Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn’t. Imagine a story where everything goes wrong, where everyone has their back against the wall, where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don’t, they’ll die. Imagine a story, not of good against evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame.
- Richard Siken
Everyone was a little quieter than usual. That had to be all that was creating the unusual silence on board the Finalizer; not the number of people that had been there, and now were not; certainly not the fact that those who were left barely spoke to each other as they sped towards a place many of them had never anticipated they would go; and above all it had nothing to do with Kylo Ren being sequestered in Medical instead of rampaging about the ship as he was wont to do.
No, it was just unusually quiet. That was all.
Hux stared at the cup of caf he’d mostly been avoiding all morning rather than actually drinking it. It was never what he wanted it to be at the best of times, and he’d taken a cup this morning more for something to do with his hands than because he really wanted one.
Ren had not called for him. Hux had rather expected that he would, as imperious as he usually was about his wishes. He hadn’t been at all shy about dragging Hux in by the amygdala the night before. Surely it wasn’t beyond him to send a simple message.
But then, of course, Ren had said he was going to meditate and focus. Who knew what that entailed. Perhaps even now he was levitating above the bedcovers as the droids cheeped at him – or fully catatonic in a healing trance. Nearly anything was technically possible. Hux had no idea what Knights of Ren recovering from near-death injuries were meant to do.
All Hux knew for certain was that he was absolutely not going to go down, or enquire, or do anything that stated or implied any particular interest in Ren’s wellbeing. He was fine. Obviously he was fine. The Finalizer had excellent medical facilities and he was in them; therefore he was fine and Hux really needed to stop thinking about it.
The caf was cold and horrible. Hux took a sip anyhow. It was nearly shipboard afternoon and he didn’t think he’d get terribly far into the evening without at least a mild stimulant.
The events of the night before had cleared his head somewhat, though his eyes still hurt and his throat had come up with some fairly spectacular bruising. At least they’d ended up by having the one and only rational, reasonable discussion Hux could ever remember.
Ren had always been combative. The first time Snoke had told Hux he was going to favour the General with the presence of his particular protégé on board Hux’s flagship, Hux recalled actually having been excited about it. It was absolutely a compliment; there weren’t ever that many Knights of Ren and they did not often come aboard First Order ships. Ren’s own ship was too small for the distances involved, and he needed Hux’s troops. That was all well and good. Whatever the First Order required, Hux was prepared to provide, and he had stood ready to offer all the assistance his high-ranking colleague of sorts might need.
But then, of course, he had met Kylo Ren.
Haughtiness was something Hux was well acquainted with, but Ren took it to new heights. It had immediately been clear to Hux that rather than being treated as the valued and valuable officer he was, or given any of the respect that should have been due someone of his rank and record, Ren was going to view him as a rival. Why, Hux couldn’t imagine. If he’d been born with the ability to use the Force… well. It didn’t do to daydream.
It had been positively insulting, the way Ren had stormed around commandeering the very troops he disparaged, then leading them into chaotic battles only half of them came back from and daring to blame it on them, not on any particularly obvious lapses of tactical planning such as might have been the fault of an overenthusiastic and underprepared leader.
And it was completely unfair of him to then run to Snoke and complain about how badly things were going, as if he’d let Hux have half a chance to remedy anything.
Snoke had listened to Hux, at least, and that had been sweet vindication, but then Ren had begun taking out his feelings on the furnishings, which were both blameless and expensive. For a while Hux had honestly wondered if Ren had been given some sort of secret command to sabotage the mission by any means necessary.
Well. Here they were, and if that had been the command it couldn’t possibly have been done better.
As frustrating as Ren had been to him, though, he had meant what he had said: working together was their best chance, possibly their only chance, of making all this right. Now that he knew a little more about Ren, he had some idea of how much the man might actually be the key to unravelling the Resistance. If he could just work with Ren – even now – there might still be something they could do.
The spectre of that still-unborn plan was hanging over him as the afternoon wore on, still with no messages from Ren. Dozens of messages had come in from other contacts in that time, of course. It seemed that the Finalizer was not the only ship that had been summoned to the vicinity of the world Snoke had chosen for his home base. It also seemed that an enormous number of people had been particularly counting on the First Order’s destruction of the Hosnian system. A few of them wished to congratulate him. Others… well. Others, a large number of others, were not pleased that an investment the size of Starkiller Base had been deployed exactly once before being destroyed, even if they had at least achieved something first.
