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here endeth the lesson

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Major Hux and Lieutenant Phasma are playing pazaak in the outer room, using her old-style etched bondium deck instead of a holo-table. If he concentrates, forces all his thoughts down to a razor-sharp sliver of focus, Kylo Ren can hear the the cards clink as they land on the desk, the scrape of Phasma's armored gloves on the metal, her breath, no longer rigidly regulated -- she is off-duty and she has taken her helmet off. If he pushes himself even more, to the ache, to the rush of blood through his skull, he can hear the sums Hux is adding up in his head, trying to count the flip cards left in the deck. Plus three, and Phasma will win the round, best out of five. Kylo's head hurts. He hopes she does; he can't stand Major Hux.

"You will travel to Eriadu with his division," his Master had ordered, fixing Kylo with his too-still, too-deep gaze.

"What am I to do," he had begun to say, but Snoke silenced him with a raised hand, like he always did when he knew what Kylo wanted before he had barely opened his mouth.

"I will speak with the both of you again upon arrival. For now, my apprentice, meditate. Practice." The black eyes shut for what had felt like an age; Kylo counted fifteen heartbeats before they slid open again.

"On Eriadu, you will tell me what you have learned. Go."

His Master hadn't told him it was Hux's job to watch him. Clearly, he had told Hux; it was unlikely the Major would have decamped in the outer room of his cabin otherwise, nor taken his reports, meals and, infuriatingly, entertained visitors there.

"Lord Ren is inside," Hux had told Phasma as she came in; this he could hear through the door, the pinched, put-upon tone in Hux's voice as he formed the word "Lord". He had wondered if the Lieutenant would ask if Hux had seen him, what he was like, but she hadn't, just sat herself down at the desk and pulled out the deck of cards like the fraternizing was nothing new.

"Old Republic Senate rules. I don't feel like betting against you."

Kylo pulls back, away from Hux and Phasma, catching his own breath, rough in his throat. Their games are irrelevant; through strength, I gain power, he reminds himself, and takes another deep inhale, holds it in, counting, one, two, three, lets it out, repeats it again. The sounds of the ship amplify around him, the recycled air hissing steadily out of the wall grate, the even hum of the engines, the light tread of the security officers making their rounds through level B, the turbolift ferrying them back up to A and to the piloting crew on the bridge and there, somewhere deep down below, an off, a something that doesn't belong --

-- it's a faulty coupling in the bowels of the auxiliary power system, a slight hiccup, a tic that pushes harder for a few moments before slowing down again; a minute, useless thing he can't push out of focus now that he has heard it.

Kylo sighs. Stands up. Takes another deep breath.

Meditation doesn't come easily to him, never has, no matter how often Master Luke had set him to clearing his mind. His hands clench, fingers gouging into his palms even through the leather of his gloves. Someday, soon, he tells himself, he will drop the childish habit of the appellation when thinking of Luke. Someday, soon, he won't think of Luke at all.

Kneeling back down, he casts his thoughts outside the door again. Lieutenant Phasma is still there, but the card-counting has ceased. Hux is speaking to her of lommite mines on Eriadu's surface in that same pinched, nasal voice, each word stoking his irritation even more than the ticking of the faulty power coupling, endless pinpricks on his skin, until all he wants is to slam open the door and scream for Hux to get out.

Of course, he doesn’t. From what he’s seen of Hux, he doubts Hux would leave, regardless, and wonders exactly what it is that Snoke had ordered him to do -- to keep him in this room? To never let him out of sight? Is this a test for Major Hux? For Lieutenant Phasma? To stay as close to Lord Kylo Ren as he will let you? -- to, what, disrupt his pathetic attempts at meditation at all costs?

It is pathetic. He is -- he is --

-- He steels himself. He is Kylo Ren, Knight of Ren, and the Force is in his blood, his bones, his very marrow, he thinks, his hands already reaching out for the polished box in front of him, unkeying the lock, throwing the lid. It is his right. His destiny.

He brings his hand down slowly, carefully, and looks, unblinking, for a long time before he allows himself to touch a finger to the charred face of the mask. Even through his gloves, it feels rough, pocked. The leather catches on a fire-etched scar where the side of the helmet and the faceplate have been fused together, but aside from the momentary sting, he doesn’t feel anything else.

Not for the first time, Kylo wishes he had been left with something more. A journal, a lightsaber crystal. A holocron. Luke had taught him about holocrons once upon a time, back when he had still been stumbling between Uncle and Master. Pieces of old Jedi and ancient Sith, the words of legends -- Ulic Qel-Droma, Exar Kun, buried somewhere in the humid ruins of Dxun, in the sands of Korriban. Master Snoke has promised to show him when he is ready, and he will be, but he wonders suddenly if Luke ever created any of his own; if pieces of Luke’s screed are scattered throughout the galaxy for him to stumble upon. The thought is unsettling.

