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Ceasefire

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The first thing that bites through the perfect dark where he’s drifted for days is a scream.

Kylo opens his eyes. There’s nothing to see, but the echo of that scream seems to bounce around inside the deprivation chamber like a frantic moth, wounded and desperate. He tries to catch it but it’s gone too fast.

It must have been a test. One which he failed. He closes his eyes again, sending penance Snoke’s way. There’s no response, but that’s not unusual.

Two deep breaths allow him to return to his meditative state, and the only thought that remains is a nagging concern for how thirsty he is, his entire body slick with sweat under the stone that holds him in the chamber. He has a ration of water within reach, but the entire exercise, so far as Snoke would explain it, involves measuring that water out precisely according to what Kylo needs, never what he wants or only suspects he might need. He has to know for sure. It’s difficult to measure, considering he hasn’t been told when he will be released. The difficulty is, of course, the point. Kylo finds strength in this exercise, typically.

He refuses to go brittle with thirst, rejects the need for water, and shifts his mind away from his body’s panic until he’s disconnected from it. He may have drifted off to sleep, before. It happens. He dismisses the scream he heard as either a missed opportunity to ignore outside stimuli or a random outburst from a dream, and sets the whole matter aside with the rest of his thoughts, returning to the blank drift that is required of him here.

Time is relative in the chamber, but Kylo would guess that only a few minutes have passed before he hears the screaming again. This time it’s less like screaming, more like pleading, begging, crying, breaking.

Hux.

Kylo tries to sit up, instinct kicking everything else away, and he bangs his head hard on the stone that looms less than a foot above him. The blow to his skull leaves him dizzy, waves of disorienting light washing across his tightly-shut eyes when his head drops back to the floor of the chamber. He hears himself panting, losing his focus on days’ worth of meditation and on what he just saw, heard, felt.

He’s seen flashes of this torment before. Snoke interpreted it as a false alarm, nonsense that Kylo’s subconscious invented because of his anxiety about completing his training and the poor choices he made while traveling on the Finalizer in those last few days. That vision had been jarring but brief, faint, open to interpretation. This one is sitting in him like a knife in his gut, bleeding him out. He’s lost the thread of the vision but he can still feel it happening, right now, as real as the ceiling of rock above him: Hux is in pain. No, worse. He’s breaking. That was the sound of him breaking after days of enduring this.

Kylo can move the stone and free himself from the chamber. He’s strong enough. He’s done it before. He curls his hands into fists, shakes his head, closes his eyes. The last time he moved the stone himself it was unintentional, in a panic, before he became accustomed to long stretches of time in the chamber. Snoke forgave him after the punishment that followed, but that was months ago, and Kylo can’t do anything for Hux now, even if the vision is as real as it feels, soaking him with a fresh sheen of sweat while his heart hammers in his chest. He’s having trouble swallowing, but now would be the worst moment to weaken and reach for the water.

The deep breath he wants to take doesn’t fill his lungs completely before shuddering out of him in an exhale. It’s coming back. He can feel it, like a hovertrain barreling along the tracks he’s tied to. There’s nowhere to run.

Two of them are sent in together today, it’s a windowless room, Hux hasn’t been allowed a single item of clothing since they brought him here, he doesn’t know how long it’s been, he’s curled up on the floor. One of them laughs under his breath when Hux cowers before him.

“You can’t--!”

Kylo is shaken out of the windowless room by the sound of his own voice, croaking with disuse and painfully dry. The vision has snapped away again, speeding ahead on its tracks after flattening Kylo to them, but he’s still screaming it in his head, over and over, his breath getting more and more ragged as he stares up at the underside of the rock, seeing only darkness.

You can’t do that to him. You can’t. I won’t let you.

But that’s the child he’s here to smother talking. Hux was always calling him a child, an infant, an overgrown boy.

Hux--

He hates--

His nightmares about being exposed, surrounded. The worst ones. How did they know.

Kylo shuts his eyes again. He tries to breathe. He can’t. He feels like he did that day when he blew the rock overhead off the chamber without even meaning to, out of control. But this is worse, bigger, raking over him in tremors of rage. He’d been angry with himself when he blasted out of here last time. This is different. Unstoppable, he finds, when he grits his teeth and screams through them, jaw tight and eyes still pinched shut, the rock shifting and then flying away from the shallow chamber where he lies. He hears it crack apart when it lands hard on the other side of the cavernous dungeon of the citadel.

He sits up, breathing in long, shaking exhales through his nose, trying to reassess, trying to regain control.

They’re hurting Snoke’s appointed General. Snoke will want to know. Kylo waits to hear a disappointed question at the back of his mind, a knowing rebuke, a sigh, anything. There’s a kind of buzzing emptiness at the base of his skull, as if those images of Hux washed over everything like a tidal wave and took it all away.

He sits there in the dark and waits, his hands in fists, the shake that starts there moving all the way up his arms.

“Master,” he says when he can’t wait any longer. “Our ally, he. Please, guide me. I feel a disturbance.”

No answer. Kylo knows this is bad, almost unforgivable. He broke the door of the chamber. There is no light in the underground dungeon, but he stopped needing light to see things clearly years ago, and the rock that held him in the chamber is now in two giant pieces, clear on the other side of the room. Worse still, Kylo is thinking about Hux when he’s supposed to be thinking about nothing. It could be another test.

He wishes he could believe it’s just another test. Not real. Not happening.

But he knows it’s real, though it may also be a test. The feeling he got when he saw Hux on the floor in that room didn’t originate from within. It’s happening, somewhere. That is happening. To Hux, right now. He stands, stumbling over the edge of the chamber and remembering the ration of water only when he thinks for a moment that he will lose consciousness, his tongue a bitter husk in his mouth.

“Master,” he says again, freezing in place. “I seek your counsel, I. Failed, I know. Forgive me, but I think our allies in the First Order need our help.” It’s disingenuous, saying ‘allies,’ making it plural. Snoke will see through it. “Please, tell me how you wish to proceed.”

It’s an outrageously brazen entreaty, and Kylo is hit by a shockwave of shame when he hears it out loud, but he can’t access any of the calm he was floating in before he saw Hux’s tormentors gathered around him, looking down at him. Their boots. The blood on the floor. The shards of Hux’s ribs stabbing at him with every breath.

Hux’s ribs: Kylo slept with his hand pressed over them once. Hux was lean under his hand that night, muscled but lithe. He’s starving now, hollow.

Snoke will want those men dead. Certainly. They have committed treason against the First Order, which Snoke commands. Kylo takes a blind step toward the stairs that lead from the dungeon before turning back and grabbing the water. There are three decent sips left; he could have stretched these out over the course of another day. Or half day. He gulps them in one swallow and runs for the stairs.

He has a harder time making his way past the obstacles in the dark than he normally does, his senses scrambled and his limbs clumsy. He cuts his shoulder on a jagged outcropping of rock before hurtling around it. He needs more water.

Mental adjustment: He doesn’t need anything but guidance, obedience, direction, and the power those will bring him.

Mental adjustment. This old refrain feels empty now, without Snoke to nod in approval behind his self-reproach. Kylo came up with the phrasing when he was thirteen, and he’s never been able to shed it during times of crisis, along the rest of his homemade thought-organizing system. It’s archaic and juvenile, but these designations that yank him back on course were always appreciated by Snoke, in the past.

Snoke is punishing Kylo for this transgression by not responding, perhaps. Kylo gets up the stairs with some difficulty, crashing onto all fours at times and feeling like an animal, imagining the necks of those men who stood over Hux between his teeth, their throats ripped out and their hot blood soaking over his chin.

“I want to kill them, Master!’ he says, crashing onto the first floor of the citadel, already tasting their blood in his mouth. “Please-- I think these visions have come to me as a gift. To give me strength through a righteous slaughter!”

He didn’t intend to use the word righteous, but it’s not a concept Snoke rejects, when he’s the judge of what is right. Kylo stands panting in the main hallway, giant stone pillars towering on either side of him, his mouth still so dry.

“Master,” he says, trying to stand up straighter. A slicing memory of Hux’s scarred, raw, stinging back tips him over again, and he has to put his hands on his knees to stay upright. “Master?”

Nothing comes. So this is the punishment. Kylo nods to himself, his head still bent toward the floor in a kind of crippled bow. He can endure it. He will wait for guidance, always. It’s been his most sacred promise to Snoke since Ben Solo came up with these old labels for his mental protocols, since he tamed his reeling mind into a useful machine.

