. But what his master says is, at least to Kylo, much worse.
“You understood me the first time, Kylo Ren,” Snoke thunders when Kylo asks for clarification. “This search is becoming fruitless. The general is either well on his way to being traded for bounty or dead. You, Master of the Knights of Ren and commander of the Finalizer, are far better off focusing your efforts on the final confrontation to come.”
“High Command has not yet dismissed him, master. And our intelligence has found no such evidence that a bounty has been claimed for him.” Kylo inhales, readying himself to stand his ground. “Supreme Leader, I can find General Hux with more time. I will not fail the Order this way.”
“You have not failed. I am simply commanding you to reorder your priorities.”
Kylo frowns behind the mask.
“That is all,” Snoke dismisses him. “You have other things to see to.”
The hologram fades out, but Kylo waits a few minutes before moving to leave the chamber. Before he has to face his failure, before he has to move onto other duties.
Snoke is wrong about Hux being dead; of that, Kylo is sure. Visions of young Armitage and his mentor Rae have all but replaced his dreams completely, and his meditations present much of the same visions rather than the answers or the guidance that Kylo craves. Why, then, would the Force show him such things if Hux is dead? And though Kylo may not trust many people, he’s come to respect the work of the intelligence officers. Surely the Order’s vast network of spies would find out if someone was trying to claim Hux’s bounty?
But what else can Kylo do besides listen to a direct command from the Supreme Leader?
“Sir,” Mitaka calls to him, timidly, from the doorway of the holochamber.
Cursing under his breath, Kylo approaches the lieutenant and hopes he didn’t overhear much of the conversation. “What is it, Lieutenant?”
“Lord Ren, forgive me…” Mitaka hesitates. Swallows. Takes a deep breath. “Forgive me for overhearing, my lord, but are we really giving up on General Hux?”
Kylo grits his teeth. Even Dopheld Mitaka, the mousy lieutenant, is unwilling to end the search for his general. Phasma won’t want to, either. Kylo highly doubts many of the other colonels, lieutenants, captains, or anyone on this ship, really, will want to give up. Kylo himself doesn’t want to.
So… why should he?
“Of course not, Lieutenant.”
He begins to head for the Security Bureau offices, ready to grill Agent Darav on whatever other intelligence she has managed to scrounge up. Mitaka lets out a soft relieved sigh and starts to follow.
“But never,” Kylo warns, his tone deadly, “eavesdrop on any of my conversations without my permission again. Do you hear me?”
“Of course, sir.”
Halfway through his second week back on the Finalizer, Kylo crumples his mask with his bare hands in a bout of frustrated anger.
In penance, because he is better than this behaviour, he painstakingly assembles one from scratch after Agent Darav informs him of another lead. He welds the metal late into the night to ensure it is ready by alpha shift for the sixth raid.
Kylo flies during the mission himself, his own Silencer taking the shot that disables the cruiser. It’s not a big ship, but the victory is just as satisfying: Kylo is sure the moment the Finalizer’s tractor beams latch onto the cruiser and drag it into the Star Destroyer’s belly that they have finally found the ship they need. That the mission, and the investigation, is finally a success.
Which makes it all the more puzzling when the mid-size cruiser’s cargo hold, obviously retrofitted for prisoners, is empty. Even more so baffling is the presence of Hux’s greatcoat, but not the man himself.
“One of the younger crewmembers blabbed,” Phasma informs Kylo when he arrives at the detention block, having taken the time to inspect the ship himself before heading up for interrogations. “Hux was indeed on board. He escaped two cycles ago.”
“Escaped?” Kylo tilts his head, incredulous. “Has the general tried to make contact with any Order outposts? It is possible he is unaware we are in this sector.”
“To my knowledge, he has not.” Taking off her helmet –a rare sight for the captain– Phasma sighs into the open air and frowns. “It is odd. But perhaps you are right and he is unaware we are in the same sector.”
“How did he escape? What happened?”
She gestures him to follow, taking him to the room adjacent to one of their interrogation chambers. “They used to have a bigger crew, apparently. Those who were on duty and were not killed during Hux’s escape were… punished by the captain. The crew remaining is less than half that of their original.”
Kylo removes his own helmet and raises an eyebrow at Phasma. “And who, exactly, is the captain? What are we dealing with?”