Everyone wanted a meeting, though, and most of them would have to be face-to-face. Hux, who had become a general so that other people could go to the meetings while he planned and supervised more important things, was not thrilled with the way his schedule was filling up.
The other issue hanging over Hux was not a small thing either. Snoke had not sent any messages personally since the day before, only an imperious electronic invitation from his staff for Hux to attend him with Kylo Ren at their earliest convenience upon their scheduled arrival. Lingering on board would not be tolerated, was the subtext of the invitation. It was known when they would arrive, and how long it should take them to be waiting on the steps of Snoke’s headquarters. Any deviation would be noted. (Punished.)
The two to three weeks of meetings in his calendar did not provide any comfort against the fact that it was entirely possible Snoke would strike him down on the spot. Or perhaps he’d order Ren to do it. He’d certainly ordered Ren to do worse; compared to what it had cost him to kill Han Solo, Hux was fairly sure Ren could run him through without so much as flinching.
It didn’t help to think about it. He made spreadsheets instead, lists of everything they still had and everything they would need. Lists of what he would authorise and what he would not. Lists of who would be promoted into the empty places in his crew. Lists of the people he would need to consult about that.
It was all looking quite bleak by the time his bridge shift was finished. To the tidal wave of meetings, he’d been able to add a half-dozen more, not one of which was likely to end with any particularly good news. They were on schedule to get to Snoke, still, at least. He could retreat to his quarters, keep on with the spreadsheets and the meeting requests and the neverending administrative drudgery that followed humiliating strategic defeat. How delightful.
Dinner in the officer’s mess was so unmemorable that he’d quite forgotten it by the time he got back to his quarters. He activated his holoface, and stared, unseeing, through it for a few minutes, not reading any of the words that scrolled past.
What point was there in any of it, really?
And yet it must be done, he told himself, the same way he’d told himself to do every distasteful task he’d ever been assigned. Just because it’s not glorious doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.
There was precious little chance of glory in the next little while, that much was certain. He might do himself a favour by becoming used to the paper-pushing. If Snoke ever put him in charge of another major military strike, he would prove himself to be a bigger optimist than Hux was himself.
He made a half-hearted attempt at swatting some of the incessant cloud of incoming messages, for an hour or two, and objectively, it was work done that needed to be done. But he was not unaware of the little leap of excitement every time there was a new message, nor of the immediate return to glumness when yet again it was from someone other than Kylo Ren.
Ren was fine. He was definitely fine. And Hux was fine too. In fact, it was a good thing. Look at all the work he’d done without Ren interfering. And nothing further had been smashed, or disrupted, or lost on some desert planet whilst hunting ghosts and old men.
Ren didn’t even like him.
He didn’t even like Ren.
Why was he even thinking about it still?
He flicked the holoface off, disgustedly, and headed for his bed. If he was going to be useless for anything, he might as well at least be rested for tomorrow – another long and boring day of hyperspace and administration.
He slept badly, waking often for no reason he could determine since both the light and the temperature in his quarters were constant, the bed was exactly the same as it had always been, and nobody was calling out to him via their strange wizardry. The third or fourth time he had come suddenly back to wakefulness, he had thought deliberately in the direction of Medical - Ren? Did you need me? - but there had been no response of any sort, nor any messages of any other kind from Ren or from Medical when he’d checked, and he’d put himself resolutely back to bed. It was all just silliness and it was going to have to stop.
The next day was only different because it was even less interesting. He knew he should have been preparing himself, mentally, for the vast kaleidoscope of possible things Snoke could say or do, but the sheer scope of the possibilities was so overwhelming that he couldn’t pick a direction in which to focus.
There were still no messages from Kylo Ren.
He sleepwalked through his responsibilities, nearly on autopilot. The stack of meeting notifications was such that he thought it might become self-sustaining – that all he would ever do, for the rest of his life, was attend meetings, and never with anyone he actually wanted to see.
It was a terribly empty feeling.
He slept again, and woke again, over and over throughout the night. He was conscious only of being conscious, solipsistically.
In the morning he rose early, having given up on any sort of satisfying rest, and devoted the extra time to making absolutely sure that the dress jacket that would most likely have the stripes cut off it was at least perfectly pressed and that the boots he would be forced to stare at were shiny enough to reflect back his humiliated face. Then, at long last, he went to Medical.
He did not wait for the droids, but swept straight into Kylo Ren’s room.
It was empty.