Objective: Stand up straight. Steady the wild breathing. Stop thinking about drinking water. Stop thinking about Hux crying out like that, the way his arm drew up over his face. Stop thinking about how he winced when they pulled his arm away and exposed him again.

Caution: Teeth might break, relax the jaw.

Kylo falls to his knees on the stones of the grand hallway, between the pillars. He waits, eyes closed, tremors moving in cold waves across his back. He will wait for days if necessary. Weeks, even. He will not think about how things might get worse for Hux in the meantime.

He’s almost certain that things cannot get worse for Hux.

Hux has wished for death a hundred times.

Kylo feels his face pinching up, his back teeth grinding together again. He tries to get a hold of himself, can’t. He wants to kill something, anything, everything.

Master. Calling for Snoke internally rarely works as well, though it was once Ben Solo’s default. Unleash me. Let me kill our enemies. I have been too long away from bloodshed.

No answer.

*

Just outside the citadel, in the woods that surround it, there is a creek that Kylo has been instructed to use only for bathing. Snoke brings him all the water he’s allowed to drink and all the food he’s allowed to eat. The creek is strictly off limits as a source of drinking water.

Kylo goes to the creek at nightfall, stares at the reflection of the planet’s single moon on the surface. His throat aches. His vision blurs, tunnels, blinks away at moments. He ends up on his knees in the moss at the edge of the creek, his arms limp at his sides. The water looks so pure, clean, cool. It feels good on his skin when he washes here. He’s rocking a bit, wishing he could steady himself enough to meditate, wanting to return to Hux. To check on him. Has Hux been given enough water by the traitors who hold him captive? Kylo feels like he must be thirsty, too.

Two full days in the chamber without food. He’s sure of it now, back on the surface of the planet, listening to the bugs in the trees shriek and subside, then rise to a piercing volume again. It was two days this time. He did so well, went so far in that quiet, within his own mind.

Far enough to reach Hux.

The creek bubbles, inviting him to drink. Taunting him. He can usually feel a low frequency presence at the back of his head: Snoke, monitoring. It’s been ripped out of him somehow. He wonders if it’s his own fault, for trying to jerk upright like that, inside the chamber, when he heard Hux scream. For slamming his head so hard on the rock overhead.

Will the water hurt him? Is that why Snoke cautioned him never to drink from this creek? Or is it only a test?

Of course it’s a test. Everything is a test, and the tests are all that matter. They matter more than whether or not Kylo is poisoned by contaminated water. He doesn’t drink. He runs his tongue over his cracked lips and stares at the water as it courses over the rocks: so smooth, calm, relentless, that flow. Only ever moving in one direction. No options, just the Force that carries it along toward its single destination, its momentum always unbroken. Kylo envies the water more than he wants to drink from it.

When he can’t find guidance through their mind link, he searches the citadel for any sign of Snoke’s physical presence. Snoke is normally in his throne room at the center of the stronghold, and Kylo is granted access to him there only occasionally. Today the door hangs open. The room, the chair: empty.

The citadel is unoccupied except for the two of them, as far as Kylo knows, and now it seems Snoke has left him here alone. Kylo isn’t aware of any shuttlecraft that Snoke has available to him, but it’s a big planet, and even as he searches the rooms of the stone castle that has been his home for the past six months, as best as he can calculate, he isn’t sure he’s looked in every room, down every winding passageway. From one of the barred front windows he can see his own shuttle, the one he took from the Finalizer, slime growing across the cockpit.

But that’s out of the question. The thought of leaving: he can’t.

Mental adjustment: Won’t, he won’t leave, because he doesn’t want to go. Nothing matters but the tests. Hux was never a good idea.

Kylo always knew his fumble with Hux would end like this. Even before that first blurred vision shook him on the Finalizer. He was always going to lose every useless attachment: he already has. They’re gone. Hux included.

He goes to his room. Small and dank, there’s nothing in it except for his bedroll and his helmet. He thinks of putting the helmet on now, is beginning to feel his thoughts slide sideways into nonsense. His head aches, fingers shake. He needs water. He’ll die if he waits much longer.

Mental adjustment: That’s a pathetic fear, unsubstantiated by authority. Snoke will intervene before any serious damage is done. He didn’t bring Kylo here to kill him.

Kylo falls onto the bedroll, thinking of Snoke’s previous apprentice, that hollow-cheeked boy Kylo was commanded to kill upon his arrival at Snoke’s doorstep, the first time he came face to face with his Master. He laughs madly at the thought that another, stronger servant to Snoke might already be on her way here, commanded to put her saber through the pathetic wraith who couldn’t withstand Snoke’s tests.

“No,” he says, letting his eyes fall shut. “I haven’t-- failed you, not entirely, I swear it-- Master. Please.”

He drifts into something like sleep, trying to fight it when he fears it might be death. Behind his closed eyes he sees Hux again, sharp and sudden like a hand on his shoulder. Hux is cold; they’ve left him alone for hours now. A scavenger fly buzzes near his blood-crusted left ear, checking to see if he’s dead yet. The fly, more than Hux himself, tells Kylo: not yet.

Not yet.

At sunrise Kylo stumbles, wheezing, to the creek. He falls to his knees, his hands landing in the water, and drinks. It hurts to force himself to swallow, and he knows this is his fate, sealed: now he’s truly failed, now he will be replaced. But he goes on drinking, gulping and coughing, his hair hanging around his face and dragging through the water, catching in his mouth. It’s the cleanest, coldest, most perfect water that he’s ever tasted. Feeling its icy relief streak down through his chest terrifies him, and when he’s swallowed enough of it to half-regain his mind he sticks his head fully in the water, eyes closed, and screams into the creek until he has to jerk backward, choking.

On his back near the creek bed, he stares up at the light that is climbing into the planet’s pale sky, visible through the tree canopy. The trees move in a gentle wind, leaves rustling. Kylo had not expected to complete his training on a beautiful planet, Snoke’s citadel seemingly the only unnatural structure in this entire globe-circling wilderness. At first he thought the beauty surrounding the citadel was a mercy to him. Now he understands it differently. He would rather be slowly digested in a sarlacc pit while he waits for his doom, for the final confirmation that he’s wasted all his work, scrapped his legacy for mere water.

Without wanting to, he sleeps. He wakes up at mid-day to try to vomit, but only a stream of thick drool comes up. His stomach is collapsing in on itself, his vision tilting when he tries to focus on the sunlight that dances over the creek.

“Master,” he says, his head slumping forward, hair covering his face. “I submit to your judgment if you have lost your faith in me. I await your wisdom, always. If you must destroy me-- It’s my fault.”

But he won’t give up until Snoke’s new apprentice puts a saber through his heart. He’ll fight. More than that last one did against Kylo when they had their first and only confrontation. He had looked at Kylo with wide eyes as he was dying; he’d seemed to smile. Kylo rips the memory away like the page of a book he’s read a thousand times, wishing he could tear it to pieces and believe that it won’t reform.

He would know it if Snoke had truly and finally abandoned him. There would be some sign, and a far more gaping emptiness. It’s still a test, but perhaps Kylo is viewing it incorrectly. He often doesn’t understand a test’s true objective until he’s seen it all the way to its end, and this is not the first time he’s weakened enough to believe that the test will surely kill him. Snoke never explains the parameters of Kylo’s trials. He gives orders and then departs. This might only be that, extended. Kylo takes a deep breath and stretches his legs out in front of him. He’s still here, no stronger, younger person’s lightsaber blade protruding from his chest. He can wait.

He tells himself, when he drinks from the creek again, that resisting the temptation to drink from the creek is no longer the point of this test. It can’t be.

He tells himself, when he searches the surrounding woods for any animal to eat, or even some of those bugs he can hear from the trees, that hunting for food isn’t against the rules of this particular test. It becomes moot when he doesn’t lay eyes on a single organism the he could catch and shove hungrily into his mouth, though he hallucinates some at times. He tries eating several varieties of leaves, but they’re all bitter enough to make him gag. He digs his fingers into the mud on the banks of the creek and finds no grubs, nothing but mud and rock.

He tells himself that Snoke’s silence doesn’t feel different than it normally does, more like an abandonment than a silent test. That he’s not such a disappointment that he doesn’t even deserve the honor of being murdered by his replacement.

He tells himself not to go looking for more visions of Hux every time he closes his eyes, and that the horrors that flash there like blades across his face are originating from his own imagination.

He knows that part isn’t true. The rest: he has no idea. He hasn’t felt this lost since Snoke first came to him.