“Agent Darav was correct in her assumption.” Phasma gestures at the intelligence officer in question, who had been awaiting them in the antechamber. “The ship belongs to the Guavian Death Gang.”
“I thought the Guavian Death Gang and Bala Tik were on our payroll?”
“They are,” Darav purses her lips. “If I were to hazard a guess, this is a break-off from the main gang. The captain of this YZ-903 freighter is Elleh Tik, cousin to Bala Tik and so-called ‘heir’ to the gang. I assume zhe was acting on zher own, possibly to get the bounty on General Hux’s head and stage a coup within the Death Gang.”
“Well, that plan didn’t quite work out, did it?” Kylo asks sourly. He sighs. “Agent Darav, you are in charge of interrogating the rest of the crew. I want to know what happened during Hux’s escape. I will question Elleh and find out zher motive.”
“Yes, sir.” The agent salutes him and leaves the room.
“Zhe is tougher than zhe looks,” Phasma warns Kylo, peering through the one-sided transparisteel at the cuffed person in the interrogation chamber. “Zhe took down three ‘troopers before being subdued.”
With the same colouring and crop of hair, Elleh Tik looks far more like Bala Tik’s younger sibling rather than distant relative. Although Elleh is much shorter –possibly barely reaching Kylo’s chest– with a cybernetic right eye, Kylo knows not to underestimate someone based on their looks.
He nods at Phasma and re-dons his mask before entering the interrogation chamber.
“The other one has got as much information out of me as I’ll give ya,” Elleh drawls, zher thick, clipped Core accent matching that of zher cousin. “Yes, General Hux was on my ship. No, I don’t know where he’s gone now.”
“You may want to know who you’re talking to before you talk back like that, Elleh,” Kylo warns.
Zhe snorts. “I know you’re Kylo Ren. But I also know you need me alive to get whatever information you want from me. I’m used to pain. Give it your best shot, Force-user.”
Kylo has to admire zher courage. “That will be unnecessary if you answer all I want to know.”
“And what do you want to know?” Elleh snorts again. “That your precious general is alright? Aye he’s alright. Alive. A little battered. Actually, a little more than battered but nothing fatal. We had orders to keep him alive but no one said we couldn’t rough him up a bit. I think Yom might have broken his arm the first time he tried to escape, but let’s face it; the arse deserved it.”
Kylo remembers the vision of the crying little boy, arm bent at an unnatural angle, and grits his teeth. “I’ll ask you more about that later, but I have more pressing issues to determine. The Death Gang works with the First Order. Why would you betray the mutually beneficial relationship we have built in the name of taking your cousin’s gang?”
“I wasn’t rebelling against my bloody cousin. These orders came from Bala himself. And pfassk knows he’s not dumb enough to do me dirty this way. No, if Bala wanted me out, he wouldn’t betray me. He’d kill me himself.”
“The Death Gang obviously didn’t orchestrate the abduction. I simply want to know who did.”
“The answer is right in front of you.” Elleh narrows zher single human eye at Kylo. “But you don’t believe it, do you? You don’t think your own Order would betray its general like that? That your Supreme Leader wouldn’t toss aside an officer who had expended his usefulness?”
“Lord Ren,” Phasma interrupts, appearing in the doorway. Her helmet is back on. “A word, if I may?”
“This isn’t over,” Kylo tells Elleh before following Phasma back into the antechamber. “What is it, Captain?”
Lieutenant Mitaka is in the antechamber as well, holding out a datapad to Kylo. “The ship’s flight plan of the past few cycles, my lord. General Hux may have landed in any one of these systems when he fled in the escape pod.”
Kylo nods, accepts the datapad, and turns to Phasma. “Dismissed, Mitaka. Captain?”
“Dismissed, Lieutenant,” Phasma repeats, waiting until Mitaka has left the room before continuing. “Zhe may be right.”
“Be very careful of your next words, Captain.” Even though she can’t see his face, he narrows his eyes at Phasma. “I don’t think you want to commit treason.”
“With all due respect, my lord. The Death Gang has collaborated with us for years. Now, when we are poised to win the war, is not the time they would betray us. If High Command wanted the general gone or punished, they would do so through proper channels.” She clears her throat. “Do I need to continue?”
“You will not continue this line of thought, Captain.” Kylo has no time for this now. Even if in the back of his head he remembers his last conversation with his master: this search has continued long enough. General Hux must be dead or in the hands of our enemies by now. Instead, Kylo dismisses Phasma’s suggestion to read over the list of systems Mitaka handed him.
