The Falcon barely fit through the canopy of trees, settling in a puff of dust and spores at the edge of the verdant clearing next to the old base. Hux almost hadn’t made it to this backwater system after a stray meteor shower had knocked him out of hyperspace. He was lucky to be alive, he knew, but he still cursed his rotten luck. He’d picked D’Qar out of his few options because he knew there’d been a small Alliance outpost here once, and had hoped there’d be something left to help him with repairs, but once he’d gotten here he’d discovered the base to be completely overgrown and stripped of anything useful. Ben’s arrival was unexpected, but Hux found himself unsurprised. Ben always seemed to turn up when Hux needed him, or thought Hux might.
“Funny running into you here!” Ben’s jovial call and lopsided smile did funny things to Hux’s heartbeat, and he took refuge in snark to quell it, as always.
“Not in the mood, Ben. How did you even find me, anyways?”
“A little birdie told me.”
“Or a little droid?” Hux glared at MI-113, who threw her little arms up, the oh-so-perfect picture of innocence.
I couldn’t tell if it went through, so I didn’t say anything.
“Uh huh.” It wasn’t the first time the droid had conspired to bring the two of them together. He’d almost suspect her of arranging this situation if they hadn’t both come so close to dying.
“Hey, you’re the one that upgraded her. And if she hadn’t managed to hack into the system to get a burst out, I wouldn’t have known to bring you these.” Ben held out the electromagnetic gyro and a new circuit board for the x-wing’s communications relay, one in each hand, snatching them back at the last moment when Hux tried to grab them.
“Now now, what do you say?”
“Give me the damn parts, Ren. I’m sick of being stuck on this rock.”
“Wow. Manners much!”
“I’ve been living on ration bars since I got to this forsaken hole. My contact has probably given up on me and left, taking their vital information with them. I haven’t had a shower in three days. You can stuff your manners.”
“You could shower on the Falcon. I just need to hear one word.”
“That’s two, neither of which are the right word.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Ben just smiled, tossing the parts back and forth in his hands.
“Alright, you sadistic bastard. Please?”
“There. Was that so hard now?” Throwing the gyro to MI-113, he made an elaborate bow, arm extended towards the Falcon’s ramp. “Your shower awaits, oh fragrant one.”
“I hate you!”
Despite the jocularity of the exchange, Ben still felt a sting at the casual insult. Those were not the words he wanted to hear fall from Hux’s lips. Sighing, he turned to MI-113. “Okay, let’s see how much we can get done while he’s cleaning up.”
Sure you don’t want to help him clean up instead? MI-113 trilled.
“You can always be wiped, you know.”
Try it, meatbag.
He’d helped Hux reprogram the droid, he reminded himself as he dug the spanner out from the toolbox. He had no one but himself to blame for its smart mouth,.
“I’m telling you, you didn’t hook up the Mark 15 properly. It’s just giving me a load of gibberish.”
If you think you can do better, be my guest.
It came as no surprise to Hux, finding his droid bickering with Ben when he re-emerged from the Falcon, skin still tingling from the ship’s tiny ‘fresher. He’d been forced into raiding Ben’s clothes locker, as the Falcon’s sonic washer seemed to be on the fritz. That also didn’t surprise him. The Falcon had been held together by spacer’s tape and a prayer for as long as he’d known Ben. Luckily this backwater planet wasn’t lacking in water, but he wasn’t looking forward to washing his clothes the old-fashioned way.
“That’s not how I imagined you getting into my pants,” Ben quipped in way of greeting.
Hux had learned how not to blush in Ben’s presence years ago, as it never failed to encourage him.
“How are the repairs coming?”
“Um, yeah, about that. Things are a bit more complicated than they looked at first. All four engines have to be calibrated to the new gyro, and none of them are talking to each other, let alone the gyro, right now. I think it’s there’s loose connection somewhere, but it’s also affecting the diagnostics system so we can’t trace it.”
“How long is it going to take to find the problem?”
“We’re going to have to test every connection manually until we find the bad one. If we’re really unlucky, it’ll be the last one we test.”
“Well, if each of us starts at one end and works our way in, that should speed things up, yes?” The double entendre didn’t hit him until too late, and he crossed his fingers Ben wouldn’t pick up on it. No such luck.
“You are talking about your x-wing, right?” Millie hooted, giving Ben a thumbs’ up with her welder arm. Winking, Ben twirled the micro-probe he held between his fingers, with a flagrant disregard for the sensitivity of the tool.
“Clever as always, Solo.”
“So kind of you to notice.”