On the fifth day without food and with no word from Snoke, he examines the shuttle. It’s grimy and its controls are covered in dust, but there is sufficient fuel to make it to the nearest space station, which seems to introduce its coordinates to Kylo’s reaching, reeling brain like a carrot dangled on a string. He could go there, get sustenance, come back. He won’t run away from Snoke’s retribution, rejection, replacement of him, or whatever this is. He will eat only so he can live to see his well-earned punishment.

He will take no detours. He will stop imagining his lightsaber severing the men who continue to hurt Hux, will stop hearing Hux’s weakening, hollow, animal protests like echoes that bounce off the stone walls of the citadel and seem to come from the woods surrounding it. He will not allow himself to believe that the answer to this test could in fact be rescuing Hux, without specific instruction from Snoke, and restoring him to the place in the Order that Snoke himself appointed Hux to.

That can’t be right. It’s too in line with what Kylo wants in his selfish, small, desiring way. It’s not Snoke’s guidance showing him that road as a possible solution. It’s Kylo’s own weakness, this suffocating, unrelenting temptation to draw Hux’s crumpled body inside his robe, to hide him there and have him always tucked away, under Kylo’s fierce protection.

Mental adjustment: Nobody has asked him to protect anybody. That is not his calling. He destroys, withdraws, waits for orders. Everything else is the Light.

In the middle of the night, so weak with hunger that his teeth chatter, he finds himself standing in the shuttle’s cockpit. His hand moves toward the controls without his permission. His eyes burn when it powers on, the console lighting up, the navigation pane asking him for coordinates. It looks like the cheerful display on a child’s toy, makes him feel like a boy who could dare to hope. The coordinates he found in his delirious searching, that nearby space station: he’s memorized them, has been repeating them in his head like an angry litany, like a fist brought mercilessly to his bleeding side.

Because he can’t do this. He can’t.

Alternative: He could venture further from the citadel in search of a beast or bird or bug to kill and eat. Or in search of Snoke.

But leaving the citadel is leaving the citadel, whether he’s wandering the wilderness on foot or departing for a space station with endless rows of glowing food stands. He’s seen them, has smelled them in his dreams. Tears pour down his face as he taps in the coordinates. It’s relief, and ruin.

“Master, I am so lost,” he says, his voice trembling. He hits himself in the chest, hard enough to knock out a pained shout, when he hears the ambiguity in his voice.

Master. He’s had more than one of those.

Mental adjustment: No. He was talking to Snoke, only ever to him.

Snoke doesn’t answer.

Observation, pitiful and dangerous: Nor does the former master.

He tries to wipe his face with his sleeve and realizes only then that he put on his helmet before walking to the shuttle. He leaves it on and drops into the pilot seat, rechecks the fuel, ignores the tears that are pooling under his chin, inside the mask. When his hand hovers over the lever that will start the shuttle’s thrusters, he thinks of Hux reaching for the panel that would open his door on the Finalizer. That last morning. How good it had felt to catch Hux in mid-reach, to stop him from opening the door to their reality, to bring Hux’s hand to his face. Hux had given him other missions, new objectives. Distractions: a false sense of achievement. Kylo bites the inside of his cheek, hard, tastes blood, and throws the lever with a growl. He’s only going to the space station. Hux isn’t there. This is about food: survival. He will eat and return to his true purpose. He will wait here for Snoke indefinitely.

He knows well before the shuttle breaks the planet’s atmosphere that this is not waiting. He bites his cheek again, swallows the drawn blood, hopes he’ll reach the space station before his hunger pains stab their way through his gut and break him open from the inside out.

He’s lolling over the console when he sees the space station’s lights, garish advertisements blinking from every tower as his shuttle draws closer. This is a lawless trading post, the kind of place where he won’t be asked for Republic or First Order papers after landing. The kind of place his father would have appreciated.

He debates whether or not to leave the mask on and ultimately removes it, because there are far more creatures in this galaxy who might recognize Kylo of the Knights of Ren than those who know the scarred face that once belonged to Ben Solo. He cloaks the shuttle before leaving it in the rental hangar, not confident that he’s powerful enough in his current state to hide it for long from prying eyes that might see the First Order insignia on its side. It’s fine: he’ll eat and leave. He’ll bring back some provisions. Perhaps Snoke will be proud of him for showing this initiative to satisfy his hunger in the absence of guidance. It demonstrates capability, Kylo thinks, nearly tripping over himself in weak, reeling delirium as he searches the hall on the arrivals deck for a food stand that will sell him some thin soup.

He’s taken measures to satisfy his own hunger before, outside of orders. Snoke never once, even in the deepest reaches of Kylo’s mind, reprimanded him for what went on with Hux. Kylo held on to the hope that it hadn’t been noticed for as long as he could.

But that wasn’t really a hope. It was a delusion. He’s always known that what he did with Hux was noticed, clearly seen, disdained. The fact that this thing which had almost cracked Kylo in half was beneath mention to Snoke was punishment enough.

The noise and lights and crowd of the space station grate against him like a brutal sandstorm after six months of austere quiet, and even the grubby cashier who looks like she must have seen it all seems taken aback by the weary, angry rasp of his voice when he orders clear soup with slices of blackshroom and yulla root. He slips into the nearest alleyway to gulp the soup from its container, burning his tongue and throat and still swallowing, letting it sear his lips. He feels it dripping into the stubble on his face that’s grown into a near beard in the past few days. He hates having even a prick of hair on his face, but both forgot and lost the energy to shave back there, at the citadel.

A ruinous thought: He doesn’t want to return.

Mental adjustment: No one in the galaxy cares about what he wants. He should care least of all. He was not born the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, fatherless warrior, peerless Sith, to stumble through the galaxy wanting things.

He sinks down against the wall in the alleyway, licking the salty remnants of the soup from his lips. He needs something more substantial, but he’ll have to digest this first. He considers the nearby rooms for rent, dingy simple places to collapse for a short time, and the ease with which he could convince some dull-eyed desk clerk that he had already paid in full, upfront. He can’t remember the last time he needed actual currency to acquire goods or services.

He can remember, however, the thrill that came with this power when it was new. It was one of his earliest uses of the Dark side. A parlor trick, but Snoke had praised him for it after whispering the suggestion that he try it. He does remember how Ben Solo smiled up at the ceiling in bed at night, thirteen years old, hiding the treats he hadn’t paid for under his mattress.

When he closes his eyes, even here, amid the noise and stink of this place, he sees Hux: his fingertips dragging across the metal floor of his cell. Someone is pulling him away from the wall, laughing when Hux feebly tries to scramble free, barely aware of where he is.

Kylo throws the empty soup container at the opposite wall in the alleyway, as hard as he can. He feels the shape of his saber on his belt, wants to put it through someone’s chest and watch the light in their eyes go out.

He needs more food. A room to rest in while his gut recovers enough to absorb real nutrition. He stands, bracing himself against the wall, trying not to see what’s happening to Hux now.

Mental adjustment: It’s none of his concern.

Alternative: Hux is still the First Order’s General. Snoke would not stand for this kind of treatment if he saw it as a gesture of disrespect. Snoke cares about the integrity of the First Order.

Confession: Kylo has long suspected he actually doesn’t, not really.

Rebuttal: Then why partner with them? They hold power. Their armies offer allegiance, obedience. Are these transgressions against Hux not a demonstration of violence against Snoke, who commands him?

In the room that he rents for the night, over a noisy nightclub that throbs beneath the floor, Kylo collapses onto the bed. The sheets are not clean; the room smells like death sticks. He doesn’t want to sleep. His stomach lurches. In two hours, if he’s kept the soup down, he’ll find something more to eat. Then he will return to the citadel.

Confession, half-conscious, fading fast: He will not return.

Decision, probably fatal: He will find Hux, kill everyone who has touched him.

After that he will not know what to do. He is untethered, adrift, abandoned.

But tomorrow he will have Hux back at his side.

Whatever’s left of him, anyway.

*

Finding Hux isn’t as easy as Kylo thought it might be when he was half-dead and having his first traitorous thoughts about trying it: first he has to recover his health enough to achieve a state of proper meditation, which is not easy in his current surroundings, even after he’s stopped feeling like he’s dying of hunger. It takes him two days to remove his consciousness fully from the rented room, which he has trashed completely in his frustration, the bed shredded to a heaped pile of cotton and cloth by his lightsaber. Another day is spent searching the visions that return for concrete information, coordinates, intelligence that will tell him how to infiltrate the base where Hux is being held. He has to force himself to take breaks to eat, knowing he will need physical strength alongside the furnace of rage that is blazing at the seat of soul, driving him through the dark and finally to all he needs: the coordinates of the base, the number of men guarding it, and Hux at the heart of this like a weakening beacon, his suffering still powerful enough to show Kylo, even before he has boarded his shuttle, that he will be victorious. He leaves the space station feeling like he’s already covered in the blood of the men he’s on his way to kill, grimacing with a kind of mirthless, triumphant grin behind his mask.