“I don’t need to, sir. I know you’ve begun to suspect it, too.”
Kylo opens his mouth to reprimand the captain again, but his eye catches on a planet name.
He drops the datapad.
“Captain, you are in charge,” Kylo orders as he hurries out of the room, back onto the main floor of the detention block. “Get all you can from Elleh. I want to know who zher benefactor is, who paid zher to abduct the general. Find out if zhe is lying about Bala Tik’s orders, and contact me as soon as you find out who orchestrated all this.”
“Where are you going?” Phasma asks, following his frantic pace down the corridor.
“I’m going to get Hux.”
Kylo reaches Prefsbelt’s orbit in record time, having pushed the limit of the Upsilon's speed and navigational systems. He lets his instincts guide him once he breaks the atmosphere, flying over jungle-covered mountains, rivers, waterfalls, until he finally lands in a clearing a few clicks south of the now-abandoned Imperial Academy. There's an escape pod nearby, obviously in bad shape: the landing gears are damaged and it barely stopped before crashing into the treeline. Kylo rationalises Hux can't have gotten far – not in his state.
The Academy is therefore out of the question.
He sets off into the jungle, wanting to avoid getting soaked in the heavy rain that seems to cover the entire planet. The thick trees offer some cover from the downpour, wide leaves catching the water and funneling it down its trunks rather than letting it fall. Kylo treks through the damp undergrowth, spotting within minutes a footprint that gives him a sense of direction. Not too many steps later he finds a few drops of blood on a low bush. He picks up the pace.
He walks another ten minutes before a structure –some kind of small, low ranch or farmhouse– comes into view, also abandoned like the Academy. His heart pulses faster, his footsteps quicken, and he's so engrossed in his thoughts of ‘I found him’ he doesn't realise a blaster has been fired until the bolt sinks into the ground by his feet.
“Take another step and you're dead,” Hux shouts, a silhouette of a hand visible from one of the farmhouse's windows. “That was your only warning.”
“You know you can't shoot me,” Kylo responds. He takes another step forward, and freezes the resulting bolt that rushes towards him.
“I can kriffing try.”
Kylo sidesteps the frozen bolt, releasing it to the ground. Another comes; he freezes it. They repeat the same dance twice more before Kylo pulls out and ignites his lightsaber, deflecting the bolts into the wilderness instead.
“Why haven't you immobilised me yet?” Hux asks.
“Because," Kylo levels a stare with the window. "I don't want to hurt you."
He can barely make out the scoff over the roar of the rain. “Aren't you here to finish the job?”
Kylo tilts his head in confusion. “I’m not here to hurt you. I'm here to help.”
Another step, another shot.
“Hux, please,” Kylo pleads. “Let me help you.”
Yet another bolt flies out of the window.
The blaster disappears from the window, along with the hand. “That was the last of that cartridge. Come inside before I either reload or change my mind.”
Kylo powers off his lightsaber and rushes across the remaining distance to the farmhouse, ducking through the small door. The ceiling is low, and he has to stoop to avoid hitting his head, but his eyes adjust quickly to the dark as he scans the interior of the building: wooden floors, wooden pillars, no furniture. The whole thing is abandoned, dirty, and uncared for save for a stone fireplace along the opposite wall, which looks used fairly recently – Hux must not be the only one to have discovered the old farmhouse and taken refuge here.
Hux himself is sat just under the window, soaking wet and more than slightly disheveled. His hair is shaggy and uncombed, matted in some places, while the beginnings of a rough beard is interrupted by a few healing cuts along his jaw and across his cheeks. The blaster is clutched in his left hand, his right hand missing and the arm hanging limply at his side.
Kylo will have to look at it later. Or rather, he'll have to hope Hux lets him look at it later.
“So,” Hux says shakily. It's then Kylo notices he's shivering. “What are you waiting for? Finish it.”
“Hux.” Kylo strides across to him, still mindful of not hitting his head on the low ceiling, and pulls the blaster out of Hux’s hand. “I’m not here to kill you.”
Kylo peels off the mud and rain-soaked jacket Hux is wearing, obviously stolen from one of the Death Gang, to find nothing but the regulation tank officers wear under their uniform. It's also drenched, the thin material sticking to Hux's skin and slightly translucent – no wonder Hux is shivering. The pants, also stolen, are thin and a bit muddy but thankfully not too wet; they can stay on.