Darth Vader has left no holocrons. Hadn’t known he had someone to leave them to, Kylo thinks, pulling back his hand, and peels off the glove, puts his bare, exposed palm back to the ridged surface of Vader’s mask. The sharp edges that had caught his glove are the remnants of an air-filtration system; Lord Vader had relied on this once-intricate machinery, now melted off tubes like blood vessels leading to nowhere. Luke had once told him --

-- Kylo Ren cannot stand how much of his knowledge begins with a Luke had once told him, something that feeds his anger even more effectively than Hux’s voice pitching shrill on transparisteel and Dorvalla Mining. He ponders derisively if Phasma and Hux are fucking -- were fucking, have fucked -- and decides against it. He hasn’t seen the lieutenant out of her armor, but she is taller than Hux and at least as fit as the rest of the troopers; slender, buttoned-up Major Hux doesn’t look like he’d allow someone that much control.

People had been afraid of Darth Vader’s very breath. Just because the knowledge comes from Luke, doesn’t make it any less true, he decides, and besides, he has more than just Luke’s brief memories to corroborate that. Vader’s machine-regulated air flowed through his armored enviro-suit with a rasp most found unnerving if not outright terrifying; no surprise appearances for him, but steadily increasing fear as that gravelly, metallic sound came closer and closer. Kylo draws in a full, heavy lungful and holds it in, then releases it all at once, forcefully, listens to the air flow through the modulator of his own mask. It’s louder, but not by much, and it doesn’t last, so he closes his eyes underneath the slit of the visor, and tries to imagine that deep, gritty sound behind him, echoing footsteps approaching, promising panic and dread and pain. He lifts his still-gloved hand and lays it heavily on his own shoulder, pushes his fingers, cold and slippery in the leather, over his throat, feels for the hollows, the frustratingly vulnerable dip of flesh and presses down, down and in until it burns.

Vader could take the breath out of someone with the Force; crush the trachea, the lungs, cut off the flow of air until his target was helpless in his grip, a puppet on collapsing strings; so can Kylo’s Master. He has experienced it more than once as Snoke instructed him, showed him. He hasn’t mastered it yet, and he cannot do it to himself. Some primitive, animal instinct always takes over whenever he tries, makes him claw desperately for survival until the Force strands he attempts to pull together unravel and dissipate, but he adds just a small push of the Force to his hand now as he clenches it harder around his own throat, feels the burn in his chest deepen, his lungs begin to protest. His gloved hand doesn’t feel like a part of him as he gives himself a brief reprieve and drags the leather up underneath his chin, to the clasps of his mask, and undoes them.

The mask tumbles to the floor with a muffled thud. It makes Kylo feel exposed. He has gotten used to its weight, its isolating almost-comfort, and he forces himself to stay still, to take another, unhampered, breath instead of reaching for it. His gloved fingers travel up instead, over his chin, to cover his mouth. He pushes his chin up and slides his thumb over his lower lip. The press of the leather over the chapped skin stings just so slightly, a satisfying tiny ache as he pushes his thumb roughly between his lips.

It is even more satisfying to bite down. He scores the leather with his teeth as the invading fingers claw at his own lip; the pain flares up, sharp, sharper, his mouth, his hand, his still-smarting throat. When he finally withdraws his aching fingers, his lip is bleeding, and he tongues at it, tasting iron. The air in the room has gotten almost uncomfortably warm, and the leather, the heavy fabric of his robe is stifling, harsh. He yanks off his remaining glove, relishing the brief new pain that flares at the contact, and examines the small red gouges in the meat of his thumb. They are already going pale, the ache receding; there, he hasn’t broken the skin.

The faceplate of the Sith helmet feels almost hot when he puts both naked hands against it, warmed by his touch or by the memory of fire, Kylo cannot tell and it doesn’t matter. The memory, the fire, it is long done with, and this charred relic is all that is left -- it and me, he thinks, suddenly humbled. Him, for what that is worth.

By the time Darth Vader had been his age, he’d won battles. Even as a Jedi, before he’d found his path, he’d done so much; escaped a slavemaster, fought in a planetary invasion, charmed a queen. Kylo tries to picture Anakin Skywalker as a young man, but his wayward, mutinous memory shuffles up another image instead, like the still of a holo, a flash of warm, dark eyes, so far and so familiar and so sad, crowsfeet beginning to gather in the corners, and Kylo growls his frustration into the tiny cabin, uncaring whether his minders outside can hear him through the durasteel door.

Now, now, apprentice, you are being unreasonable, Master Snoke would lecture if he would deign to see him now. They were his children by blood, if not by breeding, and it is far too petty of you to deny them the resemblance. Petty it may be, but he can’t imagine Lord Vader ever looked like Luke, with his sandy hair and his simpleton’s half-smile, or worse yet, Ben Solo’s mother, that moon-eyed look she always reserved for --

-- No, he thinks. Anakin Skywalker couldn’t have looked like them anymore than he looks like them, blood notwithstanding, but would he have looked like Kylo himself? Probably also unlikely, he decides sullenly, sucking his bloodied lip between his teeth and biting into it in savage exasperation. There is no mirror in these quarters, but he knows what he would see if there were; a face that slides between awkward and unremarkable, hair curling haphazard over a too-wide forehead, crooked nose and mouth, both too large for his pointed chin. Even here, almost completely alone, in this locked room, on this ship hurtling through the dark, vast empty, Kylo craves the sleek, graceful sanctuary of his mask, each curve, each line of it measured and crafted by him with geometrical precision.