It’s all a very useful distraction from the fact that he’s thrown away his entire life and that Snoke will surely make him wish for death a thousand times once he finds him.

Mental adjustment: That is a consideration for a later time.

Objective: Do the work that is laid out for him, as he has foreseen. Bathe in their blood and drink down the power of the slaughter.

Sub-objective: Take Hux someplace where he can recover.

Follow-up questions re: sub-objective: Where, how, is that even possible?

He refocuses on the things he’s certain of once he’s entered the system where Hux is being held, approaching the moon that the traitors use as their base. They’re officers in the First Order, some kind of radical faction that has formed in secret, and recently. If Kylo had been on board the Finalizer while this plot was even a seed of an idea in their minds he would have sniffed it out and executed them himself. Something happened after he left: Hux will explain, eventually, if he is willing and able to speak.

Kylo can’t think about that until he kills everyone who has made him wonder if he will ever hear Hux’s voice again.

The base is a small concrete bunker, mostly underground, masquerading as a backup power station for the planet the moon orbits. The terrain outside offers few places to hide. Kylo uses the Force to cloak his shuttle’s approach, his rage blazing so brilliantly around him that it’s easy to hide the entire craft, a mere blink of a thought. He expects blaster fire as he approaches the heavy iron doors of the base. He wants it, wants to sweep it aside like a spray of insects. One blast comes from a concealed canon: he waves it away in a single gesture, keeping his eyes focused on the iron doors as the streak of firepower from the cannon blasts off into space.

He’s seen this part while meditating, but it feels better than he could have imagined to actually do it, something sharp and bright exploding at the center of his chest in a glorious detonation of stockpiled fury when he rips both iron doors away with one slash of his hands through the air, sending them into orbit, too.

He’s never felt this powerful, so filled with hate, and so unstoppably angry that he’s calm within it, piloting his rage-fueled body like it’s a machine that he sits inside, merely steering. But it’s beautiful, too, fluid: his lightsaber cuts the legs from two men in one graceful arc, swooping cleanly upward so that they’re still alive when he severs their heads as well. He cuts one man from between his legs and straight up through the top of his skull, walking gladly into the bloodbath that spills from between the two pieces of him as they part.

That man was the one who laughed.

As rivals to Kylo’s wrath they are pathetic, middle-aged officers who haven’t even seen a battlefield in years, but the act of destroying them is like gulping every drop from a black river of power, infusing him with such overwhelming glory that he feels solidly inhuman by the time he crashes into the room at the center of the base where Hux lies against the wall, his back to the door.

Hux doesn’t turn to see who has entered his cell. He flinches, waits. The cuts on his back are infected: Kylo senses this like a rotten smell as he crosses the room, which smells rotten in a literal sense as well. This sudden awareness-- the smell, the oozing cuts-- diminishes the high of murdering everyone else in the base, enough to make Kylo remember to power off his lightsaber before crouching down to Hux.

“Look at me,” he says when Hux doesn’t move.

Hux’s shoulder twitches. He turns with only his head, seeing nothing with his left eye. It’s bruised, swollen shut. His right eye is puffy and damaged, too, but still green, his lashes trembling when he focuses what remains of his vision on Kylo.

“Oh,” Hux says. His voice comes as if from under a pile of rocks, raw from so much screaming: it hurts him to speak. “They sent you to finish me off?” Hux sniffs, some fresh blood trickling from his nose. “That’s a clever touch.”

“Shut up,” Kylo says, fondly, though his tone through the mask doesn’t convey it. He takes off his robe and tosses it around Hux, gathering him into it. Hux can’t walk, wouldn’t even be able to drag himself to the shuttle if he had two days to do it, so Kylo scoops him up and stands, wondering if he should have taken off the mask. “They’re all dead,” he says when Hux peers up at him, his expression-- what’s left of it --mild to the point of indifference.

“Are you joking?” Hux says, almost sounding like himself. “You-- You killed them, just like that? You let them off that easy?”

“I don’t have time to detain and torture eight men.” Kylo is already striding back through the base, bearing Hux’s diminished weight easily in his arms. He thinks of pausing to let Hux take a long look at the severed pieces of the men who held him here, but Hux is staring up at Kylo’s mask as if it’s all he can see, and Kylo has to get off this moon and out of this system as soon as possible.

This is the first place Snoke will seek him, if he’s seeking vengeance already.

Mental adjustment: This is not necessarily a betrayal of Snoke. Kylo was not told to stay away from here. He was not told to abandon Hux and the faithful officers of the First Order who have maintained control of the Finalizer in the absence of their kidnapped General. This could be just what Snoke wanted after all.

Observation: Just holding Hux’s wrecked body against his chest is making him a fool for hopeless dreams already.

“How did you find me?” Hux asks, his right eye closed when Kylo looks down at him again.

“You screamed,” Kylo says.

“Ah. Well, that explains it.”

Between the feeling of having ended eight lives in a magnificent massacre and the fact that Hux is not only speaking but being a smart ass, Kylo is afraid his heart will blow apart in his chest, overinflated with blood-soaked joy.

On board the shuttle, he brings Hux to the small cot that pulls out from the back wall, placing him there as carefully as he can without making a show of it. Hux is hissing in pain, wincing when Kylo stands over him. Kylo doesn’t have time to pull off his helmet, but he does it anyway, showing Hux his face.

“You look terrible,” Hux says. Fondly, Kylo thinks, or maybe it’s a joke, considering what Hux looks like: hollow cheeks covered with matted red stubble that’s approaching an actual patchy, filthy beard, so much of his skin worked over by knives, pummeled and pushed to breaking.

“It’s been a long week,” Kylo says, to his explain his own unshaven appearance. Hux tries to laugh, winces again.

“No shit,” he says, narrowing his functioning eye at Kylo.

Kylo moves to the drawer of supplies he collected before leaving the space station and pulls out a canteen of water. He passes it to Hux, watches him drink. Hux’s left arm seems to be as non-functional as his legs, limp and hanging at the wrong angle.

“Snoke sent you?” Hux asks, breathless just from gulping the water, some of it dripping down over his chin. Kylo nods.

“Of course,” he says.

“Of course? Like hell.” Hux drinks again. His throat is so swollen and bruised; it hurts, watching him struggle to swallow. “I’m surprised Snoke bothered with me,” Hux says, giving Kylo a suspicious look.

“We can talk later,” Kylo says, his heart swelling again at the thought. “I’m getting us out of here. Hold on to something.”

Hux reaches for the grip bar on the wall with his right hand, giving Kylo a dry stare that he’s not sure how to interpret. He’ll get easily back into Hux’s head when the time is right, but it seems unwise to try it while Hux is like this. His pain, the memories of what he went through, and even his relief might sweep over and into Kylo too strongly to allow him to keep his head and pilot them to the only location he’s been able to come up with as a potential waypoint. He returns to the cockpit, though taking his eyes off of Hux seems dangerous. As if Hux might disappear without the protection of Kylo’s gaze.

Observation, from the cockpit: This will never work. There are too many messy facets. Too much that’s impossible to predict about what they will find when they get there. It’s barely even a plan, probably the worst idea he’s ever had.

But it’s the only one that’s come, so he punches in the coordinates, drops his helmet onto the floor and throws the lever that launches them off the surface of this vile little moon. Kylo wants to blow it up on his way out, but that would be overly conspicuous. Regardless, this shuttle isn’t equipped with any weapons powerful enough to destroy a moon.

It will take seven hours to arrive at their destination. Kylo activates the shuttle’s autopilot once they’re on course. When he stands from the pilot seat he finds himself still flooded with so much power absorbed from the people he destroyed that the shuttle feels too small to contain him, claustrophobic and in danger of exploding outward with the force of his presence. He needs a task, something to funnel this power into. He goes to Hux, flexing his hands at his sides.

Hux is the only person Kylo has ever even attempted to heal, and those were only some shallow bruises on Hux’s neck that Kylo had put there himself. But with this power coursing through him he feels confident that he can transfer the raw energy of the lives he took into Hux’s body, enough to heal every bruise and cut and broken bone.

No one taught him how to heal. He taught himself, that night in his room on the Finalizer, with Hux as his test patient. He’d always had a feeling he could do it, and as soon as he tried it, there it was, flowing from his hands, real and strong. When he returns to the cot Hux is slumped there miserably, hiding under Kylo’s robe as if it’s a blanket, the hood covering most of his face. He stiffens when he hears Kylo approaching.