It still felt strange, looking Ben straight in the eye. When they'd first met, he'd towered over the younger boy, but now Ben had an inch on him, and dwarfed him in bulk on top of it. Ben still managed to give the impression he was looking up at Hux, usually giving him big puppy dog eyes through his lashes, as he was doing now.
Those eyes got increasingly expressive when Hux proved impervious to his considerable charm yet again. He'd feel guilty about it if he hadn't seen Ben use that trick in multiple ways over the years. An extra sweet when they were kids. Access to the landing field in the middle of the night. Excursions of a dubious nature with his father, over his mother's objections. He wouldn't deny its usefulness, as he'd benefited more than once from its application, but he wasn't going to fall for it.
Ben knew he was immune, but that didn't ever stop him from trying.
“Knock it off. We've got work to do.”
“Someday, Hux, you'll find yourself unable to resist me.”
“In your dreams.”
At least the repair on his communication array went smoothly. Millie had replaced the fried board in the time Hux had taken to clean up. A quick call determined Hux’s contact still waited for him with the information they’d promised, but he only had another day to get to them before they had to move on.
“We’ll never get this fixed in time,” he groaned, wiping the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve.
“There’s another option. Leave the x-wing here and we’ll take the Falcon. We’ll swing by afterwards and finish fixing her up. Millie can continue trying to track down the problem while we’re away, and now that the comm’s working again she can get in touch with us if she needs another part.”
“Much as I appreciate the offer, don’t you have any place you need to be?” He’d heard all the stories about Ben’s father, and didn’t relish the thought of having to rescue a lump of carbonite from some smuggler lord’s den.
“Nothing that can’t wait.” At Hux’s skeptical look, he grinned. “What? You don’t trust me?”
“Not one bit, no.”
“Alright then. I’m sure you can handle the repairs from here. I’ll be on my way now.”
Rolling his eyes, Hux caved.
“Ben, will you please transport me to Naboo so I can meet with my contact?”
“Well, since you asked so nicely.”
Hux grabbed the nearest thing at hand and threw it at him. Ben stopped the spanner in midair with a wave of his hand.
“Honestly, Hux. You really should work on your temper.”
“Just promise me that there’s nobody waiting for us on Naboo looking to collect a bounty on your head.”
“Hux. Would I ever do that to you?”
“Shall I count the times?”
Ben had gotten them into a number of scrapes over the years. Ever since the first day they’d met, newly arrived with his mother after she’d gotten wind of the First Order’s plan to whisk him away with his father, Ben had led him and Poe into misadventures too numerous to count. Hux had to give him credit for getting them out of all of them too, he had to admit, if only to himself.
“Alright, then. Millie, comm us if you need anything. We’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Make that the day after,” Ben countered. “I’ve got access to a secure transmitter on Naboo. We can send whatever information your contact passes along from there, and that gives us time to pick up any extra parts for your x-wing if needed.”
Hux couldn’t argue with that, although he wondered what Ben’s real reason was for insisting on the extra day. It went without saying that Ben had some ulterior motive. Hopefully not too much mayhem would result. At least that’d give him a chance to get his clothes cleaned in the port.
Millie couldn’t resist getting in a parting shot.
Promise not to behave now, you two!
Hux ignored her with as much dignity as he could muster.
The hop to Naboo took almost no time with a working hyperdrive, but it still ended up seeming too long to Hux. The copilot’s seat in the Falcon had never been readjusted for non-Wookiees. Every toggle and switch required a bit of an extra stretch, and Hux found stray hairs on his pants when he got up, even though Han and Chewie hardly flew her anymore.
Ben sent Hux on ahead while he took care of the docking arrangements, and he located his contact in their usual spaceport canteen, nursing some vile concoction whose smell alone made Hux’s head swim.
Blacnor Martel had spent several years at Hux’s father’s new Academy, and had been chivvied off to a civilian desk job after being deemed “too soft.” They’d developed several unsavory habits shortly thereafter, and were more than happy to pass along some of the information that passed through their office in order to finance those habits. Hux had run into them completely by accident several years ago and had recognized what a valuable resource they could be.
They’d “bonded” over drinks and shared complaints about the Commandant. Hux had happened to overhear him one day while he was in this same cantina tracking down another lead, and had gotten his immediate attention by responding “Try having him for a father!” Neither of them had any illusions that the other was anything but a receptive ear and a shady resource, but a chance to bitch about dear old Brendol with someone who could appreciate his complaints was cathartic. Eventually someone would question Martel’s solvency or they’d recreate themself out of the picture, but until that point Hux would continue to cultivate their arrangement.
Credits were exchanged for a datastick containing proof that the First Order had ordered construction of a fleet of star destroyers, in direct violation of the Galactic Concordance.