“Lord Ren has gone to his quarters, General,” one of the droids supplied from behind him. “He was scheduled to be released and he wished to prepare for his audience with Supreme Leader Snoke.”
“I see,” said Hux, feeling rather nettled that this was the first he’d heard of it. “I will seek him there.”
Ren’s quarters were a long walk away, during which Hux thought resentfully about people disregarding authority, but he did his best to compose his face before pressing the panel to request entry.
The door opened, which surprised Hux just a little. Ren, fully dressed in his usual black garb, was leaning forward, his weight on the leg that had been wounded in the fight, stretching the damaged muscle and letting it work.
“How are you feeling?” Hux said, as the door shut behind him. “Well rested? I was hoping that your lack of communication meant that you were concentrating on your recovery.”
Ren blinked slowly at him. “I am ready to face my Master, General. Are you?”
“Of course I am,” Hux said. He had no idea if that was the truth or not.
Ren stretched farther. The injured leg wobbled slightly and he corrected hard with his core, and caught his breath – almost silently. Almost.
Hux narrowed his eyes. “Lord Ren.”
“General?” Ren closed his, clearly and obviously trying to shut everything else out but the feedback from his body.
“Are you certain that you are healed enough to return to your training?” He wasn’t. Hux had seen enough injured soldiers in his time, and this one needed to be back under the watchful eyes of the droids. Hux wondered what Ren’s thick layers of black clothes were hiding. Was he still taped up with bacta bandages from neck to waist? Or worse yet, had he abandoned them?
“My Master has requested my presence. I will attend him.” Ren eased himself back out of the stretch and stood, letting his full height and the nasty red scar across his face do everything they could to show Hux, without any further display of overt domination, that he was not going to be moved on this point. “Any opinions I might have on this are entirely irrelevant, General – as are yours. I will go. I do not know if you must come with me, but you will not stop me.”
There was never much that could be gained by arguing with Ren. “I will expect you in the main hangar at 0930 then. We will be dropping out of hyperspace just prior to that and will need to depart nearly immediately if we are to make this meeting.”
“Fine.” Ren turned away, and Hux very carefully did not sigh as he headed back out into the corridor.
His instructions from Snoke had specified that, at the Supreme Leader’s command, he was to be given living quarters within Snoke’s official residence. Hux assumed this was mostly so that he would be close at hand and easily summoned if anything was needed of him. Part of him, however, had noted that it would also really hinder his chances of escape.
But that was not a loyal thought, nor a thought particularly befitting someone who was, still, at that moment, a General of the First Order. Hux squashed it and packed a bag with all he would reasonably need for a stay that could extend… a long while. Snoke had never said how long. Until he was done with Hux, presumably.
He met up with the small delegation that was heading planetside on the way to the hangar. For a wonder, it appeared that Ren had taken his instructions seriously; he swooped out of a connecting hallway, a trooper trotting behind him with a bag containing Ren’s meagre belongings, and joined the group, falling in beside Hux and matching his pace without a word.
He must miss his mask, Hux thought. Ren’s expression was carefully schooled into a vague, non-specific menace, but there were still people looking at his face. Not surprising. Many on board the ship had probably never seen it before.
“Stand by to exit hyperspace,” a bland computer voice intoned from the internal loudspeakers.
Automatically, Hux and every other trained crew member stepped towards their nearest wall, catching hold of the rail and bending their knees to ride out the deceleration as the Finalizer dropped out of hyperspace. Only Ren, who had not spent most of his life practicing that exact drill, did not. He stumbled, as the deck juddered under their feet, and could not catch himself.
Without thinking, the movement instinctual, Hux dove forward, still hanging onto the rail with the ends of his fingers, and grabbed a handful of Ren’s undercoat to haul him back towards the wall. Ren locked both hands around Hux’s other arm and shoulder, bent double, and let their momentum carry him back, slamming Hux into the panelling with the point of his shoulder. Hux grunted, the breath driven out of him, but Ren had the rail now and in a second –
“Deceleration protocols complete,” announced the computer, and everyone let go. Except Hux, who still had an armful of Ren.
“Are you injured?” Hux said, as Ren straightened slowly. Then Hux noticed the darker patch slowly spreading on the black fabric of Ren’s undercoat. He swiped a finger across it. Red.
“Ren,” Hux said sharply. “You’re bleeding.”
“I am aware,” Ren said. His voice was tight. “We must continue to the hangar.”
“Have Medical meet us there,” Hux barked at one of his staff, who hurried to a comms panel.