“Can you get up? We need to warm you up.”
Kylo heads back across to the stone fireplace, thanking the Force for whoever was here last having left a perfectly good pile of wood for burning next to it. He arranges a few into the pit. Having left the survival kit and other supplies in the shuttle, Kylo grits his teeth settles for igniting the firewood with his lightsaber, embarrassed – he can just imagine all the of millennia of lightsaber-users watching him, cringing at his misuse.
Hux is still shivering when Kylo turns back to him, having moved minimally from his previous position. Kylo offers him a hand but Hux waves it off, and Kylo has to watch him struggle to get to his feet for another full minute.
“Is this part of your plan?” Hux asks as he ambles towards the fireplace. “Lull me into a false sense of security before you kill me?”
Kylo grits his teeth and doesn’t answer.
The stone hearth is cold and dirty, and without the thermal blanket in the emergency kit Kylo begrudgingly lays his cloak down for Hux to sit on. He’ll have to go back to the shuttle and retrieve the supplies at some point if they plan to survive the night.
After Hux sits in front of the fire, Kylo pulls the drenched tank off him. He tries not to frown when he notices the tears in the shirt and all the cuts and ugly bruises that appear on Hux’s torso when it’s revealed. He definitely ignores the nasty wound where Hux’s right forearm ends, where his hand should be. Kylo elects to look at it when he has the medkit on hand and can actually do something about it.
“This is not how I envisioned the first time you undressed me,” Hux whispers, eyes trained on the fire.
“And this is not how I envisioned our reunion. Tough luck.”
With nothing else to cover Hux up, Kylo shucks his own outer layer and pulls it over Hux’s head, the jacket swamping the smaller man. It’s chilly in just his tunic and undershirt, but Kylo has his old cowl back in the shuttle. Better to go back and retrieve it and the emergency supplies now rather than later.
“I have to get us some supplies. Stay here,” Kylo instructs. “Get warm. I'll be back soon.”
Now that he knows the way, the clearing where he landed the shuttle feels much closer and Kylo gets there in half the time, the walk just as muddy but much easier now that the rain is letting up slightly. He stuffs the emergency survival kit and medkit into a bag, wraps his old cowl around his shoulders, and hesitates before grabbing his commlink and shoving it into the bag too – he won’t contact anyone, but he knows Phasma will reach out to him with an update soon. Or, hopefully soon. He doesn’t bother to check if the emergency kit is missing anything and rushes back through the jungle, spurred on by the darkening clouds and rumble of thunder in the distance. The lull in the rain will probably end soon and Kylo doesn’t want to be caught in the downpour.
The fire is, fortunately, burning brightly when he returns. Hux hasn’t moved, only pulled Kylo’s jacket around himself more tightly with his hand.
Kylo pulls out the emergency kit first, letting out a quiet sigh of relief that there’s nothing missing. He puts the thermal blanket around Hux’s shoulders and hands the other man a nutrient pouch.
“Eat this. Give me your arm, I want to make sure it’s not infected.”
“It’s not,” Hux dismisses. He tears open the nutrient pouch with his teeth and spits the top half of the wrapper to the side before pouring some of the viscous mixture into this mouth. “It was a clean cut.”
“I still want to look at it,” Kylo says when Hux makes no move to show Kylo his arm.
“There’s no infection if that’s what you’re worried about,” Hux sighs. “The reason they cut it off was to avoid exactly that.”
Hux gulps down some more of the pouch. “They broke my arm in the first few days. Bone broke the skin. They didn’t treat it and it started getting infected. So they cut it.”
Kylo frowns. “Just let me look at it. I brought the medkit.”
Sighing around his food, Hux wordlessly thrusts his right arm out to Kylo.
“How did you escape?” Kylo asks as he tenderly picks up the arm by the bicep to inspect the stump.
“Acquired a blaster. Shot my way out. Stole an escape pod.”
Kylo gives him a look as he reaches for some disinfectant. The wound, just below the elbow, is a clean cut as Hux said. Though it’s untreated by bacta, it’s obviously been slathered with something else to prevent from infection but not quite kickstart the healing process like bacta would. Kylo definitely isn’t qualified to deal with such an injury, but he knows it shouldn’t be left alone: he’ll just disinfect it, apply a bacta patch, and wrap it up.
“You did that with one hand?”