“Glad you made it. Vacation’s almost up. I’m headed back in a few hours.”
“A little problem with my ship. I almost didn’t make at all.”
“That would’ve been a shame. I’d have had to start looking for another buyer. Risky business, there, but I need someone reliable lined up. You understand, right?” Martel snapped a capsule open, letting the powder sift into their drink. “One for the road!” They upended the glass, throat bobbing as they swallowed. Before they set the empty glass down their pupils were already blown.
“Yes, that would be a shame, wouldn’t it? I’ll let you enjoy these last few hours of freedom.” Sliding from the booth, he sat at the bar to nurse his drink and wait for Ben.
He didn’t have long to wait, for which he gave thanks, because a nautolan had begun making eyes at him.
“What’s a gorgeous guy like you doing in a place like this?”
Hux refrained from any of his usual biting rejoinders, in the interest of discouraging his admirer.
“Buy me another drink and you might find out,” he responded instead, and enjoyed the brief moment of speechlessness his reply engendered.
Ben rallied quickly, but he always did.
“I know a better place for that. Drink up and I’ll show you.”
“No need. I’ve scraped better swill from the bottom of an engine pan.” He set his half-full glass on the bar and stood. The nautolan glared at Ben and Hux couldn’t resist sliding his arm around Ben’s waist, much to Ben’s surprise.
“I’ll have to try that line on you for real sometime,” Ben murmured as he escorted Hux out.
“Not if you like living.”
Once they hit the street he withdrew his arm, ignoring the little part of his brain that whispered how well they fit together. Even if Ben felt anything besides friendship for him, he’d decided long ago that pursuing any kind of a relationship with someone who refused to take life seriously would be detrimental to his mental health.
He expected Ben would lead him back to the Falcon, but instead he took him on a winding path through the streets of the port towards the edge of the settlement, pointing out a few historic sights on the way. His destination proved to be a speeder rental field. He held the door to the small office open and Ben slipped past him into what proved to be a surprisingly opulent interior. They arrived in the middle of an argument between a duros and the gungan proprietor when they entered, both beings waving their hands and shouting and the gungan’s prodigious ears flapping as she shook her head.
“Mesa so sorry, we has no machineeks today. All machineeks are gone. Yousa reserve one for tomorrow?”
“That is unacceptable. I need to get to the coast today. My rental is only for three days and I’ve paid quite a lot for it, you understand? I need to get there today.”
“Disa nothing I can do for yous. Yousa excuse me now. Okey day!” She turned to Ben, a frighteningly huge smile splitting her face. “Mesa greeting Ben Naberrie! Yous come for your machineeks?”
“What? I thought you said you didn’t have any? Why does this scruffy spacer get a speeder and I don’t?” the duros exclaimed.
“That’s because I reserved mine ahead of time,” Ben said, charm oozing from every pore. “Jett, how are you?”
"Mesa isa berry good, tank yu."
“You there. Pilot. You need to let me have that speeder?”
“No, actually, I don’t. There’s a taxi speeder stand several blocks over. I’m sure they’ll be able to get you to your destination.”
“That’s not acceptable. I need a speeder for the duration of my stay.”
“So do I, and I had the foresight to book ahead of time. You need to leave now.”
“I need to leave now.”
As if in a daze, the duros stumbled its way out. No matter how many times Hux saw Ben pull that trick before, it never ceased to amaze him.
“Haha! Yousa shows that nutsen! Mesa gets your machineeks now.”
The speeder wasn’t what Hux expected, sleek and chromed and probably the most luxurious vehicle he’d ever stepped foot in. His battered duffel looked out of place in the fur-lined trunk, and he felt equally unfit to be seen sitting in it in his ill-fitting clothes and unshaven condition. Ben didn’t seem to have that problem, even in his faded vest and scuffed boots and wild hair. After spending several minutes trying to analyze why it all worked for Ben and not for him, he threw his mental hands up and made the conscious decision to ignore it and enjoy the ride.
Ben had remained closed-mouthed as to their destination, resisting all of Hux’s efforts to wheedle information out of him, answering each of his questions with a simple “You’ll see.”
Eventually he gave up and ignored Ben in favor of the scenery. Their path followed the river that flowed through Naboo and out into the country beyond, twisting along between lush fields and forests set off by a mountainous backdrop. He’d never had a reason to leave Theed on his previous visits to Naboo, and after seeing the breathtaking vistas unfolding before him, he found himself wishing he’d managed some excuse to venture outside the city.
Even at the insane speeds Ben forced out of the speeder it took them over two hours to reach their destination. The river spilled out into a giant lake, and on the shore, nestled in between old growth trees, stood what looked like a miniature palace to Hux’s eyes.