“It’s me,” Kylo says, and he feels like an idiot when Hux snorts under the robe. Hux has a special talent for inspiring this feeling in him, but Kylo knows Hux needs it now: something routine, an old habit from the world he was snatched from.

“Where are we going?” Hux asks, his face still covered. “To him?” There’s dread in the question.

“No,” Kylo says. “Snoke requires you to recover from these injuries before you resume command of the Finalizer. I’m taking you to a place where that will be possible. I’m to personally oversee it and then return you.”

It’s easy to lie to anyone who isn’t Snoke, even Hux. Kylo is tempted to investigate Hux’s thoughts to see if he believes these are actual orders from Snoke and not in fact a suicide run that Kylo has invented for himself, but he’s still wary about approaching whatever is going on in Hux’s mind. He’ll need to tend to at least some of the physical damage first. He kneels beside the cot and hears Hux’s breath catch under the robe.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Kylo says, incredulous.

“I know,” Hux says. Kylo doesn’t need to probe Hux’s mind to hear that this is a lie, or at least an exaggeration.

“You need healing,” Kylo says. “Let me help.”

Hux sighs as if this is a favor he’s doing for Kylo and moves the hood of the robe from his battered face. It shocks Kylo anew, seeing him like this, even after all those long days of being haunted by the visions of him from afar.

“I suppose I could use a bandage or two,” Hux says, his voice faltering for the first time since Kylo so gladly heard him speak. Kylo swallows, nods. He reaches for a gash on Hux’s cheek, placing two fingertips there. Hux flinches away and scowls. “What are you doing?” he asks.

“What did I just say? I’m healing you.” Kylo returns Hux’s scowl, tempted to tell him that he didn’t actually have to do this, and that if he’s going to ruin his life for Hux he could at least show some gratitude.

“If you’re going to heal me,” Hux says when Kylo reaches for him again, “Start with something that matters. Not my fucking face.”

“What’s your worst injury?” Kylo looks down at Hux’s body, which is entirely concealed by Kylo’s robe. They’re both covered in blood: Hux in his own, dried and crusty, and Kylo in the blood of the men he killed, still wet in some places.

“Oh, it’s so hard to choose,” Hux says. “Hmm, well. They dislocated my left shoulder. I don’t know if I have any ribs that aren’t broken. There’s the ear, the eye. And the fact that every word I speak feels like a knife in my throat.”

Kylo nods and takes the canteen over to the shuttle’s water line for a refill. Hux didn’t mention his legs, both of which are broken. He’s hiding something-- Kylo pulls back before he can get sucked in too deep, the lightest pressure against Hux’s state of mind making him eager to retreat. He’s impressed, having glimpsed what’s going on inside him, that Hux is holding it together so well. He supposes Hux has had lots of practice with that, and draws up a previously harvested memory of Hux in his uniform at the junior Academy, wincing as he refastened his buttons. Getting to class on time anyway. Sitting at his desk with perfect posture.

Kylo breathes out through his nose. He wants to kill again, more, but that’s not useful here. He jerks the canteen away from the water line when it begins to overflow, water dripping over his hand and onto the floor of the shuttle. When he turns to the cot he sees that Hux has pushed the robe down to his waist, exposing his beaten chest and bruised arms, swollen neck.

“Start with the arm,” Hux says, muttering this when Kylo approaches. Hux is staring at the ceiling of the pull-out bunk with his right eye, his jaw tight when Kylo touches his shoulder and passes him the canteen.

“Drink,” Kylo says. Hux sighs and obeys, spilling some onto his chin again. It gives Kylo a distant thrill, remembering how good it feels to issue orders and watch Hux do as he’s asked. “When’s the last time you ate?” he asks. Hux shrugs with right shoulder, the other one limp and twisted under Kylo’s investigating fingers.

“I don’t particularly have an appetite,” Hux says.

“Doesn’t matter. Your ribs are poking out. I have food on board. I’ll get you something after this.”

Kylo concentrates on Hux’s arm and shoulder, not really sure how to approach this. He closes his eyes and focuses on the memory of ending those men’s lives, drawing on the energy he forever took from them and trying to redirect it into Hux. He’s apprehensive for only a moment, the confidence he harnessed during the slaughter translating more smoothly than he expected into the effort of putting things right with Hux’s shoulder. Hux shouts in pain when it lurches back into the socket, but it’s a pain that’s heavy with gratitude, and Hux is nodding as Kylo continues, shivering but relieved.

Bolstered by this, Kylo moves his hand down Hux’s arm and watches his cuts knit up, his bruises fade. They both start breathing harder, and when their eyes meet it’s like a cannon blast has landed against Kylo’s chest, the impact fortifying him instead of blowing him apart.

“Fuck,” Hux says in an exhale, trembling harder. “Careful.”

“But it’s working.”

“I know, just. Careful. Your eyes.”

“My eyes?”

“They’re-- black.”

Kylo huffs and takes this as a compliment. Hux almost smiles, his eyebrows knitting together as if the impulse to do so is confusing.

Observation: It makes no sense, according to anyone’s system of reality, for either of them to feel this way right now, with everything ruined.

Further observation: And yet.

Kylo heals Hux’s left eye next, unable to resist erasing the gash over the bridge of Hux’s nose afterward. When he moves his fingers down toward the cut that splits the left side of Hux’s bottom lip, Hux pushes his hand away.

“Leave that,” he says, staring up at the ceiling of the cot again.

“Why?” Kylo asks. “It won’t take much energy to heal it.”

Hypothesis: Hux doesn’t want Kylo touching his mouth.

Analysis: This is good. It will keep Kylo from spiralling even further out of control. If he avoids anything to do with Hux’s lips he’ll be better able to explain the real reason for this mission when Snoke returns to him. That reason being that the General of the First Order was in need of rescue. Solely that.

“I don’t know,” Hux barks when Kylo goes on staring at him, waiting for an answer. “Why did you want to leave that one on your face?”

“To remind myself of my failure.”

“Well, there you have it. Only this isn’t a mark of failure. It’s-- survival. Or something like that. Just, continue, please, elsewhere.”

Kylo does as asked, moving his fingers to Hux’s fractured collarbone. Hux’s shivering is becoming intense, and his jaw is locked tight when Kylo moves his hands down to assess the damage done to his ribs.

It’s a blow, even after all Kylo has accomplished already. The damage to Hux’s ribs is extensive, and his chest is so hollow. He’s been long underfed, reduced. Kylo wants to add volume to him along with the healing energy that finds the splinters of his ribs and carefully rearranges them, some of the shards as thin as hair. It’s impossible to make Hux regain weight via healing; that will take something that Kylo can’t give him through the Force, and time that they might not have.

Mental adjustment: Kylo should be glad he can even do this much to fix what’s been done.

Observation, twofold: He is glad, but wary, afraid he’s not strong enough to really change anything.

Further observation, urgent: Hux is writhing, then shaking his head, pushing Kylo away.

“Stop,” Hux says, gasping his breath, both hands going to his face. His knuckles are blood-crusted, bruised: did he punch his attackers at some point? “Please, just. I need a break. I’ll have a seizure.”

“Okay. Okay, sorry.”

Hux laughs behind his hands and opens his fingers to look at Kylo.

“You’re always apologizing to me,” he says, his voice muffled by his palms.

“Tell me when you’re strong enough for more,” Kylo says, annoyed by him even now, even when he’s this low. That’s almost impressive, on Hux’s part.

Back in the cockpit, Kylo makes pointless system checks to distract himself from the feeling of soul-deep disgrace that regrows between his ribs when he’s not preoccupied with Hux. It still seems like an impossible dream that Kylo could even be here, away from his Master in mind and body, and even more surreal that he’s headed to the place where he’s directed the shuttle to land. He wonders if he’s actually dead, if this is some kind of afterlife. If it is, Hux must be dead, too, because that’s unmistakably him back there, not some phantom version but fully the real thing, despite Hux’s diminished physical state and cracked apart, closely guarded mind. He felt so real under Kylo’s hands, especially during the healing. Too real: it’s all actually happening, somehow.

His efforts to heal Hux have drained him more quickly than he’d hoped, and there’s much more needed. He eats some jerky from the supply he got at the space station, then heats a container of instant soup in his hand. When he returns to the back of the shuttle Hux is under the robe again, the hood draped around his neck.

“Ready for more?” Kylo asks, approaching him.