“No time,” Ren said. He was pale, his eyes all pupil, but he broke into a jog.
Hux glanced at his chrono. The problem was that he was right. There was no time. Snoke would know they had arrived. They had to board that shuttle.
“If you were one of my troops,” Hux grumbled, as they jogged along the corridor, “I would order you back to Medical immediately.”
“But I am not, General,” Ren said, without even turning his head back to look at Hux. “And I do not take my orders from you.”
A drop of blood spattered on the floor. Hux bit his tongue hard, held back the angry retort on the tip of it, and ran faster.
They made the shuttle on time, sliding into their seats as the pilot began the takeoff routines. By chance or by design, Ren had managed to get several troopers between himself and Hux, and sat closer to the front, staring out the front viewport while Hux looked daggers at the back of his head and wondered if the sheer force of his annoyance would clot Ren’s blood for him.
Perhaps it was nothing to him. He certainly didn’t seem concerned, as any reasonable person would be. Very well. Hux wouldn’t be either.
In what seemed like no time at all, the shuttle had dropped through the atmosphere of the planet and landed in the middle of what appeared to be a small local airfield operating at about ten times its normal capacity. Four black-coated First Order troops marched up in lockstep and waited just outside the shuttle’s ramp. That would be their welcome party, then.
Hux shouldered his bag and headed down the ramp, doing his best to project calm authority.
“General Hux,” said one of the soldiers, and they all saluted. “Lord Ren. Supreme Leader Snoke is waiting. You will come with us please, sir.”
It wasn’t a request. Ren strode down the ramp with his bag, robes swirling in the dust of the airfield, and they followed the troops through the chaos of the airfield towards a large six-seat speeder. The lead soldier slid into the pilot’s seat; two in front, two in back and Hux and Ren in the middle.
Luckily the ride wasn’t long and they didn’t have to try to make conversation. The speeder deposited them and the two soldiers from the back seat at the front gate of what appeared to be an immense palace of a place, deliberately designed to be both elegant and intimidating.
Hux reminded himself that he was not going to be cowed by architecture, set his shoulders straight, and followed the soldiers up the long pathway to the towering black stone columns of the entranceway.
The house was dazzlingly huge, and he hoped that at some point they might be provided a map; he was lost within five minutes of entering the maze of corridors off the foyer. He knew it was likely this was intentional. At any rate, they would no doubt be guided, wherever they went, both because it was courteous and because it ensured they didn’t get into anywhere they weren’t meant to be.
“Supreme Leader Snoke has directed you be given the honour of rooms in the wing housing the current and future Knights of Ren,” one of the soldiers said, as he stopped outside a mostly unremarkable door. “General, this room will be yours for the duration of your stay.” He typed a code on the lock panel and the door slid open. “You may leave your bag here for the moment.”
Hux committed the room number and the access code to memory, and dropped his bag on the low divan just inside, then followed the soldiers back out.
“Lord Ren,” the soldier said, stopping again a half-dozen doors down. “You may recall this room from your previous time here.”
“I do,” Ren said, as he typed the code himself and the door opened obediently. “This will serve well.”
Hux carefully repeated Ren’s code to himself as well. One never knew when it might be useful to have someplace else one could get into.
Then it was back down the maze of hallways, and not the way they had come; but the hallways were getting larger again, and more opulent, and they stopped in front of a set of double doors so large and grand that Hux knew this was Snoke’s audience chamber.
The troops posted to either side of the doors pulled them open, and Hux swallowed and walked forward, one step behind Ren.
The sheer presence that Snoke exuded, even over holoprojections, had always been immense. In person, it was much, much stronger. So much stronger that Ren almost fell to his knees when they reached the smaller dais in front of Snoke’s throne, managing to lend the movement a tiny bit of grace only by what looked like years of practice kicking in. Hux, not so practiced, felt nonetheless that he would very much like to kneel also, and did, following Ren’s lead and bowing until his forehead nearly touched the cold flagstones of the floor.
“Master,” Ren said, his voice low. “I have come home. I seek your guidance. I need your correction.”
“Kylo Ren.” Snoke took his time about the name, and it was reproof and disbelief and disappointment at once. Ren shuddered. “You bring me back nothing but your life, and less of that than I already had.”
“I failed, Master.” Ren was almost inaudible.
“I know this, Kylo Ren.”
Ren looked halfway up, his hair still hanging in his face and hiding it from Hux. “I seek your guidance,” he repeated. “I need your correction.” It was clearly some sort of mantra.