“My grandmother’s estate. We used to come here every year when I was a kid.”
“I knew the surviving Alderaanians had settled on Naboo after the Death Star destroyed their planet, but I had no idea the Organas had had an estate here.”
“No, not my step grandmother. Padmé Amidala. Well, Padmé Naberrie, really. They keep this place in trust for us here. She’s still fondly remembered.”
“So that’s why that Gungan called you Ben Naberrie? I thought that was just another alias.”
“Not this time, no.”
“I’m going to need to make a chart. Ben Solo, sometime Resistance errand boy.”
“Hey, now. Boy?”
Hux ignored the interruption, ticking names off on his fingers. “Kylo Ren, notorious smuggler. Ben Naberrie, Nabooian royalty.”
“Notorious? I like the sound of that.”
“You would.” Of course he’d comment on that and ignore Hux’s jab at his indifference to committing to the Resistance. “Do you have any other personas lying about besides those three?”
“Yes, but you don’t want to know about them.”
A door opened at the base of the estate as they pulled up and Ben drove the speeder in. Ben vaulted over his door and raced around to the other side, opening Hux’s with a flourish.
“Your secure transmitter awaits!”
They nearly ran into a droid bustling down the stairs to the landing pad. It caught itself on the rail with two of its six arms. Hux gave thanks that the lighting in the underground bay was minimal, because reflections from its highly polished outer covering could possibly cause permanent damage to a being’s retinas.
“Master Naberrie! It’s been too long!”
“Dee. Haven’t rusted away yet, I see?” The droid missed Ben’s sarcasm. Or maybe he’d gotten used to it during Ben’s childhood visits and was just ignoring it. If that was the case, he and the droid would get along famously.
“I’ve been maintaining a scrupulous maintenance program to prevent such an occurrence sir. And who is this?”
“D-5DS, this is Armitage Hux. He’ll be our guest this evening, and you can add him to the list of accepted persons for the estate in our absence.”
“Duly noted. Welcome, Master Armitage. I’ve had suites aired out for both of you, and I’ll see that your luggage is taken care of. Dinner is being prepared, and there are garments available for you to wear while your own are being cleaned. I assume you’d like to take it on the upper balcony?”
“You’re a mind reader, Dee. I’ll show Hux around. You can get back to whatever you do.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m sure the kitchen droids will make a mess of things if I’m not there to supervise.”
As the droid clanked up the stairs, Ben leaned in to stage whisper in Hux’s ear. “When I was a kid I used to try to smudge his shine. Drove him nuts.”
“Indeed. You were a holy terror, sir,” the droid threw back over its shoulder. Yes, he liked Dee, Hux decided.
Following Ben up the stairs, Hux tried not to rubberneck as they passed through a series of palatial rooms. The transmitter he’d been promised was tucked away in a tiny annex. Ben fired it up, and within a few seconds his mother’s image flickered above the pad.
“Ben, what the hell are you doing on Naboo? You’re supposed to be coming with me to Mon Mothma’s reception tonight.” Even through the holo, the general’s glare could have melted transparisteel.
“Sorry, mom. I was rescuing a damsel in distress. You’ll just have to bring dad.”
“He’s suspiciously absent as well.” Arms crossed, she scowled. “You better have a good excuse for this.”
Taking pity on Ben, Hux stepped forward.
“That excuse would be me, ma’am. My x-wing broke down and Ben brought me to meet my contact. I’d have missed my window if he hadn’t provided me with a lift. I hope you’ll find the information I’ve acquired to be sufficient to warrant his absence. It seems the First Order is ramping up its activities. Transferring the files now.”
Plugging the datastick into the port, he watched as the data scrolled across the screen. His father’s name jumped out at him at several points, and he suppressed a wince. He’d thought about changing his name on several occasions, but when he’d realized First Order intelligence had tagged him as associated with the Resistance, he’d decided to keep it, knowing it would create difficulties for the bastard.
Leia’s stance softened as she scanned the information coming in.
“I’ll present this to the Senate at our next session. They’re continuing to refuse to recognize that the First Order is fast becoming a threat to the Republic. Thank you, Hux.” She smiled at him, and then fixed her glare back on Ben.
“Don’t think this means you’re off the hook. Three nights from now, the gala at the Galaxies Opera House.”
“I’m sorry, mom, you’re breaking up.”
Leia cut the signal, but not before Hux caught her smile.
“Ah yes, how could I have left Ben Organa-Solo, the senator’s doting son and Coruscant’s most eligible bachelor, off my list?”
Ben made a gagging noise as he shut down the transmitter.