He lifts a hand back up to his cheek and drags his fingers across, trying again to picture a face -- the face, the cheekbones more rounded, the chin smoother, maybe the same unruly hair but the eyes lighter -- before it suddenly dissolves in flames, the fire catching the brown curls, melting the flesh, the skin bubbling up red, then black -- he can’t breathe, can’t move, the very air is searing, he is choking on the smoke --

-- Kylo blinks. His heart is pounding, and he knows what he has seen is true, true, but still not enough; the air is already cool, stale, the vision is gone like it had never been. Please, he implores with every part of his being, please, please let me have more, and is immediately ashamed for it. Begging, like he is a child left alone --

-- that he would never be alone was the first thing Luke had ever taught him about the Force. “It will always be with you. All around you. It will hold you and guide you, it will be your comfort and your ally and your strength.” Comfort is the last thing he feels. He breathes in and out again, again, again, and reaches, his hands clinging to the sharp obsidian ridge of Darth Vader’s mask, for each and every echo of pain in his body, no matter how small or insignificant. The plasteel digging into his palms. His bloodied lip. His tender throat. Every bruise and every scar concealed under his robes, they hum together, melding, merging into a single pulse, a deep red haze, until there is nothing else --

-- and it is all around him, the Force, and it responds to his blood with an urgency, a craving, a fierce need that envelops him whole, that wrings the shame from him and crushes it underfoot. His vision shifts, flickers, the cabin walls, the floor, there one moment and gone the next, Darth Vader’s helmet the only fixed point in the void, and in its empty gaze he sees --

-- a man, fierce and furious, the blue fire of his lightsaber setting his path ablaze --
-- a giant in black armor, a thing of terrifying majesty, the grasp of his hand reaching across the stars --
-- a smiling blue-eyed knight under a garland of flowers --
-- a grim rider in the desert, twin suns setting in the vast empty sky --

-- they turn towards him as one, the faces superimposed upon each other, blue eyes alight in the obsidian gleam of the mask, the cold red disk of the sinking sun a backdrop to the black-gloved hand reaching out for him across the magnitude of space --

-- and then he is back in the room again, kneeling on the floor, his heart slamming up into his throat, breath coming in sharp, hitched gasps. He hurts, there is blood dripping from his mouth, his nose, congealing on his hands, droplets of it pooling on the charred metal. It feels -- incredible. Amazing. He is a honed weapon, strength coursing through his veins like liquid heat, savage elation filling every pore of him, from heart to belly to his cock, hard and straining against the taut fabric of his trousers. He kneels up, ripping at the laces, blood from his little wounds smearing over his thighs, painting the dark cloth even blacker, and takes himself in hand, fingers squeezing hard around the base. It hurts almost too much, but it is good, his fist sliding up, a tight, hot vise, and he’s shivering, panting, tendrils of the Force swirling almost-solid right on the periphery of his sight.

His eyes slam shut, the after-images burning on the inside of his eyelids, the black-gloved hands reaching out for him, snapping his hips forward, holding him fast in a merciless, tight grip. A giant in obsidian armor pulls him close, the sharp metallic edges cutting into his skin at a hundred points of contact, and he has earned this, he deserves it, the hot press of their joined hands gauntleted over his straining, aching cock. He moves his hand faster, gracelessly bracing himself off the floor with his other closed fist, feels the sweat dripping down the back of his neck, the lightning starting to build in his chest. He squeezes harder, letting his nails score into the delicate, tender skin, and holds back a howl between his teeth as his whole body sparks up, wanting.

The Force-strands around him are unraveling, wild, as the gauntleted hands grab a hold of his neck and crush, and he chokes, struggles, rasps noisily as the drumbeat of his pulse turns frantic, as the lightning burns through his throat and lungs, rushes live-wire through his spine. He arcs his back, mouth wide open, and comes, messily, the Force grip on his throat dissipating as he finally loses control.

After, he cleans himself off with his discarded clothes, and carefully locks and puts away the polished metal box. Idly, almost as an afterthought, he reaches outside the doors one more time, the outer room coming into sharp focus in his mind. Lieutenant Phasma is gone, but Hux is still there, making notes on his holopad, booted feet propped up on his desk. Kylo concentrates, narrows all of his desires down to one, and listens: the scribble of the stylus over the screen, Hux’s breath, coming slow and a little tired, the soldiers he has picked for the next day’s run, still a bit of pazaak, a future rematch -- and there, deeper still under the surface, there it is, what he was looking for, Kylo thinks with satisfaction, and withdraws.

Snoke summons him and Major Hux before they land on Eriadu, his holographic form stretching immense in the room. Through his mask, unseen, Kylo Ren is free to watch the Major as Master Snoke dispenses instruction; Hux stands almost too straight, bows almost too low, and the heels of his polished boots click almost irreverently over the floor as he exits, dismissed.

When his Master says, “Tell me,” Kylo Ren is ready.

“Major Hux believes he has mastered his fear,” he says, reveling in the deep mechanical distortion the voice modulator brings to his words. “He is wrong.”