Hux shrugs his other shoulder. “Yes. Can you give me another nutrient pouch?”
“How? Did you escape, I mean.” Kylo reaches into the survival kit for a pouch to give Hux while he grabs a bacta patch.
“The idiots didn’t realise I’m ambidextrous. Thought because my right hand was hacked off I’d be useless.” Hux smirks grimly. “And they obviously didn’t do their research. I was top marksman of my class at the Academy.”
“So, they underestimated you,” Kylo states as he smoothes on the bacta patch. Hux flinches. “Sorry, I’ll be more gentle, I take it this,” Kylo wraps a bandage around Hux’s elbow, more gentle with his touch as promised, “is why you had a rough landing. Let me see your other wounds.”
“In hindsight,” Hux scowls, “I probably should have stolen an astromech to help me fly the pod. But I can’t quite change that now, can I?” He shrugs his shoulders, making both the thermal blanket and Kylo’s jacket fall off and pool on the floor.
“No you can’t,” Kylo agrees. “Lift up your arms so I can get to your ribs. Most of these injuries look old so you survived the rough landing surprisingly unscathed.” He looks up at Hux from where he’d been applying bacta patches to his torso. Hux frowns down at him. “I meant you didn’t really get any new injuries.”
Hux sniffs. “Why are you here, Kylo? Why are you dressing my wounds as if it’s your business?”
“It is my business,” Kylo huffs. “We’re co-commanders. I need you back on the Finalizer alive.”
“Really?” Hux scoffs. “I suppose I have to be alive if you want to make a show of my execution.”
Kylo sits up, hands lingering on Hux’s ribs. “Why would I be executing you? I need you. And…” he pauses, purses his lips. Regards Hux for a moment. Hux stares back. “I thought we were going to… to try. To pick up where we left off.”
Hux looks away, eyes cast down. He swallows. “I can’t. Go back. To the Finalizer. Not when your kriffing master tried to have me killed.”
“Wha–” Kylo pulls his hands away as if he’s been electrocuted and grits his teeth. “What are you implying, Hux?”
“I’m not implying anything,” Hux bites back, head whipping back to face Kylo. “I’m saying that Snoke is the one who ordered my abduction, probably to end in execution!”
Kylo narrows his eyes. “Watch your tone. That’s treason.”
Hux furrows his brows in anger. “What about the treason against me? What was my crime? Being more popular than the Supreme Leader? Couldn’t stand the risk of a coup so he decided to oust me?”
“The Guavian Death Gang abducted you, Hux. I don’t know what they told you,” Kylo crosses his arms defensively, “but it was them, and they were hired to do so. I can assure you.”
“I know they’re the ones who did the dirty work, but the Death Gang have a direct line to Snoke himself!” Hux lets out a small, angry exhale. “How did you think Snoke knew the damn droid and the traitor were on the Millennium Falcon before we did?”
Kylo pauses, waits for Hux to answer.
“Bala Tik informed him!”
Kylo sighs angrily; he doesn’t want to think about this right now. “You’re in hysterics, Hux. You’re malnourished, you’ve been in captivity for almost three weeks. Rest, and we can talk about this when we’re on our way back to the Finalizer.”
“If you think I’m going anywhere with you you’re bloody well mistaken,” Hux sneers.
“Is that so?”
Hux defiantly sticks out his chin. “Yes.”
Kylo shrugs. “I’m patient. We have some supplies to last us some days. If you think I’m leaving you to rot on some random Outer Rim planet, well…” he puts on his best impression of Hux: “you’re bloody well mistaken.”
Hux doesn’t take too well to being imitated and his lip curls up in disdain. “If you’re so dead set on me coming back with you, you could easily knock me out or do some,” he wiggles his fingers, “Force trick to make me cooperate.”
“I won’t. I wouldn’t. I promised you once I’d never do that to you, and I keep my promises.”
They fall into silence after that, Kylo eating two nutrient pouches himself while Hux consumes a third. The only sound for the next few hours is the fall of rain outside and the crackle of the fire before them. There are worse places for them to be taking shelter, Kylo thinks.
It darkens completely after a while and Kylo allows himself to lie down to sleep on his cloak, which still lines the floor in front of the hearth. He tells Hux to do the same, but when he wakes in the middle of the night he finds Hux in the exact same position – wide awake.
“Hux?” Kylo whispers tentatively.