“At least the food’s superb at these things, yes?”
“Not when someone’s trying to feed it to me, no.”
“Speaking of food, are you hungry?”
His stomach growled in response, and Ben chuckled.
“Dee believes in late dining, so let’s go raid the kitchen for a snack. After that I’ll show you around.”
The kitchen was almost as large as the landing bay. Three service droids took up a small corner, knives flying, and they gave them wide berth. Rummaging around in the conservator found them some hard sausage, a hunk of cheese, and a couple of pears. Ben dropped their loot in a basket he pulled out from a cabinet, along with a knife and a couple of plates, and led him back out into the house proper.
“The droids keep this place up, but I don’t think anyone’s been here in over a year now. My mom wanted them to do something useful with it but the government insisted. That’s one of the only battles she’s ever lost.”
The grand tour consisted of room after magnificent room, and Ben had a wild story for every one of them.
“How is your mother not completely grey?” Hux asked after they settled themselves in a window seat overlooking the lake. Ben smiled and shook his head as he fussed with arranging plates for them.
“I think she’s just used to it. I mean, after decades of maintaining her seat in the senate and either aiding the Rebellion or running the Resistance at the same time, what’s one child on top of all of that?” He handed Hux his plate. “Just a snack. If I know Dee, he’s planning a nine-course meal.”
The room Ben showed him to after they’d finished made his head swim. The ceiling soared above him, easily twenty feet high. A whole squadron could bunk in the canopy bed that held place of pride on a dais, with room to spare. Ornate carvings decorated every wall, interspersed with mirrors and works of exquisite art from a multitude of worlds, many he couldn’t place.
Oblivious to his amazement, Ben gestured to one side. “Fresher’s through there. Don’t have to worry about running out of hot water. There’s some clothes in the wardrobe that should fit. Just leave yours outside the fresher -- Dee will see they’re taken care of. I’m going to dig around in the household accounts since I’m here. Feel free to explore if you get bored.”
“So now you’re an estate manager too?”
Flipping him off, Ben headed for his own room, or so Hux assumed. Thoughts about whatever Ben might be getting into evaporated at his first sight of the refresher. The tub could easily fit four people, with seats sculpted for luxurious soaking. Rummaging around in the various drawers and cabinets, he found all manner of grooming devices, and a few surprises.
“Well, that’s a thing, isn’t it?”
Why guest rooms came with those kinds of accessories didn’t bear thinking about. Several of the indentations in the tub seemed to lend themselves to the types of activities these toys would suggest, too. Closing the drawer carefully, he continued to explore. A closet next to the tub revealed monstrous fluffy towels and sixteen different types of bath products. Once he figured out all the various knobs and switches, Hux decided he’d treat himself to the most decadent bubble bath in the galaxy.
He lost track of time, dozing off a bit in the warm water, rousing at the sound of a door chime.
“Master Hux?” Dee’s voice sounded from the bedroom.
“In here,” he called out.
“Very good sir. I’ve taken the liberty of laying something out for you. Dinner will be served in an hour. A service droid will come to escort you.”
He called out his thanks and heard the droid retreat. He probably should get out, he decided. His fingers had begun to do that prune thing, and he wanted to take advantage of some of the grooming items he’d found earlier. After drying off, he surveyed his face in the mirror.
“That’ll never do. We’ve already reached our quota of scruffy looking scoundrels here,” he told his reflection. “Time for a shave.”
He had a good start on a respectable pair of sideburns, so he left that part, sculpting them with care. He’d been supplied with an an array of expensive styling products, so he slicked his hair back, parting it on the side. A bottle of exquisite cologne proved too tempting to resist and he dabbed a bit behind each ear.
Emerging from the refresher, he found his dirty clothes had been whisked away, as promised, along with his boots. The outfit Dee had chosen for him proved to be a good fit, almost as if it had been tailored to him. A long tunic of deep green accentuated his torso, the collar fitting perfectly and the sleeves hitting his wrist bones when he stretched his arms out. The pleats of the matching pants settled across his hips just right. A black sleeveless robe of the softest velvet went over the ensemble, held in place with a wide leather belt. No shoes had been provided, but as he was casting about for something to use a droid wheeled in, beeping and holding out his boots in one appendage. They’d been polished to a military shine, he found, and cushioned insoles had been inserted.
Sliding them on and buckling them, he examined himself from various angles in the multitude of mirrors. He’d never considered himself a vain person, but he could get used to this. Maybe someday, if things ever settled down in the galaxy, he could spare the time to put a bit more effort into his appearance.
A beep sounded from beyond his door, and when he opened it, a mouse droid scooted back and forth in the corridor.