“You shall have it,” Snoke said. “Your training is not yet complete. Perhaps it is for that reason that you have failed.”
“I did what you asked of me, Master.” Ren’s voice rose a little. “I struck a blow to the heart of the Resistance. I killed Han Solo. And the power of the dark side is still not strong enough in me.” It was less a sentence than a cry of pain. “What more can I do?”
“Be still,” Snoke said, and Ren fell silent so immediately it was like a spell, pressing his forehead back to the floor in full obeisance, complete submission. “You will be shown. But first.” There was a pause, and Hux felt the weight of Snoke’s gaze on him as a physical sensation. “General Hux.”
He didn’t, couldn’t look up. “Supreme Leader.”
“You have brought me my student, General, and for that I thank you. But it does not pay for all the debts the First Order has incurred, nor will it rebuild what you have allowed to be lost.” Snoke’s disapproval radiated into Hux’s very bones. “There is much work to do. I believe you have already begun to receive messages regarding that.”
“Yes, Supreme Leader.” That was putting it very mildly.
“I wish you to attend these meetings personally – all of them. They have wisdom to impart to you, and you have need of it. They also have power within their home systems, and I have need of that, so you will be receptive and pleasant and allow them to feel that they are being heard by someone high-ranking. You will not make excuses to them. All that you do, General, you do on my behalf and as my representative. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Lord Snoke. I understand.” Hux kept his head low. “Thank you, my Lord.”
“You are dismissed.”
For a moment he stayed frozen, as though he could not remember how to stand. But then his legs came back under his control and he did all he could to walk out of the chamber with what was left of his usual military briskness, now sadly tattered.
From behind him, he heard Snoke: “Now. My student. Let the lessons begin again.”
The heavy double doors of the chamber shut behind Hux, but as the soldiers walked him away, he could still hear Kylo Ren start to scream.
Had Snoke meditated on it for weeks, Hux doubted he could have chosen a more unpleasant punishment than the third hour of this meeting of the board of directors of some corporation or other – he had quite forgotten what they did or what their particular value was to the First Order, but they were very clear on both of those things, and also very clear on the fact that he had been sent there for them to yell at.
It had been several days of absorbing the verbal abuse and insults of dozens of angry businesspeople, politicians and First Order members, and he was approaching the absolute outer limits of what he could take. Hux was no longer accustomed to being shouted at – the list of people who had been willing to take the risk of doing so before Starkiller had been destroyed had become very short indeed. Now, he held his tongue, bowed and scraped to yet another roomful of petty warlords and jumped-up traders, and hated absolutely everything about what his life had become.
The death he had anticipated would have been easier, he was sure of it. His lower back hurt from maintaining his posture in bad chairs, and his jaw throbbed at the hinge where the tendons tightened it. But he would obey his orders, and agree like a good little puppet, and nod and smile and assure Madam Chairwoman that he understood their concerns and would address them, yes, most certainly.
He checked his chrono as surreptitiously as he could. This was his last meeting of the day, well past the point when he would normally have had a meal. If they could wrap this up in the next hour he might still get out on time. Then perhaps somewhere there would be something warm and moderately palatable to eat – the rations they were given were not luxurious, nor even up to the shipboard standards he was used to, but they would do – and a brief, blessed window where he could lick his wounds.
At least Snoke had left his rank intact; they could sneer “General” at him and remind him how much the title was currently worth to him, but he could still pinch the stiff ribbon at the spot where his sleeve creased and think about what order he would line them up in, for the firing squad.
“And what do you plan to do about our interests in the trading consortium, General?” said the particularly persistent Devaronian to Hux’s right, bringing his attention back to the matters unfortunately at hand.
“What would you like me to do, Captain Shalkha?” Hux parried wearily. “You understand that the First Order is not currently in a position to guarantee anything, not until we have our own guarantees. You saw for yourselves what we were able to accomplish, in the Hosnian system. Could this not be a token of good faith?”
“Much as we appreciated the removal of that pit of stale breath that was the Senate, it is not enough.” The Devaronian thumped the table, making all the slates jump and skitter. “The weapon you used for that attack – it was destroyed. You cannot perform this great miracle of deliverance again. Do not think we know nothing.”
Hux saw fire behind his eyelids, the endless loop that had played for a week and would play for the rest of his life. “I do not think you know nothing, Captain. But the First Order has many resources.”