“Mmph.” Hux appears to be close to sleep, or maybe just delirium. His nose twitches when he notices the soup. “What’s that?”

“Some shitty soup for you to drink, but I think I should heal your throat first.”

Hux agrees to this, lowering the hood so Kylo can access his neck. Kylo puts the soup aside and lays his hand on Hux’s throat. He monitors Hux’s expression as he works, pushing the purest energy he can harness down through his fingers and into Hux’s skin, then deeper, along the stretch of his sore muscles. Hux’s eyelids flutter and the shivering resumes.

“It’s cold,” Hux says, twitching under the robe. “It-- Makes me cold, when you do this.”

“Here.” Kylo disconnects carefully and removes his hand from Hux’s neck, some faint bruising remaining but the swelling mostly gone. He passes Hux the hot soup and watches him take a sip from it, Hux’s choppy breath cutting through the steam that rises from the little plastic cup. Hux drinks from it again, sighing with what sounds like relief when he swallows without pain.

“Your training is finished?” Hux says, cutting his eyes to Kylo’s.

“Nearly.” He’s not even sure if that would have been true if he’d stayed; Snoke never gave him a timetable or a progress report. “It’s on hiatus until this crisis is over.”

“Crisis.” Hux sniffs and peers down at the soup. “I suppose you know all about what happened.”

“I know some.” Kylo has been too distracted by his wrenching departure from the citadel and then the rescue mission to really investigate the details. Part of him just doesn’t care, considering everything else that’s going on. “They were your officers. Traitors.”

“I don’t want to talk about it, actually.” Hux gulps the rest the soup and brings the empty cup to his forehead, his eyes falling shut. “Fuck, I’m freezing,” he says, peeking at Kylo with his left eye. It’s a bit watery; Kylo might have to concentrate more healing energy there, though the bruising and swelling is gone. “Have you got anything for me to wear?” Hux asks, mumbling.

“No, sorry. Just that robe. But we’re going somewhere-- There will be clothes.”

It stabs at him to think that this is somehow true. Their old things, still there. He wouldn’t have expected any of it to remain in place, untouched. Even the little house itself. But when he sends his mind there it’s all the same, covered in dust but intact.

Over the next six hours, Kylo alternates between sulking in the cockpit, miserably awaiting a crushing rebuke from Snoke in his mind, and returning to the cot to work on Hux one injury at a time, until Hux grits his teeth and tells him to stop, that he’s too cold. By the time they enter the system where Kylo hopes to take this mad sanctuary, he’s healed all of the major injuries except those done to Hux’s legs. Healing them will take more delicate work. They were broken days ago, the injuries there complicated by infections more serious than what has now been healed on Hux’s back. Hux sleeps through their final descent, shivering under the robe. Kylo is bleary and exhausted in the cockpit, steering the shuttle through driving rain once they’ve entered the atmosphere and passed below thick clouds. His eyelids are heavy, his chest jittery; it’s possible that he should have spaced out his healing sessions a bit more.

Observation, belated: He certainly should have. He feels like he could sleep for weeks, and his hands shake on the console as he directs the shuttle to land on the airstrip outside the house that overlooks the ocean on this backwoods planet.

The house: just the sight of it in the distance makes Kylo’s heart race. He feels smaller for having seen it, partially obscured by the heavy rainfall but seemingly unchanged. It’s winter here, rainy season. Sometimes they visited the house during this season on purpose. Less people around, more peace. His parents had liked the rain; his mother said it made the house cozier. Ben would get bored and complain, would sometimes remain surly for the entire vacation. His father would tell him that, when he was Ben’s age, all he had for entertainment was a holochess board and ‘the outdoors, you know, there’s also an entire planet out there to entertain you.’

But it’s raining--

Kylo grits his teeth and puts his elbows on the shuttle’s console, his head in his hands. He’s powered the shuttle off. There’s nothing to do but gather Hux into his arms again and carry him into the house. It’s not as if the locked door will keep them out.

This place is special for our family.

That’s his mother’s voice in his head. Not a good sign, but it’s only a memory.

Observation: Ben’s memories can be very dangerous.

Further observation: This entire planet feels like a memory he shouldn’t be dwelling on. It feels like his undoing.

Mental adjustment: It’s only an out-of-the-way place to wait for word from his Master. He’ll keep the First Order’s General safe here until he’s instructed not to do so.

Realization, so bitter he can taste it: That instruction may yet come.

Further realization, slicing through him like a blade, a thought he can no longer ignore: Snoke could appear at any time and collect him. Snoke could also appear at any time and tell him to put his lightsaber through the chest of another glaring weakness, petty sentiment, anchoring attachment.

He stands, bracing himself on the back of the pilot seat when his legs tremble from the effort. He needs to sleep.

Objective: Rest, reassess. Revisit these concerns at another time.

Hux jerks against the back wall of the cot when Kylo wakes him, his eyes shooting open like he’s heard a blaster fired in his direction. His frantic gaze darts around until it lands on Kylo.

“Sorry.” Kylo frowns when he hears himself say it. If Hux is going to make fun of him for it, he should really stop apologizing. “We’ve arrived.”

“Where?” Hux asks, his chest still heaving under Kylo’s robe.

“A safehouse on a remote planet. No one will find us here.”

Mental adjustment, unhelpful: Snoke might.

Further adjustment: Kylo should want to be found by his Master. What else will he do if he’s not serving Snoke? He’s certainly not going to return to the First Order under Hux’s command.

“Well, I still can’t walk,” Hux says, snapping this at Kylo when he stands there staring, lost in thought. “I’d prefer it if you didn’t prolong this.”

“You should be more careful with what you say to me,” Kylo says, anger funnelling in from his concerns about Snoke, from his confusion: it’s easier to direct it at Hux, to match his scowl. But Hux’s face is getting red. He’s humiliated, waiting to be carried again.

“And you should know you don’t need to remind me that I’m at your mercy,” Hux says, his eyes still hard, face very red now. “I’m well aware.”

“Shut up,” Kylo says, hoping Hux will hear the fondness in it now. He reaches down and gathers Hux into his arms, hoisting him from the cot. Hux pulls the hood of the robe over his head when Kylo carries him through the shuttle, hiding his face. Maybe he heard the rain on the roof.

They’re both soaked as soon as Kylo steps from the shuttle’s boarding platform and into the soggy grass on the peninsula that the house sits on. The ocean is wild and loud, the skies overhead stormy. Kylo had forgotten that salt spray smell, the way the waves crash against the rocks at the base of the high cliff. He opens the front door with his mind, the nagging fear that the house would somehow bar him from entering dissipating as he crosses the threshold, carrying Hux.

Other fears hurry in to replace that one as Kylo’s eyes adjust to the dark. He closes the door behind them and locks it, though a physical lock won’t keep anything that could actually hurt them out of here. His mother once suggested that this place was protected by the Force in some specific way that guarded their family in the Light. Probably another one of her condescending lies. If this place was protection for the Skywalkers, the Solos, for Leia Organa, it wouldn’t have allowed Kylo Ren to enter with a genocidal General shivering in his arms.

He uses his mind to slam the door to Ben Solo’s old room as he passes it, not casting a glance in its direction.

“That room is off limits,” he says, though Hux is still hiding inside the hood of the robe, his shivering so intense now that he might not even know they’re out of the rain.

“Huh?” Hux says.

Observation: Kylo was really talking to himself.

Objective: Don’t go in there.

Confirmation: He won’t.

Kylo takes Hux into the master bedroom at the end of the hall, with the big window that looks out at the ocean and an attached bathroom with a tub. He puts Hux on the bed, allowing the sheets to get wet. He’ll have to change them, anyway; it’s obscene to think that he wouldn’t, though his parents haven’t set foot in this place in fifteen years and the bed is made neatly, sheets probably clean, still awaiting the next Solo family vacation.

Kylo still remembers where things are kept here, his hands shaking when he gathers towels from the closet across from the bed. Hux is at least able to sit upright, the wet hood pushed away from his face now.

“You’re still filthy,” Kylo says when he returns from the bathroom, where he was relieved to find that the water still works and still gets hot, the tub filling up with it. “I’m going to-- I’ll help you get clean.”

“Terrific,” Hux says, hating him.

But it’s a shallow hate, laid over something much bigger. Kylo pulls away from Hux’s mind before he can see the rest, nearly crashing into the frame of the bathroom doorway when he feels the force of it, that buried power. It’s gratitude, or something close to it, something too enormous for that word, and there’s gut-wracking fear crackling through every inch of it. Hux is afraid to hope that he’s really been rescued, even now.