“Are you my escort to dinner?”
It circled front of him and then sped off down the hall. Leading him in a zigzag path along several hallways and down a lift, it left him at the end of a long corridor in front of an ornate pair of transparisteel doors that opened out onto a flagstoned balcony overlooking the lake. A table had been set for two in the corner. As he watched, a series of service droids wheeled out carts covered in domed dishes.
“Dee can never do anything by halves.”
He hadn’t noticed Ben until he spoke, but when he did he couldn’t imagine how he’d missed him. He wasn’t wearing anything ornate, clad in garments similar to Hux’s own, in crimson and black, but the silk of his tunic clung to his arms and torso and the rich red warmed his skin and brought out the gold in his eyes, and instead of the messy bun or braids he usually wore, he’d let his hair down, falling in soft waves around his face. Leaning against the railing, he raised his wineglass to Hux.
“Pour yourself a glass and join me. They’ll be setting up for a bit still.”
Dodging a droid, Hux helped himself as instructed. The wine started out light and fruity on the tongue, but when it hit his stomach it bloomed, heat radiating out from his core in waves.
“Oops. I should have warned you. Nabooian wines can pack a bit of a punch.”
“I’ll say,” he gasped. The bottle had been half empty when he’d poured his glass. Ben didn’t seem affected at all. It must be some Force thing. He’d have to watch himself. He’d never had a head for potent spirits, and this “wine” definitely belonged in that category.
“It’s distilled after fermenting,” Ben offered, tipping his head back to drain the last few drops from his glass. “They don’t export any, so enjoy it while you can.” One of the serving droids appeared at his elbow, holding up a platter of tiny dumplings, each skewered with a translucent lightsaber. Some contained vegetables, others seasoned ground meats, and the last one proved to be filled with a spicy cheese that had Hux taking another huge gulp of wine, which only served to replace one kind of burn with another.
“Dinner is served, gentlebeings!” Dee clapped his hands and the droids wheeled out. Ben insisted on pulling out Hux’s chair for him and Dee topped his glass off before he could protest.
He didn’t try to identify the foods. First was a small bowl of some clear broth, fragrant and lightly seasoned. Next followed a salad, mixed greens and slivers of fruit and nuts in a tangy dressing. A fillet of highly spiced fish was next, and then another meat that seemed to be some kind of waterfowl, the fat layer under the skin cooked to a crisp that melted in the mouth. After that came flimsi-thin slices from a rare roast dribbled in a thickened broth.
Each course was consumed in only a few bites, just enough to keep you wanting more. Despite his intentions he took frequent sips from his wine, amazed as its bouquet seemed to change to complement each course. Somehow, as the meal progressed, the level in his glass never seemed to go down. He caught a droid bringing up a new bottle at one point but Dee was so smooth at topping him off he never noticed until he went to take another drink. Maybe it had something to do with all those extra arms.
Between each course, Dee offered them each a crystallized flower petal.
“To clear the palate, and assist in digestion,” it explained after the soup.
After the roast they were presented with tiny bites of cheese on slices of toasted bread, and to finish, a sweet bread pudding with fruit. Dee poured a rich sauce over the plate at the table and then lit it with a spark from one of its fingers.
Resisting the urge to run his finger through the puddle of sauce that remained on his plate, Hux pushed away from the table, giving the droids space to clear away the dishes. He’d get up, but he had a feeling his legs might not support him.
Ben let out a loud belch, causing the service droids to scatter. Dee gave an exaggerated mechanical sigh.
“Your mother still hasn’t managed to teach you any manners, I see.”
“That’s a compliment on some planets, Dee.”
“Not on any civilized ones that I am aware with, and I am conversant with the customs of over six million species.”
“Yes, but your definition of civilization is pretty narrow.”
“By your standards, perhaps.”
This had the feeling of an old argument between the two of them. Ben was smiling, and something in the droid’s tone managed to convey amusement as well.
“I would attempt to deliver a lesson in comportment, but past experience suggests it would be a waste of time and energy, so if there isn’t anything else you require, sirs, I shall retire to my oil bath and then shut down for the evening.”
“No, I think we’re good, unless there’s anything you’d like, Hux?”
“I couldn’t eat another bite, no. Thank you,” he told the droid and received a bob of its head in return.
“The gardens are lit, if you’d care to take a turn through them. I’ll leave the wine here for you.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
Rising, he was glad of the hand Ben offered him, swaying as he took a few steps away from the table. He left his wineglass behind, over Ben’s protests, needing both hands free to navigate the stairs down from the balcony. Ben raced down ahead of him, waiting for him at the bottom.