He doesn’t answer.
“Hux,” Kylo tries again, “you need to rest.”
“Cold,” comes a weak response.
“You have my jacket and a thermal blanket.”
Hesitation, and then another answer. “Can’t.”
It’s then Kylo notices the blaster has made it back into Hux’s hand, clutched so tightly his knuckles are obviously white even in the light of the dying fire.
He thinks I’m going to kill him in his sleep, Kylo realises.
“Well,” Kylo starts. He knows Hux won’t listen to his words so he’ll have to show him, somehow. “If you’re cold, come here. I’ll warm you up.”
Again, Hux hesitates.
“What, are you afraid of a little spooning?”
That gets Hux moving, and Kylo has to suppress a smile; of course being accused of being afraid of something would get Hux to do said thing. He hasn’t changed at all in the year they’ve been apart.
Kylo shifts, lying on his side facing the remains of their fire, by now only embers fighting to stay alight. He lifts an arm and Hux slots himself in front of him. It startles Kylo how well he fits in his arms – as if he’s meant to be there. He shakes the thought and pulls the thermal blanket over both of them. Immediately Kylo feels warmer, not realising how cold he himself was feeling with only his cowl for cover.
A minute ticks by. Five. Ten. Half an hour. Kylo feels Hux’s mind just as anxious, just as awake, and he knows he needs to do something else.
“They can’t hurt you anymore,” he whispers. “I won’t let them. I won’t let anyone ever hurt you again.”
Kylo surprises himself with how much he means the words.
“I won’t let anyone ever hurt you again,” he repeats, just as quiet. He isn’t even sure Hux has heard him until he feels the general start to relax in his arms, his instincts trusting Kylo even though his wounded mind and hurt pride don’t want to.
Kylo repeats himself again and again, even long after Hux is sound asleep, repeating the words in the dark until he knows the truth in them, and repeats them even more as if he’s willing the words into existence.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you ever again.”
At some point Kylo must fall asleep, curled up around Hux right there on the hearth, because he slips into another dream. Another memory.
A teenaged Armitage stands at attention, his face at war with the smart uniform and posture he wears. He looks stricken, upset, staring down Rae Sloane defiantly.
“You’re sending me away?” the teen asks.
“Don’t think of it like that, Armitage,” Rae chides. “There’s nothing more you can learn from me. There’s nothing more I can teach you. The Order, however, needs its army; and that means I need you to go with your father. Put the final touches on the stormtrooper program and set up the Academy. It is necessary.”
Armitage simply looks at her, mouth just shy of a pout, and says nothing.
She sighs. “I will see you again. I promise.”
“I know,” Armitage whispers. His voice almost cracks on the last syllable.
Sadness flashes across Rae’s expression for a moment, only to be quickly replaced by the professionalism and cool that Kylo has come to expect from all these visions of her.
“He will never hurt you again, Armitage. Do you hear that? He will never hurt you again.”
When Kylo wakes, the fire has been completely doused and where there was a warm body last night, his arms flex around nothing.
“She lied, you know.”
Hux is back across the room, observing him from a safe distance. He’s sitting propped upright by a wooden pillar, blaster back in his left hand while he plays with the safety: he flips it on, flips it off, on again. Kylo feels uneasy, and not for the blaster aimed at his chest – for the distracted look in Hux’s eyes.
“What?” he says instead.
“She lied.” Hux sniffs. “Rae. I never saw her again.”
And he did hurt me again, goes unsaid. But Kylo hears it all the same, whether Hux intended him to or not.
Like a shutter being lifted off a viewport, the realisation hits Kylo suddenly: these visions have not been past moments presented to him by the Force; these are Hux’s memories, presented to him by Hux. In his darkest moments Hux reached out to Kylo, all the way across the galaxy, to show him these memories. These moments that, with the exception of the very first, Hux had shared with someone immensely important to him. And even more significant, while Hux had been in captivity, he’d found comfort in the two people he cares about most: one in the past, and one in the present.
“Hux,” Kylo croaks, his voice still rough with sleep. He clears his throat, unsure what to say but knowing he needs to say something, anything, but is interrupted by the chime of his commlink.
Kylo fixes Hux with a stern look. “Hold that thought. Stay right there.”
Hux, surprisingly, has the audacity to roll his eyes, but doesn’t move all the same. Good.
“What?” Kylo speaks into his comm once he’s stepped outside, out of earshot.