Kylo carries Hux into the bathroom. Though the water is working, the house doesn’t seem to have power, and Kylo is glad to have only the grayish light from the window out in the bedroom when he lowers Hux into the bathwater, peeling the sopping wet robe away from him after he’s seated in the tub.

“I can’t leave your legs like this,” Kylo says, realizing it now that he’s touched Hux again, having picked up on the subtle and less subtle cues that Hux’s body throws off. Kylo is exhausted, his healing energy almost tapped out completely, but Hux is in danger of getting irreparably worse if those bone infections aren’t cured. “It will give you that cold feeling,” he warns, touching Hux’s knee under the water. “But the hot water should counteract it.”

“Great.” Hux is listless, his shoulders rounded and his gaze unfocused.

When the tub is full and the tap turned off, the room seems too quiet. Kylo reaches into the water and takes a deep breath, needing this part to be over. He’ll sleep for three days when he’s done; Hux won’t mind. He starts with Hux’s feet and works his way upward.

It’s grueling, working this hard when he’s already mined what felt like the last of his energy, and he’s dripping with sweat by the time his hands slide up to Hux’s thighs. Hux is shivering in the water, his now-functional knees bent and tipped apart, arms folded over them. He has his head down on his arms, and his breath stutters when Kylo’s fingers find the slashes in the soft skin on the insides of his thighs.

The cuts were made by fingernails, not knives, and from several different pairs of hands. This is why Hux didn't want Kylo tending to his legs first. If he had the energy, Kylo would go out into the yard with his lightsaber and thrash all the native flora in sight, but he doesn't, and Hux would probably prefer an alternative reaction to this discovery.

Kylo can't leave these marks on Hux's skin any more than he could have left his bones broken. The cuts are shallow, really just scratches and maybe not even intentionally left. They're easy enough to heal, except for how exhausted Kylo is, so worn down by this that he’s growing feverish, and for the fact that Hux stiffens with terror when he’s touched there. As if Kylo is going to yank his legs apart suddenly. As if that’s what he’s brought Hux here for.

Kylo falls back onto his ass when the nail marks are erased, Hux's skin restored and smooth. Kylo is panting, shaking. Hux still has his face hidden against his arms.

“Thank you,” Hux says. His voice is small, cowed. Kylo reaches for him, then wonders if he should. Touching Hux again might reactivate the healing. Kylo can’t take any more of that today.

“You don’t have to thank me,” Kylo says. He clears his throat when he hears how weak his voice has become, reedy and worn. “It’s my duty.”

“Somehow I doubt Snoke cares about my scars, but okay.”

Kylo doesn’t appreciate being called out for going above and beyond, or whatever Hux thinks he’s doing. He stands with some effort and splashes cold water from the sink onto his face, then searches the cabinet over the sink for soap. He only allows his eyes to wander briefly over the other contents of the cabinet: his mother’s hand cream, his father’s razor. He closes the door hard enough to rattle everything inside after he’s found soap, a washcloth and a bottle of shampoo that looks like it was manufactured during the Old Republic, possibly older than he is.

“Here,” he says, kneeling down to pass these items to Hux, who turns to look at them like he’s not sure what he’s expected to do next. After this dazed hesitation, Hux takes what Kylo is offering and sets each item on the rim of the tub, one at a time. Kylo dips his hand in the water. It’s gotten cold. He turns on the tap again, making it as hot as it will go. He could try to heat the water with his hand the way he warmed up that soup, but he’s afraid he would burn Hux, barely in control of his powers after draining them on healing. He can’t even go on standing, and he falls to a seat near the tub, his back to the wall.

“These aren’t as prissy as the grooming supplies you had on the Finalizer,” Hux says, starting on his face with the soap.

“I don’t know why you thought that stuff was prissy,” Kylo says, so glad to hear an insult from Hux that he wants to lean over and lick him in approval. “It was just some crap I picked up in a kit on a space station, during some mission.”

Feedback from Hux, unintentionally supplied: He liked the smell of that cheap stuff.

It smelled like you.

Observation: Oh.

“It’s weird to think of you buying things,” Hux mutters.

“I don’t,” Kylo says. Hux glances at him, frowns, then seems to understand.

“Oh, you’re a thief. Well, it’s even stranger to think of you slipping a shampoo into your cloak without paying for it, or whatever you do.”

Kylo isn’t sure why it should be strange. Though he would prefer not to have to think about it, he still has a body that needs tending on occasion. Hux should know.

“Do we have a comlink here?” Hux asks when he’s scrubbing at his chest.

“I don’t think so,” Kylo says. “You’d have to go to town.” He won’t allow it, but Hux doesn’t need to know that yet. “What do you need one for?”

“For getting in touch with Uta, I suppose. She’s taken command of the Finalizer, unless things are even worse than I thought. I don’t think she was involved with this, with me being--” Hux glances at Kylo. “Do you know if she was?”

Kylo shuts his eyes. He’s really too tired to meditate. He finds the strength to drop into a shallow trance anyway, because he needs to know the name of every traitor who had any role in Hux’s torture, and his investigation has to start somewhere. He doesn’t have the patience to kill anyone slowly, but he would be willing to let Hux see to that if he wished.

“Uta is loyal to you,” Kylo says when he opens his eyes, the image he received of Uta fading, her concern for Hux scratching at his own chest. “She likes you, even.”

Hux looks aghast at this.

“Are you just telling me what I want to hear?” he asks, sharply. Kylo shakes his head.

“I want them dead, too,” he says. “Anyone who helped them take you.”

“Well, then you ought to kill me,” Hux mutters, moving the soap down to his legs.

“What? Why?”

“My decisions, I-- You tried to warn me.”

Kylo isn’t sure how to respond. He doesn’t feel vindicated, just tired, ready to collapse. Finished with the soap, Hux drops it into Kylo’s hand. Kylo is careful not to let his fingers brush Hux’s back when he washes the grime there away, using the washcloth where scrubbing is required.

“I hate this,” Hux says.

“Calm down, I’m almost done.”

“No, I mean-- This.” Hux turns toward Kylo, stroking his patchy red facial hair. “I wish I had my shaving cream.”

Though it's missing from his inflection, Hux laments the loss of his shaving cream with sincere sadness, as if that little green bottle is a childhood home he will never return to.

Observation, tentative: Kylo might be projecting, a bit.

“I could find some,” he says, eying the cabinet over the sink. It's in there, beside the razor. His father's. “Probably not as prissy as yours, but it would do the job.”

“Fine,” Hux says, washing his hair now. “I’ll take whatever you have.”

Observation, humiliating: Kylo has a particular fondness for Hux’s hair. It’s gotten longer during his captivity, growing over the tops of his ears, almost shaggy. It looks good like that, after it’s washed.

Hux tries to shave himself, still seated in the tub, but his hands are shaking. He probably needs to eat again. He might just be overwhelmed with exhaustion after the healing session, like Kylo. He nicks his cheek and curses, drops the razor into the water. Kylo snatches it before it can slice Hux’s leg, the razor zipping into Kylo’s hand so fast that it nearly cuts him instead.

“I need a mirror,” Hux says, almost shouting it, as if he’s accusing Kylo of breaking another one. “I can’t-- I never do this without a mirror.”

“I’ll be your mirror,” Kylo says. Hux glares at him.

“There’s a frightening thought.”

“Shut up. Turn toward me.”

Hux looks almost comical with that scowl and the shaving cream on his cheeks, hiding their hollowness. As he slides the razor over them, revealing their pallid color again, Kylo feels Hux’s stare like an accusation. Did Kylo let this happen? Did he warn Hux well enough about what he had seen?

Mental adjustment: Pointless, irrelevant, not really his concern.

Observation: And yet here he is, carefully drawing a razor over Hux’s cheek. Steadying his own tired hands, for Hux’s sake. Not wanting to hurt him.

Kylo puts his thumb over the nick on Hux’s face when he’s finished, the shaving cream scraped away. He wonders if healing this tiny cut will be the last straw, the thing that finally knocks him over onto the floor. It isn’t, but standing is difficult. He needs a turn in the tub before he can drop into bed. He reeks of foul blood; his clothes are likely ruined. If there is a way to use the Force to launder things, Kylo has never uncovered it. He rinses the razor in the sink while Hux rubs the washcloth over his clean-shaven cheeks. When Kylo turns back to the tub Hux is just sitting there, bent slightly forward, the ends of his hair dripping into the water.

“Do you want to get out?” Kylo asks.

“Of what?” Hux lifts his face, a strange hope springing into his eyes.