“I forget what a lightweight you are. Here.” He offered Hux his arm.
“I could have used this at the top of the stairs, you know.”
“Don’t worry. I’d have caught you if you fell.”
Soft lights, fashioned as flowers, led them along a winding path at the base of the estate to the promised gardens. Giant flowering plants framed a gazebo, their fragrance tickling Hux’s nose. At first he thought it was his imagination, but as they drew closer the faint music that had teased at the edge of his awareness increased in volume. A slow waltz played, and as if in a dream, Ben led him across the floor and swung him around, his hand coming to rest at Hux's waist.
“Dance with me?”
He let Ben lead, the two of them gliding across the polished marble. The first time Ben dipped him, he saw the tiny lights hung inside the peaked roof of the gazebo, mimicking the stars above.
“Come with me?”
“Come with you where?”
“To the gala at the opera house. Save me from desperate want-to-be suitors. Earn my mother’s undying gratitude by making sure I show up on time. Dance with me there under the crystal chandeliers.” He spun Hux without warning, hand firm at the small of his back as he pulled him back, closing the inches Hux had been careful to keep between them. Lips brushed his cheek as Ben murmured a “please” in his ear.
“I can't. I have to report back. We're tracking the movement of some pirates who may be …”
“Just a few days, Hux. You're always pushing yourself. You need a break.”
“I don't have time for a break. There's too few of us and we're stretched too thin, something you'd know if you weren't too busy trying to beat your father's speed records in between playing the spoiled prince.”
He felt Ben stiffen against him at the accusation, pulling away, and he sighed. “I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that.”
“But that doesn't mean you don't think it.”
He could see the lights reflected in Ben’s eyes, see the tremble on his lips. He allowed himself to do what he'd been longing to do for years, brushing his lips against Ben’s, once, and once more. Before Ben had a chance to recover, he leaned his head against Ben's shoulder. They gave up all pretense of following the steps of any dance and just rocked back and forth, holding each other tight.
One song blended into another and who knew how long the music would last. He needed to end this before he did anything he'd regret in the morning.
“I think I need sleep. It's been a long couple of days.”
He didn't think Ben was going to let him go at first, but at last his arms loosened, trailing across Hux's hips as he stepped back.
“Thank you for dinner.”
Ben nodded, head downcast, hair falling over his eyes.
He couldn't remember the way back to his room, and all the droids seemed to have retired to their charging stations for the evening, so he ended up wandering the halls for an indeterminate time. By the time he found it, his head had begun to pound and his bladder felt close to exploding. Stripping his clothes off and throwing them carelessly over a chair, he saw to one of his problems and crawled into bed, pulling a pillow over his head to try to solve the other. He didn’t allow himself to think of his third problem, the one he'd left standing by himself in the middle of a fairy tale garden.
Sudden light woke him in the morning, as the shades rolled back at some prearranged signal. He groaned, diving back under the covers, as his headache hadn't diminished while he slept. Or been passed out, he had to admit. A beeping drew him out from under the coverlet and he discovered a droid by his bedside, holding out a tray on which sat two tablets and a glass of water.
“Bless you,” he moaned, as he reached for the pills. It took about twenty minutes for him to begin to feel human again, and by then another droid had appeared with a breakfast tray. After he’d downed the caf, two slices of toasted bread and several pieces of some mild fruit, he felt well enough to contemplate moving.
His clothes had rematerialized while he'd been out, and after a brief shower he slid them on, not able to resist comparing them to what he'd worn the previous evening. The fabric felt coarse in comparison, and he noticed the poor fit for the first time.
Dee appeared over his shoulder without warning, causing him to jump.
“I’ve taken the opportunity to pack several outfits for you, Master Hux, in the event that you do decide to surprise Master Naberrie with your presence on Coruscant for the opera gala. They are already stowed in the speeder.”
“I wasn’t aware protocol droids were programmed for matchmaking.”
“I am not just any protocol droid, sir.”
Something had been bothering Hux since the night before.
“All these clothes, Dee? Where did they come from? It's almost as if they were fitted for me.”
“They were, sir. Master Naberrie sent me your measurements.”
“But there are over a dozen outfits in the wardrobe, Dee. How did you get them made up in only a few hours?”
“Master Naberrie ordered them months ago, sir.”
“The master wishes to depart on the hour. Is there anything else you require?”
“No, thank you, Dee.”
“I must say, it has been a pleasure meeting you at last.”
“You as well.” He held his hand out, and after a moment, Dee shook it.
“Oh dear. I seem to have smudged you,” Hux couldn’t resist pointing out.