“Fine.” Shalkha sat back and crossed his arms. “Use them to produce something as impressive as that, and we can discuss our alliance further.” He smiled. “But I wouldn’t wait too long to marshal your many resources if I were you, General. We are a folk not known for our unending patience with failure.”
And there it was, that word again, that made him taste blood from the spot on the point of his tongue that was between his eyeteeth.
He could feel Snoke, watching him, as though he was standing behind him. Testing him.
“We thank you for your time,” Hux said slowly. “We thank all of you. The First Order values you greatly. You shall have cause to know that.”
It was the seventeenth time he’d said it. No-one had yet said it back.
The firing squad would be too swift, too merciful. It would have to be trial by combat at the very least.
The quarters assigned to Hux were not, to be fair, as austere as he would have thought they would be from the example Ren had set. The bed was comfortable enough. There was a sitting area where one could conceivably entertain a visitor, with a low table and a divan not too ill-suited to reclining upon. There were no decorations on the walls, but all of the furniture was carved and upholstered with care and an eye to the lines.
It would not have been unpleasant at all were it not for the fact that his neighbours were Knights of Ren. And as usual, the honour of sharing a living space with the Knights of Ren was doing nothing good for Hux’s blood pressure.
Some of his questions regarding Ren’s seemingly inhuman capacity to bear pain had been answered, if nothing else. The training the Knights endured seemed to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on channelling pain into their powers. Unfortunately, that meant a lot of screaming, at a wide variety of hours. Perhaps they no longer noticed that, after a while, either.
But Hux still did, and still found it unsettling enough that despite how worn he was, he did not feel like sleeping.
Someone up the hallway was screaming now, in short staccato yelps that suggested that perhaps they were being flogged. That should be calming, Hux thought wryly. Just imagine you’re back at the Academy.
In a way, he missed it. Discipline at the Academy was legendarily tight. If you put a foot out of line, you were for it. If that foot was wearing an improperly polished shoe, your stripes would double. But then it would happen, and it would be over, and you could get on with your life, lesson learned. There was no stretching it out over weeks. Not like what was happening to him now. What he would have given for twenty strokes instead of this endless explain yourself, General and not good enough, General, trade the verbal lashings for a physical one that he knew how to endure.
He was learning his lesson. He was. But it would have been nice to have more than 30 seconds pass without someone bringing up some new way in which he was a disappointment.
What he needed, he thought suddenly, was to relax.
One of the delegations he had seen that morning had mentioned something about a place where one could get a decent drink, if one didn’t mind paying. Most likely whatever else one wanted, decent or not, if one also didn’t mind paying, had been the subtext. That morning, being shuttled between rooms full of disgruntled half-allies, he had seen the front door again for the first time since his arrival. Now he knew how to get out, and how to get back in again.
He dressed with care, leaving behind all his insignia of rank or station. No uniform jacket. Only the standard-issue black shirt and pants that all crew were given, to go under their armour. It marked him clearly enough as First Order, but that was all.
He wondered, as he hung his jacket in the wardrobe, whether anyone would try to stop him leaving the house. It seemed too simple. Just walk out, go to a debatably seedy bar, and order a drink as though he were nobody special.
Of course Snoke would be watching him. Snoke was always watching him. Perhaps especially now. If he were to be stopped, well and good. He would come back. No-one had forbidden him to leave.
It was only a drink.
It took more resolve than he felt it should have done to leave his room. But leave he did, and once he started walking (briskly, but not too briskly, that perfect speed that suggested whatever he had to do was more important than anything anyone might think to stop him with) it was as though the momentum carried him out through the doors and into the night before he quite realised it.
The bar was well within the limits of the small city that Snoke’s mansion overlooked. He was glad he had not worn any of his heavy coats, by the time he arrived. It was a warm enough night and the walk had allowed him to set aside all of his thoughts for a little while and just move.
It was even warmer inside, crowded but not packed with a wide variety of customers both humanoid and not. He felt reassured. Nobody would look too hard at him.
The spirits they served were not something he knew the taste of, an unremarkable faintly greenish liquid that burned the back of his throat on the first sip. He pressed on. The first sip was always the harshest. By the time he’d drained the glass he no longer wanted to choke on it, and he ordered another.
Three glasses down and halfway into his fourth, he became aware of a dark figure standing at his elbow. He tried to see the face within their cowl, but between the alcohol and the dim light, he could not.