“Out of the tub,” Kylo says, frowning.

“Oh.”

Hux grips the sides and lifts himself, slowly, onto his feet, into a crouch. He’s shaky when he stands. His legs feel too new; Kylo moves toward him before he starts to fall, catches him before he can crash over the side of the tub.

The blood on Kylo’s clothes has dried, but it still feels wrong to hold Hux against it when they crumple to the floor together, Hux’s head falling forward and his shoulders jerking with a kind of angry sob that doesn’t quite come to the surface. Kylo huddles over him, around him, sheltering him from the cold in the room, letting him hide. Hux makes a fist against Kylo’s chest and punches him there once, twice. It’s too weak to hurt and too powerful not to feel like a confession, like some wordless but important thing Hux is trying to forcibly insert between Kylo’s ribs, because that’s the only way to get it in there. Kylo puts his face on the back of Hux’s neck and closes his eyes, giving in to the fact that as long as they are in this house together he will not be able to stop healing Hux, or at least trying to.

“They never even asked me any questions,” Hux says, his voice cut up and painful again, despite the restored health of his throat, his vocal chords, his neck-- everything Kylo could reach. There is something deeper that he couldn’t heal, of course.

“They’re dead,” Kylo says, murmuring this against the back of Hux’s ear. “And you’re alive. That means you won. That’s the only thing that matters in the game they tried to play. They lost. You beat them.”

“I wanted to kill them myself,” Hux says, grabbing a handful of Kylo’s tunic. His hand will come away bloody, or at least stained.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re not. Stop fucking apologizing to me.”

They stay like that for a while. Kylo noses at Hux’s wet hair, remembering the smell of this shampoo from childhood. Mental adjustments are offline. He’s so tired. Hux is softening against him, his shoulders relaxing and his hand dropping to Kylo’s thigh.

“I’m going to put you in the bed,” Kylo says. Fuck changing the sheets. They can just avoid the wet spot where Kylo deposited Hux earlier. It’s a big bed. Hux takes a deep breath and lets it out, his hand twitching on Kylo’s leg. He still thinks this is going to end up being a dream, that he’s going to wake up back there with them.

Dilemma: How to convince Hux this is real.

Follow-up question: How to convince himself this can be real for much longer.

Kylo hunts through the drawers in the bedroom for clothes to give to Hux, trying not to remember his father in these shirts, those socks. He finds a relatively unfamiliar brown sweater and passes that to Hux, then some black pants made from a soft material. They’re much too baggy on Hux’s narrowed waist, but they manage to just hang on. Kylo will have to dress in Han’s clothes, too, after he’s showered.

Mental adjustment: They are nobody’s clothes. Their former owner is dead, this place abandoned. This is simple scavenging for useful materials, nothing more.

Further, important: Kylo Ren never spent time here. He never set foot in this sad little house before today. Ben Solo is as dead as his father, and whatever supplies are available here are as good as anonymous, just junk that somebody forgot to collect after their son went away and they went away, too, differently but just as permanently.

Observation: He’s too fucking tired to be thinking about this.

Once Hux is dressed and under the blankets on the bed, turned toward the window, curled up on his side, Kylo pulls off his own filthy clothes. Naked, he carries them out to the back porch and dumps them in a heap. Tomorrow he’ll burn them. He stands staring at the ocean as the sun begins to sink behind the thick cloud cover, the sheet of relentless rain still hammering the roof of the porch overhead. There is no one around for miles, no ships out on that roiling sea. He hurries inside when he finds he needs the sight of Hux again, confirmation that he is still there.

Observation: Yes, under blankets, trying to sleep. Failing, so far, his mind like a caged animal that can’t stop scratching at the walls, frantically trying to make sense of its imprisonment.

Kylo drains the tub and showers. He tries not to look at the mirror when he steps out and towels off, but when he shaves his face he holds his own gaze, eyes blazing, daring himself to flinch away from the sight of his face, here, in his father’s mirror, using his father’s razor. Daring himself to see Ben Solo in the reflection before him. He doesn’t, really: an enormous relief.

He’ll need to go to the market in town for food once they finish the small supply in the shuttle. It’s a half-hour walk each way. Hux can’t come with him, but the thought of leaving him here alone for that long is impossible, as if every army in the galaxy will descend upon Hux as soon as he’s out of Kylo’s sight for too long. Kylo grimaces at his reflection, hating that they both need things like food, water, the nearness of each other. At the citadel, he had congratulated himself daily for walking away from Hux.

He thought about Hux every day, in that way.

He goes to the drawers again and finds the most anonymous piece of clothing available: loose short pants, navy-colored and worn. He doesn’t remember seeing them before. When he’s wearing them he walks out to the kitchen. The glassware is harder to forget; there’s a cup with smiling animals on it that he wants to pitch off the cliff outside, but he ignores it and selects a plain drinking glass, lets the tap on the kitchen sink run for a few minutes before filling it with water that appears clean enough. He drinks from it, remembering how the water tastes here: distinct, with a faint bite of sulfur. Ben had complained about this, once.

Hux is still awake when Kylo re-enters the bedroom, his eyes closed and the blankets pulled up to his ear. Thunder shakes the frame of the house. Hux’s eyes crack open, searching the room for the next attack. He flinches when he sees Kylo standing over him with the glass of water.

“Drink,” Kylo says, holding it out to him. “You need it.”

Hux sits up on his elbow and gulps from the glass. If he tastes the hint of sulfur he doesn’t complain. When the glass is half-empty he passes it back to Kylo, who sets it on the little table beside the bed.

“I’ll refill that when you finish,” Kylo says, thinking of his ration of water inside the deprivation chamber, how carefully he had sipped from it. He goes to the place in his mind where Snoke usually awaits, even when he’s silent, holding a kind of heaviness that once gave Kylo such strength. There’s nothing, but the spot Snoke occupied remains empty, available for him to reclaim.

Observation, treasonous: It had seemed to give Kylo such strength, that heaviness, Snoke’s persisting weight. But what Kylo did today: so many healed bones, Hux’s skin wan but smooth again, everything restored except the damaged hearing in his left ear, and maybe that, too, soon-- Kylo did that on his own, all of it. And it was unlike anything he’d ever done before, under guidance.

Observation, semi-delirious: He feels different for having done this. Like he’s shed a layer of skin. Weakened, maybe, but stronger, somehow, too.

Hux rolls away, showing Kylo his restored back and bony shoulder blades. He’s taken off the sweater but is still wearing those pants. Thunder rumbles again outside, the heart of some new storm moving closer. Kylo doesn’t have the energy to fully enter Hux’s mind right now, but he skims over the surface of Hux’s battered thoughts, wanting a protocol.

Feedback from Hux, unbidden: Hold me, hold me.

Observation: No one has instructed Kylo not to do that. No one is here now to forbid it. Not even in his mind.

He moves slowly, not wanting to overwhelm Hux by giving him what he’ll barely let himself know that he wants. Under the blankets, he slides up behind Hux, his back to the window and the ocean and the wind that blows the rain against the glass. He puts his hand over Hux’s ribs, feeling the space between them with regret and reckless, childish hope. Tomorrow they will start eating again. Real food.

Hux is stiff at first, waiting for something. He’ll be waiting for some new horror for a long time yet, but when none comes now he moves back very slightly, his eyes closed against the pillow. Kylo has never been known for patience: he closes the space between them with a shaky exhale, his arm sliding under Hux’s neck as he comes to hold him from behind, tugging him closer with his other arm. Hux loses his breath, but only for a moment. He presses back against the heat of Kylo’s chest when his lungs fill and empty again, his shoulders lifting as he tucks himself into the shape of Kylo behind him.

“This room is drafty,” Hux says, muttering this against Kylo’s bicep.

“The whole house is.” Kylo pushes away an unwelcome memory of Ben Solo’s room, the single bed and the ratty old quilt. He puts his face against Hux’s throat and waits for him to speak again.

“What is this place?” Hux asks. He’s not stupid. He’ll figure it out.

“I told you,” Kylo says, not ready to talk about it. “It’s a safehouse, a remote planet.”

“Snoke chose it?”

“Of course.”

“Doesn’t really seem like his style.”

Kylo says nothing. He tightens his grip on Hux when the thunder outside draws closer. He’s falling asleep when Hux speaks again.

“You left your training.”

“I-- No, not really. I was given orders to retrieve you. That’s all.”

Hux doesn’t believe him, but doesn’t press. He’s tired, too. They sleep through the rest of the storm. Even asleep, even in his deepest dreams, Kylo knows they’ll wake to more rain.

 

**