“You two truly deserve each other. If you'll excuse me?” Not waiting for Hux’s response, it strode away, producing a white handkerchief from somewhere and dabbing at the appendage Hux had touched. Before it reached the door, it threw back over its shoulder, “By the way, before yesterday, there was no ‘list of accepted persons for the estate’ outside of family members.”
The door clicked shut behind the droid, leaving Hux standing in the middle of the room, jaw hanging open, not knowing what to make of any of this.
He found Ben in the landing bay, nursing a mug of caf as he ran the speeder through a pre-flight check.
“Morning,” he blurted out, suddenly awkward, not knowing how to act after last night and with D-5DS’s revelations still echoing in his ears.
“Morning to you too. I checked with Millie and she said your x-wing’s fit to fly. Ready to head back?”
“Of course.” He should say something, but he didn’t know what. “Um, about last night …”
“Forget about it. We’re good.” Ben’s smile seemed forced, and Hux cast about for anything else to say, but drew a blank.
They made the trip back in an awkward silence. Instead of ogling the scenery, Hux found his gaze returning time and time again to Ben’s profile. He sat on a crate outside while Ben returned the speeder and followed him to the landing field afterwards.
The silence stretched on through hyperspace, broken only when they settled back in the clearing where they started.
“Well, here we are again.”
“Yes. I, well, thank you. For everything.”
“Sure. You better get going. Lots of important things to do, right?”
“I’ll tell mom you said hi.”
Millie started rolling circles around him as soon as he stepped off the ramp.
Missed you! she beeped.
“Missed you too, pest.”
Where’s Ben? Isn’t he going to say goodbye?
The whine of the Falcon’s engines answered her as the freighter lifted off. Millie let out a sad beep as it disappeared into the clouds and then wheeled on Hux, arms akimbo.
What did you do?
“Nothing. Come on, we need to get back.”
He reported in to Major Ematt as soon as he landed.
“Good work, Hux. We’ll need to stay on top of this. Do you think this Martel will remain a viable contact?”
“Questionable. They’re in the process of rotting out what little brain they have from the inside out.”
“Shame that. Well, keep working with them for as long as they last, and we’ll see about finding a replacement before they wear out their usefulness. Any other leads you think we should follow up on?”
He hesitated, then took the plunge. “Ben mentioned something about a gala on Coruscant a few nights from now. He seemed to think my presence might be useful.”
“Well, now, that’s a surprise. He normally doesn’t take an interest in this kind of thing.”
Already guilty about the deception, he tried to backpedal. “It's probably nothing.”
“It very well may be, but we can't afford to ignore the suggestion. We don’t want to discourage him from making any further overtures.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“I do. I’ll see about finding you something to wear, and talk to the general about adding you to her list.”
“Ben took care of the first part for me already, sir.”
“Really? Remarkable. If he's taken this much initiative, it's a good sign. I’ll send lodging information your way.”
Two nights later, Hux checked his reflection for the sixth time, smoothing down the outer robe and picking at a miniscule piece of lint that had settled on one shoulder. The basic lines of this outfit were the same as the one he’d worn on Naboo, a high collared tunic over loose pants with a sleeveless overcoat, but this time the tunic and pants were a blinding white shot through with gold thread and the coat a deep crimson, stiff with metallic embroidery, constellations falling from his shoulders. When he’d checked, he found they were patterned after those visible in Naboo’s night skies, the ones that the lights in the gazebo had mirrored. His boots had only needed a bit of touching up to bring back their shine, matching the polished belt, and he’d slicked back his hair again, as he had several evenings past.
A speeder had been reserved to bring him to the opera house. Although he’d received confirmation he’d been added to the guest list, no one had told him whether Ben had been informed he’d be present, and he couldn’t think of any way to ask that wouldn’t cast suspicion on his story.
“Enough fussing. You’re going to make yourself late,” he told his reflection.
It wasn’t a long distance to the opera house from his lodgings, but traffic was backed up for blocks. He’d have gotten out and walked if he hadn’t need concern himself with appearances. His speeder moved through the queue at a crawl until it finally reached the disembarkation zone.
After a retinal scan he was admitted to the main floor. A page directed him to the senator’s table. He almost referred to her as “General Organa,” a sign of how nervous he felt.
Leia smiled at him as he walked up but Ben didn’t notice his arrival. She was deep in conversation with another senator, someone Hux knew he should recognize, but he couldn’t bring the name to mind. All he could think of was how Ben could manage to look both sad and hopeful at the same time as he scanned the room.
He slid into the chair next to Ben, waiting for Ben to notice him, but Ben continued to sit with his back to the table, scanning the crowds around them. Finally, he cleared his throat.
“So, I hear tonight there’ll be dancing.”