“You drink as though you would drown, stranger,” the figure said, but warmly enough that Hux couldn’t be bothered to be offended. “Do you seek release from your troubles?”
“Not of that sort, thank you,” Hux said, curtly.
“You do not know what the Disciples can offer you,” the figure said. He thought they might be smiling.
“Actually, I suspect I do,” he said, “and I’m not interested.”
“Deny your needs all you like, stranger.” The figure’s hands disappeared within the sleeves of their robe, and then reappeared with a small rectangle of card. “But you are a soldier, and you misunderstand far more about us than the great deal we understand about you.” They slipped the card gently under Hux’s fingers. “When you are ready.”
“I’m not,” Hux started to say, but the figure had stepped back and vanished into the crowd as though they had never been there.
He frowned, and finished the rest of his drink in one swallow.
There was an address on the card.
It wasn’t all that far. Just a couple of streets over. He’d seen the street name on the way to the bar. In fact, the place was practically on his way back.
He tossed it down on the table. What was he doing? This was a ridiculous shred of an idea, even had he really been considering…
The card had flipped as it landed. It now displayed a logo of sorts: two hands, crossed at the wrist and bound with cord, holding what appeared to be a whip.
He blinked at it.
You are a soldier, the figure had said, and that implied…
They couldn’t know. They couldn’t know who he was. It was just the uniform, and the fact that he was sitting up straighter than anyone who’d drunk four glasses of that green stuff ought to, and the fact that he had money to burn on liquor.
No. He wouldn’t go. It was patently impossible. He would leave, now, before anything else happened - leave and go back to the enormous mansion full of screaming, where nothing waited for him but an empty room and an overfull schedule, and more reminders of exactly what he’d come here to forget about.
He closed his eyes and let the edges of the card dig into the creases in his palm.
The door was unmarked, but the light coming from within was warm and welcoming and he raised his hand to knock.
Before his knuckles touched the wood, the door unlatched. Behind it was - the same figure? a different one? - a cape and a cowl and this time, just the thinnest edge of a smile.
“Welcome,” she? maybe she, said.
She took his hand, and led him in.
Inside, everything was incense and velvet, quiet and lush and cozy. Two more figures appeared from the depths and took him, a hand on each shoulder, deeper into the house, the corridors darkening. Finally they opened a door and gently, so gently, pushed him inside.
The door shut with a heavy, slow swish-thud, and suddenly everything was eerily silent. Soundproofing, he thought, his senses still muzzy from the alcohol, and looked around.
The room was spartan, wood-panelled walls and tiles on the floor. A shallow tub was sunk in at one corner, with a bench and a basket along the wall next to it. But it was the cross, sturdy and well-polished wood, with two horizontal bars, that he looked at for the longest.
He felt completely empty of thoughts as he undressed, mechanically folding each piece of clothing as he took it off and placed it in the basket. Then he knelt in the middle of the floor, bowed his head, and waited.
Perhaps they had been watching him. It was only moments before the door swung open again, and then shut.
There were three of them now, one carrying a large wooden box. He had no idea if they were the same three. One of them ran a finger gently up his spine, and he shivered without meaning to, and got to his feet.
He stood, rested his cheek against the polished wood of the cross and let them take his wrists. They allowed him to stay standing, a tiny mercy and a challenge, as they bound him to the upper crossbar with cords from the box; he had half expected them to make him kneel again, but they did not. If he thought he could stand, they were willing to take his word for it.
The cords around his wrists felt like silk, strong but resilient. More of them went around his upper arms, others around his ankles, pulled apart just far enough that he could stand and feel stable.
Over his shoulder he saw one of them reach into the box again.
A short whip, leather by the looks of it. Braided silk cords, eight or nine of them, tied to a wooden handle. A bundle of reeds lashed together at one end with thread.
Each of them took one.
He closed his eyes and let them start.
He had lost track of both lashes and time early on, going deep into a trance-like state where the pain almost felt as though it were happening to someone else, and it wasn’t until he felt them slack off the ropes on his arms that he knew they had stopped.
He fell backwards, but they caught him, eased him down into the shallow tub on his side. His whole body hummed, like an electrical charge, and he felt nothing and everything.
They sluiced him down with warm water, washing away sweat and maybe tears (had he cried? he didn’t know). It stung as it rivered across what he knew and didn’t care were hundreds of welts. Then they lifted him out of the tub again, wrapped him in a thin cotton robe, and laid him down, flat on his back on the cool tiles, so that he could feel the throb below his skin in exquisite counterpoint to his own heartbeat. They knelt, and folded their hands, as though praying, and let him breathe.