“Sir,” Phasma’s voice greets him. “Were you able to find the general?”
Kylo hesitates. “Classified.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Phasma counters after brief pause. “What is your location?”
Phasma sighs. “I’m taking this as a good sign, Lord Ren, that you have found General Hux and are keeping your location secret for his wellbeing. And for good reason, too. I should thank you.”
“What?” Kylo’s heart seizes. “Good reason?”
“Elleh was telling the truth. We were able to determine the source of zher orders and the benefactor that ordered this abduction,” Phasma states. Her voice is suddenly quieter, as if she’s afraid of being overheard. “It is… not good.”
She doesn’t need to say anything else. Kylo knows already.
Hux was right.
“What are your… opinions, on the matter, Phasma?” Kylo asks, hoping he sounds casual enough for anyone who might be listening in.
“Bring him home, sir,” she says without hesitation. “We all want him back. His crew want him back, and we’ll face the consequences as they come.”
The comm clicks off.
Kylo sighs. Rubs his hand over his face. Considers his predicament.
Snoke had ordered Hux’s abduction, fully aware that Kylo would be able to find Hux eventually. He rationalises this was why Hux’s captors had kept him alive, that this had been Kylo’s real test: not to find Hux, but to resist finding Hux. Somehow foreseeing Kylo’s attachment, Snoke had orchestrated the abduction to manipulate Kylo and kill two birds with one stone: removing Snoke’s only potential competition and proving Kylo’s loyalty.
That made Snoke no better than those Ben Solo had left behind years ago when he became Kylo Ren.
“Was that your master?” Hux taunts when Kylo reenters the farmhouse. “Has he finally commanded you to finish me off?”
Kylo gets on his knees, walking across the floor to Hux on them so that he doesn’t have to stoop to avoid hitting his head. He stops beside Hux, meeting his stare, and cautiously wraps a hand around Hux’s, which is still gripping the blaster. Kylo pries Hux’s fingers off the blaster, makes sure it’s on safety, and slides it across the floor away from them.
“You were right,” Kylo admits.
Hux’s face goes pale. Kylo can practically hear his heart rate skyrocket.
“Go on then. Just kill me.”
“Not about that,” Kylo frowns. “No. Yesterday. The Death Gang. You were right about them.”
“Oh.” Hux seems to have no smart remarks to that.
“But it doesn’t matter, because Phasma and I and the entire Finalizer crew are ready to stand behind you. They– I– we all want you to come back.”
Hux swallows. “It’s a trap. I know it. Just kill me now and get it over with.”
“It’s not a trap, Hux!” Hux flinches at Kylo’s yell, and Kylo lowers his voice. “It’s not a trap. We’ll figure out what to do once we’re back on the Finalizer, once you’re healed and we have support. I meant what I said last night, Hux. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. You’re safe.” Kylo returns his hand to Hux’s good one, grasping it tightly, and with his free hand cups Hux’s cheek. “You’re safe with me. I promise.”
“You saw. Promises are often broken.”
“That’s in the past.” Kylo strokes his thumb across Hux’s cheekbone just under his eye. “I’m here, now, in the present. I’m here because,” Kylo is talking fast now, rambling, the words rushing out of his mouth before he can pay too much attention to them. “I’m here because you called for me. You called for me across star systems, and I heard you because we have a special bond, you see? You’re the only person to trust me so deeply and love me for who I am.”
Hux lets out a shaky breath. “What about Organa? Snoke?”
Kylo shakes his head. “Organa loved Ben Solo. Snoke isn’t capable of an emotion like love. He only lusts for power, and he’s using me to get it.”
Han Solo’s words from that bridge, what feels like a lifetime ago, echo in Kylo’s mind. Only now does he understand how true they really are.
“I found you, Hux. I travelled across the galaxy to find you. I chose you. And I want you to come back with me. Please.”
He feels like he’s just carved his heart out of his chest and held it out towards Hux, still beating, blood dripping onto the floor; yet he’s not afraid. The opposite, in fact: in Hux’s eyes he can see the same, his own emotions reflected back at him, that vulnerability the two of them have only shown to each other.
“You’re a fool, Kylo Ren,” Hux splutters. His eyes are wet. “I chose you a long time ago.”
Hux closes his eyes, tipping his forehead forward to close the gap between their faces, resting his forehead on Kylo’s.
“Let’s go home.”