After what seemed like a very long time, they stood. Two of them helped him sit up, guided him to the bench and let him sit there, slowly getting used to being upright again. He didn’t notice one of them had left until they came back, and handed him a steaming cup of some sort of tea, which he held for a while in his hands before he drank it off. The liquid was bitter, fragrant, and soon he felt a different numbness seeping through him. A drug, then. To take the edge off.
They reclaimed the empty cup and left him to get dressed. Between the tisane, the endorphins, and the tail end of the alcohol in his system, the pain was more like a high-pitched background noise, and Hux came back to himself enough to get his boots on the right feet, fumble some credit chits into the hands of the robed figure in the front room, and stagger back through the mostly-deserted midnight streets to the giant mansion, and the maze of hallways, and the tiny room that was his.
Someone was screaming again. Someone was always screaming. It didn’t matter.
Hux fell face-first onto the bed, on top of the blankets, and was asleep before he took a second breath.
His alarm was shrilling, and he reached out automatically to slap it into silence and yelped involuntarily - his muscles remembered more clearly than his brain what they had been through the night before.
He was still fully dressed with his boots on, and he shook his head at himself and his lack of discipline as he pulled them off and rotated his stiff ankles. What a fantastic grasp of protocol and respect for the uniform. Never mind that he had categorically not been in any kind of shape to do anything else. He should still have managed better. He was a Hux. Huxes did not go to bed with their boots on. It was unbecoming.
Undressed now, he padded to the refresher, stopping at the mirror on the way into the shower cubicle to crane his neck over his shoulder and have a look at the kaleidoscope of bruising across his back, shoulders, buttocks and thighs.
They had done a very professional job, he had to admit. The marks were vivid, red and purple and black striped across nearly every inch of his skin, but they had not drawn blood more than once or twice. That was not something the Academy’s disciplinarians would have been able to say. He would heal cleanly, and completely, and none of it would show above the collar. Had anyone asked him, last night, to specify what he wanted, it would have been exactly that. It seemed that they had known, anyhow.
He would have liked to linger in the shower, despite the dull ache as the water beat down on his bruises. But he could not. His first meeting, he knew, was not something he could afford to arrive late to: an audience with Lord Snoke and Kylo Ren.
It was an odd meeting. Snoke did not seem to want much from him beyond confirmation that he had met with the galaxy’s most intractable people, and would go on meeting with them until he was presumably old and grey. There had been no let-up in the schedule yet. Ren was pale and preoccupied, and moving like he hurt, which made Hux wonder. He knew how much pain Ren could soak up without showing a trace, and so it was odd - either he had decided there was no merit in hiding his pain from Hux and Snoke, which seemed unlikely, or his training was going even worse than Hux’s meetings.
Even odder was the number of times Hux caught Ren sneaking glances at him. Ren looked… confused, perhaps.
Hux wasn’t certain what that could be about. There were no visible marks on him, and he was standing poker-straight, not the merest angle betraying the stripes on his back. He had checked himself over very carefully before leaving his room in the morning and he was sure of it.
But after Snoke dismissed them, as they left the room, Ren loomed up beside him and gave him a very long look. Searching.
“Can I assist you with something, Lord Ren?” Hux said sharply. He was tired of the looks.
Ren shook his head, turned on his heel and swished off in the other direction without a word.
Hux sighed, forcibly dismissed Kylo Ren from his mind, and went off to his next meeting, and the next, and the next.
It was easier to sit through all of the yelling and recriminations with something else to concentrate on. He leaned back against his chair and let the sting and the ache centre him, tried to find the calm eye in the storm that he had found the night before. They couldn’t harm him. He was above them.
Eventually they left him alone, and he went back to his room. It was late, well after dinner, and Hux thought vaguely of another shower, longer this time, and then sleep.
There was a private message waiting for him, blinking on the comm panel. He brought it up while he started to remove his boots.
It was just text, no signature, no defined sender.
“Next time, come to me.”
Hux sucked in an audible breath, calm composure shattered, suddenly violently angry.
Only one person could have sent that. Only one person in the entire universe would have the unmitigated presumption. Only one person could have possibly thought it would be his business, his responsibility, his right to comment.
How fucking dare he.
He shoved his boot back onto his foot and stomped it into place, and stormed out into the hallway for the nth time in the last week in search, always in search of Kylo fucking Ren.